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.