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Thread: That Merciless Blade - Legends of the Arctic Wolf

  1. #21
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    RE ttiet: Thank you for your response! Much appreciated. With respect to the first point you raised about the gods, that's an excellent point. I added in the following 1.5 paragraphs, see below:

    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.”

    The gods of the Pantheon were many and varied. Save for Aralon, goddess of mercy, they rarely interfered directly with the mortal world, and even when they did, it was almost always through intermediaries. Although occasionally they would answer a prayer or bless a particularly devout follower, for the most part their influence was subtle and their intervention rare.

    Matheius once again began to shake his head, but more slowly this time. Then, he paused, and nodded instead. Even if the chance was low, it might still be worth considering. After all, he had actually met the avatars of two gods before. Perhaps if he was lucky, he would merit special treatment again, although he only cared to re-meet one of those avatars. “That might be an idea. Your third?”
    With regards to your second question, as to why Matheius dislikes magic-users, in great part, that's because of his upbringing (see chap. 9). As to whether or not magic-users are evil...well, please note that not once have I ever used the word 'evil' itself in describing them. Matheius' ENEMIES, yes, but evil? I intend for there to be a very moral 'gray' zone for both Matheius (who is no boy scout) as well as the Savants. This will become more and more apparent, hopefully, as the story goes on. See the appraisal of Arzon by Matheius as an example.

    I, too, am a great fan of that sonnet!
    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.

  2. #22
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    Chapter 10: The Bawdry Boat

    “So then,” Frost remarked in a deadpan tone as he cut into his food, “After careful and keen analysis, backed up by field research as well as interpretation of subtle nuances, I have come to the conclusion that you quite possibly have a grudge against the Savants.” Following this statement, Frost burped once, politely, and smiled.

    That got nothing more than a humorless chuckle from Matheius, who was playing around with the food on his own plate. Green peas, some sort of mashed potatoes, and pheasant. Matheius hated pheasant.

    The two of them had both made it back safely to the inn, although it was a near thing. Matheius had only managed to get a single block away from the temple before it had been surrounded by sorcerers who had gated in. Fortunately, for both him and the sorcerers, they hadn’t noticed him, so intent were they on rushing to the Temple of the Rising Sun.

    Matheius had mixed feelings about what had happened. He had been rather pleasantly surprised to hear them shout, “Someone killed Archmage Tuoh!” So, he had killed an ‘Archmage’. He had been distinctly less pleasantly surprised to see just how many of them there were.

    Sorcery and witchcraft had almost been stamped out in his day. The rule of thumb back then was to kill the entire family of those who had been found to be practitioners of magic; ‘pulling up grass by the roots’, the policy was called. As the argument went, this would cull the ability to use magic out of humanity. Matheius had been under the impression that it had worked quite well.

    Either the program had been less successful than they had declared, or the sorcerers had made an astounding recovery in the past two centuries. Matheius had seen no less than fifteen Savants tesseract in, with more arriving every moment. That was more than the entire contingent of sorcerers and apprentices that Arzon had led at the height of his rebellion.

    More than anything else, the sight of so many Savants appearing out of thin air, one after another, made Matheius aware of the enormity of the changes which had been wrought in his absence. It had been difficult for him to equate the scattered, rag-tag band of rebels with the Savants whom people in this time spoke of with such all.

    Today had changed that. Absent-mindedly, Matheius shoved some food in his mouth, forgetting to even grimace at the taste of pheasant. Everything tasted like ashes, anyhow.

    How many was he now up against, and who could he count on? Mentally, Matheius began to run the numbers in his head. At least a dozen to two dozen in this city. Assuming this was typical for regional capitals, perhaps a hundred or more, spread across the six provinces. And, of course, this ‘Master’. He would need to die as well. Preferably first; to kill a serpent, first cut off the head.

    “Sparban.” Matheius blinked, eyes rising to glance at Frost, who had spoken. Or, rather, who had attempted to speak between a mouthful of food. Chewing slowly, Frost swallowed his food after a moment, then said more clearly, “Spellbane.”

    “I didn’t think anyone alive knew that skill,” Frost said as he worried away at a second slab of rather tough meat with his fork and knife. “I hear the Savants banned it a long time ago. All the manuals which even mentioned it were burned, and all the users who were so much as suspected of knowing it were executed.”

    Matheius smiled, just a little. “Good eye,” was all he said, and he meant it. Even in his own day, few knew of that half-forgotten skill of myth which allowed its users to cut apart the fabric of magical spells, ripping apart their delicately woven lattices and causing the focused energy to dissipate away.

    It required both a certain sensitivity to magic, as well as speed and accuracy in order to take advantage of that sensitivity. Not even Vast had been able to learn it, although he had his own ways to...deal...with magic. Matheius knew of no one else who had managed to learn it, and it was once a great source of pride for him. There was a reason mages feared him like death itself.

    Seeing Matheius say nothing else, Frost prodded a bit further. “Well?” Frost asked. “Well what?” “Aren’t you going to tell me anything else?” Matheius cocked his head to one side a little, as though considering the question. Slowly and carefully, he ate a spoonful of the unappetizing material on his plate, chewing it for a long time before swallowing. All the while, Frost watched him with unconcealed impatience. Finally, with the air of someone making a major pronouncement, Matheius said, “The food here is terrible.”

    Frost stared at him for a long moment. Then he groaned and leaned back in his chair. “You’re always so damned secretive,” he groused. “I don’t keep anything from you.” Matheius raised an eyebrow, and Frost spread his hands in concession. “Fine. I keep plenty of things from you. But that isn’t the topic under discussion.”

    Matheius let out another humorless chuckle, once more placing a spoonful of food in his mouth with elaborate care. The effect was rather ruined, though, by him spitting it out immediately afterwards. Tossing his utensils aside, Matheius leaned back and muttered, “There’s no way I can eat any more of this shit. I’m going to complain to Rorrik and see if we can’t get some decent food.” He should’ve known that complimentary food would’ve tasted depressingly bad.

    “Wait a moment.” Frost suddenly snapped his fingers together. “I have an idea. You’re still hungry, I assume?” By way of response, Matheius just pointed to his barely touched plate. “Good. In that case, follow me. I have the perfect place in mind for getting some good food. Feel up for a quick night time stroll?”

    Lips pursed, Matheius tapped his fingers on the wooden table they were eating on. “Come on. Trust me,” Frost persuaded. “So far, you’ve locked lips with a banshee and defaced a statue. I, on the other hand, have found us a comfortable inn room and gotten us baths. I think I have a bit of a better track record than you.”

    Matheius was still rather undecided, but at that moment in time, his stomach joined in the conversation with an emphatic growl in Frost’s favor. Frost snapped his fingers again. “There, see? Two against one, majority wins. It’s decided. Let’s move.” Turning his head towards the stairwell, he called down, “Oi, you! Tery! Get up here!”

    After a few moments, the dour-faced servant appeared. “What can I do for your lordship?” Tery asked, voice filled with resignation and boredom. “Clean up after us, will you? My friend and I are going out for a night on the town.” Rising, he slapped Matheius on the back as Tery nodded, annoyance written on his face.

    A night on the town? As he rose to his feet and followed Frost downstairs to the common room, Matheius had more than a few doubts as to whether this was going to be a good idea or not.
    _________________________

    “You can’t be serious.” Matheius stared at Frost. “This is the place which has the ‘best food in town?’” The two of them were standing outside a rather large, if dilapidated building. Loud music could be heard coming from the inside, which was brightly lit and filled with the sound of drunken laughter and high-pitched giggles.

    Each arm around the shoulder of a slim young girl, Frost grinned at Matheius. “Absolutely. And the best entertainment in the whole province. From what I hear, the beer is quite good too, although I myself don’t partake.”

    Matheius shook his head in amazement. Frost had led the two of them through long, winding streets for thirty minutes, with the two of them venturing into progressively seedier and seedier neighborhoods. More than a few unsavory looking characters had begun to appear nearby as well, though Matheius hadn’t been worried about personal safety. Matheius had been getting more and more dubious about the sagacity of his original decision to follow Frost, but even so...this was a bit much.

    Matheius glanced up at the large signpost of the establishment. Lit by a pair of bright yellow lanterns to each side, it depicted a reclining woman in a state of undress, holding an apple in one hand and with lips suggestively parted before it.

    “The Bawdry Boat?” He read off the post, glancing at Frost with an eyebrow raised. A wide smile was on the latter’s face, and as though rehearsed, the two girls by his side chimed together, “We’ll sail you up the river of pleasure!” And they tittered.

    Matheius flashed Frost a dark look. “I didn’t take you for the type,” he remarked dryly. Frost merely shrugged, unfazed. “Everyone has their vices, and I have few enough other ones,” was his smiling reply. Again, Matheius could only shake his head. “I’m leaving,” Matheius stated, and turned to go.

    “Whoah, whoah! Hang on, there!” Frost called. With speed and accuracy rivaling that of the finest of swordsmen, the two girls by Frost’s detached themselves from him and latched onto Matheius’ arms. “Where are you going?” The brunette on his right cooed. “It’s a cold night outside,” the dark-haired one to his left agreed. “Come inside.”

    Surprised, Matheius tried to shake them off, to little success. “Hey, what are you doing?” Another unsuccessful attempt to break free. “Will you let go?” He said with a hint of exasperation, to no result. A pair of cute faces smiled back at him with no intention of letting him escape. He scowled at them, but found it difficult to maintain the angry look in the face of those smiles.

    Trying another tact, he turned to glare at Frost instead. “Damn it, Frost, tell them to let me go. If you want to go in, that’s your choice. I’m hungry, and I’m going to look for some food.” Frost replied soothingly, “I told you, there’s food inside. Good food. Best food around. Isn’t that right, ladies?”

    The two girls nodded, and Frost snapped his fingers together. “See? You aren’t going to call all three of us liars, will you?” He grinned, then waved them in. “Move it, move it. Bring him in, ladies. You heard the man, he’s hungry!”

    Over Matheius’ protestations, the two girls, still firmly attached to his arms, frog-marched him inside what could only be described as a tavern of considerable ill-repute. Almost as soon as he entered, he was blasted by noise and the smell of alcohol. Matheius gritted his teeth. “Can we at least get a quiet corner? My ears are already bleeding.”

    “I’ll take care of everything. Relax.” Frost motioned with his hands in a placating manner towards Matheius, before turning to face the tavern’s bar counter. “Hey! Esmerelda!”

    The largest woman Matheius had ever seen in his life turned her head at the shout, beaming at them with a great big smile. Brown-haired and exceptionally full-bodied, she was more than a head taller than Matheius, and her hips were at least twice as wide. She left her position at the counter and began to make her way towards their party, and Matheius would’ve sworn that the ground trembled.

    “She’s huge,” Matheius muttered aloud, having forgotten for the moment both the two girls latched onto him, and the blaring noise from the musicians in the left side of the establishment. “Frost!” Esmerelda said with a smile as she approached, and Matheius started a second time. That sweet, dulcet voice definitely did not match the woman’s figure. He had expected a rumbling roar.

    “Where have you been? You haven’t come in nearly a year!” The giant woman embraced Frost, and Matheius winced. He wouldn’t have been surprised if that resulted in Frost’s death by asphyxiation. “I thought you must’ve either died or become a boy-lover!” She turned her head to look at Matheius and smiled. “And who is this handsome fellow? What happened to Owl?”

    Frost laughed easily, extricating himself from that prodigious bosom. “Owl’s taking care of some business. This is a new friend I’ve made. His name is Matheius. Matheius, Esmerelda. Esmerelda, Matheius.” Esmerelda released Frost and stepped towards Matheius, who tensed, fearful of being squashed. Fortunately, all she did was extend her hand.

    The girl on Matheius’ right released his arm, and Matheius took Esmerelda’s hand. He was planning to simply shake it, but saw a warning look in Frost’s eye. With a silent sigh, he pressed the massive hand to his lips instead, before releasing it. Her hand was big enough to cover his entire face.

    “Oh, what a gentleman!” Giant Esmerelda squealed in that incongruously melodic voice. She adopted a pose, and asked, “Do you think I am pretty?” Matheius forced a smile to his lips. “Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. As beautiful as four lovely maidens combined,” he quipped without feeling it. This was a game he was once good at playing, even if he had stopped for a long time.

    Esmerelda stared at him for a moment, before bursting out with laughter. “Honest and clever,” she said to Frost. “You always do find the most interesting gentlemen to bring. I’ll need to count my girls after this one’s gone, or else I might find that they’ve left with him!” And she laughed again, massive jowls trembling with merriment.

    At that moment, Matheius’ stomach growled again, and Frost laughed as well. “This particular gentleman has been hungry for quite a while now. Can you get us some food? Good food, mind. We’ve been eating slop at Rorrik’s.”

    “Rorrik’s?” Esmerelda let out a little ‘pfft’ sound. “Why did you go there instead of here? I’ll see what I can arrange. Mind you, you’re staying here tonight, and that’s that. I’ll have your rooms prepared. Everything is on the house tonight.” She leaned towards Frost and kissed him on the lips. Matheius shuddered involuntarily. “Good to see you again, dear.” She waved cheerily, then waddled away, ostensibly to prepare their rooms.

    “Ah, Esmerelda,” Frost sighed. “An experience every man should be so lucky to enjoy. If you’re interested, I can try to arrange something for you.” Matheius watched the departure of that massive, ponderous bulk for a long moment, before turning to stare at Frost. The look in his eyes promised death. Frost only laughed all the harder. “Stop trying to scare me with those terrifying eyes of yours, Matheius,” he mock-plead. “Let’s go somewhere quiet and get some food.”

    They were been led to a private alcove, removed from the boisterous, noisy center of the tavern, giving Matheius’ ears welcome relief. Seated on a long couch before the table, Frost himself had no less than four girls with him, each arm draped around two. He was in the midst of telling jokes and laughing loudly while being hand fed by the girls.

    Even Matheius had to admit that the food was surprisingly good. Esmerelda had apparently decided to spare no expense in preparing a sumptuous feast of various delicacies. There was roasted meats, baked meats, fresh fruits and vegetables of all types, and even some candied desserts.

    The two girls by Matheius had identified themselves as Dawn and Rose, and they remained comfortably snuggled against the sides of his body. Matheius had long since resigned himself to the situation. At least he had gotten the two girls to stop trying to feed him.

    Truthfully, although he would never admit it, it was rather enjoyable, and brought back some pleasant memories. Memories from before everything had gone wrong; memories from when he was a dashing and shameless heartbreaker. Once, he had seduced duchesses and milkmaids alike.

    The music throbbed vibrantly and the air was filled with the laughter of women. As with Frost, Matheius hadn’t touched any of the mugs of beer which had been placed on the table, but Matheius slowly found himself becoming intoxicated nonetheless. Giving in to the sensation of the moment and to those pleasant, soothing memories, he closed his eyes and leaned towards Dawn to give her a kiss.

    But just before they kissed, just as his own eyes closed, another pair of eyes appeared in his mind. Clear, gray and knowing, they stared at him with quiet reproach. He shouldn’t be enjoying himself. He didn’t have the right to, after what had happened. Matheius grimaced and opened his eyes, pulling back.

    Abruptly, he rose to his feet, to startled squeaks from the two girls. For a moment, they tried to hang on to him, to pull him down. With a simple twisting movement, he broke their grasp on his arm and grabbed them, instead, by the wrists, applying slight pressure, before letting go. He wasn’t in a mood to play anymore, and from the pouts on their faces, they knew it.

    “Where are you going, Matheius?” Frost called from the side of the alcove, as the girls by him giggled. “To my room,” Matheius replied shortly, gathering his things. The two girls had managed to work his outer layer of clothing off, and he was putting them on again. “Sure thing,” Frost said agreeably. “Which one you going to take with you, or are you going to take both?”

    Matheius pulled his overcloak around himself. “Neither.” “Neither?!” Frost said. “Neither,” Matheius repeated himself, as he began to leave. “You can’t be serious,” Frost called at him. “What are you, some sort of coward when it comes to women?”

    Matheius paused at the doorway upon hearing those words. Then he turned to look at Frost, who was grinning from ear to ear. For a long moment, Matheius was silent. Then, he quietly said, “Frost. You consider yourself my friend, right?” Frost nodded at him, still smiling. Matheius continued, still in that quiet voice, “If you want to continue being my friend, I suggest you never call me that again.” Then he turned away and left.

    For a moment, the smile on Frost’s face faltered a little. “Huh. What’s got him in such a pissy mood,” he muttered to himself. Then the smile on his face brightened as he noticed that Dawn and Rose were alone now. “This way, ladies!” He called to them, beckoning with his arms that were around the shoulders of the four women by his side. “Still some room left on my side!”
    __________________________

    Matheius spent hours simply lying on the bed in the room which had been prepared for him, staring at the ceiling. The room was large and dark; he hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights. In his mind, he was proposing dozens of possible stratagems to himself for dealing with his opponent, the Savants, and dismissing them in turn.

    All of them relied too much on luck or other uncontrollable variables. Banding together the rounin and outlaws, even if it proved successful, probably still would not be enough to take on the Five Towers. He was still shocked at how strong they had become. Returning home to gather his Northmen might work, but again, would they be strong enough to prevail in a frontal assault?

    Time after time, he returned to the only possible conclusion he could arrive at. The hold of the Savants was too strong to break at once. The ancient strategy of divide and conquer would be the only one possible...and to do that, he would first need to decapitate the head of the Five Towers, this...’Master’.

    He grimaced to himself. He had a feeling it wasn’t going to be easy. More analysis would be required. More analysis and more thought. Arakan had always warned him that he was too hasty. What few defeats he had experienced in his life came from that.

    A knocking sound. Someone was at the door. Unseen in the darkness, Matheius raised his eyebrow. Who would it be at this late hour? Then he groaned to himself. It must be Dawn or Rose. Those two never gave up.

    “Go away Dawn, or Rose, or whichever one of you it is,” he called from his prone position at the bed. “I’m about to go to sleep.” A light laugh from the opposite side of the doorway. “It’s neither Dawn nor Rose,” a sweet voice said. “It’s Esmerelda.”

    Matheius shot up in his bed, eyes wide. “No way,” he muttered to himself. “There is no way in hell.” Not even if he was in the mood, and he most decidedly wasn’t. “Thank you for the room, Esmerelda,” he called back. “But I’m preparing to go to sleep right now. If you need something, talk to Frost.”

    A charming laugh. “Are you going to open or not? If you won’t open, I’ll come in.” Matheius slapped a hand to his forehead, grimacing. “No, no, don’t do that,” he muttered as he left the bed and stood up, but it was too late. He heard a rattle of keys on a chain, and then a click as the door was unlocked.

    He was going to kill Frost. “Look, Esmerelda, I’m flattered, but-” His voice trailed off as Esmerelda closed the door behind her and stepped into his room, holding a dim lamp that let off a very small amount of light, which she attached to a lamp-holder on the side of the wall.

    The room was still dark, but well-lit enough for him to make out Esmerelda’s form. Covered in a thin nightdress, her body was slim, almost willowy, and she swayed slightly as she walked towards him. No part of her body that should’ve been slender was thick. Every part that should be full, was.

    She smiled at him again, dark brown eyes glittering in the dim light. “But what, Matheius?” She asked, in that rich, honeyed voice which had been so incongruent with her earlier appearance, but which suited her perfectly now.

    Matheius simply stared at her as she made her way before him, until she stood right in front of him. She was shorter now, as well, coming only to his nose, instead of towering above him. He cocked his head slightly. Dryly, he said, “You’re only a quarter as beautiful as you were earlier.”

    Esmerelda laughed. Combined with that face and those eyes, it would’ve set any man’s heart fluttering. With a half-smile on her lips, she explained, “Just a small glamour I purchased from a wizard to make sure customers focus on my girls, and not me.”

    “Effective,” Matheius said dryly, and she laughed again. She slipped a bare, slender arm around the back of his neck, gently stroking it. “From the moment I saw you,” she murmured, long-lashed eyes locked onto his own. “I was attracted to you. You are special,” she whispered to him. “I can tell.”

    She applied gentle pressure to the nape of his neck, bringing his lips down to meet hers. Caught in the moment, he didn’t resist, and she kissed him. It was a deep kiss, a slow kiss, a sensuous kiss. No woman could kiss a man like that unless she meant it. For a long moment, Matheius let himself sink into that kiss, and even kissed her back. And then, he broke the kiss.

    “I wish I could believe that,” he murmured to her in response to her questioning gaze. “Except...” He paused. “Except what?” She smiled at him, eyes filled with tender affection.

    “Except,” Matheius repeatedly slowly, as his free hand suddenly snapped onto the wrist of hers. “For the knife you pulled out from behind when you kissed me.” He applied pressure to her wrist, and she let the weapon slip from her fingers. It made a dull thudding sound as it hit the floor.

    Matheius had to give her credit. She didn’t flinch at all, and he saw no fear in her eyes, which were still filled with that same tenderness from earlier. To the contrary, her smile seemed to widen. “Oh, you are good,” she breathed. “You are very, very good. It was a club, though, not a dagger.”

    Glancing down, Matheius realized she was telling the truth. Kicking the club away, Matheius released her and stepped back. “Why?” He asked, eyebrow raised. “I don’t know you, you don’t know me. Did Frost put you up to it?” He didn’t think so, but one could never be certain.

    Esmerelda lips parted in a small laugh. “No, not Frost. This did.” She reached for something in the folds of her dress, and Matheius tensed a little, but it wasn’t another weapon. It was a scroll, and she tossed it to him.

    Unfolding it, he found an almost perfect duplicate of his likeness, with words underneath that couldn’t be made out in the darkness. He stared at it, then handed at her. “What’s this? Where did you get it?” Esmerelda took the scroll back and refolded it. “A bounty offering of one hundred and fifty gold ingots,” she replied. “Apparently, for murder of an Archmagus named Tuoh, and for defacing the Temple of the Rising Sun. They’ve been spread out all across town. I received it after you two had gone to your rooms.”

    Damn. Looked like things will be getting a bit hot around here. “A hundred and fifty ingots? Is that all?” Matheius smiled coldly. “I thought I’d be worth more.” Esmerelda surprised him by laughing and nodding. “I’m starting to agree. You better hurry. I sent out runners a while ago. They should arrive at the Tower any moment now, and it won’t take long for the Savants to arrive. Get Frost and leave.”

    Matheius eyed Esmerelda curiously, even as he began gathering his few possessions. “Changed your mind about getting the bounty, just like that?” Her eyes smiled at him. “I’m a woman. I’m allowed to do things like that. And besides.”

    She leaned forward to kiss him again, even more thoroughly than the first time. Surprised, he once again did not resist. “Like you said,” she murmured after the kiss ended. “You’re worth more than a hundred and fifty ingots.” She patted him on the cheek and then, before his startled eyes, expanded to the size she was when he first had seen her. “Now hurry.”

    More than a little disturbed, for more than one reason, he dashed past her now-ponderous bulk and knocked Frost’s door open. The latter was still awake, reclining on his own bed in a state of undress, with all six girls from earlier in bed with him. Startled, Frost stared at Matheius. “What the hell?” He muttered. “I thought you went to bed.”

    “Esmerelda sold us out to the sorcerers, then changed her mind,” Matheius explained in a fast, clipped tone. “They’re coming. Get dressed and move. I’ll wait thirty seconds, then I’m leaving on my own if you aren’t ready.” Frost blinked. “What?” Not answering the question, Matheius shut the door. With a groan, Frost sat straight up in his bed, pushing the girls away from him. “Damn it, Esmerelda,” he mumbled to himself. “Stop doing this shit to me.”

    Precisely at the thirty second mark, just before Matheius was about to leave, Frost opened the door. He was covered in lipstick, but dressed, with his sword by his side. “I’m ready,” Frost muttered. “Let’s go.”

    They departed through an open window, leaping down to the rooftop of a lower-lying house nearby and ran as far away as quickly as possible. They were fortunate. Less than a minute after their escape, a dome of blue light suddenly appeared, surrounding the Bawdry Boat as well as all buildings within a radius of one block around it.

    “Interdiction spell,” Frost answered to the unspoken query in Matheius’ look. “Nothing comes in, nothing goes out. Not without the permission of the Savant who serves as the focus for the spell. Powerful bit of magic. They want you pretty bad. I wonder why.” The last comment was more than a little dry.

    Matheius didn’t respond. His face was grim as he turned away from the pulsating blue dome which encapsulated the area. He found himself hoping Esmerelda would be alright. He actually liked her. Just a bit. “Let’s get moving,” was all he said, as he began to walk away.

    Frost jogged to catch up with him. “Where to now?” He asked. “Back to our original tavern? That might not be a good idea. They probably received the same notices that Esmerelda did.”

    Matheius shook his head. “No, not the tavern.” “Then where?” Frost asked, and in response, Matheius pointed with his finger off in the distance. Following Matheius’ finger, Frost stared towards the northeast, in the direction of the center of the city. Then he turned back to stare at Matheius. “You are kidding.” Matheius shook his head. “The Temple? You want to go back there?” Matheius nodded. “Are you serious?” Matheius nodded again.

    For a long moment, Frost stared at Matheius, then began howling with laughter. Matheius stood there, watching Frost clutch at his sides, waiting for him to be done with it. “Oh, Matheius, Matheius,” Frost finally said after a few minutes passed, wiping away tears of laughter from his eyes. “You are crazy, do you know that? Absolutely crazy, and I love it. Very well, then!” He snapped a mock-salute to the still-patiently waiting Matheius. “Let’s get moving. After that, we can go to Dimonde and kiss the Master’s sister, then call his mother a cow to his face.” And he started to laugh again.
    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.

  3. #23
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    Thanks for taking in to consideration my questions! The addition you made really help to clarify his decisions. I guess the reason why I wanted to be clear on the position of magic users is because of Matheius' resolve to destroy their rule. I understand that this resolution comes in part from what he sees in the Deadwood and the Curly family (and later on from the poverty of Trentstown). However, I am unclear as to how the Savants are responsible for these conditions and, more importantly, if they are responsible, why? Why did the Savants suck the life out of the Deadwood? Why, under their rule, do people suffer?

    I guess what I am looking for is the justification for Matheius' resolve to fight against the Savants. Matheius believes the Savants are responsible for the condition of the Deadwood and the poverty and loss of the Curly family. Assuming that he is correct, I still do not think that it warrants such a drastic action as declaring war against Savants' rule- and Matheius made his declaration to fight the Savants even before he came to Trentstown- without knowing the reasons why things are as they are.

    For such a significant decision, a pivotal point in your story I believe, I think you should be clear on the reasons behind it. So far, it seems to me that Matheius fights the Savant because 1. he believes them to be responsible for the degradation of the environment and people, 2. it is in his upbringing, as you said, to dislike and distrust Savants, and 3. because Matheius feels responsible for the current conditions. Of these three reasons, two is because of what Matheius believes or feels. It has not yet been established as fact that the Savants are responsible for the current conditions; without these facts, Matheius lacks the rationale and justification for his opposition to the Savants.



    I apologize if I seem critical of your story but you got me so immersed in this world that I can't help being critical. I really do think this story has great potentials and so all of my comments, observations, and questions are meant in the most constructive of manners and intentions. I have been an avid fan of fantasy for the past ten years and I think I can confidently say that your story truly brings something original to the genre. As always, looking forward to the next chapter!

  4. #24
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    RE ttiet: Again, thank you for your comments. There was a line (perhaps I should make this more clear) that you had perhaps overlooked:

    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…
    Also note this quote:

    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.
    As you can see, we know that prior to his re-awakening, Matheius had already been at war with the Savants, whom, as far as he was concerned, were 'invaders'. Evidently, now, these 'invaders' are in charge (something which clearly wasn't the case previously). To add onto this, for whatever reason, Matheius feels responsible for this; he feels as though it were 'all his fault'. It's only natural to conclude that he should rectify the situation, this horrible situation, which he 'caused'.

    And of course, in addition, Matheius was raised and born into a framework where magic-users are enemies, to be killed. Deadwood? Curly? Poverty? Those are just justifications in his own mind to reinforce a belief he has held since childhood; magic-users are the enemy and need to be destroyed.

    There is no further exposition on this, because there was no 'pivotal point' in which Matheius made a decision; he took it for granted and as natural that he should once again start anew with the war which he thought he had already won, before the events which led to his long slumber.

    I hope that addresses your point; if not, let me know.

    On a side-tangent, the following questions are the ones that are really worth considering.

    1) We know that he is/was in love with Elaiana. We also know that he killed her. Why?

    2) We know that Matheius used to be a servant of the King and the kingdom, yet 'defected' (beginning of chapter two) for some reason. As the Savants are/were the enemy, it's reasonable to assume he defected to them. Why?

    3) We know that he hates mages and is fond of killing them; yet we can also tell from flashbacks that he was working with Arzon for a time, and that he eventually killed him, even though, as we can tell, Matheius actually formed a certain degree of respect for Arzon. Why?

    4) Matheius holds himself responsible for the victory of the Savants, even though he killed (or thought he killed) Arzon, their leader. Why?

    Of course, there are (I hope!) many more questions than just these, but these are some of the more 'critical' ones to ponder.
    Last edited by Ren Wo Xing; 12-31-07 at 01:22 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.

  5. #25
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    Chapter 11: Nyx’s Kiss

    An hour had passed. Frost was no longer laughing. “I knew this was a stupid idea,” he grumbled, wiping blood off his sword. “That’s the only type of idea you ever have.” All his effort focused on moving the massive statue of Nithra, Matheius didn’t even bother to glance at Frost. “Stop whining and maintain a careful watch.”

    Frost rolled his eyes. The journey to the temple had been swift enough. With the fall of night, the crowds which had congregated in the streets during the day had dispersed. Moving quickly and staying in the shadows, the two of them hadn’t met any opposition either. They had entered the Temple of the Rising Sun unmolested, and Frost was just beginning to think that perhaps the idea wasn’t so crazy after all when a trio of Savant sorcerers de-cloaked, wands at the ready.

    It had been dark inside the temple. All the torches had died, and no one had replaced them. The Savants had hidden themselves with a sorcerous shroud of invisibility, apparently lying in wait on the off-chance that the person who murdered the Archmage would be idiot enough to return. Evidently, Frost thought to himself, Matheius was that idiot.

    The two of them were fortunate that the Savants, in their arrogance, decided to reveal themselves in dramatic fashion rather than attack immediately while hidden. If they had done that, the sorcerers might have killed them, or at least wounded them. As it was, the sorcerers had trusted that two swordsmen, no matter how skilled, could not overcome three fully prepared sorcerers.

    The blood which continued to flow from their corpses showed just how misplaced that trust was. Matheius had accounted for two of them, Frost the third. Matheius hadn’t even given the sorcerers a chance to speak, surprising them by launching an attack almost immediately after they uncloaked. What had initially been a deadly ambush instead turned into a slaughter.

    Truth be told, Frost had no particular desire to start a vendetta with Tower sorcerers. It wasn’t that he minded killing them. It was just that killing them was usually more trouble than it was worth.

    In this case, he really had no choice. While Matheius was dealing with the first two sorcerers, the third mage, who had remained invisible at first, de-cloaked and was preparing to blast Matheius from behind. Frost had to deal with that one personally.

    Grimacing slightly, he toed one of the corpses. “Whatever you are doing with the damn statue, Matheius, you’d better hurry.” He sniffed the air and wrinkled nose. “It stinks like hell in here. Besides,” he added, “I think this one managed to send a signal out to the rest of them before he died. We’re going to have company soon.”

    A loud crash was the response to his words, as the headless stone statue finally toppled over, shattering into many pieces. Frost jumped slightly, turning away from his watch to look at Matheius. “You really hate that statue, don’t you,” Frost said. “What are we doing here, anyhow? Looking for treasure inside of it?” He snorted.

    Matheius shook his head, kicking a few pieces of rubble aside. “No. Someone told me that there would be a hidden trapdoor here, underneath the statue.” Frost raised an eyebrow. The tiled floor where the statue had rested looked identical to the rest of the floor. Responding to Frost’s dubious look, Matheius said, “I trust the person who gave me the information.” He paused. “I think.”

    Frost closed his eyes and groaned. “You really are insane,” he mumbled. “In fact-” He didn’t manage to complete the sentence. The temple was suddenly lit by a flash as a bolt of lightning crashed in from outside. Frost, back turned momentarily to the doorway, was struck by it full-on from behind. The lightning bolt sent him hurtling through the air, slamming him against a Temple pillar.

    The stone pillar cracked under the impact. Small bits of dust and smashed stone wafted down to cover Frost’s face. “Frost!” Matheius shouted, turning to stare at the man. He began to run towards where Frost had landed after impacting the pillar. Matheius was filled with worry. Frost had to have been badly hurt. He had taken a direct hit from that thunderbolt, which painful experience had taught Matheius could cause internal injuries. And then that collision...

    But before Matheius had taken more than four or five steps, he stopped. Seemingly unharmed and unfazed, Frost had already risen to his feet. “Son of a *****,” Frost groaned, wiping bits and pieces of crushed stone from his face. “What the hell hit me?”

    Staring, Matheius opened his mouth. “How did you-” he began, but like Frost earlier, he didn’t manage to finish his sentence as another bolt of lightning sliced in through the doorway. This time, both Matheius and Frost dodged in time, and it passed by them harmlessly.

    “Why’d you dodge? That one was meant for you,” Frost quipped, drawing his sword as the two of them made their way to each side of the open doorway. Every few moments another blast of lightning, alternated with bolts of fire and ice, would erupt through the doorway. Matheius gave him a dirty look, and then drew Ajatha as well.

    Patiently, Matheius waited, gauging the frequency of spells being thrown through the doorway. This would need good timing. At a moment when the volleys slowed, Matheius leapt through the doorway, twisting his wrist to deflect a spell hurled towards him with Frost following behind only a heartbeat later.

    Initially, Matheius had planned on a headlong charge. As he exited the temple and swept his gaze across the surroundings, that plan died a quick death. “Duie,” Matheius muttered to himself in the Dak’nava tongue. “’Do’?” Frost inquired. “Shit,” Matheius translated. Frost nodded. “Ah.” After a moment, he added, “I concur.”

    They were surrounded and trapped. A glowing blue interdiction dome centered on the temple covered the area, stretching across at least across a radius of two streets. No less than fifteen sorcerers had been arrayed in a semi-circle surrounding the entrance to the temple, all of them with wands at the ready.

    Their opponents were prepared, this time. Several of them to the right were mantled in roaring flames, sheathed in electricity, or surrounded by floating particles of ice. Elementalists. Matheius glanced to the left. A group of four sorcerers were accompanied by a pack of hound-like creatures that melted into the night. Devil-dogs, called by summoners.

    The one whom Matheius considered to be truly dangerous stood at the center of that semi-circle. Unlike the others, he did not hold a wand in his hands, which were hidden in his sleeves and folded across his chest. In front of him, a pair of wicked, curved scimitars hovered in the air, rotating slowly. A particularly deadly type of sorcerer. Battlemage.

    Matheius repeated himself. “Shit.” From the center, the battlemage called out to the two men. “Drop your weapons immediately. You have three seconds to comply.” Frost murmured to Matheius, “Any suggestions?”

    “One!” The battlemage shouted. “Not really.” Matheius replied. “Two!” “We should probably move, though.” Matheius said. “Agreed.” Frost nodded.

    “Three!” The night exploded with color as streams of fire, ice, and thunder streaked from the wands of the elementalists towards the two men, while at the same time, the pack of devil-dogs raced towards them. The battlemage was the last to strike, as the two blades around him ceased their aimless wandering and shot towards Matheius like arrows released from a bow.

    By silent agreement, the two men leapt backwards towards the inside of the Temple, where they might not be so exposed at least. Too slow, Matheius groaned as they just barely crossed the Temple threshold. They could outrun the dogs, but not the sorcerous bolts which were racing towards them. Not when the only movement they could make was a straight, backwards lateral movement.

    To Matheius’ eyes, the multitude of bolt spells seemed to have converged into one massive glowing sphere of elemental power. The twin blades, launched after the spells of the elementalists, had managed to reach the center of that surging blend of magic. Wreathed in that maelstrom of power, the curved scimitars seemed as though they were the clawed hands of some infernal beast, reaching from the depths of the flaming hells to drag him down with them.

    In what felt like slow-motion, Matheius noticed Frost, who was two feet in front of him, reach and grasp the doorway with both hands. What’s he playing at? Matheius wondered to himself. Was he trying to take the brunt of the blow himself? Surprisingly noble. Somehow, I doubt it. Strange, though. Why does the air around the door seem so thick and misty? It was the last thought Matheius had before he fell to the floor.

    The entire Temple shuddered with the impact of that barrage of spells, but as Matheius rolled to his feet out of instinct, he found himself alive and unhurt. More than a little surprised, if pleasantly so, he turned to stare at Frost, who was standing at the doorway. “Whew.” Frost managed to say between pants, “Close one.”

    In front of Frost, a dense, solid formation of what appeared to be crystal-like ice had appeared, blocking the doorway. It was thick enough that Matheius could barely see through it, the sorcerers outside appearing to be no more than blur. Even through the ice, though, he could hear their shouts of surprise and consternation. Somehow, that miniature ice wall must have blocked the attack.

    “How did you do that?” Matheius demanded. His fingers tensed around his weapon. “Are you a sorcerer, as well?” Frost snorted. With elaborate casualness, he said, “Oh, you want my life story now? Where to begin. Well, I was born-” At that moment, the ground underneath their feet trembled as the Temple shook again, from another volley of spells. Cracks began appearing in the ice wall.

    After regaining his footing, Frost said, “Maybe it would be a good idea to postpone this discussion for later? This,” and he tapped the icy barrier, “Won’t last long. It’d be nice if you could find that passageway right about now.” As Matheius continued to stare at him, Frost added with a perfectly innocent expression, “Or I suppose we could just chat for a bit before we, you know, die.” He delivered the speech with sardonic aplomb.

    Twisting his lips, Matheius nodded, and then ran towards the part of the floor which had lain underneath the statue. Upon reaching it, he stopped and simply stared at it. “Well?” Frost asked, watching as the barrier of ice fractured further underneath another barrage of spells. “Aren’t you going to open it?”

    “I’m not quite sure how,” Matheius admitted. Frost turned away from the ice wall to look at Matheius. “You are kidding me.” Matheius was just about to respond, when he saw a dim glow appear from the hydra-gem embedded into his sword. On a hunch, he pressed the gem against the surface of the floor. The panel of floor glowed red for a brief moment. Then slowly but smoothly, it detached itself from the rest, sinking downwards into utter darkness.

    “Thank the Gods,” Frost breathed as he ran towards the hole. “I knew you were kidding me.” Matheius dropped down onto the darkness, landing on solid ground only a few feet into it. “Yeah,” he said. “There’s a stairwell here, or something. Come on.” Needing no further urging, Frost let himself drop down into the darkness as well, and Matheius once more pressed the hilt of his sword to the sunken panel, which rose to its original position. The glow of his gem faded away as well, leaving the two men in utter darkness.

    Above them, the Temple shuddered again. A shattering sound could be heard, followed by many feet running inside. The Savants had broken through. Cries of “They aren’t here!” and “Search every chamber!” could be heard from above, muffled only slightly by the thin layer of floor which lay between the two men and their pursuers.

    “Close one,” Frost said again, voice a whisper, and Matheius nodded, although it was too dark for Frost to see. In silence, they waited, hearing the curses of the sorcerers as they failed to find the two men. Finally, after what felt like a long time, the sound of footsteps could be heard moving off into the distance. The voices of the sorcerers grew quieter and quieter as well, until nothing more could be heard. The Savants had left the temple.

    Matheius exhaled. “Alright,” he said, still in a whisper in case a Savant had been left behind. “Let’s go down.” Blindly, his hands groped around in the darkness, trying to feel for his surroundings. To his right, he touched the wall. Almost instantly, he withdrew his hand, recoiling. Instead of stone, the wall seemed to be made out of some cold, fleshy material that was slick to the touch.

    He would need to touch the wall to make sure he didn’t fall sideways off the stairway, though. With an unseen grimace, Matheius again extended his hand to rest against the fleshy wall. “Make sure you stay close to the wall,” he told Frost. He had no way of telling whether or not Frost did so, but judging from the “Ugh” sound, Frost had touched the wall as well.

    Step by step, the two men descended into the depths of this downwards spiral. Matheius tested every single step before taking them. He had no particular desire to find out how deep this tunnel was by falling to the bottom. In this absolute blackness, it was too dark to see his own hands, much less the stairs which led them down.

    It was slow. It was dangerous. It was also tedious. The darkness was complete, and no sound could be heard save for the tapping of their boots on the stairway floor as they made their way downwards. Half out of boredom and half out of desire to break the silence, Matheius asked, “So. Care to explain what happened earlier?”

    “Hrm. Not really.” Frost’s voice was as light and easy as it ever was. Matheius wasn’t sure the same could’ve been said about his own. “You have your abilities, I have mine. Besides.” Matheius heard a distinct note of amusement in Frost’s voice. “You didn’t think I call myself Frost just because I happen to like wearing white, did you?”

    Matheius sighed, and Frost laughed. “On a more serious note, though,” Frost said after a moment, “What in the demons is this place? I’ve never even heard rumors of a secret passageway underneath the Temple, and I try to keep abreast of these things.”

    Matheius was silent for several moments. Only their footsteps could be heard once more. Then, he answered. “I wouldn’t expect you to. Even I have only heard legends about this place.” Frost let out a slight snort. “Well?” He asked. “What is this place, then?”

    Matheius let out a long breath. “If the stories are true, this is the Nether Temple. Supposedly, the Temple of the Rising Sun was built on top of this one. I never imagined it was actually real.”

    “The Nether Temple?” Matheius nodded, focusing on each downwards step as he spoke. “The Nether Temple. It was said to be the greatest of the shrines to the Pantheon of Night.”

    Frost waited for Matheius to continue, but Matheius seemed reluctant to. With exaggerated patience, Frost asked, “Do I have to ask you, now, what this ‘Pantheon of Night’ is? Can you just tell me what is going on, without me needing to prod you every few moments?” Unwillingly, Matheius nodded again, forgetting that Frost couldn’t see him.

    “The Pantheon of Night,” Matheius answered, keenly feeling the inky blackness around him as he spoke, “Is the name given to a group of primordial gods. Once, they were simply called the ‘Darkness’. These were the gods of the most ancient days, before the Pantheon of Day arose and brought civilization and order.”

    His palms felt cold and sweaty. Matheius rubbed them against his clothes before reaching out to touch that flesh-like wall again. “They existed before Kronius forged the world, and before Abelion rose into the sky. The ruled when the word ‘day’ itself only meant periods of lessened darkness, as opposed to True Night, where nothing could be seen. A time when all was darkness, and darkness was something to be feared and worshipped.”

    Matheius’ mouth and throat were dry. He swallowed a few times. “In stories, they were defeated when the Pantheon of Day rose, but their influence and power had gripped the world for so long, even daylight could last for but so many hours each day. Always, the darkness which they had once wrapped the world in would come back, for at least a few hours each day in the form of night.”

    “It is said that our fear of the darkness and of the night stem from them and this. From ingrained memories that reminds us of the time when night was truly a time of the greatest terror, and power.”

    Frost was silent for a long moment. If it weren’t for the sound of his continued footsteps, Matheius would have thought Frost had disappeared. Then, Frost slowly said, “And you think this was once a temple devoted to them?” “Yeah.” Frost asked, “Why precisely are we coming here again?”

    At that moment, Matheius was asking himself the same thing. “Someone advised me to.” “Someone advised you to,” Frost repeated. “The same someone who told you about the secret entrance?” Matheius nodded in the darkness. “Yeah.” “And would he be?” Matheius let out a somewhat embarrassed chuckle. “No idea. Sorry.”

    Frost made no response. “Like I said, I feel that I can trust him.” Still no response. Lost in thought, Matheius tried again after a few moments. “He hasn’t done me any harm, and he seems to know a lot about me. I came here for some answers, and I think he’s helping me get them.” Frost still said nothing, and Matheius paused. Slightly irritated, Matheius said, “Frost, I’m talking to you.” He came to a stop. “Frost?”

    Suddenly, he realized that the only footsteps he had heard for quite some time were his own. Reaching back, he groped into the darkness behind him, trying to feel for his companion. Instead of the empty air he expected to find, his hand touched the same cold, fleshy material that the walls were made out of. He was trapped in, and Frost was gone.

    Matheius came to a dead stop. Panic began to flutter in his heart, struggling to spread its wings and take flight. Stop it, he told himself. Abruptly, he sat down on the spot, trembling slightly. Whatever is happening, panicking won’t help. Frost can probably take care of himself, and you’re used to taking care of yourself. Snap out of it.

    It didn’t help. The trembling grew worse. A nameless, faceless, formless fear had seized him. It was a sensation he was not used to, a feeling he was unprepared to fight. The absolute darkness and the complete silence suddenly seemed terrifying beyond imagination. An uncountable number of night terrors swam to the forefront of his mind. A small cry escaped his lips. They would take him, they would eat him, they would chew him up into small pieces and gnaw the still-warm flesh from his living body one bite at a time.

    Other fears filled him. His hand reached out, clawing at the stairwell beneath him as a sudden fear of it disappearing entered his mind. He touched something smooth and hard, and recoiled. It was a skull, and it seemed to him to be a grim predictor of what would happen to him.

    The air around him had dropped in temperature. Matheius now shivered from both terror and cold. It was unlike anything he had experienced. Born in the Northlands, Matheius was used to weather so cold that it would chill a man straight to the bone. But this unnatural chill was worse. With cruel claws it pierced not only the body, but also the mind and the soul. His thoughts grew sluggish. Slowly, Matheius curled into a protective, quivering ball, and waited for those fearful, unnamed things that were just out of sight to come for him.

    Matheius nearly gave up, as those frozen claws made their way deep inside of him. All feeling had began to disappear, leaving him a blind and numbed thing. Just a little longer, the night seemed to croon to him. Just a little longer, and he could go to sleep. It was a tempting call, and he nearly succumbed to it. But deep within himself, a tiny part of him railed and raged, refusing to submit though all the rest of him had. That tough, tiny inner core was a source of resistance, a tiny little spark of fire and light that flared in defiance against the darkness and the cold which gripped his body and soul.

    Those icy hands arrived at that spark, hesitated, then reached out and tried to extinguish it. They drew back with a hiss, burned. Once more, they tried to quench it; once more, they were forced to withdraw, burnt even more badly than before. That small spark grew in size and strength, becoming a fire, then a blaze, then a full-grown bonfire which filled Matheius’ spirit and warmed him. In the face of that expanding conflagration, the nameless terrors could only flee.

    Matheius opened his eyes. He still could see nothing. Somehow, that no longer seemed so very threatening. He reached out to touch the skull he had stumbled across moments earlier. It was nothing more than a smooth rock.

    The trembling took a little longer to completely bring to a halt, but as time passed and as the last vestiges of that unnatural cold and fear were driven from his body, he stopped shaking and slowly stood up. He was here for a reason. It wasn’t to whimper and quiver. Standing, he took a deep breath, then continued his trek.

    His footsteps were no longer slow, as he made his way downwards. He no longer bothered to test each step. If the powers that resided here wanted him to fall, he would. He was betting that they would not.

    One quick step at a time, he ran down the steps, until finally, there were no more. He stumbled slightly but managed to catch himself. Curious, he took a few steps backwards. The stairs were gone. He nodded, not completely surprised. Reaching out, he tried to touch the wall, only to find that it too was gone.

    Matheius paused. Suddenly, he felt as though he was standing on thin air. It was a disorienting sensation. When he focused on it, he felt as though he was actually sinking downwards into a pit of nothingness. Slowly, carefully, he bent downwards to touch the ground. He shuddered again. His fingers touched nothing.

    For all extents and purposes, Matheius stood on absolutely nothing, surrounded by nothing but night. No sound, no light, no shape or sight. This, he realized, must be what the so-called True Night felt like.

    Suddenly, the sound of a woman’s laughter could be heard, echoing in the blackness around him. It was the most seductive, erotic sound he had ever heard. Despite his fear and uneasiness, upon hearing it he immediately became erect. That laugh promised pleasure. Fell, sensuous pleasure that would be like nothing he ever dreamed of. Forbidden pleasures, taboo delights. Pleasures so intense and carnal, a man might scream while captured in it.

    The darkness around him came to life, embracing him in its folds like the gentle arms of a woman embracing her lover. It held him, caressed him, kissed him, stroked him just so until his heart hammered away in his chest, to the point where he could barely breath. It was teasing and tormenting all at once and Matheius almost did scream, the self control he found earlier melting away completely. But then, as he opened his mouth, the sound of another voice sliced through his mind.

    Enough, my Lady Nyx. That cold, sibilant voice cut through his arousal and that torturous pleasure. He did not brave the touch of my Lord Phobos just to come here to play with you. Nor is that our priority.

    Again that impossibly seductive laugh. Slowly, the night released him from its grasp. It slid away from him, leaving the sensation of gentle fingers trailing away from his body. Involuntarily, he reached out, trying to hold onto it and not let it slip away. The female creature which had held him laughed again. Are you sure about that, my Lord Darkfather? It seems to me that he does want to play.

    The darkness around him exploded into laughter from what seemed like countless voices. This laughter was fearsome, freakish to the ear. It sounded like the dying screams of slaughtered cattle, of metal screeching on metal, of dry bones rattling against each other. The entity which had been addressed as Darkfather furiously shouted, Enough, enough! But to no avail, as the many laughing voices overrode his demands.

    Matheius gritted his teeth and held his hands over his ears, trying to block out that cacophonous din. It didn’t help. Just as he thought he would pass out from the noise, a single howl could be heard. Powerful and piercing, it slashed through the laughter with tempestuous force, as though it were the wind blowing away words that were spoken into it. The howl was long and reverberated throughout the darkness, continuing until the laughter came to an end. Then it too died away, leaving only echoes which grew progressively softer and softer, then dissipated fully.

    A deep, feral voice growled into the sudden stillness. Darkfather asked for silence while he speaks. Disobey, and I shall consume you. Do you doubt me? Silence met his words.

    Matheius felt a sense of fleeting recognition upon hearing that voice. He wasn’t sure from where, but the sensation was there. It was similar, although not quite the same, as when he had first seen the Tower of Babilu. But such thoughts were driven from his mind by his concern for his companion.

    “Where have you taken Frost?” He asked. The cold voice of Darkfather responded. We have no interest in your friend. Him and his ilk are of little concern or interest to Us for now. Rest assured that he is safe. You should be concerned about yourself, Matheius Randas of the Hidden Mist clan.

    Suddenly, a massive head appeared in front of him, rising up above him. Its face was hidden and shadowed, with only its giant eyes visible. Those alone were at least twice his height, and they hung there in the sky, staring down at him with a sort of dark, sadistic amusement.

    Matheius’ jaw clenched. “I go by Matheius.” Go by what you wish, Darkfather responded indifferently. But you did not come here to argue with Us about your family, did you? “No.” Matheius swallowed and nodded. “I suppose I did not.” Then what are you here for? Amusement laced Darkfather’s words. Few have visited Us in the long eons which have passed since that child, Abelion, rose into the sky. Although more, perhaps, than have visited little Kuan in recent days.

    Steady, steady. Matheius bit back an urge to retort to that disparaging comment. That wasn’t what he was here for. “I have been advised,” he said as calmly as he could muster, “That you may be able to assist me, where none others can. I came in the hopes of gaining that assistance.”

    Ah...yes. We know of your intentions, Matheius Randas, the voice said. Then why did you ask? Matheius almost snapped, but managed to keep himself from doing so. Darkfather laughed as though he had heard it nonetheless. It was a cruel sound.

    We know what you want, and we know what you need, Darkfather finally said, when he stopped laughing. Though the power of Day now holds sway over the world, there is no secret which is hidden from Night. We can and will assist you. You are fortunate, Matheius. Payment has already been made on your behalf. By another? Who? Matheius did not ask.

    I am Darkfather, Matheius Randas. I rule this Pantheon, and nothing passes without my awareness. I will grant you the knowledge which you seek. Ask now, and receive your answers.

    Matheius knew the first questions he wished to ask, and he asked immediately. “What happened to me? What led to me falling asleep for so long? How did I survive it, and why did I wake up?” Questions burst out of him, questions he had long desired answers to.

    Partially, it is your own doing. Darkfather said. Partially, the doing of the dead. And partially, the doing of those who used the former for their own ends.

    That made little sense. “What are you talking about? Their own ends?” Matheius pressed. “What ends? And who?”

    Do you remember what you once sought on behalf of Arzon, little mortal? What he had sought for Arzon? Suddenly, Matheius remembered. “You mean the Relics?” Yes, Matheius remembered them well. It was the hook that Arzon had used to lure Matheius to his side. Matheius had spent many long months hunting down piece after piece of the damn thing. Arzon had made certain promises about them. Promises he hadn’t delivered on.

    “Why do you remind me of them?” Matheius asked bitterly. “I know my mistakes well enough. All of them.” Do you, now, Matheius? Those great eyes narrowed in amusement. Perhaps you do. Perhaps you do not. But in any case, the toll from them continues to rise still.

    “What do you mean?” Matheius demanded. “And why should I care?” Because another seeks them, now. One weaker, less scrupulous than Arzon was. One whom you knew, who now rules over that which was once the domain of you and yours. For many years, he has gathered the fragments which you scattered across the earth in your rage.

    Almost, he has succeeded. Seven out of the ten have been gathered. Soon, Darkfather said in an almost gloating voice, his attention will be drawn to you. It turns even as we speak. Only three elude him now, including the wayfinder Arzon gave you. And you have not been inconspicuous.

    Matheius ran his fingers lightly across the pommel of his sword, touching the gem set in it. He couldn’t see it, but he could picture in his mind. The gem and sword had both saved him as well as caused him much grief. “I have no trouble killing sorcerers,” he said bluntly, “But I dislike being used or manipulated, by a person you do not reveal.” He had not forgotten his earlier, ignored question. “Why should I care?”

    Darkfather laughed. Still headstrong. Still impulsive. Still a child. Let me show you the consequences. Whether you care is your own concern.

    Abruptly, the darkness was split by light. Matheius found himself standing on solid earth, in broad daylight, in the middle of a city. Massive flaming meteors crashed to the ground all around him, creating massive flaming craters where they landed and causing great vibrations in the earth. More landed off in the distance, as far as he could see. The world itself seemed to shudder with each impact.

    This was Sarkham, Matheius realized in shock. It was now wrecked now, and corpses littered the streets, but still that flaming hail of fire and brimstone came. The stench of burned flesh drifted to him. His gorge rose, and he resisted the desire to vomit. Everything was dying. Everything.

    A meteor streaked through the air, trailing crimson fire in its wake. It was coming directly for him, Matheius realized. He turned to run, but to no avail. It was too fast, and the ground was shaking too hard for him to move with meaningful speed. But just before it would have struck him, everything disappeared, and once more he was surrounded by that perfect darkness.

    Matheius shuddered once. Reaching up with an unseen hand, he wiped his forehead. His hand came away matted with cold sweat. He was silent, unable to come to terms with that scene that he had seen. He had razed cities and destroyed armies, but never had he experienced a scene of such utter destruction. Only godly power could produce it.

    Matheius closed his eyes. So Arzon didn’t exaggerate after all. Why had he suddenly changed his mind and refused to carry out his end of the bargain, then? Treacherous Savants. They couldn’t be trusted.

    He opened his eyes after a moment. “I am to play the role of savior to the world?” Matheius asked. His voice was cold and sarcastic. “I’m not accustomed to that role, and I’d rather not. What does any of that have to do with me?” Once again, Darkfather’s reply was enigmatic. If it transpires, it will be due to your actions and inactions. Succeed in preventing it, and much shall be forgiven. Fail, and you shall be damned before the eyes of man and god alike. Save the world, and you save yourself. Let it die, and you shall as well. The eyes of that great, unseen head began to close. It should prove entertaining to watch, regardless.

    “Wait!” Matheius shouted. “I have more questions!” I tire of answering your questions. Darkfather said lazily, his voice fading away. I have given you more than you deserved. “But!-” Matheius began to protest, only to be cut off by that nameless voice from earlier. Do not push Darkfather. He has gifted you with much knowledge. It is My turn, now.

    The eyes of that great, unseen head fully closed. When they reopened, they had changed. They were smaller now, and more narrow as well. Where the earlier eyes seemed human-like, this pair burned with a ravenous orange flame that gave off no light. They were evil eyes, eyes belonging to a feral animal that was hungry. The outline of a giant head had disappeared as well. In its place was the outline of an even greater wolf. Large enough to swallow cities, Matheius thought to himself dimly, not sure where the thought had come from.

    “And who are you?” Matheius asked. The feral voice responded. Have you forgotten Me then, Matheius? This is neither the right place nor the right age, I know. But I do not believe you have forgotten Me so easily. Matheius’ eyes suddenly widened, and he trembled slightly. In a small voice, he whispered, “Fenris. Fenris, Lord of the Wild Hunt.” He did not know where that name came from.

    Fenris laughed, a howling wolf’s laugh. Yes, I knew you would remember Me, Fenris said. We are old friends, you and I. Very old friends. Very well, then. My gift was given to you long ago, a gift you once gave Me. It stands, still. Remember this, Matheius. You remain My Pack Brother to the Wild Hunt. No greater gift can Fenris give you, in this age or in any other. And the voice of the great wolf fell silent.

    The fiery eyes closed, and the contours of its body disappeared. Once again, nothing could be seen. Before Matheius could formulate a response, an impossibly alluring voice spoke. A voice belonging to she whom Darkfather had named as Nyx. Those two males have given you their so-called gifts, Nyx teased. Now I will give you a real gift. Once again, the night seemed to mold itself around him. I have felt every urge, ever dark desire you have ever had, my dear Matheius. Every perverseness, every base want that you buried and hid in the deepest, darkest reaches of your heart, I have seen.

    A tendril of darkness slipped into his saddle bag. It pulled out a small, perfectly shaped pearl and dropped it in his hand. The essence stone. My gift to you, Matheius, shall be a companion to serve and aid you. How you use my gift is entirely up to you. I’m sure you can come up with something. A delicate kiss on his neck that made him shiver. Now hold on to that.

    And then the kiss turned into a bite. Fiery pain erupted in his throat, and he struck out wildly with his hands, meeting nothing, connecting with nothing, even as he felt something being drawn out of him. He flailed in the dark in sensuous torment, capable of nothing against Nyx, the Lady of the Night.

    He was suffocating, he was dying. It felt as though she was pulling part of his soul away from him. Suddenly, he felt a violent ripping sensation. It felt as though his spirit was being torn in half. The agony of it dwarfed any pain he had ever felt in his entire life and brought him to his knees. He began to scream, again and again, the sound reverberating into the twisting nether until finally, Nyx withdrew from him. Even then, the pain faded away but slowly.

    Suddenly, a weight appeared in his arms. It wasn’t too heavy, but still in shock and trembling in pain, he nearly dropped the burden. It cried out slightly in his arms. It was a woman, and she trembled in Matheius’ arms. A sudden, secret joy and hope blossomed in his mind. “Who is she?” Matheius rasped in a hoarsened voice. “Is she?...”

    The darkness giggled, as though he had made the funniest joke in the world. The golden haired girl you were so fond of? No, not her. That one is beyond my reach, and belongs to another. What I have given you is what I have said I would. No more, no less. Nyx gently bit him on his right ear, and he shuddered at the remembered pain. Take care of yourself. I’ll be watching.

    And I, as well, Pack Brother. Be well, Fenris said. And many other eyes, added the cold voice of Darkfather. Now go, Darkfather commanded. GO! It seemed as though all the creatures which had been laughing earlier screamed that last command at him. The weight of the night bore down on him crushingly, stifling him and choking him. The pressure was so great, Matheius couldn’t breathe. Gasping for breath but unable to draw it, Matheius fell to the floor. The woman still in his arms, everything went dark.
    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. #26
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    Interlude

    Boots shod in black iron rang across the hallway floor, as a giant spectre of armor and metal passed by. His head was covered by a great helm which masked features that few had ever seen. Servants scurried out of his way as soon as they saw him. Some feared him even more than they feared the Master himself. The Master usually didn’t kill without a purpose. The Commander went out of his way to find one.

    He had been called. Others, when summoned before the Master, would have been terrified to know that the dark mage was in a foul mood. Not this man. He was too valuable to destroy, and he knew it. And if the master decided that was no longer the case, he wouldn’t mind too much, either. It wasn’t as though he were actually alive.

    His gauntleted fist grasped the handle to the chamber, pulling it open, then drawing it shut behind him. Turning, the armored man dropped down to one knee. “Master. You summoned me.” His voice was deep and strong.

    “Yes. I did.” His master’s voice was high and sharp. “You may stand.” Only now did he rise to his feet, letting his eyes rise to face the only person whom he would ever bend knee to. The mage in front of him, garbed from head to toe in a hooded ermine robe, seemed to pay him no attention, instead gazing at a corpse on a table in front of him.

    The Commander waited in silence. Still facing away from him, the sorcerer spoke. “Archmage Tuoh was killed yesterday. Are you aware of that?” The Commander shook his head. He felt a dim sense of surprise and satisfaction at the news. “No, master. I was not.”

    “Weren’t you?” The Master suddenly swiveled to glare at him, eyes burning. Only now did the Commander sense the Master’s anger was directed at him. The Commander stared back, meeting his master’s gaze without flinching. “No. I was not.” He repeated.

    Decrepit old fool, the Commander thought to himself. Not for the first time, the powerful death knight noted the thin, sallow features of purportedly the most powerful man in the world. How little flesh was on those angry, clenched fists. How frail the man was. He imagined snapping that brittle neck in half. If only he could. Pain suddenly lashed the death knight. “Don’t you dare ignore me when I am speaking to you!” The mage shrieked, spittle flying from his mouth.

    A light groan came from the Commander’s lips as he fell, first to one knee, then to both. He must have missed something which the Master had said. Agony rippled through him, causing his large frame to quake and shudder. Other than that first groan, he made no other sound. He was used to this by now. How many times had this happened over these many long years? All he could do was endure.

    The Master must have been especially angry this day. Even for the Commander, this session was particularly painful and long. He could only twitch silently on hands and knees, and wait for it to come to an end.

    “You claim to know nothing of this?” The mage screamed at him, and the pain disappeared. “You dare try to conspire against me? To lie to me? You forget who I am! I will send you into the Howling Nethers, for your soul to become food for more obedient servants!”

    It took the death knight a long moment to catch the breath he no longer required. Finally, he managed to respond. “I can neither deceive you or disobey you, master. You know this. I had no knowledge regarding this matter whatsoever.”

    “Of course. Your loyalty is unquestioned.” Just like that, the Master was calm again. The mage even smiled at him, and the smile held a hint of fondness. Madman, the commander thought to himself as he rose to his feet. Decrepit and insane.

    “Who slew the Archmage, Master?” The sorcerer smirked at him as he rose. “That is the question I should be asking you. Tell me. Of the various swordsmen left in the world, who is strong enough to kill him?” A swordsman killed Tuoh? The Commander was more than a little surprised. “By himself?” The Master nodded impatiently. “None alive,” the death knight stated. “Save myself, perhaps Frost, and possibly the other two.”

    “Interesting that you should mention Frost,” the Master said dryly. “From what I have been told, he was there as well. He even helped the murderer escape.” The mage turned once more to the corpse lying on the table in front of him. “A swordsmen whom I have never heard of, traveling with Frost, your foremost student. He kills an Archmage, and your student helps him elude capture. I think you can imagine how I might interpret this, my dear old friend.”

    That was an understatement. With any other, the Master no doubt would have suspected a plot. The mage gestured in a beckoning motion towards the Commander, who furrowed his brows as he approached. No wonder the Master had been so angry. “Frost has...always been difficult to fully control,” he said carefully. “That is his nature. The last time he spoke with me, he said he would be traveling with Owl in that general direction. Has Owl reported to you, Master?”

    “Owl’s reports are none of your concern,” the Master said in a clipped voice. The Commander could only nod in assent as he looked over the body. Tuoh’s eyes remained open. A look of shock was on his face, as though even in death, he could not believe what had happened. The Commander reached in with a gauntleted hand and peeled away the clothing which surrounded the wound. The blow which had caused Tuoh’s death had been perfectly aimed, sliding straight to the heart without even touching the ribcage.

    Masterful, he thought to himself. No wasted energy or motion. The blade pierced only as far in as it needed to kill, and then it slid upwards as it exited to widen the damage done. Then again, any lone swordsman who could kill Tuoh, patriarch of a House and the Archmage of a Tower, had to be masterful.

    “Fortunately,” the Master remarked calmly, “The shard I prepared for precisely this sort of occasion was not lost. This may even prove to be to our benefit. Did you bring what I asked you to?” The Commander turned from the corpse and nodded. “Yes. I did.” In a louder, harsher voice, the death knight called out, “Bring him in.” At his command, two armored guards entered the room, escorting an apprentice mage. The two guards bowed once, then exited, closing the door behind him.

    On his knees, the boy was trembling in fear and excitement. Fear for being called before the most powerful sorcerer-no, the most powerful person-in the entire realm. But excitement as well, because, he had decided, he must have been called because his talent had been recognized. Perhaps he had been summoned to be apprenticed to the Master! What other reason would they call such a junior student such as him?

    Wild, youthful fantasies drifted across his mind. That must be the reason. Wait until the others heard about this! Lerome, that arrogant fool, would be green with envy. And pretty little Mariah would finally pay him attention. Perhaps she would even offer herself to him. He would have to think about whether or not to accept. As the Master’s apprentice, all the girls in the world were his for the choosing.

    He watched the Master’s feet approach. “What is your name, boy?” The Master asked, and he nearly burst with glee at being addressed. “Tomias, my lord!” “Tomias.” The Master’s voice seemed soothing and gentle. “Stand up, Tomias. Let me get a good luck at you.”

    It took Tomias some effort, but he made it to his unsteady feet. He was too afraid to meet the Master’s eyes, and so he looked down instead. His downward gaze saw something gleam red in the Master’s hand. Startled and curious, he asked, “What’s that?” Then he blushed, realizing he had spoken without being addressed.

    Fortunately, the Master did not seem displeased. Laughing softly, the Master said, “Nothing. Just a gift for you. Now, be a good boy and close your eyes and relax. Can you do that for me, Tomias?” Tomias nodded. Obediently, he closed his eyes. “There’s a good boy,” the Master whispered. A cold, bony hand reached up and grabbed Tomias’ chin, holding it in place. Tomias shivered, but kept his eyes closed. “Now, stay still, Tomias. Stay very, very still.”

    He couldn’t have moved if he wanted to. The grip of that bony hand was surprisingly strong. Tomias felt the tip of something hard being pressed against his forehead. “What’s that?” he mumbled, eyes still tightly closed. “You’ll see.” And the Master pushed the flat edge of the oval-shaped gem straight into Tomias’ skull.

    Tomias screamed once as the ruby began to burn its way into his forehead. Both flesh and bone were melted away by its passage. Wide eyes snapped open in shock and agony, to meet the cool, distant gaze of the Master’s. “Why?” Tomias tried to ask. What was he doing? Why was he being tortured like this? He could not speak for the excruciating pain. Unsuccessfully, Tomias tried to pull away from that vise-like grip. The Master only released him after long seconds had passed, when the stone had almost fully sank itself in.

    Released, he fell to the floor. But the blinding, burning agony did not pass. If anything, it grew even greater. His mind felt as though it was being torn apart. Frantically, he clawed at his forehead, trying to rip out whatever it was that had been rammed into his skull. Great big tears rolled down his face, and his chest heaved with sobs as he realized that he could not. He continued to frantically tear at his forehead with his hands, but then stopped, staring at his hands. Before his horrified eyes, the very flesh on them had began to twist and churn. He could feel his body reshaping itself. Covering his face with his hands, Tomias began to scream.

    Hands folded in his sleeves, the Master calmly watched, the Commander by his side, as the boy lay on the floor. The sound of bones cracking and flesh tearing could be heard, as the boy’s body began to change. Flesh and bone rippled like waves on a disturbed sea. Extending, contracting, stretching. The crimson gem in the boy’s forehead suddenly began to glow, appearing as a malevolent third eye had suddenly opened. The boy’s short hair began to lengthen, changing in color from a light blonde to a dark grey, then falling out altogether.

    Gradually, the tone of the screams changed. The boy had a high, soprano voice. As his vocal cords rippled and reshaped, the sound became deeper and more mature. Last of all to change was the face, covered still by his hands. Finally, the alterations came to an end, and the screams stopped. The ruby gleamed one last time, and then its light faded. “Archmage Tuoh,” the Commander rumbled. “Welcome back.”

    Slowly, the Archmagus lowered his hands from his face. “That,” he said, voice hoarse, “Was the most unpleasant experience I have ever had.” His gaze was haunted as he stared at the boy’s - no, his - hands. He raised a hand to lightly touch the gem set in his forehead, wincing. Then, horror dawning in his eyes, he said, “I was dead. I died. What...how...what have you done to me?”

    The Master smiled a thin smile. “I have saved you. Are you not grateful, Magus?” Tuoh stared at the Master, still holding his forehead. “Saved me?” An anguished laugh escaped Tuoh. “Saved me,” he murmured again, a bitter smile on his lips, his body swaying slightly. “Are you able to stand? Commander, assist him,” the Master ordered.

    “No need,” Tuoh tried to protest as he struggled to rise unaided. Failing, he nearly fell down again, were it not for the Commander catching him. “No need to play the hero in front of me, Magus.” the Master said. “You will require anywhere from seven to ten days of rest before you recover fully.”

    Tuoh gritted his teeth and nodded. “I understand.” “Good.” The Master nodded. “I must confess, I am somewhat surprised and disappointed. I hear you were defeated by a lone swordsman.” The Master’s voice was deceptively calm and gentle. “If you are getting old and no longer able to fulfill your duties, I can pass them to another, if you wish. Perhaps it would be better if your daughter took over your position at your House.”

    Tuoh waved his hand feebly in negation. “No,” he said, still supported by the Commander. “It was a fluke. An accident.” The Master raised an eyebrow. “Explain.”

    “I was at the Temple of the Rising Sun,” Tuoh said. “For no reason at all, a madman attacked the statue of the Arcane. I placed a Compulsion on him, but he managed to shake it off. Then…” Tuoh’s voice trailed off momentarily as he fought to recollect what happened. “I threw a fireball at him to keep him busy as I prepared a Word of Command. But he cut it. He cut the fireball.” Exhausted, Tuoh did not notice the glances which the other two men exchanged.

    “Imagine my surprise. I hesitated. He got within range, and stabbed me with a sword. I had only a few shielding wards prepared, since I was only going to the Temple. That sword tore through them like they didn’t exist.” He swallowed, eyes growing heavy and starting to close. “The sword was like a Raven’s. One of ours. Black starsteel.” Tuoh stopped talking, exhausted from the effort.

    “Guards!” The death knight called, and the two who had brought the boy in reentered the chamber. “Take the Archmage to his quarters. Give him anything he asks, within reason.” Armored hands snapped to a salute as the Commander handed Tuoh to them. Worn out by the earlier effort of trying to stand unaided, as well as all the speaking, Tuoh was completely unable to stand. His body was dead weight. One of his arms around each of the guards necks, the two half-assisted, half-carried him away.

    The Commander turned to the Master. The unseen expression on his face, hidden by that great helm, was grim. “I do not know who has unearthed those teachings, nor how, but I will investigate.” He promised. “I will interrogate the head of each remaining school in our control, and investigate personally as well. With your permission, I will go now.”

    The Master smiled at him. The expression was not dissimilar to the one on his face when he spoke to the boy. “I trust that you shall,” he said, waved him away. “Now go.” The death knight hesitated before leaving. “What about Frost? Shall I?...” his voice trailed off as he saw the Master shake his head. “No. Leave Frost to me.”

    The Commander touched his gauntlet to his breastplate, then left. After the door had closed behind the Commander, the Master returned to the table, where Tuoh’s original body still laid. Taking a seat, he snapped, “You can come out now.”

    A section of wall slid open at the back of the room. Owl stopped out from behind the false wall, closing it behind him with a nod. “You heard everything?” The Master asked, and Owl nodded. “Your opinion remains unchanged?” Owl nodded again.

    The Master tapped the ends of his fingers together in contemplation. Owl had just flown in from the Sarkham province scant hours ago, after a series of gate-spells and long stretches of chimaera-flight. He had reported, in his taciturn way, about the mysterious new swordsman who had appeared in Trentsdown. He had also given a report about the sword this man bore. “Which matches with Tuoh’s story,” the Master murmured aloud, though Tuoh hadn’t specifically described the gem. That gem was what he was interested in, not the sword itself. The gem, and the man who possessed it.

    How to deal with this, and what to do. This was a matter of exceptional importance. He could go himself, but he needed to remain in Sarkham for numerous reasons. The original plan would be best. The Master nodded. “I will send Tuoh when he is recovered,” he decided. “But you go as well. Find Frost. Give him the orders. If you judge that he has betrayed us, you know what to do.”

    Owl shook his head. “Unnecessary,” he said. The Master raised an eyebrow. “Why so?” “Frost always obeys orders.” The Master’s lips parted into a thin smile. Owl’s unspoken meaning was clear. Frost had been given no orders regarding this new Blade who had appeared. “You watch over your friend well,” the Master said sardonically, and Owl shrugged. “However,” the mage added, “You are most likely correct.” The master’s head dipped into a nod of dismissal. “But you have your orders nonetheless.”

    Owl saluted the Master casually with two fingers. Without another word, he departed, leaving the Master alone at last in his chamber. Well. He correct himself, once more drumming his bony fingers on the table. Mostly alone.

    Once more, he felt the touch of the god on his shoulder, urging him to hurry. They had been waiting a long time for this to come to fruition. So many long years. Thinking about it, the Master once more became aware of every aging, aching part of his body, and he let out a light cough. “Soon now, my lord,” the ancient sorcerer whispered into the empty chamber. “Soon.”
    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. #27
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    I see your point now RWX. Perhaps, personally, I don't feel that Matheius' opposition to the Savants is sufficiently justifiable. I mean, even if they are invaders, past-enemies, and labeled as the enemy for simply being magic users, warrant causing a rebellion that will result in bloodshed- all of that is in the past. What is significant, I feel, is the present situation and who is responsible for it. But then again, you consider Matheius to be no boy scout so I'll keep an open mind on his character. With your recent updates, I'm starting to get a clearer understanding of the conflict and the player involves. Looking forward to reading on what Matheius will do next! Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

  8. #28
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    HAPPY NEW YEAR! It's actually kind of funny; we were discussing how Matheius 'is no boy scout'; check out the first few pages of this chapter, and you'll see what I mean!

    Chapter 12: The Sea of Regret

    “I’m telling you, this is a horrific idea. How could you even contemplate doing such a thing?” Elaiana, usually placid and mild, made no effort to mask the disgust she felt. Matheius sighed. Not this again.

    “Ultimately, this will save more lives and prevent more wars. How many died in the last war alone? We lost the entire population of Farchan in the Crimson War! No matter what this might cost, the result is worth it if we can prevent even a single Farchan from happening again.”

    Elaiana shook her head. “That doesn’t make this right. There’s other ways you we can achieve your goal.” Matheius snorted. “I’m listening. Please enlighten me.” Her tiny mouth opened, then clicked shut. “Exactly. Look. We’ve been through this before. It is necessary, both in terms of tactics, as well as in terms of strategy. It’s called ‘pulling up weeds by the root.’”

    Her arms tightened across her chest. “This isn’t gardening, this is butchery! Gods, Mat, even Vast disagrees with you!” She cried, gray eyes angry and accusing. His temper fraying, he swiveled and snapped back into her face, “No, Elaiana. This is war! And I don’t give a half-damn what Vast thinks!”

    She recoiled from that open blaze of anger. Not out of fear; she wasn’t the least bit afraid of him. Out of surprise. He had never raised his voice to her before, and her own eyes hardened. Matheius took a deep breath, then reached out to place a placating hand on her arm. “Elaiana,” he began, but stopped as she jerked away from him.

    “From now on, I will have no part in this. If I had known you were going to do this, I would never have helped you in the first place. Mark me, my lord Matheius. There will be a reckoning for this one day,” she stated coldly. Turning her back to him, she marched away, arms still crossed angrily.

    His lips tightening, Matheius swallowed a curse. He watched her back as she retreated into their tent, before turning back to business. “Is everything prepared? No one is missing?” His features and voice were calm, cool even, as he addressed the veteran, who in turn pretended as though he had seen nothing. “Yes, Lord Matheius. We found them all as the Lady Seer predicted.” The veteran paused. Delicately, he asked, “Ah, how will the operation proceed without her in the future, though?” Matheius’ lips tightened into a mirthless smile. “She’ll help. I know how to convince her.”

    Mages had caused far too much damage over the centuries. Legendary mages of enormous power, such as the lich-king Onileon or the titan Suunmar, had caused destruction on a vast scale, but even lesser mages often proved troublesome.

    The most recent war against the attempted rise of the Crimson Mage ended in a quick victory, but the death-throes of the wizard caused the Tower he raised to exploded. The entire city of Farchan, where his base had been located, had been swallowed by the earth. Standing with his warlords at the edge of the sunken city, Matheius swore a dread oath to never again let such happen. Thus was it born. The Bloodlines Doctrine. The plan devised by Matheius and approved by the Council and Arakan, to eliminate the ever-present nuisance of renegade magic-users for good.

    Magic, and the capability to use it, lay in the blood, or so Matheius reasoned. If they could cut short and fully eliminate the bloodlines of those who could use magic, then that ability would be culled out of the human race. That dangerous problem would be ended once and for all.

    And so came the terrible Rule of Seven, the heart of the Bloodlines Doctrine. Today, for the first time, it would be put into a most dramatic implementation. With the assistance of Elaiana, they had managed to round up every single person in the city of Dimonde who had the ability to use magic, activated or not.

    Matheius swept his gaze across the large, frightened mass of prisoners. More than just those who could use magic. The Seven referred to the Seven Relations, which dictated the family members which would also be apprehended. Fathers. Mothers. Sisters. Brothers. Sons. Daughters. Cousins. And the seven relations of those who were related by blood within two degrees of separation to the magic user would also be apprehended, and executed. It was the extinction of an entire family line.

    Dimonde was a large city, and its people prolific. Over two thousand had been rounded up, with twenty or so of them actually capable of using magic. The rest had been caught by the Rule of Seven. Their family background had consigned them to death. Bound, they knelt before him with a saber-wielding warrior next to them. The eldest amongst the group was eighty, and barely able to stand. The youngest, a seven year old child. Matheius did not envy the warrior who stood behind the boy.

    Matheius drew Duty from its scabbard, feeling its weight more keenly than ever as he strode forward. At the head of those two thousand plus was the single person who was not only capable of using magic, but actually studied it. No one stood by his side; his death was reserved for Matheius alone.

    Blood leaked from the mage’s battered face, and he spat a mixture of that blood mixed with saliva at Matheius. Uncowed, he called out, “Butcher. Murderer.” Matheius made no reply, running his fingers across Duty’s dull, blunt edge.

    “I have done nothing wrong!” The mage said, eyes resolute and fearless. “I have hurt no one, harmed no one. None of us have. Who are you to condemn me to death for my interests, or them and their family for their birth?”

    “Be quiet,” Matheius said without looking at him. “Die with some dignity.” The mage laughed through a mouthful of blood. “Dignity? You don’t know the meaning of the word.” And he turned his head away from Matheius, staring straight forward.

    Tens of thousands of pairs of eyes were locked on the scene. The entire city was watching this event. King Cormac, the Council, Arakan, the lords...even Vast was here, although he watched Matheius with a disapproval that could be felt despite the great distance which separated the two. All of the common citizens had been ordered to appear as well. This would be the start of a campaign of extermination, to eliminate the threat of magic once and all from the world. First, to cleanse Dimonde, the heart. Then the rest of the body would be purified.

    Matheius raised Duty in a salute to the King, who was at the head of entourage which had parked at the top of the hill, looking down on them. In a gesture of approval, the King’s distant figure nodded back. He was to proceed.

    He lifted Duty high in the air, above the mage’s head. Behind him, the sound of over two thousand soldiers raising their sabers could be heard. No cries for mercy were heard. The prisoners had all been blindfolded and gagged. It was, in its own way, a mercy. They would not know the dread of oncoming death.

    Everything was silent. His warriors awaited his signal, the execution of the mage. An expectant hush could be heard throughout the entire populace of the city. Everyone was waiting for him. But he hesitated.

    Light from the noonday sun reflected off of Duty’s blade. Sweat beaded on his forehead, slowly forming large globules, then rolling down his face. The sword was heavy in his hand, and the sabers of his men, heavy in theirs. A minute passed, and then another. What kept him? Why didn’t he strike? Everyone wanted to know, but none of them, from his men to the citizens, dared ask. None wished to be the first to break that awful stillness.

    Slowly, the mage turned his head towards Matheius. His uncovered eyes stared directly into Matheius’, and his face was expressionless. No words were exchanged.

    Matheius’ hand quivered, ever so slightly.

    His face tightened.

    Duty descended.


    With a cry, Matheius sat straight up in the dimly lit. His forehead exploded with pain as he hit something hard, and with a groan, he lay back down, pressing a hand to his swelling forehead. “Finally awake, sunshine?” Someone asked cheerfully. “Careful there. I tucked you into a stone alcove, and the top of it is only one foot above your head.”

    Frost. Matheius grimaced, eyes still closed and his hand still pressed to his forehead. He didn’t immediately respond, still half-caught in the emotions which had been swept to the forefront by that dream-like memory. He fought to control his racing heart and elevated breathing speed, knowing he had failed when he heard Frost ask, “Had a bit of a nightmare?”

    “No. I’m fine,” Matheius responded shortly. His eyes opened, and he turned to look at Frost. “What happened?” They were in a darkened room with stone walls, and Frost was sitting in a rather lazy fashion in a rusted metal chair, one leg crossed on top of the other. The sole source of light was a single lit candle on a metal table as rusted as Frost’s chair. “Where are we?”

    Frost threw his hands up in the air dramatically, tilting his head towards the ceiling. “Where are we, he asks,” Frost mock-groused. “He insists we go down a slimy, dank pit, falls down, passes out, then wakes up and asks me where we are. Heavens! I didn’t think I was such a bad person, to earn this much karmic retribution.”

    “Cut the bullshit, Frost, and tell me what happened,” Matheius ordered tersely. Frost only grinned. “Fine, your lordship. While we were climbing down that damned dark pit under the temple, you suddenly gave a cry and fell down. I made my way down as fast as I could without falling myself, and found you at the bottom, out like a candle-less lamp. I ended up having to carry you to an adjoining room. This one, to be precise. Happy?”

    “Ecstatic,” Matheius muttered. Carefully, he rolled out of the alcove he was lying in. He sourly rubbed his forehead and the two lumps which now grew from it. “Nyx. Fenris. Darkfather. I guess they were all just part of another dream,” he said to himself. A dream sprung forth from his fears and imagination.

    “I don’t know what you are talking about,” Frost said dryly, “But I would love it if my dreams were as effective as yours.” He pointed to a corner of the room, to Matheius’ left. “I found her in your arms. She hasn’t said a word since she woke up a few hours ago. Do you know her?”

    Matheius froze. Slowly, he turned his head towards the corner which Frost pointed to. Dimly, he heard Frost quip, “You are more of a playboy than I ever thought, old boy. End up with a girl in your arms even in a place like this.” But all of his attention and focus was drawn to the figure seated at the stone corner. A tomboyish figure, with a head full of fiery red hair, and a cold, perpetually annoyed face that was nonetheless attractive and beguiling.

    “Hello, Lyria,” he said quietly, and the woman turned to look at him. Her features were still, but in her eyes was an expression of the most superb disdain he had ever seen. His own facial features tightened in response. After a moment, she turned her gaze away from him, once more towards the blank stone wall.

    “Oh, so you do know her after all?” Frost asked. Matheius let out a long breath, then nodded. “It wouldn’t be altogether incorrect to say that.” He responded, as he sat back down again, mind in a daze. What did this all mean? If Lyria was alive again, that meant everything else had happened as well. Which, in turn, meant....He rubbed at his face and eyes. Everything was getting problematic and complicated.

    “By the way,” Frost added. “The stairwell, pit, and doorway from the bottom of the pit to this room is gone.” Matheius sat up again, nearly hitting his head once more. “Gone? What do you mean, gone?” “I’m rather certain that ‘gone’ only has one meaning,” Frost responded wryly. “Gone, meaning gone. I can’t find it.”

    Frost pointed towards the wall to the right of Matheius. “We came through an open doorway there, but once we arrived here, the doorway was gone. Nothing but solid rock.” And he rapped on the stone as though to make his point. “Solid rock,” he repeated. “So wherever we are,” Frost said, “We’re stuck here.”

    Matheius glanced to the only open doorway. “Have you explored this place yet? Any idea where we are?” “Nope!” Frost answered cheerily. “Since the doorway could disappear once, it could disappear again. I thought it’d be best for me to wait until you came to. And the red-headed girl over there,” and he nodded to Lyria, “Didn’t seem too keen to go anywhere either.”

    Frost glanced at the room. It was spartanly furnished, with the rusted metal chair Frost sat on and the desk being the only furnishings at all. Everything appeared gray and dull. Even the light cast by that sole candle seemed rather grayish in appearance. “I do have to say though. This place is a bit of a dump. You know, ever since I’ve met you, Matheius, I don’t think I’ve been in a single pleasant place, with the exception of the ones I chose.”

    Just as Matheius was about to retort, a voice drifted in from beyond the doorway. “Forgive this humble monk from interrupting you, benefactors who come from afar, but perhaps it would be best if you would be willing to come out and meet with me.”

    The gentle voice sounded as though it came from a far off distance, but sounded clear and distinct, as though the words had been delivered directly to their ears. It bespoke of both a profound, powerful energy, as well as excellent self-control.

    Matheius and Frost exchanged glances. Simultaneously, they strode for the doorway, with Lyria following behind them. Matheius tensed himself as he passed through the doorway; still a little nervous, perhaps, from the earlier disappearing doorway which Frost had described. But this doorway seemed normal enough, and as he passed through it, he entered a darkened, unlit hallway, tens of meters long, which apparently had many rotted wooden doors leading to other rooms.

    They ignored the other rooms for now, heading straight for the other end of the hallway, passing through and exiting it, only to enter another hallway, just as large. Followed by another, and another. Once again, Matheius and Frost exchanged glances. It seemed as though the speaker had been even farther away than they had thought. Both of them were both mentally and physically on guard.

    Finally, as they passed through the fourth hallway, they entered into a large, circular room. It was as unremarkable as the first room they had seen, although it had open windows which allowed in light from outside. Judging from the light, it was late afternoon, closing in on night, but there was still enough to see by. Certainly more than the dark room and hallways from earlier.

    A single monk with a long white beard stood before them, palms folded against each other. He was of at least sixty years of age, with a bald head adorned by six dots burned into his head by incense sticks long ago. He wore a plain set of gray robes, and a peaceful smile on his countenance. For the most part, he appeared unremarkable, save for his eyes. They had the appearance and texture of black gemstones, appearing to almost radiate light, indicating that he reached an extremely level of spiritual self-cultivation.

    “I greet you,” the monk said, bowing politely. “Forgive this humble monk for interrupting, but I would like to ask why you benefactors have come here, to this place.” Matheius opened his mouth, but Frost beat him to the punch. “Sorry for the intrusion, baldy,” Frost replied cheerfully, “But we’ll be going now. Don’t worry about why we’re here. That’s our business.”

    Frost stepped forward, heading for the exit, but stopped when the old monk shot out his arm horizontally, blocking Frost’s path. Raising an eyebrow, Frost looked at the monk, who still had an amiable expression on his face.

    “Benefactor,” the monk said calmly, “Where do you think you are? This is not a place where you come as you will, act as you please, and leave as you wish. You really are showing too much disrespect to the Willow Forest monastery!”

    The words “Willow Forest monastery” had an immediate effect on everyone in the room. The expressions on Frost and Matheius’ face immediately changed, and even Lyria’s eyes widened a little.

    The Willow Forest monastery was the oldest and most venerable of all monasteries in the land, and believed by many to be the progenitor of all of the more esoteric forms of combat. It’s standing and seniority was higher than even that of the San’tamak academy; the only reason that the latter had greater fame in the world was due to the fact that the monks of the Willow Forest monastery rarely interfered in the matters of the outside world.

    The Willow Forest monastery is supposed to be hundreds of leagues to the west, Matheius thought to himself. How did we get here? He was just about to apologize for trespassing on the monastery grounds, when once again, Frost spoke first. “This can’t be the Willow Forest monastery,” Frost said sharply, a strange look in his eyes. “The monastery was razed half a century ago.”

    Matheius stared at Frost. That was something he did not know. The monk confirmed Frost’s words as he laughed gently and nodded. “That is true,” the monk said. “The original Willow Forest monastery was indeed burned to the ground. But so long as there is the Dharma, there is the Sangha. And so long as there is the Sangha, there will always be a Willow Forest monastery.”

    Frost laughed as well. The sound was harsh and cold, with a cutting quality to it. A completely different sound than his normal, charming laugh. That strange look in his eyes remained, as he drew his ebony sword from its sheath. What enmity did Frost have with the monastery, Matheius wondered to himself.

    “I have long heard of the great fame of the fighting skills of the Willow Forest monastery,” Frost said, enunciating each word crisply and cleanly. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet one of its revered monks. But I wonder if your reputation is earned, or as hollow as the shell of a dead snail?”

    Matheius’ eyes widened at those insulting words, but the monk simply chuckled again. “Indeed, our many friends have often given us a reputation which is far higher than we deserve. In truth, our primary studies are in self-cultivation, with our fighting skills being a lesser, inferior cultivation which we use primarily for keeping the body strong, and for self-protection.”

    “I see.” Frost pointed his sword directly at the monk. “Please, master monk. Show me a bit of this lesser, inferior cultivation which the monks of your monastery indulge in.” The monk shook his head. “Awakened One, bless us,” the monk chanted, once more pressing the palms of his hands together. “Benefactor, there is neither enmity nor rancor between us. Why should we fight?”

    “Because I insist on it,” Frost replied, as he tensed his body, adopting a fighting stance. Matheius was tempted to step in at this point, but he too was curious and wished to see what skill this old monk possessed. It was a rare chance to see an elite adept of the Willow Forest monastery fight, and the blademaster within him did not want to give it up.

    The monk sighed and nodded. “I see. If benefactor insists, I suppose there is no harm for this humble monk to accompany you for a few rounds. Please show mercy!” Smiling, the monk gathered the flat of his hand to his body, then extended his palm outwards, arcing it across his body in a graceful motion. The movement was slow, seemingly utterly unsuitable for combat. And yet, as Frost watched, his palm and arm began to blur, as though their passage through the air left behind after-effects, producing a blurring image of a path of phantom palms.

    “The hell?” Frost muttered to himself, blinking rapidly. The aftereffects stayed in his vision. The monk simply stood there, continuing to idly draw those circles in the air with his hands. Frost, hesitating, did not advance immediately. After a moment of indecision, he stabbed his sword towards the monk’s chest in a wholly feigned attack, designed only to test.

    The monk did not seem to pay the sword any attention, letting his hands continue to drift peacefully. But just as the tip of the sword nearly reached the folds of his robe, one of the ghostly after-effects reached towards it. Snapping away from the trail the monk’s hands were laying down, the phantom limb slapped at Frost’s sword. Behind Frost, both Matheius and the woman inhaled audibly. Frost felt his sword tremble, and nearly dropped it.

    Frost took two steps back and stared at the monk, who only continued to smile at him. Before Frost’s pale eyes, more phantasmal limbs began to erupt from the trail which the monk’s hands had left. They adopted various postures and stances, forming themselves into open palms, clenched fists, arced claws, knife-edged hands, and more.

    “You can’t fool me,” Frost sneered, and raised his sword high, preparing to strike again. “Illusion.” Matheius shook his head. “Not necessarily.” Frost paused. “What do you mean, not necessarily?” Matheius grimaced. He had been hoping to see something he hadn’t encountered before. “All of them can be false, but all of them can be real as well. It has been a long, long time since I have seen this secret technique of the Willow Forest monastery, the ‘Thousand Arms of Aralon.’”

    Of all the great martial monasteries, the Willow Forest monastery was the oldest. It was said to have been founded by a monk who received instruction from Aralon herself, and who became the progenitor of all forms of bare-handed fighting styles. The techniques of the Willow Forest monastery were subtle, broad, and deep beyond measure, but amongst them, eighteen techniques in particular were exceptionally exquisite, and never taught to outsiders.

    The ‘Thousand Arms of Aralon’ was ranked highly amongst those Eighteen Consummate Techniques. It did not, perhaps, have the raw power of the ‘Demon-Taming Fists’ or the ‘Grand Vajra Finger’, nor the merciless efficiency of the ‘Divine Dragon Claws’, but in terms of flexibility of use, as well as difficulty to learn, it was unrivaled.

    The ‘Thousand Arms of Aralon’ relied on its overwhelming variations and unmatched speed to confuse and defeat the enemy. In any fight, no matter how fast a person was, he would still need to physically move his hand and arms from stance to stance, from strike to strike. But a person of unusually high intellect and spiritual cultivation who practiced the ‘Thousand Arms of Aralon’ could shift any of the fake arms created by the techniques into a real arm, with the formerly real arm becoming one of the fake arms, allowing him to strike and defend at will. The solid would become phantasmal, and the phantasmal, solid.

    On defense, a practitioner could never be caught in a bad position, and in close combat, it was nearly impossible to defend against. All of this, Matheius would have explained to Frost, but there was no time, as Frost and the monk were now engaged in a pitched battle. A battle which, Matheius could immediately tell, Frost was losing.

    Frost had never been in a fight like the one he was in right now. He felt stifled, smothered to the point where it was almost hard to draw breath. Every single swing of his sword was blocked before it was even completed. Every single protective stance which he tried to adopt, broken. The key to his skill with the blade was speed and unpredictability, but in both aspects, this ‘Thousand Arms of Aralon’ outclassed him.

    A claw aimed for his eye. A palm strike which would crush his collar. A knife-edged hand capable of severing flesh and bone alike. Each time Frost attempted to block the attack, the attack became a false, phantasmal assault, with a real strike coming from elsewhere. He couldn’t block; he couldn’t defend. All he could do was continually back up while waving his sword in front of him in a defensive manner.

    It really did seem as though the monk possessed a thousand arms and a thousand hands, as he slapped and struck at Frost from every direction. Within a matter of seconds, Frost’s offensive attacks had screeched to a halt, and every single movement became defensive in nature, as he desperately tried to ward off that onslaught of attacks. With attacks being launched at him from every possible angle and every conceivable side in impossibly quick succession, it seemed as though there was nothing he could do.

    Frost cursed as his back hit the wall. Unable to retreat any further, he could only rely on his speed with the sword to defend against as many attacks as he could. A palm sliced in towards his heart, and he hurriedly brought his sword up to defend. The palm faded away, replaced by a clawed hand from the left which gripped his wrist, twisting it and forcing the sword from his hand. The monk’s right hand, fingers spread wide, shot towards Frost’s unprotected neck.

    “No!” Matheius shouted, but the monk did not deliver a killing blow, instead simply applying a light chokehold with his right hand to Frost’s throat. The room stilled. Slowly, the countless ghostly hands created by the monk’s technique faded away. With a gentle smile, the monk said to the captured Frost, “Benefactor is most skilled. Thank you going easy on this humble monk. I...”

    But the monk’s words stopped abruptly as his eyes widened. He stared at his hands, then at Frost, who sneered back at him. With a burst of force, Frost struck at the monk with his free hand. The monk borrowed the energy from Frost’s blow and let himself be carried backwards by the force of it, somersaulting twice through the air before landing unsteadily on his feet.

    His entire body was shivering, and it seemed to Matheius as though a light blue color had permeated his skin. “Essence of elemental ice,” the monk whispered through shivering lips. “Very impressive.” In an even softer voice, the monk whispered, “Shalenhan.” It had the sound of a name, or a title. Frost smirked, rubbing his throat as he reached down to pick up his sword. “Good appraisal,” Frost said. “But unfortunately, you-”.

    This time, it was Frost whose voice trailed off. His own pale, milky eyes widened as the monk, eyes closed, pressed the palms of his hands together and glowed. After the glow faded, the monk reopened his eyes. He was no longer shivering, and the blue discoloration of his skin was gone.

    “Very impressive,” the monk repeated, that gentle smile once more on his face. “This day has truly been an eye-opener for me.” He turned to glance out the window for a moment, before extending a hand towards the exit. “Please, benefactors, accompany me to the monastery, and allow the monks of the Willow Forest to properly play the role of host. It is getting late, now, and it is unwise to be out at night in an unwarded place, here in the Gray Twilight.”

    “The Gray Twilight?” Matheius glanced at Lyria and Frost. Frost shook his head; Lyria simply ignored him. The monk nodded. “I will explain all, at the monastery. Please follow me, benefactors.” Matheius shrugged, and nodded as well. It couldn’t hurt. “What is your name, Great Master?” Matheius asked. He was certain that this monk must have a very high ranking, and consequently addressed him with respect.

    “There is no boundaries to the bitter sea of regret; only in returning can one hope to see land,” the monk quoted. “This humble monk is of the Ku generation, with the given name of Hai. You may call me Kuhai.” Kuhai. Literally, ‘Bitter Ocean’. Matheius nodded again. “Then please, Master Kuhai. By all means, lead us to your monastery.”
    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.

  9. #29
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    Chapter 13: Of Silence and Stillness

    “Miserable place, don’t you think? ” Frost asked cheerfully as they walked down the path away from the building. “Everything here is so drab. It’s as though the colors of the world are faded. I’m still not quite sure why that old bald bastard called this place the Gray Twilight, but the name is fitting enough.”

    It was true. Nominally, everything outside seemed normal, if unusually quiet. The building they had just left had been built into the side of one of a chain of mountains, and the terrain all about them was uneven and rocky. There were many trees and bushes, and a thick mat of grass underfoot, but everything appeared as though covered by an impossibly fine layer of gray dust.

    Even the setting sun, Frost mused to himself, seemed to be infected by this bleakness which surrounded everything. The sun seemed sickly and small, radiating little light or warmth. And yet, as it dipped further and further down past the horizon, what little light it did offer was disappearing quickly, leeching the world of what little color remained in it.

    Beside Frost, the woman who Matheius had named Lyria made no response. Matheius and that monk were some fifteen feet ahead of the two, engaged in a quiet conversation. Frost had tried several times to eavesdrop, but each time he got close, Matheius would stop, turn, and drill into Frost with his eyes, before once more increasing the distance between them.

    “Not the talkative type, are you? That’s fine,” Frost said. “Most women, you can’t get them to shut up. Glad that won’t be a problem.” That managed to provoke a glare as cold as death towards him, and Frost grinned back at Lyria. “Finally. A response.”

    Once again, Lyria turned her head away from Frost, staring straight ahead. Frost rolled his eyes, and for a moment, they walked in silence. “You know,” Frost said, “I noticed that you’ve been staring at Matheius this entire time. It’s starting to make me feel rather embarrassed. Is he that much more handsome than me?” And he grinned at her again.

    Lyria continued to ignore him, and Frost chuckled. “And people say I’m cold. So what’s the deal between you and him, anyhow? You’ve been acting a bit like a jilted lover, if you don’t mind me saying.” At that comment, Lyria stiffened, although she still refused to look at Frost.

    Sensing a reaction, Frost continued to tease. “Is that it? Did he leave you for this ‘Elaiana’ whom he keeps on mumbling about in his sleep?” Lyria stiffened even further at that, and Frost’s smile widened. “That’s what must have happened, isn’t it? It’s useless to deny it; I’ve seen it a hundred times.” Lyria’s lips tightened, an exasperated look appearing in her eyes.

    Casually, Frost stretched, then ‘companionably’ settled his arm around Lyria’s slender shoulders. He grinned when she didn’t outwardly object. “You know what’s the best way to get back at him?” Lyria glanced at him, raising a single expressionless eyebrow. “Make him jealous.”

    Frost pointed at the two men ahead of them. “He can’t be too happy that I’m walking with his ex, while he’s chatting with an ugly old bastard of a monk. I know you’ve noticed him looking back at you every once in a while. So here’s what we’ll do. The next time he turns his head to look at us, you give me a kiss.” A wicked little smile was on Frost’s face. “What do you say?”

    He half-expected to get slapped, or at least have his arm shrugged off, but much to his pleasant surprise, neither happened. On the contrary, it seemed as though Lyria had agreed, as she let herself be drawn in a little towards him. That wicked smile on his face only grew as Lyria turned her head to the right and smiled in a strange manner back at him. The rapidly dimming light gave endowed her natural beauty with a shadowed, haunting aspect, which her enigmatic smile only enhanced.

    Slowly, Lyria parted her lips, forming a small circle with her mouth which she touched with her tongue as she looked enticingly at Frost. It was as though she were asking to be kissed, and Frost was only all too happy to oblige, as he bent his neck towards her. Matheius hadn’t turned to look back at them yet, but that was fine. It wasn’t as though Frost actually cared about that to begin with.

    When their lips were less than an inch away from each other’s, Lyria reached up, placing one finger between their faces. Frost paused. “What is it?” He asked. “Did you want to say something?” Lyria nodded, and then removed her finger as she inhaled slightly. Suddenly, she let out an earth-shaking scream directly into Frost’s face.

    The scream was long, loud, and impossibly piercing. It was the scream of a centuries-old wind banshee, and carried with it a tremendous sonic force. His face only an inch away from Lyria’s, Frost was struck head on by nearly the entirety of that force. He had less than a second to react, and his pale eyes had barely widened before he was sent hurtling away from her, slamming him directly into the tough, rocky mountainside.

    Even after Frost crashed into the mountain, Lyria’s scream continued, unabated. With the power and force of a tempest or tornado, that sonic blast kept Frost pinned against the shattered mountainside, preventing him from lifting so much as a finger. For what felt like an eternity, it continued. The mountain itself seemed to tremble from the vibrations called forth by Lyria’s demonic howl.

    Finally, when it seemed as though even the mountain must splinter and shatter, much less Frost, Lyria’s parted lips closed, and the scream died away. The echoes of it, still piercing to the ear, continued for a few more seconds, and then it too faded away, leaving behind absolute silence.

    Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop. The only sound that could now be heard was the sound of Lyria walking again. A mock-beatific smile on her cold face, Lyria turned away from Frost, looking straight ahead at Matheius and Kuhai. The two had stopped in their tracks, and had turned to stare, first at Frost, then at her.

    Behind her, Frost groaned, then slid away from the rock wall. “That was uncalled for,” he muttered to himself, seemingly undamaged for the most part, although a somewhat dazed look was on his face. He repeatedly shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs away. “I can see why he left you,” Frost grumbled. Lyria stopped in her tracks, and slowly began to turn towards Frost. A burning anger was in her eyes as she glared at him, and her mouth parted again.

    “Lyria, stop that. Leave Frost alone,” Matheius ordered from up front. “And Frost. Stop antagonizing her.” Frost shook his head a few more times, blinking rapidly. “I wasn’t antagonizing.” He groaned, stretching his arms and legs. “I was flirting.”

    Matheius could only shake his head, then turned away, and continued his conversation with the monk. Meanwhile, although the anger in Lyria’s eyes hadn’t quite fully died away, she seemed willing to accept Matheius’ order. Her lips closed, and she simply stood there, staring at Frost, a brooding look on her face.

    After a few more moments, the dazed look disappeared from Frost, and with a wrinkle of his nose, he rejoined Lyria. As the two once again began to follow Matheius and Kuhai, incredibly, Frost once more settled his arm around Lyria’s shoulders. “A beautiful, red-headed woman, with one hell of a temper, with an even worse tantrum, eh?”

    Lyria once again turned to stare at Frost. “Reminds me of someone I know, actually. My little sister. You’d get along with her just fine.” Frost paused, pursed his lips. “Unless you two killed each other. That’s pretty likely, too. Would be one hell of a catfight, though. I could probably scalp tickets.” And Frost grinned.

    Lyria’s gaze was opaque, unreadable. Slowly, her lips parted, and Frost tensed, wincing. But this time, she did not scream. She spoke, instead. “If you keep this up, I really will have to hurt you very badly.” Her voice was soft, but with a hard, sharp edge underneath, giving the impression of a knife which had been wrapped in a layer of soft cotton.

    Frost opened his mouth, then paused. Slowly, carefully, he removed his arm from around her shoulders. “You know, I think I believe you.” Lyria smiled at him. It was a cold smile, but a smile nonetheless.

    “I was just trying to make conversation and get you to talk, anyhow,” Frost said, as the two continued to follow Matheius and Kuhai as they continued to wind their way through the hilly terrain. “Those two up ahead look like they’re having a good conversation, at least.” Lyria nodded, although she remained silent. Well, Frost thought to himself. At least she isn’t completely ignoring me anymore. That has to count as a breakthrough, right?

    “I have to admit,” Frost said softly. “I am a little curious.” An errant ray of that weak, gray sunlight reflected off the pommel of Matheius’ sword, causing it to glow briefly. Unconsciously, Frost’s right hand drifted up to cover the area over his heart. “I wonder what those two are talking about?”

    “You certainly have interesting companions, benefactor,” Kuhai said with a smile as he and Matheius made their way towards the Willow Forest monastery. It was the habit of mendicant monks to address laymen as benefactors, for it was laymen who were alms-givers.

    It was a habit that Matheius found somewhat annoying. “Please. Call me Mat.” Kuhai smiled and nodded. “Mat, then. You have interesting friends, Mat. A banshee in disguise, unless my old eyes deceive me. And, of course, the Frost-Which-Kills.”

    Matheius frowned. The Frost-Which-Kills? “I know less about them than I perhaps should,” he said. “You could say that the banshee is an old acquaintance of mine, named Lyria. The man, I only know as Frost. I wasn’t aware that he had another names.”

    “Many,” Kuhai replied calmly. “But then again, this humble monk would wager that you yourself have many names as well, Mat.” Matheius let out a sharp laugh and nodded. Yes, that was a fair enough statement. “I suppose so, master Kuhai. But let us return to our earlier conversation. You were telling me about what had happened, to cause the monastery to move from the southern steppes to this place, wherever this is.”

    “Ah, yes. But truly, there is little else to tell. The Savants, after they had finished consolidating their power in the rest of the world, came to our monastery and demanded fealty, half a century ago. Of course, the grandmasters of the time refused. They came in force, and a battle would have resulted in much blood being shed, with ultimate victory seeming unlikely. We feigned a defeat after a little fighting, then came here. And here we have stayed.”

    Matheius shook his head. “You make it sound like such a small, trivial thing. How can you be so tranquil about this? You speak of the event as if you were but moving to a summer home. Was it really such an easy thing?”

    Kuhai exhaled with a laugh. “Easy? No, it was no such an easy thing. I am sixty eight years old now, and I was fourteen when this happened. It was most difficult for me to accept, then. My cultivation was shallower than it now is, and I did not understand what I do now.”

    “Oh?” Matheius asked. “And what is it that you understand now, that you did not then?” “That impermanence is the way of the world,” Kuhai replied simply. “Mortal misery and suffering are born from attachments to things which are transient and fleeting. This is our principle belief, as well as the most difficult one to truly fathom.”

    “You could have fought,” Matheius argued. “Made a stand. Made them pay for every inch of ground they took from you. Fought from your home.” Kuhai shook his head. “How much blood would have been shed, and for what purpose, even if we would have won? Ego? Hatred? Vengeance, for what they inflicted upon us? No, Mat. There is already too much of all three in the world.” It seemed to Matheius as though Kuhai was speaking directly to him. “

    “Besides,” Kuhai added. “The original monastery was not our home. Home implies a sense of permanence which cannot exist in an ephemeral, impermanent world. It was only a shelter of wood and stone, where we resided for a period of time, before we moved to a different one. If we would have shed blood and killed in order to protect a false sense of permanence, or any foolish attachment we might have had to the place, far greater damage would have been done to the Willow Forest monastery than those Savants ever could have hoped to.”

    “As you say,” Matheius said neutrally. He had no desire to get into an argument with the monk at this time. “How did all of you end up here, then? I believe you called this place the ‘Gray Twilight?’” Kuhai nodded. “Correct, Mat. We normally just call it ‘Twilight’, or ‘The Gray’.”

    The winding path led them higher and higher up the mountain as they continued to speak. “It is, I understand, something of an in-between space, a place of balance, where all opposites intersect. One of the grandmasters once described it as the line where life transitions to death, where awakening transitions to slumber, where light transitions to darkness, where reality transitions to imagination.” Kuhai offered a self-deprecating smile. “I’m afraid I did not understand very well then, and my understanding remains just as shallow now. Perhaps Abbot Kumu will be able to explain it better.”

    “Regardless,” Kuhai continued, “This humble monk is not sure of the exact process by which we arrived here. All I know is that one of the great grandmasters back then was able to pierce the veil between the real world and here, and brought us all over. I only remember walking through one of the monastery doorways, and arriving on the mountainside. When I turned back to look, I saw only the mountain.”

    Kuhai looked towards Matheius. “And since that day, we have meditated in the new monastery we built here in peace. You, benefactor, will be the very first visitor that we have ever had. Everyone will be very glad to see you. We have had no news from outside ever since we arrived. The Abbot and the rest of my brothers will be very much interested in seeing and speaking with you.”

    “I am sure we will have much to discuss,” Matheius responded softly. His gaze was shadowed, and he asked no more questions. Kuhai fell silent as well, and they slowed so that Frost and Lyria could catch up. In silence, the four progressed upwards, heading progressively higher and higher up the mountain.

    The false sun dipped lower and lower into the horizon, until only a sliver of pale light was left, wavering tenuously like the flame of a dying candle. Then it, too, disappeared, leaving behind a murky, ashen world. Strangely, although all color seemed to have been leeched from the world, in terms of actual brightness, it seemed only a little darker than earlier.

    A light fog appeared out of nowhere, seeming to rise up from the tough rock at the base of the mountains. It had a strange, unpleasant metallic taste to it, and thin though it was, it quickly seemed to climb upwards, as though reaching for the four. Kuhai’s face tightened. “Friends, we need to move more quickly. Night, in this place, is not safe, and it will be very...inconvenient, if we are caught by the mist.”

    “I agree,” Frost said unexpectedly. His white eyes were locked onto the oncoming mist, and his lips were twisted in an unpleasant manner, as though he had just tasted something sour. With something of a strained smile, he turned to the others and shrugged. “That is to say, we’d probably fall off the damned mountain if the fog gets here.”

    “Fair enough, I suppose,” Matheius said. “How much further are we, Master?” “Near. Very near. But we need to make haste.” The group sped up their footsteps. The fog was rising through the mountains more and more quickly now, and Matheius noticed that when Frost thought he was not being watched, he would turn his head and watch the mist, with the air of a person keeping tabs on a particularly dangerous animal.

    The air around them was just beginning to thicken when they reached a rather thin wooden gateway, wedged inside a small, two-meter wide opening in the mountain side. With a smile, Kuhai pushed the gate open and beckoned for everyone to enter the crevasse-gate. “Come.”

    All around them, the sheer mountain walls continued to rise up high. It was as though a circular bowl had been gouged out of the mountaintop, leaving behind a stone nest in which the monastery was comfortably ensconced. Rather unnecessarily, Kuhai added, “We are here, now.”

    “Yes,” Matheius said, voice soft. “I can see that.” The sight before him was a far cry from the glorious monastery he had seen so many centuries ago. The monastery he had witnessed then was one of polished marble and carved stone, built, expanded, and refined throughout ages upon ages, capable of holding hundreds, if not thousands with ease. The one which stood in front of him now, a simple, relatively small construct of wood, paled by comparison.

    As if feeling his disappointment, Kuhai said, “It isn’t much compared to our old home, but it suffices. Look.” He pointed backwards. “It keeps the mist out.” Matheius looked backwards. It was true. Outside, the mist covered everything, preventing one from seeing so much as a foot into it. And yet, it was as though the small gate served as a complete barrier. Not so much as a single tendril of the fog crept inside the monastery grounds.

    “Master Kuhai!” A young monk ran to the group. Although trying to appear calm, his face was flushed with excitement as he kept on stealing glances at the three visitors. “Please, Master, the Abbot has been waiting for you for some time, now. He asked me to bring you to him at the pavilion when you arrived, along with our guests.”

    “I know the way, child,” Kuhai said with a warm smile. “There is no need for you to bring me. Please tell my brother Abbot that I will be along shortly.” The young monk nodded, although he appeared reluctant to leave. Even when he did, as he ran back towards the monastery, he would look back at the visitors every few seconds, until he was out of sight.

    “Please forgive him,” Kuhai chuckled. “He has never set foot outside. Few of the members of the younger generations have.” “Not at all,” Matheius answered. “I’m curious,” Frost suddenly said. “You say you’ve been here fifty years, right?” Kuhai nodded. “Correct.” Frost spread his hands. “Then where did you get the young monks from? That kid couldn’t have been a day over fifteen, if that.”

    “There are a large number of secular families who lived near the monastery. When we moved, they elected to move with us as well. They live inside a nearby village of their own, on an opposite mountain. A number of their sons have decided to join us. In this way, our numbers are replenished, and our teachings are not lost.”

    “Ah,” Frost said, then fell silent as they made their way into the monastery. It seemed the reaction of that first monk was not unique. Wherever they went, they attracted eyes. They passed what seemed to be a training grounds, and nearly every monk stopped dead in the middle of their practicing of their martial arts to stare at the four of them. Even the instructor, an older monk of perhaps forty years, paused to watch as they passed, before turning and half-heartedly upbraiding his students for their attention.

    This happened again in what appeared to be a vegetable garden, and a third time as they passed what seemed to be a study. “Looks like we’re celebrities,” Frost quipped aloud to himself. “If it weren’t for the fact that everyone here is male, I could get used to this.” That earned him a benign smile from Kuhai, an annoyed sigh from Matheius, and a cold glare from Lyria.

    Finally, they reached the pavilion of the monastery, where four more monks were waiting for them. Three of them appeared to be older than Kuhai. The fourth, a massive man who literally stood heads and shoulders above everyone else, appeared to be at least a decade or two younger. Powerfully built, with the face of a thundergod, he was also the first to speak, and his voice rumbled happily. “Welcome back, Brother! We were worried that you wouldn’t make it back before the evening mist. So are these three the troublemakers our brother Abbot sent you to find?”

    Kuhai let out a small smile before admonishing, “Brother Kumeng, you are always so intemperate with your words. These are the guests which our brother Abbot asked me to invite to the monastery, yes.” It seemed as though the giant monk named Kumeng would say something else, but the monk to his left raised his right eyebrow, and Kumeng fell silent.

    Kuhai approached that monk and bowed. “Brother Abbot,” he said respectfully, and the monk nodded, hands folded in gray sleeves. “Brother Kuhai. It is good to see you back safely.” “Thank you, Brother Abbot. These are the guests you sent me to invite.” Kuhai turned to the three. “The lady is named Lyria. This gentleman to the left is named Mat. The gentleman to the right is named...” Kuhai paused, looking aside at the other four monks, “...Frost.”

    The monks traded glances. After a heartbeat’s pause, the monk to the left of Kumeng said, “I see. Be welcome, guests, to the Willow Forest monastery. My name is Kumu, Bitter Wood. Though unworthy, I am currently the Abbot of this monastery. To my right is Brother Kumeng, Bitter Dream. To my left are Brothers Kuci and Kusheng, Bitter Mercy and Bitter Birth. And, of course, you have already met Brother Kuhai.”

    When a layman entered monastic life, it was tradition for him to give up his own name. His surname would be replaced with the surname of the generation of monks he belonged to, and his personal name would usually be given to him by his master. These, then, were the elder monks who belonged to the Ku generation.

    Abbot Kumu appeared to be the oldest, as his long, flowing beard was as white as snow, and when he spoke, he seemed to be possessed of a stately dignity. Kuci and Kusheng appeared to be twins, as they were virtually indistinguishable at first glance. However, Kuci’s face seemed somewhat more lively, whereas Kusheng’s features were more schooled and still. And Kumeng, of course, towered over everyone present, a giant of a man whom Matheius would have expected to see on the battlefield, not in a monastery.

    Matheius folded his hands in a praying position and bowed politely to each of the elder monks in turn. “I am honored,” Matheius said quietly. “Might I ask,” Abbot Kumu said, when it became evident that neither Frost nor Lyria seemed inclined to greet them, “What brings you benefactors to our humble abode? How did you arrive? We have not had visitors in a very long time.” His speech was friendly and his features were amiable, but there was a certain incisive look in his eyes that indicated that he was not altogether pleased about the situation.

    Before Matheius could respond, Kuhai interjected, “There is no need to interview our guests immediately, brother Abbot. They have only just arrived, and it is getting late. Why don’t we prepare some rooms for them, and speak with them on the morrow?” Abbot Kumu smiled in a somewhat exasperated manner at Kuhai, but nodded. “I suppose you are correct, brother. Let it be as you suggest.”

    Turning towards the party, he pressed his palms together and bowed. “I hope you will not be too offended by the meager hospitality that our humble monastery can provide. I will have to trouble Brother Kuhai to show you to your rooms.” Hurriedly, Matheius began to bow back, but by then, the Abbot had already turned away and began walking away. Kuci and Kusheng followed suit, leaving behind only the giant Kumeng, who hesitated, staring questioningly at Kuhai. “We can speak later,” Kuhai said quickly, and Kumeng nodded, before bowing and leaving as well. The ground seemed to shake a little as he walked.

    “Too damn big to be a monk. He’d be better serving as a wall,” Frost breathed, and Matheius found himself nodding in agreement, before snapping a glare at Frost and Lyria. “It wouldn’t hurt you two to be a little more polite,” he muttered. “We are guests here.” Frost opened his mouth, but Lyria managed to speak first, directly addressing Matheius for the first time. “Is that an order?” She asked softly, a challenging glint in her eyes. Matheius met her gaze squarely. “Should I make it one?”

    A strange, thick tension filled the air, and for once, Frost held his peace. It was only broken by Kuhai’s polite cough. “There is no need to argue over something of so little consequence, benefactors. Why don’t you follow me as I show you to your rooms?” Matheius maintained the stare for a moment longer, before breaking it. “That would be good, thank you. Please.” And he turned and followed Kuhai deeper into the monastery quarters. After offering a helpless shrug to Lyria, Frost followed.
    _________________________________
    Frost was bored. “I’m bored,” he announced to the empty room, as he stared upwards at the blank ceiling. The room he had been furnished had nothing more than the wooden slab which evidently was intended to serve as a bed. There wasn’t even a comforter or a blanket of some sort. There was nothing to look at, and nothing to do. There was no one to talk to, either. Matheius, with whom he was supposed to be sharing the room, had left, to have some sort of talk with those bald-headed old men, leaving Frost behind.

    “I’m bored,” Frost announced again, as though that should elicit some sort of response from the room. When none was forthcoming, he grumbled, then sat up, swinging his legs down from the ‘bed’. “What a crappy place,” he groused to himself as he stood up. “Might as well explore for a bit.” A little bit of reconnaissance couldn’t hurt. The Master wouldn’t be too happy to find that the monastery hadn’t been fully destroyed, as had been reported. He might as well inspect the grounds now.

    As Frost stepped out of his room, he nearly bumped into Lyria. “Hey, careful there,” Frost said, as he shut the door behind him. “It’s pretty damned late, you know. Can’t sleep?” Lyria looked at him wordlessly. “Yeah, me neither,” Frost said cheerfully. “Not on that goddamn chunk of wood they call a bed.”

    Lyria turned and began to walk away, and Frost followed her. “Out for a night time stroll?” Frost asked. “Good idea. I was thinking the same thing.” Still no response from her, as she slowly, deliberately made her way out of the sleeping quarters. “So, where are we headed?” No response. “Any plan?” No response. “Guess not.” No response.

    This one-sided conversation continued for quite some time, with Lyria ignoring Frost’s chatter all throughout as she walked outside the monastery. Standing at the wooden wall, she stared upwards at the sky for a moment, then her feet lifted off the ground. Smoothly, she levitated upwards. When she reached the roof of the monastery, she languidly drifted towards the middle, before settling down in the center of the roof, where she sat down.

    “Neat trick,” Frost said from behind her. She glanced back, a somewhat startled look on her face for a brief moment. That was fast. She hadn’t noticed him come up at all. Frost noted the look and grinned back at her. “Can you teach me, or is that only a banshee thing?”

    Her features schooled once more to stillness, she turned away, ignoring him as he sat down besides her, instead looking upwards at the night sky. “Come on, talk to me,” Frost wheedled, nudging her lightly in the side. “You aren’t still sore about me keeping you from sucking the life out of Matheius back in that ruined city, are you?”

    She couldn’t help but glance at him, surprise once again briefly flickering across her features. “So that was you,” Frost winked. “Thought so, but I wasn’t sure. Hope you don’t mind me saying, but you look much better now than you did then.” Lyria let out a small, annoyed sigh. “Are you always so exasperating?”

    “Only when people are trying to ignore me,” Frost answered cheerfully. He thought he detected a brief flicker of amusement in Lyria’s eyes, but it disappeared so quickly that he couldn’t be sure. Turning away from him, Lyria once more returned her gaze to the night sky.

    “So,” Frost said, after a while. “Care to tell me what the deal is between you and Matheius? And what you were doing in that place? I’m getting the feeling that I’m missing out on a lot of information that both of you have, and it’s a bit annoying, you know. What exactly happened between you two?”

    Lyria was silent for so long that Frost thought she was ignoring him again. Finally, though, she spoke. “You could say that he helped to kill me in cold blood.” Frost raised an eyebrow. “Really, now. He doesn’t seem like the type.” With elaborate casualness, he stared at the night sky as well. “Then again, he did tell me that all of his friends ended up getting killed by or because of him. I guess you were one of them, eh?”

    Again, a long silence. “Is that what he told you?” Lyria asked, after some time had passed. Frost nodded. “Mmhmm.” “Huh.” Lryia said, then fell silent again. Frost waited and waited, but nothing else was forthcoming. He sighed, then leaned back to lie down on the roof. “Too damn many secrets about him, and now you. I hate secrets. Figures. I finally find someone who can shed some light on the bastard, but she doesn’t talk.” Frost sighed melodramatically. “Oh, woe is me!”

    After another long period of silence, Frost sat up. “Talking with you is even more boring than talking to myself,” he muttered. “At least I answer.” With a light hop, he flipped off of the roof. “Be seeing you,” he called up to her. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t respond. Frost muttered to himself again. “Look on the bright side,” he told himself. “At least she didn’t scream at you.” He rubbed his head at the thought of the earlier shriek as he walked away. “Damned banshee.”
    _____________________________________
    “It has certainly been an...interesting conversation, Mat,” Kuhai said. The two of them had been seated, bent over a table in conversation for many hours, now. More than one candle had burned away to nothing. “Much of what you tell me seems too fantastical for belief, and yet, I sense that not only are you telling me the truth, but that there is a great deal you are holding back, which you have yet to tell me.”

    Matheius leaned back in his chair, a grimace on his face. His back hurt. “I appreciate your having spent time listening to me, Master Kuhai. And I promise you,” he said softly, “I have told you nothing but the truth.” “I believe you,” Kuhai reassured him. “I truly do. You have certainly demonstrated enough for me to believe your words.”

    Matheius nodded. “Thank you. Do you think you will be able to offer me assistance, then?” A troubled look was on Kuhai’s face. “I do not know,” he said slowly. “Certainly, this decision is not mine to make alone. I will have to confer with my brothers about this, and the final say is the Abbot’s. Rest assured, though, that I will speak with them on your behalf.”

    “That’s all I ask,” Matheius replied, and Kuhai nodded. “But for now, I need to cut our conversation short,” Kuhai said as he stood up. “It is my turn to serve as guardian, now.” Matheius rose to his feet as well. “Guardian? What do you guard?” He asked curiously. “It isn’t as though there’s many thieves in this area,” Matheius said, the faintest outline of a smile on his face.

    Kuhai laughed. “No, no thieves, but this object is important enough to maintain a guard over, nonetheless.” “Oh?” Matheius asked. Curiously, he said, “What item is this important?” Kuhai paused, an uncomfortable look on his face. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but...” he paused, then shrugged. “You have been very forthcoming with me, and I should be the same with you. Out of all of the many artifacts from the old monastery that we brought here, this is the most important one to us. You probably haven’t heard the name before. It is called the Silence of Ozymandias.”

    Matheius froze. “The Silence of Ozymandias?” He nearly stammered out, after a moment. “It’s here?” Kuhai looked at Matheius curiously. “Oh, so you have heard about it? Yes, it’s here.” Carefully, Matheius asked, “Otherwise known as the Sigil of Stillness?” Kuhai paused. A look of surprise was on his face. “Yes, the same. How do you know about it?”

    A torrent of thoughts filled Matheius’ mind. “I’ve heard of it in passing. I thought it was stolen from your monastery centuries ago, though.” A somewhat suspicious look in his eyes, Kuhai nodded. “Yes, it was. To this day, we still don’t know who took it. But it seems as though karmic bonds bind it to us. We found it again, a few decades after it disappeared. Now if you’ll excuse me, benefactor, I really do need to take my shift guarding it.” And with a bow, Kuhai exited.

    So, a nasty little voice in Matheius’ mind whispered to him, this is why you are here. A hell of a coincidence, isn’t it. “Too convenient,” Matheius muttered aloud. “I feel as though I am being set up and used, guided to follow a specific path. I don’t like that.” Still, that nasty little voice countered, there’s no need to look a gift horse in the mouth. No matter what, it will be a useful tool. And I find it amusing that, for the second time, you are about to steal the greatest treasure of the Willow Forest monastery away from it.

    “Shut up,” Matheius muttered to himself, but that inner voice wouldn’t be shoved away. Remember the first time? I know you remember it. I remember it well. It was after you had just joined Arzon, and it was the first mission he had sent you on. “Shut. Up.” Matheius growled to himself through gritted teeth, but the memory came back, unbidden.

    “You want me to steal from the Willow Forest monastery?” Matheius asked, incredulous. Mage-Lord Arzon raised an eyebrow. “What, you don’t think you are capable?” Matheius shook his head. “No, it isn’t that. But...” he paused, struggling to find words. “It’s the Willow Forest monastery!” Matheius finally exclaimed.

    “I do not care,” Arzon said evenly. “And neither should you. Not if you want her back.” “I do. But...” Matheius paused, shaking his head. “But, nothing,” Arzon said. “Show some of that ruthlessness and determination which you are ever-so-famous for amongst we mages, oh terrifying Man-Eating-Wolf,” Arzon said. His voice was cold. “Or leave now, and return to San’tamak. I cannot help you if you will not work with me.”

    Matheius’ hand clenched around the hilt of Duty. To violate and steal from the sacred ground of the Willow Forest monastery. It went against everything he believed in, everything he was taught. But then again...“I already have gone against everything I once believed in,” he said bleakly. “I suppose doing so again is of little consequence.” He shot the mage-lord a decidedly unfriendly stare. “You had best carry out your end of the bargain, mage. I will be very, very angry if you do not.”


    “But he lied to me, in the end,” Matheius muttered, lost in his memories, unaware of time’s passing. “Each and every time, he promised that he would carry out his side of the deal, and I believed him. And at long last, at the verge of success, he decided not to.” The sun had just risen, but Matheius barely noticed, even as those gray strands of light peaked in from the window. “But I got him good, for that,” Matheius whispered, fingers tightening into fists, remembering Arzon’s blood flowing over them.

    “I won’t be lied to again.” Matheius decided, gaze clearing. “I won’t be used again.” But the Sigil is one of the Ten, and according to Darkfather, you’ll need it, that small inner voice began again, but Matheius shouted it down. “I won’t!” He rose to his feet. “I won’t,” he said again, voice grim. “I refuse.”

    His decision made, he headed towards the living quarters they had been assigned. Frost wasn’t in the room, although Lyria was in hers. “Where is Frost?” Matheius asked, voice clipped, and Lyria only shrugged. “Don’t know,” she said coolly. Matheius’ lips tightened. “If you see him, tell him to pack his things. We’re leaving. Now.”

    Lyria stared at him, then shrugged. She had nothing to pack, and dutifully followed Matheius out, after he had grabbed his own saddlebag and pouches. On their way out, he ran into Frost. “Whoa, there,” Frost said with a smile. “Where are you going?” “We are leaving.” “Leaving? Already?” Frost blinked. “Why?” “You may stay if you wish,” Matheius said coldly.

    “Wait a minute, that’s not what I meant. But isn’t this a bit...” Frost rolled his eyes, seeing the uncompromising look on Matheius’ face. “Fine, fine. Just wait a moment, and let me grab my things.” Frost didn’t have much to pack either, and within moments, he was ready. “Well, then. Let’s be off,” Frost said. Matheius nodded, and together, the three of them exited their rooms.

    “Good morning, benefactor,” Abbot Kumu said as they stepped out. The old monk’s gaze swept across them. “I see you have packed. Is our hospitality so poor, that you would leave us without a word, after but a single night?” Well over a hundred monks, seemingly the entirety of the force that could be mustered by the Willow Forest monastery, was outside, having surrounded the guest quarters. In addition to Abbot Kumu, the other three elder monks, Kusheng, Kuci, and Kumeng were there as well. Only Kuhai was missing.

    “Uh, oh. Looks like trouble,” Frost murmured. Although the faces of the Abbot and Kusheng seemed calm, Kumeng appeared to be livid, and Kuci was having problems maintaining his equanimity as well. Sheer rage was on the face of all the junior monks surrounding the guest rooms. Carefully, Matheius answered, “Forgive us for not bidding you farewell first, Abbot Kumu, but the three of us were in a hurry to leave. There is much for us to do.”

    “Oh?” Abbot Kumu said. “If that is the case, then we certainly would not dare to impede your departure. Only, before you go, there are two issues which we had hoped that you would help us address.” Matheius could only nod. “Of course, Abbot Kumu. What can we help you with?”

    For the first time, Matheius noticed the deeply controlled, smoldering anger in the aged monk’s eyes. Enunciating every single word cleanly, Abbot Kumu answered in a crisp, cold voice.

    “The murder of my brother, Kuhai, and the theft of the relic he guarded.”
    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.

  10. #30
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    Why else did you think my GUNDAM fanfic ground to a sudden and complete *halt* the past few days, even after yours and several others have since been updated?

    Only the force of a forum moderator decree could have made that happen.

  11. #31
    Member baldy's Avatar
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    Nice .. any more ?

  12. #32
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Heavens, yes. Around four more chapters worth at this moment. I'll post them soon.
    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. #33
    Member baldy's Avatar
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    Thanks .. take your time .. the story is going great

  14. #34
    Senior Member Grundle's Avatar
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    Since we are at an interim, waiting for the next chapter to appear, I suppose I will post my thoughts on the story so far.

    As I have been reading, this work has reminded me of several other pieces of literature that I have read, and am fond of. The first and most powerful theme would have to be of course the "Rip Van Winkle" effect. I am sure every child in America has been told this fairy tale. At that age it was one of my favorites and I used to fantasize often about it. I always thought that the author didn't do the idea justice and ruined and extremely good idea. I see this work taking that idea and developing it much further. I think the idea of sleeping 200, or even 2000 years and waking up intact and not aged is totally awesome. Good call on that one

    I am also enjoying the slow development of this story. The author is very good at giving out just enough information, at just the right time. I have read many "mysterious" pieces of literature that leave you hanging at the end of the book. You still have no idea about the Universe they were trying to depict, the interaction between the mystical forces and the characters and its various properties. Here I felt like I was in the dark, but slowly it is coming together. That makes the journey and the experience so much more enjoyable for me.

    The dichotomies presented so far are very amusing. You have the main hero who is racked by the evils he has committed. He is forced to seek help from the "dark" gods who could be construed as evil, but who knows whether they are or not. His female helper turns out to be the woman he hated most while he was alive and I have a sense that he is going to have to atone for her death to appease her spirit and his own guilty conscience. His only friend in his current living time is most likely going to be one of his greatest enemies. I am of course referring to Frost.

    Finally I have a suspicion and I will bound this with spoiler tags so people can stay ignorant, that the identity of the armour clad warrior
    click to show/hide spoilers

    is actually his old friend Vast. Why would I say this? Because this mysterious soldier has been with "The Master" since they started the conquest of Magus. Because that conquest started shortly after Matheius's sleep began. Because he taught Frost, a top level blademaster, and it was said that there are only 3-7 people at Frosts level at that time. If my guess turns out to be correct, we have 2 or possibly 3 epic fights to look forward to.


    For what I have read so far, I hope that it is only an introduction. I feel like I have so much to learn about the world. I also enjoy the adventures of the main hero Mat. I am constantly wondering what he has hidden up his sleeve. I also remembered seeing glimpses of Drizzt Do'Urden and the Wheel of Time. They don't carry strong overtones, so the story isn't polluted but I just remember thinking at one point or another that there was a resemblance. Fear not, though, this story is unique enough that it carries itself.
    --=={Grundle}==--

  15. #35
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    Chapter 14: A Monk Without Precepts

    A long silence passed, after the abbot spoke those words. All three of them seemed to have been caught by surprise. Finally, it was Matheius who spoke. “I don’t understand,” he said, voice slightly unsteady. “What do you mean, the murder of Master Kuhai? I saw him just a few hours ago.”

    “Don’t try to play coy, you bastard!” Kumeng suddenly roared. “Brother Kuhai himself named you as his murderer, just before passed away!” The Abbot motioned Kumeng to silence. In a tempered voice, he said, “What Brother Kumeng said is the truth. Brother Kuhai did indeed name you, Mat, as both thief and his killer. What do you have to say to that?”

    Matheius could only shake his head. “I don’t...I don’t know,” he muttered. “This doesn’t make sense. He couldn’t have said that. Who are your witnesses? There must be a misunderstanding somewhere.” If anything, the Abbot’s eyes grew only harder. “Myself and Brothers Kuci, Kusheng, and Kumeng were all present when brother Kuhai passed away. We all heard, with our own ears, him accuse you.”

    “But I did not kill him!” Matheius said. Frustration and sadness mingled within him, as his hands slowly balled into fists. “I don’t know what to tell you, but it wasn’t me.” None of the monks believed him, and it showed on their faces.

    “If that is so,” Abbot Kumu said slowly. “Then surely you will have no objection to us searching you for the stolen relic, which he was guarding and which is now missing.” “No objection,” Matheius immediately said, reaching for his side pouch. “In fact, I will show you the contents of this pouch myself...”

    His voice trailed off as his hand closed around something in his pouch which had not been there earlier. It was round and hard, and radiated a strange coldness to the touch. Instinctively, immediately, he knew what it was. He had felt it before, stolen it before. Slowly, with a mounting dread, he removed it from his side-pouch and stared at it. It was a black, spherical ball, half-opaque, with a single rune etched on it. The rune Anj. In the old tongue, or so Arzon had told him, it meant absolute stillness. The stillness of the grave, of death.

    “So,” Abbot Kumu said softly, “It seems you have it after all.” Matheius could only shake his head. “I...no. I didn’t...” Words failed him. The damning evidence was right there in the palm of his hand. Even Frost and Lyria were staring at him. “I am being framed, somehow,” Matheius said, knowing how hollow his words sounded. “I have no idea how this ended up in my possessions, and even less how the honorable Master Kuhai died. I swear it.”

    Absolute silence. Then, the abbot said slowly, “Perhaps that is so. Perhaps that is not. Benefactor, please return our possession back to us first. Everything else, we can discuss afterwards.”

    Matheius stared accusingly at the Sigil in his hand. Almost, at that moment, he was going to return it. Ah, but even if you do, that little voice whispered, they will still never believe you. You already have it now, and you yourself know you did nothing wrong. Why not hold onto it? They will never lend it to you, now. “Shut up,” Matheius mumbled indistinctly to himself, eyes still focused on that unassuming black sphere in his hand.

    After a long moment, he raised his gaze to meet Abbot Kumu’s. “I’m sorry, Abbot. I cannot.” His hand closed, forming a fist over the Sigil, as he returned it to his pouch. “I didn’t take it from you, but now that I have it, I cannot give it back to you. Not just yet.” He spread his hands helplessly. “I’m sorry.”

    “Enough talking, Brother Abbot!” Kumeng shouted, voice stern and eyes wrothful. He had been especially close to Kuhai, and had been controlling himself this entire time. Now, he no longer could. “Let’s take it back first, and talk later!” Before Kumu was able to reply, the giant monk had already taken two huge strides towards Matheius and Frost and reached out with a massive hand towards the saddle bag.

    Matheius’ hand twitched towards his sword, but before he pulled it out, Frost’s hand snapped onto Kumeng’s wrist. “Now, hold on there!” Frost said with an easy smile. “It isn’t polite to grab at other people’s belongings.” As he spoke, his pupil-less eyes glowed white, and the fingers on Kumeng’s right hand began to turn blue.

    “Frost, wait!,” Matheius began to protest, but Kumeng glared at him and snorted. “Hmph! Brother Kuhai mentioned that he experienced the power of the Frost-Which-Kills. Let’s see how your power compares, Shalenhan, to my ‘True Samahdi Fire’!” Kumeng reached out with his free hand as he spoke, seizing the wrist of Frost’s other hand, so that their four hands were in contact.

    Suddenly, a massive wave of heat blasted outwards from Kumeng’s body, strong enough to cause Matheius to take a step back. Instantly, the blue color receded from Kumeng’s right hand, then faded away altogether. A dull red color replaced the blue, causing first his hands, then his entire body to began to become suffused with it.

    The temperature around Kumeng and Frost began to increased dramatically, forcing Matheius to take more and more steps back, not stopping until he was twenty feet away from the two men. Even at that range, the heat was almost intolerable, and beads of sweat were dripping down his face. By this time, the red color which filled Kumeng’s had become fiery rather than dull. The monk’s body radiated a brilliant crimson light, as though he himself had become a miniature sun.

    Sweat or water seemed to cover Frost’s entire body, as he struggled to free himself from that indomitable grasp, to no effect. Perhaps it was a trick of the light or an illusion caused by Kumeng’s massive frame, but to Matheius’ eyes, it seemed as though Frost’s very being had been diminished, shrunken into a miniaturized form barely half the size of the giant monk. Matheius wanted to help, but the heat was simply too strong. Each time he took a step forward, it drove him back.

    For the first time, Matheius thought he saw a glimpse of true terror on Frost’s face. Just when it seemed as though Frost would collapse entirely, Frost suddenly opened his lips. Some sort of tiny, gleaming projectile streaked out from his mouth. The heat vanished as Kumeng released Frost, staggering back and clapping his massive hand over his right eye, from which blood now freely flowed. Almost instantly, Frost seemed to regain his previous stature and size.

    As Kumeng took a step back, Frost took a step forward, delivering a swift, powerful blow directly to Kumeng’s chest, right above his heart. A sharp crack was heard, and Kumeng flew back six or seven feet from the force of the blow. As he fell down, a spray of blood erupted from his lips, crystallizing into crystals of bloody ice almost immediately after they left his body. They cascaded downwards in a sanguine shower, as though an uncountable number of rubies had been scattered upon the ground.

    Two of the more senior monks flew with lightning speed towards Kumeng, catching him as he fell down. “You two, help Master Kumeng to the back! Everyone else, assemble!” Abbot Kumu ordered. The staff-wielding monks in the courtyard responded with a single unified roar as they leaped into position around Frost, who by now had drawn his sword. With a timing honed by years of training, they assembled into the Grand Arhat Formation.

    The hundred and eight man Grand Arhat Formation was a technique derived from the near-mythical founders of the Willow Forest monastery, the legendary Eighteen Warrior Arhats who each independently developed one of the Eighteen Consummate Techniques. On their own, they were already amongst the most formidable fighters of their era, but when they worked together, they became a truly unstoppable force, quelling all conflicts and ushering in an age of peace.

    The Grand Arhat Formation was developed in later years, long after the original eighteen had all passed away, when the fame of the Willow Forest monastery had begun to decay. No monks could match the ability of the founders, but a particularly clever monk devised this formation, by which a hundred and eight monks, separated into eighteen groups of six men, could mimic the movements and fighting style of all eighteen of the Arhats at once.

    The actual power was of course still inferior to that of the original Eighteen Warrior Arhats, but the formation was nonetheless incredibly potent. Over the ages, the formation continued to be tinkered with and improved by countless masters of the Willow Forest monastery, until it had been perfected to the point where it could truly be called the number one formation under the heavens. And it was in the midst of this formation which Frost now found himself trapped.

    For the second time in a row, Frost was forced on the defensive almost as soon as the battle began. Each time he tried to slash or stab at one of the monks, the strike would be blocked immediately by the iron staves of the six men in the Arhat group of the person he struck at, while six more staves would strike at his back.

    Each of the men in the six-man Arhat groups attacked and defended in perfect unison, and all eighteen of the Arhat groups complemented each other perfectly. If it were not for the fact that the Grand Arhat Formation was designed to fight against other groups, and not individuals, he would have been in grave danger immediately. Even now, the situation was extremely perilous.

    Seeing how precarious a situation Frost was in, Matheius wanted to assist, but found himself occupied defending against an onslaught of fierce blows from Abbot Kumu. Kumu, he was discovering, was a master of the ‘Yaksha Palms’, a top tiered skill of the Eighteen Consummate Techniques. The Abbot’s hand and palm strikes were strange and vicious, with each blow carrying with them a thunderous power so great that gusts of wind preceded them.

    At first, Matheius’ lack of familiarity with the ‘Yaksha Palms’ caused him to stay on the defensive. In part, this was because he wished to witness all the variations of this famous set of open-handed attacks. Instead of counter-attacking, Matheius merely waved his sword defensively when the blows came too close to him, while he continuously retreated.

    This went on for a period of time, until Abbot Kumu had exhausted fifteen of the sixteen sets of movements for the ‘Yaksha Palms’. Growing frustrated that he still had not subdued his opponent, Kumu suddenly let out an earth-shaking shout, and suddenly struck out with twin billowing palms towards Matheius, putting all his strength into this blow. Each hand was aimed at one of Matheius’ temples, too quickly for him to dodge backwards. No matter what direction Matheius tried to run, he would find himself encompassed by the power of this sixteenth palm, ‘Capturing the World’.

    But to Kumu’s consternation and disbelief, at that exact moment, Matheius stabbed towards the center of his forehead without even making an attempt to dodge or block. This was the exact weakness of this particular attack of the ‘Yaksha Palms’. Although it appeared as though the situation would end in common ruin, in reality, Matheius’ sword was positioned so that it would just barely penetrate Kumu’s skull before Kumu’s palm strikes would land on Matheius’ body.

    Kumu, shocked at the fact that Matheius had identified the weak point in his attack so quickly, wanted to defend but had put all of his strength into that last blow, and was unable to retract his power quickly enough. Kumu could only watch in horror as the tip of Matheius’ sword approached his forehead.

    A split-second before Matheius’ sword would have penetrated Kumu’s skull, the black blade suddenly withdrew rapidly as Matheius was forced to swivel and use it to block an attack coming from behind. With a loud DANG sound, the forefinger and index finger of Kusheng collided with the flat of Matheius’ blade, forcing Matheius back a few steps. After regaining his footing, Matheius stared at the flat of his sword, on which two light finger imprints could now be seen.

    “That must be the ’Grand Vajra Finger’, for him to do that to my sword,” Matheius muttered to himself, then turned again and just barely evaded a series of lightning-fast punches from Kuci, which forced him back even further. Two of the blows actually partially connected with his face and shoulder, causing some light pain and a split lip, before he managed to somersault out of range. “And what an incredible ‘Formless Ghostly Fist!’”

    Seeing their Brother Abbot in trouble, the other two elder monks had stepped in at the critical moment, striking at Matheius from behind and forcing him to defend himself and catching him off-guard. Now, all three of the elder monks, working together with a unison born from long years of training and sparring, began to fight Matheius at once.

    The combination of those three elite fighters was nearly overwhelming. The power of Kusheng’s ‘Grand Vajra Finger’ was concentrated and pure, while the movements of Kumu’s ‘Yaksha Palms’ were strange and difficult to predict. To add to his difficulties, the speed of the punches of Kuci’s ‘Formless Ghostly Fist’ approached Matheius’ own speed. As a result, out of ten exchanges, Matheius couldn’t manage a single offensive strike, forced to constantly defend and constantly retreat.

    To the untrained eye, Kuci seemed akin a gray blur which circled endlessly around Matheius, harassing Matheius as he was forced back one step after another by the more powerful attacks of the other two monks. Matheius’ own sword flickered from point to point so quickly that it was as though a round black wall of flashing metal phased in and out of existence in around him, forming a smaller black circle within the larger grey one formed by Kuci’s movements, and yet still he could only retreat.

    If it weren’t for the vast area of the pavilion, Matheius thought to himself, he might have been cornered and forced to surrender. Even now, he was still hit every once in a while by Kuci’s fists, and while the blows were relatively light, they were still painful. Out of the three elder monks, Kuci was the youngest and quickest, enabling him to land blows where the others could not. But Kuci’s level of skill was comparatively shallow, and although he circled endlessly around Matheius, he could not land any truly disabling blows.

    Matheius’ lips were split in several places, and blood flowed freely from them and from his nose. His shoulder and side hurt as well, where Kuci had managed to hit him. But if Matheius wasn’t able to launch an attack, neither were the three elder monks able to claim victory. Frustration and disbelief were evident on their face, that even with their combined powers they were unable to subdue this foe.

    He was playing a stalling game. Attempting to wait until the monks tired, until a weakness in their formation could be found and exploited. Several times, he had already seen individual weaknesses that he normally would have seized, but they had managed to cover for each other.

    It was strange, though, Matheius thought to himself as he continued to defend. Although the three worked with each other well and covered for each other well, at parts, their coordination seemed unrehearsed, almost clumsy, as though something was throwing them off. As though something were missing. And I wouldn’t have expected this many flaws to appear, even if they managed to guard them.

    Matheius’ eyes suddenly widened. Something was missing; or, to be precise, someone. Kuhai! It all made sense now. Kuhai is the missing link. They are trying to compensate for Kuhai’s absence by covering his role in the formation. It’s forcing them to leave themselves unguarded to make attacks that Kuhai normally would have, or cover for each other where Kuhai’s thousand hands would have.

    With this knowledge in mind, Matheius’ confidence grew. This was reflected in his swordplay as well, which became more daring. A tight, passive defense wouldn’t work. That allowed them to control the pace and tempo of the battle. He needed to disrupt that tempo, to force them to commit errors and expose the weaknesses created by Kuhai’s absence. His defense became more aggressive, the blocks and parries extending farther from his body.

    The change in strategy took a heavy toll on Matheius, as he took many more repeated blows from Kuci, and even a glancing hit on the shoulder by Kusheng. Although he managed to dissipate ninety percent of the force of that strike, the ten percent which remained was enough to nearly dislocate his shoulder. But it paid off, as the teamwork of the three grew steadily more disjointed, even as Matheius steadily suffered more blows.

    After fifteen minutes or so, Matheius thought he saw an exploitable flaw in the overlapping defense of the three monks, a weak point which none of them were guarding. Finally! Matheius seized the chance and swung his sword in a wide, downwards arcing slash which encompassed the area from Kuci’s neck to Kumu’s lower torso.

    With a cry of alarm, all three monks were forced to hurried step back from that strike, before renewing the offense. Despite the pain from his aching, bruised body, Matheius smiled. He had found an opening. After another few exchanges, Matheius again found a weak point, and again attacked it, once more forcing all three monks back. Where at first he wasn’t able to launch a single attack, now he was able to launch one for every four or five his opponents’ made.

    As his opponents’ attack patterns became steadily more disrupted, Matheius found steadily more openings as well. Soon, he was able to return two attacks for every five attacks the trio made, then three, and then four. As time passed, his movements grew only faster, and his attacks even more accurate, whereas the speed of the elder monks began to decrease as their age began to show. Finally, after half an hour of battle had transpired, he was able to match the three monks strike for strike, blow for blow.

    Inwardly, the three elders groaned. Their greatest concern had borne fruit. The battle had gone on for too long, and the weaknesses of their battle array, normally covered by the wondrous ‘Thousand Hands of Aralon’ of the deceased Kuhai, had been exposed. Without Kuhai, their formation was no longer flawless, and now, it seemed, the tide of battle was going to turn against them.

    Kuci and Kusheng exchanged glances and nodded at each other, united by a singularity of mind and purpose forged by decades of training and meditating together. At the next piercing thrust from Matheius, instead of dodging, Kuci reached out and allowed the tip of the blade to impale his palm, then clamped his five fingers around it, forming a fist. At the same time, Kusheng, utilizing his ‘Grand Vajra Finger’, trapped the middle of the blade between his index finger and forefinger and exerted all his might to hold onto it.

    Ajatha the Drinker sawed through the flesh of their hands and grated on their bones. Blood flowed from the hands of the two monks, but for the moment, they were able to hold fast to his sword. “Abbot! Now!” Kuci cried, and at that moment, Matheius felt an enormous power approaching at him from behind. He turned his head and saw Kumu flying towards him, palm extended, carrying a force capable of splitting stone and shattering steel.

    Instinctively, Matheius knew that if he allowed himself to be hit by this blow, he would die immediately. He pulled harder at his sword, and more blood poured from Kuci and Kusheng as the sword cut even deeper into their hands. Slowly, reluctantly, Ajatha slid a half-inch out of their grasp. He wouldn’t have it in time.

    Kumu lamented as his palm approached his erstwhile guest. All members of the myriad monastic orders of the world, martial or not, had strong injunctions against killing; this was why it was normally forbidden for them to wield weapons. Even in a life and death situation, Kumu would have tried for a crippling or disabling strike, but this opponent was too skilled and too dangerous to the monastery as a whole. He saw that Kuci and Kusheng had managed to trap his enemy’s sword, and though it caused him pain, Kumu had every intention of ending this enemy’s life with this blow.

    But just at this critical moment, as Kumu’s strike was about to land on Matheius’ body, Matheius drew a circle with his right hand then shot out with a palm as well, towards Kumu. With a loud banging sound, the two palm strikes collided, and both their bodies swayed from the impact.

    The force from the strike jolted Matheius’ sword from the bloody hands of the other two elder monks, and Kumu himself staggered back two steps before steadying himself. Shock was clearly painted on his face and the faces of Kuci and Kusheng as they stared at Matheius, who only flicked blood away from his sword as he looked back at Kumu.

    Kumu shook his head. He had to have been mistaken. Taking a deep breath, he once more generated the power of his ‘Yaksha Palms’, then shot an attack directly at Matheius’ body. Matheius breathed deeply as well, then lifted his right hand towards the heavens, before bringing it down and sending a counter-palm towards Kumu.

    Once again, the two colossal forces generated by the two palm strikes met; once again, the bodies of the two men swayed, and each stumbled two steps back. Kumu felt as though his entire body had been shaken from that clash, and nearly spat up a mouthful of blood. He had to take several deep breaths before he could steady himself, and when he did, he glared directly at Matheius.

    “Everyone, stop!” Kumu shouted. His voice was powerful and strong, and his call cut through the din of battle between Frost and the dozens of remaining disciples of the monastery. Almost immediately, all the fighting came to a halt, as the monks lowered their weapons at the command of their abbot.

    The bodies of ten or eleven monks of various ranks lay on the floor in pools of blood, cut down by Frost’s sword. A light layer of soft rime covered the bodies of several of the dead. Blood matted Frost’s body, but he himself seemed to be unscathed. Taking advantage of the lull in battle, Frost somersaulted through the air to land next to Matheius, black sword gleaming wetly with blood.

    “’Obeisance Before the Holy One’ and ’Descending From Mount Sumeru!’” Kumu thundered, naming the forms which Matheius had just used to block his blow. “How did you steal that technique, the ‘Boundless Sumeru Palm’ from my monastery? Answer me, now!”

    The Eighteen Consummate Techniques of the Willow Forest monastery had been guarded by the Willow Forest monks since its inception. To be taught anything of the Eighteen was a tremendously rare honor. Throughout the centuries, those outsiders who had been learned even so much as a single form of one of the techniques could be counted on a single hand, and yet this Matheius had displayed two in rapid succession.

    The level of skill that had been displayed, Abbot Kumu thought to himself, was truly no less inferior to his own level of cultivation in the ‘Yaksha Palms’. Not only had this person been training in the ‘Boundless Sumeru Palm’¸ but the training had gone on for some time. Who knows how many others might have learned it as well?

    As he thought of this, his face was suffused with red, as a mixture of anger and shame filled him. Thoughts of restraint and of prohibitions completely disappeared. A determination to end the life of this thief no matter what the cost filled him, and as he exchanged glances with the other two elder monks, Kuci and Kusheng, he saw that the same terrible look on their faces.

    He nodded at them, and the two nodded back. From now on, their every move would be to attack; defense of their own bodies or lives would be of no more concern to them. Only the obliteration of their opponent was. Kumu raised his hand, and all of the monks who had been previously fighting Frost reformed the Grand Arhat Formation around Matheius and Frost.

    “I did not steal anything from your great monastery, Abbot. What I have learned, I was taught freely by your order.” Matheius quickly replied, sensing the dangerously changed situation. Kumu scoffed. “A lie. The last person to practice that set of palm techniques was my grandmaster Xuankong, Mysterious Void. He died over seventy years ago. Even if he hadn’t, he would never have broken our precepts and taught you!”

    “I’ve never met your respected grandmaster. Nevertheless,” Matheius answered, “I was trained in the ‘Boundless Sumeru Palm’ by one of your order.” Kumu shook his head. “By who?” His voice carried a faint hint of ridicule.

    Matheius hesitated a moment. The air was tense and quiet. Then, he broke the silence and recited a few lines softly. “’Where I wish to go, I go. What I wish to do, I do. I am unbound, unfettered, unrestrained. I do as I please, I act as I will. No prohibitions do I accept; no vows do I adhere to; no commands do I obey. Save for the Way, and the Way alone.’’”

    Frost rolled his eyes. “Matheius,” he whispered sardonically, “This might not be the best time to spout poetry, and bad poetry at that.” But despite Frost’s quip, the reaction of the monks was different. All of them, from the abbot to the lowest ranked monk, stared at Matheius with a strange look in their eyes. Evidently, they had all recognized the quotation.

    The abbot was the first to speak. “The grandmaster who wrote that poem,” Kumu said slowly, “Not only died centuries ago, but left behind no disciples, having accepted none in his lifetime. This fact is well known. Surely, benefactor, you are not claiming that he taught you?” Having collected himself somewhat, Kumu was no longer as loud and angry as he had been only moments ago, and his speech became outwardly courteous once more.

    Matheius nodded once. “You are correct, Master Kumu. The ‘Monk Without Precepts’ never took on any students or disciples in his entire life. That is indeed well known. But you are forgetting something else that is perhaps a little less well known.” Kumu raised his eyebrows, a politely disbelieving smile on his face. “Please feel free to enlighten me.”

    Matheius’ lips curved slightly. “Have you forgotten?” He asked, softly. “Although the ‘Monk Without Precepts’ took on no disciples, in his later years, he became sworn blood-brothers with a young wolf on Graystone Peak, inside the Serpent-Jewel cave.”

    The smile on Kumu’s face froze. Behind Matheius, the other two elder monks stiffened as well. Silence fell upon the monastery. Only the dripping of blood from Matheius’ sword could be heard. Frost and the younger monks looked questioningly at the elder monks and Matheius, but those four seemed to be in their own little world.

    Kumu’s stunned gaze was locked onto Matheius’. The abbot barely seemed to breathe. Several full minutes passed like this. Finally, just as the abbot opened his mouth, Matheius raised his right hand to forestall him. With barely a hint of effort, Matheius plunged his sword downwards, sinking it three inches deep into the hard stone ground of the courtyard floor. Hands open and weaponless, Matheius walked calmly towards Kumu, who did not move. Upon reaching the abbot, Matheius leaned in, and began whispering directly into Kumu’s left ear.

    At first, Kumu did not seem to respond. But gradually, as Matheius continued to whisper, he turned his head slightly, to stare at Matheius. Shock, anger, fear, and more seemed to flash across Kumu’s face as he listened, too rapidly for any others to decipher. But he said nothing and did nothing, simply continuing to stand there.

    After around two minutes had passed, Matheius ceased whispering. He nodded once towards the abbot, then walked back to his sword, pulling it up and out of the ground he had planted it in. Ignoring everyone else for the moment, Matheius began to clean the blood off of it. Seconds passed in silence, with the only audible sound being that of cloth on metal. After wiping the last of the blood off, Matheius resheathed the sword and turned to look back at Kumu. “Well?” He asked.

    Kumu’s jaw clenched. Kuhai was dead; Kumeng, perhaps gravely injured. The two remaining brothers were wounded as well. The old monk swept his gaze across the pavilion. Perfectly shaped gray stones were now splattered with crimson blood, spread across the entire area. It was as though a mad, divine artist had taken a brush, dipped it with red ink, and desecrated a beautiful painting with random splashes of sanguine.

    “If Brother Kuhai had been here with us three,” Kumu began heavily, but Matheius cut him off. “He was not. Your decision, please, Master Abbot.” His forefinger slowly dipped down towards his waist to touch the hilt of his sheathed blade. “I will not ask a third time.”

    ________________________

    “Brother Kumeng is recuperating well,” Kuci announced as he stepped into the study. “He’s always been physically strong, and his cultivation of the ‘True Samahdi Fire’ has helped him more than a little. He has already burned away the last remnants of that poisonous cold energy.” Kuci grimaced a little. “We were unable to save his eye, though. He swears that he will hunt down those three as soon as he can stand up.” Kusheng sighed as well. “Brother Kumeng has always been intemperate. I fear he will do exactly that.” The other two monks nodded.

    Kuci settled into a chair, facing the other two elder monks. Their three visitors had long since departed, taking the Sigil of Stillness with them and leaving behind a swath of blood. In addition to Kuhai, eight junior monks had died as well, facing the Frost-Which-Kills. Somehow, he had managed to break the Grand Arhat Formation. The elders held more than a little suspicion that the third member of the party, that woman, had helped him do it somehow, but they had no proof.

    This had been, Kuci realized, the most shameful defeat the Monastery had suffered since its inception. Even the ‘razing’ the monastery had suffered some fifty years ago did not compare. Then, the defeat had been feigned. Today, it was genuine.

    Kusheng heaved another sigh. “Do not burden yourself too much, Brother Abbot. This is in no way your fault.” Kuci looked up at Kumu upon hearing Kusheng’s words. A look of intense shame was on Abbot Kumu’s face. “Perhaps not, but this happened nonetheless under my stewardship. When I pass away and join our predecessors, I will have no face in front of them.”

    “Brother Kusheng is right. This truly is not your fault, Brother Abbot.” This time, it was Kuci who tried to reason with him. “Even our predecessors might not have been able to do better. Who would’ve thought that the Arctic Wolf would resurface now, after all these centuries? I cannot even imagine how he is still alive, much less aligned with Arzaiel’s servant, Shalenhan. By all rights, those two should be mortal enemies. And there was something strange about that woman as well.”

    “I am not so sure that they are truly aligned, myself,” Abbot Kumu said slowly. “I saw the look on the Wolf’s face when he found the Sigil in the middle of their belongings. He was honestly startled, and then looked straight at Frost-Which-Kills for a moment. He did not look happy at all.”

    “So you think that perhaps the Wolf was not the one to kill Kuhai?” Kusheng asked. “You think it was Frost-Which-Kills?” Before Kumu had a chance to reply, Kuci argued, “But Brother Kuhai personally named the Wolf as his killer.” Abbot Kumu’s jaw clenched. “I know. But considering who the master of Shalenhan is, some form of illusion is not out of the question.”

    Kuci looked unconvinced. “Out of we five brothers, Kuhai’s level of self-cultivation and perception was the highest. I doubt that he would have been fooled so easily by an illusion.” Kumu sighed, and nodded. “I know that. But I also know that though Frost-Which-Kills lived up to his name while fighting our disciples, the Wolf showed restraint in our fight with him.”

    Kumu steepled his fingers. “Think back to the fight, brothers. Brother Kusheng, when you struck at him with your ‘Grand Vajra Finger’ early on, you overextended. If he had immediately chopped downwards then, you might have lost your wrist. Brother Kuci, your execution of the third stance of your ‘Formless Ghost Fist’ was imperfect and you left your stomach open. Neither of us would have been able to cover for you, but he didn’t take the chance. Why not?”

    Kuci shook his head stubbornly. “I am still not convinced. Those flaws, Brother Kuhai would normally have covered for us, using his ‘Thousand Hands of Aralon’ technique. If he hadn’t been ambushed and assassinated, we wouldn’t have lost today, Wolf or no Wolf, Frost or no Frost. Which makes Kuhai’s murder all the more suspicious.”

    “No,” Kusheng suddenly said. “I believe that our Brother Abbot is right. Thinking back, it does seem as though the Wolf was holding back when fighting us. Also, if he truly is the Wolf, then he ever has been a friend of Willow Forest monastery. The ‘Monk Without Precepts’, who by all accounts was perhaps one of the most discerning and enlightened, if unorthodox, members of our order, found the Wolf a good enough man to become blood-brothers with him all those centuries ago. I have faith in his judgment.”

    “Perhaps,” Kuci acceded grudgingly. “But that still doesn’t explain why he is traveling with Shalenhan. The Wolf defected from Kuan’s service, but by all accounts, he defected from Nithra as well, shortly before his death. Why would he return to working on Nithra’s side?” Kumu nodded. “Yes. That, along with the question of who murdered brother Kuhai, puzzles me most. But the Wolf disappeared centuries ago; Shalenhan appeared long after his time. Perhaps the Wolf simply isn’t aware of the nature of his companion.”

    “Or perhaps,” Kusheng said slowly, “He is fully aware of his companion’s nature and alignment. I have no doubt that Shalenhan is trying to use him towards his own goals, but perhaps the Wolf is using Frost-Which-Kills as well.”

    All three old men fell silent. Only the crackle of the fireplace could be heard for some time. After a while, Kuci said sadly, “Either way, it is time to move. I will miss this place.” Now that they had been discovered by their enemies, they would have to leave. They could no longer rely on the anonymity of the Gray Twilight and its dangers to protect them. For the second time in a century, the monastery would have to be moved and rebuilt.

    “Mere stone and wood,” Kumu said somberly. “It is unwise to form attachments, brother Kuci. Impermanence is the way of the world; desire for permanence can only lead to suffering.” Kuci nodded. “You are correct, of course, brother Abbot.” A pause. Then, “Do you think those three will survive the coming night?” Kumu shrugged. “I do not see how, as even we only developed barrier wards recently. There is no one who could have taught him that. But…” Kumu paused. “I would not bet against the Arctic Wolf. Especially not when he is accompanied by the Killing Frost.”

    ________________________

    It had taken only an hour for the monks to depart. They had opted to travel light, packing only a few necessary supplies and tools. Everything else was left behind. The false-sun was dipping towards the horizon now, casting the land in an even deeper shade of gray. The majestic monastery was empty, now, save for the two who now stood in the courtyard. One was a slim man of average height, mantled by a flowing black cloak and wearing a sword by his side. The other was a small boy who looked average in all respects, save for his large, saucer-like eyes.

    “I still don’t understand why you favor him,” the man said abruptly. “Today is the perfect example. If it weren’t for me, those three would have left this place empty-handed because of his sentimentality. Worse, the plan might have been jeopardized. Arzaiel would have found that Sigil, sooner or later, now that the monastery has been exposed to Frost.” The young boy did not reply. He only smiled a small, secretive smile.

    “I saved the damn day. And you know as well as I do that I am the better choice in every aspect,” the man continued. “I am faster. Stronger. More skillful. More decisive.” The boy nodded in agreement. “Then why do you favor him above me!?” The man’s fists clenched.

    “Please, my friend. Calm down,” the boy said, that omnipresent smile on his face. “I have my reasons. You don’t need to know them for the moment.” The man’s eyes narrowed. With an oath, he turned and punched one of the heavy stone pillars in the pavilion. It cracked under the force of the blow.

    “I still don’t understand!” He muttered, and the boy only laughed. “You don’t have to. What you do have to do is be more careful. We can’t have any more issues like earlier. That could ruin everything. Understood?” A blazing, angry look was in the man’s blue eyes as he glared at the boy. The boy only smiled back at him, meeting the furious look with an unreadable expression in his glassy round orbs. Slowly, the anger drained away from the man, and he was the one to break the gaze.

    “Understood.”

    A cold wind suddenly arose. It swept through the Willow Forest monastery, causing a swirl of leaves to descend from the trees and dance across the courtyard, before falling downwards to cover the sticky pools of blood which had not been wiped away. By the time the wind died down, the two were gone.
    Last edited by Ren Wo Xing; 01-13-08 at 07:29 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.

  16. #36
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    Chapter 15: The Shattered Pack

    “Bad dog! Stop that right now!” Aurora pleaded. “I just fixed you! Lie back down again!” And for added emphasis, she pointed her paintbrush directly at the creature in front of her in a commanding manner. It was a strange sight, as the large, wolf-like creature was many times larger than her, and decidedly more dangerous. The tiny, toy-like brush which she was using as a pointer made the scene all the more ludicrous.

    Aurora was a young girl, no more than twelve years of age, and small of frame and stature. Her head was wreathed in a mess of eternally-mussed strawberry blonde hair, and her face was dimpled, naturally inclined towards a charming smile. Right now, though, a worried pout was on her lips as she surveyed her companion.

    “For the last time, girl,” the great wyulf growled as he struggled to his paws, “My name is Graymaw. And I am no damned dog.” His gravelly voice carried only a little heat. The girl had indeed healed him again, after all. His own blood still matted his silver-gray fur even though the wounds from which it had sprung had been closed.

    “But I just fixed you!” Aurora wailed. “You aren’t ready to be moving around yet. Sit! Be a good dog!” A look of genuine distress was on the face of the little girl, and she brushed away a few strands of dirty, strawberry blonde hair with her free hand as her emerald eyes glared upwards at Graymaw.

    “We don’t have the choice, girl,” Graymaw responded, although his body felt as though it wanted to agree with her. “We need to keep moving. There isn’t much time now. We only have a few days left, before we miss the window to get out of here.”

    “But we’re safe here!” Aurora argued, even as the wyulf bent his neck down for her to ride on his back. “You said so yourself, remember?” And she gestured at the small grove of trees which surrounded them. Unlike the slowly rising sun and sky above, they possessed a rich, vibrant color which everything else lacked.

    “Safe, like a cur trapped in a cage,” the wyulf growled, nudging at her with his nose. “If it doesn’t get out, it will die of starvation, if nothing else.” And at that exact moment, Aurora’s tummy growled. “I guess,” the little girl said reluctantly as she took hold of Graymaw’s neck. “But you still shouldn’t be moving,” she concluded with a frown, even as the wyulf swung her onto his back with a lifting of his neck.

    “I’m still alive, thanks to you,” Graymaw answered as he began to pad out of the little grove. “So long as I am alive, I can move. And we have to keep moving whenever it is day.” His entire form ached as he increased his speed to a slow trot, but he forced himself to ignore it.

    Astride his massive back, Aurora lay down on her stomach, little hands fastened to the fur of his neck. She mumbled, “Are you hungry, doggy? I can draw us something to eat.” The wyulf let out a half-resigned, half-exasperated growl. “I’m fine. We don’t have the time. Go to sleep.”

    The girl had spent the entire night taking care of the wounds which he had suffered before they had made it into the safety of the grove. She was exhausted, and unlike Graymaw, not used to this sort of exhaustion.

    “Well, alright, then,” she said sleepily. “If you’re sure.” “I am certain,” Graymaw growled, feral eyes scanning the hilly, grassy terrain all about them as they exited the grove. As the wind blew in their direction, he raised his head and sniffed. “Besides. I smell meat in the distance,” he said in a low tone. But Aurora, already fast asleep, did not hear him.
    ___________________________________

    Frost was whistling. The tune was called “The Barmaid of Bel-Dar,” a rather catchy melody that had recently become popular in certain places of ill-repute. It wasn’t so much that Frost particularly liked the song. It just so happened that the silence between the group of three had been thick and heavy for hours, now, to the point that Frost felt as though something was needed to break it. For better or for worse, “The Barmaid of Bel-Dar” was the first which came to his mind.

    For several minutes, as the three slowly threaded their way through the mountainous terrain, Frost’s whistling echoed throughout the mountain walls. It was piercingly high, and somewhat off-key, but had a jolly air to it that seemed to defy the inherent gloominess of the drab, colorless surroundings. And after the whistling came to an end, Frost actually began to sing.

    “Oh, the fair lady lass of Bel-dar,
    Was both sturdy and most stout,
    Just watch those big eyes flutter,
    Now watch those wide lips pout...”


    As he continued to sing, Matheius turned to glare at Frost, who didn’t seem to notice. Matheius’ lips tightened. “Now is as good a time as any,” he muttered, then made a beckoning motion towards Lyria. “Walk with me,” Matheius said as he increased his pace to put a little distance himself and Frost.

    Obediently, Lyria followed him until they were roughly fifteen feet ahead of Frost. Frost, appearing to be thoroughly enamored with the sound of his own voice, paid them no heed. As soon as they were at what Matheius judged to be a safe distance, he whispered to Lyria in a harsh voice, “Answer me truthfully. Did you use an illusion to borrow my appearance to kill that monk?”

    Lyria’s reply was succinct and cold. “No.” A flicker of surprise crossed Matheius’ face. “No?” He repeated. “No.” Matheius exhaled. “Then do you know who did?” Matheius’ gaze danced to Frost as he asked this question, his head turning backwards slightly for a brief moment. Again, however, Lyria’s answer was simply a cool “No.”

    They walked for a few moments in silence broken only by intermittent snatches of singing which could be heard from Frost. Distantly, Matheius noted that Frost’s voice was actually quite good. If only his choice of music was better. Finally, Matheius said, “I believe you.” “Oh?” Lyria said, raising an eyebrow with a look of supreme disdain on her face. “I’m so very happy that you have faith in me.

    Matheius sent a side-glare at Lyria. “Centuries have passed, but you are as much of a ***** as you ever were,” he snapped. Lyria didn’t even bother to respond to that one, although that look of disdain remained on her face. After a moment, Matheius began to apologize. “Sorry,” he said, but Lyria interrupted him. “Save it.”

    Matheius growled. “I’m trying to be polite here,” he said, and this time, it was Lyria who glared at him. “Don’t bother. There’s nothing that you can say or do that will change what happened.” “Which is what I am trying to apologize for,” Matheius began, only to be cut off again.

    “Apologize?” Frozen fire radiated from Lyria’s eyes, and her voice was sharp and hard. “You want to apologize? For what? Watching me be killed, or for leaving me there as a member of the undead for centuries?” “I wasn’t the one who killed you,” Matheius replied quickly, defensively. Even to him, his protestations sounded rather weak, and judging from Lyria’s sharp, derisive laugh, she thought so as well.

    “No, you weren’t,” Lyria said coldly. “You also didn’t do a thing to help me or to save me either. Arzon sacrificed me slowly, over the course of an hour. You remember that, don’t you?” Unwillingly, Matheius nodded. “I begged you when he spiked my wrists. I begged you when he sacrificed my entrails, when he gutted me like a rotten fish. I begged you with my eyes, when he took my tongue, and I begged you in my heart, you cold, heartless bastard, when he took my eyes as well. Do you remember that?”

    Matheius began to turn his head away from her, when she snapped, “Don’t you turn away from me, Matheius. Not like you did then.” Matheius looked back at her, meeting her gaze stolidly. “I’m sorry,” he said. What else could he say?

    “You’re sorry.” Lyria let out a cruel-sounding laugh. “You didn’t seem sorry then. After that hour was over, what happened? Do you remember? I’ll remind you. My dear, beloved master left me my ears, and I heard every single word spoken. Do you remember those words, Matheius? What he said, and what you did?”

    Matheius nodded, face absolutely expressionless. “I do. Arzon said to me, “Stay here until-

    -until she dies, then follow me inside.” Arzon nodded towards Matheius. “Make sure she diebs a natural death. Don’t hasten it. That would offend the person we have come to see, which is something to be avoided. When she dies, the doorway should re-open for a short time. Follow me then.”

    And with a final, parting nod, Arzon stepped inside the opening which had been created by the great statue of Ozymandias, into the Tower of Babilu. Immediately after stepping inside, he could no longer be seen. The opening remained for a few moments longer, and then, as mysteriously as it had appeared, it vanished.

    Matheius’ attention was drawn away from the opening to Lyria as she moaned. Almost as quickly as he had glanced at her, though, he turned away. As hardened as he was to sights of death and slaughter, even he had to tremble.
    No person should die like this, he thought to himself.

    Lyria had been pinned by Arzon to the side of the Tower, then cut open as though she were some exotic specimen, to be pinned to a board and then dissected. Her hands, raised up above her, were tied together with some type of binding spell, and a spike of conjured steel had been driven through both her wrists. Her feet, hanging straight below her, had undergone a similar treatment, and in this way, she had been pinned to the tower.

    Her stomach seemed normal, but in reality, it had been mutilated. Arzon had cut it open with a strange knife and cut out her intestines, sacrificing them, still warm, in some sort of bizarre ceremony before resealing the wound with magic. Matheius shuddered again at the all-too-recent memory.

    A thin trail of blood oozed out from her now-emptied eye sockets, as well as her lips. Arzon had taken her eyes and her tongue as well, in that same sacrificial ceremony. Her eyelids were drawn over her empty sockets, making it appear as though she had merely closed her eyes. Thus, in many ways her face still appeared beautiful, if twisted in agony and with blood flowing from those three orifices. That only enhanced the horror of it all.

    Lyria continued to moan as she writhed weakly in pain, as Matheius strode back and forth across the ground in front of her. It was a terrible, grating sound, and after a long time, Matheius finally could take it no longer. “Shut up!” He shouted at her. “Just...shut up and die, already!”

    A sudden quiet fell across the area. Surprised, Matheius turned again to look at Lyria. Her moans actually had indeed come to a stop, although her body continued to writhe. The blood slowly leaking from her closed eyelids seemed to glisten more than earlier, Matheius noticed, and he forced himself to take a closer look.

    Tears had mixed with the blood, wetting her face further. She was silent, now, and in stillness her tears, intermingled with her blood, slowly flowed down her face. She was no longer making a sound, and her lips were closed. That mixture of tears and blood dripped past those closed lips until they reached her chin, where they pooled until the weight of gravity slowly pulled them down to drop down onto the ground, which seemed to drink them in.

    I’m sorry, Matheius said in his mind. I’m so very sorry.

    It took her a long time to die. It was a long, slow death, but even until the very end, she was silent. Finally, death came, and her body froze in the last agonized contortion it made before she expired. And as she did, that opening in the side of the Tower appeared again, as Arzon had promised.

    Matheius quickly stepped inside, and as he did so, the opening began to close, as it had earlier. His left hand clenched into a fist, as he stared at his feet. She had been annoying, and yes, more than once, he had imagined killing her. But nobody deserved that. Nobody. Quietly, Matheius sighed, then repeated, “I’m-


    “-sorry.” What else could he say? Words were inadequate. There was nothing he could think of that he could possibly do to even begin rectifying his inaction. “But I still wasn’t the one who did that to you. Your anger should be directed towards the one who killed you. Not me.”

    “Oh, believe me, Matheius,” Lyria said in a soft voice. “Much of it is. And I will have my vengeance, on him or his heirs.” She actually smiled at Matheius. She appeared as beautiful as ever, but there was a cold, predatory look in her eyes that turned that beauty into a thing of terror. And for a brief moment, Matheius imagined that he could see those socket-less orbs of the sand banshee, of Lyria before she died. He only barely kept himself from shuddering.

    After a moment, he said again, “So you did not kill Kuhai.” It was a rather lame question, considering she had already answered it, but Matheius wanted to change the topic. “I already answered that,” she said. “No. And I’m not lying to you. I can’t lie to you, as you’ve already guessed.” In addition to the hatred in her eyes, a look of frustration was on her face as well now.

    “I must have done something quite terrible to you in a previous life, for the powers that be to play this sort of game with me,” Lyria said in a dangerously tranquil voice. “After what you did to me, they send me back under a geas to serve and obey you.” She shook her head fractionally, causing her crimson folds of hair to ripple in the slight breeze.

    So. It was as he thought. Lyria was the ‘gift’ of a companion which Nyx had promised him. And, it seemed, compelled to serve and obey him. What did Lyria know about the Pantheon of Darkness, and what relationship did she have with them, or with that strange boy which kept showing up? Why did they choose to send her, out of all people? What did they want, and what did they intend by sending her? Multiple thoughts and questions whirred about in Matheius’ mind, going round and round, but never coming to a satisfying conclusion.

    Just as Matheius was about to ask Lyria another question, an arm snaked around his shoulders. Matheius glanced to the right. Frost. He was still singing, and his other arm was around Lyria’s shoulders.

    “Her thighs could break a thousand men,
    Her arms could sink a fleet!
    Her laughter can shatter glass and steel,
    Though her arse could use less meat!


    “Frost,” Matheius said loudly. “Frost, that’s enough. Stop it.” Frost did indeed stop singing. A hurt look on his face, Frost said, “I was just trying to brighten up this bloody gloomy atmosphere you have here. This damned place is drab and dreary enough by itself,” he added.

    “I thought you were a swordsman. Not an entertainer or a minstrel,” Matheius snapped, and Frost sniffed. “Just because I am a swordsman, Matheius, doesn’t mean I must act as though I was as bloody miserable as you. Now where the hell are we going, anyhow? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I’d rather get out of this damned place.”

    “I have no intention of staying here a moment longer than I have to,” was Matheius’ clipped reply. “Good,” Frost said, patting Matheius on his side, arm still around Matheius’ shoulder. “I assume we aren’t just wandering randomly, then? You do know where you are going, yes?” They had made their way out of the mountains some time ago, and the terrain had turned into rolling hills of thick, tall grass which made for rather difficult walking.

    “Yes,” Matheius said. “I know exactly where we are going.” The thumb of his left hand brushed across the hilt of his sword as he spoke. “It should take us no more than a few days and nights of travel to get there.” “Grand. Mind telling me where it is that we are headed?” Frost asked. “Towards our destination,” was Matheius’ response.

    Frost groaned. “Always so secretive,” he complained. “You know, you can be pretty annoying.” Matheius shrugged Frost’s arm off. “Whatever.” Without waiting for a response, he quickened his footsteps and stalked off ahead.

    Frost sighed melodramatically. “I’d be insulted, if I actually cared.” He turned to smile at Lyria, arm still across her shoulders. “So. What secrets did you two talk about? Anything interesting?” “Personal business,” Lyria said in a clipped voice of her own, before also shrugging his arm off and marching ahead. Once more, Frost was left behind, a faux-disconsolate expression on his face. “Anti-social pair of bastards,” he grumbled. “I was better off with Owl.” Not that he really believed that for a second, of course.

    With another annoyed sniff, Frost glanced upwards. That pathetic, warmthless caricature of a sun had already made its way across half of the sky. A few more hours of travel, and they would have to break for the night. A flicker of real concern flashed across Frost’s face. Hopefully, that mist, and the things he had seen within it, would not extend this far past the mountains. Things could get rather...unpleasant...if it did.
    ___________________________

    Suddenly, Graymaw came to a complete stop, jostling Aurora awake. “What is it, doggy?” Aurora mumbled sleepily, rubbing at her eyes. “Are we there yet?” “No,” Graymaw growled. His yellow eyes were narrowed and alert, and his nose was raised in the air. “The wind just shifted,” the wyulf growled.

    “So what?” Aurora asked, yawning. “What’s wrong with the wind?” Graymaw shook his great head. “Not the wind. The smells it brings. There are people coming.” Aurora blinked, then smiled. “That’s good! We can have some new friends with us!” Once again, Graymaw shook his head.

    “Not good. There’s three of them. Two male, one female.” Again, Graymaw sniffed the air. A worried look entered his yellow eyes. “They smell dangerous, and they are headed in our direction.”

    “Really?” Aurora asked, wide-eyed. “They won’t hurt us, will they?” “I don’t know,” Graymaw growled. “But we can’t evade them. We don’t have the time, and I am not strong enough to run with you for long distances, yet.” “Then what are we going to do?” Aurora asked.

    Graymaw scanned the area around him. The grass in the area was tall and thick, rising over a meter in the air. Graymaw himself, even on all fours, was taller than that, but if he crouched down, he could possibly be hidden. “Ambush them,” Graymaw replied grimly. I could use the meat as well, he thought to himself, but did not say aloud. No need to frighten the girl.

    “Are you going to hurt them?” Aurora asked fearfully. “You aren’t, are you? We don’t know anything about them. Maybe they are friends!” Graymaw raised his nostrils upwards again, taking in and analyzing the scent brought in by the wind. “Too dangerous. The woman smells unnatural, and the men smell like killers.”

    He shook his head. “Get off my back and hide behind me,” Graymaw growled as he crouched down low. “And whatever happens, don’t make a sound, or show yourself. Understand?” Obediently, Aurora slid off Graymaw’s back. She bit her lip, then impulsively leaned forward and hugged him. “Okay. Be careful, though!”

    Graymaw allowed the hug for a moment, before shrugging her aside. “I will,” he promised. “Now stay down and behind me. Remember. Whatever happens, don’t move or speak.” And he himself crouched down low in the thick, tall grass, his massive bulk almost magically disappearing within it.

    Long minutes passed, and the scent of the three only grew stronger and stronger. Patiently, silently, Graymaw continued to lie there, waiting for them to arrive. Presently, he could hear voices, at first distantly, but gradually with growing clarity as they approached.

    “I’m telling you, Matheius,” an indistinct male voice said, some distance away, “You have a far too pessimistic and gloomy outlook on life, to say nothing of your disposition. Look at me! You probably can’t tell at first glance, but I have my own worries too. Do I let it drag me or the group down? No!”

    The male voice grew louder and louder as the three trampled their way through the grass towards Graymaw’s hiding spot. “You just need to be able to laugh at all times. Bad things happening to you? Laugh. You doing bad things to other people? Laugh even harder!”

    Mentally, Graymaw selected the talking one for his first target. Judging from his non-stop chatter, that one was probably the least on-guard of the three, which would make him the easiest prey. With luck, he could take him out immediately, then catch one of the other two off guard as well. And then, it would only be one against one.

    “...But the key is to keep a sunny nature. That could go for you as well, Lyria!” Graymaw tensed, preparing to pounce. They were getting closer, almost directly on top of him. Closer. Closer. “Imagine how much less excruciatingly boring this would be if we all engaged in, say, a sing-along-song!”

    NOW! With an earth-shaking howl, Graymaw shot out of his hiding spot, four-hundred pounds of sheer muscle propelling him directly towards the talkative member of the trio. His great bulk cast a shadow beneath him as he descended, large enough to cover all three of his surprised targets and blotting out the puny light from that feeble sun.

    The air in front of the two men blurred with nearly identical black flashes. Swords. Packfather damn them, those two are fast! Graymaw cursed to himself as he frantically twisted his body in mid-air to try and avoid being impaled on those two blades. Due to his own fast reflexes, he managed to block one of the blades with his claws, although it cut deeply into them. The other blade, he did not manage to block, but managed to dodge for the most part, so that it only inflicted a thin, slashing wound on his thick coat.

    Graymaw landed on his feet behind the three, turned, and was ready to try again, when the woman opened her mouth. She screamed, and a burst of sonic power swept towards Graymaw. Banshee! He managed to think to himself, before the sonic shout struck him head on. It caught him off-guard and stunned him, sending him flying off his paws and many feet backwards.

    He managed to once more land on his feet, but his brain was momentarily dazed. As he raised his head up, it seemed to him as though the man he aimed for was descending through the air towards him, black blade extended and preparing to strike in a reverse of their earlier positions. Graymaw tried to dodge, but his dazed mind found itself unable to properly control his body. It was sluggish and unresponsive. In the form of that descending white figure, Graymaw saw his death coming, and the wyulf could only close his eyes and wait for it.

    Only heartbeats before that sword would have severed his head, Graymaw heard two simultaneous shouts. The first voice was unfamiliar but masculine. “Stop, Frost! There’s a girl!” Girl? And at the same time, Graymaw heard Aurora’s familiar voice from right in front of him. “Stop it! Leave him alone!”

    Graymaw opened his eyes, and saw her diminutive figure in front of him, standing with arms spread wide protectively. “Get back,” he wanted to shout at her, but was still too dazed to speak properly. The man in white landed a foot away from her, his strike averted and shunted to the side. “What in the world are you doing, little girl?” The man scolded her. “Get out of the way!”

    Stubbornly, Aurora shook her head. “No! Leave him alone! He’s my doggy, and I won’t let you hurt him!” The man in white raised an eyebrow. “Your ‘dog’, eh? Well, your ‘dog’ just attacked us. Now step aside and let me finish it!” He raised his sword.

    “Frost, wait!” The other two had arrived now as well. “What is it now, Matheius?” The man in white – Frost? – asked impatiently. “It’s a damned wolf. Let’s kill it and move on.” The man whom Frost addressed shook his head. “It’s not a wolf, Frost. Have you ever seen one that big?” Frost glanced at the still-stunned Graymaw. “Huh. I suppose not. Does it matter?”

    By now, Graymaw had recovered slightly. “What are you doing?” He growled at Aurora. “Run, girl. Get away from here, now!” Aurora turned to look at him. Her lower lip was trembling, and she seemed to be on the verge of tears, but still she shook her head. “I’m not leaving you behind!” “RUN!” He snarled at her, yellow eyes bulging and baring his many large, sharp teeth in a snarl. It was a terrifying sight, especially for a little girl, and with a squeak, she ran...but only a few steps, so that she was behind him, where she wouldn’t have to see that frightening face. She hugged him from behind.

    “Did that wolf just talk?” The man in white asked, incredulously. The other man sighed. “That’s not a wolf, Frost. That’s a wyulf.” “Yeah?” The man named Frost asked, seemingly unimpressed. “What’s the difference?” A wry smile was on the face of the man named Matheius. “Amongst other things, wyulfs are bigger, and can talk.”

    “Funny, Matheius,” the man named Frost said dourly. “Real funny. Now who’s the comedian.” “Just step aside, Frost,” the man named Matheius said. “Let me talk to him.” The man named Frost glanced at Graymaw, who was just now rising to his full height. “Suit yourself,” the man named Frost said, stepping away from Graymaw while continuing to hold onto his sword. “Just don’t expect me to jump in after you if he swallows you.”

    Graymaw growled warningly as the man named Matheius approached him. He smelled of countless past treacheries and murders. The man had sheathed his sword, but Graymaw still didn’t trust him. The distance between the two narrowed. Ten feet. Nine feet. Eight. Just a few more steps closer, and Graymaw would attack. But exactly at the threshold where Graymaw was ready to leap, the man stopped, as though he had read Graymaw’s mind.

    The man knelt to one knee, so that his face was on Graymaw’s level as he stared at Graymaw. Graymaw eyed the man suspiciously back. What was he trying to do? What trick was he trying to pull? Whatever it was, Graymaw decided, he would not let it succeed.

    Greetings, wyulf. What is your name? Where is your pack? Suddenly, another packmind touched his own. Startled, Graymaw lifted his head up high, swiveling back and forth. The Sending from the packmind was powerful and must have come from close by. Who are you? Where are you? Graymaw Sent back. Come quickly, Packbrother, wherever you are. I need help! I have been trapped by three Two-Legs. I have a cub with me and cannot run.

    A smile flickered across the face of the kneeling man in front of him. I am the Two-Legs in front of you, the packmind Sent. Have no fear, but answer my questions. Graymaw’s yellow eyes widened. What? That isn’t...you can’t be...this is some kind of a trick! He accused, only to see the man in front of him shake his head. No trick, great wyulf. But please. Answer my question.

    Answer mine first! Graymaw demanded. He was crouched low again, out of fear and surprise. How could this be possible? Who are you, Two-Legs? How is it that you can speak in the manner of one of the People? Again, the man in front of him smiled. I can, because I am one of the People. Now, what is your name, and where is your pack? Why is this girl with you?

    The last Sending contained the signature sensation of a command from an alpha, a packlord, and Graymaw obeyed out of habit. My name is Graymaw. My pack...Graymaw growled. It was a sound of sadness, of despair and anger. All the others are dead. The mist took them. Only I survived, and then, just barely. The girl found and saved me as I lay dying. We have traveled together for days since.

    The faint smile immediately disappeared from the human’s face. All of them? Your entire pack? A strong sense of disbelief could be felt in his Sending, and Graymaw understood why. There were few things, indeed, which could pull down an entire pack of wyulfs. My entire pack. Then, Graymaw growled. No more questions from you. Answer mine, Two-Legs! Who are you? What is your name?

    The man was silent for a long moment. Then, slowly, he replied, I am known as Matheius amongst men. Amongst the People of the Hunt, I once had another name. Heartkin, Packlord and the Wolf of the North.

    What? Graymaw’s Sending carried an unmistakable sense of shock. That cannot be! You Two-Legs live shorter lives than the People, and Heartkin was of the time of my great grandsire.

    Nevertheless, the man Sent, I am he. I can explain later, and am willing to perform a Sharing with you as well. First, though, you need to explain to me exactly what happened to your pack. The Sending was as grim as the expression on the man’s face. Tell me everything.
    ____________________

    “You know something?” Frost said quietly to Lyria, who was standing by his side. Both of them were watching Matheius and the wyulf, who had been staring at each other silently for some time, now. “What?” Lyria asked. “I think he’s playing a blinking game with the wyulf,” Frost snickered. “So far, I think the wyulf is winning.” Lyria rolled her eyes and ignored him.

    “You have to admit,” Frost began, but for once, Matheius cut him off instead of vice versa. “Shut up, Frost,” Matheius ordered tersely, breaking eye contact with the wyulf at last. “Frost. Lyria.” He rose to his feet, a troubled expression on his face. “We need to talk. Now.”
    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. #37
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    Interlude Two

    Like clockwork, the sound could be heard at the rate of precisely once a second. Tap. Tap. Tap. The ring finger of Tuoh, Archmagus of the Savants and the patriarch of House Delmonda, rapped incessantly against the hard wood of the table at which he was seated. He had been waiting for a long time now, and his patience was beginning to wear thin.

    Tuoh was looking rather well for a person who had been recently deceased. Almost eighty years of age, he looked barely sixty. True, he wasn’t looking quite as well as before his untimely demise, but all things considered, the fact that he still looked considerably younger than his age said something.

    Ruefully, he touched the top of his bald head with his left hand, even as his right continued to tap away at the desk. He had spent so much time maintaining his hair, but it had all been for naught. Even before his death, it had long since fallen out, and it was surprisingly difficult to devise a proper, permanent hair-growth spell. Despite being incarnated in a young man’s body, it seemed as though the body knew his real age and had adapted accordingly.

    Inevitably, his left hand drifted from the top of his head to his forehead, touching the red jewel which had been planted there. Even in the darkness of the command tent, it gleamed like a malevolent third eye. And so, Tuoh mused to himself, House Delmonda is finally brought to heel. He had resisted for as long as he could in subtle ways, but he could resist no longer. Even now, he could feel the weight of Arzaiel’s will on his mind, lying dormant, but able to be used at a moment’s notice. The will of the Master, Tuoh sneered to himself.

    Things had not been so bad, long ago in the distant past. For a long time, House Delmonda, along with Houses Relnatha, Kaelnorn, and Rithraiel were strongly allied with House Drakel, when Mage-Lord Arzon of House Drakel led all five Houses. Back then, although Arzon’s authority was undisputed, the other four houses were at least nominally equals with Drakel. The fact that the cursed, murdering barbarian butchers serving Kuan had winnowed their ranks so badly and driven them into hiding had much to do with that.

    That was a time long since past. Arzon had died, shortly before the war against those same barbarians were concluded. His direct heirs, in a series of rather suspicious accidents, died as well, leaving his most talented apprentice, Arzaiel, in position to claim House Drakel for himself. And everything since then had gone downhill.

    It still amazed Tuoh, when he reviewed the histories, how his predecessors had not seen what Arzaiel was doing. Perhaps hindsight was always perfect, but even so, it seemed obvious to Tuoh how even from the very beginning, Arzaiel was consolidating power to raise House Drakel from being first amongst equals, to simply the first.

    Perhaps the leaders of the other four Houses were too overjoyed with their victory, which had seemed so unlikely for so long. Perhaps, in the flush of winning the war, they had overlooked the many clear signs. The centralization of power. The megalomania of the then-young Arzaiel, who until recently had been a mere apprentice, if skilled, as he proclaimed himself the Master, not only of his House, but of all of the Houses of Savant. The self-arrogation of the power to administrate and tax the conquered lands.

    Even then, Drakel was not beyond control. But the creation of the Ravens, those elite nightblades who were trained in both sword and sorcery, had sealed his dominance. Why had the leaders of the Houses not noticed as the most promising of the young pupils from the demolished schools of war suddenly went missing and unaccounted for? It wasn’t until the first demonstration of their power, when the Ravens had put down a huge rebellion in the lands of the Northmen by assassinating all ten of the rebel leaders in one night, that the Houses had woken to the sudden danger of being marginalized.

    But by then, it was too late. House Drakel was too strong for them to oppose directly, even united as they now were. And truth be told, they would have been too afraid to actually war against House Drakel, even if they thought they could have won. It had been so long since the Houses could raise their heads proudly, so long that they had been forced to lie hidden. They were not willing to risk a civil war which might cost them all they had accomplished.

    And so they could only sit back and watch as Drakel grew stronger and stronger, as the other Houses became relegated to being little more than footnotes. The finest pupils, those who were most attuned to magecraft, were taken by House Drakel, and Arzaiel created three Captains for his Ravens, strengthening their power still further. Damn those fools who let Arzaiel become so strong.

    But perhaps those old men of the past were not as foolish as they appeared, Tuoh thought to himself. Perhaps they were fully aware of what was happening. Perhaps it wasn’t that they didn’t see the danger, but that they were simply afraid to stand against it. And Tuoh thought he knew why.

    The Commander of the Ravens. Despite himself, Tuoh shivered. Where had Arzaiel found that man, and how had he bound him? No one knew, but the Commander, surely, was the foundation of Arzaiel’s success. And, as all of the Houses were forced to acknowledge, of the ultimate success of the Savants.

    After Mage-Lord Arzon’s death at the hands of that twice-traitorous Matheius, the entire war effort was thrown into confusion. They had made great advances, but, leaderless at a critical point in the war, all their gains were lost. The forces of Warduke Arakan, no novice to battle, pushed hard at that moment, and it seemed as though defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory.

    Then Arzaiel had appeared with his Commander. A massive, nameless figure sheathed from head to toe in obsidian armor, he had taken to the field at Arzaiel’s command, wielding his massive darksteel greatsword as though it were a rapier. He ripped through enemy lines like a gust of wind parting the clouds, leaving behind only broken weapons, armor, and bodies in his wake. His armor impenetrable and his sword unstoppable, he alone tore his way through the heart of the entire enemy army, and decapitated the Warduke with but a single blow.

    With Arakan’s death, the victory of the Savants had been assured. The only two who might have challenged the Commander, the legendary blademasters Matheius and Radavast, had both gone missing. Since that day, the Commander and Arzaiel became the de facto leaders of the war effort. They out-generalled and outfought the remaining enemy forces until the Savants reigned supreme throughout the land.

    And ever since then, the death knight had been Arzaiel’s champion and warlord. None dared oppose him after seeing what had happened to a minor mage by the name of Ealst. In one of the battles, Ealst had misfired a thunderbolt spell and hit the Commander. Astonishingly, it had simply bounced off his armor and returned straight to Ealst, killing the mage. Many times, Tuoh was told by his father, the mages of the Houses had tested the Commander in secret. As far as they could tell, he was completely invulnerable to all forms of magic.

    With a champion like that, who would dare stand against Arzaiel, as he claimed more and more power to himself? The leaders of the Houses must’ve just decided to wait it out. Sooner or later, Arzaiel would have to die, as with all mortals.

    Tuoh suddenly let out a bitter laugh. Look where that led us. Those leaders were dead, their descendants were shackled, and Arzaiel? Arzaiel still lived, and was known simply as the ‘Master’ by almost all throughout the lands. So much for the victory of the Savants, Tuoh thought to himself. It was his from the beginning, and his alone. And Tuoh let out a second bitter laugh.

    “Something funny?” A lazy voice by his side asked, disrupting his chain of thought. Tuoh glanced to his right, and an innocuous, lethargic gaze met his own. Owl. Arzaiel had sent him along for this mission. Owl was unique amongst all of Arzaiel’s servants, in that he was neither a fighter, nor knew magic. And yet this fat, middle-aged man was perhaps the most feared of them all. He was a genius amongst geniuses, and had become, in recent years, closer to Arzaiel than any others.

    “Life, Owl. Life.” Tuoh was in no mood for conversation. Owl simply shrugged and nodded, then leaned back in his own seat. Tuoh let out a sigh of impatience. “We’ve been waiting a long time, now, Owl. Are you sure that they will be coming?” Owl responded with another shrug. He pointed his finger to the other side of the tent, to Tuoh’s left. Ask him, Owl’s gaze seemed to say.

    “I’m getting tired of having to answer that, Arbiter,” a voice said. Each word echoed faintly in the air, producing a ghostly effect. “For the last time, so long as you are correct about this being the nearest foci point for the realms, then yes, they will be coming here.”

    Tuoh resisted looking at the person. Tuoh had tried to do so before, but found that his eyes invariably slid away from him, no matter how hard he attempted to focus. It was as though light was simply bent around him. All that Tuoh was ever able to discern was that his clothes were pale and translucent, and that his face seemed ordinary.

    Tuoh folded his arms. “Have a care how you speak, Spectre,” he warned. “You may be a Captain of the Ravens, but your master set me in charge of this mission. And even had he not, as patriarch of House Delmonda and Archmagus, I outrank you.”

    Spectre let out a snort. Even that had an ethereal quality to it. “My master?” He asked, voice echoing in the confined space of the tent. “Our master, Magus. Our master.” Tuoh hid a grimace, waving his hand as though the distinction was of no importance. “Regardless. This loci will not remain open for much longer. If they don’t make it here soon, we will have waited for nothing.”

    “They will. They are only a few days away at most,” came Spectre’s hollow-sounding reply. “What makes you so sure?” Tuoh asked. Spectre paused, then slowly responded, “Frost and I have a bond. I can...feel...him. More strongly now than before. Each day we have waited, the feeling has grown stronger. I cannot tell exactly what plane he is on, but he is headed in the equivalent of this direction, wherever he is. And he will be here soon.”

    Tuoh let out an annoyed sigh and nodded. “And the prisoner?” They had caught a rounin trying to sneak into camp some days ago. Since then, he had refused to talk, despite their best efforts. They still didn’t even know his name. “Dead,” Spectre replied. Tuoh shot to his feet. “What?! I ordered you to keep him alive!” Spectre seemed to shrug. “We didn’t kill him. He killed himself. Swallowed his own tongue.”

    With a muttered oath, Tuoh sat back down again. What a way to start the mission. “Fine,” Tuoh growled. “Fine. Make sure your people are ready. This operation needs to go perfectly.” Spectre responded emotionlessly, “My Ravens are always ready, Arbiter. Just make sure your mages aren’t too sloppy.”

    “My people have all the necessary spells prepared,” Tuoh bit out. “But I give you fair warning that if Frost attempts to interfere, we will snuff him out.” And gladly, Tuoh didn’t add. He’d take any chance he could get to kill one of the three Captains of the Ravens without retribution from Arzaiel.

    “You mean you’ll try,” Spectre responded sardonically. After a moment, he added, “Leave my dear little brother to me.” His voice was dark. Tuoh had heard rumors that there was little love lost between the two. Evidently, those rumors were true.

    Owl peered past Tuoh at Spectre. Unlike others, Owl seemed to have no problem with looking directly at the man. “Remember orders,” was all he said before turning away again. “I remember,” was Spectre’s clipped response. “I remember and obey, unlike Frost.”

    Tuoh shook his head, a bitter smile on his lips. Once more, his left hand unconsciously reached up to touch the red gem implanted in his forehead. He, too, would be expected to obey flawlessly from now on. Still. His orders had some leeway. Tuoh hoped that either Frost or the man they were hunting would act in such a way for him to utilize that leeway. They caused him to die, then become enslaved to Arzaiel. For that, he was going to kill them if he could.
    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. #38
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Interesting analyses, Grundle. Thanks for making them, as well as expressing your thoughts. Of course, I can neither confirm nor deny. Major update, either way, with 2.5 chapters added. Enjoy! Updates after this will come at a slower pace for a while, as I haven't had/won't have a huge amount of time to write for this month.
    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. #39
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    This piece of creative writing reminds me of a fusion dish attempted by an keen amateur cook who is clearly an enthusiastic reader/admirer of both the wuxia and fantasy sword and sorcery genres.

    Fusion anything - cuisine, music, art, fashion, film-making, creative writing, even martial arts - when executed by a skilful artist with a profound knowledge of the individual styles that he is attempting to blend can result in some very good art indeed. At its very best fusion incorporates much of what is good about its original source material yet is recognizably something different, individual, innovative and original. Of course it can be a difficult task to blend two (or more) forms of art together and if the attempted "fusion" is carried out by a less deft hand the results can seem clumsy, contrived and pretentious.

    In most sword and sorcery fantasy, indeed a great deal of wuxia stories the plot line is relatively simple. Good stories in either genre do not require complicated plots to work, and both genres incorporate universal powerful themes such as loyalty, revenge, jealousy, honour and so on. A simple storyline written with style will normally work very nicely, but a complex plotline will not salvage poor style. Having not read the full story I will not comment any further on its plotline and will comment only on style.

    The essence of both wuxia and sword-and-sorcery fiction, as is implied in their respective names, is combat. In my opinion the combat scenes here are far too Jinyong. Now I enjoy Jinyong's work immensely, he is an unquestioned master of the art of wuxia storywriting and has developed a style that is highly distinctive and individual. Jinyong is certainly not a bad influence to have when writing any form of story. But as anyone who has read the "Sword of Shannara" will tell you, influence and fan-admiration taken too far ends up in the work of the fan being neither original nor, most of the time, even comparable to the work of the influence. If the author's aim is to attempt to simulate Jinyong he has succeeded, but if his aim is to produce something original, or indeed to successfully simulate the intricate gongfu battle sequences of Jinyong, then he has fallen short of the mark. Jinyong is Jinyong. The trick for those fans who are attempting to craft their own stories is not to too imitate the great man too closely. This is admittedly difficult because of the sheer impact of his works but necessary in order to avoid, if only for the sake of one's self-respect, sounding too much like a second-rate imitator - of which there are already too many in the Chinese language.

    I also suggest you carefully assess (if you haven't done so already) whether you are attempting to write for readers with little or no exposure to the wuxia genre; or is your target audience purely the wuxia readers of this forum. If it's the latter, carry on. If you'd like to appeal to the former, think carefully what elements of wuxia, and wuxia combat especially, fit best into the overall sword and sorcery theme of your story.

    I apologize if any offence was given but I get the impression from your posts that you're the sort of guy who would value a honest critique. Posts full of cooing praise seldom point out aspects in one's work that can be improved.

    Good luck with the rest of your attempt at fusion.
    Last edited by Patudo; 01-14-08 at 10:45 PM.

  20. #40
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    Before I say anything else, Patudo, I want to assure you that I take no offense whatsoever from your post; in fact, I very much appreciate the amount of thought and effort you have clearly put into that post, and I want to thank you for it.

    With regards to your specific notes and criticisms regarding the 'fighting style', my immediate first instinct/reaction (tell me if I am wrong) was that you were referring to Chapter 14 (and perhaps 13) in particular. Truth be told, out of all the chapters I have written so far, I am the most ambivalent about that one, in large part because I think it veers, as you perhaps rightly argued, too much into the 'wuxia' genre, where it would be relatively harder for people not familiar with wuxia to understand, something which I have taken pains to try and avoid. Truth be told, I would like to be drawing more from the concept of DnD blademasters/kensai; stylistically, I would like battles to be more in line with the idea of blademasters in such epics as, say, the Wheel of Time.

    Truth be told, I have no interest in particular to emulate Jinyong, in large part because I am unable to; Mr. Cha's writing style is effective because he has such a tremendous amount of knowledge and understanding of Chinese history and philosophy on which to draw upon, whereas I would only be able to draw upon Mr. Cha. When I write, I am actually trying to put into words scenes in my head that are more anime-esque, and try to invoke them in the reader.

    Incidentally, I have indeed very carefully considered, as you suggested, the 'readership' of this story, which is why, whereas I have one thread here, I have one more thread in a completely different, English/Western only forum that specializes primarily in D&D inspired fantasy.

    One final note, there is one thing which I do have a different viewpoint, to an extent; I do not believe the essence of the story to be combat, or at least, not mine; truth be told, I envision this as the beginnings of a long-term project, potentially spanning quite a number of books. To me, the combat aspect has/is not as important as the character aspect. Laying down the characters personality, history, and even more importantly, invoking genuine affection and attachment in the reader for the characters, so that the reader wants to know what more about the characters, and is genuinely concerned as to what will happen to them. It is this care for the characters and interest in what is going to happen to them, rather than interest in battle scenes, which I wish to drive the readers to keep flipping through the pages and continue reading.

    And, of course, as I have a very large and overarching plot scoped out, it is very important for me to flesh out the world as well, to a greater or lesser extent; I am more trying to write in the style of 'epic fantasy (light)' as opposed to 'sword and sorcery'. In turn, it is quite possible that perhaps due to the lessened importance I have personally placed upon the combat scenes in the story, that those which are there have been somewhat derivative in nature.

    What are your thoughts?

    Does anyone else have any comments/suggestions?

    Thanks again!

    PS: I'm aware that Shannara is considered to be derivative of Tolkien, but if this would be even half as successful as that series, I would die a happy man
    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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