Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Paladin-Part 19

James, Thomas, Torquil and the Hamilton Twins sat in conference around the campfire a few days later.

"I see now what the cult's strategy is," James said, "as this recent skirmish makes clear how they can outlast us."

The others nodded. "Our casualties are slight so far." one twin said, and then the other finished the thought: "But they're not going to remain so for much longer."

Thomas nodded his agreement. "It is wise to assume that the leadership now knows our strategy, which is why we're encountering their champions as we've done recently."

"A shift is needed," Torquil said, "and one that the cult doesn't anticipate."

"Agreed." James said, "They know now our size and capabilities, and they're becoming swift with locating and intercepting us when we move. They must suspect by now our full intention."

"So we turn about and bore straight for the mountain?" Torquil said.

James smiled the smile of a child rapt in joy. "Tomorrow we shift. I'll have orders in the morning. Dismissed."

The night fell quietly, and a full moon emerged against a cloudless sky. James sat at the fire, eyes closed and in a meditative position, chanting almost sub-vocally. A few moments later, he felt a presence contact his mind.

"James, I am so glad that you realized the depth of your situation." it said, and James recognized the voice of the Archmage.

"I've anticipated your need, James." he said, "You are correct that this strange man amongst the cult's champions holds the keys to victory, as it seems that this power is contradictory to the cult's aims and powers. Therefore he must be kept ignorant of the cult's true nature and patron; his power is inherently antithetical to that of its masters and the demons it deploys."

"Master, I would like your opinion on drawing him out using the Ten-Thousand Fires stratagem." James said, "I believe that the cult anticipates us turning and making a direct march upon the mountain now, and I wish to use that against them."

"The response by a wise opponent would be to scry for confirmation of desertion. How do you intend to deal with that response, youth?"

"Thomas possesses the means to detect scrying sensors, and I shall order the men to disburse into a guerilla-style wide formation to better exploit the terrain as we get closer to the target over the course of the march. If detected, Thomas shall deal a blow to the enemy's diviner. In the meantime, our disbursed band can make our group seem both larger and more fragile than we are. Once we create the illusion of our dissolution, the opportunity to easily divide and conquer will prove irresistible to the cult. They will spread out, and then we can permanently destroy them in detail."

The Archmage paused to consider James's plan. "Sound." he said, "Proceed."

"Once we've sprung the trap, I will detach Torquil with a few men to go ahead and clear a way by which we can finally approach undetected as they consume themselves with the chaos about them. In the meantime, we run Dezikon to ground and break him from the cult's thrall; brought to our side, he can get us straight into the very heart of the mountain- and then it is done."

"When you find this 'Dezikon', I shall be ready to assist you."

James smiled. "Permission to proceed?"

"Granted, youth. You are as I have foreseen."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Paladin-Part 18

Torquil returned to camp late in the evening. No one noticed until James and Thomas, still at the fire half-asleep, saw him return and take a seat; he returned as quietly as he left. No one spoke; no one needed to speak, for the look on Torquil's face and the captured daggers was enough. The three of them sat there, motionless and silent, and contemplated their next move.

Though none of the men that James lead possessed the qualities of that group of hidden exiles, they seemed nonetheless to confer without conversation and agreed to a course of action. Torquil left early to scout ahead while James got the Hamilton twins to get the men together, and Thomas took the time to prepare a few contingencies that his conception of the course to come pointed out to him overnight. Without incident, the warriors of the White Tower struck camp and moved out once more towards Silver Top Mountain.

Distant, but again on the way to intercepting the band from the Tower, were two of the Champions of Kogone: the mutant warrior called "Red", for his eyes, and the bold infernalist- Nim. They stood at the van of a band of thralls, barbarian mutants one and all, from the tribes yet to be raided by the White Tower warriors. Aware, but only partly, of where their enemies were they moved out to the last known sighting to catch the track and then run down their quarry.

The two warbands roam freely and swiftly across the wilderness ranging near Silver Top Mountain. The warriors of the White Tower resume their strategy of guerilla-style raiding amongst the mutants held in thrall by the Cult of Kogone; the Champions of Kogone track them, using the wake left not only as a trail, but as a way to push speed over all else in order to close the distance and force a battle. This did not at all seems to be anything underhanded by Kogone's champions, for Nim told Red that he had a means to pinpoint the band's location once they drew near- and it was this hope that allayed suspicions of being out-maneuvered.

That hope proved false. James now had a good grasp of his enemies' minds, and with that he meant to put his foes down. Raiding enemy tribes, as he'd done before, did not merely exacerbate the cult's problems with morale and logistics- it also forced the cult to reaction to James, ceding the initiative to him, and that meant that the time and place of battle was his to decide, and decide he did.

The next battle came at a defile that narrowed the path to a very narrow place with sheer walls of earth on other side. The White Tower band lured them into the defile and then closed the ends on either side. Surrounded, Red wisely rallied his men and rushed the far side hoping to break through and quickly reverse the situation, but at that end stood James at the tip of the angled shield wall. Thomas led the other one and through his magic they swiftly moved up the defile to catch Red in a pincer move. Nim, again, did not get a chance to intervene; as he prepared to rain fire down upon James and his men, Torquil ambushed him from a prepared shallow pit. With Nathan's poisoned blades in his hands, he stabbed the infernalist with both dagger; each sunk through the sides, between the ribs and skewered a lung- the wounds and the poison combined to shock him, steal his breath in mid-incantation and made his black heart explode instantly. Mirthless Torquil released the blades, let the demon-user slump to the ground with a leaden thump and then drew his sword; moments later, Nim's head flew ungainly through the air and fell before the throng of the barbarians.

Red and James met at the press between barbarian and civilized warriors, with the big red-eyed and green-skinned mutant bashing away with his mighty battle axe. Finally he cleft his foe's shield in twain, forcing James to release its ruined hold, and as the wall closed to cover the gap James put both hands on his spear to keep Red and his axe at bay- fighting over the wall now from the second rank. James knew that he had not the might to hold Red off by himself, and wished that Cavil were there (for Cavil did have that might), but he also knew that he need only hold Red there just a little longer.

Torquil signalled to Thomas that Nim now lay dead, and thus no longer posed a threat; this allowed Thomas to finally cut loose, and he did. Buoyed into the air by means of a modest levitation, his hands burst into flames. Calling forth his own rage and anger made using the secret lore of fire much easier, as a burning wrath within is a known technique to manifest a burning fire without, he hurled horrible boulders of fire so destructive that those thralls impacted instantly incinerated and screamed so sorrowfully that the slaughter sicked them all- and, out of mercy, soon ceased.

Red alone survived. Severely burned, his axe sundered, his men so many charred corpses, he gamely stood against a rock while his foes surrounded him. Finally, James and Thomas approached.

"You are beaten. You have no mercy to expect from your masters." James said, "Yet I am not like your kind. Surrender your knowledge, and you shall regain your life- so long as you leave all lands wherein the People of the Tower may dwell or divine."

Red coughed. "Exile? In return for treachery? You know not my masters. I will tell you nothing."

Just then, Torquil joined his fellows, but again the eyes told of another's presence.

"You will." came Sybil's voice, as he locked eyes on Torquil, "You will tell us everything."

Red's face revealed the terror he felt in his broken bones. He told, compelled, all he knew- and that was not a small thing. Then, without warning, Red fell over dead.

"Magic." Thomas said, "I cannot sense the presence of any soul any longer. I suspect that his masters ripped it from him."

"No, he will return." Sybil said, "Expect worse things."

"Indeed, we shall." James said, and the party departed, fortunately none the worse- this time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Paladin-Part 17

The infernalist cult boasted many champions. The warriors of the White Tower already faced a few of them, and defeated two of them in battle while forcing two other to quit the day. None of these four were Nathan, the lithe and sly slinker and dealer of death by short, slim blades- and the poisons so often upon those keen edged razors and poinards. No, cunning and devious and distrusting as he was, he wanted no part of an open battle. However, as yet held in thrall to the cult's master, he was indeed there and he did not hold any longer is seeing his master's will done- he merely wanted for an opportunity to reveal itself.

Day passed, night fell and soon he took up a position concealed even from the potent, unearthly eyes of the White Tower Initiate--Thomas--that granted the accomplished spy and backstabber a commanding view upon the White Tower camp. Therein he saw James and Thomas converse, over what he knew not, with what he now knew to be his counterpart- a boy, not truly a man in Nathan's eyes. This was Torquil, and Nathan knew that if his bid to slay his master's foes by stealth and treachery were to succeed then he would have to remove the one most likely to counter his scheme of murder.

He watched, but he could not discern what council went on in the camp he spied upon, and he grew frustrated. Knowing fully his master's mind, Nathan set himself to take the first foeman to drift from camp and rip from the fool what useful information he possessed. This, as Fate would have it (or so Nathan would think), was Torquil; not only did this boy have information that his master would want, he held the antique of a Old World firearm that his foolish (but friendly, very friendly) female friend used as a weapon of choice.

Without haste or hesitation, Nathan withdrew from his hiding spot and crept up from behind. He kept young Torquil, brazenly brandishing the baroque boom-maker in arms too young to've seen action meriting the glory heaped upon this youth, firmly fixed forward- not yet wishing to close for the kill. He cared not that Torquil moved far from the White Tower camp; this youth was a scout, and scouting paths and perimeters was commonplace duties, so the distance called out no warning to Nathan's nefarious mind. He never noticed that he wasn't in control of the moment, or that his actions were anticipated, but instead insisted to himself that tonight was no different from any other- and that this callow, untried little punk wouldn't so much as squeak when he shoved two blades into the boy's body and slammed them home straight to the hilts.

Nathan's business rested wholly upon deception, and when caught out from underneath its protective cover such men as he fared poorly in confrontations with firmer men; in this, as in all things in Nathan's life, when expectations go awry things usually fall quickly into ruin. This occasion did not disappoint, and it went wrong as soon as he had his blades in hand and made the final approach upon Torquil from behind.

Nathan went for the quick, silent rush and committed to the double-ended dagger kill that was his signature method of slaughter. Just as the blade were to slam home and discharge their deadly poison into Torquil's veins, Nathan froze- paralyzed. How he did not know; no magic struck him by force nor ensnared his mind, but yet he felt an irresistible force seize him solid and stop him utterly in an instant. Then Torquil turned around, and in the youth's eyes he beheld the true opponent- or, rather, the eyes thereof.

"FOOL!" yelled a womanly voice, yet Nathan truly saw no motion from the youth's lips.

Torquil, if it truly was merely him, turned wholly about and seized Nathan's blades out of his hands. Nathan saw, heard, tasted, touched, or smelled any sign of magic- but magic he must have to achieve this feat so effortlessly!

"Nathan of the Cult of Kogone, Master of Assassins, Manslayer and Poisoner- you are one of the six champions of Kogone arrayed against the People of the White Tower."

That voice, that womanly voice so chilled his blood with its cold steely tone, and in that moment Nathan realized--crudely, imperfectly, imprecisely--what he beheld; a being, dis-corporate perhaps, but distant nonetheless, joined with the youth's flesh and possessed him. So held, this womanly entity could act through its agent at will- just like the demons that he and his fellows trafficked with so regularly.

"What manner of demon so disrespects a champion of Kogone?" Nathan thought, for he could not speak, but lack of speech was no impediment to his assailant.

"No demon am I, but a being greater than any such flawed figure." came that voice, "It is time that my siblings and I intervened, and I do so by removing part of the rubble that obstructs the return of Man to Civilization."

Nathan saw Torquil work the action of the firearm, load a cartridge into the chamber, close the action and take aim at point-blank range upon Nathan's head.

"Unlike your lover, I shan't leave anything for your deluded ally to use to return you to live and stave off your judgement. You are guilty, demon-lover, and now you shall be punished."

One crack of the sound barrier later and Nathan fell over dead, his head half blown off, and by sunrise naught remained but ashes and gristle as dis-corporate Sybil used Torquil's body to annihilate the corpse- preventing Dezikon from resurrecting Nathan. Mercifully, Sybil insulated Torquil from the fullness of events; he saw, but distantly so, but her presence left its mark upon him permanently- for good and ill alike.

Torquil never smiled again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Paladin-Part 16

James paused to look back at the moon-lit plume of smoke arising from the bonfire built to burn the corpse of his slain comrade. The whereabouts of Cavil remained wholly unknown, and--despite the aggravation he caused--James acutely felt regret in not being able to go after his missing man. He knew that the mission was dangerous, that the enemy would not hesitate to exploit weakness or incompetence, and combined that meant that he knew that he had to push on no matter the costs incurred.

Long after dark, when the men made camp for the night, James and Thomas sat at the center near a well-concealed fire. Thomas took the weapon of the huntress Jaja out of the blanket wherein he kept it, removed it from the blanket and rested the weapon in his lap. Long, like the shaft of a bow, but open at one end; the other end flatted out somewhat, as if it were a misshapen and undersized boat oar, with steel or iron mechanisms embedded into the flat cylindrical shaft-like weapon.

"This was the woman's weapon?" James said, "It seems to be a relic of the world before the Azure Flames. I wonder if it's the same weapon that our fathers' faced?"

Thomas nodded. "I think that it is, James." he said, as he opened a slide on the weapon's shaft and removed a projectile, "According to what divinations I've used, this is a rather ordinary weapon that our grandfathers probably used in war, and I think even they thought of this particular weapon as old when they were young."

Just then, Torquil joined them at the campfire, but Thomas noticed that Torquil's eyes showed that another usurped their companion's form and slowly slipped a free hand for his materials pouch.

"No need." Torquil said, "You are expected. You've been told that aid can be had out here, by one of my brothers, were you not?"

James turned to Thomas, who in turn shut out all distractions and focused his will upon the entity speaking through Torquil's body. The young wizard drew forth his talisman and glanced at it briefly.

"We were." Thomas said, and he signaled James to relax, "Who are you, and what brings you here?"

"You may call me 'Sybil', youths, and I am here because your actions--as well as those of the One and the Eight--had effects that you ought to know, effects that will inevitably force a change in your actions. Let me start with that weapon; it is a firearm, a weapon that uses a chemical reaction to produce a controlled explosion which is then channeled down the barrel--that is the purpose of the open-ended shaft--in order to shoot a projectile called a 'bullet' at the target. This specific form of firearm is a rifle, one modified for precision accuracy, and I see that you retrieved it from a slain enemy."

"True." James said, starting at Torquil's body while listening to an obviously older--and apparently female--entity's voice, "We have no such weapons, save for the pneumatic devices at the border holds."

"I intend to use this weapon to trace the path back to our enemy's center of power. Is that not wise, Sybil?" Thomas said.

Torquil betrayed no emotion or intention, yet Sybil spoke: "It is, but your time is short. Already the fair one, having the means, returns the abomination known as 'the Pale One' back from oblivion. Soon the huntress shall return, and their magician will use the very theorems of magic that you seek to exploit to track you down and see you all slain."

Thomas sat stunned, but James shook off the shock swiftly.

"They have the power to resurrect the dead?" James said, "All of them, or just this fair...oh, I know now which one you speak of; again, just that man or do more of the enemy possess the power?"

Thomas, now recovered, tuned out the others and began a low, quiet intoning as he began the seeking magics.

"We know that only two of them can do such things, both differently, though they are under orders to train others by the master of the cult. The one called 'Nim' can do so only for one individual, and that magic requires the use of a spell ahead of time to capture the soul of the one so enchanted; it lasts a limited time. The other one needs some piece of the corpse, and so can revive the dead at any time. It should be no surprise that both are reluctant to teach their secret techniques, lest they be killed by fearful or jealous rivals."

Just then, a thought came to James. The power to raise the dead seemed so out of place for a cult dedicated to the trafficking with demons and all things infernal, and this other ability seemed more in keeping with the cult's form of magic, which further perplexed the young warrior- a confusion that Sybil noticed.

"The fair one is 'Dezikon', youth, and though often arrogant and self-important he is less inclined than his fellows towards the cruelty and brutality so commonplace in the cult's culture. Your doubt as to his fit is well-deserved."

Thomas, again displaying prodigious mastery of the arcane arts, emerged from his state of intense concentration with some sweat upon his brow.

"I have the exact location of both the cult's center of power as well as where the barbarians gather for celebration or preparation of the whole nation. What, dare I say, should I do with this weapon now?"

James didn't hesitate: "Cleanse it and cast it away."

Sybil then intervened and took the rifle away. "I will handle it. Worry not about your companion; I shall not risk his life. I will return him to you unharmed, and he shall be guided back to you at the best possible time."

Another thought occurred James then: "What of our brother, Cavil?"

"Another of my brothers is now with him. He cannot be of any service to this cause, so we shall ensure his return to the White Tower- and he shall be ready to serve on his return."

James then turned to Thomas, and directed Sybil-in-Torquil closer.

"It is no accident that this Dezikon's powers display themselves in the same way as the great display of might from the One and the Eight against the cult. They are of the same source, and it cannot help but to influence this fair man's mind and soul; if we are to succeed, he must become our ally and turn against the cult."

Thomas sat astonished at the leap of logic, but Sybil smiled.

"You are ready, youth." Sybil said, and then Torquil left the camp with the rifle.

"I hope you're right, James." Thomas said, "Or you will end up killing us all."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Paladin-Part 15

Though each party suspected it, neither James and his band of brothers nor the sextet of champions for the infernalists knew if the other party noticed their presence- not until they caught sight of each other. The keenest eyes on both sides locked together for but a moment, but that was enough. "Contact!" each man yelled, and instantly both parties joined battle.

Jaja cut loose her mutant cat upon the White Tower warriors, and then she dove behind a nearby tree. As her cat drew forth a couple of warriors, she calmed herself, bent around the tree, took aim with her relic of a weapon and gently squeezed the trigger. A sharp crack reverberated throughout the forest, echoing for miles, and one of those young men slumped to the earth with a clang and a thump; the shot blasted through his helm, bored through his skull and went out the other side. Her cat fared worse, for while Jaja lined up her next shot on the next warrior engaged with that mutant feline an already-furious Cavil cleft the cat with a single mighty blow and split its skull asunder. This shocked Jaja just enough for her second shot--now at Cavil--to merely graze his helm; furious flew fast into a red rage as Cavil caught the sound of the sniper's weapon, and a murderous mist fell over Cavil's eyes, mirrored in the careless charge and boar-like bellow of battle.

Thomas, seeing now that this was the time, finished his spell of detection and up went the magic meant to make enemy infiltrators manifest. Alas, nothing could be done for the slain soldier, save for wrecking the weapon that wrought his death, so quickly the White Tower warriors formed with Cavil in the lead and charged Jaja's position. Without her cat to assist and cover for her, Jaja knew herself to be very vulnerable and wisely withdrew- but to no avail. Thomas's keen-eye saw her fleeing figure, fast-figured the range and quickly exercised his mastery of magic; a moment passed and with it a bolt of blue-white power flew from the mage's palm and puissant power put Jaja's flight to a halt. A moment later, Cavil's charge reached a frozen female figure; a moment after that only shattered shavings of snow and ice remained where Cavil's cleaving sundered and slew the cultist sniper that shot his brother in arms. Only the warrior woman's wondrous weapon remained.

Too late did the rest of the cult champions arrive. The Pale One already senses that Jaja moved too soon and, in underestimating the enemy, fell before the enemy's might.

"Foolish and faster to act than think, much like her father." the Pale One said, "Now things will go much differently."

They did. Seeing that battle already joined, he made a virtue of necessity and put himself within sight of Jaja's slayer. The devious death-dealer took a narrow place, easily choking the flow of men to one or two at a time, as it was a log cover a rift overlooking a stream some scores of feet below. Sensing that Cavil was mad with rage and lust for blood, the Pale One decided to break the White Tower formation by using a spell of necromancy to pull Cavil directly to him. With the spell coming forth from one outstretched pale-as-death mutant hand, this more cunning and patient fiend had plenty of time to choke up on the massive weapon he bore in the other hand; Cavil's face fractured with the first blow, and despite his hot-blooded fury and will to fight Cavil's form failed him- and flung forth from the log-bridge Cavil fell into the waters below, and hence he passed from the notice of men and monsters alike.

The fair one, Dezikon, arrived next with a host of barbarian warriors--those not yet ambushed and slain by James and his men--and down he rode towards the Pale One. But James and Thomas, though taken aback at Cavil's deft devastation and defeat, did not lose their guts just yet. Quickly they reformed and rallied around their leader, in the formation of an impenetrable tortoise, and it was in that moment that another of their preparations proved potent. Thomas ordered water and dust scattered, and that revealed the presence of plain-faced Nathan and his needle-like daggers; James took no time in turning his spear to this fleet-footed and silent-stepping murderer. One thrust with the butt speared the assassin's spleen, sprawling Nathan to the ground, and instantly a dozen more spears--those leaf-bladed lances--struck and skewered and slew him in swift slaughter.

This too proved more fortunate than it seemed, for now the one called Red arrived with the rest of the remaining horde and caught the White Tower warriors between the two. Now surrounded, James signaled for the signature strategem of the White Tower: hold until told and rage for the mage. Thomas, knowing that time was short--as the enemy's most potent champion, and only magician, had not arrived yet--drew deeply into himself and his knowledge of magic and lore. For a seeming eternity those young men fought against the rampaging mutant wildmen, with only steel shield and iron will keeping their foes from cleaving or crushing their flesh and severing soul from body. Yet, within moments, Thomas sang and held a low, deep tone as he concentrated on channeling the power of the very waters below them. In moments the air chilled to the biting cold of mid-winter and spear-like hail fell from the sky, and those sky-shot spear-like shafts skewered and scattered the barbarian mutants and their infernalist masters alike; the log-bridge shattered, sending the Pale One into the stream below--a fitting fate--and the great hordes fled for the hills, with their masters following.

Yet the White Tower warriors did not pursue, for their had their wounded and slain to attend to and issues practical and proper prevented pursuit. This night there would be singing, but not the joyful exuberance of before. This night they would sing of souls slain and souls sent adrift, of loss profound, of death and the dead; this night, they would sing for the first time not as youths, but as men.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Paladin-Part 14

James, Thomas and the other warriors of the White Tower gasped as they witnessed the beam of golden fire from the direction of their homeland and strike high atop the slope of a still-distant Silvertop Mountain. Quickly they gathered, making no light amongst themselves as they still trailed the now-huge body of barbarian women and children, and took time to marvel at the destruction wrought thither atop the mountain.

"This is it, men." James said, "The Archmage and the Eight Masters just declared war upon the cult and their minions."

Cavil shot James a look of disbelief and irritation, which James noticed and saw through clearly.

"Expect far better opposition, and soon, from the enemy. No doubt that the masters of the cult called for their champions, and even less do I doubt that we shall soon meet them in battle."

"That's not good to hear." Cavil said, "Those villains are strong and experienced in war. Facing them ourselves will mean much pain, even if we win."

This stunned the troupe, as they knew well by now Cavil's regard for might, and all of them knew the tales of their fathers' encounters with the cultists' champions. A generation ago they wreaked havoc upon the nascent nation, and only through persist campaigns and much sacrifice did the People of the White Tower sweep away the cult's mutant minions and seize the lands that are now solidly in the White Tower's hands.

"It's been a long time." Thomas said, "I expect that the few our fathers felled are now replaced with others of similar skill."

The Hamilton Twins murmured, and James now knew that this meant that their minds went to work. A moment later, they spoke in that alternating style, switching off every line: "We are at an advantage; they expect to take us by surprise, even if we correctly see this event as both an attack as well as a sigh to us. With the destruction of so many cultists in this event, that leaves only the barbarians and the cult champions, which severely cuts their resources and options in terms of ambush and control of contact."

Torquil nodded. "Their best assassin will certainly come. If we can't keep him in the open, he will easily slaughter us from behind."

Thomas produced a small book from a shoulder bag, opened it and quickly flipped through its pages. Finding what he sought, he looked up at his comrades: "I have a way to do that. Each of you, hand me your bands."

Without hesitation, the other men took off the bands about their wrists and handed them to Thomas. Sitting, he drew pouches from his belt and went to work invoking a spell upon the pile of bands. Finished, he handed them back to his comrades.

"I've placed a spell on your bands that connects your bands to my amulet as well as to each other. These are now anchors for the next spell I will use, which shall be a detection spell with the outer perimeter being that of the bands and the center being my amulet. Torquil, will you please review the rest of our procedures?"

The wiry scout stepped up. "On command, you shall either pour liquid upon the ground or some form or dirt or dust. Go about yourself first and then toss it as far as you can in the span of a few moments. Come first light tomorrow, and through the day, I expect every man to gather enough sling-sized rocks to fill the palm of his hand; at meals, I expect you to spent time finishing them into caltrops, which you shall also dispense upon command. Finally, strict light discipline must be maintained; fires must be baffled at night and all men shall avoid looking into lights as is possible."

James then let Torquil step back before stepping forward. "Contact should come within a day, maybe two, and our enemies shall not hesitate to use all at hand against us so be alert and mindful."

Distantly, a slim woman stood next to a mutant cat. In her arms she cradled a weapon of the Old World, and through its scope she spied upon the White Tower party. Reading James' lips, she smirked. "Indeed, we shall."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Paladin-Part 13

James led his company of warriors on a steady campaign of raids against the barbarian mutants that so harried the People of the White Tower, and soon the wilderness beyond the People's lands filled with plumes of smoke by day and pillars of fire by night- a sign that brought great joy and celebration back at the base of the White Tower. Yet, ever-cautious and concerned, the Archmage and the Eight Masters looked on with brows heavy with worry. Atop the White Tower, gathered in council, they looked on the signs of their proxies war-making prowess.

"Master, your newest protege seems to be living up to your belief in his quality." one said to the Archmage.

"Indeed." another said, "I confess that my assessment of him was in error. I apologize for my miscalculation."

The Archmage, his eyes focused on the smoking and burning far in the distance, waved both of his former students off, saying "Masters of Enchantment and Transmutation, do not be hasty. True, young James is at present making a mockery of our enemy's sense of security, but I already see the reaction in motion. The enemy's champions answer the call to battle, and soon they shall enact a scheme to ensnare our men. When that happens, then we shall see their true quality."

A third said, "Master, do you see which of their champions heed the call?"

The Archmage nodded. "The sextet I expected."

The Eight Masters closed in and murmured amongst themselves until the Archmage again waived for silence.

"We nine know well what fates may befall these youths." the Archmage said,"It is no use to debate actions when we all know what must be done now. Let it be done."

"Agreed." they said, one by one, and atop the needle-like summit of the White Tower the Archmage and the Eight Masters spread out. Each of the Masters stood at one of the eight cardinal points, while--with seeming lack of effort--the Archmage let the winds buffet him to the very top of the needle-like protrusion. Standing atop it, in perfect balance, the Archmage turned himself such that one eye could gaze towards the setting sun in the west and the other back towards the lands of their mutant enemies.

"Our enemy now feels pressured to act." the Archmage said, his voice now greater than the winds about them, "He must reveal himself to present a threat to our warriors, so now we shall engage him."

The Eight Masters began a long, low and slow hum. Hands outstretched, as if to close a circle, the sounds uttered soon induced a trance that blocked out the world and put their minds wholly on their collective pooling and shaping of arcane forces. Visible lights sparked into existence in the palms of their hands at beneath their feet, and then streams of brilliant, scintillating power beamed forth from hand and foot to put all of the Eight Masters into a double-circle of power.

The Archmage now sounded a high note, and with eyes now turned skyward that note now became a song. The Eight Masters joined that song, each taking a part in a harmony of beautiful and haunting majesty. One and Eight became Soloist and Chorus, and the power flowing about them in the circles now shot toward the center--toward the Archmage--and now as one they harmonize their voices, minds, souls and wills towards the single objective: the removal of their opposite number amongst the barbarians.

Distant from the White Tower, looking down from a hidden place on Silvertop Mountain, is one of the junior masters of the infernalist cult that dominates the mutant barbarian hordes. In the master's company are the most potent mystics and sorcerers amongst the barbarian peoples, and they are also united now in power and will in a ritual working of their own. In a staccato cacophony of sounds that barely manage to stay out of the way of each other, the cultists haphazardly collaborate their individual powers towards the breaching of dimensional barriers that should not be violated.

Immaterial hands grip a violet membrane and tear open a hole, black as night and foul as a charnal house, but nothing other than the presence of a being as ancient as it is evil and powerful comes forth. Then another presence comes forth, no less ancient than the other yet utterly alien to the minds of the cultists, but still nothing seen comes forth.

At that moment, back atop the White Tower, David comes amongst the One and Eight. He passes into the circle without incident, and then--as if he had wings--David ascends to meet the Archmage. Taking the Archmage's hands into one of his own, he holds his hand up to the sky; the power gathered turns from rippling blue-white to a blindingly golden color. David points his free hand now towards Silvertop Mountain, and a beam fires forth.

The master infernalist, en rapport with the potent entities within the black portal, never saw the solar spear coming. It struck as soon as it flashed, obliterating the portal. The power generated, barely held in check, exploded with an unnatural violence typical of practicing infernalism; all of the ritual participants, including the master of the ritual, burned to ash instantly- their souls consumed by the conflagration of infernal fire. Only a single demon, an observer in service to the true master of Silvertop--and the infernalist cult--wasn't annihilated. He fled back to his master's side.

Seeing his master dismissed six of the cult's champions as he approached, this minor demon tread carefully in his approach. Only when the others walked far enough to not overhear did he speak of the situation.

"I see." the demon's master said, "The Old Man's making his move. Endgame it is."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Paladin-Part 12

James led the company deeper into the wilds, following the train of barbarian refugees as they fled from the ruined camp and toward that of another tribal group elsewhere in the area. With Torquil scouting ahead, James and the others avoid contact while they track their quarry.

Meanwhile, far away at Silvertop, a group of high-ranking agents of the infernalist cult gathered at the call of their master. A handful of men and mutants stand about the center of a deep cave at the top of the mountain, some wearing the accoutrements common to spell-casting cultists and some seeming more like warriors or hunters. These six--an obvious magician, a slim masked man, a woman accompanied by a mutant cat, a beastman, a fair armored man and a green-skinned mutant--sat around a dim fire. At last, the master of Silvertop emerged from the recesses of the cave and joined these henchmen at the cave's center. Promptly, the henchmen arose.

"Good, all six of you are here." the master said, "Then I shall dispense with the usual cat-wrangling and get to the point."

With a casual flick of the wrist, a ball of sickly-green flame fell into the space between them and erupted into a fire large enough to illuminate their surroundings.

"The Eight Masters and the Old Man of the White Tower encroach upon our domain." he said, "You saw the plume of smoke rising from the northwest, so you know what that means."

The six henchmen nodded.

"There are a dozen of them." one of them said, "I've encountered them previously, as I attempted to ride past their border fortress."

Another laughed. "Nim, these are the whelps that wrecked your raiding party? That petty wizard and his bodyguard?"

The one called Nim smacked the mocking one upside the back of its head, and the flames revealed that this was one of the mutant beastmen- a tall, armor-clad warrior.

"Quiet you." Nim said, "The objective was to get past the defenders, not to slaughter all resistance."

The others chuckled at Nim's expense, but the master silenced them with a glare.

"The wizard is not to be underestimated, but he is not the most potent threat." the master said, "Neither is the one that hacked and hewed down the warriors of our lost tribe, though he is not to be discounted either. No, the leader is the threat- he's the Old Man's hand-selected protege, and he wears the colors of the elite warriors of the Tower."

A woman amongst them, cradling some weapon of the Old World in her arms, stepped forward.

"I've seen him." she said, "He's got that aura of command that their leaders often possess."

Another man, a slim one wearing a mask, also stepped forward.

"I've talked with our agents within their walls. His father is the one that struck out your eye, master. No doubt that the Old Man's using the son to finish the job. He has his father's stubborn refusal to see reason, and he's said to be able to wield men as well as he wields sword and spear."

The beastman chuckled. "Yet, he is but a man." he said, brandishing a gigantic gore-stained and double-headed battleaxe, "I will crush and smash the son as I did his father, ripping him apart with this very same maul."

The green-skinned, red-eyed mutant laughed heartily. "Not if I bury my axe in his skull first."

Yet another man--fair of face and form, clad in gleaming armor of azure and gold--now stepped forward, resting upon a fanciful large sword half as long as he was tall, and spoke his mind.

"Master, you know this leader's mind?" the fair one said, "Then I also say that I know yours: you mean to set us upon these enemies of ours, lest they raid unanswered and undermine our hold upon these fools."

The master of Silvertop grinned and clapped his hands approvingly.

"Indeed." the master said, "But this shall not be easy. This youth is, as Jaja noted, enjoys the confidence of his men. Nim's previous encounter shows that this company relies on their wizard greatly; he must become the primary target in any encounter, and only after you take the wizard out of the situation must you turn your full attention to this charismatic officer."

"Between the six of us," the masked one said, "we should easily take apart this band of warriors. Being outnumbered two to one means nothing when they're untried youths on against proven champions defending their own domain."

Again, the master grinned.

"This second attempt to wrest control of these lands from us shall meet the same end--the same bloody, horrible end--as the first." the beastman said, "We should call forth the full muster of the horde now, and as the tribes rally we go forth and run these whelps from the White Tower to ground. Once we have them, we can either slay them or bind them for later use as ritual sacrifices."

Everyone pondered the idea, and Jaja was the first to show agreement by nodding her head in approval. Seeing a consensus emerge, the master drew forth a pouch from his robes and handed out small ill-shaped rocks to each of his six henchmen.

"Very well then." the master said, "I have your orders."

The master pointed to the gleeming fair one. "Dezikon, go amongst the tribes and call forth the muster for a horde."

Dezikon the Fair saluted his master and immediately took his leave. The master then turned to the beastman.

"Go forth, Pale One, and bring forth our surprise weapon against our foes. Once ready, go meet Dezikon." the master said, and he followed the Fair One out of the cave.

The master then turned his attention to the remaining four. "Nim, Jaja," he said, pointing first to the masked one and then the mutant, "take Nathan and Red with you. Track them down and drive them towards the others. You are the hammer; they are the anvil. Together, we shall crush them as we did their fathers."

The four of them saluted and departed the cave. Once the master of Silvertop was again alone, he willed his infernal companion back into phaze with the living world.

"Master," the demon said, "there is a concern."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Paladin-Part 11

"You expect Cavil to successfully masquerade as a beastman?" Thomas said, as James fit the now-cleaned and emptied head atop the hot-tempered warrior, and continued "This is a mixture of cunning and trust that I never saw in you before."

James draped the hide of the beastman about his subordinate like a tunic, tying it off with a length of rope. Then he turned to Thomas, and the wizard understood James's mind by his smile.

"Oh ho! You think that some spell of mine can finish the disguise then?"

"Of course he does!" Cavil said, albeit muffled by the skull-come-helm atop his head, "Why else would he order the thing slain, skinned and scooped?"

"Correct." James said as he wrapped Cavil's limbs in the beastman's hairy hide, "This alone is just macabre dressings. We need a bit of magic to make this work, and as I recall these infernalists aren't keen on the more subtle forms of magic."

"You recall correctly." Thomas said, "Am I correct that you intend for this illusion spell to provide the majority of the visual element, while the bits you're using are to handle actual contact?"

James nodded his head, and then went about inspecting Cavil's disguise.

"With your spell, it should work." James said, handing Cavil the slain foe's club, "We let Cavil and Torquil go ahead, leading the way, and then once we're close we prepare for infiltration and then a swift attack. Cavil, already inside, will be able to distract the enemy enough for us to gain the gate and then swiftly take the camp."

Thomas sighed. "Not subtle at all, strategically."

James turned again to Thomas. "No, not at all, because that's not the objective. We know that the infernalists are out there, and that they dominate these barbarians, so by raiding and destroying this camp--and others thereafter--we demonstrate that it is we, and not they, that are most powerful to these barbarians. The infernalists will be forced to come to us to regain face and control, and once we've drawn them out we can put them in turn to the sword. Those that flee we follow back to their lairs, to do this again until we finally reach the master at Silver Top."

Thomas and Cavil both stood there, shocked at the ruthlessness of this strategy.

"You've some fire after all!" Cavil said, approvingly, and Thomas in turn said "No, not fire, Cavil, but iron- no, steel."

"Am I wrong?" James said, "Or do you two not want to destroy, forever, this threat to our people?"

Cavil and Thomas shook their heads, and James smiled. "On with it then!"

Thomas, having taken the time to prepare, placed the spell of illusion over Cavil; he then left the camp, with Torquil shadowing him and the rest of the company some ways behind. This they did for a few days, following winding paths through wilderness and ruins, up and down the hills of the lands once claimed by the civilization that lived here before the Azure Flames scoured the world. Then, as James foresaw, they come to the barbarian camp.

Cavil strides into the camp, not only unchallenged but also with fanfare. Torquil, observing from the treeline, signals for the rest of the company to advance and in ones and twos they do so. Cavil, inside, meets the elders of the tribe and plays his part as best he can.

"Apparently this beastman can't speak their tongue." Cavil notes silently, "I wonder if James realized that before he hit upon this scheme?"

The elders motioned for Cavil to describe his deeds, and Cavil pantomimed his answer; he danced about the inside of the elders' hut, trying to show that he engaged the foes of the tribe and--one by one--rent then asunder with his claws or smashed them into bloody pulps with his gore-stained club. Then Cavil, thinking the elders did not think well of civilized behavior, mimed the devouring of the slain enemies to sate his rage and hunger.

A moment passed. The elders eyed him carefully, and Cavil in turn took quick note of which one to slay first should his true face come through (the scrawny woman seemed most threatening, as the others all seemed to be aged warriors; that she held equal power implied that she possessed supernatural power- and thus had to die first), but instead the elders applauded him.

Cavil followed the elders back outside, where they gathered the tribe together about the central fire. It seemed apparent to him that the elders wanted Cavil to retell the story of his slaughter to all around. Cavil looked about the area; he had his club in hand, and he saw that many of the barbarians left other weapons lying about the central fire- this was a well-trafficked common area. Cavil also noticed that many of these barbarians were drunk, boisterous and already they seemed to regard him as both beast and fool- and disrespect him accordingly. This, Cavil saw, would be their undoing.

With greater exaggeration, Cavil repeated his pantomime of the false slaughter and subsequent devouring of the slain. As he cavorted about the flames, he heard their howling and hearty laughter; they seemed to think that dying at this beastman's claws was a most dishonorable death. He made wide, sweeping motions with his arms as he signaled to the waiting company that he was ready, all without anyone noticing his deception. He made the dance of death into a performance that kept his enemies' eyes on him, and away from the gate; as a hawk dives upon his prey, so did the company fall upon the gate and what clamor arose diffused into the din of drunken droogs within.

The gate taken, James and the others immediately dispersed and set the camp's houses and stores aflame. As they did so, one of the drunken men, so carried away with what rotgut passes for proper drink in this wilderness, got up and grasped Cavil by the shoulder. Without thought, Cavil spun about and punched the doomed drunkard square in the jaw; the crunch didn't hush the crowd, but the fool's fall into the fire did. Instantly, another arose and just as fast Cavil smashed his club into his skull and splattered that man's skull as if it were a ripe melon.

For a moment, Cavil pitied the mutant whose skin he wore, and in that moment pity turned to rage. His blood got up, and a misty haze fell over his eyes; the crowd, now in a panic, scattered at Cavil's righteous roar of rage. A third man attacked him, shattering the club, but Cavil ripped the axe out of that man's hands and threw him through the fire and into the first one- only to be cut down immediately thereafter. Cavil slew a fourth, and then a fifth, before one of the elders attacked him- as expected, the old woman!

James and Thomas saw the bolt of lightning strike Cavil, and despite his berserk state they decided to intervene briefly. Thomas, without thinking, threw a spell at the old woman that dismantled her invisible protections; he quickly followed with the silence spell that crippled Nim previously, and that one-two punch gave Cavil enough time to cleave the cunning crone in half with a single stroke. The company struck at will, cutting down the panicked and disorganized tribesmen without mercy or pause; they drove the men towards Cavil, while letting the women and children flee into the night. Within an hour, the entire camp blazed without end and the men of the tribe all lay dead about an exhausted Cavil's feet.

The Hamilton twins took up Cavil and carried him as James lead the company out of the destroyed camp. Once back into the treeline, Thomas and Torquil stood before James.

"No going back now." Thomas said, "I hope that this plan of yours works, James."

"It will." Torquil said, "I found this on the old woman's corpse."

Torquil produced a crude disc, with the mark of the infernalist cult upon it, kept in a cloth sack. He handed it to Thomas.

"This is similar to what we use, and I expect that it has similar enchantments upon it. Well done, Torquil." Thomas said, and he turned to James.

"We move to shadow the refugees; they will lead us to the next target." James said, "But for now, we need only gain distance from this place. Let's go."

With that, the company of young warriors--having struck their first great blow for the People of the White Tower--retired away from the ruined camp filled with fire and slaughter. The master of Silver Top did not fail to notice this challenge.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paladin-Part 10

Kellion's Hold lay days behind the company, and with it lay all of the lands of the People of the White Tower. Before them are the lands of their enemies, the mutants and barbarians that raid and despoil the fields of the People, and the demon-summoning sorcerers that dominate them. Progress slowed as they took the time to explore these strange lands, time taking in making maps and scribing notes, as James heeded the urge to beware of ambushes or other subterfuge while dealing with the unknown.

The lands became truly wild, untamed and barely showing signs of anything more than the beasts of the field or the birds of the air passing through the loose canopy of the tree-covered hills that housed the barbaric mutant tribes beyond the People's lands. Torquil already found markers signifying the claimed boundaries of one such tribe, and soon other tribal markers and tokens became commonplace encounters as they penetrated further into enemy territory.

A week into enemy territory passed before the company met with resistance. Aware that they'd been watched, James organized the company into going along with a plan meant to draw out their pursuers. Torquil baited the enemy into attacking too soon, and he led the enemy warband back towards James and the others. Thomas enthralled a huge beastman amongst them, while Cavil and James skewered many others with their spears. The other men bloodied the rest of the warband, slaying them without mercy, until only a few remained. These few the men brought down and dragged back, bound hand and foot, before the heaped corpses of their fellow tribesmen.

Cavil gripped one by his scarred, bald head and swung the captive about before James. With a short sword in the other hand, Cavil looked up at his leader. James turned to Thomas, who held forth the talisman carried close to his heart, and nodded. It glowed, and the captive trembled. James then glared at the captive.

"You know who we are, don't you?" James said, "Who sent you, and why?"

The captive hesitated, and Cavil slapped the flat of his blade against the barbarian's shoulder.

"You know what powers my man here wields." James said, indicating Thomas, "He has the means to know if you lie or not. My man behind you is not a kind man; he obeys me, but right now he would rather run you through, for your people slaughtered his kin and he's hot for revenge."

The Hamilton twins, standing beside Thomas, whisper into his ears.

"James," Thomas said, "I think he's been cursed."

James nodded to Cavil, and the brute pulled the captive's head back so that James could look long at the captive's face. He saw the captive's face contorting, trying to speak, but somehow restrained- as if someone seized hold of the man's flesh and worked it like a bizarre puppet.

"The sorcerers, no doubt." Thomas said, "Allow me."

Thomas stepped forward, dropped his voice low and invoked some power in a tongue only he knew, and then he slapped the captive across the mouth with his free hand- a free hand covered in a blue-white aura.

"That should fix him." Thomas said, moving back.

The captive, realizing that the grip on his tongue no longer existed, locked his eyes on Thomas.

"The Brotherhood knows well of the Eight Masters!" he said, "If not for them, your fathers would've already butchered our people and seized our lands. The Six know of your mission, and the One blesses their every action."

Cavil looked over at James, his eyes betraying his desire, but James shook his head.

"I see." James said, "I see quite clearly now."

Thomas, Cavil and the Hamilton twins all looked at each other, confused. James did not acknowledge their bewilderment, but instead waived Torquil over.

"Torquil, report."

"They were a score in total, master." Torquil said, "All young warriors, save for the one slumbering beastman. That thing, and this one, are all that remains of the party now."

"Torquil, relieve Cavil. Cavil, walk with me." James said.

James took Cavil away from the others, and in hushed tones he grasped the hot-blooded brute by the shoulders.

"I have need of your brawn, for I think I see the purpose for them sending warriors equal to ourselves."

"Which is?"

"Another party, distant from here and well-hidden, watched. Their elders knew that these youths would likely fail. The beastman isn't here so much to aid them as to ensure their doom."

"I don't see yet your need."

"How would you like to walk right into this tribe's stead, where you can get at all of them at once, with ease?"

Cavil smirked.

"I thought so. First, we need to get away from those distant watchers. Then, when we're certain, we follow the beastman back. Once he's close, we slay him; Thomas's magic conceals you in its guise, and you enter unchallenged. You keep their eyes on you long enough for Torquil and a few others to take the portal, and then when the attack comes you take on all about you. The confusion will ensure our swift victory- and many of their warriors will be close at hand."

Cavil's smirk heightened to a malicious grin.

"But, there is a catch, and that catch is that you must hold your rage in check- stay your hand until you receive the command. Only then may you unleash your rage upon them."

Cavil glared at James, but relented. "As you command, master."

As Cavil and James walked back to the captive, Thomas looked up from the barbarian and over to James.

"He's talks a lot, but says little." Thomas said, "But, he's confirmed what we thought on the sorcerers."

James looked over to Cavil, who had relieved Torquil.

"Show him our gratitude." James said, and Cavil slew the barbarian in one blow.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Paladin-Part 9

James, Thomas and the others of the company rode into Kellion's Hold after the battle. Men canvassed the killing fields about the hold's walls, some recovering bolts fired by the hold's artillery and others incinerating corpses let they rise up as worse monsters. Inside the hold, men worked the forges and filled up the infirmary; the smell of smoke mixed with that of charred flesh to become an odor most foul, and waiting at the heart of the hold's central tower stood Warlord Scott and Magister Adrian- both of them displeased.

"Warlord Scott," James said as he led the company into the room, "we are here as requested."

The company filled out behind him, falling into rank and file, with Thomas standing behind James- mirroring the stance that Scott and Adrian took. Both of the elder men looked over the youths with a discerning eye.

"The sorcerer is known to us." Adrian said, "He's known as 'Nim', and he's a potent infernalist. Your account shows that he wasn't interested in battle so much as in breaking through to the interior. Thomas, you in particular did very well."

"Thank you, Magister." Thomas said.

Warlord Scott stepped forward, clapping James on the shoulder, and said "As for you and your men, you performed very well- with discipline that I'd not expect from such untested youths. In that encounter, you quickly understood what had to be done and did it. Well done."

"Thank you, Warlord." James said.

Warlord Scott turned around and waved James over to the nearby map table. Pointing to the hold's position on the map, Scott turned to James and again looked him over.

"This is it, young man." Scott said, "Beyond here, you and your men pass beyond what remains of civilization and enter the barbarian wastelands. We know little about the lands beyond; we're charged with holding the line, not launching campaigns into the wilderness. What we do know is that there are several tribes of mutants, tribes that replenish their numbers quickly, and don't fight often amongst themselves due to the common element amongst them."

"The infernalist cult?" James said.

Scott nodded affirmatively. "Nim knows you and your men now. No doubt that, once you're beyond our reach, your real problems will begin. I don't envy your task."

"So, we can expect hostility from this point forward?"

"Indeed, James. Much more hostility, and not just because you're on their turf. The terrain becomes much harder to pass through, as most of it is undeveloped or ruined; the barbarians and mutants don't work the land or do anything else civilized. These tribes aren't much better than animals."

"That must be why the infernalists dominate them so easily."

* * * * *

Magister Adrian led Thomas and the others out of the tower and into a nearby barracks. Detailing a subordinate to see to the men, Adrian then took Thomas up to his private quarters atop the tower.

"The infernalists dominate the mutant tribes through snatching up spawn that aren't likely to match well as adults, but possess cunning and ambition."

"All of them? This 'Nim' doesn't look like one that only a blind idiot could love, sir, and I know of others equally fair of form."

Adrian chuckled, bemused. "Nim is one of the leaders of the cult, he--like me--is part of that generation born before the Azure Flames. The others, by and large, in the leadership are just as old; most are just as fair, or better. The rest are all like those mutants you saw with your eyes."

"Their master is our target." Thomas said, "He's the master of Silvertop, and we're for his location."

"So the Warlord and I hear." Adrian said, "You will find their magics to be horrific in effect, and their capacity to summon demons is infamous amongst us on the frontier; I'd imagine that they would be more dangerous if they got past us."

"I have reason to believe that they have, but so far failed to do more than that, due to circumstances beyond their control- and barely within ours. This cult's been after us since we started expanding outside the citadel walls of the White Tower, and this mission is an attempt to head off a major offensive on their part."

Adrian's face showed his interest. "Go on."

"The Archmage sought this man for years, yet all this time our enemy organized and ran the very barbarians and mutants that we've spent blood and treasure to expel from the lands we now hold and use. We've pushed him and his minions out of the fertile lands about the White Tower, and now he's forced to raid us from the mountains. I'd expect that, if the enemy is at all intelligent, he would foresee this eventuality and plan accordingly."

Adrian nodded, understanding where Thomas went with this logic.

* * * * *

"You think that this is a trap?" Scott said, "What then do you intend to do?"

James smiled. "Go forth, of course."

"This is not a thing to take lightly, youth."

James kept smiling. "I do not make light of this, sir. I fully intend to go forth, but knowing that there is a trap waiting for us shall allow us to avoid it and take initiative from the enemy. Torquil is an excellent scout, and properly channeled Cavil is devastating; the other men are competent and well-ordered, as you noted, so I place full confidence in them come battle."

"And Thomas?"

"I trust him utterly, sir."

Scott saw in James face that this was not all at the youth's disposal, but let it go- he'd been around long enough to know better than to ask. He would learn the full truth soon enough, one way or another, and that was enough.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Paladin-Part 8

On the morning after, the company of young warriors took their leave of Donaldson's garrison and once more struck for the frontier. They passed through the rest of the lands settled by those of the elder generation that, having married, earned their own house; this comes with the duty to contribute economically to the welfare of the People of the Tower as well as see to the security thereof through military or medical service in the nearby citadel.

They passed through other local garrisons, and they celebrated as they did with that of Donaldson's garrison, but without the incidents of that stay. James and Thomas, heeding Torquil's warning, kept the hot-headed and cocky youth busy with chores masked as means to exhibit his might. Many days later, the company arrived at one of the People's frontier fortresses.

This one, closest to Silver Top, is a magnificent work of steel and stone named for the hero that first took command of it and led many missions against the barbarians beyond its reach: Kellion's Hold. Its central tower rises high into the air, allowing a clear view to the White Tower as well as to the other fortresses in the chain along the border. Its walls, tall and thick, celebrated in song as proof against the blows of the behemoths of the hordes beyond as well as the sorcery of those that command them. Its catacombs underneath, though significant in size, are long known as proof against sapping. Forges and furnaces bring warmth to the men within, and boilers use it to power other machines and mechanisms within or upon its walls.

Beholding it, Torquil smiles, awed by the site. "It's one thing to hear stories, or to see from afar, but to be this close!"

"Indeed." one of the Hamilton twins said, and then the other spoke "As that is our next destination, you shall see all soon enough."

Cavil grinned a wicked smile, and said "Finally! The men of the border marches are renown for their courage and prowess, and none moreso than those at these fortresses."

James and Thomas, hearing the chatter, nodded to each other. Each knew that the other found it wise, for now, to let them talk. Then Thomas, drawing forth his disc, caught the sunlight and signaled the great gleaming tower of Kellion's Hold. The tower returned the signal, and then Thomas looked into the disc. He saw the image of the Hold's resident wizard, a man named Adrian, appear.

"Call your men to halt and wait until summoned." Adrian said, "You cannot yet hear it, but we see a raiding party come to try us in force, and we cannot permit you to approach during combat. Warlord Scott demands full attention be put to the battle, as this party comes with one of the sorcerers in the van. You understand."

Thomas nodded his understanding, and then Adrian continued, saying "Watch for parties slipping through. Intercept if you can. Hold out."

James turned to the men and called for a halt. He explained the situation, putting emphasis upon the need to watch for elements attempting to slip past the fortress, as he foresaw--correctly--that this is what would prove acceptable to the men. Forming into a wide formation meant to cover ground while maintaining clear communication, the men road around the area on watch. Hours passed, and the distant din of battle proved that indeed the fight was fierce and savage; the Hold's many pneumatic weapons fired often, and from the walls or tower came spells of varying effects and powers- all of them horrific to the mutant barbarians attempting to storm the fortress. Fire erupted about them, incinerating some and funneling others into smaller units that the garrison could better engage. Cannons launched projectiles into the assaulting horde, projectiles that shattered on impact and released explosive or toxic forces that slew certainly- if not instantly.

As the masters of the Hold expected, this was a ruse. Passing along the far end of the fight were a small group, lead by a fair-seeming man riding a monstrous mockery of a horse. Cavil and Torquil sited them first, and soon the others rallied to their position. Thomas, again using his disc, gazed upon the enemy.

"The leader is one of the sorcerers we've heard so much about." Thomas said, "Those with him are his bodyguard."

Without hesitation, James called the attack and the company rode to intercept. Fast upon the enemy they closed, and as they closed details became clearer to them; James recognized that the sorcerer wore the infamous accouterments of one that traffics with demons, and--seeing that he rode a demonic horse--assumed reasonably that the obvious was fact. Both groups ready bows, and upon entering effective range they fired.

Mounted archery continued with each group exhibiting that, though capable, neither group is particularly proficient at it. Instead, the groups wheeled closer and closer to melee, seeking and avoiding charges in turn, until Thomas--passing the reigns of his horse to James--worked a sympathetic spell that instantly transmuted the ground about the enemy to a thick mud. This risk--a risk proved by the number of arrows James warded with his shield--changed the encounter, forcing contact.

Throwing the reigns back to Thomas, James drew his spear and lead the charge. Just before contact, however, the infernalist made a motion as if cracking a nut and tossed the shell to the ground. The ground before the men exploded, unhorsing them, and before them now appears a massive creature of stone and Hellfire.

"Demon!" Thomas said, as he scrambled to his feat, but before Thomas could cast some spell to contain it he caught the infernalist out of the corner of his eye--hands both aflame--casting a spell at him. Without thought, Thomas shot forth his hand as if striking the infernalist in the throat; his foe staggered as if struck, the flames snuffed out, and gasped for air.

James, now on his feet, interposed himself between Thomas and the demon. The other men rallied around James, and they formed a shield wall about Thomas. The bodyguard, bolstered by the demon's presence, followed the field into engaging the warriors. At the focal point stood James and Cavil, with each giving full attention to the demon; the others held the bodyguard at bay.

Thomas, seizing the initiative, instantly processed in his mind the threats before him and acted. Brilliant power flared about Thomas's hands as he spoke the spell's invocation, sounding much like the bards or skalds of peoples long ago, and made firm in his mind the visualization of the infernalist's transformation into a cow. A few second later, though seeming like years, Thomas released the spell and with a flash of light and a crack of thunder the demon-trafficking sorcerer became a harmless cow.

James and Cavil thrust spears against the stone hide of the demon, and their shields held against the punishing blows, but the heat soon rose to uncomfortable levels. In the moments after putting the sorcerer out of the fight, Thomas turned and unleashed a massive barrage of raw magical force; pouring forth from his outstretched hand, he bore into the demon with a potent beam of brilliant power. Sensing the heart of the demon's form, he drilled through the rock and obliterated it; slain, it collapsed, and soon followed the bodyguard.

Meanwhile, the sorcerer--proving himself not weak of mind--broke the spell holding him. Seeing his escort slaughtered, and not wishing to follow them into death, he drew and broke a slim palm-sized slate; instantly he disappeared, and Thomas guessed that it was a prepared spell sending him back into the wilds.

"I think that we'll see that one again, and soon." Thomas said to James.

James moved about, checking the men for wounds, and nodded his agreement. Meanwhile, riders from Kellion's Hold approached.

"Well done!" the lead rider said, "Warlord Scott and Magister Adrian await your report, and seeing as your horses are calm and--thankfully--unharmed we would have you come back with us immediately."

The company looked to James, and James signaled to mount up. Turning to the riders, he motioned towards the Hold and said "To Kellion's Hold!"

Friday, October 9, 2009

Paladin-Part 7

Torquil thrilled both the men of the garrison as well as his own comrades with his skill at throwing knives, hawks and spears. Slim-bladed knives, balanced for throwing, stick out from the walls and tables of the feasting chamber. Long-hafted spears skewered targets improbable in size. Hawks, small one-handed axes forged and balanced for throwing, buried into walls and tables elsewhere about the chamber with severed ropes, braids and other things below them in heaps great and small alike- all of these demonstrated the young scouts keen eyes, deft hands and explosive throwing arm.

Cavil competed for the accolades offered by engaging in a series of grappling and strength contests. He wrestled with several men, either in full grappling contests on the floor of the hall or in simple arm-strength contests at various tables. These, in turn, endeared him to several such men of the garrison—men who knew his father, a similarly-empowered man—and so began an evening’s discourse on affairs current and pending.

As the elder men of the garrison expected, the younger warriors of the company asked of them what news there was of this region of the realm- and what stalked it. The men, many of which lived nearby on farms as settlers, told the youths of raids by bands of beasts led by their mutant masters. They told of witches and sorcerers wield powers both like and unlike those of the wizards of the White Tower, and of supernatural creatures held in thrall to them. This and more turned the mood from joyful to tense, as the tales told by the men of the land resembled much the stories that the boys’ families told to them as children or by their elders while in training.

Naturally, the youths responded as they did then: with queries and challenges.

Grateful for their own chance to show their mettle, the men gladly answered all questions as best they could. The mutants and beasts, though sometimes tough-skinned like hard leather, cut and bled like men when pierced by steel and struck by stone. Those wielding magic sometimes proofed their bodies against iron, steel and stone; for that, the men called upon one of the Tower to fight magic with magic- and when not available, used cunning to undo these foes instead. As for the demons and others summoned from beyond and bound to the wills of their summoners, those encounters are—to date—rare and often led to encounters requiring the attention of the Tower.

Cavil challenged the men most, questioning their decisions and pressing for answers to their motivations. “You saw this party of a dozen raiders riding openly across the plain, yet you did not stand forth and confront them?” he said at one time.

One of those men would take up the challenge as a man of some age and perspective would: “And make a widow of my wife, or leave my children without a father, without need? Young Cavil, you are hot for glory, as too many men are at your age, so you know not the value of life- you would toss it aside casually, like Torquil tosses knives. True, I withdrew, for the enemy had superior power before us and we served no purpose in dying so foolishly. Better to pull away, to regroup and come again- this time as the superior power, and then smash the raiders utterly.”

Torquil turned to Cavil, and saw in the latter’s eyes that indeed he did not value life- for in Cavil’s eyes Torquil saw only utter contempt for the elder man’s discretion and consideration.

“If not for the pacification of the land here,” Cavil said, whispering, “I would think these men both liars and cowards; as it is, I think them merely cowards and fools.”

Torquil looked over to the Hamilton twins and nodded them over. “Cavil’s temper burns short, friends.” he said, “Quickly, draw him outside before he brings shame to us.”

The twins agreed, and one ran outside the hall for a moment. Torquil kept an eye on Cavil, wary of an untimely outburst, when the other went to the hall’s entrance and talked with his brother. Then, approaching, he whispered into Torquil’s ear.
Torquil turned to Cavil and passed the message to him, whispering “Cavil, the twins require your aid. A horse seems upset, and they need you to hold him steady as they calm him.”

The hot-headed warrior grumbled, but relented and followed the twin outside. As told, he heard a horse panicking in the stable, and as told he did as bidden. Inside, Torquil quickly assured those inside that Cavil’s taking care of an errand suitable to his strengths, literally, and all suspicion subsided.

The night wound down soon, with the garrison men leaving to take up watches or—for those finished with their regular obligation—leaving the tower for their homes nearby. Some other men, living likewise, arrived to replace those leaving; this cycling of men on and off duty was now a common site to the young war band, and some of them now realized that they too would come into such arrangements some few years into the future.

But Cavil still thought poorly of these men, and those like them, for they did not seek out the enemies of the People of the Tower. They did not seek to strike these monsters in their lairs and exterminate them utterly; Cavil found their protests, while understandable, to be signs of weakness- and Cavil spat at weakness.

The feast, and the evening, ended with men finding their sleeping spaces or assuming watch positions. The young warriors of the company slept in the hall proper, and Cavil came to join them. Still steaming, Cavil made himself a suitable space on the floor, but did not lay down; sitting, he looked at his comrades, and then spoke.

“If this is what we have to look forward to, then it would be better to die in battle now—while free and unfettered by women and children—because it seems that marriage and children make men into weaklings that fear death.”

“Yet,” Torquil said, “is it not those very things that made our lives possible?”
Cavil shot forth an angry glare at the scout. “I am not surprised to see a scout find their behavior sympathetic, for do you not also skulk about and avoid facing our enemies as true men do- openly and directly?”

“I do.” Torquil said, “As does my father. We have our duties, which is to seek out the enemy and keep him within our view once found. It is yours to smite them, but without us you not eyes to see or ears to hear- you are blind and dumb, and that makes all your steel and strength useless, which makes you weak as a baby.”

Cavil stood instantly, his temper burned short at the barb—despite its truth—and moved to seize the scout, but Torquil—knowing what he’s doing—avoided his grasp.

“So quick to fight! So eager for blood and glory that you’d quarrel with a comrade! Your name is as we’ve heard, indeed!”

Again the attempt to grapple, and again avoided, Torquil sensed his advantage. “It’s no surprise anymore as to why James, and not you, lead this band of warriors. You charge like a mad bull, headless and senseless, thinking that might and steel will see you through. You may win fights, but never a war, and neither a mission. You’re too weak to be the leader you think yourself entitled to be!”

Then Torquil laughed, and this further insensed Cavil- who charged him, exactly as a bull would, and exactly as the Matadors of old would Torquil dodged Cavil. Taunting him further, Torquil jabbed him with the pommel of a knife as he passed and tripped him- causing Cavil to crash headlong into the far wall.

Instantly, Torquil leapt upon Cavil, with a rag in hand. Cupping Cavil’s mouth, he forced the bull-headed man to breathe in the salve upon the rag. Moments later, Cavil slumped down and fell into a deep sleep.

The others, astounded at the speed of it all, looked up at Torquil. The Hamilton twins approached, shaking his hand.

“James and Thomas should be told.” Torquil said, “This will complicate things if not dealt with immediately. It’s quite clear that Cavil’s weak mind will prove to be a liability to our cause if the enemy gets a sense of how easy it is to play on his lust for glory and bait him into combat.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Paladin-Part 6

“Regarding that aid,” Thomas said, “what do you mean?”

Mentat went around the desk and arranged the papers and journal such that all of them faced James and Thomas. Taking a pen in hand as a pointer, he quickly shot a glance at James and Thomas to confirm their attention, then pointed at a map.
“We are here, some distance from the center.” Mentat said, still unspeaking, and then he pointed to a mountain on that map, “This is where you two and your men intend to go.”

Mentat then gestured at the distance between the two points, which James and Thomas saw as being on differing sides of the line on the map marking where the exterior walls ran around the pacified lands. Then, flipping the pages of Donaldson’s log book, Mentat pointed at pictures of several grotesque figures—some humanoid, some vaguely beast-like, some utterly alien—and again looked at the two young men before him.

“These are your enemies.” he said, “Most of them are those that survived the Azure Flames, but not unscathed. The flames changed them, burned them, and mutated them, twisting their forms to match the foulness of their souls. They hate us—Thomas, I know you have spells that can perceive their evil—and seek to butcher the men and take the women off to use as breeders for their spawn.”

Mentat paused, but as no questions came, he continued.

“Most are simple brutes, bloody-minded and—at worst—using cunning in lie of actual intellect or knowledge. A few of them possess command over the elements to some degree, casting fires or other powers as if they were true wizards, and others command other powers through pacts with yet greater monsters.”

“I would think that our enemies command by fear and violence.” Thomas said, “This seems to be a society based upon chains of dominance, an order built upon fear and hatred.”

Mentat nodded, affirming Thomas’s statement.

“Yet they raid, not invade.” James said, “This suggests that they lack the means to do so at this time, or they are unaware of our capabilities, and use these raids to probe our defenses. That, in turn, suggests an intelligent master atop your hierarchy, Tom.”

Mentat smiled, then affirmed James’s statement in turn.

“Your mission, I see,” Mentat said, unspeaking still, “is to kill that master. Yes, I see it clearly now. You travel to Silvertop Mountain to find and slay the mastermind. So, the old man finally found him at last!”

The youths’ faces showed their confusion.

“He—the Archmage always said it was a man—was known to us for a long time. That he’s sent you youths, and not the old veterans, suggests to me that there is more to his intent than to just hack down this villain.”

Donaldson, sobbing, tried to speak but Mentat cupped his mouth with a free hand and silenced him.

“You can’t fight the brand, Donaldson, so don’t talk.” Mentat said, “Let me do it for you.”

Mentat stood silent a moment. Donaldson exhaled, as if expelling a deep breath, and then collapsed to the floor, overcome by fatigue.

“He’s asleep now.” Mentat said, “I have what he wanted to say, and as one that has overcome the Ban, I can speak freely.”

“The Ban?” James said.

“All of those judged capable of remembering the way things were before the Azure Flames, by order of the Archmage, fell under a great curse forbidding them from ever talking about it—outside of what the Archmage specifically allowed—to those not present then and there. This is ‘The Ban’, and it is what keeps your parents from telling you the truth of what life was like before the Azure Flames scoured the world.”

“Amongst other things, I assume.” Thomas said.

“Correct.” Mentat said, unspeaking, as he brought forth a strange map written in a language unknown to them. This map seemed written by artifice, not by hand, and concerned itself more with roads and other pathways than features such as rivers or lakes.

“This is a road map of what this part of the world looked like before the Azure Flames.” Mentat said, unspeaking, “While much of what’s written here is now ruined or reduced to ash, or buried under ash, some remain- and I know that enough of these things remain between here and there to guide you once beyond our borders.”

James realized what he beheld, a relic of his parents’ world, and marveled; the degree of detail, contrasted with the distress of age and the casual attitude towards it by Mentat, implied that this was a map made in mass quantities before the Flames- and not meant to endure as long as it had.

“Your target has such a map. Count on it.” Mentat said.

Mentat then traced out a route, both on the aging road map and on the hand-drawn map amongst the papers on the table. He then marked on the drawn map notations of what to expect at this or that location.

“What are these?” James asked.

“Places where you may find aid beyond the walls.” Mentat said, “I am not the only one of my kind. Others, dissatisfied with the rule of the Masters, came out over time; these are all possessed of talents similar to my own, and they are now like me. I taught them how to use the talents that they possessed, and we now exist in the shadow of the White Tower, seeking those like us while safeguarding the community that spawned us- even if the Masters disapprove of our existence.”

“I do not under-“ Thomas said, but James cut him off.

“That is sufficient explanation for now, Tom.” James said, “We have more pressing matters before us.”

Mentat smiled, again impressed at James’s sense of judgement.

“You have brethren in the wilderness then?” James said.

Mentat nodded. “Some alone, some with others, some concealed amongst our foes as spies, and some engaged in harrying them to slow down their plans—whatever they are—and buy time for the Masters.”

“How shall we be able to call upon them?”

Just then, James felt as if he’d been pricked by a needle.

“I’ve marked you, and Thomas, with a signature in your minds that my brethren will recognize. Infinitesimally small, and only those with the means, the desire and the skill will ever find it outside my own circle.”

“You seem rather trusting for one wronged by the Masters, Mentat.” Thomas said, “Why trust me?”

“I see now why he sent you fresh youths on this task. You lack a quality that we that remember the world before the Flames possess; one that he thinks will prove beneficial in completing this task.”

“Which is?”

“The taint of the world that the Flames burned away with its cleansing fire, Thomas- that is what you lack, and I believe that the Archmage thinks that this purity will see you to victory.”

Thomas, still not understanding, again tried to press for details, and again James stopped him.

“Save it for another time, Tom.” James said, “For now, that’s enough.”

James then turned his attention again to Mentat.

“What do you suspect of our enemies’ intentions towards us?”

Mentat paused a moment, and then he caused to appear in miniature an illusion of the lands of the White Tower being overrun by the mutant hordes beyond. They butchered the men, slaughtered those too old to toil, burned the fields, demolished the walls and homes, wrecked the Iron Men, cast down the White Tower and carried away the women and children in chains to fates worse than death. In its place arose a crude, rag-like banner with an array of barbaric squiggles mimicking the symbols of civilized men.

“I appreciate the simple and straightforward nature of this design.” James said, “They hate us, so they seek to slaughter us, take our land and make slaves of our women and children.”

Mentat changed the focus of the scene. Before the assembled hordes stood a deformed, but otherwise recognizably human, figure that once was a man of great stature.

“This is the mastermind.” Thomas said, “The one we’re to seek and destroy.”

“The one, without whom, we can easily divide these monsters against each other and then conquer the rest.” James said, “As our fathers did before us.”

Mentat again smiled, satisfied with himself, and he let the illusion continue. Behind the deformed man stood an array of apparently normal men, and a woman who obvious seemed to be a mistress or consort—all too perfect to be truly human, and all exuding a malevolence that seemed otherworldly—and these seemed familiar to the deformed man.

“Demons.” James said, “One of them is either the one he’s struck a pact with, or an agent of that one. The rest of servants of that master, including the she-demon.”
“Very astute.” Mentat said, “Now, consider the implications.”

James and Thomas paused, thinking, before James again spoke.

“We represent a threat to their very existence, their reason for being, and not merely some design for carving out a kingdom at our expense.”

Thomas hastened to add, “If they succeeded, they could begin breeding an army of demon-spawned warriors immediately, and then spread like a plague across this ruined world to establish a demonic empire.”

“Mentat, I need Donaldson to recover completely by morning.” James said, “He needs to supply us not merely with provisions, but to send word ahead to our next stop. As for our men, would you be willing to covertly assist Thomas is expressing this same knowledge to them? Thomas, I need you to play at casting the illusion; they will accept it without question if you bring it to them.”

Wordlessly, Mentat and Thomas agreed to his commands.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paladin-Part 5

James looked over to Thomas, who nodded in reply.

“Go on.” James said, skeptical, “We’re listening.”

Mentat turned his gaze to Thomas, still holding the talisman against him.

“Boy, what do you know of magic?” Mentat said.

“It is a discipline, suitable to any man with the mind for study and the will for practice.” Thomas said, “The Masters assess the boys early and select them as students, training them for a time equal to the warriors and scouts, then initiating them into their brotherhood.”

Mentat smiled. “That is exactly the answer that I expected.”

“Am I wrong?”

“Not in respect to what you learned. The magic that the Eight Masters practice is as you say, because I know first-hand that what you said is true. What you are wrong about is that not all students become students because they have the intellectual muscle for it.”

Donaldson glared at Mentat, half-incensed and half-imploring, to shut up- and Mentat, seeing it, smirked widely.

“James, mind Donaldson there, and see his reaction. That should guide you in deciding the veracity of what I speak.” Mentat said, briefing looking over at James, "Thomas, some of those selected as students are not selected because they have the qualities that the Masters desire, but because of another quality—one that cannot be taught, but instead is inherent in one’s being—that opens another form of magic to those that possess this quality.”

“What trait is this?”

Mentat stared at Thomas. Without speaking, Thomas and James heard his voice say “This trait, boy, is what they seek but never reveal to the people at large. The power of the awakened mind is what they seek, and they seek it because it cannot be taught!”

Donaldson’s face turned white, all color flushed from it. James took note of this, and Mentat—now present in James’s mind—did also.

“See now, James? Donaldson here knows. You see, he was there when the event that made me what I am now occurred. Donaldson, show the boys your marks.”

Unwilling, yet compelled, Donaldson rolled up the sleeve of his tunic and revealed the mark of the White Tower on his shoulder.

“Once, Donaldson was part of the Company of the White Tower. Years ago, before you two were so much as a thought in your fathers’ eyes, the Archmage and the Eight Masters did a great working of magic. Encouraged by David, the nine of them attempted a ritual from a long-lost grimoire, with the Archmage as both focus and recipient of the ritual’s magic. It worked, and the Archmage transcended mortal flesh.”

Both Thomas and James recoiled at the thought, but again Mentat reacted faster than they did.

“The Archmage—and, soon thereafter, the Eight Masters—transformed into entities that, as I heard David say, ‘…was the Word made Flesh.’ Their command of knowledge and language prepared them for transcending into a state of being wherein that body of lore is now literally their body. Once they acclimated to their new forms, the nine of them began making more such beings out of their most favored students.”

“I recall now that the Archmage still spoke well of you, when speaking of former students.” James said.

“Though puzzling, and often the source of strange happenings.” Thomas said, adding details, “The Archmage said that he still cannot deduce what induced you to turn against the People.”

Mentat smirked, but his mouth remained silent; instead, he spoke again mind-to-mind, saying “I was one of them, a favorite of the Archmage, a student from before the Azure Flames- but only just before. I went to him to seek help with my own burgeoning talents, unaware of what they were at the time, and I did as bidden in return for his tutelage.”

“Then what happened break?” Thomas said, “What caused you to leave?”

“I attained the mastery of knowledge and strength of will desired, despite all that went wrong, and proved my worth to the Masters. Other students valued my insights into the hearts and minds of others, as it came easy to me; this is why the Archmage kept me close, urging me to focus on my abilities as a Seer. When they deemed me ready, they invited me to a second—and greater—initiation rite; they intended to transform me as they did themselves.”

James, perceiving the connection, leapt to it: “It went wrong, did it?”

“Perceptive! Good, James. That is correct.” Mentat thought, “When the ritual reached its climax, the expected phenomenon did not occur; there should have been a cacophony of voices, gradually harmonizing into a single chorus, signifying that the transformation finished its process. Instead, what happened was that I discorporated entirely for a moment as a flood of thoughts and memories deluged the ritual chamber; gradually a pool of ectoplasm formed in the center of the ritual circle, and as it reshaped into my new form the massive mental flood receded. Once I returned to my senses, I found that I was not human anymore either- but not as they were.”

“You fled because they reacted badly?” Thomas said.

“The Masters of Necromancy and the Elements immediately attempted to kill me, casting terrible spells of death and destruction at me. I reflexively warding off the power of their spells, but it drained me greatly, and seeing the confusion erupt at the explosions about us I took flight and did not stop fleeing until I collapsed.”
Donaldson sank his head, unable to speak and now unable to stop Mentat from revealing the truth.

“Donaldson got the order to track me down. He and others from the Company of the Tower followed my path of escape, with some of the other students of the Masters aiding them. I knew that they would find me in time, so I decided to hide long enough to figure what powers I now had at my command. I retained all of my knowledge of magic, and I learned soon that I could still use it, but the ritual of transcendence interacted with my innate mental talents to create this new form. In this new form, my innate talents magnified in potency and variety.”

That last bit caught the attention of Thomas and James. At that moment, the bonds holding Mentat slipped and the talisman before him stopped glowing altogether.

“My time with the Archmage left me with an appreciation for foreknowledge, boys. I knew that you travelled this way, and I know why you journey so far. I am here not to stop you, but to aide you, because your elders did not tell you all that you need to know.”

To their credit, neither James nor Thomas lost their cool.

“That tangent aside, let me finish this tale.” Mentat said, without speaking, as he rose to his feat, “I foresaw their approach. I divided the party into smaller units using diversions and playing the stronger wills against one another. I harmed few, and slew none, knowing full well that only Donaldson knew the truth.”
Mentat turned his gaze to Donaldson.

“Donaldson I did harm, and I harmed him by humiliating him in single combat before the rest of his then-exhausted hunting party as a display of power and a declaration of autonomy. As a result of that, the Masters expelled him from the Tower and from the center of society, exiling him into the countryside as commander of this or that garrison under the guise of being a trouble-shooter.”

James and Thomas now looked at Donaldson, seeing through his mask of veteran confidence to behold the broken man beneath it.

“Now, soon after we are done here, I shall ensure that word of this encounter reaches the necessary ears; you two shall be safe, for now, as I suspect the Archmage’s designs for you are not meant to keep you ignorant forever, but Donaldson here shall not be seen again- he’s going to disappear to wherever those that displease the Masters go.”

James stood up, walked over to Donaldson, picked up the older man’s chin and dried the tears now running down his cheeks.

“I blame you not.” James said, “You did your duty. It is clear to me that Mentat could have killed you, but chose mercy instead of vengeance.”

“Are you certain that we’ve been told the truth, James?” Thomas said.
James nodded. “As Mentat said, Donaldson’s reactions revealed the truth, and this is the face of a deeply ashamed man horrified by the revelation of a terrible secret. What fault lies here is beyond our power to rectify, for now, Thomas.”

“James,” Mentat said, without saying, “Donaldson once was much like your man Cavil, albeit more charming, and sought the Masters’ favor in the pursuit of his own ambitions. If he is to be forgiven, let it be for his own sins and not those of others.”

“That’s who he was, Mentat, not who he is now. You’ve seen him up close for some time, have you not? Being exiled for so long, yet succeeding in his positions, means that he’s changed somehow.”

Mentat paused, taken aback, and then smiled widely.

“Now I see the Archmage’s intention.” Mentat said, without saying, “I was right to decide on aiding you. You’re the man he spent over a century waiting for, James.”