Post by God Emperor Newman on Jul 8, 2013 1:15:24 GMT
Samar The 2432nd Year After Spirits
A man and a woman dash back and forth across a small, one-room hut. A grey-faced boy stands rigid at the door, one arm hugging a small girl close to his side. Emotion distorts his face as he struggles to be strong. The man and woman throw open cupboards and chests, gathering food, linens, a pittance of money. They hastily string the lot into a lumpy parcel and pass it to the young man. Words are exchanged. Finally, the woman carries a silent infant bound in swaddling clothes to the door as the man glances out the window and barks an order. Tears seep through the boy's stoic exterior as he takes the baby in his arms and calls to the girl.
The children leave through the back. They hear a crash as the front door is broken down, followed shortly by a scream. The girl turns to look back, but the boy roars at her and, terrified, she keeps running.
The man is cut down immediately. The woman is less fortunate. When they've finished, the soldiers set the hut aflame. It joins a few dozen more grisly bonfires as the small village is razed to the ground. In the central square, a crude monument has been erected. It tells the world the cause for which this village was destroyed, for which its occupants were murdered and worse.
And as one young man flees into the wilderness, it sears a painful lesson across his soul.
Post by God Emperor Newman on Jul 8, 2013 18:29:56 GMT
Sali Mountains The 2438th Year After Spirits
A patch of primitive shelters bristle from a rocky seclusion, protected by a steep descent on one side and sheer upward cliffs everywhere else. Scattered campfires send fluttering sparks up to join innumerable cold stars. Shadowy figures gather close to the flames, murmuring quietly to one another. Fears are shared. Thanks are given. Plans are made. Stories are told.
The peace is broken by a shout from the shelf's edge. Two armed men step out of the shadows at either side and point their crossbows down at the solitary man approaching the makeshift village. He raises empty hands and offers protestations at the sentries' alarm. He is ordered to step into the light.
A ragged crowd gathers to interrogate the stranger. His obvious exhaustion goes unheeded. He struggles to answer the questions thrown at him from all angles by the pitiless mob, until suddenly one youth gives a sharp cry, pointing at the vagabond's arm. Fear floods the man's face as he reflexively tugs at his sleeve, but the young man from the crowd is already moving. He grabs the stranger's wrist and twists it upward. Rags slip away to reveal a tattoo'd icon. The youth shouts again and raises the evidence aloft for all to see.
Terror and fury warp the stranger's face as the crowd moves in, clubs and axes ready. He screams and sudden light flares from his fingertips. The young man staggers back, clutching his face and roaring with pain, before lunging forward and seizing the weary traveler by the throat. As ichor drips from his mangled eye-socket, he beats the man bloody, then senseless, then dead.
He is helped to his feet by the other villagers. A pad of moss is offered and he packs it against his ruined face. He spits on the pacter's corpse before staggering back to his fire, where a young girl and little boy run up to meet him. He smiles blearily and hugs them before pointing back at the dead man. A lesson is imparted.
Post by God Emperor Newman on Jul 9, 2013 14:02:42 GMT
Sali Mountains The 2445th Year After Spirits
A quiet day in a secluded mountain village erupts into violence as a fool who thought to gain an edge on his comrades attempts to bind a spirit to himself. A violent, psychic struggle draws the attention of a few concerned onlookers. When the convulsions stop, they are met by an enraged chimera.
Three are torn apart in an instant and the mountainside is thrown into chaos. Shouts and screams echo across the clearing and fleeing villagers trip over one another in a panic. Some tumble down the mountainside in their haste to escape. Others, organized by a well-muscled man missing half his face, rally and draw weapons. A barrage of crossbow bolts tear into the monster, which snarls and charges the line, tossing villagers aside like ragdolls. Another volley connects before the beast tears into the militia. A half dozen bloody bodies fall to the ground.
The half-faced man stands his ground, quickly reloading his weapon. As he lifts it to fire a last quarrel into the chimera's skull, it sends him sprawling with a savage backhand. He struggles to lift himself, but it is too late. The monster slashes open his stomach with two lazy strokes. It laughs at the dying man's struggle and turns away.
A young boy had been warily approaching the beast during the fight. As it turns, he drives an iron spear deep into its side with a fierce cry. The chimera pauses for a moment, as much surprised as it is hurt. Driven by adrenaline, the boy yanks the spear free and plunges it home once again, straight up through the chin. The aberration blinks. The spear withdraws and bites again. And again. The chimera falls.
They have to drag the sticky instrument from the boy's hands. He is weeping through his rage, and as his grip on the spear fails, he collapses to his knees and crawls over to the dying man. He tries to hold the gaping wound closed with his already bloody hands, but the half-faced man feebly pushes them away. He opens his mouth to speak and coughs blood. He tries again, gasping breathlessly, and moves his lips, but no sound comes. He reaches up and grips the boy's shoulder with his failing strength and looks urgently into his eyes. He carefully, painfully opens his mouth.
Post by God Emperor Newman on Jul 10, 2013 21:46:12 GMT
Cutho, Samar The 2452nd Year After Spirits
A young man and woman walk down a crowded street, hoods drawn high and heads bowed. Anxiety lines their faces. The man whispers something, and the woman shakes her head. She points at an approaching alleyway and mutters an explanation.
They reach the alley without incident and follow it into the shadows. Eventually, they stop and lower their hoods. They look around, visibly uneasy. Nobody steps forward to greet them.
After a few minutes, the sound of footsteps advances from the other end of the narrow byway. The woman pushes the man into the shadows and whispers a hurried instruction. The man crouches in the darkness and watches.
The woman turns to the approaching footsteps and calls out. The pace slows for a moment, then resumes. A tall man wanders into view, hands in pockets, with something like a small gorilla padding by his side. He says nothing, but smiles broadly. The woman points at the ape and asks a question, fear creeping around the edges of her words. The man shakes his head, laughing, and explains himself. He gives a small bow and laughs again. He pulls a knife from his pocket and steps forward.
The young man hiding in the shadows lunges when he sees the blade. The tall man is surprised, but barks an order at his familiar, who tackles the unwelcome interloper and pins him down. The woman screams. The tackled man writhes and roars, but the gorilla just leers and smacks him across the face. He looks past the ape's head and wishes he hadn't. The woman screams again and keeps screaming. The man on the ground adds his voice to hers, promising damnation, vengeance, death and pain to the tall man and his familiar. The tall man's laughter cuts a percussive undertone to their duet.
Finally, the woman stops screaming. The tall man walks over and kneels beside her helpless brother. He shows him a bloody knife and grins at the reaction. He shares a few brief words about the nature of trust, then slowly, almost lovingly, draws two deep gashes across his captive's face. He laughs once more then, calling his familiar, strolls back down the alleyway.
The young man struggles to his knees and crawls over to his sister. She lies face-down in a spreading puddle of blood. He turns her on her side and cradles her head as she gasps hopelessly for air. He tries to comfort her, paying no attention to the streams of blood trickling across his cheeks. Eventually, the shuddering breaths stop forever.
Post by God Emperor Newman on Jul 13, 2013 22:37:59 GMT
Tenkou The 2463rd Year After Spirits
A scarred man crouches behind a boulder and squints into a whirlwind of biting snow. He pulls his heavy white coat closer around his frame and turns to the dozen soldiers waiting behind him. He gestures to them, directing each to different points around the mountainside. Then he turns his attention back to the scene before him.
Not twenty paces from his cover, a stone shrine juts out from the icy slope. A flat granite foundation supports the giant statue of a dancing dragon, at the feet of which stands a rough pillar. At the base of the pillar runs a shallow trough outlining an intricate runic pattern, swept carefully of snow. Six masked acolytes stand solemnly around the sigil, as two figures in saffron robes approach the pillar between their god's feet. They carry between them a struggling child, tightly bound. They tie the offering to the pedestal and step to either side. A third priest dressed in bright crimson lifts a jeweled dagger, cries an incantation, and begins slowly to tread the lines of the engraved rune. The child screams for help.
The scarred man stands suddenly from behind the snow-crusted boulder and, drawing a black pistol from his coat, fires a burning metal slug through the red priest's heart.
As the shot rings out, the acolytes turn as one and extend their arms to the source of interruption. Flames snake from twelve hands to blast the boulder into gravel. As the explosion echoes across the crags, more shots ring out from different points around the mountainside. Soldiers leap from cover and send the magi sprawling into blood-stained drifts of snow. The two saffron priests spin and leap away from the monument, deflecting gunshots with careful flares of shimmering energy and releasing bolts of blue light into the encroaching rescue party. One soldier cries out in pain and rolls down the mountain in a cloud of red snow. Another falls to his knees clutching the stump of an arm.
The first saffron priest briefly loses track of one rebel's movements and pays for his inattention with a burst skull. The second allows the death of his comrade to distract him momentarily from the armless soldier, who plunges a knife into his back before collapsing once more into pain.
As the echoes die, the scarred man stands from the smoking ruin of his cover and approaches the intended sacrifice. He draws his knife, and the child flinches away. A sad smile appears briefly across his broken face as he cuts the bindings. The child drops to hands and knees, shuddering with relief and sobbing in mingled fear and disbelief. The man helps her to unsteady feet and asks a question in broken Tenkou. She looks up with wide eyes and responds.
The scarred man smiles again and puts his hand to his chest.
Post by God Emperor Newman on Jul 16, 2013 21:14:55 GMT
Haumangarde, Otticia The 2474nd Year After Spirits
A small ship with faded grey sails slides quietly into the crowded harbor of Haumangarde. A rowboat drops from the side and five shadowy figures scull gently into the chaos of the Ottician trade port.
Nobody spares the small party a second glance as they pace quickly through reeking mobs of unwashed sailors, beggars and tradesmen. After a few minutes, one breaks off and disappears into the crowd. A few minutes later, another does the same, and then another. Only two are left, a cowled and high-scarfed man and a young woman masked with a band of dirty cloth.
At one point, the girl slows to examine a notice stuck to a plasterboard wall. A row of crudely drawn faces glare out from the parchment, each one labelled with a name and a number. The traveler points out two caricatured icons, one a stereotypical Tenkou girl and the other a hideously deformed old man, and laughs. Her comrade mutters a testy rebuttal and they continue on their way.
Eventually, they arrive at the grand estate of a wealthy Ottician merchant. They are admitted into the foyer by an old man. He guides them personally into a private study and shuts the door.
A lengthy discussion follows. Prices are offered and haggled. Eventually the old man stands up to shake his visitor's hand and a stone golem bursts through the wall.
Shrapnel skates across the merchant's face and he spins away with a cry of outrage. Raised voices are heard outside the study and a young man in his early twenties bursts through the door. The stone golem takes a swing at the cowled man as he jumps to his feet, sending him sprawling into a bookcase. The masked girl draws two long, sharp knives and leaps back to a wall, shouting at the young intruder. Her accusations prove unfounded as a spellcaster dressed in the garb of a Stonemason acolyte steps through the golem's impromptu doorway and raises a hand at the old man. A blast of light and the merchant is turned to dust. The young man screams. The caster turns to the young woman as she springs across the room, both daggers raised, and the golem bats her aside.
Three masked soldiers smash through the windows and start firing at the Stonemason's agents. Two bullets connect with the spellcaster's chest, and he goes down. As his spark fades, the golem gives a loud, rumbling roar and flattens one soldier into a puddle of viscera on the priceless antique Jambhan rug. The other two scatter. The young man dives under a swinging stone fist and sobs over the pile of vaporized merchant. The cowled man struggles to his feet.
The golem turns its attention to the Tenkou woman, whose mask has slipped off in her fall. She rises slowly, tense as a bowstring, and leaps aside as the first fist comes smashing down. She doesn't quite dodge the second. The blow cracks her right arm cleanly in two.
As the golem raises both fists behind its head to deal the killing blow, heedless of the bullets ricocheting off its granite skin, the merchant's son grasps its clumsy hands and heaves. Surprised, the familiar tumbles backward as the young man dodges out of the way. Before the behemoth can do more than open its ponderous mouth in surprise, he has drawn an elegant ornamental pistol from his belt and released a single bullet up and into its artificial brain. Carefully tuned resonating crystals splinter within the rough-hewn dome and the construct twitches, spasms and then is still.
The cowled man grips the merchant's son by the shoulder and utters an urgent warning, amended with a hasty invitation. The boy looks sadly back at his dead father and agrees. The four surviving rebels and their new recruit escape through the broken window and are long gone before the Stonemason's reinforcements arrive.
A little boat rows serenely out toward a small ship moored in the harbor, and a young man, recently orphaned, is apprised of his situation. His name is requested.
Post by God Emperor Newman on Jul 23, 2013 0:14:09 GMT
Somewhere in Samar The 2483rd Year After Spirits
Maximilien Cain took the map from Hartwin’s hand and spread it across the table. He absently fingered his old scars as he studied the details. Eshnur, a backwater port city of Dominion Samar. The old soldier looked up and asked his lieutenant “How sure are we of the source?”
Hartwin straightened his back and answered “Not at all. It came, so far as we can determine, out of nowhere, and our spies have been unable to turn up any detailed information. On the other hand, if the offer is true…” He trailed off.
“We can never have too many bombs,” Naomi asserted, a tight smile lifting her lips.
“Hrmm.” Cain turned back to the map and tapped his chin. “I agree. Very well, give the order to detach a team of diplomats to the rendezvous. Three front men, four backup. Front men to be visibly armed, but not to open fire unless given ample cause. Give mission command to Trumin and report back.” Hartwin saluted and headed out to the main camp. Cain turned to Naomi. “What next?”
“Another successful raid down along the desert border. The haul consisted of nearly five thousand gold in spices, as well as a further two hundred gold in recovered valuables. No witnesses were left to carry word of our actions back to civilization.”
“Further, our scouts report a large Dominion army is on the move. It looks like it’s heading for the Samari city of Shaho, and is expected to arrive within a month.”
Maximilien shuffled the maps spread across the broad table and brought forth an old topographical display of the Samar-Sali border and environs. The fortified city of Shaho sat near the encroaching territory of present-day Dominion Bhakhtar. A fair target.
“Interesting. Composition of the army?”
“Substantial pacter presence, as well as what seems to be an avatar of the silhouette.”
“Very interesting. How are our new prototypes coming along?”
“Engineering reports they’re ready for field testing.”
“Perfect. Prep, oh, five dozen for battle and gather an artillery squad. I want cannons stationed here, here…here and…here when the Dominion arrives. You’ll lead the cavalry charge once the siege lines are broken.”
“Should I equip the squad with magebane rounds?”
“Yes, but not exclusively. We need enough survivors to test the new weapons. Don’t take any chances with the avatar, though. Kill him quickly if you get the chance.”
Naomi flashed her teeth and bowed at the waist. “Of course, Shochi. I can taste his blood already.”
Post by God Emperor Newman on Aug 6, 2013 2:10:43 GMT
Maximilien Cain fingered the worn parchment and stared into space for a moment. “From the Burning Man himself?”
“That’s what he said.” Trumin stood at rigid attention.
Cain turned to him and smiled. “This changes the whole game. With these schematics, we can finally change the tide of this damnable war. Dawn is near at hand.”
“But first: the darkest hour.” Naomi quoted the Samari proverb from the shadows where she sat cross-legged, sharpening her knives.
Cain nodded gravely. “The darkest hour first. Even with these documents, it will cost much blood before that sun rises.”
Hartwin murmured “Some will say too much.”
“Much blood.” Cain pinched the bridge of his nose and wearily spread the papers across the desk. “But there are no easy roads out of Hell.”
“They’ll call you a monster,” Hartwin said quietly.
“Let them,” Cain sighed. “Let them damn me and all the rest of us for the things we must do. I’ll gladly suffer the hatred of all the world if that is the cost of freedom.”
Naomi rose to her feet. “I stand with you.”
“As do we all,” Hartwin said sadly.
“We are the Leaden Flame” Trumin said.
Cain sighed again and pressed the flat of his hand against the dark runes they had been given. “Rally the men.”
“We are the cleansing fire. Ours is the beacon of hope. We are the last guardians of mankind. We do what we must because we’re the only ones who can. For we are the Leaden Flame, and we will raise a storm in Hell!” The camp cheered its approval to the echoing words of their creed. Maximilien Cain stood atop a large boulder jutting out from the rocky mountainside.
“Comrades, the storm is upon us! The first drops of rain begin to fall and thunder grinds through the heavens. On the morrow, many of you will ride to Shaho. There we meet the Dominion, accursed figurehead to Hell’s oppression, in glorious battle. There we array our weapons, the true weapons of Man, against their witchcraft and devilry! There will the might of smoke, steel and lead be tested against the wickedness of magic! There will the world be shown the virtue of the Leaden Flame, as we fight the defense of a city too weak to defend itself!
“Remember that our cause is unyielding in its opposition of evil, and uncompromising of its righteous virtue, but foremost of all reflects the interests of Mankind. Therefore I say to you now: take all the prisoners you can! Of pacters, sparked and regular infantry, accept the surrender of the weak, for if they can be made to see the error of their ways we shall be the stronger for their life! Fight to your last breath for your comrades and your cause, but when the cowardly and impotent enemy throws down his weapons, stay your hand. For even if they will not join us, we have ways… to give their deaths meaning.
“For we have recently come into possession of a weapon of awesome power. A weapon I have reason to believe is capable of striking into Hell itself! At long last, the tide has turned. No longer will we be forced to hide from the spirits. With the bloody power we now hold, demons will cower at the name of the Leaden Flame!
“If they do not abandon our world willingly, we will put theirs to the torch! If they will murder our loved ones, we will unravel their very nature! And if they seek to subjugate us in our mortality, we will show them just how severely they have underestimated the character of Man!
“A new scheme takes shape within my mind. A bold stroke that will bring this wretched world to its knees! We will lay waste to the designs and machinations of Hell and purge Humanity’s ailing body of its putrescence with blood and fire! To this end, I call upon you to step forward.
“Who among you will die for me?
“Who among you will die for us all?
“I know you all would gladly stake your lives against the enemy’s in battle. But it is a very different thing to die in combat for the friends at your side than to die alone and unloved. And that is what I ask of you.
“I will not order any of you to accept this mission. I ask only those of you willing to go open-eyed to certain death to volunteer. You will be reviled. Called a monster. People will curse your name. Even at the end, when the long war is done, you will be remembered with hatred.
“Who among you will damn yourself to redeem Mankind?
“Think hard and long. Though only one of you will ultimately be selected for this task, there will be no going back. Should you choose of your own will to accept this mission, consult with me. We will discuss it further in my tent.
“No matter what happens, and whatever your choice, you all have my respect, my admiration and my gratitude on behalf all Mankind. Though its delirium is too far advanced for many yet to recognize the honor and glory of your mission, there will come a day, yes, there will come a new day when the world will be free of this blight. That day is near at hand. Thanks to you. Thanks to us.
“For we are the Leaden Flame! Our storm is rising! We are the Leaden Flame! We pave the road to dawn!”
Post by God Emperor Newman on Aug 14, 2013 17:48:35 GMT
June 2483 Shaho
The Leaden Flame had kept its assets hidden for the battle to come. They had not ridden to intercept the Dominion armies before they reached the gates. Instead, the Leaden Flame waited until the city was under siege, waiting for the right moment. Word had reached them that the Dominion was bringing at least one avatar of the Silhouette of Stars - a target that could not be ignored.
And the best time to strike at the avatar would be during the siege.
So they waited until the last moment before unleashing their guns.
How many thousands of men spewed from Bhakhtar towards Shaho was hard to tell, for many of them marched without formation. That was the great comedy and tragedy of the Silhouette of Stars - he possessed military genius, it was said, but he did not value human life. The conquest of Samar had needed weight of numbers alone, which the Silhouette was glad to deliver.
The Leaden Flame rolled its artillery into position among the hills to the north and south of doomed Shaho, which still expected a relief from Sali that would not come. A first bombardment tore into the flanks of the Dominion army. As the enemy drew near to the city’s walls, Salimon cannons fired from the hills, sundering earth and flesh. Volleys of bullets and arrows hailed from Shaho's walls, peppering the unfortunate men and women of Bhakhtar marching to their deaths.
As Max Cain's artillery did their work, it began to draw the attention of the enemy below. An entire wing of the Dominion army peeled off towards them, but was stymied by a steep uphill battle. Their losses would be catastrophic.
Two hours into the battle, Shaho was faltering. Holes had been punched through the defenses by pacter magic, and the gates had been broken by a charge of war-familiars. The Dominion was going to enter the city.
A detachment of mounted soldiers was released from the hills. As they rode to the carnage, the laughter of one Tenkou warmaiden rang high above the clamor of battle.
“Max Cain, sir! The city has not been evacuated. Civilian casualties are rising as we speak.”
Cain turned from the battlefield to greet Naomi’s messenger. A patina of blood, sweat and soot was plastered across his young face and a wound seeped from his shoulder. Cain helped him from his horse and asked “How goes the battle?”
“We cannot be everywhere we’re needed, but where we are it goes well. The Dominion forces are weak and poorly managed. They break rank at the first sign of resistance and fall like rain beneath our guns. Already at least a hundred have surrendered to our custody.” The messenger gratefully accepted a flask of water.
“And the civilians?”
“In a panic. There’s looting and rioting in the streets. A lot of the city’s burning, and not all of that’s Dominion sabotage. I think Naomi might have killed the Prince.”
“Damn it.” Cain thought for a moment. Another volley of cannon fire shook the hillside and a division of Dominion infantry exploded into red mist. “Very well. Let the people of Shaho this day know the mercy of the Leaden Flame. We shall adjust our fire to prevent the enemy from encircling the city. Are you able to ride again?”
“Return to Naomi and tell her to direct as many civilians as she can in an orderly retreat through the western gate.” He paused. “Tell her not to kill or otherwise pick fights with any pacters or binders she may see among them. Their judgement will come later. Go now!”
“Yes sir!” The courier handed back the water and mounted his horse. As he kicked it into a gallop, Cain turned to the gunners.
“Turn guns to focus fire on the left flank!” He roared. “And get me a runner to Hartwin’s stand!”
It was not half an hour later that a towering humanoid decked in armour strode through the gates of Shaho, a flag flying at his back. It was an avatar of the Silhouette of Stars, come to bring finality to the conflict. The city would be lost now, Max Cain's artillery unable to target him behind the walls. Damage had been done, but inevitably, with civilians fleeing the city, there would have to be some sort of retreat.
By the time they reached the gates, the Dominion had already penetrated the city. These weren’t the peasants and cannon fodder of the first few waves, but trained Dominion infantry. Even the shock of gunpowder weaponry wasn’t enough to break their ranks.
Maximilien Cain shot two soldiers dead before drawing his blades and wading into the melee. He stabbed a dagger through a knight’s visor then cut his throat as he stumbled back in pain. He watched his victim spasm across the ground for a moment before cutting a violent swing at another Dominion soldier, splintering his hastily raised wooden shield. Cain felt his eyes widen and his lips tighten as the frenzy of war took hold, and the battle faded into a vague maelstrom of blood and pain and sweat and fear.
Through the haze, a dark shape suddenly loomed above the battlefield. Focusing his vision, Cain discerned the features of an avatar of the Silhouette of Stars. He looked at it with crazed eyes and paused, adrenaline burning through his veins. It was big. It was strong. It might well kill him.
Maximilien Cain tugged his sword from an archer’s chest and sprinted forward. It hadn’t seen him yet. He pulled a dagger from his belt and raised both blades high above his head. The silhouette began to turn. With a savage yell, he tore his weapons downward, scraping a sheet of plate iron from the avatar’s back. For an instant, Cain could see the Silhouette of Stars’ power glowing within the dark recesses of the iron and steel armor, then he was flung aside by a fist the size of a wagon wheel.
Dazed but unhurt, Cain sprang to his feet in time to dodge another lightning fast blow. He swung with all his might at the metal fist, and the avatar gave a bellow of rage. Cain struck again, blood fizzing in his brain, and the hand fell with a thud from its broken wrist. The bellow turned into a scream and another fist swung with shocking speed around the other side of the avatar, knocking Cain’s weapons from his hands. As he groped for another dagger in his belt, the avatar’s foot swung out and kicked him bodily against a wall.
Cain stared blearily at his adversary as it raised an enormous black hammer, and struggled to regain his feet. It would be too late. He felt a sudden insensible calm wash over him as he realized he faced the end.
The twisted mountain of metal gave a sudden shudder. Its arm froze above its head and its knees began to crumble. Lifeless, it tumbled backward under the weight of its weapon. Max Cain crawled over to it and saw a splintered arrow protruding from the dying light of the archon's spark.
He looked up to greet his savior and saw a young Samari archer several paces away. Her attention had already shifted back to the battle, as it should. Cain’s approval was cut short and his smile froze as he saw an enormous bird descend from the sky and screech something into her ear. She nodded and it departed again.
Maximilien Cain fell back against the wall, confused and ashamed. He did not hear Hartwin’s call to retreat. He barely noticed the two young soldiers who dragged him to his feet and carried him over to Hartwin’s horse. He was still lost in his stupor when they reached camp and the prisoners were escorted to their pens in chains.
Finally, Naomi took him by the shoulder and shook him. “Shochi. Wake up.”
He blinked and looked at her face. It was still coated with the blood of her enemies. He smiled at her. “I’m sorry, Naomi. I’ve just had a shock, that’s all.”
“What happened?” Hartwin asked, stepping into the tent. “We were worried about you. Are you injured?”
“No, no.” Maximilien looked away and sighed. “I fought with the avatar of an archon, and it would have killed me.” He covered his eyes in one hand. “I was saved…My life was saved by a pacter girl.”
Hartwin gave the old man a sideways look. “That must have been a blow.” Naomi glared at him.
“Max, don’t worry about it. It’s not like you owe her anything. All kinds of crazy things happen in battle.”
“It’s more than that. I would have died, fighting that avatar. But a pacter managed to kill him. Don’t you see?”
After a pause, Hartwin answered. “We are stronger than you imply. What we lack in physical capacity we make up for with our technology.” He stood up to leave. “You know that, Max. You wouldn’t be talking like this if your pride hadn’t just taken a hit. Get some rest. I’ll see you later this evening.” He paused at the door. “If you’re still up for it, that is?”
Maximilien Cain gave a short, barking laugh. “Don’t condescend to me, boy. I’ll be there.”
Post by God Emperor Newman on Sept 7, 2013 20:20:59 GMT
As darkness fell across the mountainside camp, Maximilien Cain and Hartwin Burgen stood alone in a small cave high above the crop of tents. Both men had their swords drawn and they circled each other warily.
A minute passed in silence. Then Hartwin spoke. “Many died today.”
Maximilien nodded slowly, careful not to take his eyes off his lieutenant. “Many more will die tomorrow.”
Hartwin studied the old man’s stance and motions. “It is a bitter thing.” Maximilien’s sword lashed out and Hartwin met it with his own. They disengaged and resumed their pacing.
Cain watched his opponent through narrowed eyes. “What is a life, Hartwin?”
“You believe it to be a token in the great game of history.” The blades met once again. Hartwin held the block long enough to speak his next words. “You believe it is a commodity with which more precious things might be purchased.” Steel rang as the swords flashed away from each other, only to be reunited in an instant.
“I don’t want to be told what I believe.” A flurry of quick strikes drove Maximilien Cain back a few paces. “I’m asking you.” He dodged, and then lunged.
Hartwin stepped back in silence, devoting his concentration to the fight. He blocked two easy strokes then swept at Maximilien’s feet. The old man jumped back. “Life is an infinitely valuable thing.” He pressed his advantage and drove Cain to a hard block. “The sum of all good it might yet do, weighed against all the evil it has already done.”
Maximilien deflected Hartwin’s sword and danced away. Their cautious circling began again. “Suppose a man has done great evil. Further than that, he has established a pattern of cruel and vicious acts. He may yet do good with his life, it is true, but only a fool would count on it. What do you make of such a man?”
“Such a man deserves death. How many of those dead today do you think were such men?” Hartwin parried a strike and continued. “And how many do you think were coerced or manipulated into marching to a war they did not understand and did not want to fight?”
“A good man controlled by evil can do tremendous harm.”
“And how many were neither evil nor controlled by evil, but merely in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Hartwin feinted and thrust. “What of the people of Shaho?”
Maximilien dodged back a step and slashed forward. “We saved as many as we could.”
Hartwin blocked and countered. “Perhaps. Was it compassion that moved you to order the evacuation, or was it pragmatism?”
“Does it matter? Lives were saved.” Maximilien twisted his sword around Hartwin’s and swung at his head.
Hartwin ducked. “It may not matter to the people of Shaho, but in the future it will to those we have the power to save but whose survival will win us nothing.”
Sparks flew as Maximilien raised his sword against Hartwin’s counterattack. “It’s not Shaho that’s bothering you. Is it?”
Hartwin was silent as he delivered blow after fresh blow.
“You know the cost of freedom.”
“I do not know if I believe it must be so high.”
“We are walking a hard road, Hartwin, and there is no easy way out. They’ve gone too far. Taken too much. Grown too strong. Better a pyrrhic victory than absolute defeat.”
“We have condemned countless innocents to die!”
“In the face of extinction, any alternative is preferable.”
Hartwin slowed his onslaught, breathing heavily. “You spoke earlier of an evil man, whose life is characterized by evil acts. We agreed he deserves death.” He stepped back and said in a voice layered with bitter remorse. “What then of us?”
Maximilien lowered his blade. “We do what we must. We’re the only ones who can.”
“Who gave us that privilege? Our decision will cost the world millions of priceless, irreplaceable lives. Are we so arrogant as to say that is our right?”
“No,” Maximilien said. “And we never will. When we decide these millions will die, we are not made innocent by the fact that our intentions are pure. We do our job because it must be done, but when it’s finished we will have enough blood on our hands to drown a kingdom. Then will I be judged for what I’ve done, and I will give myself gladly to the justice of a world I killed to save. You are right to say that the pain we inflict is not diminished by the end it serves.” He nodded at Hartwin and readied his weapon. Hartwin struck.
“The promise of future justice does little to ease my conscience as I orchestrate the slaughter of innocent men, women and children.”
“It shouldn’t.” Maximilien dodged and swung clumsily at Hartwin’s legs. Hartwin lowered his guard and Maximilien deftly wove his sword around, away and up to his throat. He held it there for a moment. “Never forget that.” He dropped his arm and wiped his brow with his left hand. “That is the difference between good and evil.” He turned to the wall of the cave and hung his sword from a weapon rack. Hartwin did the same. Cain turned to his lieutenant and held out a hand. “Good fight.”
“Thank you.” Hartwin gave a wry smile as he briefly clasped Maximilien’s hand. “That last stroke wouldn’t have worked if I’d been paying attention.”
Cain grinned. “But you weren’t.”
“True enough.” Hartwin’s smile faded. “Have you decided who to send?”
Cain looked down at the low fires of the camp below and frowned sadly. He was silent for several minutes.
Tales had spread of the revolutionaries at Shaho - the ones who saved its people. The Leaden Flame had continued to hit targets, not only in Samar, but in the Dominion itself. Assassinations of provincial governors in Bhakhtar, pacter universities exploding in a rain of fire and marble, military ships sinking in their harbours - all of these were part of the new era of the Leaden Flame.
And so, the hundreds of ragtag Samari insurgent groups slowly reached out to Max Cain and the Leaden Flame, tentatively, hopefully. The latest pledge of allegiance came from Naduka, whose father had been captain of the guard during the fall of Tikong. One-eyed, it was said, proof of her sacrifice. Max Cain had heard a rumour which said that Naduka had put out her own eye, to appear more intimidating.
Either way, she was shacked up in Cutho, one of Samar's Dominion-controlled cities.
It was why Max Cain and several of his entourage were strolling through one of the dirty city's avenues, disguised as common folk. Even if they had walked in without making any effort to hide who they were, the wanted posters were mostly inaccurate.
Naduka had sent a message that she would meet him in the central plaza, and so he went.
As the rows of buildings thinned, and what appeared to be the plaza emerged ahead, Max Cain braced himself for theatrics. If what was said about Naduka was true, she would have something planned for him.
Surely enough, a horrendous cry arose from the plaza. A crowd of people stampeded towards Max Cain, fleeing whatever had caused that noise. Looking to the rooftops, Cain saw a couple of sentries acknowledge him with nods, and then vanish. Once the people began to thin out, Max Cain got a better view of the plaza. A chimera was on the loose, ripping into guards without any effort.
A woman with very dark-skin was opposing it, a pacter, it seemed, from a land far away. She subdued it with magic, walked up to it, and cut off a piece of is skin. Upon the death of the chimera, the brown-skinned woman fled, before more guards could arrive.
"That bitch foiled Naduka's fun." a cowled figure hissed, appearing on the rooftop just above Cain.
"Is this how you welcome me? The city will be alert for more trouble, now, you imbecile." Max Cain spat.
The cowled figure was silent, for a moment. "You will meet us in a building in the north of town. It will look like the rest, but a green stripe will be painted under its window. Do it by night."
"Spirit-damned fools." Max Cain muttered, as the figure fled out of sight.
Post by God Emperor Newman on Sept 22, 2013 21:44:30 GMT
The small pack of muffled revolutionaries wandered into a nearby alley, and then turned to look at Cain. He pulled down his scarf and began tracing his old scars, still fuming. “Chimeras. Who does she think I am? A chimera in the market square! I want whoever killed the beast found and tabbed. Jaken and Heorm, see what you can do. I want a name, an address and a motive by this evening. Hartwin? Take Tenan and Suka and go round to where Naduka” - he spat the name - “wanted us to meet and tell whoever’s there that I was not amused by her little performance just now and will expect her to demonstrate greater discipline in the future if she wishes to burn as one with the Leaden Flame. The rest of you, spread out, find what kind of an operation this woman is running. See if she can do more than savage a chimera on a marketplace. The guards will be riled up, so be cautious. Naomi, you and I will go find accommodations for the next few days. This scene’s too hot, so we’ll use the fountain we passed on the way here as a hub. Everybody understand?” A semicircle of ragged heads bobbed in unison. “Good. Let’s go.” Ten figures trickled out of the narrow byway and disappeared into the city.
That evening saw Maximilien Cain, Naomi, Hartwin and Suka standing in the street beneath a window painted with a single green stripe. Cain looked up and sighed. He approached the door and pulled it open.
Inside was a well-lit parlor smelling strongly of incense. Several tables and shelves displayed elegant colored glassware, and the walls were hung with curious, ungainly stick icons of men and beasts. Two grunts were bent over a board of 'keep. They did not look up when the Leaden Flame walked in.
Cain pulled down his scarf and wandered over to examine a shelf of glass ornaments. Behind him, his comrades filtered in and ambulated around the room. Hartwin stood at a polite distance and watched the two players at their game, hands clasped behind his back. Naomi kicked at the hinges of a trapdoor in the middle of the floor, then walked around to other side and stared at it. Nobody said a word.
Cain peered more closely at a thin-stemmed crystal vase. A medium-sized snake lay motionless within its bowl. He narrowed his eyes.
One of the players looked up. "You Max Cain?"
Cain turned slowly, eyes still narrowed. "Maximilien, I think." He reached out and delicately tipped the vessel onto the floor, where it erupted into a spray of broken glass.
In an instant, the snake came alive. "At lasssst!" it hissed and slithered toward the door. The 'keep players shouted in surprise and drew their swords, but stopped as Cain's boot came crushing down upon the serpent's neck.
"Cursessss!" it hissed again, still writhing. The boot pressed harder against its scaled flesh and its tail flipped over, flailing impotently. "I will lay my eggssss in your eyessss!" Cain twisted his heel and ground it back and forth a few times. The snake lay still.
Cain picked it up and dangled it critically in front of his face. "What is this?"
The first 'keep player shrugged. "Pits if I know. Come with me, Naduka wants to see you." He reached down to open the trapdoor.
Cain gripped the snake just behind its head and drew a sharp knife. He severed the tail and tossed it limply onto the gaming table, where it immediately began to disintegrate. Holding the head tightly between two fingers, he looked to the waiting sentry. "After you."
They filed into the tunnel and set off, keeping careful track of the turns taken and passed. Before long, the murmur of voices began to trickle down the passage in front of them and the crumbling earthen walls disappeared behind wooden frames and slats. Their escort took them to a wooden door set into a sturdy brick wall and stood aside. "Here you are."
Cain graced him with a nod and opened the door. A small cellar was on the other side. A dozen or so men and women were seated drinking and bickering around a map of the region laid out on a large table. Some of them had rifles leaning against their chairs. Most of them wore tattoos and mystic baubles. One of them had only one eye.
She looked up when the door opened and fell silent. Most of her companions kept talking. Maximilien Cain stepped forward, heedless, and tossed the snake head onto their map. The chatter ceased abruptly.
"What," Cain asked, "the hell is this?"
"A tool," Naduka answered plainly. "One of many."
Cain flicked it with one finger, triggering another angry spasm of hissing and threats. "It threatened to lay its eggs in my eyes," he said conversationally.
"A bluff. Very few spirits are capable of such things."
"Indeed. Very few lay eggs at all." Cain drew a long dagger set with specific runes and pinned the head to the wooden table. It shivered violently and its eyes burst open with a faint purple flash. A mess of ichor sprayed across Cain's weapon. He wiped his blade clean with two fingers and a thumb, then cleaned his fingers against the shoulder of a nearby binder's robe.
The binder smiled incredulously and suppressed a laugh. Another asked aloud "So, this is the great Max Cain?"
Cain sighed and sheathed his dagger. He turned his eyes to his hostess. "Listen, Karuda... Naruda..." He paused as Hartwin leaned forward and whispered something into his ear. "My apologies, listen Naduka, the Leaden Flame has no use for spirits. There is no place for them in our army. If I am to add your fuel to our spreading fire, I must be sure it is not tainted by rot."
"Your weakness is your failure to be pragmatic. I offered you my sword and rifle because of your reputation. But..." She leaned forward. "In the end…you're still a bunch of rebels in the hills, striking at meaningless targets. You'll never drive the Dominion from Samar like that, Cain. You can't pick and choose."
The flicker of a smile seemed momentarily to dance across Cain's stony face. "Here in your den beneath the city you think you own, you dare speak to me as though I am small and do not matter. Be wary, binder. The fire is rising swiftly now and if you are not careful you may be caught by the flame." He walked around the table until he stood at Naduka's left shoulder. "The resources of humanity are more numerous and powerful than you realize. I came here, to your den beneath the city you think you own, as a courtesy. You wish to join your forces to mine, and I appreciate that. But a new day is breaking soon, and its fiery dawn will turn those who still bear Hell's mark to ash." He drew a thick leather case from inside his overcoat and placed it on the table. "I came here, in mercy, to offer you and your followers a way out.”
"For all your bold words, Max Cain, you think idealism can win the day. That makes you a fool."
Irritation creased Cain's face. "You will call me Maximilien. And if you believe idealism is weak, you do not truly understand the word's meaning."
"Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, Cain."
"The difference between your flames and my own, binder of Cutho, is where mine burn to the heartwood of Hell itself, yours are content merely to lap at the tinder of the Dominion's fringe. Right now you are a spark. You may be dangerous, but to whom? Today I saw a chimera unleashed upon a crowded marketplace for my entertainment. Is this how you would win the common people to your cause? You may have potential, but will you see it realized or exhaust yourself in petty acts of violence against the Silhouette's peasantry?”
He continued. "Do not doubt my courage to wield the fires, madam. My flame leaps ever higher, and very soon now you may see its true fury brought to bear against the Dominion you loathe so much. But there is no room for spirits beneath the blood red dawn, even if they would be used to fight other spirits. If you would join me, you must turn your back utterly on your poison fire." He opened the leather case to reveal an assortment of runed scalpels. "Do this and I will replace it with my own flame, and you will see then just how hot uncompromised idealism can burn."
"You are addicted to words and speeches. You are merely an old man with an inflated ego. You think you stand tall and proud, but you've already eaten from the Godslayers' hand. Do you think they share your vision? You are a hypocrite. Give up this charade and we can make an alliance. Otherwise, get out!"
"You are a fool. Perhaps if you had not put out your good eye you might have seen the truth, but I have no use for the blind." Cain snapped the case shut and tucked it back into his jacket. "The offer is closed."
Naduka sneered. "I have hurt your pride, old man? And now you put your tail between your legs, to hide whatever is left of it? You cannot turn aside the blade of my accusation!"
A sudden, toothy grin flashed across Cain's face. "Your blade is dull." He pulled his scarf up to cover the slash of white. "And pride is the luxury of fools." He turned and walked toward the door.
Naduka stood up and flung out one arm. "Then get out! Crawl back to your Godslayer masters! We will meet in their court, underling."
Cain did not look back. "I doubt that very much." He passed through the door without another word.
By the time he and his associates returned to the parlor, the two guards had left. Cain took the opportunity to direct a search of the room. A few small spirits were found and disposed of, and then the party trooped out into the night.
Back at their rooms, donated by sympathetic citizens eager to help the good fight in any way they could, Cain bolted the door and gathered the others. “This city isn’t really close enough to the Dominion proper to be especially valuable in our ongoing campaign, but even so I didn’t like what I saw down there and I didn’t like the intel you got me on this bandit queen and her methods. I’m not comfortable leaving these people in her incompetent hands. Tenan, first thing tomorrow I want you to go and contact our closest base camp. Tell them I want fifty operatives with experience in urban environments to find their way into Cutho over the next week.” The young man nodded and Maximilien turned to Hartwin. “She’ll have lost a few friends in the city watch for that stunt in the marketplace. We can use that. Hartwin, I need you to find out how ready they are to screw her over. Talk to the right people, stir the pot if you can. As for the rest of you…” Two quick taps at the door interrupted Cain’s monologue and he turned. He asked loudly of the wooden portal “Does the fire burn?”
A muffled voice whispered back “The fire rises to Hell itself.”
Cain stepped quickly to unbolt the door and Jaken slipped inside, lowering his hood and tugging at his cloth mask. “Master Cain, we found the pacter girl who killed the chimera. She is a black-skinned archer armed with a crossbow, and a black cat fights at her side. Minutes ago, she confronted a binder in the streets, one of Naduka’s I think, but she fled like a coward rather than kill him. We’ve tracked her to where she lives.”
“Lead,” Cain said simply, grabbing his cloak and tossing it across his back.
Naomi stood up abruptly. “Shochi,” she said.
Cain glanced at her, nodded and lifted his scarf over his face. The three of them vanished through the door. Hartwin looked back at the others still gathered in the small room and smiled ruefully. “Well, I guess that concludes tonight’s business. Let’s get some rest, everyone.”
Maximilien, Naomi and Jaken moved quickly through the city. The hour was too late for most people to be on the streets, and they made good time. One nocturnal predator briefly considered accosting the three ragged figures, but then he saw the woman turn to look into the darkness where he stood hidden. Her eyes seemed to meet his and she smiled. He chose instead to quietly retreat further into his alley.
“What’s so funny, Naomi?”
At last they arrived. The place was a modest inn near the city gates. Through the windows a couple late drinkers could be seen moping in the common room while a low fire burned in the hearth.
“Where is Heorm?” Cain’s question was answered as the second scout emerged from a black alley across the street. “Wait here, you two. Make sure no one comes in after us.” Jaken nodded, and then ran to join Heorm in the alley. Cain pulled down his scarf and looked at Naomi, breath fogging in the dark air. “She doesn’t know she’s our enemy yet. If we can, I would like to use this pacter to damage the one-eyed woman. Can I count on you to hold your blade unless absolutely necessary?”
“I am hurt, Max. It sounds like you do not trust me.” Laughter tinged Naomi’s words and she spoke through a broad grin.
Cain frowned, but said no more. He opened the door.
One or two faces looked up at the sound and saw two heavily wrapped peasants coming in from the cold. Maximilien looked around and did not see the woman he was after. He turned to a man slightly less drunk than average and asked quietly “I beg your pardon, could you tell me where I’d find the innkeeper?”
The patron squinted up at him and said “Yeah I know where he is. He and the crazy foreign bitch took off down the stairs just a minute ago. He’s always spending time down there with her, and now I ask you, friend, what does that say to you? I’ll tell you what it tells me.”
“Ah.” Cain straightened and looked in the direction of the cellar. “I was afraid of that.”
“Afraid of what?” The patron’s eyes widened and he swiveled on his chair to get a better view. “What are they doing down there? Do you know?”
“I’m afraid it isn’t my place to say, good man. I just hope I’m not too late…”
“Here, who are you, anyway? What’s going…” The drunk stopped as two large coins dropped into his lap. He looked up with a smile. “And a good evening to you too, sir!”
Maximilien and Naomi quietly opened the cellar door and descended the stairs. On the other side of a wide store room the sound of voices rose and fell behind a closed door. Maximilien counted his weapons beneath his coat and crept closer. A male voice was speaking.
“…The leader of a revolutionary movement, Mixta, the Leaden Flame. They are animals. They kill innocent people! Please, go to the authorities.”
Cain opened the door. “I think that would be unwise.” A small, worried looking man with thinning brown hair jumped a foot in the air and gave a small shriek. Innkeeper. A young woman with skin so brown it was almost black froze, her gaze leaping to an empty crossbow lying on the table. Target. A large black cat sitting at her side growled and tensed as if to spring, but stopped short when the woman glanced its way. A faint curl of smoke seemed to rise from its umbral fur. Familiar. Cain continued speaking, stepping into the room. “I do not know what this man has been telling you about the Leaden Flame, but by his last words I know he is a liar. They do not kill innocents.”
The small worried man had turned white. “You,” he managed to whisper. Cain ignored him.
“My name is Maximilien Cain. I speak for the Leaden Flame.” The innkeeper made a choking noise and the pacter woman shot him a worried look. “I am in this city on a mission to eliminate the cabal of binders which resides here. The Leaden Flame dedicates itself to fighting their kind as well as any who would knowingly unleash a chimera on a crowded square. I have reason to believe you share our interests. Mixa, wasn’t it?”
The innkeeper found his voice and yelled “No! Don’t listen to him!” Cain spared him an irritated glance.
“I do not know what quarrel I have with you, sir, but I would thank you not to interrupt. I was speaking to…”
“He’s lying!” The innkeeper struggled to his feet, pointing with a shaking hand. “He wants to kill all spirits! He’ll take yours and leave you to die! If you kill him now…! You can kill him!” The panther yowled its agreement.
“But…” said Mixta.
“Kill him!” screamed the innkeeper, crouching behind the table. The panther leapt. Mixta dove for the crossbow.
Cain groaned inwardly as Naomi lunged past him, two blades already in hand. A faint cloud of black smoke blossomed from the familiar’s fur, and as he reached into his coat he wondered idly if it was trying to shroud the room.
Naomi saw the world go dark and recoiled, disoriented. She snarled as she leapt back against where she knew the wall was, daggers raised defensively. She hated pacters. Binders were tough, and chimeras could fuck you up, but pacters were the worst. They all played by different rules and they always had some bullshit blindness or invisibility or slow-time-down spell to make killing them that much more of a pain in the ass. Assholes!
A deafening gunshot shook the underground room and the darkness evaporated. Mixta yelled and staggered against the table. Naomi watched, ears still ringing, as the black cat twisted in the air a foot away from where Maximilien stood with smoking pistol still raised. Its momentum carried it forward even as it collapsed in on itself, the panther shape melting into something more surreal, feline features fading into unrecognizably indefinite blobs, four legs and tail turning to five indistinct protuberances until…
…The globule of ectoplasm hit Maximilien Cain with a triumphant splash, coating his legs, torso, outstretched arm and pistol with a mess of sticky black tar. He gave a compulsive groan of disgust. The ruined pistol dropped to the floor and he reflexively lifted his slimy hands to wipe his face, pausing abruptly only at the last moment as he realized what he had been about to do. While he raised his arms in crestfallen disbelief, searching hopelessly for any patch on his jacket to have remained clean, Naomi kicked the crossbow out of Mixta’s hands and set a knife against her throat. As she drove the pacter to her knees, Cain announced to the world at large: “Disgusting.”
Naomi pressed the flat of her knife hard against her hostage’s neck. “May I kill her, shochi, may I? Please say yes.”
Cain threw down his arms, shaking a layer of slime off the ends of his sleeves, and said again “Disgusting. Spirits are disgusting.”
Cain glared at the pacter and heaved a great sigh. He shook his hands in the air, sending droplets of dead spirit flying everywhere, and said in an aggrieved voice “You attacked me. You attacked me first, when all I was trying to do was have a civilized conversation. And now you’ve ruined my coat.”
“How many times must I tell you, Naomi, patience is a virtue. You, Mia or whatever your name was, what do you have to say for yourself?”
The black-skinned woman glared back at him with eyes too angry for fear, too proud to beg. She said something incomprehensible in a language Cain had never heard before. Then she spat. Cain sighed.
“Try not to be too messy, Naomi.”
Naomi’s grin returned and she buried her dagger into the hollow between Mixta’s neck and shoulder. The pacter screamed, but the blade was too short to damage anything vital. Naomi watched her bleed for a second, holding the knife in place.
“I know, shochi, just a little longer.” She wiggled the knife back and forth in the wound and Mixta screamed again.
“Okay!” She twisted the knife out and dipped it into Mixta’s stomach. The foreign pacter collapsed onto hands and knees and retched blood.
Naomi watch in delight as her trembling arms weakened and failed. Cain sighed again and drew a long knife with one gooey hand. He walked around the table and reached down to lift the dying woman up by the hair. With a quick, precise jab, he punctured her heart. The limp body dropped to the floor and Naomi gave an unhappy exclamation of disappointment. She picked at the dead woman’s tangled hair and lifted a clump that had been stuck together by the mess on Cain’s hands. “Disgusting,” she stated, glancing mischievously up at his blackwashed figure.
“You’re a bad person, Naomi,” he said, blade still drawn. He experimentally lifted his fingers one at a time from the grip. They stuck slightly. “You’ve probably added another reason for this devout citizen of the Dominion to believe we’re all savage monsters.” He waved vaguely at the small man, who had spent the last five minutes kneeling in a corner with his eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer. “On top of whatever he already had.”
Naomi grinned at the innkeeper and picked up her knife. “That is okay, I will finish him quickly this time, I promise!”
“No! Naomi, stop that. First we’ll talk to him.” Cain stepped over the dead woman and crouched beside the praying man. “Whatever happened to make you hate my guts so much, eh?” The man’s brow furrowed, but his eyes remained closed and he continued mumbling to himself. “Whatever you may have heard, I assure you we’re not usually like…that,” Cain gestured at Naomi, who was sitting crosslegged and running one finger back and forth in the spreading puddle of blood. “Naomi just gets a little…excited when she feels threatened. And you did attack us first.”
“You!” The man suddenly opened his eyes and rounded on Cain. “You did this to me!”
Cain stood up and cocked his head. “I gave you an inn?”
“You robbed me!” The man was sobbing now. “You stole my powers and killed my friend! You bastard, you ruined my life!” He pounded feebly against Cain’s slimy shins.
Cain looked at Naomi. Naomi shrugged and continued drawing pictures in the blood. “Who are you, innkeeper?”
The small, balding man stood up to his full, not particularly impressive height and said “I am Imar of Cutho! I served in the divine legions of the Silhouette of Stars until I was captured by a band of outlaws and malcontents who appeared out of nowhere during our battle to reclaim the rebel city of Shaho! They fought for a man named Max Cain, and they chained me and my spirit and…and they took him from me… They broke us… You killed him and left me alone, left me to die.”
“One of the cooperatives from Shaho, Max?” Naomi offered from the floor.
“So it seems.” Cain looked upon the innkeeper with hard, unforgiving eyes. “But he seems a little confused.”
“You don’t understand what a terrible thing you did… Taking a man’s spirit from him…”
“I may have done a painful thing to you, Imar of Cutho, but terrible? I do not think so. I freed you in more ways than one. I saved you from the spirit who would have damned your soul…”
Cain continued. “I relieved you of your duty to the demon you call the Silhouette of Stars.”
“And I gave you that rarest and most undeserved of all gifts. A second chance.”
“You tortured me! You left me to die!”
“We offered you a deal, and you accepted. Your life for your spirit’s. We cut it from your body. The process may have hurt you, but it was necessary and certainly kinder than the alternative.”
“You tortured me! You left me to die!” Imar threw himself at Maximilien and Naomi sniggered as the small man’s fists beat feebly against the old man’s chest.
“We cut your spirit from your body and released you on the road with the other cooperatives less than a day’s walk from a peaceful city. It is possible that the shock of your sudden liberation muddled your thoughts.”
“You’re a monster,” panted Imar. Cain’s eyes narrowed.
“Perhaps, innkeeper. But you have served worse. You boast so proudly of your service to the Silhouette of Stars. I swear there’s nothing more wretched than a willing slave. You served one of the most vile tyrants this world has ever known, one who would send unnumbered thousands to their deaths in order to satisfy his selfish lust for war. One who would commit his subjects to live their short, sad lives in despair, knowing they exist only as fuel to be fed into his unending campaign of aggression. One who would crush those smaller than himself for no better reason than the knowledge that he can.” Cain kicked Imar’s legs out from under him and the small man went sprawling. “Consider me, on the other hand. I have killed more people with my own hands than I can now remember.” Cain drove a foot into his ribs and Naomi giggled. “I have condemned countless more to die with my words alone.” He crouched down. “I would set this whole damned world on fire if I had to, innkeeper. So call me a monster. I won’t deny it. But I do what I do because I must. I’m the only one who can.” In a flash, he drove his knife through Imar’s chest and out the other side. The innkeeper gasped and went limp. Cain dropped the blade and stood up. Naomi clambered to her feet as well.
“You’re a bad person, Maximilien,” she said solemnly.
“There’s a difference between repeatedly stabbing a person and kicking them in the ribs, Naomi.”
Naomi shrugged. “Maybe. You are still a bad person, shochi.”
Max looked at her and smiled guiltily. “Fair enough.” He dropped his gaze to his filthy clothes. “What am I going to do about this?”
“I think you need new clothes.”
“There’s no saving that pistol. I can replace the knife, but I loved that pistol.”
“There will be other pistols, Max.”
“Yes.” Cain sighed. “Of course there will. Expensive, though. What did the pacter have?”
“Oh!” Naomi stooped down and picked up a pouch and some papers. “Some money I have not counted yet, a crossbow, some crossbow bolts, some crossbow bolts with runes, a couple trashy blades and a notebook with more runes.”
“You can never have too much cash. The runes could be useful as well. Leave the rest.”
“What are we going to do now?” Naomi asked, crawling over to search the innkeeper’s pockets.
Max looked around. There wasn’t much to see. “First I need some new clothes. And a towel. Then…” He glanced up at the ceiling. “Then we’ll see.”
Naomi hummed softly to herself as she raked at the smoldering remains of the evening’s hearthfire. She dragged a couple of embers out onto the wood floor, examined them dubiously for a moment, then pushed them a fraction of an inch closer to the grate again.
Cain entered the room, wearing a tremendously baggy overcoat over a set of too-small clothes. “Almost done?”
“Tell me, Max, does this spread look suitably ‘accidental?’” Naomi gazed at the blackening floor boards with the critical eye of an artist.
“It doesn’t matter. The coals will burn up before anyone gets a look at them. Are you almost done?”
“Maaax! Where is your sense of craftsmanship?”
“That spread looks lovely, Naomi.”
“It is supposed to look like an accident!”
“Naomi, if the building’s not on fire by the time the sun rises, it’ll be hard to convince anyone it was an accident no matter where the coals are. Are you almost done?”
Naomi sighed tragically. “I suppose.” She gave one last dramatic flourish and set the rake against the wall. “There.”
“Great job.” Cain kneeled down and blew on the small pile of glimmering black coals. They flared with red heat and a few small tongues of flame appeared. He blew again. A few more flames caught. “Set the tinder.” Naomi spread a mat of dry sticks across the floor and scattered a few on top of the budding flames. Cain puffed one last, long gust of air into the ruby embers and then got to his feet. “That should do it.”
“Can we stay and watch?”
“Naomi, our business in Cutho is not finished. We have a lot of important work to do. There’s no time to watch a building burn down.”
“I do not have anything to do, do I? You could go back and I could stay.”
Cain put an arm around Naomi’s shoulders and gently guided her toward the door. The flames were already spreading, gaining strength. A nearby chair began to smolder. “I know you want to watch the fire, Naomi, but there’s another flame we need to kindle. A bigger flame than all the housefires in the world.”
“I know.” Naomi glanced back at the infant inferno and bit her lip. “I know it is. But it is not as pretty.”
They stepped out into the empty street and Cain squeezed her shoulder. “There will be other fires.” Jaken stepped out of the alley and Heorm dropped from a nearby rooftop. Cain greeted them with a nod and they walked back to their rooms at a comfortable pace.
Post by God Emperor Newman on Nov 9, 2013 0:39:17 GMT
The next day saw Tenan’s departure and a few brief meetings with certain contacts in the government.
The next week saw an imperceptible increase in traffic to Cutho and a subtle stirring of public mood.
The next month saw ripples of resistance to the binder gang spread throughout the city. Not so many people averted their eyes when crossing paths with a tattooed mystic. Not so many guards could be relied on to take the coin. Street grunts started questioning orders. New graffiti began to appear, a grey tongue of flame painted on buildings associated with binder activity. Then one day binders started disappearing and Naduka knew she had waited too long.
The next month saw the city on fire and consumed by open warfare. Civilians barricaded their doors and prayed the flames would spare their house as armed rebels battled in the streets. Guns roared and sorceries flashed. On one side fought Naduka’s binders and a dwindling number of loyal foot soldiers. On the other swelled the rising Flame, supported by the angry mob and the emboldened city guard. Nobody knew exactly when Naduka vanished, but a surge of cold-foot soldiers flocked to Cain’s side when word got out she had fled the city. The remaining binders were beaten back, pushed into their own tunnels and hunted down like rats. Their pleas to negotiate or surrender were ignored. Beneath the blood and ruin of two weeks’ civil war, the last binder in Cutho was exterminated.
The next month saw the execution of the Dominion governor. In a crowded public square, atop a scaffold of scavenged materials, Maximilian Cain's eyes blazed as he recounted the crimes of that astonished, white-faced man, who stood bound by his neck atop an unsteady stool. With a final, accusatory yell of fury, Cain kicked that stool away and approached the trembling woman to his right. The crowd roared its approval as Cain screamed the judgment of humanity at the governor’s terrified wife, even as her husband flailed voicelessly at the end of his nearby rope. Cutho cheered as she dropped to her own slow death. Next came the governor’s son, then his daughter, then one by one the other members of Bhakhtar’s provincial government and their families. The drop was too short to break their necks and each died badly, swinging down to join a lengthening row of grotesque Dominion puppets dancing arrhythmic jigs as their faces blackened and lives drained away.
The justice of an inferno is no kind thing.
The homes of wealthy pacters and Dominion agents were broken open, the contents distributed among common people. Under Cain’s management, the poor and the homeless were given food and shelter. New buildings were erected in place of burned and looted Dominion palaces. An elected government was established and Cutho declared its status as a city independent of the Unholy Dominion. A flag was raised on which was sewn a twisting silver tongue of flame, burning against a field of white.
The next month saw Cain and the majority of the local Leaden Flame depart the city for the hills. Cheers and adulations followed his procession out of the city. He knew the Dominion’s eye was upon him once again, and despite the success of his revolution in Cutho a vengeful Bhakhtari army would be on its way even now. The people had tasted freedom, though, and they could never be made to forget how they had seen the works of Hell cast down. The Demon of Stars would no longer find them easy slaves.
Cain and his company dispersed among the Leaden Flame’s by now numerous mountain camps and examined their situation. There would be no more offers of friendship from magic-wielding rebels, but on the other hand a tremendous blow had been struck. The Dominion would never be able to contain news of the War at Cutho. Other cities would hear of its success. They might not yet have the courage to stand up, but they would know it could be done and all across the world in a thousand small ways men and women would begin to resist and undermine the order set against them by unjust gods and spirits.
Like the innumerable sparks of a spreading fire.
April found Maximilian Cain setting the Flame to Dominion encampments in the Sali Mountains. The Dominion, already well-worn from months of fighting their entrenched foe at Lashuff, was sent reeling by these strikes against its infrastructure. The elusive rebels seemed to be always a step ahead of Bhakhtar’s raiding parties, and desperation mounted within the Dominion ranks as rumors circulated of a prospective alliance between Sali and the Leaden Flame.
One day, in the earliest hours of morning, a messenger came riding a tired horse into camp. She dismounted and without even securing her steed sprinted to Cain’s tent. As she entered, she offered a reverent salute and gasped a few breathless words. Max, Naomi and Hartwin, who had been engaged in a discussion of the day’s activity, stopped talking at once.
Max stood up and stared at the messenger, a smile slowly pulling at his scarred face.
Hartwin stood and breathed deeply, raising a tired hand to suddenly weary eyes.
Naomi sat where she was and grinned happily.
Cain strode forward and gave the messenger a fraternal clap on the shoulder. He pushed through his tent flap and walked to the eastern edge of camp, where a rocky shelf jutted briefly from the thickly forested slope to allow a panoramic view across twilight mountains and low, foggy valleys. Moments later, Hartwin and Naomi joined him. They stood silently, three silhouettes inspecting the deep, dark eastern horizon, and one by one, their puzzled campmates gathered around to see what was going on. A few muttered brief inquiries to their fellows, but were silenced with severe looks. Neither Max nor Naomi nor Hartwin looked away from the sky and for several minutes, no one spoke.
Eventually the stars began to fade and the far east bled to a shade of pale cream. At last, a splinter of the molten sun peered between two distant, nameless peaks and a sudden light descended across the rocky outlook. The camp, which by now was fully assembled at Cain’s back, tensed as one, knowing this was the moment they had waited for.
They were correct. With a sigh that spoke of more emotions than were easily named but which certainly included a fair measure of satisfaction, he turned around. “Behold!” he called out, voice ringing with a kind of joy. “Behold the silver dawn! Know that this moment marks the end of humanity’s long night! When history is written, my friends, my comrades, my brothers and sisters, they will mark this day, this very dawn, as that which signaled the beginning of an overdue end!” Naomi laughed and clapped her hands together. Hartwin continued to frown sadly at the steadily rising sun.
Cain was silent for a moment, relishing the warmth of that fresh light. At last he spoke again. He called forward the tired messenger, who hesitantly stepped to his side, self-consciously wiping the sweat from her brow. He invited her to speak and, after clearing her throat and a few false starts, she shared with the camp what she had told to Cain.
The grasslands of Samar breathed anew. It was not merely the frost which had receded into the north with the advent of spring. The Dominion's forces had as well, the siege of the Sali border city of Lashuff thrown into disarray by the Leaden Flame's sallies. With the Dominion's retreat had come the news that the Arbiter was dead.
Victory tasted like ash, since that was all that was left in its wake. This is how it has to be, Max told himself for the thousandth time. It was meant to taste like ash. Only from the ruins could civilization be rebuilt. The corpses of spirits would have to fertilize the ruins of the old world.
Max Cain fingered a pistol at his waist as he stared across the Salimon mountain chain, his heart heavy, but his soul unburdened. Trumin was never coming back. Someday soon, the Dominion would be gone from Samar.
Yet the Arbiter's death had sent ripples through the world, with some consequences unforeseen. The Dominion was in a panic, as intended. But the Silhouette of Stars had reacted unpredictably, as always. An insider, some politician from Bhakhtar whom Cain had bought, managed to get word to him within a week of the Arbiter's death. "The Silhouette of Stars orders that every Samari city which shows the slightest bit of resistance be put to the sword. Reinforcements assemble in Marqash. They will march for Samar by the end of the month, and arrive by June or July. They will show no mercy."
There would be refugees, soon. If the Silhoeutte had his way, Samar would remain his, with or without the Samari people.
The Godslayers had sent word also. They were willing to meet with Cain's agents, to plan another strike against the Dominion, to co-ordinate use of the weapon of Kutanda. And meanwhile, Max Cain's beneficiaries continued to pour resources into his organization. Dissent was growing across the world, hatred for spirits.
He swept his gaze from the Salimon mountains. They were spirit lovers, in the end, as were the desert-folk of Catar. His work had only just begun.