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.