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Thread: That Merciless Blade - Legends of the Arctic Wolf

  1. #1
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Talking That Merciless Blade - Legends of the Arctic Wolf

    Hi gents,

    Since this is one of the forums that I frequent the most often, and since so many of you are like (really extended) family (whom I never meet and only know about) to me, I thought I would post this here. This is a work-in-progress for me; I've been working on it for a couple of months now, and it's spanned multiple chapters, up to a total of 83,000 words and 15 chapters as of this writing. The title, 'That Merciless Blade - Legends of the Arctic Wolf' is somewhat tentative. The story itself is a mixture of (high) fantasy, with a decent injection of Chinese Wuxia-styled and themed fighting at parts (Wuxia readers WILL recognize them).

    I will, of course, greatly appreciate all comments; I will probably post new chapters at the rate of one per week. Thanks again! Much love,

    Your friendly neighborhood tyrant, the distinguished gentleman of Star Absorption,

    RWX
    Last edited by Ren Wo Xing; 12-21-07 at 07:27 PM.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

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    Prologue: A Peal of Thunder, a Storm of Rain

    Radavast smelled blood.

    Not because the golden-haired swordsman had an unusually good sense of smell, although he did.

    Because it could be seen splattered everywhere, as he and his companion made their way deeper into the dark forest surrounding Lake Cancer, following the sanguine trail left behind by the man he had been hunting for so many weeks, now.

    “We’re going to catch him, sir,” the young soldier by his side said. His voice betrayed a mixture of fear, certainty, and anticipation.

    Radavast spared him a glance. The young man by his side was a head shorter than him, and not nearly as densely compact…but then again, Radavast himself was taller than almost any man he had met, and more strongly built as well.

    A bitter smile flicked across his face, as he turned his attention back to the trail. Height and size alone weren’t necessarily the only things that made a difference, to a swordsman. His target had taught him that, so long ago.

    Dark clouds had gathered across the sky hours ago, blotting out the light of the sun, turning the already dark forest landscape into woods filled with shadows. But, as Radavast mused silently, it wasn’t dark enough for him to lose the trail. And even if it was, well…the smell of blood would’ve kept him on the right track, still.

    He looked up towards the darkened skies, and hurried his steps nonetheless as dry twigs and brambles, occasionally marked with crimson droplets, crackled beneath his feet. A rainstorm would wash away all traces of their quarry if he let it settle before he got close enough.

    “We’ll get him for sure,” the young soldier said again, huffing ever so slightly at the increased pace. Radavast spared him a second glance. So young, he thought again, and once more that bitter smile, the only smile he was capable of, now, flickered across his face. Only a few years younger than himself, he thought, but it felt like the difference was measured in decades.

    He nodded in response. “Aye. We will.” A faint, distant amusement flared in the back of his mind for a brief moment as the kid seemed to flush with pride that the famous Radavast was speaking to him. Radavast Arcturos, the legend of the San’tamak academy. Radavast, the Azure Prince. Radavast, the Sword Saint. Radavast, the Southern Tiger.

    The flicker of amusement died away, as the last of the many sobriquets led him to think of another person. Another nickname, which used to be called out in tandem with his. His former friend. His current quarry. Matheius, the Arctic Wolf.

    “Sir!” His head snapped up as he cursed himself for letting his mind wander. He’d die if he let that happen, today.

    Up ahead, he saw a member of the advance squadron which had first alerted him to Matheius’ presence in this wood waving towards him. He nodded to the boy at his side, and they altered their course accordingly.

    They were getting closer to the heart of the forest, and as the two jogged towards the wooden outpost, the branches under their feet slowly turned into spongy moss and wet dirt.

    The outpost, he noted absent-mindedly, had seen better days. Jungle creepers had crawled up one side, and forest rot had set in on more than a few wooden planks of the crude palisade built around the watchtower that served as both lookout post and barracks for the men stationed there.

    Still. It never was easy maintaining an outpost in a wet, jungle-like forest, and besides. He had more important things to take care of. “Where is he,” he asked the guard, who had snapped to a salute. Then, noting the lack of others, he also asked, “And where is the rest of the garrison?”

    “Guardsman Trevor, my lord! Captain Bask took the rest of the men after him to make sure he wouldn’t get away, and to follow his trail. He headed out about two hours ago, and ordered me to stay here to await you, my lord.”

    Two hours ago. Matheius could be leagues away, by now! Both Radavast and his old friend could move like the wind, when they wanted. But Matheius was injured, still bleeding from that evidently unhealed wound that Radavast had given him a few days back, when he had almost caught him near the White Cliffs. And if the small contingent of guards could delay him for even a few moments…

    He nodded, decision made. “Let’s go. Both of you, come with me.” Normally, he would’ve asked the guardsman to lead the way, but the path that the captain and his eight men had taken was more than obvious. It was in a straight line, headed directly towards the lake, just as the bloody trail which he had followed earlier had been.

    Idly, as he led the other two men down the path that the captain had taken, he wondered why Matheius seemed so determined to make it to the lake. But then, he shook his head. It didn’t matter. He would find Matheius, and he would kill him. He could afford no distractions and idle musings, now. Else, he might be the one to die.

    He found the corpse of the first guard ten minutes later. The two men by his side, both the veteran guard and the young soldier, seemed to be surprised.

    Radavast wasn’t. He fully expected the entire contingent to be dead, by the time he found them all. The only real question in his mind, as he dropped to his knees and examined the body, was how long they could at least delay the blademaster.

    What he saw heartened him. Matheius was tiring. That single slash through the jugular was ragged, despite its perfect accuracy. Once, there was a story of how Matheius had decapitated a man with a single blow so perfect and fine, blood didn’t even begin to flow until the man tried to move, and his head fell off. It was a true story as well. Radavast had been there.

    He rose to his feet, paying the dead man no more mind, for now. It was the living which concerned him. He nodded at the two men, pretending not to notice the pain on the guardsman’s face, or the nausea on the young soldier’s. “Let’s continue.” The rest of them couldn’t be far, he thought to himself.

    And they weren’t. He found the rest of the bodies only another ten minutes away, towards the edge of the jungle-like terrain. Each person, he noted with a distant satisfaction, seemed to have been a more difficult kill for Matheius than the previous. Every cut, every slash, was more jagged, less clean than the previous, and on the captain’s body, there were no less than four separate arcs cut across his flesh.

    A far cry from the normal performance of the man nicknamed by some as “One-Cut.” Still. Matheius was still deadly, there was no question about that. It was only by the exacting standards of these two men, that he was weakened.

    From here forward, Matheius’ path was more than obvious. A light rain had settled down on this area some time ago, softening and wetting the ground enough for footprints to be left behind easily. Ignoring the bodies, Radavast knelt down to inspect one of the bloody footprints which continued to lead towards the small lake in the midst of the forest.

    The footprints were deep, having sunk almost a full inch into the ground, and they were uneven. Near each set of footsteps, was a deep gouge in the earth. He smiled a mirthless smile, and stood up. Matheius was relying on his sword to keep himself walking.

    Not far, now, old friend. He murmured to himself. You won’t make it far, now.

    The sound of retching caused him to turn around. The young soldier was kneeling on the floor, finally overcome by the brutality of the scene, the old guardsman by his side and patting his back sympathetically.

    Radavast said nothing. Saying anything at all would only further the soldier’s undoubted feeling of humiliation. He simply leaned against the tree, and waited. He could afford to wait. His prey was going nowhere.

    Long moments passed, and finally, the retching sounds came to an end. Slowly, unsteadily, the boy rose to his feet, helped by the guardsman, and wiped away the last vestiges of vomit from his lips. “Sorry, my lord,” he rasped out. “I’m ready to continue, now.”

    Radavast nodded, then shook his head as he turned towards the tracks. “These men need to have a proper burial. You and guardsman Trevor will collect the bodies, then take them to the nearest garrison.” There was no need for both of them to die as well, and in a fight against Matheius, even weakened as he was, they would be worse than useless.

    “But my lord! What about you?” Radavast glanced at the soldier. His smile was empty and void of humor. Instead of answering, he asked, “What is your name, soldier?”

    The young man blinked. “Ah, Portien, my lord.” “Portien.” Radavast nodded. Now he knew the man’s name, at least. He would reward him once he returned. “Follow my orders, then, Portien.” “Yes, my lord,” the young man whispered as he saluted, followed by the guardsman.

    Without a backwards look, Radavast headed deeper still in the forest, to the lake. He didn’t want to let Matheius bleed to death before he could kill him, personally.

    Above his head, the storm clouds which had been gathering all day, finally let loose. The darkness above began to disgorge rainwater from its copious bowels. Thunder and lightning chased each other across the sky, as the rain began to beat down upon all the surroundings. The wind, too, began to howl, tearing through the forest and shaking the branches of the trees, causing a tempest of leaves to swirl through the air, as though dancing with the rain.

    It did not take long at all for Radavast to find Matheius. The latter was only a league away from where the last of the corpses had been left. The grimy, blood encrusted man had come to a rest on a large, flat boulder at the very edge of the lake. He held his raven-haired head in his arms, bowed down, as the rain poured down on top of him.

    His wondrous cuirass, made of links of flowing truesilver, had been lost somewhere. It was a gift from Radavast’s father, many years ago. His clothes, once fine, were ripped and torn into shreds which barely covered his body. Blade and dagger wounds, gleaming red with fresh blood, were evident across his body.

    Radavast noticed all of these things. For a brief moment, he felt a vague sense of pity for the man before him, but that pity faded away before it even had a chance to form. Matheius didn’t deserve his pity.

    The Arctic Wolf raised his head at Radavast’s approach. Dead blue eyes saw him, weighed him, dismissed him as inconsequential. The eyes and head both lowered again.

    “Go away.”

    The only words that Matheius said.

    Radavast felt his lips, his teeth, bare into a grin, although he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t feel like smiling. “After I kill you, Matheius. I will.”

    In a single, blurring movement, Radavast drew forth his sword. Cryzalis. It, too, was a gift from Radavast’s father, Warduke Arakan Arcturos. It was of an ancient, unknown make, and was famous for emitting a soft, blue glow from its blade. It was that blade, that glow, which had caused Radavast to be given the sobriquet of Azure Prince.

    But there was nothing soft, nothing gentle about the light which shone from Cryzalis now. The blue radiance was hard, edged, and pulsed with an angry aura. Reflecting, perhaps, the killing intent of its owner.

    “Draw your weapon,” he said, tightly. “Draw it.”

    Matheius didn’t pay attention to him.

    A shimmering blue blur. A new, fresh cut on Matheius’ shoulder.

    “Draw it,” Radavast repeated himself. “Draw it now.”

    Seeing no response, still, from his quarry, Cryzalis flashed again, and again, and again. More lines of red blood flew in the air, as in six seconds, twelve perfectly symmetrical cuts appeared on Matheius’ shoulders, arms, and torso.

    Finally, Matheius reacted, as he lifted his head up to look at Radavast once more. The eyes remained as dead as ever, but the right side of his face curved up slightly, in an small, but unmistakable smirk. As if to say, “Is that all?”

    Rage boiled through Radavast’s veins. With a single movement, he slammed his now-blooded sword back in its scabbard, then reached out, dragging the smaller, slender man off the boulder.

    Radavast lifted Matheius’ bloodied, battered form in the air, thick hands around his former friend’s throat. “Tell me…” Radavast muttered through clenched teeth, angry gray eyes locked on Matheius’ listless blue ones. “Tell me yourself!” He demanded again. “Tell me yourself. Did you kill my sister? I want to hear you admit it from your own mouth!”

    He was half demanding, half pleading. Even now, after everything, he wanted, he hoped beyond hope, for an explanation that would make sense. Something. Anything.

    A peal of thunder, followed shortly by a flash of lightning that lit the raining sky. A mixture of blood, sweat, rain, and perhaps tears flowed down the faces of both men.

    Ever so slowly, those dull, tired eyes of Matheius raised themselves to gaze back at Radavast. He wasn’t smiling anymore. For a long moment, Matheius was silent, barely making a sound despite the terrible wounds he had taken. The only sound that could be heard was the sound of the rain, and Radavast’s labored, agitated breathing.

    “Yeah.”

    Hands still around Matheius’ throat, Radavast froze. Another shard of thunder and lightning split the sky, illuminating their faces. Matheius’ was as dull and uncaring as it ever had been, but on the look of Radavast was a look of the purest shock.

    Another moment’s pause.

    “What?” The word came out, as soft as a whisper, barely discernable in the midst of the wind and the rain.

    “I said yeah.” Matheius’ face remained listless. “Didn’t you hear me the first time?”

    The grip of Radavast around Matheius’ neck slackened, then disappeared altogether, as he released his old friend. Matheius dropped to the ground in a heap. Radavast seemed to pay him no mind as, slowly, the raven-haired swordsman stood up.

    He was stunned, and stunned at the fact that he was at all surprised. All of the evidence had pointed towards it. Matheius’ knife. His fleeing. The defection. Why, then, did it surprise him and hurt him so badly?

    This question, and more, slowly trickled through his mind as the two former friends simply stood there in the rain, staring at each other.

    Time passed. Finally, Radavast quietly said, “I never really believed it. Not fully. Not completely. Even with all the signs pointing towards you, even after what you did, I wouldn’t believe it.”

    Another bolt of thunder punctuated his words. The storm was growing, as the branches and leaves of the trees around them whipped and swayed in the midst of the rain and wind.

    He took a deep, calming breath. Then Radavast asked the other question which had burned within him for the past three years, now. “Why?”

    He let a few moments pass, then asked again, in a more demanding tone. “Why?” A few more moments, then he reached out, grabbing Matheius by the collar. “Why!”

    Matheius looked back at him. It seemed as though he would make no response at all, but then, finally, he did.

    Matheius smiled. It was a bitter, twisted, smile, that spoke of untold misery and personal pain. And then, as the smile disappeared, he simply shrugged.

    It was more than Radavast could bear. A sharp cracking sound could be heard above the sound of the incessant rainfall, as the flat of his hand connected with Matheius’ face. The blood which had been washed away, earlier, by the rain, reappeared across the face of the stricken man.

    But if anything, the blow made even less of an impression on Matheius than the earlier words did. He simply stood there quietly, not even bothering to wipe away the blood, letting the rain do it for him.

    Slowly, Radavast’s right hand settled down once more to his side, touching the hilt of Cryzalis. Slick with rainwater and blood from earlier, the blade sprang easily from its sheath, radiating that blue light that had made both it and its master famous. Earlier, eager for battle, it had shone fiercely, as though azure flames had erupted from it. Now though, its light was dim but steady, reflecting its master’s mood.

    “Draw your weapon.” His voice, now, was as steady as the glow from his sword. “Draw it up, Matheius. I won’t kill an unarmed man unless I’m absolutely forced to.” A short pause, then he continued. “Not even once such as you, although I’m not sure you count as a man at all.”

    The contempt in his voice was cold, and hard. Matheius flinched at it, pain filling his eyes briefly, as though struck a hard blow, although he had ignored earlier, actual hits. Just for a moment, those sunken orbs in his head seemed to possess a hint of life, albeit tortured life. But then, the light in them dimmed once more.

    His head rocked back, as Radavast slapped him with his free hand. Then again. Then again. And again. Each time, the blow was punctuated by a peal of thunder, or a flash of lightning. Each time, as the brilliant white bolt arced through the sky, dark red blood could be seen splattering from Matheius’ face.

    Each blow was heavy, and drove Matheius’ body back a step from sheer momentum alone. Step by step, slap by slap, Radavast beat Matheius back, until the very waters of the lake lapped at their feet. But despite everything, Matheius still refused to draw his sword. Somehow, he remained standing.

    Radavast slowly placed the edge of his sword at Matheius’ neck. His knuckles tightened around the hilt as he examined Matheius’ face, lit by the blue gleam of his sword. It had been beaten by him to an almost unrecognizable pulp.

    Coolly, Radavast stared at the mangled face of the one whom he had once considered to be his best friend, his brother in arms, his fellow pupil. It was like staring at raw meat, both in terms of appearance, as well as in terms of the lack of emotion or feeling on Matheius’ face.

    Radavast let Cryzalis rest on Matheius’ neck for a moment longer, then sheathed his blade. As he did so, for a brief moment, a hint of surprised question could be seen in Matheius’ blue eyes. Calmly, Radavast explained, “My sword has only ever been used to take the lives of warriors, monsters, and tyrants.”

    For one last time, his hands drew themselves around Matheius’ neck, in an almost gentle fashion. “You aren’t fit to die by my sword.” He leaned forward slightly, letting his lips almost touch the ruins of Matheius’ right ear. “I only regret,” he whispered softly, “that I ever considered a depraved, cowardly animal like yourself as my brother.”

    And then, with a great burst of strength, he lifted Matheius in the air and threw him into the middle of the lake.

    For a long moment, he simply watched, as his former friend slowly sank beneath the surface of the lake, until once more, the only thing which could be seen was the uncountable ripples creating by the rain dancing across the surface of the lake.

    But just as he started to turn away, something caught his eye. A faint red gleam, from where Matheius had sunk beneath the surface, appeared. Curious, in a dazed sort of way, the legendary bladesmaster watched as the red light slowly grew brighter and stronger.

    By his side, Cryzalis, too, suddenly gleamed with a fierce blue light, as if in response to a challenge. In one smooth motion, Radavast drew forth the blade, as he continued to watch the center of the lake.

    A blood red light soon seemed to paint the entire lake and its surroundings in its hue. Even the drops of rain falling from the sky seemed to have turned red, as though the heavens themselves were shedding scarlet tears.

    The sky, the trees, the thunder, the rain…everything was streaked with the color of blood and trailed tendrils of red light. Everything, save for Radavast and brilliant Cryzalis, whose azure blaze surrounded him.

    Slowly, Matheius’ head rose from the surface of the water. Then his neck. His torso. His arms and legs, and his feet, as he rose up from and alighted on the lake, as though it were not water, but land.

    In Matheius’ hand, was his weapon at last, and the redness of the ruby which was set in its pommel seemed immeasurably deep. Red flames seemed to dance and lick at its slightly curved blade.

    He was given the curved sword by his new master when he abandoned Radavast, abandoned the kingdom, abandoned his duty, and abandoned his honor. Ajatha, the Drinker, they named that sword, for all the blood it had spilled and been soaked in. It was a fitting name.

    His head was hanging down, as though asleep, but slowly, as Radavast watched, it raised itself. Matheius’ very eyes seemed to glow with that burning, blood red light that had spread all throughout the area. No – it didn’t glow with that light. It radiated it.

    Finally, Matheius spoke, in a voice that was so distorted with anger, pain, and hatred, Radavast couldn’t even recognize it.

    “Don’t,” the blood red swordsman growled out in a strangled voice.

    “Don’t call me a coward.”
    Last edited by Ren Wo Xing; 12-17-07 at 03:21 AM.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

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    Wow!!! a very interesting beginning....Can't wait 4 the rest

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    Chapter 1: A Lonely Thigh-Bone

    He had been asleep, now, for a long time. Long enough for time itself to feel like a mere dream. Not even the rising and falling of his chest from the simple act of breathing could be seen. Like a statue, he lay where he was, on a bed of dirt and silt hardened over the ages, a man time had passed by.

    Thus he had been, and thus he would always be, he would have thought to himself, were he still capable of thought. And yet, this night, something was different.

    Matheius…

    The man stirred slightly, sleep unbroken. A faint corner of his mind which had not fully succumbed to slumber heard the whisper, murmured to the rest. It was ignored.

    Matheius…

    Again came the call. He stirred again. Go away, he thought in his sleep. Go away and let me sleep. That is all I wish for. Sleep…

    Matheius, wake up. Arise from your slumber, Matheius.

    No. The man shook his head ever so slightly. Long, shaggy strands of hair swept across his face at the movement…the first movement made in ever so long. Leave me be, whoever you are. I am comfortable, here. I am peaceful. Stay away from me.

    Are you a coward, Matheius? Has your daring and will faded away from you, and your heart been filled with trembling fear?

    Unconsciously, the fingers of his left hand tightened around something hard. I am no coward. But-

    Arise, awake, if you would redeem yourself. Arise, if you would not have everything you hold dear be swept away beyond all recovery. Arise, Matheius. If you are no coward.

    A soft moan escaped the man’s lips. I will not. I cannot. Gods have mercy on me, but no matter what you say, or anyone else says, I cannot awaken. Not for anything or anyone. Not now. Not ever. Everyone, forgive me. Vast, forgive me…

    The whisper in his mind grew fainter, more dim. Not even for me, Matheius?

    His mind, even in slumber, froze. Elaiana?

    Please, Matheius. There is much work to be done. Arise…

    Slowly, inch by inch, the man pushed back the sweet, dreamless oblivion which had consumed him. It was hard. Perhaps the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. But for her…for her, he would do it, and do it willingly.

    Slowly, torturously, eyelids which had been long shut opened up a fraction. Starlight greeted him, a dim, beautiful glow from the sky. To his eyes, each star was like a blazing sun, a glowing beam of light that stabbed at his pupils. Quickly, he shut them again.

    For long moments, he simply lay there, eyes closed, unmoving. A passerby could’ve mistaken him for a corpse. Before this night, they would not have been far off the mark.

    He took a breath. It felt like a foreign act to him, as though he had forgotten how to do it. The smell of dirt, of grass, of flowers, of trees filled his nose, his lungs. He decided he liked the smell, and took a second breath, followed by a third, and a fourth.

    What could have been either minutes or hours passed, as he simply focused on that one thing. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. When he was satisfied that he could do it naturally, without having to think about it, he began to test out other parts of his body.

    They too felt foreign to him. He tried to move his left hand, the hand which was curled around something hard. A single finger twitched. Unconsciously, an annoyed grimace appeared on his face. His body wasn’t supposed to be unresponsive.

    How long had he trained in order to gain complete control and mastery over himself? How long had he…but the thought would not complete itself, and the memory refused to come together. He grasped at it, but it fled away from his probing mind. He gave a mental shrug, and once more set to trying to move his body. It probably wasn’t important, anyhow.

    As with the act of breathing, the act of moving his hands took time to accomplish. His right hand had been resting on his chest, while his left hand, my sword hand, he thought to himself, was clenching something on the ground. Wait. Sword hand. That means I am probably holding…

    He dared to open his left eye just a fraction. The star light didn’t seem as terrifying now as it had earlier, and he opened his right eye as well. After a moment, he quickly shut both eyes; the light was still painful, if not as painful as before. That brief glance, however, had confirmed his guess. His left hand held a sword. Ajatha, he told himself, then frowned. Where did that name come from? Yet another bit of memory, of trivia which danced just outside the range of comprehension.

    As with the previous memory, he pushed it out of his mind. At the moment, he was half-disabled. His focus needed to be on making himself functional, first. Everything else could come later.

    Long hours of night passed, as he pursued that goal with a single-mindedness born of long years of training in the past. Finger by finger, toe by toe, he woke his body up. It creaked and groaned in protest, every inch of it, but it obeyed.

    He didn’t try to stand up. Not just yet. Instead, using the pommel of the sword and his right hand for support, he pushed himself up to a sitting position, a minor feat which he was more than a little proud of, even if it did make him feel dizzy. After the wave of nausea from that movement passed, he tried, once more, to open his eyes.

    This time, they opened, and stayed open. He found it difficult to focus them, though, and scowled. So much for my reputation as being eagle-eyed, he thought to himself. If the Dak’nava find out I can’t even see straight, I’ll become the laughing stock of…of…

    And once more, the memory slipped away. He sighed in frustration. This was becoming more than tiresome. Perhaps it was time he started remembering things. Then, he started. Who am I?

    A question many wise men had asked over the ages. In his case, as he suddenly realized, he honestly did not know. He focused on that critical question with such intensity and single-mindedness, it wasn’t until he started seeing spots that he realized he had forgotten to breathe again. After rectifying that problem, he once more asked himself that question. Who am I?

    His answer came from a memory that seemed both recent, and distant. Matheius. She called me Matheius, so my name must be…Matheius. Who was ‘she’? He didn’t know, and for the moment, he didn’t care to. He was exhausted from the effort, and wasn’t about to make another one.

    Smiling, he closed his unfocused eyes, and lay back down on the spongy, soft ground. After all the energy he had exerted, first in learning how to breathe, then in learning how to move, he had earned a chance for some rest. And as he lay down, his old friend, Hypnos, came once more to claim him. The last thought in his mind, before it retreated once more from consciousness, was a single, mantra-like line. Matheius. My name is-

    “-Matheius, of the Mist sect. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The dark-haired boy held out his hand to the taller, golden-haired boy, blue eyes sparkling with warmth. In years to come, they would learn to become hard and cold when needed, but for now, those sky-blue eyes were soft and gentle.

    The other boy, a full head taller than Matheius, if only a year or so older, took the hand and shook it with a stately graveness learned from his father, which he would keep all his life. “Matheius. My pleasure. My name is Radavast. I am the son of the First Blade of the Black Steel clan.”

    He said the words simply, and without pretension. This, too, was taught by his father, Arakan Law-Giver, praised by friend and foe alike as a man utterly without deceit or arrogance, despite his formidable abilities with the sword.

    “Radavast, huh?” The young Matheius nodded. “Heard about you.” He eyed the taller boy slyly. “They say you’re pretty good. How long you been here?”

    He gestured at the beautifully built hall off in the distance, perhaps a half league or league away from the grassy knoll where both of them had come in the wee hours of the morning on this day, before the sun had risen.

    Radavast turned slightly pink at the compliment, but pretended to ignore it. “Ever since I was eleven, so two years, now, I think. My father wanted me to train as early as possible. He says that if I want to be able to succeed him as a Blade, much less First Blade, that I need to legitimately surpass him.”

    This was undoubtedly the truth. Even more-so than the rest of the traditionally merit-based clans, the Black Steel school’s hierarchy was completely based upon personal skill and ability, rather than heritage. It was one of the reasons, amongst many, that they had been the strongest of the martial schools in the kingdom for so long.

    Matheius whistled, and elbowed Radavast lightly. “Thirteen, now, and been here two years, huh? I’m twelve, and I’ve just started here. Don’t think I’ll let you push me around just because you got a head start, though!”

    He laughed again as Radavast began to protest to the contrary. “I know, I know. I’m kidding, sheesh. Lighten up, will ya?”

    The boy named Radavast found himself smiling back impulsively. He couldn’t help it. Matheius’ smile drew out good humor all too naturally, and he nodded at the shorter boy. “Sure.” Changing the subject, he asked, “So you get up early too?”

    Matheius nodded, and turned to squat on the ground, eyes towards the horizon. “Yep. Keeps the body and mind in peak shape, or so I’ve always been taught.” Radavast squatted down by Matheius’s side. Neither of them said a thing, as they shared a friendly silence as they watched and waited. A beautiful glow began to light the dark skies, as morning drew closer and closer. It wouldn’t be long, now before-


    The sun rose. Matheius groaned in his sleep as the rays of the sun began to beat down on his face and attack his languid, closed eyes. The sky was blue and clear, without a single cloud was there to help ameliorate the light of the sun. It didn’t take nearly as long for him to wake up this time, as it did the previous time. But then again, the previous night was a night of restful, recuperative sleep, unlike the long, enervating sleep of before.

    His eyes opened. Barely stifling a yawn, he sat up, rubbing at his face. Shards of a dream flitted about in his memory, but as with the previous day, they couldn’t quite be pieced together, and seemed to dissipate even as he tried. He blinked in surprise as his hands touched his face, the last traces of the dream disappearing as he did so.

    A long, thick beard and mustache covered nearly his entire face. The hair on his head, he noted, had grown all the way down to his waist as well. Strange. He remembered being clean shaven.

    Shaking his head, he filed it away under the growing list of oddities that he would later decipher at his leisure. He added a mental note to cut it off when he had the chance. It felt strange, and it itched.

    His eyes seemed to be working now, at least, and for the first time since his awakening the previous night, he looked around him, taking stock, or trying to, of where he was. The question of who he was (Matheius, he reminded himself) had been answered. Now, he needed to find out where he was.

    The ground he was underneath had felt soggy all along, and now he knew why. The area around him could only be described as a half-dried, half-sunken marsh, or the remnants of an ancient lakebed. All around him, the earth, littered with dried skeletons of fish and other creatures, rose up slowly, forming a saucer-like shape which he was at the center of.

    At the edge of the earthen rise, trees could be seen. Small, stunted trees, which seemed to be alive only by a tiny margin. Without knowing why, a tiny frown appeared on his lips. They should be taller, he thought to himself.

    He turned his head away from the strangely disturbing trees, to the sword in his hand. Even in his long sleep, he had clutched it tightly. The hilt was of a simple design, with a single dull, seemingly fake ruby set at the pommel, and no guard.

    The blade, though, although also simple, was magnificent, and he sucked in a breath. Even half buried in dirt as it was, it gleamed with a dark brilliance that defied time and rust, daring them to touch it. Unlike steel or iron, the blade was as black as the night itself, and seemed to suck up all the light which touched it, allowing none to escape.

    Ever so lightly, he ran his thumb against the edge, and winced, as even that lightest of touches caused a thin layer of skin to be shaved off. Ajatha, he said again to himself. He still didn’t know where the name came from, and it was a filthy, foul-sounding name. But it fit the sword. He was sure of it.

    With his right hand, he patted his side, looking for his scabbard. He couldn’t find it. He grimaced. Of course, he thought to himself absent-mindedly as he began to try to rise to his feet. A takac knocked it off at the battle of Boran Hill, and I never was able to find it. Elaiana was put out with me for a long time, because I lost it…

    As he finally managed to rise to his feet, the decayed remnants of his clothing sloughed off of him, like a thick layer of dust. He blinked, glancing down at himself. Slowly, his lips curved upwards in a position that felt familiar. It took him a few moments to recall that it was called a smile. Or, to be more accurate, a smirk.

    Well. He had a sword, and a good one. He had his eyesight, and his body, which seemed to be functioning again, more or less. He didn’t have anything else, true, but he would work on that next, he decided. A cool wind blew past, just as he had made that decision, causing him to shiver slightly. Yes, he definitely had to work on that.


    Matheius took another bite out of the roasted leg of the unfortunate bear which had crossed his path earlier, while turning the rest of the creature on a makeshift fireplace and spit. All the while, he continued to marvel at the keenness of his sword.

    It had sliced through both flesh and bone of his meal with almost frightening ease, and had skinned and cleaned the skin of the creature with more precision than the finest of filleting knives. The thick, warm pelt which covered most of him could attest to that. Combined with the fire he had started, exposure to the elements would no longer be an issue, at least.

    He smiled faintly. The sword had made for an excellent razor as well! Tuffs of freshly severed hair lay all around him, no longer hanging from his now clean-shaven face. He vaguely felt, as he was shaving, that there was something improper about using such a fine instrument for cleaning up his face, but he itched far too much to care.

    A few invisible specks of blood appeared here and there on the ground as well; he couldn’t yet completely keep his hand from trembling, and the damned thing was sharp! But all in all, he thought to himself, he had made it out alright.

    He had made a makeshift wooden sheath for the sword, which it was in, now. He didn’t trust the deadly keenness of the blade; all it would take would be him rolling over in his sleep, and he might disembowel himself. A double edged blade, it was both magnificent, and dangerous. He couldn’t let himself forget that.

    Turning his attention away from the sword and back to the roast, he took another giant bite. It was greasy, and too sweet for his taste, but he was far too hungry to care. He hadn’t realized until after the young bear had begun spinning on the spit how hungry he was. He felt as though he hadn’t eaten for weeks.

    After a few more bites, he set aside the half-eaten bear leg on a leaf, while continuing to turn the spit. He felt like he could eat more; he felt like he could eat the entire bear! But he knew better than to stuff himself to the point of vomiting.

    With a sigh, he turned his head towards the sky. It was night again. Both Calloran and Callori, the twin moons, had risen, casting their pale, silvery glow across the desolate forest of dying trees.

    It feels strange, he thought to himself. The light of the sun shouldn’t even be able to reach down here, much less the light of the moons. He was sure of it, remembered the forest being thick and lush as though he had seen it yesterday. He was sure of it, and he had no idea why.

    A grimace on his lips, he tilted his head down, away from the annoying, disturbing sky that he shouldn’t have been able to see anyways. The fire in front of him burned strong, fed by the dripping fat from the small, roasting bear.

    He chose to focus on that instead. The flames danced merrily, leaping up even more brightly when drips of oil fell down upon them. The glowing embers, in particular, seemed to be almost hypnotic for him, inspiring a sense of peace and contemplation.

    Staring into the fire numbed his mind. It drove away the questions which kept badgering him. So engrossed was he by the flame, that he didn’t hear the crackle of something trying to step softly on dried leaves and branches behind him until it was only a few feet away.

    When he did notice, he stiffened, but forced himself to relax. It didn’t move like an animal. Whatever it was, he thought to himself, it probably thought that it was going to be able to ambush him.

    He half-sneered at the fire, stretching as he did so, with an exaggerated yawn. When his arms came down, his left hand casually came to rest on the hilt of the sword. In a single, perfectly fluid movement, he drew forth the blade while leaping to his feet and spinning around, angling a slash just so, to sever the neck of the-boy?

    With a monumental feat of strength, he managed to pull back and restrain the power of the blow, so that the murderously sharp weapon came to a halt a few hair’s breath away from the terrified child behind him.

    The scrawny, terrified child. Matheius took a closer look at the boy. He was young, no more than ten years of age, and was small, even for his age. Clearly, he was underfed as well. Matheius had seen paupers with more meat on them than this boy.

    The child, who had been holding himself stock still, began to tremble violently. Matheius was forced to immediately withdraw his sword, lest the child slit his own neck by the mere act of quivering.

    Oh, hell. Matheius closed his eyes, once, then reopened them, sheathing his blade as he did so. “You want-”. His voice sounded like the croaking of a tortured frog. How long had it been, since he had spoken? He swallowed, hard, and tried again. “You want some food, kid?” A little better. This time, the frog wasn’t being tortured. Not quite as painfully, at least.

    The boy didn’t move, still continuing to shake with pent up fear. But Matheius did notice his eyes turn, ever so briefly, to the half-chewed leg next to the spit. Matheius chuckled. The smell of food must’ve been what drew the boy here.

    He turned around and retook his earlier seat, while grabbing the leg in one hand. “Hey, kid. Catch.”

    With a flick of the wrist, he sent the haunch of meat flying through the air towards the boy. The boy reached out for it, caught it, and was knocked back flat on his back. The leg of even a small bear was a rather large object, and in the boy’s current state, Matheius wouldn’t have been surprised if it weighed not much less than the kid himself.

    He chuckled again. “Careful, kid. Here, sit down.” He patted the ground next to him, as he turned back to the spit.

    It took the boy a truly herculean effort to stand back up while still holding onto the meat, and only the gods themselves knew, Matheius quipped to himself, how he managed to carry it even those few feet forward to where Matheius was seated. But he managed it, and Matheius’s respect for the boy rose somewhat. The kid had grit.

    Over the next half hour, that respect turned to pure awe, as the kid began to eat. Matheius had thought that he was hungry, earlier, but the kid, not even a third his own size and weight, ate even faster than him!

    Matheius had left slightly more than half the meat on the leg. The boy left nothing at all, sucking out even the marrow from the bone, licking his fingers, and then, when nothing at all was left, staring longingly at the rest of the bear, turning on the spit.

    “Easy, kid. Pace yourself. You can have some more after you rest a bit.” The boy nodded obediently at Matheius, although his hungry eyes still rested on that bear. Matheius chuckled again. “Damn, you can eat. What is your name, kid?”

    Finally, the boy turned around to look at Matheius. Funny. Matheius hadn’t noticed, earlier, how large and round the kid’s eyes were. “I don’t have a name, sir.”

    “Everybody has a name,” Matheius responded with a half-smile. “Where do you live, then?” The boy pointed north. “With my mammy and pappy. There’s a village a few leagues away, over there. It’s called Trentsdown. We live at the edge of it.”

    “Trentsdown, huh?” The name tickled the back of Matheius’s mind. “What are you doing here, then?” “Looking for food,” the boy answered. “I can catch some small squirrels or dig-dogs, sometimes. I’m real fast, and quiet, too!”

    The boy’s chest puffed out, clearly proud of his ability. But almost immediately, it deflated, as a more pressing matter seemed to come to mind. Turning to point at the bear on the spit, he asked, “Can I have some more, please?”

    Shaking his head in bemusement, Matheius stood up. Drawing his sword, he sliced off a few more chunks of roasted meat, skewering them neatly on the edge of the sword before dropping them down by the boy’s side. “Help yourself.”

    The boy ate so quickly, it was as though the food disappeared by magic. Strangely enough, his belly didn’t seem to bulge out all that much either. Once again, Matheius shook his head. Damn, that kid could eat, he thought again.

    For now, though, at least, the child seemed satisfied, as for the first time, he turned his full attention towards Matheius, and away from the food. “Thanks, mister. It’s been a long time since anyone offered me anything.” Matheius smiled down at the boy. Judging from the way he ate, that was evident. “Sure, kid.”

    “So what’s your name?” The boy asked him. “My name? Matheius.” His lips quirked bitterly. “I think, at least.” “You think?” The boy giggled suddenly, as a childish smile split his face. He was a cute kid, even with his big, round eyes. “You are not sure what your own name is?”

    “You do not know your name either, kid,” Matheius retorted with a smile of his own, only to see the boy shake his head, the smile having disappeared. “It is not that I do not know. I just do not have one.”

    Matheius rolled his eyes, that faint smile still playing on his lips. “Sure, kid. Sure.” Those large, round eyes that the boy had suddenly seemed to be scrutinizing him intently, he noticed. As though judging and weighing him. Slightly uncomfortable, he asked, trying to make a joke of it, “What, do I have bear fat on my nose?”

    The boy smiled, but didn’t respond. In a inquisitive tone, he instead asked, “If you don’t know your own name, why don’t you ask the lady? Maybe she knows.” Matheius blinked. “Lady? What lady?”

    The boy pointed behind his right shoulder. “That lady. Her. Right there.” Matheius raised a single eyebrow, before turning his head behind him. Seeing nothing, he turned back to the boy. “There’s no lady. What type of game are you playing, kid?”

    The boy shook his head stubbornly. “Yes, there was. She was beautiful, with long, golden hair and gray eyes. She was right there, but left when you turned your head.”

    For some reason, a slight chill went through Matheius as he heard the description. More forcefully than was necessary, he answered, “Kid, there’s nobody there. Stop playing games.”

    “If there was nobody there,” the child answered with a mysterious smile, “Then who left that thing on the ground?”

    Sighing patiently, but deciding to humor him, Matheius turned to look at the ground behind him, where the boy was pointing. “Now what are you…”

    Matheius’s voice trailed off, as he saw a glint of metal, half-buried under leaves. He frowned. He was sure that hadn’t been there earlier.

    Reaching down, he picked the item up. It was, he saw now, part of a sword. Clearly, it had seen better days in the past. The guard had almost completely snapped off, and only two or so inches of the blade itself still existed as well. Once, it must have been a magnificent weapon; Matheius could tell that just by looking at the shape of it.

    Then, he took a closer look at the pommel, and frowned again. There was a blue jewel set in it, a cracked sapphire that was carved in a manner that seemed familiar, somehow. The lines that the gemcutter had drawn and cut out made the gleaming blue gem appear to be shaped like a lion, or a tiger.

    Then, Matheius froze, as it suddenly hit him. “This is Vast’s sword,” he whispered in shock and remembrance. “This is –

    - Cryzalis.” The old blademaster smiled at the twin looks of stunned disbelief on the faces of the two young men. “It is a good weapon, and has served me well for many years,” First Blade Arakan continued, “But my time as a swordsman is drawing to a close. This is now your generation, lads.”

    He raised a single finger. “But! There’s two of you, but only one sword. You two have been the finest pupils that this academy has, perhaps, ever produced. If I had two of this sword, I would give one of them to each of you. But as I do not, well…”

    He spread his hands, and smiled. The two of them understood. They would have to fight for it, and the winner would take that magnificent blade. Cryzalis.

    Radavast was the first to speak. “But, father,” he said, with an utterly natural somberness, “That sword is mine by right. I am your son and heir, as well as heir to the clan. I have been trained longer as well, and am the better swordsman.”

    “Hey, hey, hey!” Matheius retorted back quickly. “I’ll give you the first few, but the entire point of this exercise is to see who is the better swordsman. And I’m not going to give either that title, or that sword, over to you so easily.”

    Arakan nodded at Matheius. “He is correct, my boy. Remember the central tenet of our sect. Merit, not birth or position, determines a man’s stature and a man’s rewards.”

    Radavast argued again, “But it is not worth me risking the chance of me hurting my best friend!” “Hey!” Matheius snapped, this time starting to get annoyed. “Are you looking down on me again, Vast? What makes you so damned sure I’ll be the loser, eh?”

    “I wouldn’t look down at you, Mat!” Radavast protested with customary earnestness. “You’re one of the finest swordsmen I know. But you’re also my best friend. Practicing against each other to improve our skills is one thing, but fighting against a friend for a sword, no matter how good it is, is another.”

    As always, Radavast’s honesty and candor melted away Matheius’s annoyance. He rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Then let’s pretend this is practice, alright? On guard!” With a single swift movement that he was already becoming famous for, the steel sword by his side lept into his hand from his scabbard.

    Radavast drew his sword much more slowly than Matheius did, with obvious reluctance. “I don’t know, Mat…”

    “Come on!” Matheius waved his sword impatiently at Radavast, beckoning him to hurry up. “If you don’t want the sword, I do! For gods' sakes, it’s –


    - Cryzalis.” A stream of tears flooded down Matheius’s face, as memory after memory were loosened from their bonds. Vast had beaten him that day. He always had, one way or another. Usually by luck, sometimes by skill, but he had never lost. It used to drive him insane…

    Too many memories and thoughts struggled within his mind as he held that broken sword, competing for dominance. He needed to calm down and examine them after he had.

    Hastily, he wiped the tears from his face with his free hand, then turned back to the fire. “Hey. Kid. How did you…” He stopped, voice trailing off as he looked around him, confused.

    Only a lonely, decimated leg bone, resting on the ground, greeted his gaze.

    No one else was there.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  5. #5
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    Chapter Two: The Eyes of the Moons

    The fire was running low again. Matheius half-heartedly tossed a few more pieces of wood on top of it. It had been two days since his memories had returned. Two days, and now, two nights. This night, as with the previous, Matheius mourned.

    Radavast was dead; he was sure of it. Alive, Radavast would have never let the hilt of his sword be dropped here in this half-dried lake, like a piece of junk. No – alive, Radavast would have never let his sword be broken.

    He remembered being stalked for many long days by Radavast, until he had finally been caught at lake Cancer, in the midst of the forest. With that memory, came a realization: the dried lakebed must have been that lake. Which brought a major question to bear. What, exactly, had happened to the lake, and forest?

    But his thoughts did not dwell long on that question. Nothing took his thoughts away from Vast, for long. I must have killed him, he thought to himself anew, though that specific memory eluded him, despite many others having returned. Vast had called him a coward, and thrown him into the lake. After that, he remembered nothing.

    Killed him just like I did Elaiana. That, too, was a memory which refused to come to him, although he was equally certain of its existence. Perhaps it was for the best. He did not think he could bear it. Why wasn’t he dead? Another question for which he had no answer.

    His eyes slid downwards, away from the fire and to the blackness of the unsheathed sword by his side. In the darkness of the night, it was nearly invisible to the eye.

    There was no appreciation in his eyes now, for the sword; no comments to himself about its unmatched sharpness. This sword was given to him by a foul sorcerer. This sword had taken the life of Vast.

    His fingers clenched around the hilt. I deserve to die. I should take this cursed blade and end it. Not for the first time, he seriously contemplated doing just that. But this time, as with each time previous, something kept him from doing so.

    I refuse to die a muddle-headed idiot. Elaina’s death, Radavast’s death, his defection…although he knew of it all, he remembered little. Even more infuriatingly, he did not remember the reasons for any of it at all. When he tried to peer into those memories, it was as though he saw them through a hazy, smoky filter. He could make out the outlines, but little else besides.

    He shook his head. I deserve to die, but I cannot just yet. In death, when I meet Elaiana and Radavast again, and they accuse me and confront me, what face will I have to beg for their forgiveness, when I do not even know what I did? Death would be the easy way out, the coward’s way out.

    He lay down in the dirt by the fire, ignoring the fact that it was dying down once more. After tonight, he would be leaving, anyhow. And I am no coward.

    First, he told himself, he would find Vast’s body, give him a proper burial if he hadn’t already been given one. Next…his eyes closed, for the first time in the past two days.

    Next, he would make his way north. Didn’t the boy from a few days past say there was a village there? As good a place as any to start. He would need some supplies, to make it to San’tamak. And then…but he did not manage to complete that thought, as a mercifully dreamless sleep came upon him.

    He left the makeshift campsite at the crack of dawn, the next morning. It did not take him long to pack; he barely had anything, after all. After a moment’s hesitation, he decided to leave the majority of the by now thoroughly cooked bear behind, taking only enough to last him for two days or so. It’d rot quickly, but perhaps the boy might come back.

    That boy…he shook his head. Cute kid, and he helped him find Cryzalis’ hilt, which was now tucked in securely in one of the makeshift sacks he had created from leftover bits of the bear’s fur. Vivid imagination, though. Too vivid. For a moment, Matheius had almost believed him.

    Matheius’s lips quirked slightly at the thought as he picked up his sword. He was too old to believe in ghost stories.

    _____________________________________

    For hours on end, he searched, combing through every inch of the nearby terrain for Radavast’s body. Skeletons, he found three or four. One was female. Two belonged to children. And the last, although seeming to be male, was far too short of stature to have been Radavast.

    He searched until well past noon, until finally, sweating profusely with the heat of the sun beating down on him, Matheius was forced to admit that he was unable to find him.

    He was disappointed, for the most part. Deep inside him, though, a secret, hidden part of him which did not dare speak out loud for fear of discovery, rejoiced. Maybe the reason he could not find the body, was because Radavast wasn’t dead.

    Maybe he hadn’t killed Vast after all. He couldn’t make himself believe it. Not consciously. But subconsciously, he continued to hope beyond reason, hope beyond hope.

    There was an old saying in the martial world describing highly skilled blademasters-the sword is the man; the man is the sword. And so in lieu of Radavast’s body, he buried the hilt of Cryzalis.

    The earth was still relatively soft; some moisture still remained in the area, which was no doubt why some animals still managed to live here. With his bare hands, Matheius clawed out a small, rectangular mound of earth. His task accomplished, he reverently placed the hilt of Cryzalis in the small tomb, then covered it up with dirt, patting it down firmly.

    His job finished, he knelt in front of the grave. Once, twice, three times did he bow down in front of it in respect, letting his forehead just barely touch the ground. Then he rose to his feet.

    As he prepared to leave the area for good, he turned to look one final time at the dried remnants of what had once been a vibrant jungle-lake. Two questions from earlier continued to nag at him.

    What had happened to the lake, to cause it to dry up? Sorcery, Matheius decided, although what type of sorcery or magic, he could not say. Sorcery, or the wrath of a god. Nothing else could have done it.

    That didn’t explain how he had slept through the sorcery, though. Nor, for that matter, did it explain how he was still alive. When Vast is dead. He brutally pushed that errant thought from his mind.

    With a sigh, he decided he had no answers to either of those questions. Perhaps the locals in, what was it, Trentsdown? Perhaps the locals in Trentsdown could help answer them. If they lived as near the forest as the boy claimed, they should have seen what happened to the lake.

    As he entered the outskirts of the dying forest, leaving the former lake behind, a thought came to his mind. Trentsdown. Matheius considered himself well-read, and was up to date regarding the condition of the kingdom, but had never heard of Trentsdown. There was a Trentan, but that was a long distance to the southwest, near the sea.

    “Trentsdown. Trentsdown...” He muttered to himself, chopping aside a stray bush that had gotten in his way, continuing the northwards path. The ebony blade sliced through it without the slightest resistance, but he barely noticed, so engrossed was he in searching his pockmarked memory.

    Finally, he gave up. It was probably just a minor hamlet that no one had ever bothered to map, he decided, and then grunted sourly. Not even worth the time to be mapped, much less be worked up over.

    Though the forest seemed to be dying, its total area, at least, had not decreased significantly. Nonetheless, its appearance now was far different from before. Lush branches and leaves had been replaced by bare arms and trunks.

    It seemed to Matheius that the trees were smaller than they had been when he had first come here, chased by Radavast. Their trunks had to have shrunk by half, at least. Tall, proud giants had turned into dry, leafless dwarfs. He couldn’t explain that either.

    The further north he walked, as the distance between him and the former lake grew, the more the scene seemed to resemble a desert. There was no grass, no bushes. Certainly no animals. It made him wonder how he had found the bear earlier. Perhaps it was looking for water in the most survivable part of the forest.

    Were it not for the lack of burn marks or scorch marks, he would been certain that a wildfire must have swept through the area, baking the earth dry and exfoliating both leaf and bark from the naked trees.

    On an impulse, he reached out with his right hand to one of the dwarf trees, applying the slightest pressure to one of the larger branches. It broke off cleanly in his hand, with minimal resistance. He inspected it, shook his head, tossed it aside. It was as dry and lifeless as a piece of wood that might have been dried by the sun for days. Not a hint of green could be seen, even in its core.

    Something terrible must have happened here. What power could evaporate a lake, and drain the vitality from a forest? He hastened his footsteps. The sooner he got to this ‘Trentsdown’, the better.

    After another half hours worth of travel, Matheius spied what seemed to be a large wooden cabin, off in the distance. “Must be the kid’s place,” he grunted to himself. “I’ll check up on him. His family can probably still salvage some of that meat.” Though with the way that kid ate, even the bear wouldn’t last long…

    The cabin and the fence surrounding it was crude, but well made. Matheius inspected the logs and nodded in approval. Snug in winter, cool in summer. Protected and treated with solutions against rot, and not a termite to be seen. The builder knew what he was doing.

    After circling around the house once, Matheius returned to the front door. Raising his hand, he knocked, once, against it. Once again, he nodded in approval. The wood sounded solid.

    After a few moments, the door slid open a notch, and a thin, tired looking male face of forty something years peered out at Matheius. “Yes? Can I help…” he began to ask, but his voice trailed off as he saw Matheius’ sword. His tired face darkened. “Oh.” Before Matheius had a chance to say anything, the man said, “Just a moment.”

    Leaving the door ajar, he scurried deeper inside, while calling, “Anna! Anna! The tax collector is here again! I need those coppers we stored up a while ago!”

    “Again?” A female voice that replied sharply from deeper within the large cabin. “We just paid them last month! Why is he here so soon?”

    “Don’t argue!” The man huffed. “Just get me the money box!” Matheius’ incredulous protestations died on his lips as the man disappeared into what was ostensibly the private chambers he shared with his wife. Shaking his head with a look of bemusement on his face, Matheius pushed the door fully open, and entered.

    The insides of the cabin were spartan, as he had expected. There were two block-like chunks of wood that no doubt served as stools, and a simple, rough hand-carved table stood directly in the middle. Not even a lamp could be seen, inside the house.

    The only decoration that could be seen at all was a lovingly painted portrait of a person Matheius immediately recognized. It was the boy. Matheius smiled. It looked like he had found the right place after all.

    Something seemed a bit different in the portrait, though, and he was just leaning in to take a closer look when the man returned. This time, his wife was with him, and although she was shorter by a head, in girth, she could have easily made two of him.

    In spirit as well, she made two of him, perhaps. While the man seemed afraid of Matheius, her hands were on her stout hips, lips pursed and eyes narrowed.

    “Here, sir. Please, take the money with our blessings, sir. May the Master reign a thousand years, bless me if he don’t,” he babbled, while forcing a small sack into Matheius’s hand as his wife watched disapprovingly.

    Utterly bemused, Matheius dropped the sack, which could’ve contained no more than three or four coppers, on the table. “I don’t want it,” he stated.

    “But sir!” The woodsman protested. “That’s all we have. Honestly! Any more, an’ we won’t be able to survive the coming winter, and then who will pay taxes next year?”

    He thought Matheius wanted more money! Matheius wasn’t sure whether he should laugh or cry at the ridiculousness of the situation. After composing himself he said firmly, “I am not here for your money. I am not a tax collector.”

    “You aren’t?” Matheius was an expert swordsman, famed for his speed, but even his eyes could barely register the woodsman’s hands moving as they snatched back the pouch of coins, holding them protectively against his chest.

    “Well, then!” The woodsman paused, as if not sure what to say. “Well, then,” he repeated himself. Scratching his head he turned his head to look at his wife for guidance.

    “Well then,” she said, immediately picking up on where he left off, “What business does a soldier of the Master have with us poor folks, sir?”

    Her speech was polite, but challenging and by no means deferential. Nor was the look which she gave him anything that even resembled deference. Yes, the stout woman certainly had more spirit than her husband.

    “I am not,” Matheius answered carefully, “A soldier of the Master.” The Master? Who was the Master? Probably a local bandit chief. “And I bear you, good woman, no harm.”

    The woman still looked suspicious, and unsatisfied. Matheius sighed. Without letting her get a word in, he pointed at the portrait. “Is that your son, lady?”

    In three or four swift steps, the speed of which belied her bulk, she marched in front of the painting and stood ahead of it protectively. “Yes, and you can’t have the painting. You’ll have to kill me to get it!”

    “Anna!” The woodsman whined, but she ignored him, glaring fiercely at Matheius. Matheius closed his eyes for a moment. His head was beginning to hurt. “Look, lady. I just would like to see your son. Then I’ll leave. I promise.”

    A silence fell in the house. Both the woman and the man stared at Matheius strangely. Slightly uncomfortable, Matheius didn’t say anything, either. Finally, it was the woman who broke the silence. “Promise you’ll leave?”

    Matheius nodded. “Fine, then. I don’t know why you want to see m’boy, but if you want to, well…” Still casting him suspicious looks, and seeming ready to jump back in front of the painting at a moment’s notice, she left her guarding position and beckoned him to the back yard of the house.

    The boy must be playing in the back, then. She probably wanted to keep him away from the ‘tax-collector’. Matheius chuckled inwardly as he followed her to the back, her husband following them, dry-washing his hands nervously.

    The back yard was empty. A bit surprised, Matheius turned, raising an eyebrow at the woman. Was she playing a joke on him, or had the kid run away? The woman pointed to a slightly upraised mound of dirt in front of a small wooden board in the center of the small yard. “There he is.”

    For a moment, Matheius did not understand. Then, as he took a closer look, his eyes first widened, then narrowed. That was a grave. The boy had died? How?! Slowly he walked towards the mound of dirt, resting on one knee as he bent down, to examine the wooden headstone and the grave.

    The grave seemed to have been dug some time ago, but the wooden board was new. In crude, blocky letters, written as though by someone who was not fully literate, it read, ‘to my darling boy, Stefen. may the light embrace you and keep you safe. mommy and poppy.’

    Matheius rose to his feet and turned to face the middle-aged couple, schooling his face to expressionlessness. The woman’s own face seemed softer now as well. Perhaps she was more favorably inclined to him, after seeing him pay respects to the dead. Or perhaps she was softened by the sight of her son’s tomb.

    “When? How?” The woman, clutching on to her thin husband’s hand, did not reply, face quivering with sadness. Surprisingly, it was the man who answered. “Three years ago. He died of plague, he did, m’boy.”

    Three years ago? But he just saw him less than three days ago. “The headstone?” Matheius asked. The headstone couldn’t have been cut more than a few days ago; the wood was still fresh.

    “I made it,” the man answered, a sort of bleak pride in his voice and face. “I cut him a new one every few weeks, so it don’t get rotten or nothin’.” He paused, then continued, “I wasn’t able t’do much t’help m’boy when he had the fever, you unnerstand. This is all I can do fer’m.”

    Matheius nodded, baffled. “May I see the portrait one more time, sir?” The woman sniffed, dabbing at her nose. This time, she answered. “Yeah, go on ahead. Don’t you try t’steal it, though!” But even this fierce demand seemed more subdued than before.

    Matheius left the back yard, re-entering the cabin. He stared at the portrait for a long time, utterly confused. That was clearly, unmistakably the boy he had seen! Did he have a brother, a twin? When asked, the woman shook her head no.

    Matheius did not believe in ghosts. He was too old for that. And in this case, although he was tempted to, he still did not. He had heard plenty of ghost stories as a kid, but never one where a ghost would eat half a leg of bear meat.

    Still. There was just something about the portrait that didn’t seem right, that didn’t square with his memory. He continued staring at it, but just couldn’t quite lay his finger on it.

    Finally, he sighed, breaking his stare and admitting defeat, for now. He looked around him, startled. The room was a lot darker than he remembered it being, earlier. He looked outside the single, solitary window of the cabin.

    The sun, which had still been fairly high in the sky when he arrived, had almost finished its arc across the sky. He must have spent hours here.

    He turned to apologize for staying so long, but did not see the old man. For the first time, he became aware of the steady sound of wood being chopped, from outside the house. Pushing the door open, he found the woodsman plying his trade, cutting apart a few of the newly chopped down, sickly trees into firewood.

    Sweat rolled down the man’s face, as he raised and lowered the axe in rhythmic fashion, wood splintering underneath him. Matheius watched for a few moments. With slight hesitation, he called out, “Need any help?”

    The woodsman looked up at him and grinned, the earlier nervousness seeming to be gone. “You done lookin’ at the portrait of m’boy, are you? Naw, I’m good, thanks. Almost done, here. Why don’t you jus’ take a seat inside and wait a while? The missus will be startin’ on dinner, soon.”

    Matheius hesitated. His first impulse was to politely decline and leave. But there was something about the warmth of the welcome that made him want to stay. It came as a surprise to himself, when he answered, “I’d appreciate that, thank you. I hope I won’t put the two of you to much trouble.”

    “No trouble, no trouble!” His now-host cheerfully replied. “Been a long time since we got real visitors. Good to meet some new people.” He paused the chopping, extending a wiry, callused hand to Matheius. “Name’s Kurlin, by the way, but most people just call me Curly.” Matheius accepted the hand, after a moment. “Curly. A pleasure. My name is…”

    He paused, unsure what to say. He was trying to keep a low profile, and if he let his name be known, surely he would be discovered. His name was known all throughout the land, after all. But he did not want to lie to this man, or his wife, after their display of hospitality. And they were removed from the outside world, after all.

    “Matheius.” He watched with some trepidation, then was both relieved as well as surprised at the lack of recognition on Curly’s face. “Nice t’meet you, Matheius. Now go on inside. I’ll be done here in no time.”

    Matheius nodded, releasing Curly’s hand. As he turned and re-entered the cabin, the sound of metal striking against wood once more begin to ring, in a steady rhythm.

    _____________________________________

    Matheius had thought that dinner with this family would let him escape from yet another night of chewing roasted, half-burnt bear meat. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite manage to fully escape from bear meat this night, either.

    As soon as Anna had found out that he was in possession of meat, she confiscated it (a meal tax, as a somewhat amused Matheius thought of it), and sent Curly out to immediately salvage what meat he could from the camp Matheius had made. Needless to say, it had been a while since the family had had much besides vegetables.

    The sun had long set before Curly finally returned, staggering against a load that seemed altogether disproportionately large, compared to his wiry frame. Evidently, Matheius had thought to himself in wry amusement, these two had no intention of letting anything go to waste at all.

    In the end, everything had worked out. The husband and wife wolfed down the bear meat, while Matheius devoured the vegetables, with the two parties equally sharing the stew.

    With dinner over, after Anna had begun clearing the table, Matheius finally got the chance to ask some of the questions he had wanted to, all night long.

    “The two of you seem to have made a relatively cozy place to live,” he began, as Curly finished off one last slice of fatty meat. “How long have you been here?”

    Curly mumbled something unintelligible while chewing, swallowed, then replied, more clearly, “We been in th’area our whole life, Mat. Grew up near abouts at our parents’ places, a distance to the east. I built this here cabin with my own two hands about twenty, thirty years ago.”

    Matheius nodded. “What happened to the forest and the lake to the south?” He asked. If they’d been here for a few decades, they must know. “I seem to remember the trees being a great deal larger, and more numerous as well, in the area.”

    That was an understatement. Once, the leafy branches of the many great trees here nearly blotted out the sun, from the perspective of a man beneath their shade.

    Curly scratched his head. “I’m not too sure what yer talkin’ about,” he responded, slowly. “Deadwood’s always been like this. That’s why it’s called th’Deadwood,” he laughed. The Deadwood? The forest was called the Greenwood. Or at least, it had been. “Some of the older gaffers who used to live up north would tell stories when I was a kid,” Curly continued, “About how their own gran-pappies would tell stories of how the forest used to be beautiful. No clue what ‘appened though. Probably some stinkin’ sorcerer came and wrecked it all in some stupid mage-duel.”

    Curly looked as though he was about to spit, then his eye fell on Matheius’s sword. “Meanin’ no disrespect t’th’Master and his men,” he hastily added. “Most likely, it were another group of sorcerers who done it. Probably bad’uns who were against him.”

    Matheius waved off Curly’s apologies. “I do not serve this ‘Master’,” he stated, while his mind raced. “In fact, I’m not quite sure who he is. Could you explain?”

    Anna, who was back in the room gathering more crude wooden utensils, cocked her head and stared at him. “You aren’t for knowin’ who the Master is?” She asked suspiciously. “You sick or somethin’? It better not be catchin’,” she grumbled, as she bustled away with her load.

    Matheius smiled rather weakly at Curly. Pointing to his sword, he said, “I got into a fight with a fellow some time ago, and got hit in the head a number of times with a rather large rock. My memory is a bit strange. Please forgive me.”

    Curly looked unconvinced, but shrugged. It wasn’t any of his business, anyhow, he decided. “Hope you get them memories back soon, then, Mat,” he said. “It won’t do you no good to walk around with a sword but not knowin’ the Master. People will take you for an outlaw or a rounin!”

    Rounin? Master? Carefully, Matheius inquired, “So what can you tell me about this Master? You took me for one of his tax collectors, as I recall,” he said with a smile intended to defuse the awkwardness of the request.

    It seemed to work, as Curly chortled. “My mistake, my mistake that was. But there aint many who visit us with swords that aren’t here for taxes or fer takin’ somethin’ else. Anyhow, the Master, I’m told, is the chief wizard of all of different Houses of the mage families, or something like that. He’s pretty much in charge of the whole damned world. I don’t know how you kin not know ‘bout him, blows to the head or not!” And he chortled again at his own joke.

    It took all of Matheius’ considerable self-control to refrain from shouting. How could this be the case? The war had been won, the invasion defeated. He personally had slid Ajatha into Mage Arzon’s heart, had seen the death-look in Arzon’s eyes as he was killed by the very weapon he had gifted Matheius with.

    He had to force his hand to relax, to refrain from clenching around the hilt of that same weapon. Apparently, he had failed, or some foul sorcery had brought the Mage back to life again. And, by the sounds of it, he had taken the kingdom as well. It was his fault. It was all his fault. He shouldn’t have gone to…

    He shook his head, prompting a look of curiosity from Curly. “Nothing,” he said in response to the look. Now wasn’t the time to begin self-recriminations. Not when sorcerers had seized control of the land. Already, his active mind began to whir with thoughts of how to reverse this situation.

    Not everyone could have been defeated or killed. His own Northmen had survived the rule, ages past, of the dreaded lich Onileon. He doubted they would have been wiped out now, either. And the different schools, they must be the ‘rounin’ or outlaws which Curly spoke of, earlier. Maybe a resistance could be formed. Maybe. He would need to find the Warduke, and then…

    “What year is it?” He asked, as he continued to focus. When Curly only scratched his head, he snapped, in a tone of command honed from being a warlord over hundreds of men, if not more, “Tell me, man, what year it is!”

    Curly swallowed. “Ah, I think it’s 270, uh, sir?” Curly had at least a decade or more on Matheius, but for a moment, it felt as though he was speaking to an elder, not a junior.

    270. Only a few decades had passed. But still, a few decades where the damned Savants had control over the land, doing only the gods knew what to it. Nothing good, by the look of the forest and the former lake.

    His fist clenched around the wooden cup. Yes, he would have to…but his concentration was broken by Curly’s next words. “Yeah, 270 or 271 SR.”

    Matheius turned his head to stare at Curly. Cold blue eyes glared at the woodsman, causing him to gulp. “SR? What is SR?” “Why, ah,” Curly stammered, “Savant’s Rise, of course.”

    Savant’s Rise? “What,” Matheius asked quietly, cold eyes sharpening even further, “Was the foundation of the Savant’s Rise time system?”

    Unconsciously, unknowingly, Matheius’ suppressed rage caused his murderous intent to flood the room. Curly was no swordsman, merely a humble woodcutter, but even he felt it. It paralyzed him, as he sat there, mouth open, trembling, and unable to speak.

    Impatient, Matheius was about to reach out and choke the answer out of the man, then stopped. He was terrifying the Rift out of a woodcutter, his host. He leaned back in the stool, closing his eyes and regulating his breathing. Slowly, the killing intent which had flooded the room retreated back within Matheius.

    When he opened his eyes again, they were warm again. Normal. “Forgive me,” he said quietly to Curly, who was now breathing again. “Sometimes I get a little overexcited. Could you please answer the question?”

    Curly let out a ragged little laugh. “Blessed, but you can be a scary feller when yer overexcited,” he mumbled, mopping away cold sweat from his forehead. “But, eh, yeah, Savant’s Rise dates from back when King Cormac was cast down, an’ Warduke Arakan an’ his armies slain by the sorcerers, all those centuries back. At least, that’s what I learned…in…school?”

    The statement finished as a question as Curly stared strangely at Matheius. This time, Matheius was unable to hide his shock, as a stunned look etched itself across his face.

    Almost three centuries ago. May the Farseer blind me, I have been asleep for three centuries? Impossible. Three centuries. Arakan dead. Cormac overthrown. Three centuries. Oh, Gods. It is all my fault. How could it have come to this?

    Absent-mindedly, he thanked Curly for the meal as he stood up. Both Curly and Anna, who had returned again, stared at him with some concern as he left the cabin without another word, walking like a man in the midst of a dream.

    My King, forgive me. Arakan, forgive me. Vast, forgive me. And oh, Elaiana! He shuddered once. Do I even dare as you to forgive me?

    He walked on, through the Greenwood-no, the Deadwood, the bare, stripped branches of the dying trees seeming to point at him, accuse him for their loss. He did not know how long he walked, or how far he had walked, before he succumbed to exhaustion, and simply fell to his knees.

    He raised his head to the sky. The stars were out, again, as were the twin moons. Never far from each other, and on an equal plane, they gazed down at him as though contemplating him and judging him, like a giant pair of round, celestial eyes.

    That was the difference, he suddenly realized dimly, as he stared back into those two eyes. That was the difference between the picture of that boy Stefen, and the boy he had met in the woods. Of course. How had he not noticed it?

    It was the eyes. In the picture, Stefen’s eyes were normal. But the eyes of the boy he had seen seemed, in his memories, to be as large and round as the two moons which now stared back at him. Such large, round eyes.

    That was the last thought Matheius had, before, utterly exhausted both physically and spiritually, he fell the rest of the way to the ground, as his eyes closed.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  6. #6
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    Chapter 3: The Man in White

    Why did you wake me, Elaiana. I cannot bear this. Even in the waking world, even half-asleep as I am, I cannot bear it. The subconscious part of his mind grieved, as the rest of him slept.

    An answer came to him, as gentle as the woman who gave it. You can bear anything, Mat. I should know. Laughter as light as silk. Very little can stop you when you are determined. Do you remember how we first met?

    Yes. His subconscious answered after a pause. I have never forgotten.

    “…your eyes are abnormally wide, and your mouth is hanging open as well,” Radavast teased. He didn’t usually joke with people, but in this, as in other things, Matheius was an exception. “Better not touch her, Mat. She’s my sister.”

    Matheius’s mouth close, and incredulous eyes swung away from the golden-haired girl off in the distance, to Radavast. Half-accusingly, he said, “You never told me you had a sister, Vast! What, you’ve been hiding her from me all these years we’ve known each other?”

    Radavast laughed. “And would I not have been right to?” He countered. Matheius feigned a wince at the accurate shot. He had acquired a bit of a reputation as a playboy and a heartbreaker.

    Returning to his customary seriousness, Radavast continued, “She isn’t my sister by blood, actually. A distant cousin from some branch of the family that died. Father took her in as a child and raised the two of us together.”

    “And where exactly has she been since I’ve known you, if she was raised alongside you?” Asked a still-annoyed Matheius.

    “The Verdina Isles,” was Radavast’s response. “She’s here to celebrate father’s ascension to title of War-Duke of the kingdom.” Matheius whistled lowly. “Verdina? She’s a seer?”

    Radavast nodded. “They think she has the Sight. Strong in it, too.” He paused, then, with unusual slyness, commented, “So be careful, or she’ll see right through you.”

    Matheius glared at Radavast. “She’ll see what I want her to see,” was his confident response. A pause, then he added, wryly, “Besides, who’s to say that I haven’t really fallen for her?”

    Radavast snorted. “The trail of tears you leave behind. Do not think her position so far away from us is by accident, Mat. I arranged for it. You stay away from her, you hear?”

    Matheius rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I hear.” Then, he grinned. “But as you should know, I am terrible at the obeying part.” Radavast grabbed Matheius’s shoulder as the latter turned away. “Hey, where are you going, Mat? The ceremony is going to begin soon.”

    Matheius shrugged Radavast’s hand off, nodding towards the girl and winking at Radavast. “To say hello, of course.”

    “Damnit, Mat, wait!” But it was of no avail. Frustrated and annoyed, Radavast could only watch Matheius cheerfully ignore all protocol and attract more than a few eyes as he broke the line of procession, heading downwards.

    She really was beautiful, Matheius mused to himself, as he got closer to her. Even more beautiful close up than far away, he decided. That wasn’t always the case with pretty women.

    Ignoring the titters and scandalized looks, he marched straight towards her, as she looked at him with bemused eyes. She smiled curiously at him, and Matheius’s heart skipped a beat.

    “A pleasure to meet you, milady,” he said, as he bowed slightly towards her once he reached her. “My name is Matheius. Your brother,” he added, fibbing outrageously as he pointed to an impotent Radavast in the distance, “Thought we should get to know each other.”

    Those beautiful gray eyes flashed in amusement, a knowing look in them. However, all she said was, “Then perhaps we should. I’ve heard a great deal about you from my brother, Matheius.” She offered him her small, perfectly formed hand with another smile that made his heart skip another beat as he took it, pressing his lips against it lightly.

    “My name is-“


    “Elaiana.” Matheius exhaled, as his eyes opened slowly to the light of the morning sun. His mouth tasted of dirt, and he rolled around to lie on his back, spitting a few times.

    The dream had been all too vivid. Even now, her clear, gray eyes seemed to stare at him, from the back of his mind. Stirred no doubt, he told himself, by the memories of the previous night. As his thoughts turned back to them, his eyes closed again, and he let out a groan.

    Centuries had passed. Centuries. Hells. How could that be? How was he still alive? Or perhaps Curly was playing a trick on him, a joke on him. The thought rang false in his mind before it even fully formed. Curly had done no such thing.

    Centuries. His eyes opened as he stared up into the cloudless blue skies. And the kingdom they had all fought so hard to build…lost. How much of it was his fault? At least some of it, he was sure.

    He exhaled again, an explosion of air that turned into a sharp laugh which pierced the silence of the Deadwood forest. Well. At least he knew where the massive beard he cut off earlier had come from.

    Slowly, he sat up. He stared at the horizon, seemingly lost in thought, for several long moments. Then he rose to his feet. It was a terrible blow, a terrible revelation, but he could survive it. He would survive it. And he was going to have to do something about it.

    He was determined to. And there was very little that he could not do, once he was determined enough about it. As he began to make his way further north, he wondered, in the back of his mind, why it was that that particular thought made him feel so very proud.

    ________________________________

    A strange figure appeared in Trentsdown that day, who attracted more than a few whispers and eyes. It was a man, and a strange one indeed! He held a sheathed sword in his hand, but the sheath was made out of wood. And in lieu of clothes, he wore the freshly skinned pelt of a young bear. It stank.

    Matheius ignored the glances, ignored the whispers, ignored the wrinkled noses. He had been used to them for a long time, now. Granted, usually for different and more complimentary reasons, and the wrinkled noses were new, but when it came down to it, he decided, there wasn’t too much of a difference.

    Trentsdown, he decided to himself, making his way down half-empty streets, was to a proper town, as the Deadwood was to the Greenwood. Dilapidated buildings, old, crumbling wrecks, broken windows…the place was a dump.

    Well, he corrected himself, mostly a dump. He came to a halt as he reached the center of the town, where the townhall should be. In lieu of a townhall, at the heart of Trentsdown was what could only be described as an outrageously ornamented manor house.

    “Let me guess,” he said aloud to no one in particular. “The local governor lives here.” The manor house rose thrice as high as the buildings surrounding it, and was half again as wide as well. Sheathed in what appeared to be a layer of either gold or gold paint, it gleamed a brilliant yellow in the sun.

    It was hideously ostentatious, or ostentatiously hideous. Matheius shook his head again. “Yes. That has to be where the local governor or city official lives,” he remarked.

    He turned his head slightly, towards a shorter, albeit wider building that seemed to squat in the golden shadow cast by the manor.

    “And that,” Matheius murmured, as he watched armed men walk in and out of the building every so often, “must be the barracks.”

    Matheius had noticed the soldiers, if they could be properly called that, earlier as he had walked through and surveyed the streets of this town. He had not been impressed. No uniform, no insignia, no discipline.

    His lips curled up in disgust. And one of them had even been drunk! Trentsdown seemed a backwater town in every respect, and military discipline was always hard to maintain in a place like this, but this was lack of discipline gone to license.

    “Then again,” Matheius muttered, “What would you expect of a bunch of ‘soldiers’ commanded and lorded over by sorcerers.” Sorcerers. Matheius turned away, slowly, from the massive manor and the barracks next to it, grip tightening around his sword. Idly, he wondered if there were any in this place. Probably not; no person would want to be here for long if they could help it.

    It was a pity, Matheius decided. Unconsciously, the thumb of his left hand stroked the sheathed blade in his hand. He did like killing sorcerers. And nowadays, he had even more reason to than before.

    It took less than an hour for him to complete his survey of most of the town. That hour, he decided, was one of the more dull ways he had spent time in as far back as he could remember.

    Matheius was used to cities. He was also used to wilderness, and more than used to a barracks or a school of war and battle. This type of dreariness, he was not used to, and hoped with all his heart he never would be.

    With a sigh, he walked into one of the less shabby looking taverns. This place was dry and dusty, and he needed to wet his throat. He took a seat near the corner of the tavern, where he would attract less attention.

    “Just water for now,” he said to the server who came to him. The ‘for now’ implied he might order something else, which just might get him some water. He had no money, after all. In the past, he had never needed it. Now…he grunted sourly as he watched the server leave. Now, when he needed it, he had none. Typical.

    With nothing better to do, Matheius let his eyes drift across the crowd in the half-filled tavern, as other thoughts occupied his mind. He idly noted that most of the people here seemed just as dull and uninteresting as the people outside, although the number of soldiers in the tavern was considerable. Everyone seemed to be interested in their own drinks and in boorish jokes and laughter. Once again. Typical.

    Gradually, Matheius became aware of another pair of eyes resting on him. Two pairs, to be exact. He could feel their eyes on his back, as he turned to the left to stare at the men who had their own table at another corner of the tavern.

    There were two of them. One of them, he dismissed immediately. The man was short of stature, with a somewhat dumb, vacant expression on his face; he held no interest for Matheius, who had seen far too many of his type.

    His companion, though, was remarkable. Pale of face and cloaked entirely in white, which had managed to somehow preserve its color despite the dust which choked this place, he stood out from the crowd.

    His eyes were the strangest part of him. A solid, milky white in color, by all rights, the man should have been blind. Matheius was quite sure, however, as the two of them locked glances, that the man was not blind at all.

    Slowly, steadily, without breaking his gaze on Matheius, the man in white raised a single cup of some liquid to his lips, lightly tasting it before setting it back down.

    The man was a swordsman. Matheius was sure of it. There was something in his posture, something in his bearing which broadcasted it clearly for anyone with the eyes and experience to see. Matheius had seen hundreds of swordsman in his day. Some good, some bad. This one, unless he missed his guess completely, was very, very good.

    Ever so slightly, Matheius inclined his head towards the man in white, a sign of respect from one swordsman to another. The man cocked his head to the left just a little. Did he recognize Matheius, as Matheius had recognized him, as a fellow in the same profession? Matheius thought he did.

    After another moment of scrutiny, the man slowly nodded once, in response to Matheius. Then the man turned his gaze away, engaging in a quiet conversation with his unassuming companion.

    The server brought Matheius his mug of water after a few more moments. Matheius was just about to take a much-needed sip, when a large, meaty hand clapped down on his right shoulder.

    ________________________________

    “Honestly, I am in awe of you,” Frost admonished his companion. The white-eyed, silver-haired, white cloaked swordsman grimaced as he glanced at the vile liquid which passed for a drink, here. “How can you possibly drink that swill?”

    The lazy, dull looking man by his side burped politely in reply, not bothering even to shrug. Owl was his name. He hated to talk, and was as laconic a man as could be found in the kingdom.

    The two had arrived at this place a day ago, and Frost, at least, had been regretting it for a full day. It was filthy, it was backwards, and it was dusty.

    Owl had accompanied Frost in his wanderings for a few months, now, as he traveled across the land for personal amusement and interest. This place, Frost had long since decided, was as uninteresting a place as they came. Owl no doubt would have agreed, if he was willing to speak.

    Frost wrinkled his nose as he watched Owl take another deep pull from the flagon of the filthy brew that passed for beer in these parts. “I’m telling you,” he warned again, “What you are drinking is disgusting enough to poison a bull. Don’t expect me to save you if you die from this.”

    Owl paused in the middle of taking a third drink, and for a moment, Frost felt a flicker of amused surprised. Had he actually talked the man out of drinking that mess?

    “Nice sword,” Owl said, after a moment, and then finished the flagon, setting it aside on the table, his sleepy gaze directed to the opposite corner of the room. Nice sword? Frost turned his milky white eyes away from Owl and followed Owl’s gaze instead, to the other corner of the room.

    A very poorly dressed man, clad in what seemed to be the fur of some animal (bear, Frost decided after a moment’s consideration) had taken a seat in the corner, holding a sword of some sort, sheathed in a block of wood.

    A strange sight, to be sure, but no one worth paying especial attention to. Frost was just about to ask Owl what was so special about the sword, when an errant ray of sunlight fell down glancingly upon it. In that light, a formerly dull gem gleamed bright red for the briefest of moments, before fading away.

    Frost’s eyes narrowed. “Good eye,” he said softly. The name his friend had given himself, “Owl”, truly was a fitting one. His clarity of vision was unmatched and could be said to be one of the best in the lands.

    As if sensing their gazes on him, the man turned his head to look back directly at them. His gaze first fell upon Owl, for the briefest of moments, before turning to Frost.

    Inwardly, Frost chuckled. The man had obviously decided Owl wasn’t worth his time. Not a good idea. Owl’s dull, slow appearance was a carefully cultivated and maintained deception. In reality, his intelligence rivaled if not surpassed that of even the finest of scholars and intellectuals, and his cunning was often described as being greater than that of grandmasters of the thieves guild. It was quite possible that more deaths had been caused by Owl’s mind than Frost’s sword...and Frost’s sword had claimed many lives indeed.

    The strange man’s gaze fell on Frost, and Frost matched it calmly. He waited for the man to blanch. Many did, when they saw Frost’s strange eyes, then realized that he somehow was not blind after all.

    This man did not, seeming instead to note it in his mind, and file it away. Frost’s impression of him improved. The man was possessed of considerable equanimity, at least. Casually, Frost lifted his hitherto untouched cup of tea to his lips, barely tasting it before setting it down. It had grown cold.

    Their eyes were locked for a long moment. Frost had no problems matching the gaze of any man save perhaps one, and he did not count. Frost had no problems now. He had a strange feeling, though, that the man somehow saw his sword, despite it being covered underneath his cloak.

    It was preposterous, of course, but Frost couldn’t shake the feeling. It was irritating. He was just about to say something when that man nodded to him, once. A sign of respect. Frost cocked his head to one side. Normally, he would have ignored it, or taken it as his due. But this stranger seemed special, somehow. And he was in possession of that sword, after all.

    After a moment, Frost nodded back, then turned his gaze back to Owl. “What do you think?” He asked quietly. To anyone else, Owl’s eyes no doubt will still appear vapid and dull, but Frost had known him for many years now. Owl was thinking. Thinking very, very hard.

    Frost gave up trying to get Owl to say anything. Whenever he became like this, no one could get him to speak until he was ready. Not even their patron.

    “Either it is the best forgery I’ve ever seen, he killed one of them for it without us hearing, or a new one was made just for him,” Frost mused aloud in a soft voice.

    Neither of the three possibilities seemed that likely to him. No forgery could be that perfect, for one. And if one of them had died, Frost felt pretty sure he would know about it. That left the last option, which seemed unlikely, but possible. That person had always liked to keep secrets, after all.

    His own thoughts ended as he noticed Owl’s eyes resume their usual laziness. That usually meant the analysis was complete. “Well? What do you think?”

    Once again, Owl’s lazy eyes seemed to be drawn to the stranger’s table. “That some answers are about to reveal themselves.”
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  7. #7
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Chapter 4: Merciful Swordsman, Merciless Sword

    “Well, well,” a voice behind Matheius jeered. “Looks like we found ourselves a penniless rounin, haven’t we?” Matheius throttled the urge to immediately cut off that fat hand by the wrist. “Looks like it,” he replied calmly instead, without turning his head. “Why don’t you take a seat?”

    “Sure, sure, we’ll do that, we will,” a second voice chortled from his left, as the hand removed itself. Two soldiers, although they did not deserve the dignity of that title, stepped into view in front of him. One of them must have had had porcine blood in him, as he was not only as fat as a pig, but looked the part as well.

    The other wasn’t much better off, either, and the two took a seat in front of Matheius, with nasty little smirks on their face. “We haven’t seen you before in these parts, rounin,” the more pig-like of the two spoke.

    “Where you from, and what are you doing around these parts?” Matheius smiled slightly, taking a sip of water before responding. “I am from where I came from, and I am here because of my business,” he replied casually.

    The fat leer on the faces of the soldiers disappeared, replaced by angry looks. “You’re a stranger round these parts,” the other said warningly, while the pig simply glowered. “You should be more polite when people are being friendly to you, especially what with you being Houseless.”

    Matheius smiled thinly. “Of course,” he said. “Forgive me for not treating you two as you deserve.” “That’s more like it,” the piggy said, apparently not catching the backhanded insult. “In a shitty place like this, we all have to get along to make living here slightly less miserable.” And he spat on the floor of the tavern.

    Well, with that thought at least, Matheius could agree, and he nodded. “You’re in luck today, pal,” the pig-faced man went on. “You have a chance to get in the good graces of Lieutenant Hanire, today, son to the governor of this dusty junkheap.”

    “That would be you, I presume?” Matheius inquired calmly. “Yeah, that’d be me,” Hanire responded with a suspicious look on his face. “You trying to get smart with me? Don’t.” Matheius slowly took another sip of water. “I wouldn’t dare.”

    “Now,” Hanire continued, after giving Matheius another dark glare, “Lucky for you, it just so happens that I lost my sword a few days ago. That means, like I said, you have a chance to get on my good side. Give me your sword,” and he pointed to Ajatha, still sheathed in that carved block of wood, “And you’ll be on my good side.”

    Matheius raised an eyebrow in polite inquiry, forcing his fingers to remain calm. “You want my sword?” He raised the wooden scabbard slightly. “But surely, such a poor sword would not suit someone of the majestic rank of Lieutenant.”

    The mockery went straight over Hanire’s head, as he snapped, “Don’t you think I know that? But the red stone set in the pommel,” he continued, revealing his real desire, “looks pretty nice and might be worth a few coins. Now hand it over!” And he extended a pudgy hand.

    Matheius smiled. It wasn’t a pretty smile, or a pleasant one. It was a cold, hard smile, the smile that a wolf might have had on its face before making a kill. A hungry wolf. “No.”

    “That does it!” The soldier at Hanire’s side bared several inches of steel, pulling his sword halfway from his scabbard. “Either you give us the sword right now, or by the gods, I’ll-”

    His words were interrupted as a brilliant flash of light suddenly appeared out of nowhere, between Matheius and the two men. Matheius simply continued to smile that predatory smile, seeming to have noticed nothing at all.

    Matheius’ hand still rested on the hilt of the sword; it would have taken a far keener eye than that of the two soldiers to notice that its positioning was ever so slightly different. Frost’s eyes, which had never left Matheius’s table, narrowed once again. “Fast,” he murmured to his companion, who simply nodded.

    Hanire and his companion stared at each other, confused and uncertain as to what had just happened. And then, at the height of their confusion, the sword of Hanire’s companion fell back into the sheath.

    Or, to be precise, the blade of the sword did. The two stared wonderingly at the severed hilt which was still held in his hand. He hadn’t felt a thing when the sword was cut. After staring at the hilt for a few seconds, the two men turned their shocked gaze to Matheius. Eyes as cold as ice stared back at them. “You have my answer. Now leave.”

    Matheius turned his gaze away from them, as though dismissing them completely as his eyes returned to the cup of water in front of him. It was as though he found the cup to be of more interest, or more pleasing to the eye.

    Hanire’s face first turned red, then purple, then lastly white with fury as he stood up, followed shortly his friend. “Hey, guys!” He suddenly shouted, taking one step back from Matheius’s table. “This guy tried to kill me, and broke Jordin’s sword!”

    Lifting his head slightly, Matheius raised an eyebrow. Sudden silence fell across the tavern, followed by the sound of chairs scraping against the floor as they were pushed back. And then, the sound of at least a dozen blades being drawn from their sheaths could be heard.

    Matheius sighed, taking a last sip of water with a slight hint of disappointment. So much for trying to be inconspicuous. Slowly, he rose to his feet, sheathed sword held upright in his left hand, pointing back at the crowd of soldiers who apparently now wanted to fight him.

    He flicked his wrist lightly, but with force, and Ajatha sprang forth from the makeshift scabbard, which fell in two pieces in front of him. The ebony blade gleamed with a dark radiance, and the carved ruby set in its hilt gave off a strange light as well. “Please leave me alone,” he said calmly. “I really have no desire to fight you. I only came for some water.”

    “At’m, lads!” Hanire called from the other side of the tavern, having retreated almost to the entrance. “First one to stick’m and make him bleed gets two weeks off! If you kill’m, you get three!” That was all the encouragement they needed, despite their initial trepidation upon seeing the sharpness of Matheius’ sword, and with a roar, they charged. They outnumbered him twelve to one. They couldn’t possibly lose. Matheius could only shrug, and then engaged them.

    At first, the pig-like lieutenant was certain that the irritating, insulting man would die in a matter of moments. After all, he had twelve of his men, there, and there was only one of him.

    But that certainty began to fade, then disappeared altogether and was replaced by horror, as the lieutenant watched that man seem to dance in the middle of the twelve men! No matter how they hacked and hewed at him, he always was able to dodge or deflect their blows; more often than not, in fact, he was able to redirect the blows against each other instead.

    In the middle of the many swords hacking at him, Matheius weaved, dodged, and parried each blow so precisely that the battle looked more like a carefully orchestrated theatre than a matter of life and death.

    Hanire turned, grabbing Jordin, who, due to his sword being destroyed, was standing next to him. “Go tell father that there is a dangerous rounin, probably an outlaw, here! Get him to bring the rest of the garrison here, now!” After freeing himself from Hanire’s grasp, Jordin ran off immediately, heading for the manor in the middle of the town.

    “Amazing!” “Incredible!” A few bystanders had not fled, opting instead to watch the free show. What they had first thought would be an execution turned out to be a spectacle the likes of which none of them had imagined possible.

    The color of Hanire’s face once again began to change upon hearing those cheers and shouts of acclaim. This was outrageous. Outrageous! But there was nothing he could do about it, and so all he could do was watch and stew. Until, that is, he heard the sounds of dozens of boots march in unison towards the tavern.

    “You hear that?!” He cried in glee, turning to Matheius. “That’s the garrison coming. We’ll have ninety men here in moments. You’re finished!”

    Matheius had indeed heard it. He wasn’t too worried about his personal safety with just the twelve, but if more came in, things might get troublesome. Some of these soldiers were even moderately well trained, and despite what appeared to others as an incredible performance he was putting on, by his exacting standards, he was rusty. His movements weren’t as swift as they should be; his blows, not quite as accurate. It was time to end this.

    A black series of flashes appeared around him as his body blurred with speed. Accompanied by the flashes were a series of cries from the soldiers, as within seconds their swords fell from nerveless hands, and they collapsed where they had been fighting only seconds before.

    There was blood on his sword. Lightly, Matheius flicked his wrist three times. That was all it took for the blood to fall from the blade, descending from it in a shower of crimson sparkles.

    It was to this scene, of twelve fallen soldiers and an unscathed Matheius, that the governor and the rest of the garrison arrived. As soon as the governor entered the tavern, his men at his back, Hanire ran to his side, pointing at Matheius.

    “That’s him, father! He’s the foul outlaw who used witchcraft to attack me and beat my men!” The pudgy lieutenant cried, finger stabbing at Matheius repeatedly like a sword.

    The governor had an aristocratic look to him, with a pointed, hooked nose and fierce brown eyes. “How dare you make a disturbance in my town!” He said coldly. “For your crimes, I assure you, you will be punished with…”

    His gaze alighted upon the pommel of Matheius’s blade, and his words trailed off, as he stared blankly. That ruby set in the hilt, carved in the form of a great fanged beast, and a blade as black as night…suddenly, a horrible suspicion entered his mind. The Raven’s Feather? His face turned sheet white, and he fell silent.

    Not understanding, the lieutenant pressed, “What’s wrong, father? Why aren’t you ordering the outlaw scum be punished immediately, like the dog he is?” He would have said more, but his mouth suddenly filled with blood, as the governor turned and fiercely backhanded him across the face.

    “Silence, you little idiot!” He shouted, then immediately turned towards Matheius, and fell to his knees. Matheius was stunned, but managed to school his features, even putting a condescending smile on his lips. “Your Excellency,” the governor choked out, “Please forgive this terrible, terrible mistake.”

    Almost all eyes in the room had been drawn to the kneeling governor; only the eyes of Frost, which had never left Matheius, noted the look of utter surprise which had appeared on the swordsman’s face, before impassivity replaced it. Whether or not Owl had noticed as well was hard to tell, as his sleepy eyes and lazy face never changed. Frost wouldn’t have bet against it, though.

    “Everyone, get on your knees and beg forgiveness!” The governor cried, taking Matheius’ silence for continued anger. No one knew what was going on, but all of them knelt down immediately, at the governor’s command.

    All, that is, save for one porcine lieutenant and governor’s son. “I don’t understand!” He said, loudly, angry at being first humiliated, then slapped by his own father. “Why are you all kneeling? Why aren’t you arresting him? I want him executed!”

    The governor once more turned to his son, slapping him again. “Are you truly my son?” He hissed. “How can you be such a blind idiot? Have I taught you nothing? Did you not see his blade?” “Yeah, I saw the ruby,” Hanire said through a mouthful of blood. “I wanted his sword, but he wouldn’t give it to me!”

    If anything, the governor’s face paled further. “You tried to take a Raven’s sword? His Feather?” Rage and terror mottled his face, as he slapped Hanire again, and again. “You little swine! You little bastard! Didn’t you recognize the carving, even if you didn’t recognize the blade?”

    Taking a deep breath, he turned, speaking to all of his men. “It is known to all that employed in the service of the Master are many elite swordsman. These men, these Ravens, are his personal guard, and also serve as his personal agents when he sends them out.” His brooding glare burned across the men. “How do you tell a Raven?” He suddenly shouted. It had the sound of rote to it, and so too did his men’s response. “By the shadow of his Feather,” they said in unison.

    As one, the kneeling men turned to look at their twelve compatriots who had been beaten by this one man. Then, they turned to look at the unsheathed, night-black sword which was still in his hand. Their faces grayed. “Do I need to spell it out for you further?” The governor shouted down at the kneeling men. “Think about who you have offended!”

    Clever, Frost noted. He was shifting, or trying to at least, the blame for this incident onto the shoulders of his men. Some began knocking their heads down against the floor frantically, while others began babbling their apologies. Matheius let it all go on for a few minutes. His own gaze was drawn inwards, as he tried to decide how to make the best of this unanticipated situation.

    Finally, he held up a single hand. The men and the governor fell silent and still. Every eye was on him. “I will not pursue this matter further.” A collective sigh of relief could be heard from nearly every soldier in the tavern, save for Hanire, who had been knocked unconscious by that last blow from his father. Matheius turned and spoke directly to the governor. “I presume the manor in the center of town is yours?”

    The governor hurriedly nodded. “As I thought. Conduct me there now, then. We have much to discuss, and I could use a change of attire as well.” And Matheius smiled.

    ____________________

    The last of the soldiers dispersed from the tavern, leaving behind a scene of destruction. Tables and chairs had been shredded to kindling during the midst of the fight. Nearly all the patrons had long since run away. Staring at the scene of devastation, even the tavern’s owner left. He needed a drink, and didn’t think he was going to get a good one here for the moment. In truth, he wouldn’t have been able to get a good one here, even if the tavern had been untouched.

    Only Frost and Owl remained. Throughout all of it, they had never left their table. “So,” Frost finally spoke, breaking the silence, “What do you think, Owl?” The sleepy-eyed man shrugged. “Mmm.”

    Frost smiled a half-smile. Owl treated words as though they were gold, never speaking when he could avoid it, unless there was profit in it for him. But then again, that flaw, if it could be considered one, was counterbalanced by the fact that when he did speak, every single point tended to be well-reasoned and inarguable, and every single word, chosen precisely.

    “The sword is definitely real.” There was no doubt about that in either of their minds, and Owl nodded once in response to Frost’s words. That sword most definitely was not a fake, or a copy. “The swordsman is not fake either.” This time, it was Owl who spoke, and Frost was forced to nod in acknowledgement.

    The soldiers of this town were not trained specifically as swordsmen. Frost had been, and unlike the soldiers, he had recognized every single attack and every single defensive maneuver which the stranger had used. Dragon Flying, Phoenix Weaving. Five Tigers Breaking Down the Door. Stars Across the Sky.

    Even the poorest of blademasters would have recognized those attacks. They were amongst the most basic movements and stances that every one of them would have learned when they first began their training in the art of the blade. But the stranger had executed them with a brilliance and perfection that many would envy, few could match, and none surpass. In his hands, even those simplest of movements became exquisite and refined.

    “The swordsman is not fake,” Frost repeated Owl’s words in affirmation. “What else?” He waited for Owl to elaborate, to say more, but the man remained stubbornly silent. Sighing in resignation, Frost pulled a sack of coins from a pouch by his side, and tossed it to Owl. It was the only way anyone could convince him to speak when he didn’t want to.

    “How much will that buy me?” He asked. Owl caught the small sack, hefting it in his hand and testing its weight, before answering. “Four words.”

    Frost motioned for him to continue. “Merciful swordsman,” Owl first said, then hefted the sack again. “Merciless sword,” he finished.

    Merciful swordsman. Frost found himself nodding in agreement. Despite being clearly superior to those men, the fighter hadn’t killed any of them; he hadn’t even seriously wounded any of them.

    None of the twelve men who initially engaged him had died or been maimed; all of them would recover with time, if perhaps with a few more scars. Merciful swordsman. Yes, those were two well-chosen words. As for the second pair of words…

    From his side, the man drew his own sword from its sheath, hidden under his white cloak. Its blade, as well, was made of that shimmering, radiant black material. The only easily noticeable difference between his sword and the sword of the man who just left, he mused, was the fact that while the other man’s sword was only slightly curved, the blade of his weapon was wavy, undulating like a snake. And, of course, the pommel of his own blade had no such fine adornment. For a brief moment, his right hand crept over his chest, above his heart.

    “Whose is better, do you think?” He asked rhetorically. As expected, Owl shrugged and did not answer. That was another trait which was sometimes endearing, but often annoying. When he did not know, he did not venture a guess.

    Owl yawned, then rose to his feet, heading towards the exit. “Where are you going?” Frost asked, startled. “Leaving,” was Owl’s laconic reply. “Leaving? Why?” Owl glanced back at him, disbelief in his lazy eyes, then gestured all around them at the dust-clogged town and the filthy tavern, as if to say, ‘Who would want to stay here?’ He reached the tavern’s exit, then paused. “Coming?”

    Frost remained in his seat. Despite his eyes being white and pupil-less, a thoughtful look was in them. “I think I’ll stay. This place is more interesting than I thought it was.” For a long moment, Owl simply stared at Frost. Then he shrugged. “Take care,” he said slowly. “Don’t get yourself killed.”

    Frost smiled. That was the equivalent to a long speech filled with concern from anyone else. “That won’t happen,” he stated with utter confidence. After a moment, he added, “But do me a favor, will you?” Owl raised an eyebrow. He didn’t bother to ask what; instead, he simply made a motion with his hand for Frost to get on with it.

    Lightly, Frost ran a single, slender finger across the flat of his own sword, as his mind replayed the earlier battles. “Don’t,” he said, slowly, “Tell anyone what you saw today. I want to keep this matter private, for now. And by anyone, I mean anyone,” he stressed. “Not even those two old men. Neither of them. You know how they get, sometimes.”

    Owl pursed his lips, lazy eyes sharpening for a moment in thought, before he shrugged once. Without saying yes or no, he nodded in farewell to Frost, and left the tavern.

    For a few more minutes, Frost remained seated. “Merciful swordsman, merciless sword,” he repeated to himself musingly, then shook his head. Owl never ceased to amaze him. He really was quite accurate when he chose to speak…and he did have a way with words.

    A groan of pain interrupted his thoughts, and he glanced to the side. That fat lieutenant-Hanire?-had woken up at last. Grimacing in obvious pain, with a mouth filled with blood, he rose to his feet, shaking his head and blinking rapidly.

    Mildly amused by the sight, Frost smiled. Just as he did, Hanire happened to turn his head towards him, having noticed that only Frost was left. His piggish eyes narrowed in anger and humiliation.

    Hanire stomped over to Frost’s table. “What are you laughing at, huh?! You think that was funny?” He loomed over the seated man, fists clenched tightly. “Actually,” Frost replied, still smiling easily, “Yes, I did. And do.”

    “Well, you know what I think is funny?” Hanire bellowed. “What?” Frost asked, the smile still in place. “This!” And Hanire swung his fist at Frost’s face.

    For the second time this day, a brilliant flash of light appeared in front of Hanire’s face. He stopped, stupefied once more. Then, just as he tried to turn his head to see what had happened, it seemed as though the floor suddenly moved and jumped at him. He felt a mild pain as his face hit the wooden floorboard. Then everything went dark.

    Frost stood aside, watching casually as blood fountained from the severed arteries in Hanire’s neck. He didn’t want to get blood on his clothes. Still bearing that stupefied expression, Hanire’s head rolled and rolled, until it bumped into the counter, and came to a stop. For a moment longer, Hanire’s headless body remained standing. Then it collapsed backwards, onto the ground.

    “You were right,” Frost said softly. “That was funny.” Frost paid him no more heed. Lightly, as the stranger had done before him, he flicked his sword three times, the blood flowing off of it easily, before placing it once more in the sheath underneath his cloak.

    Without a backwards look, he left the tavern as well.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  8. #8
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    3 chapters updated... n i m spell-bounded...u write like a master storyteller; i m hungry 4 the rest of the story

  9. #9
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    Chapter 5: Weave of the Serpent, Howl of the Wolf

    The night was a cold one, as each of the previous nights had been. A chill wind was blowing, causing more than a few in the town to shudder. If it wasn’t quite cold enough to freeze water into ice, it was at least cold to freeze the blood in one’s veins.

    The wind seemed to have blown the dust storm away. The sky was clear and void of all clouds. Calloran and his sister Callori rose high up in the sky, gazing down upon the world. The stars gleamed brightly in the night sky above. Unlike larger cities, which never completely fell asleep, nothing lit the town. No lamps, no torches, no nightlights of revelers. Nothing challenged the supremacy of the night sky.

    The beautifully gleaming dots in the heavens were especially numerous this night, forming an uncountable myriad of figures and objects. Monsters, heroes, legends and deities, all swirling together in the midst of a vast celestial stream of light.

    It was a beautiful sight. A pity, then, that so few were outside to see it, that night. It was too late. And far too cold. But at least one person had been willing to brave the cold this night, to stare at the mesmerizing sight.

    At the edge of the highest balcony of the mansion in the center of Trentsdown, Matheius stood, face lifted upwards towards the starry heavens. The governor had fallen over himself in preparing the finest room in the mansion, his own, for his honored guest. But as beautiful as the night sky was, Matheius could take no solace in it, though he tried. As with the previous days, every new bit of information, every new bit of news, seemed to be bad news.

    At dinner, he had carefully questioned the governor, Casrin, on current affairs and the current state of the world, under the guise of testing his knowledge. Casrin had been only too happy to oblige, and what he had told Matheius caused the sumptuous dinner to seem tasteless and dull.

    The great schools of warfare and battle, which Matheius had thought to be unconquerable, had been tamed. Each and every one of them which still existed was now yoked to and in the service of one of the Savant Houses which had sprung up in the past few centuries. The rest had been destroyed.

    The Three-Peaks Monastery, razed to the ground only ninety years ago after an miserably failed attempted rebellion, its esoteric fist-and-palm fighters dispersed. Wind and Cloud Temple, torn down and rebuilt into a brothel by the command of the Savants as a deliberate insult, the warrior priests forced to convert to the worship of the god of magic.

    Radavast’s Black Steel clan had been slaughtered to the man. Matheius’ Hidden Mist had fared little better. Casrin had expressed great glee when describing the victories to Matheius, boasting to a trusted servant of the Savants in hopes of currying favor. He never knew how close he had come to dying that night, and how many times.

    True, the rule of the Savants was not perfect. There were a few bands which had hidden bases in the wilderness, professing service to the true King, but by the sounds of it, they had become little better than bandits. And yes, a few rounin warriors from the disbanded sects wandered about. But they were scattered and divided across the land, like a hundred polished stones tossed within the midst of a sandy beach.

    The only spot of good news was that the North, at least, had not been fully subjugated. They had been conquered shortly after the kingdom had fallen, but it always seemed to be a place of unrest. Evidently, more soldiers stationed there had died over the years of decidedly unnatural causes, such as cut throats or pierced hearts, than in any other part of the domain of the Savants.

    Matheius was unsurprised, but gratified. He knew that his countrymen would not have been so easily and readily pacified. Before King Tiranys the Peacemaker had managed to sign the peace treaty which was the first step in the Northmen becoming part of the kingdom, the Northmen had been feared and led regular raids down to what they called the ‘Southlands’.

    In those days, the Northmen had been known to the rest of the kingdom as the Dak’nava. The Children of Frost and Stone. It was a title given half in admiration, and half in fear. So the Northmen were not yet bowed. It gave Matheius a little comfort. Very little.

    The chill wind began to blow more strongly, not unlike the breath of the icy steppes in the lands where Matheius had been born. Absent-mindedly, he wrapped his new cloak around himself a bit more tightly.

    Matheius’ clothes had changed. Gone was the rough and smelly bearskin. The governor had offered him the choice of some of his best personal garments for use, while tactfully making sure not to sound derogatory towards Matheius’ previous state of dress. No need to offend “a servant in the highest favor of the Master,” after all.

    Matheius disdained the vast majority of the finery. Even as a bona fide lord and servant of the true King (centuries dead now, he thought bitterly), he had never liked to dress in the manner of the aristocracy.

    Their clothes never allowed the range of movement which a swordsman needed to have at all times. Soft, supple, and light. Those were the only three things he cared about. Only three times had he ever dressed up. The first was for King Cormac’s coronation ceremony. Even he would not dare to appear in his usual clothes for that.

    The second was First Blade Arakan’s ascension to the title of Warduke of the entire kingdom. It was not a matter of lacking the daring; it was a matter of showing respect to the man who had acted almost like a surrogate father, in the San’tamak Academy.

    A better man by far than my true father. A bitter thought which passed through his mind, before he dismissed it. It was unfilial, even if true, and both men were centuries dead. No point in it.

    The third time...

    Matheius’ eyes continued to wander across the night sky. The third time was for Elaiana’s funeral. He had dressed up on that occasion, even if no one else saw him. Elaiana always had wanted him to dress up. She claimed it made him even more handsome, but Matheius never had been willing.

    After she had died, he couldn’t deny her this, when he went to pay her respects. He remembered the funeral quite well. He had watched secretly, hidden in the trees, as one by one, the famous men and women of the kingdom had come to pay their respects. She had been a famous Seer, and was the adopted daughter of the Warduke. And she had been loved by many.

    Had. What a terrible, twisted word it was. Had.

    Under normal circumstances, it should’ve been impossible for him to sneak in the King’s garden, in the heart of the capital city of Dimonde, as a wanted murderer. But everyone had been beset with grief. Not even Vast had noticed him.

    He had watched and waited, hidden and motionless in the boroughs of the tree. He had watched Arakan, who now looked decades older than his already advanced years, place a bouquet of flowers in her clasped hands. And how beautiful she looked, he had thought to himself-how lifelike.

    He saw the look of utter blankness, of perfect control on Vast’s face, with a reined in mixture of agony and rage in his eyes, evident for anyone to see. And he watched as the lid of the casket was closed, and she was set down into the earth.

    Almost, he had been discovered, at that moment. As the lid of the casket was being closed, his body had trembled, and he had reached out an arm for a moment, as if to beg them not to do so.

    But he had held himself back, and the branches of the tree had only rustled a little. Vast had paused for a moment-he was the one burying the coffin-and for a moment, Matheius thought he had been found out. But then Vast merely wiped some sweat from his forehead and continued.

    Finally, after an interminable amount of time, the last shovelful of earth and dirt had been tossed over the grave and patted down. A few more words were said, a few more tears were shed. Then everyone had left.

    Matheius had waited a few more minutes to ensure that there were no more stragglers or no returnees. Then, soundlessly, he had dropped from the tree. Step by step, he had slowly approached the grave, and then he had –

    -knelt down before her tombstone. For a long moment, he wasn’t sure what to say, or do. Then, he said, softly, “Hey.”

    He swallowed once. “I came to visit you.” He extended his hand to touch the tombstone, stroking it gently, as though caressing her face. “I finally dressed up today, like you always wanted.”

    His right hand sunk away from the tombstone to rest on the grave dirt above her tomb. For a long moment, he was silent. Then, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I hope you know that. And...”

    He drew a quiet breath, exhaled. “I’ll keep my promise. I just wanted to let you know that. I’ll keep it. So rest easy. Alright? And trust me. I’ll make everything right, no matter what the cost. Wait and see.”

    He was about to say more, when suddenly he felt a vicious killing intent appear behind him. Right hand clenching, in a single smooth moment, he rose to his feet. Radavast.

    Radavast’s sword was already drawn, and Cryzalis was pointing at him. It was glowing blue, he noted distantly. It never had glowed before, during their practice matches. Only when they were off at war.

    “I thought I saw the leaves of the tree move,” Radavast said, his eyes hard, “So I stayed to watch after everyone else left. What did you come here for? To piss on her grave?” Matheius’ face was expressionless, as he drew Duty from its scabbard. It seemed even heavier than usual.

    Radavast prepared himself to do battle, body tensing slightly. He couldn’t let himself get angry, couldn’t let rage consume him. Matheius was too good for that. Too fast. He waited. And unsurprisingly, it was Matheius who attacked first. Matheius always had been impatient...just as he had always been quick. As Matheius and his sword flew through the air towards him, Radavast prepared a defensive stance, ready to block, then counterattack.

    But unexpectedly, just before their swords were able to clash, Matheius’ right hand moved, instead of his left one. Filled with grave dirt, he opened his hand and threw it at Radavast’s face.

    Radavast had never expected Matheius to try such a cheap trick. Consequently, he fell for it and was forced to back up as hurriedly as possible, in order to wipe the dirt from his face while staying far away from Matheius’ sword.

    He berated himself as he did. Now Matheius had the initiative in launching attacks. Mat was always formidable on the offense. Much to Radavast’s surprise, though, no further attacks came. By the time the few seconds it took for him to wipe away the last of the dirt from his eyes and face had passed, Matheius was gone.

    Matheius had left behind his sword, Duty, that gift from Radavast’s father years ago. It stood up, now, straight in the middle of his sister’s tomb.

    “Come back here!” Radavast raised his head to the sky, shouting, his focus and calm gone. “Come back here and face me! Face me, now!” No response. “COWARD!” Radavast screamed that word out as loudly as he could.

    A good distance away by now, the swiftly running Matheius heard that last scream. Both of his hands clenched into fists, and his entire body-


    -shuddered lightly. Partly, it was due to yet another strong gust of the icy wind. And partly, it was due to his memories. Matheius turned away from the beautiful panoply of stars, away from those two luminous eyes in the night sky. It was cold. He would make himself some tea.

    Almost immediately after he reentered the room, the cold fled. The governor spent no little expense in making sure that his mansion, at least, was properly heated at all times. Matheius wasn’t quite sure how, as there was no visible fireplace. Magic, he supposed. It made him a bit uncomfortable.

    The room was richly furnished and decorated well enough. There were curtains here and drapes there, with various paintings and statues scattered across the place.

    Matheius had shown his disdain for such things quite clearly when he was first shown this room, to the governor’s dismay. Even if he were one to care for such things, he had seen more and better in his time.

    A single golden teakettle, sitting on top of a lacquered and carved wooden table was the only thing Matheius was interested in. Matheius made his way to the table, taking one of the two of the two chairs around the circular table.

    He placed one hand on the teakettle, testing it, before quickly drawing his hand back. It was still warm. More magic, no doubt. He frowned at it, before shrugging and putting it out of his mind. It was just tea.

    He placed his sheathed sword on the table in front of him. He had a new scabbard now, one of the few gifts which he accepted from Casrin. It was made out of demonshide, with a collar and tip made from thrice-forged steel. A treasure for any bladesmaster, though Casrin clearly had no idea of its true value.

    That was evident from how he had attempted to ‘add’ value to the scabbard by decorating it with all sorts of bits of carved gold and nonsense. Those bits and pieces lay now in broken shards on the floor. Matheius had no use for them at all.

    He poured himself a cup, then wrapped his cold fingers around it, letting its warmth tingle in his fingers. Gently, he wafted the rising steam from the tea towards him and took a sniff. Matheius let out a sigh of contentment. At least Casrin had good taste in tea.

    He savored the aroma for a moment longer, then reluctantly unwrapped his left hand from the cup and poured a second cup of tea. He placed the second steaming cup on the opposite end of the table, then folded his hands around his own cup again.

    He took a sip of the tea. Jasmine. Exquisite. He exhaled, breath steaming as well, in satisfaction. “You must be a very stupid fellow,” he suddenly remarked loudly, as if to thin air.

    A moment’s silence. Then, from outside the door beyond which the balcony he had just been standing on the edge of lay, came two words. “How so?”

    Matheius took another slow sip of tea before responding. “It is warm in here. It is cold outside. There’s tea to drink in here. There’s only the wind to dine on outside. And yet, you’ve been hiding on the roof for nearly fifteen minutes, now. Do you not consider that to be quite stupid?”

    A light, easy laugh wafted in from outside. “That isn’t being stupid.”

    “What is it, then?” Matheius asked.

    “Being polite.”

    “Being polite?”

    “The host hasn’t invited me to come inside, nor has he offered me anything to drink. It would be impolite for me to simply impose myself.”

    Matheius smiled. Just a little. Leaving his scabbard and sword on the table, he picked up the second cup of tea which he had poured and rose to his feet. He walked to the balcony once more, a cup of steaming tea in each hand. “I’m inviting you now,” he called out to the cold wind. “I suggest you hurry, before the tea gets cold.”

    A white, cloaked mass hurtled down from the rooftop above, dropping down at least ten, fifteen feet to the balcony below. It landed on its feet in perfect form, directly in front of Matheius. The man threw back his hood. Matheius nodded to himself. As he had suspected, it was the white-robed swordsman from earlier.

    “Thanks for the offer,” the man said with an easy smile. “I thought I would freeze before you would make one.” Reaching out, he took a cup of tea from Matheius’s right hand.

    Matheius had kept his composure the entire time. With a polite smile of his own, he gestured with his now free hand towards the interior of the room. “Shall we? Before the tea gets cold.”

    __________________________________________________ ______________

    The tea was cold. Regretfully, Matheius had to pour each of them a new cup. What a waste, he thought to himself. It was excellent tea.

    The man in white, with those disturbing, milky eyes sat opposite to him, at the other end of the table. He inclined his head politely as Matheius offered him the second cup of steaming jasmine tea.

    Neither of them said anything, simply sitting with their hands around their own cups of tea. Their swords, sheathed, rested on the table in front of each of them.

    Smoky wisps and tendrils of steam rose from the two cups, forming a slight haze between their two faces, as the two men studied each other. Both were impressed by what they saw, though neither showed it visibly.

    This man, Matheius thought to himself, is like the killing frost which dances upon crops and flowers. They would wither away at his touch, and he would not even care. Or notice. Despite the seemingly genuinely warm smile on the man’s face, a vague aura of a cold, killing intent surrounded him. And those pupil-less eyes...

    Frost, as well, was examining Matheius, who in contrast to him, was not smiling. What hard blue eyes, he marveled to himself. Impenetrable and unreadable. I cannot get a fix on his thoughts at all. I’ve only ever met one man like him.

    He, Frost decided, is like a wolf crouched down low, tensed, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice with all his energies focused. Frost could feel an almost feral, restless aura surround the man, held in abeyance. When he releases it, who might stop him?

    Simultaneously, they raised their cups of tea. “My name is Frost.” “Matheius.” The two cups clinked together. And at this moment, both of their free hands moved in a blur, drawing their swords and striking at each other with nearly incomprehensible speed. Few onlookers would have been able to tell who struck first.

    Clang! Clang! Clang! Three times, the sound of metal striking on metal rang out in the room, then with a silent hiss, both swords were sheathed again. Neither of them had spilt so much as single drop of the tea in the cup they were holding during that exchange. Both, once again, were secretly impressed.

    Matheius was the first to take a sip from his cup. “Fast,” he commented. And deadly. You were aiming at fatal points with all three strikes. If I had been only slightly slower in defending, you would’ve taken my life. Why?

    “You too,” was Frost’s smiling reply, as he tipped his cup towards Matheius, before also taking a sip, then setting the cup down. I took the initiative and struck three times by surprise, and yet you were only a hairs breadth behind in speed. You are someone worth getting to know. And I have heard your name before, somewhere...

    Neither man voiced their inner thoughts. “Good sword,” Matheius suddenly said. Secretly, he was suspicious. He had noticed the dark metal of the blade. Compared to his own, only the shape of Frost’s blade, wavy to his blade’s slightly curved shape, was different. “How did you obtain it?” Was this man a servant of the Savants?

    “I killed someone for it,” Frost replied casually. Which was the truth, in a sense. “You have a good sword as well. How about you?” Matheius’s thoughts flickered back to the deaths of Elaiana, Vast, and so many others at his hands. At the hands of this sword. “Something like that as well.”

    Frost chuckled, and nodded. “I’m not surprised,” he remarked. “Such weapons, I will wager, rarely pass from one person to another by peaceful means.” Matheius made no reply, simply shrugging slightly. “So,” Frost continued. “What brings someone like yourself to a miserable place like this? On assignment from your House?”

    A flicker of contempt crossed Matheius’s face, a flicker which Frost noted and filed away. “I have no...’House’.” “Oh? Then let me rephrase. What brings a rounin or an outlaw with skills like yourself, to a place like this?”

    Matheius paused for a long moment, taking a sip of tea as he tried to decide how he wanted to answer this question. Finally, he gave the simple truth. “I have questions,” he said, “and I am looking for answers.”

    Frost laughed. It was a light, free sound, unrestrained. “And you thought you’d find them here?” He said, an amused, incredulous smile on his face. Matheius smiled back ever so slightly. In contrast, his features were restrained. Instead of replying, he asked, “And what are you doing here, then? The same question could be asked of you.”

    Frost twisted his lips into a grimace. “Believe it or not, I was just wandering around various places in the land and seeking adventure, or at least something interesting. I assure you, incidentally, that there is neither in this place.” Well. He amended the later to himself. There is now.

    Matheius nodded, but made no reply, seeming content to enjoy his tea in silence instead. Again, it was Frost who broke the silence. “Why haven’t I ever heard of you before?” He asked, curiosity in his voice. “Who taught you how to fight? Where are you from?”

    Matheius glanced over the top of his teacup at Frost. For a moment, he said nothing. Then, he asked, “Have I asked you who your master was? What school you belong to? What your background is?” Frost chuckled slightly. “Well...no.” “Then do you asking me?” Matheius responded.

    Frost set down his cup, a placid smile on his face. “I am not asking you,” was his reply. Unlike last time, when he unsheathed his sword, the motion was slow. He pointed the ebony blade directly at Matheius. The point of the blade came to a halt only inches away from Matheius’ right eye. “My sword is.”

    Matheius did not so much as blink, despite the tip of the sword being so close to his eyeball. For a long moment, he simply sat there, unmoving. And then, with a blaze of speed, he drew his own sword and slashed upwards with a blow that split the table in half and knocked Frost’s sword back.

    The table fell apart into its halves, but neither man noticed. In contrast to their earlier bursts of speed, they now circled each other slowly, looking for an opening. A slight smile was on Frost’s face, and he was the first to strike. In a blur of motion, his wavy blade hissed through the air towards Matheius, flickering to and fro like the uncoiling of a venomous snake unleashed.

    Fast! Matheius thought to himself as he blocked blow after blow. Apparently, in that first exchange, Frost had been holding back. Not unexpected. He was probably holding back even now, as well.

    His own face was an expressionless mask as he fought. Total concentration on each and every blow launched by Frost against him was needed. Frost’s wavy blade struck with not only the speed of a viper, but with its unpredictability as well. Each attack fluctuated with wild variance, yet also cohesively flowed with previous strikes.

    After retreating six steps and blocking or dodging six attacks, with his back almost to the wall, Matheius spotted an opening and launched his counterattack. Now it was Frost’s turn to be surprised.

    Matheius’ curved sword struck out towards him in a series of blindingly fast thrusts that produced a whistling sound with each thrust, as though it had cut the very air itself and the air was howling with pain.

    Now it was Frost who was driven back and retreated six steps. That arcing blade, he thought to himself, is like the fangs or the claws of some feral beast striking at its prey. Matheius’ blows were not only fast but accurate and incomparably deadly.

    Each of them had launched six attacks, and retreated six steps. Now, once more, they circled each other. Neither had met such a worthy opponent in a long time, and the natural competitive fighting spirit of both men was greatly roused, now.

    The smile was gone from Frost’s face, and his expressionless features were now a mirror of Matheius’ own as the two continued to circle each other. Both now had at least a degree of familiarity with each other’s style. The next exchange, both men knew, would determine who would hold the upper hand in this duel.

    But precisely at the moment before they were about to strike, a knock came at the door. Neither man moved. Neither man even looked away. That would be offering the other too great an advantage.

    “Come in,” Matheius said tersely. The door opened. A young servant walked in, with another steaming teapot on a tray. “I thought you’d like some...”

    The servant’s voice trailed off as he beheld the sight. The shards of two broken tea cups were on the ground near the two halves of the table. A colorless puddle of tea was on the carpeted floor, and the puddle was slowly growing as liquid continued to drip out of the upended teapot.

    He turned his eyes away from the sight of the wrecked table, and to the two men facing each other, neither looking at him. An unsheathed ebony blade was in each of the men’s hands. The tension in the room was thick enough to choke on.

    “More tea?” He finished the sentence after a long pause. No one spoke for a full minute. Then, Matheius answered, eyes still on Frost’s sword, “Yes, thank you. We will need a new table as well, and two more cups.”

    Seeming a bit uncertain of his actions, the servant slowly placed the tray on the floor. “Ah, yes, sir. I’ll get some people to come here right away to clean up.” Then he fled the room.

    The tension, which was at its height mere moments ago, had dissipated away with the servant’s arrival and departure. Frost was the first to sheath his sword, a smile on his face again. With a laugh, he said, “Good man. Good sword!” Matheius let the faintest outline of a genuine smile appear on his face as well. He had to admit, he had enjoyed that. “You too.”

    The governor’s household staff was fast, and efficient. In under ten minutes, they had cleaned the room up and brought in new table, and two more teacups. If some of them glanced askance at the mess, none of them dared say anything. The two men had swords, and one of them was, apparently, their lord’s superior.

    Matheius and Frost reseated themselves, and each poured the other some tea. The atmosphere had completely changed now. The slightly challenging aura Frost had extruded earlier had completely dissipated, and Matheius allowed himself to relax slightly as well.

    In companionable silence, they enjoyed the tea. This batch was green bamboo tea, with a clear, light taste that perfectly suited the mood. Frost suddenly spoke. “Let’s be friends,” he suggested. Simple and direct.

    Matheius smiled. It was a sad smile, and his hard blue eyes softened slightly, showing the unspeakable bitterness in his heart. “That isn’t a good idea,” he replied quietly. “Why is that?” Frost asked, a casual smile of his own playing on his face.

    Elaiana. Vast. Arakan. Rydion. Pavain. A stream of names and faces flickered through his mind. All dead. “Every one of my friends ended up dying because of me,” was Matheius’ quiet response. Frost’s milky white eyes widened slightly, before he smiled. “Interesting. Very interesting.” Frost tapped the top of his cup once, letting his finger idly circle its rim. “I love interesting experiences. Think you can get me to die as well?” Those milky white eyes seemed to twinkle.

    Changing the topic, Frost asked, “So then, what now, Matheius? Have you found the answers to the questions you have?” Slowly, Matheius shook his head. “I’m not even sure if I’m asking the right questions, or what the right questions are.”

    Frost pursed his lips. “Well then. You’ll have a devil of a time with it, having neither questions nor answers.” Matheius looked up sharply at Frost. Was he being mocked? Frost looked back at him steadily, smiling but not in a derisive way. Matheius forced himself to relax, and nodded. What the man had said was nothing more than the truth, after all.

    Another long period of silence passed. Every so often, either Matheius or Frost would refill their cup of tea, and a new puff of steam would rise from their cups. “Do you have any suggestions?” Matheius suddenly asked, as his fingers toyed with the cup. “If you were a person seeking both questions and answers, where would you go?”

    “That might not be the best question to ask a wanderer like me,” was Frost’s smiling reply, but his milky eyes seemed thoughtful.

    After a few moments of thoughtful silence, Frost answered, “I have three suggestions to give, if you’d care to listen to them.” Matheius nodded. “I’d appreciate that. Thanks.” “It is said that the elder Savants are both powerful and wise. Perhaps they might be of help. That would be my first suggestion.”

    Immediately, Matheius shook his head. Unacceptable. He wanted to get rid of them, not consult them. “No Savants.” Frost raised his eyebrow at the immediate refusal, then shrugged. “Then perhaps the gods may be of assistance. I know not if you are devout, but many who have questions turn to the gods for answers.”

    A faint smile. “I know you aren’t even sure what your questions are, but perhaps you could ask them for that as well, if you have a close relationship.” Matheius chuckled slightly at that, once again starting to shake his head, but more slowly this time. Then, he paused, and nodded instead. “That might be an idea. Your third?”

    “Well,” Frost said slowly, “It is said that there is an island named Verdina, far off the western coast, past the White Cliffs of Ankbar. There, according to rumors and stories, there are witches who are lore-wise in strange secrets and mysteries.”

    Verdina. Elaiana had promised him so many times, in the past, that she would take him there, eventually. It was a place of great beauty and mystery, she had told him. The Seers of Verdina were held in the highest of respect, even in his own era, when all other types of magic-users and sorcerers were scorned and reviled.

    “They aren’t witches,” he said, more harshly than he intended to. “They are Seers.” Frost raised his eyebrow again at the semi-outburst.

    “In any case,” Matheius tempered his voice, “That probably isn’t a good idea.” Frost nodded at him. “Just as well. The place is more of an old wives tale, I would imagine, anyhow. Whatever power it might once have had was probably long since lost when the great Savant Lords invaded it over two hundred years ago. Still,” Frost shrugged. “It might be an interesting place to visit. Just to see what it was like.”

    The delicate porcelain teacup shattered in Matheius’ hand. He had squeezed it far too tightly. Tea mixed with blood from a few small cuts in his hand poured all across the table again. Frost winced. “Poor governor Casrin. That’s the third cup today.”

    Despite his lightly jesting words, his eyes never left Matheius’ face, analyzing the mixture of rage and grief which had flickered across it. You really are quite the interesting fellow, Frost said to himself.

    “I think,” Matheius said, carefully, after he had wrapped some cloth around the cuts in his hand and mastered himself, “That the second idea you offered might be the best. Where is the nearest major temple?”

    “Sarkham,” Frost replied immediately. “It’s the local capital of this province. That’s not saying much, mind you, but it’s still considerably better than this miserable place.”

    Sarkham. Matheius remembered that city. He remembered its temple as well. He had been there before, a lifetime ago. It was as beautiful a city as there was anywhere, and its ivory white walls an attraction which tourists traveled the country across to see. “Fifty leagues north-northeast of here?” Frost nodded at Matheius. “So you know the place after all,” Frost remarked. “What do you say?”

    Matheius drummed his hands once on the table. “I don’t have a better idea,” he replied, “So I guess Sarkham it is. It’s a city worth seeing again, anyhow.” Frost blinked at Matheius. “Sarkham?” He shrugged. “To each his own taste, I suppose. When do we leave.”

    Matheius looked at Frost sharply. “We? You are coming along?” “But of course!” Frost replied, with an air of injured surprise. “It was my idea, after all. Why shouldn’t I come along?”

    “Because it isn’t your business,” Matheius replied bluntly. Frost smiled. “But it seems interesting,” he countered, “And I am only in this miserable place because I thought I’d find something interesting here.” Frost paused. “And besides,” he added after a moment, “My friend’s business is my business.”

    Matheius was silent for a long moment, seemingly focused on playing with the shards of shattered porcelain. Then, he made his reply. “Tomorrow.” Frost grinned. “Find your own bedroom, though,” Matheius added. “You can’t have this one.”

    With a chuckle, Frost rose to his feet. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” With his right hand, he lifted his sheathed sword, baring a single inch of it and waved it at Matheius. “Governor Casrin was so obliging with providing a room for one devout servant of the Master, I’m sure he won’t mind providing a second.”

    As if mirroring his smile, the black metal of the blade twinkled merrily at Matheius. With a bit of a saunter, he exited the room, leaving a bemused Matheius staring after him.

    Matheius continued to stare at the closed door for a long time after Frost had departed. Long minutes passed. He could only shrug to himself. Then he went to bed.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

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    thanks 4 the update; u r making me 4 more

  11. #11
    Senior Member Grundle's Avatar
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    I generally don't care for fan fictions, but this is really good stuff. Thanks for sharing this RWX. I hope you continue to update, I'm really enjoying the world you are creating for us.
    --=={Grundle}==--

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    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Chapter 6: Elaiana’s Face

    The journey to Sarkham would take two nights and three days by horseback. Frost already had one in Trentsdown, the stallion which he had ridden to get here. Unsurprisingly, it was white.

    That left Matheius to find his own means of transportation. At first, he had thought he could requisition one from the governor, only to find that Casrin usually traveled by palanquin. What’s more, he discovered, Casrin had secluded himself after the headless corpse of his son had been found at the tavern.

    Upon hearing the news, Matheius glanced sharply at Frost, who had waken up as early as he did. Frost simply smiled back at him with his usual, good-natured smile, then spread his hands wide and shrugged. Matheius asked no questions. Frost told no lies.

    The two scoured the cities for hours with a heavy bag of coin provided by the warden of the governor’s estate, searching for a horse. Unfortunately, no one in the town seemed to have one, save for an old farmer with a old gray nag that looked as though it couldn’t carry a child, much less a fully grown man. The farmer assured them, however, that the horse was strong enough.

    There was nothing for it. Matheius could only shake his head. He wasn’t going to run all the way to Sarkham. Not in this sun. The daytime sun was vicious, and it was as infernally hot by day as it was fearfully cold by night.

    With a heavy heart, he paid an exorbitant amount of gold for that nag, and mounted the horse with more than a little trepidation. The nag rolled his eyes back at Matheius and whinnied reproachfully as he did so, but seemed to be able to hold his weight after all. Matheius was pleasantly surprised.

    If he was pleasantly surprised by the nag’s capabilities, he was considerably less pleased by the state of the terrain north of the city. Once, the land here had been filled with countless leagues of rolling, grassy plains, stretching beyond the horizon, farther than any eye could see.

    The land had been green, then. Green and verdant. Even when the wars came, and the hooves of warhorses rent the earth and the spells of sorcerers burned the land, it had been a beautiful if damaged sight.

    There was no grass here anymore. The green plains of his memories had been replaced by a dry, parched landscape which was no doubt responsible for the dust storms which had swept Trentsdown so often by day. Small clouds of dried dirt were kicked up with each step that the two trotting horses took, forming minor plumes of dust which hung in the air behind them.

    Several times, Matheius thought about asking Frost what happened here, about what had caused the land to become this way. Each time, he decided not to in the end. Even if he got an answer, it would only put more questions in Frost’s head.

    Matheius preferred to keep his cards closer to his chest. Even with, or perhaps especially with, this new ‘friend’ of his. For most of the ride, he was silent. Frost, on the other hand, was filled with stories and anecdotes. Many of them were honestly funny, as well. Some were nothing short of ribald. If Matheius didn’t know better, he would’ve thought Frost to be rather akin to a court jester.

    Matheius knew better.

    The sun beat down on them, and the ground seemed to turn drier and drier with each step north they took. The great plains of the past had turned into a dry, dusty desert. The wind blew the entire day. Both man and horse were coated in a layer of fine dust, casting the two with a dirty yellow sheen.

    More than a few times, Matheius cleared his throat and spat. It was a filthy habit, but he couldn’t help it. It felt as though his mouth was filled with the damned dust and soil. He was marginally gratified to see Frost do the same thing. Marginally. One more thing to add to the account of the Savants, he thought to himself grimly. That list he was keeping in his mind grew unceasingly.

    Night came, and the two men made camp. Matheius wanted to keep going, but Frost flatly refused. It was even more miserable traveling at night, he warned, than during the day. And the horses needed rest, even if the two of them did not. Especially, he added with a smirk, that nag Matheius rode.

    Reluctantly, Matheius agreed. His horse did seem to be staggering, and this place…this place did make for rather miserable traveling. It shouldn’t be, an annoyed, petulant part of his mind said, but he ignored it. It was, and that was that.

    At least, it had been annoying for him. It was with more than a little astonishment, and considerable suspicion that Matheius noticed something rather peculiar. The days travel had coated Matheius with dust and fine sand, changing the color of his clothes almost entirely. But Frost’s white cloak seemed to be completely untouched, and was still as pristine as when he had first seen him in the tavern.

    When asked, Frost merely grinned in a cheeky way, then placed a single finger against the side of his nose. He tapped it, winked, then began to set up camp. Evidently, he had no interests of divulging his secrets.

    That night, as with every previous night, Matheius found it difficult to fall sleep. It wasn’t because the ground underneath him was hard. At least, it wasn’t solely due to that. He had too many thoughts on his mind. His eyes faced the heavens, but unlike the previous night in Trentsdown, there was nothing to see. The night sky had been blotted out by dirty looking brown clouds. Even the twin moons were blocked out.

    There was another reason Matheius found it difficult to fall asleep. It was that Frost didn’t seem to have any trouble sleeping at all, and was proving it via his loud snores. Matheius wouldn’t have thought Frost to be the type who snored. The sound was loud enough that he even considered the possibility that Frost might be awake and playing a joke on him.

    As a test, Matheius quietly pulled his sword out, the blade glittering darkly in the night. Carefully, precisely, he swung it directly at Frost’s neck, stopping it less than a hair away from Frost’s throat.

    Frost didn’t react at all, except to snore again, causing his throat to rise enough so that Matheius was forced to pull the blade back, for fear of actually cutting him. With a look of disgust, Matheius shoved his sword back into its sheath, then turned away, covering his ears to try and muffle the sound

    After an hour or so, Matheius had enough. Casting a dark glance to Frost’s blissfully sleeping form, he quietly rose to his feet. The ground wasn’t comfortable, he wasn’t in the mood, and the snores kept him awake even if the other two did not.

    The old gray horse he rode seemed to be awake as well. He snorted at Matheius once. “Easy, old man, easy,” Matheius murmured, letting a hand rise up to rest on the horse’s stringy neck. “You can’t blame me if you aren’t able to fall asleep. If you want to blame anyone, blame him.” He pointed to Frost’s snoring form.

    The horse let out a whinny of disapproval. In an all-too human manner, the horse turned, ‘shrugging’ off his hand with an offended air. Matheius chuckled, softly, and shook his head. Even the horse was in a bad mood.

    He decided to take a walk. The destination didn’t matter. He just had to get away from this infernally noisy sleeper for a while. It was a good thing, a damn good thing, he thought to himself, that he had kicked Frost out of his room last night at the manor.

    Matheius inhaled lightly. The night air was fresh and clean, free of the dust which had been driven up by the hoof steps of their horses, and the wind. He walked slowly, barely disturbing the ground beneath him as he made his way east from the camp.

    Unlike the previous day, the wind had died down at the fall of night, despite Frost’s dire predictions of the night being worse than the day. Probably made it up on the spot to ensure that he would get his sleep, Matheius thought to himself sourly.

    With the wind having come to a still, the flying dust had settled as well. The farther he walked away from the camp, the smaller the sound of Frost’s snoring became, until finally, it too disappeared.

    Compared to the howling, screaming wind of the day, and the equally terrible fury of Frost at night, the sudden quiet seemed almost unnatural. For a long moment, Matheius held his breath and closed his eyes to see if he could hear anything at all.

    Not a thing, besides the beating of his own heart. Most likely because little to nothing lived here, he decided. Seized by a sudden impulse, Matheius lifted his head towards the heavens and shouted once with all his might. The sound seemed to echo and reverberate across the desert landscape, a wordless cry in the night.

    Matheius kept on yelling until his breath was gone. Then, he took a breath and yelled again. And again. Three times, Matheius roared into the clouded night sky. Three times, the sound of his voice reverberated across the dry, wasted land. And then, after the echoes of his third cry began to fade, he fell silent.

    The desert fell silent as well. It seemed even more quiet than before Matheius had shouted. Matheius sighed softly. Suddenly, he felt very tired. Just as he turned to return to the camp, Matheius caught sight of something curious, eastwards off in the distance. It seemed human proportioned.

    Bemused, Matheius stopped and turned to watch as it came closer. Someone else was wandering this godforsaken badlands as well? As it came closer, he was able to make out its features better. It was a woman.

    A slender, lithe body, dressed in what seemed to be a brown gown. Her hair hung down, free and unbound, golden tresses wreathed around her shoulders. He continued to watch, bemused, as she made her way towards him, before stopping fifty feet away.

    It was difficult to make out her features in the dark of night, and she was far away. He could see her eyes, but not make out their color. He was able to see little else of her face. Those eyes seemed to stare at him with a distant, knowing gaze.

    There was something familiar about her posture. Something familiar about those eyes, that way she looked at him. And then, suddenly, his bemusement faded away, replaced by shock. “Elaiana?” He whispered aloud.

    The shock turned into certainty. It was her. He didn’t know how it could be possible, but it was her. He was sure of it. “Elaiana!” He called out again. He wanted to run towards her, wanted to embrace her, but his body seemed had turned weak, unable to move.

    Run, damn you! He cried to his legs, but they ignored both his mental and physical commands. Helpless, he raised his head from his feet to gaze at the woman. He wanted to shout, he wanted to sing, he wanted to cry, he wanted to laugh. But his throat had become struck by the same malady which afflicted his legs, and nothing came out.

    All he was able to do was lift one arm beseechingly towards her. Come to me, Elaiana. His arm strained towards her, as though trying to stretch across all that distance to touch her, to caress that beloved face. Long minutes passed, as the woman gazed at Matheius. Neither of them moved. Then, slowly, she turned her gaze away, and began walking back in the direction she had come from.

    Her impending departure seemed to be able to shock his body out of its frozen state. “Elaiana!” He screamed again, and suddenly, he was able to move. Without any other thoughts in his mind, he began to run after her, to pursue her. He couldn’t let her get away.

    He chased. For what felt like leagues on leagues, he chased. His footsteps rang unnaturally loud on the hard ground, creating a series of rapid, cracking sounds. He sped across the desert, and if a bird had passed by and looked down from the sky, it would have seen a steady line of dust grow longer and longer, in an eastward direction.

    He could barely breathe. Once more the dry desert dust, kicked up by his movements, clogged his throat. His chest burned with fierce, sharp pain, and what air did manage to make its way to his lungs was no longer clean and pure. It tasted of the desert.

    How far had he ran? How long had he ran? How much longer could he sustain the pace? He didn’t know, and he didn’t care, but slowly, he was beginning to despair. The woman’s pace never seemed to increase, and her steps over the cracked ground seemed slow and measured, but no matter how fast Matheius ran, he wasn’t able to catch up to her.

    In fact, she seemed to be getting father and farther away with each moment. Matheius screamed at her breathlessly, begged for her to stop as he continued to sprint, ignoring his body’s demands for him to slow down. But it was of no use. Farther and farther away she continued to walk with that slow, languid pace, until she disappeared into the night.

    By the time Matheius managed to make it to the place where he had last seen her, she was nowhere to be found. His legs gave out, and he collapsed to his knees. His legs were burning, his chest was burning, and his heart was thumping madly from both excitement and exertion.

    Once more, dust coated his entire body. There had been no wind, but his movements had kicked up a storm of particles that had stuck to him while he ran. Clenching his fist, he punched the ground again, and again. Each blow further cracked the already dried, already cracked ground, until the dirt had been fully ground down into fine particles which rose up and caked his face.

    He struck the ground until his hands were bloody, turning the dust red, then finally, he stopped. He was panting, swallowing in the dust with each breath, but he didn’t notice. Why, he asked himself quietly, then shouted aloud, “Why!”

    Why had she appeared only to disappear? Was it to torment him? Yes, that must have been it, he decided. And he deserved it, too. But just as he was beginning to sink even deeper into despair, she appeared again.

    “Elaiana,” he whispered, as she glided towards him, feet not seeming to touch the ground. He remained on his knees, too tired or too stunned to rise up. He could see her face now. See her hair, see her lips, those lips that always smiled in that mysterious way which had so allured him from the day he met her. See those wise gray eyes that did see through him, as Vast had warned, but which accepted him nonetheless.

    “Elaiana,” he began to say again; the only word in his vocabulary, it seemed. But she shook her head, smiled at him, pressing a finger to her lips as she came ever closer. He bowed his head, and fell silent.

    Slowly, majestically, she glided across the earth. So elegant was every movement, that to Matheius’ adoring eyes, it was as though a goddess had descended from the heavens, to offer succor to a poor mortal such as him.

    She came to a halt directly in front of him. With tremulous eyes, he looked up at her from his kneeling position. Gently, she placed those small, perfect hands of hers on his cheeks. He shivered slightly at her touch. They were cold, but he didn’t mind.

    Those hands lifted his head upwards, tilting his face up towards hers. Her head began to descend towards his, lips parted slightly. She was going to kiss him. Matheius sighed, softly, and closed his eyes.

    Their lips met. Like her hands, her lips were cold, but as with the hands, Matheius barely noticed, and didn’t care at all. The moment was too perfect for him to care about petty things such as that.

    Her lips, if cold, were soft. It was a gentle kiss. A chaste kiss. But it was enough to steal his breath away. Steal his mind away. Steal his very soul away. He sighed into the kiss, eyes still closed, as his body begin to slump downwards, being held up only by her two perfect, cold hands.

    Strange, how sleepy and how tired he suddenly felt. He was tired from the run, he decided in a half-conscious state, as his mind begin to swirl downwards into darkness. He was tired from the run, and the shock of seeing her again. The shock of…seeing…Elai-…

    But just as he was about to let himself fully fall asleep and slumber in her gentle arms, her hands withdrew from his face, her lips jerked back from his, and she screamed. It was a terrible scream, as horrifying a scream as he had ever heard any person, man or woman, make.

    Stunned, he opened his eyes. An entire foot of dark steel had been thrust into her chest. Turning his head, he saw Frost, who had that omnipresent smile on his face.

    Matheius was outraged. How dare Frost stab her! Sheer rage drove him to his feet, re-energized his enervated body. He knew it was a bad idea to make friends with this wanton killer, this rogue. Just as he was about to rise up and attack Frost, to break his bones and strangle the life out of him, Elaiana screamed again.

    “Elaiana!” His head whipped around to face her again. Then, more hesitantly, “Elaiana?” Elaiana had backed away from the sword, trembling a few feet away, gray eyes filled with rage and malevolent hatred. Except...it wasn’t Elaiana.

    Before Matheius’s wide, disbelieving eyes, the image of Elaiana seemed to melt away in front of him. The gray eyes were the first to disappear, replaced by hollow, empty sockets. The golden hair turned a diseased black. Then the face changed as well, followed by the rest of her body.

    Standing before him was some vile creature from the depths of some necromancer’s dark dream. Once, perhaps, it might’ve been a woman, but it was no longer. Its body was decayed and rotted, a thing of darkness with features of pure evil.

    The creature hovered in the air in front of them. It had no legs, its body seemingly non-existent beneath its torso, trailing away into misty black vapors. Its arms were unnaturally long and thin, with the appearance of bone covered by darkly transparent flesh. The fingers on its two hands were unnaturally long and were clawed as well, giving the impression of being like long twigs of a branch of some cursed tree, straining to grasp, claw, and rend its prey.

    Only its face seemed even remotely natural, save for those empty, socket-less eyes. Its face was no longer Elaiana’s face now, but it was still the face of a beautiful woman. At least, it would have been, were it not mottled by a hatred and rage that so twisted that face that its very beauty became an object of sheer, hideous terror.

    She screamed again, the sound putting Matheius’ earlier cries into the night sky to shame. Conversationally, Frost said, by Matheius’s side, “Wind banshee. Almost sucked your soul out. You need to be more careful. Not going to wake up from that.” He tossed Matheius something. Dazed, Matheius caught it, slowly rising to his feet. It was his sword. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” Frost said, patting Matheius on the back. “These things are a pain in the *** to kill.”

    Matheius didn’t move. He was transfixed by the sight of that evil, foul undead thing, which hovered in the air in front of him. The earlier wound from Frost’s sword had already closed, he noted distantly. Frost was right. These things were a pain in the ***.

    As if to punctuate the point, the creature chose that moment to attack, swinging down its wickedly sharp claws at Matheius, who didn’t move. His mind, which had been clear with rage against Frost moments earlier, suddenly felt tired and confused again. Rather stupidly, he simply watched as the banshee’s clawed hands descended towards him.

    A second time, that night, Frost came to the rescue. With a powerful side-shove, he pushed Matheius away just in the nick of the time, as he blocked that blow with his sword, staggering backwards a little from the blow.

    “You’re a pain in the *** too,” he muttered, casting a sidelong glance at Matheius’ fallen form, which lay where he had shoved it. With a grimace, he blocked another blow from the wind banshee, this one aimed at him. His arm shook slightly from the effort.

    Normally, in a situation like this, he would’ve simply left. These types of creatures were powerful and difficult, but slow. There was no way they could catch up to him. But if he left, Matheius, still dazed from the life-draining kiss, would surely die.

    There was nothing for it, he decided, as he began to dodge the attacks instead of blocking them. He’d have to stay and play for a little while. Frost really hoped Matheius would prove to be worth this trouble. He’d hate to be disappointed, and he already was, a little.

    Long minutes passed, as Matheius simply watched Frost and the banshee fight, a rather stupid look on his face that matched his mind. Finally, a single coherent thought came to his mind. Where’s Elaiana? Followed shortly by, that’s not her. Struggling mightily to connect the logical dots, he took the next mental step. It pretended to be Elaiana? He nodded. That sounded right. It pretended to be Elaiana…to kill me.

    His eyes shot wide as he finally reached that conclusion, then they narrowed as he rose to his feet. The bone-deep tiredness which had set in him when the banshee had kissed him was swept away utterly by a growing rage which filled him. Slowly, his face became a terrible, distorted mask, and the anger and hate in his eyes matched that of the wind banshee itself.

    “You dare,” he growled out. “You dare take her image, you putrid, hideous thing?” The fact that she had tried to kill him was a relatively small, unimportant one. Many people tried. But the thought that she had assumed the visage of Elaiana...

    Pausing in its attacks against Frost, the banshee screamed at him again, in reply. He withstood the scream, shrugged off the heart-stopping fear which it induced. And then he said, in a strangled voice as he struggled to control himself, “You. Are going to die.”

    Seizing the opportunity of the lull in combat, Frost executed a back flip away from the banshee, landing besides Matheius. He hadn’t been injured yet, having focused most of his energy on avoiding its attacks.

    His own attacks, Frost well knew, wouldn’t do much to it, unless he was willing to expend considerably more effort than this was worth. “Back up? Then let’s leave. I told you, these things are a pain...” Frost began to say, but then he stopped. Matheius had already begun the attack.

    Like an arrow released from a bow, Matheius shot towards the wind banshee, sword lifted overhand for a powerful cut. With a roar, he brought the sword down towards its head. It blocked with one of its spindly, clawed hands, and the impact made Matheius’ entire body shudder. Then, it struck back with the free hand.

    Matheius barely managed to withdraw his sword in time and block the blow. Nonetheless, the force of it sent him sprawling back a few feet. The creature’s strength was as hideous as its appearance, he thought to himself grimly, and stared straight at it. Before his very eyes, the deep cut which he had made in the blocking hand began to heal. It had been half-severed from the blow, but within moments, it had disappeared.

    Again, Matheius charged in headlong. Again, he cut deep into its arm, and again, it struck back. This time, he wasn’t able to dodge quickly enough, and three deep furrows were carved into his face by the creature’s claws.

    They had traded a blow for a blow, but as Matheius’ blood dripped down his face, the cut on the banshee’s arm healed, closing in seconds until it appeared as though it had never been made.

    The banshee screamed again at him. This time, there was a mocking element to the sound. In an unmistakable gesture, it reached out with the now-healed hand and pointed at him, then crooked its fingers. Come hither, it was saying.

    Fine. Matheius narrowed his eyes. If he couldn’t match it for strength, strength wasn’t his forte anyways. His eyes were cold, hard and hungry, and his smile so feral, so beast-like, even the wind banshee seemed momentarily disconcerted. Strength wasn’t his forte. Speed was.

    His body became a blur as he sped towards the banshee. It swung at him, missing wildly and received a nick in the process. Almost before the wound had been made, it closed.

    Faster and faster, Matheius sped around the banshee, sword flickering out with perfect accuracy, landing each blow made. Faster and faster he circled, faster he faster he struck. Once more, the air was shattered by screams. This time, though, the screams were not of the banshees making.

    The screaming sound came from the air around Matheius’ sword. Much like in his earlier, short battle with Frost, Matheius’ attacks came so quickly and fiercely that it the air itself howled. Except this time, the howls grew louder and louder, coming one after the other in rapid succession, until multiple howls filled the air.

    Call of the Pack! This was one of Matheius’ finest skills, one he had trained endlessly months on months to perfect. It propelled both body movement and sword arm to nearly the highest speeds attainable to the human body, launching a rainstorm of attacks on a single opponent from all directions whilest he circled it at superhuman speeds.

    He hadn’t planned to show it off in front of Frost so soon. He had intended to use it as a trump card if Frost suddenly turned against him for whatever reason, as he half-suspected Frost would. But at this moment, he no longer cared about that.

    Frost’s eyes were rapt with interest as he beheld the scene. If I hadn’t seen this, he mused to himself idly, I don’t know how I would’ve managed to cope. Unless…but the thought ended, as all of his attention was focused on the fight. His earlier disappointment in Matheius had been wiped away. The blademaster was worth the trouble after all.

    To the banshee caught in the middle, it seemed as though it was being attacked and bitten from all sides by an uncountable number of wolves, all slashing and biting at it. Wounds appeared across its entire body, deep and jagged, faster than even it could heal it. It couldn’t even think about counter-attacking, and instead simply tried to protect itself with its increasingly-damaged arms.

    Finally, one last trio of howls split the air, and with a series of powerful backhanded blows, Matheius cut off first its right arm, then its left, and lastly its head. Panting with the exertion, both from the many attacks launched as well as the power of those last three blows, he stumbled a few steps towards Frost, before turning to look at the creature.

    Slowly, the headless, armless form fell down to the ground, then toppled backwards to lie on the desert grounds. It ceased moving, and simply lay there. With a vicious smile on his face, Matheius turned to look back at Frost. “Killed it,” he stated. Frost raised an eyebrow, then wordlessly pointed back at the corpse of the wind banshee.

    Matheius’ head swiveled back. His eyes widened, then narrowed. The arms and head of the creature were being drawn back towards it, as if magnetically attracted. Reaching the torso, they attached themselves to it.

    With a cracking noise, the banshee rose up in the air again, ‘stretching’ a little. The lesser cuts had healed as well, by now. Once more, the wind banshee screamed a taunting scream, before making yet another beckoning motion towards Matheius. Come.

    “I told you,” Frost said, resting his hand on Matheius’ shoulder. “The damn things are hard to kill. Let’s just leave. They can’t chase quickly and don’t move fast either.”

    Matheius shrugged Frost’s hand off. He hadn’t even heard Frost’s words. His mind burned white hot with rage. Just as Frost was about to try and convince Matheius to leave again, he suddenly noticed that Matheius’ eyes seemed to have changed colors.

    Normally, they were blue, but now, they seemed to have turned a glowing, bloody red, as though reflecting the light now being given off from the ruby set in the pommel of his sword. That, too, Frost noticed, seemed brighter than before, gleaming in the darkness of the night despite the lack of light.

    All thoughts had fled Matheius’ mind. Even his rage at the banshee’s imitation of Elaiana had disappeared. Only one thought was left, one impulse. An urge to kill. It was overpowering, all-pervasive, and it would not be denied, even if he wanted to. And he didn’t want to deny it.

    Step by slow step, he walked towards the wind banshee, eyes glowing sanguine. The creature cocked its head at him, wondering what he was going to try now. Then, as he approached the reach of its wicked, clawed hands, it struck out at him.

    He didn’t dodge. The clawed hand pierced straight into his heart, and blood fountained from his chest. But at that moment, he thrust his sword, a black blade wreathed in blood red flame, straight for the creature’s core. It tried to block, but to no avail. The sword sliced through its arm as though it wasn’t there, plunging deep into its ancient, undead heart.

    The banshee screamed in pain, but it wasn’t afraid. The human had sustained a mortal wound. Its would heal in moments, and so it simply waited, confident that the human would fall over and die, soon.

    Surprisingly, though, the human didn’t die. An even greater shock came to the creature when it realized that its own wound wasn’t healing. Panic filled it, the first time it had felt fear in the long centuries since its death. It struggled to free its hand from Matheius’ heart, but Matheius’ free, right hand suddenly clenched on its wrist, preventing it from doing so.

    Frantically, it struggled, but to no avail. Matheius’ grip was unrelenting and strong. Far too strong for a dying man...and its own energy, somehow, was being drawn away into that sword.

    The banshee stared in disbelief as before its very eyes, something happened which only its own victims had ever seen. The three gashes on Matheius’ face and the fatal wound in his chest were closing, despite its claws still being in his chest.

    The sword was stealing its unlife, and it was going to die a final death. The realization came to the banshee, and for the first time, it truly looked at Matheius’ face. Recognition flared in those undead sockets. “You!” It tried to say, but it only managed to gurgle. It only had the energy left for that.

    The banshee began to disintegrate. Bits and pieces of it first began to drop off from it, turning into grave dust which fell quietly to the ground. Faster and faster, it began to fall apart, until only its head and torso remained.

    Matheius looked up into the banshees face. It was filled with fear instead of hate, now. Aside from those dark, socket-less eyes, the face might have been that of any beautiful, terrified woman. For some strange reason though, Matheius felt a profound sense of déjà vu, as though this had happened before. And as he locked gazes with it, it seemed as though it was trying to tell him something through its lidless gaze.

    He shrugged, once. He wasn’t particularly interested in what it might have to say. “I told you so,” he said, utterly calm now that the killing urges had faded away with the coming death of his opponent. And the rest of the banshee exploded into dust.

    The red light had faded away from his eyes and his sword, although the ruby set in the hilt of his sword seemed a little brighter than it was before. He stared down at the pile of grave dust in a slight daze, now that the killing urge had disappeared all of a sudden.

    Something sparkled in the middle of the pile of dust, and he reached down, bending to pick it up. It was a small pearl. Most likely, the focus for the banshee’s essence, which had kept it alive after death. Idly, he tucked it in a pouch.

    Matheius heard a clapping sound behind him. He swiveled, turning to see Frost applauding, a sardonic smile on his face. “Good job. Now can we go?” Frost asked, carefully hiding away the intense curiosity he felt. Matheius blinked, then let out a single, humorless chuckle. “Yeah. I guess.”

    Just as he was about to say more, a nameless fear suddenly gripped his heart out of nowhere. It was a fear which he could not place or determine the origin of, a fear so sudden and so strong, he almost broke down gibbering right then and there.

    Only his formidable self-control kept that from happening. Nonetheless, his face grayed, and his heart rate once again sped up. “Something the matter?” Frost asked. So he had noticed it after all. “Nothing,” Matheius replied, as steadily as possible. To hide the lie from both himself and Frost, he turned away, as if to look at his surroundings for the first time.

    Half-destroyed, crumbling buildings surrounded them. Objects long since ground down by the wind and by flying sand, were scattered all about them in rectangular positions. Even the ground beneath his feet had changed, from dry earth to some sort of smooth, flat material. He kicked downwards, and winced. Whatever it was, it was hard.

    This was once a city, he suddenly realized, but the ravages of time had laid waste to it long ago. The ruins stretched in all directions around the two, as far as the eye could see. Once, it must have been great. Crumbling, half-standing towers could be seen, soaring into the sky, even in their mangled state. Strange. How had he not seen them from a distance, earlier?

    Matheius turned his head back to Frost. “I know I shouldn’t be the one asking you this, but…” He paused, then shrugged.

    “Where the hell are we?”
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  13. #13
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    Hey - I liked your story so much that I went through the trouble of recovering my account here so that - well - I can say how much I liked your story. Keep it up bro, loving it so far.

    P.s. How come you're only releasing one chapter per week? Why not all 15? Can't stand the wait!

  14. #14
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    ttiet, it's because as I'm releasing, I'm also reviewing and revising
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  15. #15
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    Chapter 7: Even the Mighty Shall Tremble

    Frost’s reply was as flippant as ever. “Wherever the hell you led us,” he answered. Matheius raised an eyebrow at the answer. Something else had suddenly came to mind. “I didn’t lead you anywhere. How did you find me? How did you know where I was?” He asked. Frost rolled his eyes, as though begging for patience. “Your screaming from a while back woke me up. You have a loud voice, you know.”

    Matheius stared at Frost darkly. He still remembered those snores which had kept him from sleeping. “I headed in the direction of your shouts, and by the time I reached you, all I saw was you standing like an idiot, staring at nothing.”

    “I even called to you a couple times,” Frost continued. “But it didn’t look like you heard me. Then out of nowhere, you screamed somebody’s name and ran off like an idiot.” Matheius interrupted him. “You didn’t see anybody?” Frost shook his head. “You didn’t see a woman who walking away to the east?” Again, Frost shook his head. “The only person I saw,” Frost replied, “was you.”

    “Well.” He paused, then added sardonically, “Then later, the banshee. It took me a while to catch up to you. You were running pretty hard.” He wagged a finger at Matheius. “You were lucky that I managed to catch up to you when I did. Your date was a real man-eater,” he said, and he chuckled.

    Matheius ignored the light mockery for now. “But before we arrived here? You didn’t see anyone? There was a woman,” he insisted. “Maybe the banshee. She led me here.” A third time, with a hint of annoyance on his face, Frost shook his head, and Matheius fell silent.

    It was strange. Why would Frost have seen the banshee the second time, but not the first? Perhaps she was too far away, or perhaps Frost simply hadn’t been paying attention. Neither answer satisfied Matheius, but for now, he had no other answer. He did have more questions, though.

    “Why weren’t you affected by the glamour?” He asked Frost. Banshees wove powerful illusions that could fool nearly anybody, especially the unwary. The unwary, such as himself, he thought ruefully.

    It was one of the ways for them to both attract and immobilize their prey. Granted, the brunt of the glamour had been aimed at him, but even so, Frost had seemed to not have been affected at all.

    “Some people,” Frost said pompously, “Are not as easily charmed as you are.” He spoke with a mock-arrogant air and with his head upraised, radiating superiority. He ruined the effect immediately though by grinning at Matheius, then winking with those milky eyes. Once more he tapped the side of his nose. A secret, it would seem. Matheius hated secrets.

    “And a good thing for you, too,” Frost added. “You owe me.” Matheius bit his lower lip, hard. He didn’t like being in anyone’s debt, but Frost was right. He did owe him. Unwillingly, he nodded. “Twice!” Frost proclaimed immediately upon seeing the nod. “You owe me twice, as I saved you twice.”

    Matheius’ response was a snort. “I have only one life. I can’t owe it to someone twice.” Frost smirked. “Besides,” Matheius continued, “You wanted to see something interesting. Now you have. We’re square.”

    “I would hardly consider,” Frost proclaimed loftily, “A rotting old hag and some shabby ruins as interesting.” Conveniently, he skipped over everything else which had happened, but he did remind Matheius of his surroundings. He turned away from Frost to stare around him. Once more, Matheius was struck by the immensity of the place. The remnants of the city, even as ground down by time and wind as they had been, were imposing.

    Matheius had been in many cities, including Dimonde, capital of the entire kingdom. At night, Dimonde was lit up so brilliantly with lights that the city had seemed to glow. And by day, the throngs of people weaving amidst the streets and buildings seemed like a never-ending ocean. The first time he had entered the capital as a child, he had been awestruck, certain that it must be the most magnificent place in the world.

    And yet, Matheius was suddenly very sure, this city must have once surpassed it by far. Even the ruined remnants of it had a certain majesty and beauty within them. Half-standing archs rose higher than any of Dimonde’s architects could have dreamed of constructing, and decayed houses which had been built so perfectly that an aura of fineness still could be seen and felt, despite the passage of unknown ages.

    Many twisting spires dotted the landscape around them as well, spires that both he and Frost should have seen from afar, yet did not. And, towards the center of the city, off in the distance, a single spiraled tower sat, massive and tall. It had an unfinished look about it, but nonetheless it gave off an impression of reaching towards the heavens.

    Matheius was strangely drawn to the tower. For some inexplicable reason, it felt faintly familiar to him, as though he had seen it before. He turned to look at Frost, who was waiting patiently, arms folded. “How far did we run from camp to get here?” He asked. Frost furrowed his brows in thought, then replied, “I would say, around five or six leagues. You ran fast, though.”

    Matheius nodded somewhat impatiently. Speed wasn’t what he cared about. “If that’s the case, then how is it that we didn’t see any of this?” He waved an arm towards the ruins, and pointed at the central tower in particular.

    Frost opened his mouth, then closed it. “You know,” he said slowly, “That actually is a good question. Not to mention, how could this place lie so close to Trentsdown, and yet no one, myself included, ever have heard of it? Earlier, I was too busy chasing you down to pay attention to what was around me. And then this place just…appeared.”

    Matheius nodded. Even as Frost spoke, his head once more turned towards the great tower to the northeast. He couldn’t help it. He felt drawn to it, as though it were calling some part of him towards it. “Let’s go explore a bit,” he decided, although in truth, there was only one place which he wanted to explore.

    Frost shrugged. “Fine by me. Where to? That tower you cannot seem to keep your eyes off of?” Not that he particularly cared where exactly they would go. Interesting things seemed to surround this Matheius fellow, and he would follow to see them, for as long as he could.

    “No,” Matheius lied. He didn’t like being predicted so easily. For a while, his eyes had reflected the confusion, uncertainty, and other emotions which roiled within him. Now, they hardened into their usual unreadable appearance. Frost only laughed, then shrugged and spread his hands wide. “Your call.”

    Damn it. Stubbornly, Matheius refused to so much as look at the pillar, as he began began wandering aimlessly around, an amused Frost by his side. For over half an hour, they wandered in this manner, passing by building after ruined building. Pointedly ignoring the great tower, he instead focused all of his attention on anything and everything else.

    Despite its beauty and ancient majesty, the city felt...strange. Everything seemed off, in some way that Matheius couldn’t quite put his finger on. An alien feeling seemed to pervade the place. The sensation was akin to seeing a circle that, despite being perfectly shaped, did not seem to be round. Or a square with five sides, instead of four, yet still be a square.

    Pausing by the remains of a small house, Matheius paused and detoured from the main road, walking towards it. Standing besides it, he reached out with his right hand to touch the weathered surface, brushing away the dust. Strange. It felt smooth to the touch, impossibly so. The sensation was akin to that of touching a perfectly smooth mirror, or a piece of glass. His fingers slide right over the material.

    “What is it?” Frost had been waiting by the road, watching with a bored expression on his face. Matheius turned his head away from the wall to look back at him. “Why don’t you come and feel for yourself,” he invited. With an exaggerated sigh of patience, Frost also came to stand before the wrecked house. Reaching out as Matheius did, he brushed the thick layers of dust away from the wall, letting his fingers glide across its surface.

    His expression changed slightly, as Matheius’ had before him. Frost turned to look at Matheius for a moment, before returning his attention to the wall. Moving his hand, he brushed away dust from a larger portion of the wall, a few feet to the left.

    The result was the same. “Well, hello,” Frost said, softly, curious eyes entranced. “What have we here?” “I’d rather like to know as well,” Matheius answered. “Have a spare waterskin?” Frost nodded. He unfastened one by his side and tossed it to Matheius. “Catch.”

    Matheius caught the waterskin with one hand, then turned his attention to the house wall. He selected a relatively smaller section, then carefully begin pouring the water over it, from the top. The water seemed to chew straight through the layer of dust as it cascaded downwards. Matheius continued to pour until every last drop of water was gone, then ripped off a piece of his robes and finished the job, wiping away the last vestiges of dust and then stepped back.

    By his side, Frost whistled once. The cleaned wall now all but rippled with a dim light under the night sky. It was silver in color, but the evenness of the coloring and the texture would have put even the purest of silver to shame.

    Frost and Matheius traded intrigued side-glances. “I wonder,” Matheius softly said as he drew his sword, “How durable it is.” Save for the jagged edges of the wall, everything was as smooth as could be, and even those jagged edges seemed to be of one material and make. Lightly, Matheius tapped the wall with the flat of his blade. Ting. A gentle, soft ringing sound could be heard. He then tried again with the edge, to the same effect.

    Frost snorted at Matheius, drawing his own wickedly curved, serpentine blade. “It’s a ruined wall, not a precious artifact or relic. There’s thousands of these things,” he reminded Matheius. “Hit it harder.” And as if to make a point of it, he brought down his own sword against the wall with force.

    A deep, dull ringing sound was heard, as both the sword in his hand and the wall seemed to shudder slightly at the impact. Tightening his grip around it, Frost forced his own blade to cease quivering, then looked at the wall, which was trembling slightly from that blow.

    A single shallow scratch mark now marred the perfection of that smooth surface. After a few more seconds, the wall ceased to tremble, and the deep ringing sound faded away as well. Save for that single tiny scratch, it was as though Frost hadn’t done a thing to it at all.

    “Whatever it is made out of, it is tough,” Matheius murmured, and Frost nodded. “And yet, somehow it was destroyed, and all the buildings around it.” Once again, Matheius reached out to touch the edges of the wall, which had broken apart into so many separate pieces. He marveled at the smoothness of even the edges. “I wonder what happened to this place, and who built it?”

    Once again, he was struck by the alienness of the place, a feeling that was only amplified when his eyes unconsciously turned to rest once more on that tower which sat in the middle of the city. Mingled with the alienness was that sense of familiarity. He had been here before. He was certain of it, but he couldn’t remember when, why, or how. It bothered him.

    “I see you’ve decided to re-acknowledge that thing’s existence after all,” Frost teased. Matheius blinked, realizing that he had been staring at it for a few minutes now. “Shall we go visit it, and see if it holds any answers to the interesting riddle this place poses?” What could Matheius do but nod? “Yes,” he answered after a moment. “I suppose that might be a good idea.

    They made straight for the center, now, but even so, progress was slow. The tower was farther off in the distance than it appeared, and with each house they passed, they were continually reminded of the strange materials which this city was apparently constructed of.

    Even the streets didn’t feel quite right. They alternated between feeling too narrow or too wide, even though its actual width didn’t seem to change as far as Matheius could tell. By Matheius’ side, Frost, apparently, felt the strangeness too. “Everything seems out of proportion, somehow,” he murmured quietly. “Do you feel it, as well? I can’t explain how, but everything seems off.”

    Matheius’ eyes were glued to the tower that they were slowly nearing. “Yes,” he answered without turning to look at Frost. The dimensions-“

    “just don’t seem quite right. It’s as though everything was fractionally distorted by a mirror, except if you wanted me to tell you what part in particular isn’t shaped properly, I couldn’t.”

    A hint of nervousness was in Matheius’ voice and could be seen in his eyes as well. It wasn’t that he was afraid. Something in this place was just off. It made him uncomfortable.

    “Quit your whining,” snapped Lyria. She was standing to the left of him, with the mage-lord in-between. “You are just a coward. I don’t feel a thing.” She delighted in calling him that, knowing how much he hated it.

    Matheius’ left hand tightened around the hilt of his sheathed sword, where it had been lying ever since they entered this place. Not for the first time, he fantasized about killing her. It would be so easy. Her magic was not nearly as strong as she seemed to think it was at times. All it would take would be a single twitch of the arm. She wouldn’t even know what happened...

    “Calm yourself, Lyria,” Arzon ‘requested’ from between the two. The arch-magus walking between the two had a commanding presence, and Lyria fell silent. You simply didn’t argue with Arzon.

    Matheius glanced at him. The elder Arch-Savant was possessed of a formidable vitality and vigor which would be admirable in a man half of his own age. The white beard he had only served to enhance his presence, rather than make him seem old and weak.

    Not for the first time, Matheius found himself comparing the old mage to Arakan. Comparing a mage to the war-duke and First Blade...something he would never have thought possible before. But then again, many things which he once would have thought impossible had transpired.

    Arzon was tall as well. Nearly the height of Vast and nearly a head taller than me, Matheius thought to himself, although the man didn’t come close to possessing Vast’s brawn. Matheius’ heart tightened before he turned his mind away from that line of thought. That particular line of thought would invariably lead to places and memories which were too painful to visit.

    “The reason you feel nothing,” Arzon continued, and Matheius turned his attention back towards the magus, “Is because you are not sensitive enough to things. I sometimes despair of you ever becoming more than middling competent.”

    Harsh words, but as far as Matheius was concerned, they were true. It wasn’t that Lyria was stupid or incompetent. She was simply thoroughly mediocre in every respect. She worked hard; harder, perhaps, than any of the other apprentices. Unfortunately, she simply had no imagination or innovativeness whatsoever.

    Matheius still didn’t know why Arzon chose her, out of all of his many apprentices, to join them on this mission. She was more than a little attractive, true; with that red hair and those challenging brown eyes, she could be considered a fiery beauty. Was that the reason? Then again, Arzon wasn’t really the lecherous type...

    By Arzon’s side, Lyria turned red with embarrassment, staring at her toes as the three continued to walk onwards. No one could shut her up like Arzon could. “This place,” Arzon explained while gesturing to the ancient ruins, “Was, according to the most ancient of lore, the greatest, most advanced civilization ever known. Magecraft and wizardry were raised to heights which we can only dream of today.”

    By his side, Matheius stirred slightly, but decided not to say anything. He didn’t have any use for sorcerers before he joined Arzon, and he didn’t have any use for them now either. As far as he was concerned, the only good mage was a dead mage, a belief he constantly expressed to Lyria and the other apprentice-sorcerers, if not to Arzon himself.

    Arzon turned his head and smiled faintly at Matheius, an amused look in his eyes. Had he read Matheius’ mind? He did that, from time to time, when Matheius wasn’t being careful enough. Matheius stared directly back at him, gaze not flinching a bit while he imagined a steel wall covering his thoughts, one of the many defenses he had learned against psionics.

    Arzon turned away after a moment, and Matheius allowed himself to follow suit. After a moment, he asked, “And so what if they did raise your profession to a height? What does that have to do with the strangeness of the surroundings?”

    Eyes on the unfinished tower ahead of them, Arzon didn’t respond for a long time. When he finally did, his answer was cryptic. “I believe that they delved so deeply into the greater mysteries of the world that they were able to change the very underlying nature and properties of matter itself.”

    “Like the material from which the buildings we saw were formed?” Lyria immediately asked, hoping to gain his approval. Arzon nodded to her. “Astute. You are correct.” Again she blushed, this time with fierce pride at the slight compliment. Matheius rolled his eyes.

    He didn’t understand, but he didn’t particularly care to, either. Only one thing concerned him. “That which we spoke of,” he suddenly asked, after a period of silence. “You are certain it is here?” “Quite certain,” Arzon answered. “All the signs indicate that it should be in that very tower. If it isn’t, I can’t imagine where else it would be.”

    “What are you two talking about? What ‘thing’?” Lyria asked, but both Arzon and Matheius ignored her. “I hope it is, old man,” Matheius warned quietly. “I am getting more than a bit impatient for you to fulfill your promises.”

    “You can’t speak to the Arch-Savant like that!” Lyria cried, indignant, but Arzon simply waved her to silence. “Patience is a virtue, blademaster. Patience is a virtue.” He quirked his lips. “It isn’t even one you need to exercise that much. Look.”

    He pointed ahead, to the massive pillar which they were approaching. “The tower is just ahead. We’ve-”


    “almost reached it.”

    “What?” Matheius’ head rose as he snapped out of his daze. “I said,” Frost repeated, “We’ve almost reached the tower.” Matheius blinked. It was true. The tower was only a few more streets away from them, now.

    The structure seemed even taller, compared to earlier when they had viewed it from afar. Made of the same uniform silver material that Matheius had seen both centuries ago and only a short while ago, it spiraled upwards like a graceful arm reaching towards the heavens. “What were you thinking about, anyhow?” Frost asked. “You’d been mumbling to yourself nonstop for the past half-hour or so. You didn’t seem to hear me at all.”

    Arzon. Lyria. He was right, he had been here before. No wonder it had seemed familiar. How could he have forgotten them being here? The memory was vivid in his mind still, but everything before and after that memory was hazy. Why had they come? What had they been searching for? What happened?

    He didn’t remember. “Nothing,” he finally said, in response to Frost. “Nothing at all. Just some memories which suddenly came to mind.” Frost didn’t press him, and they finished the long walk to the base of the great silver tower in silence.

    It was strange, Matheius thought to himself as they approached it. The tower had seemed so slender from a distance, like a thin needle. Now, though, it seemed more like a thick nail, jutting upwards towards the sky.

    Alone out of all the buildings and spires it appeared to be untouched and undamaged. Not a hint of a scratch could be seen on its soaring form. It was only slightly taller than the other spires which dotted the landscape, but several times their size and width. If it was finished, Matheius thought to himself, it would be high enough to pierce the heavens themselves.

    Upon reaching the base, both men stared rather blankly at the tower. Neither a door nor a window could be seen; it was as though the thing was one solid piece of metal. “Well. Now what do we do?” Frost asked Matheius. The former crossed his arms across his chest, tapping his foot with impatience. This was proving to be duller than he had hoped. “We search,” was Matheius’ simple reply. “We search.”

    They circled around it, once, twice, looking for some sort of opening. It took them a few minutes each time; the tower was deceptively large, measuring at least several hundred meters in diameter. Finally, on their third lap around it, Frost shook his head in frustration.

    “Doesn’t look like there’s any way in,” he said. “What a waste of perfectly good sleeping time. Look.” He pointed to the horizon. The stars had long since fled, and the barest hint of light could be seen. “In another hour or so, it’ll be dawn.”

    “Quiet,” Matheius said tersely. Frost blinked in surprised, then looked at him. Matheius’ eyes were closed, and he was feverishly mumbling something to himself. More memories, no doubt. Frost rolled his eyes, then leaned back against the slick wall of the tower, and waited. He watched, half bored, half intrigued, as Matheius slowly began to circle the tower again.

    Long minutes passed as Matheius’ face was wracked in concentration. Then, hesitantly and with eyes still closed, Matheius reached out and traced a strange sigil on the tower with one finger.

    At first, nothing happened. Once again, Frost rolled his eyes. But then, silently, the silvery material near where Matheius had drawn the sigil began to shift in shape. A large mass of it bulged out of the tower, as it continued to writhe and contort. Frost pushed away from the tower to stand besides Matheius, whose eyes were open now. He gave Matheius a strange look which went unnoticed. How had this fellow done it? Mentally, he recorded the sigil which Matheius had drawn, for future reference.

    The silvery material which had bulged out had shifted into a giant statue of a man, at least twice the height of a tall man, which now towered over both of them. The face of the statue possessed a wrinkled, twisted into a sneer of cold command. A mocking look was on the face, and its gaze was filled with even more arrogance, as though all which it viewed and surveyed were unworthy of its gaze. The statue’s right hand was pointed outwards, index finger extended, as though making a demand of someone, or issuing a command.

    Its two vast legs and feet rested on an even vaster pedestal, which itself came to the two men’s chests. Inscribed on it were a large number of sigils and runes, in a style reminiscent of the earlier one that Matheius had traced.

    Neither man spoke for some time, in the face of that massive, arrogant, commanding visage. Then Frost let out a long breath. “Looks like you’ve been here before,” he remarked calmly. “And to think I actually believed you earlier, when you asked me where we were.”

    Matheius shook his head. Eyes still on the statue, he replied, “I had no intention to deceive you. Believe it or not, I had forgotten about this place until just minutes ago. I still don’t remember a great deal about it.” Frost chuckled and nodded. “Sure, sure. I don’t suppose, then,” he drawled, “You might remember what this means, then?” He rested the fingers of his right hand on the sigils of the pedestal, lightly stroking them.

    Matheius stepped forward, also letting his hands rest on the sigils, tracing them one by one. “Actually,” he answered. “I do. This says, ‘I am-”

    -the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings. From antiquity’s rise to eternity’s end, who can surpass so much as one of my works? Look upon them, ye mighty, and despair!’” Arzon read with a slightly unsteady voice, face flush with excitement. “This is it,” he breathed. “The tower of the ancient Godking, Ozymandias.”

    Ozymandias? Lyria and Matheius traded mutually confused glances, their mutual loathing forgotten for the moment. Who was Ozymandias?

    But before either had a chance to ask, the lifeless statue suddenly stirred. Turning its great browed head down, it stared directly at them and rumbled,


    BEHOLD, SUPPLICANT. TO THE TOWER OF BABILU THOU HAST COME, IN OBEISANCE BEFORE GREAT OZYMANDIAS, LORD OF SARGON. WHAT OFFERING WILST THOU MAKETH, TO SECURE FOR THYSELF THE FAVOR OF THE LORD?

    Frost turned to Matheius. The pretense of being bored was long dropped, now, and his pupil-less white eyes burned with excitement and interest. His curious mind was filled with questions, questions which he forced himself not to ask just yet. Instead, all he said was, “And what shall we offer, Matheius?”

    Matheius stared back up at the massive which towered over them for long moments. A strange look was in his eyes, a combination of disgust and revelation. Softly at first, he said, “Nothing.”

    Then, more loudly, he shouted back at the statue, “Nothing! Do you hear me, Ozymandias? I offer you not a thing!” Frost groaned, quietly. Hopefully, that wouldn’t anger the statue. The wind banshee had already been enough of a pointless pain in the ***.

    The statue did not grow angry. It was incapable of anger. Emotionlessly, it rumbled out its response to Matheius’ shout.

    NO OFFERING WAS SACRIFICED, NO GIFT SHALL BE MADE. NOTHING WAS GIVEN. NOTHING SHALL BE REPAID. DEPART, THEN, SUPPLICANTS, FOR GREAT OZYMANDIAS DOES NOT ENTERTAIN THOSE WHO WOULD ONLY TAKE.

    And as it finished these last words, the proud, arrogant features of the colossal statue began to melt away, along with the rest of it. Within moments, it had ‘dissolved’ back into the featureless, smooth silvery substance which it had been shaped from. Then it reintegrated itself into the tower, disappearing inside without so much as a ripple, as though it had never been.

    Matheius turned away from the Tower of Babilu, only to see Frost staring at him, utter disappointment written across his annoyed, drooped down face. “Are you serious?” Frost demanded of Matheius. “After all this trouble we’ve gone through and the time we’ve wasted, you just told it to go away?” Frost shook his head incredulously and kicked at the ground. He winced slightly, discovering, as Matheius had earlier, how hard it was.

    “What was the point of all that, then?” He demanded, an aggrieved look on his face. In response, Matheius simply shrugged. “You were the one who wanted to follow me. You can leave when you want. Personally, though, I think you’ve already seen enough interesting things for one night.”

    Frost was shaking his head in disbelief, but after Matheius finished speaking, he stopped. After a moment’s pause, he also shrugged. “Fair enough,” he responded, lips quirking in an amused smile. Just like that, his good humor had been restored.

    “But if you are quite done here, can we leave?” He reached out with his sheathed sword and rapped the tower with his scabbard. “As interesting as this tower and its make is, sitting around and pondering how interesting it is, is actually quite boring.”

    Matheius nodded without hesitation. “Yes. It is past time to be gone from here,” he answered. “We still have two days of travel yet before we reach Sarkham. It’s almost dawn now. We should get back to camp and get ready to move.” Funny. For a time, he had forgotten all about his journey and his questions.

    “I hope you intend to actually sleep the coming night, at least,” Frost replied dryly. “I’m not absolutely certain, but I have a sneaking suspicion that is what night is intended for.” With an effort, Matheius forbore firing back a comment about Frost’s snoring habit. That would be too petty, and beneath him. But he was tempted. Definitely tempted. He couldn’t deny that. “Let’s go,” was all he said.

    The westwards journey away from the Tower of Babilu was uneventful and quick. The surroundings were still strange and still felt improperly proportioned, but both men ignored it now as they focused on departing, rather than the area.

    As they walked farther and farther away from the heart of the city, the sky gradually lightened more and more as well, until at last, just as they exited the outskirts of the ruins, the sun rose. “Ah, what a beautiful morning!” Frost stretched, and feigned a yawn as they continued to walk. “Did you have a good night’s sleep?” He asked facetiously. Matheius sighed. Traveling with him started to seem as though it would be a pain.

    Frost laughed at the sigh, white eyes twinkling slightly. As though he read Matheius’ thoughts, he responded, “Remember, you still owe me.” Matheius glowered at Frost, but had no response ready for that.

    Frost was ahead of Matheius, having moved a bit more quickly. Because he had gotten some sleep, Matheius thought to himself sourly. “Hurry up, now. We mustn’t be a slug-a-bed, eh?” Frost called, then laughed and turned his head backwards towards Matheius with a wink. And then he suddenly came to a halt.

    Matheius wasn’t paying attention to him and bumped into him as he stopped. “Now what?” He asked, honestly irritated now. In response, Frost simply shrugged then pointed eastwards, towards the city outskirts they had left only a few moments ago. “That really is a rather interesting place,” he remarked. Half-suspecting he was being set up for a joke, Matheius turned back east as well to see what Frost was looking at. And then he froze as well.

    The ruins they had just left, with that unfinished, sky-scraping tower which they had just visited, were nowhere to be found. It was as though they had melted away at the coming of the dawn, had hurriedly fled just as the sun barely peeked out over the horizon. The sun now cast a faint yellow glow all across the desert landscape, which stretched eastwards for leagues after leagues, with nary an end in sight.

    As hard as Matheius and Frost looked, they simply could see no traces of the wrecked city. There was simply nothing there at all.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  16. #16
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    Chapter 8: The Shining Walls of Sarkham

    For several minutes, they searched, slowly backtracking their way by following their footsteps. The ground was hard and tough, but they had made enough of an impression to track their way back…and even if they hadn’t, they knew that the city had been straight to the east. They had left it only moments ago, after all.

    They didn’t search for too long. After only a few moments of following their footsteps, the imprints on the ground came to an abrupt halt. The first set of footprints seemed to have magically appeared out of thin air. If they hadn’t been the ones who made them, they would’ve had no idea how those footsteps got there.

    Two pairs of feet. Four imprints on the dusty ground. Frost and Matheius turned to look at each other. Simultaneously, they took a few more steps eastwards, to where that first set of footsteps had appeared from.

    Nothing. They tried going further east a few more yards. Still nothing. “Huh. Perhaps the wind blew the rest of our tracks away?” Frost suggested with a half-smile on his face. Matheius glanced at him incredulously. “Along with, of course,” Frost added innocently, “The city and everything else inside it.”

    Matheius only shook his head as he stared at those two lonely sets of footprints. Light and barely noticeable, they seemed to be laughing at him, his inability to find their origin. After a moment, he shook his head a second time. What was wrong with him? He asked himself. He was personifying his own footprints.

    He smiled at himself, causing Frost to look at him curiously. “Nothing,” Matheius said, by way of answering that look. Then, he added, “It doesn’t look like there’s anything left here. I suggest we return to the original plan and go back to camp.”

    Frost folded his arms. His curiosity had been aroused, and he wanted to stay some more to investigate this interesting phenomenon, but…with a sigh, he nodded at Matheius. It didn’t look like there was much else to find, as Matheius had said. “Fine, fine. Let’s go.”

    The journey back to their camp was uneventful, if dusty. All their supplies were there, if covered by a layer of sand and dust. The two horses, as well, were layered in gray-or at least, Matheius’ nag was. Frost’s stallion remained as pure and white in coloring as it had when Matheius had first seen it, just as Frost’s cloak and clothing remained untouched.

    How does he do it? Matheius idly wondered to himself as he began to brush away the dust from his horse and possessions, but didn’t bother to ask. He rarely asked questions that he didn’t expect an answer to.

    He rather would’ve liked an answer to this one, though. It would’ve been a great deal of help. His horse was filthy with sand from the previous day and night, and it snorted at him scornfully when his attempts at grooming it proved to be a miserable failure.

    Uneventful, if dusty. Those words summarized the rest of their trip through the dusty desert terrain for the next few days. By the time they arrived at the walls of Sarkham, Matheius’ temper had frayed more than a bit due to the constant, non-stop dust storms which left him, his horse, and his few possessions looking like a wind-battered nomad.

    Frost, of course, was immaculately clean. His obvious amusement at Matheius’ plight, as well as cheerful refusal to provide answers as to how he had kept himself and his possessions so pristine hadn’t helped matters at all, either. But if Matheius expected the beautiful white walls of the city of Sarkham to cheer him up, he was sorely mistaken once again.

    “What happened here? Where are the walls?” He demanded of Frost. He hadn’t wanted to expose his ignorance to so many things in the current time period, but he couldn’t help it. This was too great a shock, too great a disappointment.

    “Walls? What walls?” Frost’s head swiveled to look back at Matheius, who had stopped his horse in its tracks upon seeing the city. Bringing his own stallion to a halt, he answered, “There’s never been walls here. At least,” he amended that statement, “not since the original walls were torn down back during the Great War due to their defiance, when the Savants first took over.”

    “I see,” Matheius responded. His face and eyes were utterly expressionless and unreadable, as passive and still as the unbroken surface of a pool of water. He simply sat there, on his horse, staring at the city.

    After a moment, Frost added, a curious note to his voice, “It is said that the walls were very beautiful.” Matheius only nodded. In a voice that was far too soft for Frost to hear, he whispered, “Yes, they were.”

    Ages ago, he had been here, on a tour arranged for San’tamak graduates by Arakan. One of a thousand kindnesses which he never had the chance to repay the man for. All his closest friends had been here as well.

    Vast, of course, that went without saying. Rydion and Pavain; those two halberd-wielding twins were inseparable, as inseparable as himself and Vast. Mylo, that strange puppeteer, had come as well. Matheius had always felt a bit ambivalent about Mylo; his puppeteering skills seemed to be too akin to magic, but Arakan, and others, assured him that it wasn’t.

    And, of course, there was Elaiana. She had come as well; just as Matheius and the others had graduated from San’tamak and had became recognized Blades within their communities, she had become a fully trained and gifted Seer. He remembered standing here, in what felt like the exact same spot, as they-

    -stared, breathless, at the sight of the famous shining White Walls of Sarkham. It was one of the largest structures they had ever seen, fully enclosing the city and towering two hundred feet in the air.

    It was an imposing sight, and a beautiful one. The walls gleamed in the bright morning sky, with a radiance to match the sun itself. It wasn’t actually white in color, of course; no artisan would have dared mar its perfection by applying paint to it. Supposedly, an uncountable amount of diamond dust had been applied to the materials which the walls were built out of, giving them the beautiful luster that they were so famous for.

    Sarkhamites loved to claim that the walls were given in ancient times by the Divine Archer, Sun-Lord Abelion himself, patron god of the city, as a gift to woo Alisarria, fair daughter and princess of the city. Standing here, gazing upon that colossal, magnificent structure, Matheius could almost believe it.

    Excitable Mylo whooped loudly, punching his fist in the air. “Yeah! We’re here! Stop standing here like idiots, let’s go inside! Last one in has to do clean-up chores for a week!” And he charged for the pearly gates which allowed entrance to the famously wealthy and beautiful city.

    The others followed suit, needing little encouragement. They were excited. All their lives, they had heard about this city, and now, they were actually here as Blades. Even the usually reserved Radavast was energetic and flushed with eagerness to enter, as all of them rushed for the gates behind Mylo.

    All, that is, save for Matheius. Turning his gaze away from the White Walls to the rapidly retreating backs of the others, he suddenly felt overcome with depression and let out a sigh, dispirited, as he sat down on the small grassy knoll on which he stood.

    “Not chasing after them? Aren’t you afraid of ending up having to do chores?” A gentle, warm voice teased him, whispering in his right ear. He didn’t have to turn to look to know who it was. Elaiana. “Nah,” he responded with forced ease. “Don’t feel like it.”

    Adjusting her dress, which was billowing slightly in the wind, she sat down close next to him, by his right side. Feeling her side pressed against his, he couldn’t help but turn his head away from the backs of Vast and the others to look at her.

    She was even more beautiful and radiant on this day than usual, which was saying something. As she was on vacation with the rest of them, she had changed out of her usual, shapeless and baggy robes in favor of a light blue summer dress which seemed perfectly tailored to her form.

    The sun danced across her golden hair, causing it to sparkle with, he felt, as much beauty as the walls which they had been staring at. No. More. The gentle wind blew a few strands of that hair into her face, and she raised a slim arm and hand, brushing the hair away.

    She was smiling at him, and, he realized with chagrin, he was smiling back, mouth half-open, like some idiot. Damnit. With a click of the teeth, he closed his mouth, although he couldn’t stop smiling. It was unfair. She always did this to him.

    She laughed, that knowing look in her gray eyes again, leaning towards him slightly and pecking him on the cheek with perfectly soft lips, before resting her head on his shoulder. He turned away to look back at the walls again with elaborate casualness, but inside, his heart trembled and fluttered, beating at a frantic pace.

    “I think I know why you aren’t with the rest of them,” she murmured softly. Without taking his eyes off the wall, he asked, in a voice just as soft, “What do you mean?” “I heard,” she said slowly “That Vast beat you again in your latest match.” Matheius froze. His trembling, fluttering heart came to a stop as well, and his good mood died away.

    Far off in the distance, close to those mighty walls, the hilt of Cryzalis gleamed brightly by Vast’s side, as though mocking Matheius for his defeat. It wasn’t fair. He had that damn fight won, and both of them knew it. But he wanted to try something flashy, something eye-catching that he hadn’t tried before…and Vast had capitalized on a flaw in that flashy move.

    Vast had won again, and won Cryzalis as well, this time. Matheius’ hands, formerly resting on his legs, curled slightly. He should’ve won, but instead, Vast did. Again. How many times would they repeat this story?

    Abruptly, he rose to his feet, and turned away from the wall to stare at the great, rolling plains behind him instead. Elaiana’s head, which had been resting on his shoulder, was pushed back and away as he stood up, and she was forced to place a hand on the ground to keep herself from falling.

    “Sorry,” he muttered as she rose to his feet, shame filling him as he noticed what he had done. She simply shook her head as she stood up as well. A hint of disapproval was in her gray eyes, but so too was understanding.

    “Vast told you?” He asked, once again refusing to look directly at her, eyes instead trained on the vast flatlands. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her shake her head. “No. Father did.” Arakan. So the First Blade told her.

    A soft hand slipped into his own. “If it’s any consolation,” she added gently, “He thought you should’ve won as well. He actually had originally planned for Cryzalis to be yours, and had another sword in mind for Vast.” Matheius wasn’t sure whether this made him feel better, or worse. So he had performed beneath Arakan’s expectations. He hoped the old blademaster wasn’t too disappointed in him.

    Neither of them said anything, now, as together, they simply stood there, staring at the unending grassy plains which they had traveled across for so long. Gradually, though, that bitter feeling in his heart died away, and was replaced by peace.

    “Thanks.” he suddenly said. He didn’t say what for. He didn’t need to, and his hand tightened around her smaller one momentarily in a soft squeeze. He was rewarded by a bright, sunny smile. “Are you ready?” She asked him. “The others are probably waiting for us inside, now.”

    He turned and nodded at her. Then, as if on cue, Vast’s voice could be heard calling to them from far away. Good old reliable Radavast. He had probably stayed behind to wait for them, after everyone else had already gone inside. Yes, the bitterness inside Matheius had dissipated completely. How could he be bitter with such a close friend, almost a brother, over a lost challenge match and a sword?

    “Hey!” Radavast’s faint voice drifted in from across the distance between them, as the two of them, still holding hands, turned to look at him standing by the wall. “Hurry up, Mat! Stop flirting with my sister and get over here. I’m waiting for you two.”

    Elaiana actually blushed, and quickly slipped her hand out of Matheius’, holding it behind her back in an embarrassed, girlish way. Rarely did she seem as flustered as she was now, and Matheius’ heart melted at the adorable sight. A warm smile lit up his own face as well. “Come on,” he said to her. “Let’s-


    -go. Or do you really want to turn into a dust-statue?” Frost asked, as Matheius simply sat there on his horse, staring at the city as though in a reverie. Matheius started, then glanced aside at Frost and nodded. Reaching up with his hand, he rubbed at his eyes. “Damn dust got in my eyes,” Matheius said, by way of explanation, and Frost nodded impatiently.

    The two made their way into the city of Sarkham. With each step their horses took, Matheius’ heart sank further than it had when he had seen the walls had been torn down. Gone was the place which had been proclaimed as the most beautiful, the most scenic city in all the kingdom. Sarkham was now no more than a faint shadow of its former glory.

    Oh, it was still a large, thriving city. There could be no arguing that. The hustle and bustle of busy, crowded streets made travel within tediously slow, especially for two men on horseback. Throngs of people all but blocked the streets, with the area near the marketplaces being the worst. That, at least, hadn’t changed and remained as he remembered it. But as to the rest…

    The rest was a Sarkham that was older, dirtier, and poorer. Were there this many beggars the last time he had come? He wondered to himself. He didn’t think so. And the clothes…he remembered a stylish city that had prided itself on its fashion. Although there were still some evidence of exotic, colorful garbs, for the most part, everyone seemed to wear a uniform grayish-brown color.

    Then again, in all fairness, that could be due to the dust, which could be found even in the city, much as with Trentsdown. The wall should’ve stopped that, if there was still a wall. But back when there was a wall, there were no dust storms, for that matter. The dust and sand wasn’t nearly as bad as it was outside, but it was still there.

    And the people. Matheius remembered this being a city filled with laughter and noise. It was still filled with noise, but the laughter seemed absent. It wasn’t that people here were quiet or sullen; far from it. But the merriment that was so pervasive in the city had disappeared, in Matheius’ mind.

    He never considered the possibility that it was his own heart from which the merriment had disappeared.

    The city proper, its blocks and buildings, were the only things that seemed to be unchanged. He had been startled by them when he had first arrived. Circular and domed, they seemed like works of art, and some of the buildings were palatial in size and scope.

    But even then, they seemed older than they had been when Matheius had been here. He startled both himself and Frost with an abrupt, sharp laugh. Of course they did. They were older now by several centuries. As a rule, when things got older, they tended to seem older as well.

    The only exception to that rule was a single crystalline tower which rose from the center of the city, stretching above the tops of even the tallest buildings. A constant reminder to the denizens as to who were the rulers of this place. Of all places. Gazing at that crystal tower, Matheius constantly had to force himself to relax, had to force his itching fingers away from his sword-hilt. He wasn’t here for a fight. Not yet.

    “Let’s go to the temple,” he said to Frost. Everything he had seen only added to his sense of urgency, to his desire for haste. “Now.” Frost snorted at him. “If you think we are going to go straight for the damn temple,” he said in reply, “You are out of your mind. We,” he continued, with absolute certainty in his voice, “Are going to go to an inn first.”

    No matter how Matheius argued, Frost wouldn’t budge. Finally, after Frost began to whistle random tunes loudly and cheerfully rather than respond to Matheius’ arguments, Matheius gave up.

    After half an hour of plodding their way through the masses of people on the city streets, the two finally decided on an inn that seemed cleaner than the others they had run across on their journey through the city. In bold blue letters, the inn proclaimed itself as being called Rorrik’s Bed and Ale, and claimed to have the “finest bedding and food to be found, for the best price.”

    It seemed as though more than a few felt that the inn lived up to its name, as the common room was packed. Rorrik, the owner and namesake of the inn, was a short, gruff man, barely five feet tall, with a bearded face that was round, as were the faces of all innkeepers, everywhere. Innkeepers never suffered for want of food.

    Business inside was so brisk that Matheius and Frost stood outside with their horses for nearly ten minutes before Rorrik noticed them and got to them. “Ten silver a night, food included, ale included,” he said curtly, before either of the two managed to say a word. “Two silver for just food and ale alone. Home-brew only for that price. Special orders have special costs. Cash only, upfront, no credit or promises, even for family or friends.”

    He extended a meaty palm to them, clearly expected to be paid on the spot, or for them to leave. Matheius and Frost looked at each other, and Frost shrugged, then nodded. “Fine,” Frost said, as he pulled out a single gold sovereign and placed it in Rorrik’s palm.

    Rorrik peered at the sovereign suspiciously, testing its weight as he hefted it in his palm. He even went so far as to bite it, testing for authenticity, before acknowledging, reluctantly, that it “seemed to be real.” “Tery!” He turned his head and shouted above the din of the customers inside. “Two customers and their horses. Take the horses to the stable.”

    Turning back to Matheius and Frost, he added, “I’ll show you to your rooms, or I can have a meal brought to you first.” Peering at Matheius’ dusty form, he added, “There’s a bath in the room as well, but that’ll cost you an extra five silver. Tery can bring you the water.”

    As he spoke, Tery arrived from the back of the inn. Tery was a slender boy with curly red hair and black eyes, and lips that seemed to be perpetually pouting. “There you are, boy,” Rorrik said. “What took you? Hurry on and stable the customers’ horses.” This time, he eyed Matheius’ nag. “And clean up that ugly looking one. Don’t let it get my stable dirty.”

    Tery looked at Matheius’ dusty old horse with a disgusted sigh. The horse snorted back at him, blowing up a fine trail of dust in his direction as it did so. “Fine, fine,” he said resignedly. “I’ll get right on it.”

    Tery took the reins of the horses away from Matheius and Frost to lead to the stable in the back, as Rorrik once again asked, impatiently, “Well? Do you want me to take you to your rooms now, or do you want to sit here for a while and get some food in you?”

    Matheius would’ve just as soon as have left immediately for the temple, but Frost answered for the both of them. “Rooms first,” Frost responded. “We need to put our things somewhere.” Not that they had much, save their swords, but Frost, at least, had some travel supplies and gear which needed to be stored.

    Rorrik nodded and led them to the second story of the inn, up a stairway and away from the first floor. It was much quieter upstairs, away from the noise, laughter, and sound of dice coming from the well-populated commons.

    Producing a pair of keys, he showed them a pair of adjoining rooms. “Here,” he said brusquely as he handed them a key each. “Don’t lose the keys,” he added, “Or that will be an extra two silver each, to replace the lock and make a new key.”

    Just as the two were about to enter the rooms, he reached out and grabbed Matheius by the shoulder. Matheius turned back to look at him, and he let go, grimacing and wiping away his now-dirty hand on his pants. “Yes?” Matheius asked.

    “Will you be using the bath or not?” Rorrik asked. “Five silver, for as many uses you want for as long as you stay. I can have the boy draw up a few buckets of hot water for you and give your clothes a good wash as well.” Before Matheius could refuse, Frost interposed, “Yes, that would be good.” Rorrik nodded, then turned and left the two alone. It was a busy day, and he had customers waiting downstairs.

    “I don’t have time for this,” Matheius hissed quietly at Frost. “I want to go to the temple now.” Frost snorted at him in response, pointing at his dingy, dusty clothes and form. “Like that? You think the gods will listen to the prayers of someone who is going to get every altar he prays at dirty?”

    Matheius paused, then threw his hands up in exasperation. Very well, then. He’d take the damn bath and get his clothes cleaned up, and then, he promised himself, he’d go straight for the temple.

    He waited in his own room for fifteen agonizing minutes, before Tery showed up. In the meantime, he inspected it. It was nothing particularly special; a hard wooden bed with a single mattress and blanket, and a plain, unfurnished desk. The so-called ‘bath’ was, apparently, nothing more than a large wooden tub, although it did seem to be furnished with a bar of hard soap, a wash-towel, and some other basic bathing tools.

    The place was clean enough, he decided. Or at least, it had been before he arrived in it. The sheets were freshly laundered, and even the blankets seemed to be unstained. Rare for an inn. No wonder Rorrik charged so much, and had so many customers.

    Finally, the boy arrived, staggering under the heavy load of two large buckets of steaming water, filled to the brim. “Be back in a moment,” he gasped out, as he set down the two large buckets on the floor. He left after setting them down, then was back in a few minutes with two more large buckets. There was enough water to fill the tub half-way, now.

    “Your clothes?” Tery asked. He was actually dreading this wash, although he supposed it wouldn’t be quite as bad as the horse. With the lack of self-consciousness bred into him by years of bathing in close proximity to other men in the schools of war where he had trained, Matheius stripped quickly before stepping into the tub, letting his dusty clothes lie where he had removed them.

    Grimacing, Tery took the clothes, as Matheius added, “Get that cleaned as quickly as possible. I need to leave soon.” The boy stared at Matheius, then let out another sigh. With a practiced eye, he judged the clothes. “Thirty minutes, minimum, for at least the worse of the dust to be washed out. An hour or so is probably a safer estimate.”

    Matheius grimaced, then nodded. “As quickly as possible,” he repeated, and the boy rolled his eyes and nodded, then left, shutting the door behind him. With a sigh of his own, Matheius resigned himself to bathing while he waited, as he took the ladle from besides the tub and began to pour the hot water over himself. In truth, he was probably due for a wash anyhow, he acknowledged. It had been…he paused for a moment, then let out a sharp laugh. Centuries.

    Water and soap cut through the dust and dirt which had accumulated on him through the past few days, and past few centuries. In no time at all, the water in the tub began to turn black and bracken as the dirt continued to sluice off from him.

    By the time he had poured the last ladleful of water over himself, he felt cleaner than he had in a long, long time. Stepping out of the filthy water onto the hard wooden floor, he had to admit that the bath was a good idea. It had calmed him down, and he felt clean, now. Ready to face the gods.

    While he waited for the boy to come back, he began to shave and cut his hair, with the aid of the mirror in the room. He had shaved when he first woken up, but with his sword, not a razor, and without the aid of mirror to examine himself.

    Bits and pieces of beard which had escaped him the first time fell down now, and larger chunks of hair drifted down next to them by his feet as he began to cut his hair as well. By the time he was done, when he looked in the mirror, he looked like his old self again. Short, straight black hair and clean-shaven, with a slender, rounded nose and chin.

    He smiled a mirthless half-smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. However he looked, he didn’t feel like his old self. He wondered if he ever would.

    Well outside the hour Tery had predicted, the boy reappeared with his clothes. They still looked a bit dingy, but they were travel clothes. That was only to be expected. “Took a bit longer than expected,” Tery said, a sour look on his face. “You must’ve rolled in the dust on purpose.”

    Matheius only shrugged and nodded at him, then tossed him a small piece of gold as a tips and a thanks. Tery caught the gold piece, bit it, then grimaced sourly as though at the taste. “Thanks,” he said, but his features were as dour and pouty as ever. Without another word, he left. Will nothing cheer this boy up, Matheius wondered.

    He shook his head. That didn’t matter. Quickly and efficiently, he redressed himself in the cleaned clothes, and then cut out a small square from the bed sheets, tying it around the hilt of his sword and covering up the pommel. He didn’t need any more attention or problems, at the moment.

    Finally, he was ready to go. Clothed, and with the now-disguised sword sheathed by his side, he left his room and locked it behind him and headed to Frost’s. He tried to open the door; it was locked. “Frost,” he called out. “I’m waiting. Let’s move.” No response. Matheius frowned, then knocked on the door. “Frost, come on out. I don’t have time for this.” Again, no response.

    Matheius stared at the door perplexed. Had Frost left without him already? Maybe he was downstairs waiting. Matheius was just about to leave, when suddenly, he heard a sound coming from inside Frost’s room. He couldn’t quite make out what it was, and so he leaned in, pressing his ear against the wooden door, straining to catch it. When he did so, his eyes widened slightly.

    Left ear against the door, he heard, unmistakably, the sound of loud snoring coming from Frost’s room. Features absolutely expressionless, he removed his ear from the wooden door and simply stared at it for a long moment. And then, he sighed and quietly mumbled a thought aloud, half directed to himself, half to the sleeping Frost inside.

    The words weren’t particularly pleasant to hear.
    Last edited by Ren Wo Xing; 12-29-07 at 04:59 PM.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  17. #17
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    For the gentlemen who've posted and/or are reading, just as a reminder, please R&R and not just R! (read&review, not just read...and by review, I mean appraisal and thoughts of characters, themes, pacing, not just praise, hehe.)
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  18. #18
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    Chapter 9: The Divine Archer’s Temple

    Matheius ended up going to the temple alone, somewhat out of countenance. It wasn’t that he minded going alone. Conversations with the gods should be private, anyhow. His annoyance stemmed from the fact that after all the time Frost had wasted, Frost had ended up not even coming. He shrugged as he made his way through the crowded streets. Perhaps it was for the best. He did feel more comfortable and refreshed after the bath, at least.

    The roads and pathways of Sarkham had changed surprisingly little in the past two centuries. A few new buildings had come up, notably the crystal tower in the center of town, and a few old ones had been replaced, but much else remained the same, in terms of shape and structure, if not beauty.

    Matheius did stop and ask for directions once or twice, but only to confirm that he was going in the right direction, and he was. Each time, though, the suspicious and wary eyes of those he asked gave him the impression that they answered only due to fear of offending someone wearing a sword. People here weren’t as friendly as he had remembered.

    Movement through the city was slow, and the great temple was nestled near the center of the city, where traffic was even slower. It took over an hour to cover the half-league distance from the inn to the temple.

    As he neared the temple grounds, the crowds began to die off. The closer he got to it, the thinner the crowds became. This, too, was opposite of what he remembered; he recalled the people of this city being quite religious. Yet another change. However, he was gratified to discover that the temple, at least, remained the same.

    The Temple of the Rising Sun, devoted to Abelion, was one of the major temples in his time, as Abelion was one of the major deities of the Pantheon. It was built long ago by master artisans who had been invited from across the lands and constructed in the shape of a great sphere half-sunk in the ground.

    After they had constructed the perfectly smooth and round structure, they had sheathed the entire building with a thin layer of pure gold, and then polished it by hand until it shone like a mirror. The city, being one of the richest in the world, could afford such extravagant expenditures.

    The result was a golden, glowing dome which, when viewed by day, seemed like the morning sun rising from the horizon. Its polished golden surface reflected light so perfectly that at noon it shone like a miniature sun itself. Matheius had heard stories of some who had stared, entranced, at it for so long that they had been blinded, as if they had stared into the sun itself.

    The very first time Matheius had seen the temple, he had been dazzled. Those who were with him had been dazzled as well. Now, stopping at the entrance to the structure to gaze upon it, he was dazzled once more by its perfection and beauty, untouched despite the passage of centuries. It gave him hope. Perhaps some things hadn’t changed after all, he thought to himself, and stepped inside.

    The insides of the temple were divided into one main chamber for the temple’s patron, surrounded by seven chambers for each of the other major gods. The main chamber was brightly lit by torches which ringed the interior of the great dome. They burned, proud and strong, so that the inside of the temple was just as bright as the outside. Countless frescoes decorated the ceiling, depicting each and every one of the gods of the Pantheon, major or minor.

    But Matheius did not notice the frescoes, nor the rings upon rings of giant torches. Something at the very center of the chamber, surrounded by worshippers, occupied his attention. Abelion’s statue should have been there; it was his temple, after all. But he had been displaced, relegated, apparently, to one of the closed side-chambers.

    The statue of another god stood in the center now. A god Matheius knew well. A god Matheius detested. A thin, pale-faced god, wearing a robe covered in angular runes and holding a staff raised high above his head, as though in challenge or proclamation. Nithra the Arcane. Matheius had once met an incarnation of him, long ago. The sculptor must have met the god as well, for he had captured the essence of the god perfectly.

    Superficially, the statue bore little resemblance to the avatar which Matheius had seen. The avatar had appeared as an elderly mage; the statue depicted a young man in his prime. Their facial structures were nothing similar, and where the statue of the god held a ball of flame in his right hand and the upraised staff in his left, the avatar had need for no such petty demonstrations of power.

    It was the eyes. The eyes of the statue were identical to the eyes of the avatar he had seen that day. They were filled with cold ridicule and malicious derision towards all that they gazed upon. Knowledge filled those eyes, true, but knowledge of the sort that made the bearer of those eyes view all others as ants. Contemptuous eyes. Disdainful eyes.

    Truth be told, Matheius had never been particularly religious; few of his peers were. The pugilists of San’tamak and the other warrior clans had been taught from early age to be self-reliant, and his own people, the Dak’nava, took self-reliance to an even further extreme. Oh, Matheius acknowledged the existence of the gods, as well as their power, and paid homage to them. Only a fool would not, and Matheius was no fool. But when push came to shove, Matheius would not be waiting for divine intervention to solve his problems. He would take care of them himself.

    He was a servant of Kuan, god of physical combat and war, not out of theology, but because he was raised into it. By default, he was opposed to the servants of Nithra. Killing sorcerers was his duty, and it was a duty he was good at. But he never particularly personally cared about sorcerers. He held them in contempt, yes, but didn’t actually hate them or their god. He was a Blade, not a zealot. But that had changed when he had seen Nithra in person.

    Nithra’s eyes stirred up something in him, something which banished both fear and awe from within him. Something which resisted that dismissive gaze with fierce passion. Something which had screamed for him to take his sword and attempt to strike the god down, even if the attempt would cost him his own life. Only willpower had kept him from obeying that urge, the first time. And it was willpower that kept him, now, from rushing over and striking down that statue.

    With an effort, he turned away from the statue of the Arcane, though Matheius keenly felt Nithra’s mocking gaze on his back. He wasn’t here to cause a scene, he told himself repeatedly. That wasn’t what he was here for. He was here to pay his respects to the gods, and ask for answers to his questions.

    Turning to his right, to where most of the people who were not around the statue of Nithra congregated, he entered the Chamber of the Sun, to pay his respects to the namesake of the temple, as was only proper. The chamber was well kept, and offerings were mounded high in front of Abelion’s golden statue, if not nearly as high as the mountain he had seen in front of Nithra.

    Abelion was a noble, just god, and this was reflected in his statue’s face. The statue’s chest was bare, and he bore a magnificent bow and a quiver full of arrows on his back. In the place of the pupils of his eyes were two small suns.

    Matheius knelt on a prayer mat before the god and bowed, pressing his forehead against the ground. Once, twice, thrice. The last time, he stayed in that position for a moment, as he murmured a quick prayer to the god. May your light guide the way for me, lord Abelion. Then he rose to his feet and left for the next chamber.

    One by one, he repeated the short offering of respect to each deity in turn, in their respective chambers. Aralon, the thousand-armed goddess of mercy and healing, holding a willow branch in her right hand, and a flask of the purest water in her left. The twin brother and sister Callori and Calloran, the Watchers, who gazed at the world each night from the moons that bore their name.

    Kronius the Shaper, who had forged from his divine smithy the world, his proudest creation. Kronius was supposedly the eldest of the gods, and arguably the strongest. Deadly was his wrath for those who would harm his creation. Matheius paid respect as well to Orphi the Muse, cradling the harp whose sound gave birth to inspiration and imagination within the hearts of mortals.

    Before Teiwaz Silverhand, known as the Just, Matheius paid especial respect. Teiwaz was held in the highest of respect by even the other gods. He always kept his word, and demanded that his followers do the same. In one of the more famous stories about him, he was once unable to fulfill a promise he made to Aralon, and slew someone he had told her he would not. To make amends, he cut off his own right hand off at the wrist. Impressed, Kronius had forged him a new hand from the purest of truesilver. Aralon sprinkled his new hand with a few drops of water from her flask, and it attached itself to him, serving him as well as his lost hand.

    To the statues of the minor gods whose shrines were scattered about the temple, Matheius only nodded as he passed by them, save for one. Boros, lord of the northern winter. Boros was the patron deity of the Dak’nava and Matheius knelt before his statue as he had before the major gods, paying full respect.

    Ritual and custom had been satisfied. It was now time for him to enter the one chamber which he had avoided up to this point, the chamber where not even a single worshipper could be seen entering or exiting. The chamber of his own patron and deity. Kuan, God of War. Taking a deep breath, Matheius parted the heavy curtains which separated the shrine from the central room and went inside.

    The chamber housing the shrine of Kuan was empty, utterly devoid of people. No candles were lit here, nor torches, leaving it shadowed and dark. Dust had accumulated here over untold years, turning the statue of Kuan as well as its pedestal and surroundings grey and dirty looking.

    Before Kuan, Matheius chose to remain standing, rather than kneeling. Unlike all the other gods, Kuan demanded that those who would seek his favor meet him standing on their own two feet, rather than on their knees. His blessings and favor went to those who earned them and deserved them, not those who begged for them.

    Like an angry, imposing spectre, the statue loomed high in the darkness above Matheius, glaring down at him. The statue’s arms were folded across its chest, its massive muscles bulging and rippling. His chosen weapon, a crescent-bladed halberd, stood upright by itself to the left of the statue.

    Matheius couldn’t see the statue’s face, shrouded in darkness as it was. The lighting was too dim. He didn’t have to see it, though; he remembered well enough how his god looked. He had met him before, after all.

    A sighing exhale of air left Matheius’ lips, as he stared upwards through the darkness, matching what he imagined to be the god’s angry visage. Though he could not see the statue’s eyes, its gaze felt particularly fierce to him.

    Several times, Matheius opened his mouth, only to close it again. What should he say? What could he say? Should he apologize? Ask for forgiveness? Ask for guidance? For advice? One idea after another flitted through his mind, each promptly dismissed in turn. Nothing seemed suitable.

    For long minutes, Matheius simply stood there, staring back at Kuan’s statue. His hands had long since tightened into fists out of tension, and every so often, his lips would move just a little, before falling still again.

    “Kuan,” he suddenly said, then paused and bit his lower lips, hard. Slowly, the taste of his own blood filled his mouth, and after a few moments, Matheius swallowed. Suddenly, in the face of that silent, ominous gaze, he felt very small.

    He opened his mouth again. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, but he had to say something. Anything. Before he had the chance, though, he heard a small voice behind him say, “Don’t bother. He won’t listen, you know.”

    Matheius tensed. How had someone entered the room without him noticing? Slowly, he turned around to face the person who spoke. At first, he saw no one at all, but then, as he took a closer look, he saw a small boy sitting on a bench in the corner.

    The boy’s knees were drawn up to his chest, with a pair of painfully thin arms rested on top of them, covering his nose and the lower half of his face. In the darkness, only his large, round eyes could be seen clearly, staring almost unblinkingly at Matheius.

    Suddenly, Matheius realized that it was the boy from several long days ago. The one he had almost killed, then fed. Matheius cocked his head. The one who, according to his “parents”, died years ago.

    “What makes you say that, kid?” Matheius asked. Suddenly, Matheius felt as though a strange sort of tension filled the room. Already oppressively dark and gloomy, the room now seemed positively stifling. The boy didn’t seem to notice though, as he raised his head high enough for the smile on his lips to be seen.

    “You broke three separate promises, didn’t you?” The boy asked, smiling. “One to him, one to Arzon, and one to Elaiana. Kuan doesn’t speak to oath-breakers. You should know that, Matheius.” Matheius’ chest tightened. That was undeniable. In his eagerness to commune with his deity, he had let himself forget it. It was easier to forget. “How do you know that?” He asked quietly.

    The boy giggled. It was an innocent sound, and echoed strangely in the empty, oppressively dark shrine. “Everyone knows that,” he said with the semi-scornful air that could only come from a child who had discovered that he knew something an adult did not know. “Why shouldn’t I?”

    Matheius was at a loss for words, unsure as to just how he should respond. Fortunately, he did not have to, as the boy slid off the bench and walked towards him, stopping a few feet away to gaze up at him with childlike seriousness. “What are you doing here, anyhow, Matheius?”

    Matheius opened his mouth to speak, but the boy cut him off before he had the chance to. “To ask what has happened, and what you should do? To ask for guidance?” His eyes crinkled with amusement. “Even if Kuan was willing to speak with you, he esteems free will and personal choice. He provides strength to the strong, not answers. You should know that, too.”

    Another truth. In the past, the God of War would at most offer his blessing on a specific venture if one of his favored asked for it. But he never commanded, and he never advised. The boy’s insight to the nature and temperament of the gods was keen.

    “Judging by what you say,” Matheius replied slowly, “I should leave and ask another god for advice instead?” This only earned him another look of amused, childish ridicule. “Nithra hates you more than any other, and his star in ascent. Your own former patron, Kuan, refuses to so much as speak with you. What makes you think any of the others here would risk offending those two for your sake?”

    “For such a little kid, you seem to know a great deal about how the heavens work,” Matheius replied dryly, but deep inside, he was shaken. “Are you suggesting, then,” Matheius asked, “That there is no one who might aid me?” The boy’s eyes twinkled in the darkness. Smiling, the boy replied, “I never said that.” “But you suggested it,” Matheius argued, and the boy shook his head. “I did no such thing. I simply pointed out that on this half of this temple, at least, you aren’t going to find anyone to help you.”

    This half of the temple? What was that supposed to mean? Suddenly, Matheius remembered, and his eyes widened. Legends that were ancient in his own time said that the Temple of the Sun was built upon the ruins of a still greater temple dedicated to fell, forgotten gods. The temple itself, as with its worshippers, had been destroyed long ago in the Great Holy War, and even the hint of suspicion of one being a follower of those elder gods, nicknamed the Pantheon of Night, was enough to warrant arrest and interrogation of them and their entire family.

    A sudden thought came to Matheius’ mind, a suspicion which chilled him. “Who are you?” He asked. “Are you?...” He left the sentence unfinished. He wanted to ask if the boy was a member of that dread Pantheon, but couldn’t think of a way to do so without making him look ridiculous.

    The boy stared up at him with those moon-like eyes opened round and wide. Then, his lips split open into a laugh so wide, it turned those large eyes into mere slits as he fell backwards on the floor. The sound of gleeful, loud laughter parted the stifling tension of the shrine. “You think I’m an elder god of darkness?” The boy managed to pant out between laughs. “I promise you, I’m not.” Seemingly unable to say more, he broke out into fresh paroxysms of laughter.

    Matheius’ face turned a little red. It seemed as though he had made himself look ridiculous after all. With as serious a tone as he could muster, he said over the laughter, “Then who or what are you? Whatever you are, you aren’t exactly...” He hunted for a word to describe the boy, settling on “...normal.”

    After a few more seconds, the boy stopped laughing, and he sat up, still grinning at Matheius. “You aren’t exactly normal either,” he pointed out, and Matheius was forced to nod in acknowledgement.

    Smiling, the boy continued, “Last time I saw you, you weren’t even sure of your own name. Even if you are now, you still don’t know a great many things about yourself. There are holes in your memory, great big gaps that you can’t remember.”

    The boy rose to his feet and began to circle around Matheius. “There are memories you know are missing, such as the reason why you killed Elaiana, what happened that day you killed Radavast, or even how you survived the passage of all these centuries.” the boy said, “Then there are memories missing that you don’t even know are missing until they come back, such as with your trip to Sargon.”

    The boy paused, and his eyes twinkled. He pointed his small index finger at Matheius. “Am I right, or am I wrong?” He asked Matheius, who made no response. The boy smiled again. “See? I am right, aren’t I?” Matheius could only nod, and the boy laughed delightedly. “You don’t even know a great many things about yourself. Why worry about me?”

    Before Matheius could even begin to formulate a response, the boy suddenly pointed at a pouch by Matheius’ side. “What do you have in there, anyhow?” Matheius blinked, then reached inside the pouch, pulling out a small, pearl-like stone. The wind banshee’s essence stone. His chest tightened again.

    “It is pretty,” the boy said, round eyes on the pearl now instead of Matheius. “Can I see it?” Matheius hesitated for a moment, then shrugged, nodded, and handed the stone over to the boy. The boy smiled at Matheius for a moment, before turning to stare at the pearl. “So pretty,” he remarked again. “Just like Lyria was.”

    Out of the corner of his eye, the boy peeked at Matheius. Shock was painted on the blademaster’s face, and shame had flooded it, coloring it bright red. “You know about Lyria?” Matheius whispered. For the first time in this bizarre conversation, his voice was slightly unsteady. The boy only laughed. “’course I do!” He pronounced. “Everyone does. She’s why even Aralon won’t speak to you.” Seeming to grow bored with the stone, he tossed it back to Matheius, who caught it, absent-mindedly noting that it seemed warmer now.

    “That really was a very mean thing you did, you know,” the boy said, the smile gone from his face now, and his voice solemn. “You’ve done a lot of mean things in your life, haven’t you?” Matheius exhaled. “I suppose I have,” he said quietly. “I suppose I have.” The boy nodded, and then suddenly smiled again. “That’s okay though,” the boy said. “You’re actually lucky. You might have a chance to make good on some of the mean things you’ve done. Not everyone has that chance, you know.”

    Make good on some of those things? “What do you mean?” Matheius asked, his own voice now calm and steady once more. The boy seemed to notice and nodded as though in approval. “Well,” the boy replied, “You are alive, aren’t you? If you are alive, that means you can make some things right.”

    Matheius nodded at the boy, though his gaze was shadowed and hooded. “That is...true enough.” Suddenly, the boy looked around furtively, then beckoned towards Matheius. “Come closer,” he whispered. “I have something to tell you, but it’s a secret.”

    Slowly, Matheius leaned downwards, coming to a rest on one knee as he brought his head down close to the boy. The boy reached out a small hand, drawing Matheius’ head closer to his lips, then whispered in Matheius’ right ear.

    You still have some time left, but not much,” he whispered. “You had three chances, broke three oaths, made three mistakes. Now you only have this last chance to set things right.” Once again, the boy looked around before whispering, in an even lower voice, “Beneath Nithra’s statue, you’ll find a trapdoor leading downwards. It might be worth investigating.”

    The boy leaned back, releasing Matheius’ head after those words were spoken. “Good luck,” he said brightly in normal tones. “I hope everything works out, I really do. I’m a bit busy though, if not as busy as I should be, so I have to leave now. Bye!” And he turned, running for the exit to the shrine.

    “Wait!” Matheius shouted, rising to his feet and chasing after the boy. He still had many questions; more questions than when he arrived, perhaps. But the boy was too fast, and ducked under the heavy curtains, disappearing.

    Matheius gave chase, bursting through the curtains only seconds after the boy did. He winced slightly as the torch-light stabbed at his eyes; the rapid change from near-utter darkness to the brightly lit chamber hurt. Squinting his eyes, he swept the room with his gaze wildly, trying to find out where the boy had gone.

    “Well, well, here you are!” a voice by Matheius’ side said, and a hand clapped on his shoulder. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Never figured you’d be in that musty old shrine.” Matheius turned his head to the left, eyes still squinting. Frost. Apparently, he had waken up and made his way here.

    Without preamble or greeting, Matheius half-asked, half-demanded, “Did you see a boy run out of here, just a moment ago? Where did he go?” Looking a bit taken aback, Frost shook his head. “Boy? I didn’t see anyone leave that shrine but you, just now. Why?” He grinned cheekily. “Did you get pick-pocketed?”

    Matheius just stared at Frost flatly, eyes hard and lips compressed. Under that stare, the smile on Frost’s face faded, though it didn’t disappear entirely. “Bad question?” Frost chuckled. “Either way, it’s starting to get a bit dark outside. Are we done here, or do you want to pray some more?”

    Matheius turned to stare at the shrine to Kuan. Only then did he suddenly realize that he actually hadn’t prayed at all. He let out a single sigh, then shook his head. “No need,” he stated. “I think I’m done. Let’s leave.”

    Frost rolled his eyes heavenwards. “In a hurry to get here, and now, in a hurry to leave,” he mumbled to himself. “How did I find this fellow?” He let his gaze descend from the ceiling to rest, amused, on a stone-faced Matheius. “Fine, fine. Let’s go.” Frost began to make his way out of the domed temple, stopping at the entrance when he realized Matheius hadn’t followed him. “Matheius?” He turned and called out. “You coming?”

    Matheius hadn’t moved from where he stood after coming out of the shrine of Kuan. He stared at the statue of Nithra at the center of the room, thronged by worshippers on their knees, keenly feeling the absolute silence of the shrine behind of. No sacrifices, no followers, no priests.

    “Matheius?” Frost called again, but Matheius ignored him. Quietly, Frost grimaced as he saw Matheius slowly draw his sword from his sheath. More trouble would be coming. It seemed to follow his new friend around wherever he went. Most of it was Matheius’ own fault, too.

    Matheius had made no noise in drawing his sword, but he attracted attention nonetheless. An unsheathed blade tended to attract attention by itself, and as he walked towards the statue of Nithra, more and more people noticed. A hush soon fell within the temple as worshippers parted from his path, shying away from him and the bared steel in his hands.

    Finally, he stood right before the statue, staring upwards directly at it. His eyes rose and met the contemptuous, mocking gaze of the statue, and once again, he distinctly felt as though the eyes of the statue were the eyes of Nithra himself. He felt as though the god was laughing at his confusion, at his mistakes. At him.

    Nithra’s eyes never failed to stir the utmost hate and revulsion from within him, and now was no exception. After a moment, Matheius said in a calm, conversational voice, “I’ve gotten tired of seeing those eyes of yours.” With a sudden flex of his leg muscles, Matheius leaped high into the air, coming face to face with Nithra’s statue. At the top of his trajectory, black steel flashed once, and then Matheius landed back on the ground. Frost groaned. It looked like things were about to get interesting again.

    For a moment, nothing happened, and everyone was silent. And then the arrogant, sneering head of the statue slid off, crashing down on the hard temple floor and smashing into pieces of broken marble.

    After the initial crash, everyone was utterly silent, their eyes wide. As Matheius turned away from the statue to look at the crowd, naked sword still held in hand, someone suddenly screamed, and made a break for the door. This snapped the crowd out of their stunned state, and everyone in the temple began to run for the exit. No one wanted to risk being cut in half by that madman, wielding that fearful blade.

    Soon there was only one person left, aside from Matheius and Frost. A man middle-aged in appearance, who stood with his hands hidden in the folds of his cloak. He had remained unmoved as the crowd around him fled away.

    _____________________________

    “That was a foolish thing to do,” Archmage Tuoh advised calmly, though a hint of the anger he felt could be seen in his eyes. He had come this day to worship, to pay homage to the patron of all magic. He hadn’t expected anything like this to occur, but now that it had, he was more than prepared to deal it.

    “You will have to be punished for it, and we will probably kill you. Now drop your weapon and kneel down,” he ordered. The man who had desecrated the statue didn’t move. A second time, he demanded, “Kneel.”

    The last command had the power of Compulsion behind it, holding the weight of a spell of binding mixed into the normal tongue. Tuoh was gratified, if unsurprised, to see the man fall to one knee. “Now, follow me,” he commanded, and began to turn away, intending to lead this felon away.

    But Matheius had faced this type of magic before; faced it and won. With an effort of will, he managed to shake it off and burn it away from his mind, then rose to his feet, charging at the mage. Startled, Tuoh turned back to look at him. How did he dispel the Compulsion? He wondered to himself, as Matheius charged towards him.

    It was a question he would get an answer to later, he decided, and his fingers flickered with speed, drawing runes and sigils in the air as he murmured a few words. A simple, basic spell to knock this man back. A ball of flame erupted in the air before Tuoh’s outstretched fingers, and roared towards Matheius.

    Already, Tuoh was preparing a second spell, flickering fingers and chanting voice never pausing. For good reason had he been given the rank of Archmage. The first spell would at least distract the intruder, and this second one would be a spell of binding more powerful than his original, casual compulsion. Simple spells, all that he would need against this ruffian.

    But in the middle of casting the second spell, Tuoh suddenly froze. His fingers ceased their weaving and the stream of words coming from his lips came to a halt as he watched in disbelief as the criminal move his weapon in a strange way and somehow cut the spell he had launched apart, causing the fireball to fizzle. How?!

    Suddenly, Tuoh realized, he hadn’t prepared any of his stronger defensive spells. He hadn’t thought he would need them at the temple. A few minor protections were always on him, enough to ward off blows from most mundane weapons, but he suddenly didn’t feel so safe. Desperately, he started to chant again as his fingers began to draw a ring of protection around him. Just another second, he thought to himself, as the spell began to take shape. He just needed another second....

    _____________________________

    As Ajatha met the minor wards which surrounded the mage, it paused for a single moment, crackling against the barrier. But then Matheius applied some more force, and it blew past whatever minor defenses the mage might have had and slid straight into the mage’s heart.

    Matheius slammed the sword all the way in until the hilt of the blade came to a rest against the mage’s chest. The mage’s fingers stopped moving, and blood spilled out of his mouth.

    A surprised look of disbelief was on the mage’s face, as he fell backwards, slowly sliding off Matheius’ sword. How, he seemed to be asking. That look remained on his face even in death, as a pool of crimson began to form underneath his body. “I guess no one ever told you,” Matheius muttered as he wiped his sword on the corpse’s clothes. “I’m good at killing sorcerers.”

    “And here I thought you were a sweet, kind-hearted little fellow,” Frost remarked sardonically from his position at the exit. He hadn’t moved at all. “I’m going back to the inn.” And he turned around and left the temple, leaving Matheius alone with a broken statue and a dead man for company.

    Matheius stood there, gazing back at the wide-open eyes of the dead man for long moments. Alone, Matheius’ normally expressionless face softened into an odd mixture of many emotions. Guilt, sadness...and a certain sick, twisted pleasure. He continued standing there until he heard a series of alarms being sounded far away and men shouting.

    “Guess I better get going as well,” he muttered to himself, reschooling his features. Then he too headed for the temple exit.

    _______________________________

    The temple was quiet, now. No living person was inside it, and the silent aura of death surrounded it. Suddenly, the eyes of Kuan’s statue glowed white, and the statue spoke.

    You use my grounds too freely. And you tell him of things which should remain hidden.

    In the darkness of the shrine, the small boy appeared again, smiling. “I knew you wouldn’t mind,” he said cheerfully. “We’ve known each other a very long time, after all.”

    The statue growled. You still presume much. And you place far too much trust in Matheius. As you yourself said, he’s broken three major oaths. What makes you think he’ll be different, this time?

    The boy chortled, rubbing his hands together. “Well, for one thing, I’ve never asked him for an oath.” The statue of Kuan only growled again, and the boy winked. “Admit it, Kuan,” he said. “You’re biased against him. And I’m not surprised that you are. You’re you. I’m me. Besides, would you prefer the alternative?”

    The statue was silent for a long moment. Then, it spoke. No. But neither I nor the others shall assist. I do not speak with oath-breakers, much less an oath-breaker thrice over. Again, the boy smiled. “Believe me, I know. Your loss, my gain.”

    Cheerily, the boy waved at the statue. “But now, I really do need to be leaving. As I told him earlier, and as I’m sure you understand, I’m still quite busy, though not as busy as I should be. Be seeing you, Kuan!” And then he melted away into the darkness.

    For a long moment, the statue neither spoke nor moved. And then, it let out a surprisingly human-like sigh. Ah, Matheius, it rumbled out in a tone filled with disappointment and regret. Then the light faded from its eyes, and it lapsed, once more, into immobility. If its posture was now slightly different from earlier, well, no one would notice.

    After all, no one ever came here.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  19. #19
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    Thanks for the update RWX - greatly enjoyed the two chapters. As you requested, here are some opinions, more specifically questions, I have in regards to your story.
    First question: in what role do 'gods' have in the story? How are they significant? Are they passive or active players? It is unclear to me the significance of 'gods' in the story so far. Thus, when Matheius decided to go to Sarkham for prayers, I was confused at his decision and the rationale behind it since, prior to that moment, the topic of gods and their significance and relation to the people was unclear and little talked about. ( I wrote this review prior to chapter 9 - doh! Nonetheless, I think an earlier hint or references to the gods and their significance would be beneficial specifically to clarify Matheius' decision to go to Sarkham. )

    Second question: Why does Matheius dislike magic users? Is it a personal opinion or are magic users in general evil? Or is this a conflict between specific magic users and Matheius? Often, I get the impression that all magic users are considered as evil in your story thus further raising the question as to why they are, seemingly, all evil.

    Perhaps I am jumping the gun with those questions but I believe that your story might benefit from those clarifications. With that said and done, love your references to Ozymandias (love that sonnet)!! Man, I was crackling when I read that part; and it flows smoothly into your story too! A great touch I think. Laoren really hit the spot when he says you're a master storyteller. Hmm, maybe Ren Wo Xing is a pseudonym eh? haha
    Last edited by ttiet`; 12-30-07 at 06:17 AM.

  20. #20
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    ttiet, the whole point of RWX story line is to let the explanations slowly developed as the story goes on; this is what i like about his style; as we read we then to ask many endless questions, who is this?..., why is that?...; also get quite confused???; but as the story goes on we then find that our questions/confusions are revealed; initially I too, as frustrated like you; then I realised that RWX is writing a epic story; so I am more patient and willing to wait... althought I do agreed with u that there should be more/earlier clarifications...too much confusions will discourage many readers from continuing to read; unless reading as one of their hobbies, like me

    RWX, perhaps you can take ttiet comments into consideration.. for me, I like it; (provided you finish this story- too many writers here don't finish their stories)

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