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.