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Thread: That Merciless Blade - Legends of the Arctic Wolf

  1. #41
    Senior Member Grundle's Avatar
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    Patudo,

    I do not even see how this work could be confused with a Wuxia piece of writing. Stylistically it is not even close, there are no driving Wuxia themes or competing schools/styles of martial arts. I can't even say this is a "fusion" work as you have put it. The deepest roots that this story draws from is obviously from the fantasy realm, and having read the Shannara series I am surprised you didn't pick that up.

    Another thing I would like to mention is the simplistic plotline you brought up. The great thing about good fantasy novels is that you cannot guess where the world is going. Your analysis of "simple" plot lines blows me away, because no fantasy book worth reading that I have ever picked up had a predictable or even simple plot line. Why? Because fantasy is so much more than that, the author has to depict a foreign world while at the same time moving the characters through it. It is one of the most difficult styles, along with good science fiction, since the author is absolutely creating everything.

    I am amazed you compared the combat to Jin Yong and thought that he was trying to emulate him in an amateurish way. I saw much more of Robert Salvatore than even a glimmer of Jin Yong. My sense is that you don't read much fantasy or wuxia since you came in so far off the mark. I suggest you read the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan to see how epic a fantasy world can become. I honestly see Ren Wo Xing moving in this direction successfully, meticulously painting the world along with carefully placed actions and events to lead the reader further into the journey.

    The idea of writing so readers can understand is absolutely ludicrous because that is exactly what the author is doing. He has presented a world so totally foreign, with its own system of magic/mysticism/fighting/relationships that we are all ignorant of at the outset just so that he can explain it to the reader. This world is independent of any "style" of writing. What you need to do is take the time to let him teach you how things work in his universe. The author has done a great job of slowly unfolding this world, giving the readers just enough to wonder about the next thing to keep them reading. A predictable world is not worth taking the time to read about.

    I am trying to understand why you have struggled so much with this work, and the only thing I can figure is that as you read the work you had the expectation of a wuxia fanfic. When it did not turn out to be wuxia at all you were highly disappointed...I guess I can understand that, but maybe I am wrong.
    --=={Grundle}==--

  2. #42
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    Ren Xiongdi:

    Glad you found my critique useful. As a creator you are setting yourself a much more difficult job compared to your reviewers and different reviewers will most likely have a different opinion of your work. Anyone prepared to submit work that he has obviously spent time and thought on for public consumption deserves a certain amount of respect.

    -------------------------

    Ren Xiongdi's former signature included a reference to "interweaving" elements of wuxia into a fantasy story. There are plenty of wuxia references in the story - names of particular sword/martial arts stances being the most obvious, but also the way in which combat is presented. The incorporation of these elements into a genre where wuxia references have traditionally been absent is a clear attempt at fusion. There is nothing wrong with fusion in itself and when done well the results can be very good. But interweaving wuxia elements into sword and sorcery fantasy is a good bit more challenging than attempting either form by itself because the cultural traditions and conventions in each genre are so distinctive and so different. That's why I ask about the author's target audience because an audience that has little or no exposure to wuxia will need some deft handling as some wuxia conventions may not automatically crossover. This is not limited to the written word alone - Western viewers for instance may quite reasonably raise their eyebrows at Li Mubai and Zhang Ziyi's character (I forget her name, sorry) whizzing around defying gravity in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don't think every element of the wuxia genre is necessarily going to be indigestible to an audience fresh to it (Crouching Tiger's success in the West certainly suggests otherwise). But the handling of said elements is crucial. Cleverly handled the results could be very good. Awkward handling will result in a clumsy and contrived looking piece of work. This is just as true of anime with the added difference that anime is primarily visual. What works in a visual medium may not work so well in the written word so careful thought is needed in taking on such a project.

    The story itself is obviously more grounded in fantasy and in relation to Grundle Xiongdi's comments on plot, to my mind simplicity isn't necessarily the same as predictability. The plot of The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally quite simple. A hobbit is given a magical ring and journeys to a volcano to destroy the ring and with it the power of the Dark Lord which threatens his entire world. But the actual events of the story get pretty complex and there are plenty of interesting twists and original ideas in the course of the journey. (Incidentally I refer to the Sword of Shannara book alone as a specific example of near-plagarism, not to the entire group of those stories.) The plot of many of the Conan stories is also relatively simple yet they are written with such energy and ferocity that they are classics of their kind. In my opinion a good piece of fantasy fiction doesn't need a complex plot full of unexpected twists but it does need good storytelling and the author's style is noticeable right from the beginning. I haven't read enough of Ren Xiongdi's story to comment on how it is developed, except that the magic/mysticism thus far seems fairly generic, of the D&D type, and the combat - I've already discussed that. Style has already been discussed.

    Characterisation is important in any type of story. Both wuxia and sword and sorcery/fantasy are about more than their signature forms of combat. The very best of each genre use combat as a powerful tool to tell a greater story driven by memorable characters. But there is equally no doubt that those forms of combat contribute in great measure to the distinctive character and setting of each genre. Martial arts and inner power, sorcery and magic, are as vital to the essence of each form as the sixgun and quick-draw are to the western. Therefore combat and its handling are of the utmost importance.

    We are drifting away from a specific discussion about the story in this thread so I will stop here.

    Regards

    P.

    ps. Commercial success is no measure of the quality of a book any more than it is of a piece of music, film, or any other example of art. I can't believe how some absolute tripe has been so commercially successful (specifically one of the authors Grundle Xiongdi mentions in his post above).
    Last edited by Patudo; 01-15-08 at 11:16 PM.

  3. #43
    Senior Member Grundle's Avatar
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    Patudo,

    Thank you for following up with a more in depth analysis of what you were saying. I think I understand the original point you were originally trying to make and I don't think that you are wrong in the majority of what you have said. One thing I would like to point out about the Lord of the Rings is that although the plot can be condensed down to simplicity, this book was like a Jimi Hendrix or Claude Monet of the literature scene. Never before had an author created entire sociological systems that when written they would interplay and endhance the book. Tokien created entire languages, religions, and the fantasy genre with this book. He did something so bold, so new, so unexpected that it revolutionized Western literature. Although you can condense that series down to a very simple plot, it is by far the deepest fantasy book I have read. I guess what I am trying to say is that even a seemingly simple plot can be deceptively intricate. Does this matter? I don't think it does, because you CAN make a great book with a simple plot. One of my favorites would be the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle --> There was a case, you had evidence, and you knew that Sherlock would solve it...the fun part was trying to figure out how.

    I think you have also mentioned something else quite vital to these works and that is the component of the "storyteller". I would like to point to your previous post as a good example. Its wording left me confused at the message you wanted to communicate, but when you came back, re-iterated, and clarified your points I was able to fully appreciate what you were saying.

    I am in complete agreement about commercial success not necessarily equating to good literature. The author I mentioned before did an excellent job creating a fantastic world, but I think that when he got commercially successful he intentionally dragged the story out which made the second half less enjoyable. Had he stuck to his original plan he could have finished up with a classic. Even so I think that it is an extremely well written series.

    Like you I think I will allow the author to have his fanfic thread back, but this has been an interesting and enlightening discussion. Thank you both for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

    Grundle
    --=={Grundle}==--

  4. #44
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Chapter 16: Southern Tiger, Arctic Wolf

    The sun had long since fled. Like a thick, smothering blanket, that great unnatural fog surrounded the small copse in which the travelers had taken refuge. It was silent, but emanated a soundless anger. Once again its prey had escaped into the verdant green groves which were sprinkled across the land. Filled with positive energy and color, they were anathema to the mist and forced it to stay at bay.

    A trail of wet blood led into the woods. The prey had only barely escaped, this time. The mist had almost latched onto them firmly enough to keep them within it forever. But they had managed to get away, the almost-solid tendrils of fog gouging bloody wounds into them as they tore free. Slowly, that trail of blood faded away, as though it were lapped up or swallowed by some invisible force. Next time. It would get them next time. And the mist began to scheme.


    “Ow, ow, ow! Stop that, little girl!” Frost repeatedly batted Aurora away, wincing with each movement. Although no blood could be seen on him, for the first time since Matheius knew him, his clothes were torn and ripped. There was no doubt in Matheius’ mind that Frost had been injured as well.

    Stubbornly, Aurora came after him again despite being pushed away repeatedly. “You’re hurt!” She insisted, pointing that bizarre, wondrous paintbrush at him. “I can tell. So stay still, and I’ll fix you, like I fixed my doggy and Mr. Mat.”

    That damned brush. Frost shook his head. Where had such a little girl found it? None of them, from the great wyulf to the three travelers, had even heard of such a thing. Superficially, it looked like a little toy brush, small and irregularly shaped, made out of some dull wood and with thick, crude bristles. But in that little girl’s hands, it had bizarre, incredible abilities.

    Amongst other things, it could seal wounds. None of them had believed it when Graymaw had told them, but they had been convinced after Aurora had managed to swab over one of the rips on Graymaw’s left shoulder. Almost instantly, the wound had closed over as though it had never existed, although the blood which had already leaked out of it remained. It had taken her some time to ‘paint over’ all of the cuts and wounds, but eventually, the job was completed. She had moved on to paint over Matheius’ few wounds, and now, she was trying to do the same to Frost.

    “Look, little girl,” Frost said, “I am perfectly fine.” He rolled his eyes at her rather dubious look. “See?” He poked at the rips in his clothing, hiding a wince as he did. “No blood. Right? No blood, no wound. No wound, nothing to ‘fix’. I’ll be fine.” She folded her arms. “My name is Aurora. Not ‘little girl’.” She glared at him, tapping the small brush against the side of her arm. It was cute.

    “Fine. Aurora then.” Frost rolled his eyes. “Look, Aurora, I’m fine. If you really want to help, you can go make me something to eat. I’m a bit hungry.” And just like that, the glare disappeared from her face, replaced by a bright smile. “Okay!” Aurora said, a dazzling beam on her face. “I’ll make you my specialty!” And with a skip and a hop, she bounced away cheerfully, to begin to paint something on the bark of a tree, off to the side.

    “…apples again, no doubt,” Frost mumbled. He glanced ruefully at Lyria, who only shrugged at him. “Better than nothing,” was the latter’s comment, and Frost could only sigh. “I suppose,” Frost muttered. “I suppose. But the girl needs to learn how to draw something else.”

    Their own scant provisions had run out days ago. There was no game to be found, and at the time, they had been worried about finding food. According to both Matheius and Graymaw, they still had a distance to travel yet; it would be difficult for them to move quickly without sustenance. And then Aurora had displayed another bizarre ability of that bizarre toy brush. Not only could it paint in any color she desired it to, despite appearing to be utterly dry, but the things it painted could become real. What was the extent of its powers? No one could say, but the little girl certainly wasn’t pushing it to its limit.

    Because unfortunately…Frost shook his head again, a bemused smile on his face. The only thing the little girl knew how to draw? Apples. And so apples it was, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Frost wrinkled his nose. “We need to teach her how to draw a nice, big steak,” he mumbled to himself cheerfully, as he settled to the ground. “Or maybe a roast chicken.” He salivated at the very thought.

    “Draw it yourself,” Lyria said acidly, and Frost shot her an annoyed look. He had tried to take the brush from Aurora a few days ago to do just that. It was as though a thunderbolt had struck him when he touched it, knocking him back, flat on his posterior. Frost flexed his fingers with a wince. Hells, but that had hurt.

    “Stop complaining,” Matheius said, settling between the two of them, a red apple in hand. “At least you have something to eat.” Lyria shifted away fractionally as Matheius sat down, but he didn’t appear to notice. Biting into the apple, he spoke nothing further as his gaze drifted towards the wyulf, which had kept itself a distance away from the three. Graymaw. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t, couldn’t, eat apples.

    As far as any of them knew, Graymaw hadn’t eaten for at least two weeks now, and his increasingly lean frame was showing the effects of it. He was a carnivore, and there was no meat to be found anywhere. Well. Frost shot Graymaw a slightly uneasy glance. Aside from his four companions, that is. He didn’t think the wyulf would try to eat them in their sleep, but still. Just one more reason why Frost would’ve rather abandoned it.

    Graymaw was slowing them down, and all of them knew it. If it weren’t for him, they wouldn’t have been nearly caught by the mist this night. Although, in all fairness, if it weren’t for him, they might not have found the groves which kept that horrid mist at bay. Still. Frost was reasonably confident that they would’ve worked something out. After all, everything always worked out for him in the end.

    It didn’t really matter though, Frost mused to himself as he accepted the apple which Aurora had just handed to him. Matheius wouldn’t even hear of abandoning the creature. Frost hadn’t even finished making the suggestion when Matheius shot it down flat. Frost wrinkled his nose as he bit into the apple. What a bother.

    Promptly, Frost spat out the mouthful of apple. It was wormy. With a dry look in his eyes, Frost glanced at Aurora, who had returned to Graymaw’s side. Even at the distance which lay between the two parties, Frost could make out the angelic smile on Aurora’s face. Retribution for not letting her ‘fix’ him, no doubt. With a sigh, Frost tossed the apple away.

    “I don’t like apples anyhow,” Frost grumbled good-naturedly, noting the amused looks on Matheius’ and Lyria’s face. He stretched out to lie on the ground. There was nothing to be seen in the ‘night’ sky above the tops of the trees. Only more of that mist. How tiresome.

    “How much longer will it be before we can leave this ‘Twilight’, anyhow?” Frost asked. “Miserable place that it is,” he added in a mutter. Matheius reached out with a finger to stroke the hilt of his sword before responding. “Tomorrow. We’ll reach a place where we can get out of here by tomorrow.” In a quieter voice, Matheius added, “We’ll have to reach that place, tomorrow.”

    “I’ll take your word for it,” Frost said, closing his eyes. “And it better be accurate,” Frost said with feeling. “Honestly, I haven’t had as many miserable experiences in years as I’ve had in the few weeks I’ve traveled with you.” Although he hadn’t had as many interesting experiences, either. Matheius didn’t rise to the bait. “Good night, Frost,” was all he said. “Night, Matheius. Night, Lyria,” Frost added.

    He got no response. Typical.

    ____________________________________

    “Doggy?” Aurora’s soft voice could be heard, hours after everyone had gone to bedded down. A faint growl from Graymaw. “What is it, girl. Go to sleep.” Although the two camps were separated by tens of meters of distance, the woods were silent enough, and Matheius’ hearing sharp enough, that he heard their words nonetheless. Eyes still closed, he shifted slightly. He hadn’t been able to fall asleep either.

    “There’s something I wanna ask you,” Aurora whispered. “Why have you been making us sleep away from them? They seem like nice people.” A low snort from the wyulf. “Because I do not trust them.” Aurora wrinkled her nose. “But why not? What’s wrong with them?”

    Graymaw could be heard shifting his ponderous bulk. “I cannot explain. It is something in their scent, in their smell. You Two-Legs do not have as keen a nose as the People. None of those three are trustworthy. All have a certain stench to them, and it is better that we keep our distance, even if we travel with them for now.”

    Aurora was silent for some time. Then, her soft voice whispered, “Even Mr. Mat? I thought you said you knew Mr. Mat.” There was a hint of uncertainty and question in her voice. The great wyulf shook his head. “No,” he growled. “I do not know him. I know of him, because a member of my family knew him.”

    “Really?” Aurora whispered back. “You never told me about your family. Who?” A long pause. Finally, reluctantly, Graymaw answered, “My great grandsire, Cloudstrider. They fought together.” Matheius’ eyes snapped open. “It was a long time ago, long before even my own sire was born.” “Oh!” A hint of shock was in Aurora’s voice. “Really? Then Mr. Mat must be very, very, very old.” She pouted in confusion. “He doesn’t look old though.”

    Graymaw let out a sigh. It was an all too human sound. “I do not understand it either. Now go back to sleep, girl. We need our energy for tomorrow.” Aurora made a small whining sound, but acquiesced. “Okay, doggy. G’night.” “Sleep well, girl.”

    Ten minutes later, Aurora spoke again. “Doggy?” With an exasperated growl, Graymaw opened one eye to stare at her. Yellow and feral, it gleamed despite the lack of light. “What is it now,” he quietly snarled. Aurora had sat up, and was leaning against his shaggy side. “I can’t sleep,” she complained. “Will you tell me a bedtime story?”

    “Bedtime story?” Graymaw asked incredulously. “I don’t know any bedtime stories. Just go to sleep.” “But I can’t!” Aurora wailed softly. “I tried. Just tell me a story?” Graymaw let out a growl of discontent. “Like what?” Aurora frowned for a moment, eyes narrowing in concentration before they brightened. “I know! Why don’t you tell me about your great granddaddy, and how he knew Mr. Mat?”

    “Great grandsire, not great granddaddy,” Graymaw corrected. “And I don’t care to tell the story.” That yellow eye closed as Graymaw prepared to go back to sleep, but Aurora began to wheedle. “Please? Pretty please?” He tried to ignore her, but she just kept on nagging at him, until finally, Graymaw opened that eye again, glaring at Aurora balefully. “Fine,” the great wyulf muttered. “If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep?” “Promise!” Aurora said. Graymaw let out another sigh, then nodded.

    “Then I will tell you a story, girl,” Graymaw pronounced. “It is a famous one amongst the People. It is a story of battle, of my legendary great grandsire, Cloudstrider, and of Heartkin, the Two-Leg who could speak as the People could. Although many are the battles in which the People have fought against Two-Legs, never since the earliest days had there been such a victory as this one. This is a story of blood and war and death, and victory.” Graymaw paused. “Are you afraid, girl?” He asked. “Do you still wish to hear this story?” In a small voice, Aurora replied, “Yes, please.”

    Graymaw growled. “Then I will tell you this story, of Cloudstrider, of Heartkin, and of the great battle at the Two-Leg castle named Stormhaven. This is a story centuries old, now. Imagine a castle under siege, manned by only a few hundred soldiers, but surrounded by a great host numbering in the thousands.”

    Soundlessly, Matheius rose to his feet, fully awake now and preparing to leave. But even as he strode away, the sound of Graymaw’s low, growling voice seemed to pursue him, bringing back memories which were best kept buried. The battle at Stormhaven. It was the last time they had fought together, him and Vast. They had become estranged over the years for a multitude of reasons, and even had a very public falling out at the war council which had occurred months before the battle. Vast had accused him of precipitating the resurgence of the Savants, because of the harshness of his Rule of Seven and the Bloodlines Doctrine. They had nearly come to blows, and Matheius had only barely avoided being stripped of his position.

    For months after that, the two had not been on speaking terms. With the bulk of the main army, Matheius fought battles at the front lines, while Radavast stayed behind. In a tactically brilliant maneuver, a Savant mage-lord named Del’gotha had managed to somehow force his army through the previously-thought impassable Skyreach mountains and laid siege to the castle of Stormhaven.

    Stormhaven, being deep in the heart of the kingdom, was lightly guarded with but a thousand or so men, the vast majority of the garrison having been stripped to fuel the war effort. It was supposed to be an easy conquest, after which Del’gotha would have marched straight for the even more lightly guarded capital city of Dimonde. It would have been the greatest victory the Savants had ever achieved. But unfortunately for Del’gotha, at the time of his siege, a certain person was in Castle Stormhaven as a guest of the local count.

    Radavast, the Southern Tiger. At the moment of the siege, he had taken over the command from the count, and led the stripped-down garrison in resisting the siege. Meanwhile, army pigeons were sent to all the army leaders. All of them, Radavast knew, were too far away, and pigeons were sent back appraising him of that. The nearest units informed him that they would gather at Dimonde to bolster the capital’s defenses. He himself was on his own.

    Only one person wrote him back with a different answer. The person who was farthest away. Matheius. He offered no excuses, no justifications, no rationales for why he would be unable to assist. His note had only two lines. Hold out as long as you can. Give me ten days.

    None of Radavast’s men really believed that Matheius would be able to make it, not even Radavast. He was simply too far away. Even if his army made a forced march of forty or fifty miles per day for those ten days, an impossible rate, Matheius still couldn’t have made it in time. But since Matheius had asked him to hold out, Radavast did.

    They were outnumbered more than fifteen to one, surrounded and cut off from all supplies and reinforcements. No one in either army believed that Radavast could hold out for more than a day or two. But he did. Against impossible odds, Radavast mounted an impossible defense of the castle. They held out for a day, then two days, then a week. By the end of the second week, supplies were almost gone, while over sixty percent of their men had died. As Radavast later confided in Matheius, it was the only time he had ever feared defeat.

    On the first day of the third week, the local garrison commander had come to Radavast with grave news. A grim look on his face, he had said, “We cannot -

    “-hold any longer, milord,” the commander reported. “We’re down to less than four hundred men now, and are all out of arrows, food, and most other supplies. The walls are weakened, and are ready to fall. My lord, the next assault will topple us.”

    “Understood, commander,” Radavast replied. “Carry on with your duties.” The commander saluted him. “Sir.” Radavast gazed out grimly at the massive army which surrounded the castle. Composed mainly of conscripts and summoned monsters, they dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. It was a miracle that they had held out as long as they did.

    “I hate to say this,” a sardonic voice beside him remarked, “But I told you so.” Dareth, Radavast’s sergeant-at-arms. “You didn’t really think Matheius would make it, did you?” Dareth shook his head in wry, resigned amusement. “Aint no way any army could cross that distance, and you two’ve been at loggerheads for years now. Give up yer false hope, son,” he said. “He aint coming ”

    Folding his massive, armored arms together across his chest, Radavast let out a heavy sigh. “Either way,” he responded after a long moment, “It does not matter now. This place will be our tomb. Look.” He pointed a gauntleted fist at the horde of enemy troops. “They are preparing to make their final attack. And this time, I won’t be able to stop them.” The grizzled old veteran patted Radavast sympathetically on the back. “You did good, son. You did damned good.” “Not good enough, Dareth,” Radavast answered as he lowered his massive great helm over his head. “Die well.” “Die well.”

    A cheer erupted from the enemy forces as they charged towards the walls, multiple battering rams in tow. It was ragged and disorganized like their army, but it was loud. They, too, could smell victory. And as they swept towards the castle, Radavast stood alone on top of the frontal walls, waiting for them to come.

    Once, twice, thrice the rams struck, slamming into those wrought iron gates which had been so heavily abused over the past two weeks. Behind them, the remaining soldiers waited, expecting to die. They, too, saw the battle for what it was. Lost.

    A fourth time the battering rams struck at the gates, and finally, the gates to Stormhaven were broken through. With another mighty cheer, the enemy army dropped the rams and began to pour in through the gates. Up above, Radavast tensed, preparing to take down as many as he could before dying. It was time.

    But just at this critical moment, a ravening wolf-cry rent the air. An unearthly sound, it came from the east, from the forests which served as the second of the two natural barriers which protected Stormhaven, the first being the western mountains which had betrayed them. All eyes turned to the east as a wolf the size of a horse bounded into sight, charging straight for the castle. And on its back was a man whom both sides knew all too well.

    “Matheius,” Radavast breathed inaudibly to himself. Then, gathering his breath, he shouted as loudly as he could, “MATHEIUS!” It was a loud, powerful cry, echoing across the silence of the stunned battlefield, and unnerving the enemy forces as much as the earlier howl had. The tiger’s roar was no less fearsome than the wolf’s howl. Matheius’ voice could be heard faintly as he responded. “Vast! I come! To me!”

    With another earth-shaking roar, Radavast took a running leap off of the top of the wall, an armored titan descending from the heavens. His half ton’s worth of muscle and metal landed on several enemy soldiers, crushing them to death instantly before he bounded to his feet and charged towards Matheius’ direction, Cryzalis in hand.

    To the east, Matheius charged towards the center of the battlefield, mounted on the great wyulf, Cloudstrider. Some few poor souls tried to block his way. Those who were not crushed by the hammer-like blows of Duty were batted aside like children by the powerful paws of the wyulf as the two charged in deeper and deeper.

    “Mat! This way!” It was Radavast’s voice, and it sounded considerably closer than it had been earlier. “That way, Packbrother,” Matheius said to Cloudstrider as he cut down yet another enemy. “Take me to him. Take me to Vast!” And with a howling assent, Cloudstrider changed directions, aiming towards where Radavast’s voice was heard.

    “Stop them! Stop both of them!” The panicked voice of Del’gotha could now be heard, as he finally began to give orders. “Don’t let them get to each other!” Following orders, the enemy soldiers began to thicken their ranks in an effort to create a solid wall of flesh and metal against the two. But it was far too late. Radavast simply rammed his way through the attempted makeshift wall, whereas Cloudstrider leapt into the air, then hurled Matheius away from him and towards Radavast. A few spells were aimed in his direction, but Matheius twisted in mid-air with perfect precision, cutting those spells apart before he landed on his feet, facing Radavast.

    An incredulous grin was on Radavast’s face as he extended his hand towards Matheius. “Mat. You made it.” An only slightly more reserved smile on Matheius’, as he reached forward and clasped Radavast’s hand tightly. “Vast. Sorry I’m late.” They grinned at each other, and in that moment, all of the enmity of the past few years was swept away. All of the jealousies, all of the arguments, all of the strife had disappeared. Once again, it was as when they were young and the best of friends, close enough that they called themselves brothers.

    An exultant laugh exploded from Radavast’s lips as he let go of Matheius’ hand, then spun around to face the enemy troops which had them surrounded. A gleam in his eyes, he lifted his head towards the skies, and let out a third roar, one louder and even more powerful than the previous ones. As he did, Matheius too raised his face towards the heavens, letting out a piercing howl that shook the battlefield to its core. And then, in perfect unison, the two charged together towards the enemy’s command tent.

    Southern Tiger, Arctic Wolf! It had been years since they had taken the field of battle together, since their legend had shaken the world. Now, the poor fools which stood between them and their target learned from whence that legend came. Each of the two was a terrifying force to stand against, but together they were an unstoppable whole. They were like the blizzard and the raging snow, the tempest and the torrential rain, the ocean and the crashing waves, the lightning and the roaring thunder.

    Spells aimed at Radavast bounced off his impossibly thick Juggernaut Plate. Sorceries aimed at Matheius were ripped apart like rotted fabric. Anything which got in Radavast’s way was summarily buried. And death itself had come to claim anyone who entered the range of Matheius’ terrifying blade. They were in the midst of an army of thousands, but laughed wildly as they advanced towards Del’gotha’s tent, as though those men were nothing more than targets.

    In the face of that slaughter, Del’gotha saw his death approaching. Frantically, his fingers began to dance in the intricate weavings of a teleport spell as he began to order a retreat for his army. He would salvage as much as he could from this debacle, save as many as he could, then contemplate his next move. But first, an escape.

    Just as his spell had almost been completed, Del’gotha’s fingers came to a stop as he jerked in surprise. Yet another howl had erupted from the forest, followed by another, and another, and another. Another wolf, this one of normal size, leapt forth from the forest and barreled straight into his confused and demoralized army. That wolf was followed by ten. Then a hundred. Then a thousand! Like an army waiting in ambush, generalled by that first great wolf which Matheius had been riding on, they poured out of the forest like a torrential wave, tearing into Del’gotha’s men with the speed and ferocity which all lupines possessed.

    Del’gotha’s men, already frightened by Matheius and Radavast, were now utterly terrified. It was as though they had been assaulted by a massive host of hellhounds. Their line, wavering and injured from Matheius’ earlier incision, now collapsed completely as men began to flee. The certain victory of only minutes ago had turned into a wholesale route.

    “Stop! Stop, damn you, stop!” Del’gotha snarled. This would not only cost them the battle, this could cost them everything! They must not rout! The retreat must be orderly! Eyes locked on the advancing host of wolves, Del’gotha could only watch, helpless, as his army was literally torn apart.

    His attention diverted, he never noticed that gleaming blue blade which took his life.

    But perhaps that was for the best. Between Matheius, Radavast, the remnants of the garrison, and the hundreds on hundreds of wolves which had poured in from the forests, not a single person in his army would survive. When the sun finally set that day, it set on a field which was strewn so thickly with corpses that one could walk over a half-league without touching the ground. What would have been the Savant’s greatest victory had instead become their greatest defeat. And even better; the Tiger and the Wolf had reconciled! Everyone was certain that with those two working together again, this war would quickly come to an end.


    “But that isn’t what ended up happening,” Matheius whispered. His eyes shone in the night. With emotion? Or with tears? That was be the last time where the two ever fought on the same side. Matheius had long since walked out of the range of the sound of Graymaw’s voice, but no one can walk out of the range of their memories.

    He clenched his left fist tightly enough for his fingernails to draw blood from the palm of his hand, then aimlessly threw a hard punch at a nearby tree, causing the bark to splinter from the force of the blow. The last time before the childhood bonds of friendship and love which had bound them would be forever severed.

    “Careful there. Punch down all the trees, and it’ll be a rather miserable night.” A gently mocking drawl from behind him. Frost. Matheius’ voice was steady. “What do you want?” Matheius asked, without turning. Frost yawned, stretching as he walked towards Matheius. “Nothing in particular,” he responded. “I woke up when you left. Heard the ‘doggy’ chatting with the little girl. Interesting conversation.”

    Matheius glanced aside at Frost. “Heard it, did you?” He asked tonelessly. “How much of it did you catch?” Frost smiled at him. “Enough,” he responded easily. “All the interesting bits, at least.” Matheius nodded, turning his head away and staring straight ahead. “So,” Matheius said after a moment. “Now you know.”

    Frost raised an eyebrow. “Know what?” A pause. “Oh, who you are?” A wordless nod from Matheius, followed by a smirk from Frost. “Oh, I knew long ago. Well.” He amended. “Guessed and suspected, at the very least.”

    “Oh?” Matheius said in a noncommittal voice. “What gave it away?” Frost snickered. “Besides your sword, its pommel, your mastery of Spellbane, your name, and the little chat you had with those monks a few days ago? Not much, I suppose.”

    The faintest flicker of embarassed irritation flashed across Matheius’ face. Purporting not to notice, Frost wagged a finger at Matheius. “Incidentally, by all rights, you are supposed to be dead, you know. Why aren’t you?” He tried to make the question sound casual, but the interested gleam in his eye gave him away. Matheius shrugged. “I don’t know.”

    It was the honest truth, but from the dirty look at Frost gave him, Frost didn’t seem to believe him. “Fine. Keep your secrets.” Frost waved airily, as though dismissing the question as trivial. “Doesn’t really matter, either way. My opinion is still the same.” “Your opinion?” Matheius asked, not particularly interested. “What’s that?”

    “That you need to lighten up. Past is past, I always say.” Frost’s voice was as light as ever, but there was a hint of seriousness in it. “You walk around carrying around a mountain on your back, my friend. If you don’t get rid of it, sooner or later or later it will crush you.” Matheius shrugged his shoulders. His voice slightly strained, he replied, “Maybe. But I was the one who chose to pick it up.” “Well then!” Frost responded with another one of his wide grins. “Be the one to chose to put it back down.”

    Matheius sighed. “It isn’t as easy as that, Frost,” Matheius answered. “Not everyone is like you. Once, I had everything. I had a woman who loved me, and who I loved back. I had a friend who was as close to me as a brother, and other friends who were also like family. I had fame. I had renown.”

    Again, Matheius punched the tree. “And now? Now, I have nothing. Everyone and everything I have loved and cared for is now destroyed and ground to dust. And the fact that all of it is my own fault is something that has never left me for even a single moment.” His words had started out calm, but as he continued, they had turned into a torrential, raging flood. “Do you have any idea what it feels like to lose everything, Frost? Do you?!”

    The last words, the last questions to Frost, came out as an angry shout. They echoed for a long time in the quiet woods. Long moments passed in silence, as Matheius fought to master himself. Finally, Matheius repeated himself. “Do you?” He asked again, this time softly. But no response was forthcoming.

    Curious, Matheius turned around. Frost was leaning against a tree. His pose was casual, but his head was facing the ground, and in those colorless white eyes was a look of sharp, intense pain. He was silent. A sense of great weariness emanated from him. A sense of exhaustion and of tremendous age, as though Frost were a beaten down old man, rather than the gay, carefree young swordsman he appeared to be. And perhaps it was just his imagination, but Matheius even thought he saw lines of age appear in criss-crosses on Frost’s face.

    Long minutes passed before finally Frost spoke. “Yes,” Frost said softly. He raised his gaze from the ground, leaning his head back so that it was aimed towards the gray, misty sky instead. “I suppose I do, at that.” Matheius opened his mouth, then closed it. He had no idea what to say.

    Still more minutes passed. Finally, Frost let out a sudden laugh, then turned his gaze away from the sky as well to look at Matheius. The laughter was a carefree sound, filled with merriment, invoking within Matheius a vision of flakes of snow dancing about on the wind. “But that’s fine!” Frost pronounced. The customary twinkle had returned to his milky white eyes. “’For the winter wind shows mercy none/As it sweeps the land with its icy breath/And the killing frost knows not remorse/Though his playful touch brings death.’”

    The verses were well formed, and Frost’s delivery, flawless. Matheius shook his head, a faint smile appearing on his face. Frost’s strange demeanor had been unnerving. Matheius was glad to see him back to normal. “I’m surprised. I wouldn’t have expected that from you. Bardess Airana, ‘Fall of the First Snow’?” Frost shook his head, an expression of mock-disdain on his face. “Seren, you ignoramus. ‘The Winter’s Kiss’. Airana isn’t quite on the level of Seren. Lyrics are too maudlin.” Matheius snorted. “That’s a matter of opinion.”

    “When it comes down to it,” Frost said agreeably, “Aren’t most things? Good, evil. Right, wrong. Fortunately for me, though, my opinions tend to be right.” Matheius barely kept himself from rolling his eyes at that. Frost patted Matheius on the back as he turned to leave. “Get some rest soon, eh? We need to make sure that we get out of this damned place. Don’t be holding us up tomorrow because you’re sleepy.”

    Matheius watched, a strange expression on his face, as Frost walked away humming a merry little tune. For a moment, a certain warmth, intermingled with a profound sadness could be seen in those sky blue eyes. Then he shook his head and turned away to recline against a tree, staring upwards at the mist-covered sky. He stayed there for the rest of the night.

    The strange, deadly mist began to fade as the sun rose. It was slower to disappear this time, as though it were showing a certain reluctance to depart. Even as the dim, colorless glow of the unrisen sun began to shine through it, it continued to linger, until the sun took its first tiny peek over the horizon. Then, the mist fled quickly, seeping into the ground and disappearing within seconds.

    The five of them began to move as soon as the fog faded away. With the prospect of escaping this dreadful place being so close, none of them lacked motivation. Even Graymaw, who had been traveling more and more slowly as the days had passed, managed to eek out a more brisk pace. He had lost his entire pack here. He wanted nothing more to do with this place.

    And so they pressed on, winding their way through the pallid hills, trampling a path through the fields of colorless grass. Matheius and Graymaw continued to lead them, as they had for in days previous. Neither of them offered an explanation as to where they were going. Graymaw claimed to be able to ‘smell’ an exit, though he couldn’t say exactly what form or shape it took. Matheius appeared to concur with him, although from whence came his information, he wouldn’t say. It drove Frost batty, something which amused Aurora greatly.

    Every few minutes, one of them would glance at the sun. Ashen and warmthless though it was, all of them were thankful for it nonetheless. Today, it seemed particularly obliging languid as it slowly winded its way across the gray sky. Noticing this, Matheius and Graymaw nodded at each other. Fortune favored them this day, it seemed. They would make it in time, with hours to spare.

    Or so they thought. As the sun had only just begun its fall from the peak of the heavenly firmament, something appeared in the sky which they had never seen before here. Something normally innocuous which caused Aurora to gasp and point, which elicited a startled growl from Graymaw, and even caused the eyes of the silent, cold Lyria to widen.

    “A cloud,” Frost muttered. His hand was tight around the hilt of his sword. “Oh, hell. Why do I have a bad feeling about this.” Matheius said nothing, but it was clear that he was as disturbed by that cloud as the rest. All he said, however, was, “Let’s keep moving. And quickly.”

    They picked up their pace once more, moving at a fast jog. When it became clear that Graymaw couldn’t sustain the pace while carrying Aurora, Matheius reached out and lifted the little girl from the wyulf’s back, then settled her on his own. Predictably, this earned him a wide grin from Frost. “Isn’t that cute?” Frost whispered aside to Lyria. “Mr. Mat is playing at being a daddy.” Lyria didn’t answer him, but it did seem as though she smiled a little.

    But soon, even Frost was unable to quip. More clouds continued to arrive, almost as if they were chasing after the group. They stretched out, blanketing the entirety of the sky above them with a layer of clouds that progressively grew thicker and thicker. Not good, Matheius thought. Walled off from the world by that growing layer of cloud, the already feeble light given off by the false sun was beginning to fade.

    The barest hint of the gray fog began to seep upwards through the earth, swirling around their feet. “Matheius,” Frost said softly. When he received no response, he called out again, more loudly, “Matheius.” Without turning back, Matheius replied, “I told you. Keep moving.” “We’ll be fine,” Graymaw growled, breathing heavily. The increased pace was taking a toll on him. “It won’t catch us in time. The final grove and the exit is only a little ahead of us. I can smell it.”

    And so it was. As the party rounded past another grassy dune, the edge of the grove could clearly be seen, the leafy green arms of its trees seeming to beckon to them in welcome. It was no more than a quarter-league off in the distance; just a few more minutes of travel. “Glad to hear, and even gladder to see,” Frost panted.

    The light of the sun had been nearly completely blocked out by now, draping the land in darkness, but it seemed as though Graymaw’s estimation was right. Though the fog rose quickly, its quarry was even quicker, and the tree line was close. By the time they were less than a hundred feet away from the safety of the grove, the fog only managed to reach the chest level of Matheius.

    Ninety feet away. Eighty feet. Seventy feet. The fog rose higher and higher with each step the party took, but not only was it too slow, it wasn’t nearly as thick as it had been previously. They were going to make it, with time to spare, Frost thought to himself. And then they were going to get the hell out of this place.

    But when they were fifty feet away from the grove, Graymaw came to a sudden halt. A heartbeat afterwards, Matheius stopped as well, holding up one hand, motioning for everyone to stop moving. “The hell?” Frost stared at Matheius. “What’s wrong with you? Why are we stopping?”

    Matheius ignored him. As one, he and the wyulf turned their heads to stare at the mass of fog which covered the world behind them. With an impatient sigh, Frost turned as well to peer into the mist. It was thick and opaque, impenetrable to sight. “I can’t see anything,” he muttered. “What are you staring at?”

    “Doggy?” Out of the five, only Aurora wasn’t staring at the mist. She was staring down at Graymaw from Matheius’ back, a worried look on her cherubic little face. She bit her lip. “What’s wrong, Doggy?” Frost glanced aside at Graymaw. Only now did he heard the low, constant growl emanating from the giant wolf-creature’s throat. And only now did he notice the look on the wyulf’s face. If Graymaw had been a human, Frost would have called it a look of utter horror.

    Aurora suddenly screamed. It was a piercing sound, and for a moment, Frost actually thought it was Lyria ‘throwing another tantrum’. But then Aurora pointed forward into the mist. In a quavering voice, she asked, “What are those?”

    Eyes had appeared in the mist. Dozens of pairs of eyes, glowing a bloody red in color and low to the ground. Vicious eyes, cruel eyes. Evil eyes. And they were moving towards the party. The creatures which those eyes belonged to, shrouded by the roiling mist, couldn’t be fully made out, but Frost had a nasty feeling that they wouldn’t be pleasant company.

    “We should move,” Frost suggested loudly, but no one, himself included, paid his words much heed. Graymaw in particular watched, almost transfixed, as those feral eyes grew closer and closer. Until finally, a single, massive skeletal head poked its way out of the thickest part of the fog, trailing tendrils of mist.

    Much of the flesh had been stripped away from it, but what remained clearly identified it as lupine. It still had eyes, but they glowed blood red, standing out in the gray mist which still surrounded much of its form. More heads began to poke their way out of the mist, each of them identical to the first, until a full dozen of them could be seen, staring at the party through those gleaming, evil eyes.

    “My…pack,” Graymaw breathed, voice filled with equal parts anguish and revulsion. The largest wyulf-skull, the first one to make itself visible, opened its massive maw, and spoke. Not with the Sending of the People. Nor did it sound like the growling speech which wyulfs used to emulate with the Two-Legs. Its voice was ethereal and wispy, echoing and hissing with each word. It was as though through it, the mist itself was communicating with them. Only two words were spoken.

    Join us.

    The two sides stared at each other, the fog swirling around them. It was Aurora who would break the silence, as she whispered the words which all five of them were thinking. “I’m scared. Let’s run away.” All eyes turned towards Aurora, who burrowed her face into Matheius’ back, refusing to look back. More loudly, she screamed, “I’m scared. RUN!”

    In unison, the four turned and ran towards the woods. And behind them, the fell pack chased.
    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. #45
    Senior Member Grundle's Avatar
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    Nice update! I can't help but feel sorry for this group. I am just hoping that the Wylf makes it okay...but they are running from the jaws of the wolves into the waiting jaws of a lion!

    I can't wait for your next update, great work!
    --=={Grundle}==--

  6. #46
    Senior Member kwekmh's Avatar
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    I just ran through the story briefly and I found it to be fairly interesting, as much as one can deduce from a quick read. I may read it when I have time.

  7. #47
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    Nice story. I find it to be quite engaging. Great word usage and descriptions; they paint a vivid picture.

    Just a few random comments:

    I noticed some DnD references. It's a bit jarring to see "Ajatha the Drinker", Nyx and what seems to be a variant on Mind Seed. I don't mind the references but at the same time I find that I have preconceived notions when I see those terms -which may or may not apply to this story.

    The spellbane ability reminds me of the quantum blades story -I don't know if you've ever read it.

    The contrast between "fantasy" and "wuxia" are rather sharp and distinct -especially the fight scenes. The monastery scene felt odd compared with the rest of the story. It almost felt like switch was thrown, and wuxia mode was engaged.

    The fusion of classic or even DnD fight scenes and wuxia scenes has always interested me but it's tough to integrate. The closest approximation is probably something out of Tome of Battle or a gish like a Duskblade. It's sort of like what wuxia abilities would be like if there were magic users around as opposed to the initial clash between these until now isolated traditions. All in all you've done a good job.

    Your flashback transitions are quite smooth; I can almost see the fade and superimpose. Very Highlanderish in this respect

    You mentioned you posted this on "western fantasy" boards. Are you up on gleemax or enworld? I'm curious as to the reactions of people who don't follow wuxia.

    The addition of the girl and the wyulf was handled fairly well although a little voice in the back of my mind said "You look trustworthy, would you like to adventure with us?" Was there an exposition explaining why the girl or the wyulf pack happened to be in the area? I might've missed it.

    Excellent characterizations all around. Thus far it has a nice balance between plot advancement and characterization. Western epics (a la WoT) tend to focus too much on characterization to stall the plot or build suspense but it can easily go overboard.
    HK47: Now do you understand the travails of my existence master? Surely it does not compare to your existence but still...
    You: I survive somehow
    HK47: As do I. It is our lot in life I suppose master. Shall we find something to kill to cheer ourselves up?

    -KotOR

  8. #48
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    RE darkcser:

    No clue what Mindseed is. Nyx, I drew not from D&D (what is Nyx in D&D anyhow?) but from Greco-Roman mythology.

    As for A(d)jatha the Drinker, I just realized that was a weapon from Baldur's Gate O.O. That will deeeefinitely have to be changed.

    Never read quantum blades.

    Not up on gleemax or enworld; what are those? Fantasy boards?

    Thanks!
    Last edited by Ren Wo Xing; 01-24-08 at 07:30 PM.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  9. #49
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ren Wo Xing View Post
    RE darkcser:

    No clue what Mindseed is. Nyx, I drew not from D&D (what is Nyx in D&D anyhow?) but from Greco-Roman mythology.

    As for A(d)jatha the Drinker, I just realized that was a weapon from Baldur's Gate O.O. That will deeeefinitely have to be changed.

    Never read quantum blades.

    Not up on gleemax or enworld; what are those? Fantasy boards?

    Thanks!
    Mind Seed is a psionic power that allows you to overwrite another's personality with your own. Nyx was a goddess of the night from classic DnD (i.e. the Mystara setting with the alien spaceship). Like many elements in DnD they were originally drawn from some real world ideas.

    Adjatha the Drinker has been around far longer than that. IIRC it originally appeared in one of Ed Greenwood's writings (FRCS or maybe Pages from the Mages).

    Quantum Blades (I don't remember if it was the original title or not) was an interesting fusion of sci-fi and magic. To combat magic the science side developed these blades which can cut at the quantum level (a couple of steps beyond the common monomolecular blades). This enabled the wielder to cut apart spell forms.

    Gleemax is for all practical purposes, the Wizards of the Coast forum. Enworld is probably the other big RPG/Fantasy forum. I believe both have a creative writing section in their forums.
    HK47: Now do you understand the travails of my existence master? Surely it does not compare to your existence but still...
    You: I survive somehow
    HK47: As do I. It is our lot in life I suppose master. Shall we find something to kill to cheer ourselves up?

    -KotOR

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    I've not heard of all that stuff before, but I am enjoying this story

  11. #51
    Senior Member Grundle's Avatar
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    I hope you update soon. I have been jonesing for more ><

    All this week I spiraled into a depression as another day passed without an update. Well maybe that is a little overdramatic, but I was sad (honest!).

    Thanks for the hard work!
    --=={Grundle}==--

  12. #52
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Chapter 17: The Ferryman of Twilight

    “What the hell are you, a crow?” Frost asked, his back to Matheius. “I swear, all of your ideas end up getting us in bad situations. You, my friend, are a walking, talking totem of bad luck.”

    They stood back to back, with Aurora sitting on Graymaw, surrounded by the dead wyulfs. Those creatures had been unbelievably quick, even for wyulfs. The minor head start which Matheius and the others had over them had been cut down within minutes. The wyulfs had split into two groups. Half to the left, half to the right, they formed a cordon which they had tightened over the party, until now, the twelve dead wyulfs ringed the five.

    “Stop complaining,” Matheius responded. His response was light, but tinged with a hint of unease. The wyulfs had attacked twice already, and they had the wounds to prove it. Matheius had suffered a claw to his right shoulder, and a gash on his leg which had almost hamstrung him. Graymaw, however, was worse off by far; his stringy coat was once more matted with blood, much to the consternation of Aurora.

    Both times, party had managed to just barely beat them off, and that only because of Lyria. Each time it seemed as though they might be in serious trouble, Lyria would let out a banshee scream so high-pitched, none of the humans could hear it. To the wyulfs, though, the sound was unbearable. Even Graymaw, whom the screams were not aimed at, writhed in pain at each one, despite Aurora’s best efforts to cover his ears. The dead wyulfs, without exception, would frantically retreat tens of feet each time Lyria let out one of those cries. But each time, as soon as Lyria stopped screaming, they would once more begin to tighten the cordon...and, as Matheius realized, Lyria was beginning to tire.

    It showed in her hair. Lyria’s hair was red...or, at least, it used to be, before she died. It also appeared as red when Matheius had been ‘gifted’ her by Nyx, and had remained red up to now. But the color was being leached out of it with each scream. Her hair was now grayish in color, and becoming lighter still with each passing moment.

    It had taken a moment for Matheius to realize what this meant. First; Lyria’s current appearance was illusory. Second, her true appearance, now, was that which he had seen in Sargon, when he ‘killed’ her. And third; the fact that her illusory appearance was slowly disappearing, could only mean that Lyria was getting tired, and unable to maintain the illusion.

    “How much longer can you last?” Matheius said quietly to Lyria. She shook her head, white hair rippling. “Not much longer. One or two more bouts. Three at most, if I push it, which I probably will.” Matheius grimaced. Twenty, maybe thirty minutes, at most. They had that long to find a way to break out of the trap.

    The problem was that while letting out those screams, Lyria had to remain stationary. As soon as she moved, the energy she gathered within her to perform them would be disturbed. Theoretically, it might have been possible for the others to escape while she kept the wyulfs at bay, but Matheius didn’t think it was very likely at all. Even if it was possible, though, that solution wasn’t an acceptable one, to Matheius. He couldn’t let her be a sacrifice for his own well-being. Not a second time.

    “Does anyone else have a plan?” Matheius asked. A long silence ensued. Each moment, the wyulfs tightened the noose a little more. They were slower, more cautious now. They did not wanting to get too close too quickly. Not if it meant getting in range of that horrible woman’s voice. “Looks like it doesn’t matter,” Matheius muttered after a few moments. “They are about to come again. Get ready.” Reluctantly, Matheius reached out and stroked Ajatha with his index finger. It gleamed dimly at his touch. He might have to-

    “Hey. Lyria.” Frost suddenly said, interrupting Matheius’ thoughts. “You said you can do two or three more rounds of screaming. How long do you think you can sustain a nonstop scream?” Lyria narrowed her eyes. “Nonstop? Eight minutes at most. I’ll be completely exhausted after that. You’ll get nothing more out of me.”

    Frost sighed. That wasn’t a lot of time. “Eight minutes, eh? Better than nothing. See if you can push it to nine or ten.” Matheius spared Frost a glance, before turning his eyes back towards the approaching wyulfs. “Do you have an idea, Frost? Now would be a good time to share.”

    “I...might,” Frost said after a moment’s pause. “I’ll need around ten minutes of time, though. By which I mean, un-interrupted time. No dodging, weaving, and whacking dead dogs with a sword.” Matheius nodded. “Lyria?” “I’ll do what I can,” was her short response.

    Frost nodded, then paused. “Matheius. You do know where we need to be headed, right?” Matheius nodded. “Fine. As long as you know where we’re headed, then this might work. Hold on to those two,” Frost said, gesturing at Lyria and Graymaw. “Make sure you don’t lose your grip.” Matheius turned to look at Frost. “Hold onto them?” Frost nodded. “Yes. But first, give me your hand.”

    Keeping a wary eye on the surrounding wyulfs, Matheius extended his hand towards Frost. Then he snatched it back. “The hell?” Matheius had distinctly felt a blade slice shallowly into the side of his arm, and a quick glance confirmed what he had felt. A thin line of blood now flowed from a fresh cut on his arm. “What was that for?” Matheius asked, voice tense. “Don’t worry about it,” Frost replied. “Just hold onto them.” Matheius’ blood was now smeared on his own hand. With a grimace, Matheius nodded. He sheathed his sword, then reached out to take hold of Graymaw’s shoulder with his left hand, while slipping his right hand into Lyria’s.

    Lyria suddenly spoke. “Start, Frost. They’re coming again.” While Frost and Matheius were talking, the wyulfs had evidently decided that the two were distracted enough to warrant another attack attempt. And so, with fangs gnashing and cruel claws poised to rip and tear, they charged.

    Twenty feet. Fifteen feet. Ten. Lyria waited until the last moment, letting the wyulfs get as close to the party as possible. Then she screamed. There was no delicate way to put it. She screamed, and though the humans could not hear it, the air itself seemed to quiver from the force of that howl.

    Graymaw groaned, once again closing his eyes as Aurora covered his ears for him. Even the residual sound from that howl was incredibly painful for him. The dead wyulfs, whom the bulk of the scream was aimed at, were forced back, step by reluctant step. Being consumed by the mist had given them certain advantages and resistances...but this was just too painful, even for them.

    Ten feet. Fifteen feet. Twenty feet. As quickly as they had advanced, they now retreated, until they stood at a radius of roughly thirty or forty feet away from the group. At this distance, the banshee’s screams were still painful to hear, but not too painful to withstand, especially with the will of the mist flogging them onwards. They remained at that distance, going no further, and endured it, powered by the strength and toughness for which wyulfs, even dead ones, were legendary for. Waiting for the scream to end. As it would have to, sooner or later.

    But for now, Lyria’s scream went on and on, not abating and unflagging. The air itself shimmered, much like when hot air above an open furnace rose upwards. So great were the vibrations that Matheius fancied that he could even see each pulsating wave of sound expand outwards from the group in a giant ring.

    Frost simply stood there. His eyes were closed, and a look of the utmost concentration was on his face. His left hand, the one covered with Matheius’ blood, was extended outwards, palm facing the sky. His right hand was held vertically in front of his chest, palm facing inwards, with his index finger forming a ring with his thumb, while the other three fingers were straight. “The air here...it is so very dry,” Frost mumbled. Matheius glanced at him, but he seemed to be talking to himself. “So little moisture. But maybe enough.” In a lower tone, Frost muttered, “It will have to be enough.”

    The minutes passed, one by one, and Frost did not budge. More than once, Matheius wanted to shake him and ask him what was taking so long, or what he was planning, but he managed to forebear from doing so. He had to have faith. Once again, though, his index finger dipped to touch Ajatha; once again, it gleamed in response. And if faith alone wasn’t enough...

    “Dance...” Frost’s voice came out, an ethereal whisper floating on a rising wind. Matheius turned his gaze away from the circle of dead wyulfs around them to Frost. Frost’s eyes were open, now, and an unearthly glow was emanating from those white pupils.

    Something cold and wet touched Matheius on his left arm. He glanced at it. It was a single, small snowflake, red in color. With one finger, he lifted the rapidly melting snowflake to his nose and sniffed. Blood, he thought to himself. My blood, he realized a moment later.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Matheius noticed Lyria’s lips closing. Her red hair had turned wholly white by now, and her beautiful features replaced by the rotting black face of the banshee which he had seen back in Sargon. That hideous head turned towards Matheius, and she shook it. Evidently, she was exhausted.

    The dead wyulfs shook their heads as well as they once more began to tighten the circle around the party. Their fangs were bared, but they did not growl. They were silent as the onset of death itself. But all of a sudden, they stopped. A wary, confused look appeared on those evil faces as they gazed upwards at the sky.

    More snowflakes had begun to descend from the heavens, all of them red in color. A chill wind had arisen, blowing gently at first, but with growing vigor, causing the increasingly-heavy snowfall to swirl about as though caught in a tempest. And once more, Matheius heard Frost’s whisper. “Dance of the Crimson Snow.”

    The bloody snowfall suddenly thickened dramatically, to the point where vision of anything one or two feet beyond one’s eyes was lost. The thick, pungent scent of blood filled the air. Its stench was overpowering, crowding out all other smells. The wind screamed. It blew with gale-like force, and as it ripped through the area, its howling screech drowned out any other sounds which might have been made.

    It was a raging, howling blizzard of bloody snow, and it tore through the party, battering them with hammer-like blows of wind, taking away their senses of sight, sound, and smell, leaving only that of touch. If it weren’t for the fact that they were all holding on to each other, they would have never been able to locate each other in the midst of this storm, even if they had been only two feet apart.

    As long as you know where we’re headed, then this might work. Hold on to those two. Frost’s words from earlier returned to Matheius’ mind. Of course. This must be what Frost meant. The five of them weren’t the only ones who would be blinded by the snowstorm. The dead wyulfs would be as well.

    “No matter what, hold on!” Matheius shouted, tightening his own grip around Lyria’s hand and Graymaw’s shoulder. It wasn’t difficult for him to do so; it was so cold that his fingers had already began to stiffen. The wind blew the sound of his voice away, and he couldn’t be sure if he had been heard, but he would hope he had. He slowly began to walk forward, applying a tugging pressure on each hand.

    To his left, Graymaw moved with him. To his right, Lyria did as well, and he felt an answering pressure from Lyria’s hand. Her hand felt almost bird-like; hard, with sharp edges. Suddenly, Matheius was reminded of those terrible claws which the banshee was possessed of. He shuddered, and not just because of the cold.

    The red snow battered at Matheius’ face, some of it melting on contact and filling his mouths with the taste of his own blood. Within moments, it had begun to re-freeze, as more and more snow continued to accumulate on his face, forming a ghastly mask of bloody ice. He was tempted to wipe his face, but couldn’t. The risk of losing contact with the other two was too great.

    It was slow going. Partially, because of the need to maintain lockstep. Mainly, because the force of the gale which Frost had conjured was so strong, it was difficult to keep their footing. But together, step by step, they made their way through the crush of bloody snow. And then, suddenly the temperature increased, and the sound and pressure of the howling wind disappeared entirely as they found themselves outside the radius of the storm.

    Finally, Matheius let go of the others. His face was covered with nearly half an inch of compacted snow, and it was with no little effort that he wiped it all away away before turning to look at the other three.

    Lyria’s form was still ghastly, if not as horrible to behold as it had been earlier, when she had exhausted herself. Even those few minutes of ‘rest’ seemed to have done her some good. Before Matheius’ very eyes, ‘life’ seemed to be returning to her. Her wasted features were beginning to fill up, and her hair was no longer as pure white as before. Even her claw-like hands were becoming smoother. It was as though her earlier appearance was nothing more than a passing dream, or an illusion. Matheius shook his head fractionally. No. He knew better. This was the illusion.

    Aurora, seated still on Graymaw’s back, seemed perfectly fine as always, although she was repeatedly spitting, a grimace on her face. Matheius didn’t blame her. He didn’t think his own blood tasted very nice either. The only person whom Matheius was truly worried about was Graymaw. The wyulf seemed to have come out of the storm decidedly worse for the wear, his massive frame shivering repeatedly. Hard to get warmed up if you haven’t eaten for weeks. And with all that blood he’s lost...

    “Frost is full of surprises,” Lyria murmured after a moment. Matheius turned his gaze away from the wyulf towards her. Her gaze was fixed on the storm, and Matheius looked at it as well. Then he nodded. “That he is.”

    The energy of the storm evidently was tightly and finely controlled. Staring directly into the storm, within the radius of it, nothing could be seen at all. But outside the circular radius, not a single flake of snowfall could be seen, nor a single breath of wind could be felt. Viewing it from the outside, it seemed surprisingly small for the amount of time it had took them to pass through it; it was perhaps no more than a few hundred feet in diameter at most. Certainly not more than five hundred.

    “Let’s get moving. That storm won’t last forever,” Matheius said after a moment’s contemplation. Following his own advice, he turned away from the storm, beginning to walk away from it when Lyria placed her hand on his right arm. “Wait.”

    Matheius hissed slightly. She had a strong grip, and her hand came down directly on top of the wound which Frost inflicted to draw out his blood. Why Frost couldn’t have used his own, Matheius didn’t know. “What?” He snapped, more harshly than he intended. Lyria stared at him coolly, not releasing his arm. “We should wait for Frost.”

    With a twitch, Matheius tore his arm free, as a more blood flowed from the cut in the process. “It’s his storm. He’ll be fine. Let’s move.” Without another word, he started to walk again. Graymaw followed him, and after a moment’s hesitation, Lyria did as well.

    They hadn’t made it far-perhaps thirty feet-when they heard a panting shout from behind them. “Some friends you guys are. Wait for me!” Matheius smiled tightly at Lyria, then turned. Frost had stepped out of the blizzard, as immaculate as always. Somehow, he managed to make it out of even that bloody storm with his clothes as white as they ever were.

    “We don’t have all-” Matheius began, then his eyes widened. Behind Frost, a bloody specter with sickly, flaming orange eyes had appeared in the air, fangs bared and paws outstretched. Its tattered fur was matted with crimson snow so thickly as that its already-massive bulk seemed even larger. The heavy amount of snow which the dead wyulf carried on it didn’t seem to have slowed it down at all as it descended towards Frost.

    Matheius began to shout a word of warning, but knew in his heart that it would be too late. It felt as though time itself had slowed to a crawl, as Matheius watched in horror. Frost seemed to have sensed that something was amiss, and was turning his head, but far too slowly. He wasn’t going to see it in time, much less dodge it.

    The dead wyulf was at least three times Frost’s size, and as it descended towards him, wreathed by trails of red snow, it appeared as though it were a giant windigo demon which had erupted from the still-howling blizzard, prepared to deal the man a hammer-like blow and bury him underneath its massive bulk. Frost couldn’t dodge that, couldn’t block that. In a situation like that, Matheius didn’t think even he himself could have.

    Thump. Matheius’ heart beat once. Not a second had passed, yet it felt as though the demonic creature had been hanging in the air an interminably long time. Thump. His heart beat again, and the creature began its descent. Matheius knew that by the next one, Frost would be buried underneath the wyulf. Thump. The wyulf descended...and in that same heart beat, it was thrust back.

    All four of them watched, astonished, as what could only be described as a giant icicle, or perhaps a frozen stalactite, appeared from Frost’s back. It erupted from Frost’s lower spine, the tip of it piercing the wyulf in the chest, thrusting it backwards as it expanded. One foot. Five feet. Ten feet. With incredible speed, it continued to grow, as it pushed the wyulf back, deep into the snowstorm until both the tip and the impaled wyulf disappeared within it. Thump. Matheius’ heart beat again. And as quickly as the icy spear had appeared it now shrunk and retracted, sans wyulf, back into what appeared to be Frost’s spine. And time returned to normal.

    “Damn.” Frost muttered quietly to himself as he began to walk towards the group. Matheius glanced aside at Lyria, and found her looking back at him as well. She raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged. His voice entirely neutral, devoid of all emotion. “As you said. Full of surprises.”

    Within moments, Frost arrived at where the rest of the group was. In a cheerful tone, Frost said, “Damned curs don’t know when to give up. We’d best be moving.” He sounded as though nothing out of the usual had happened, then gestured at the still-raging snowstorm behind them. “That isn’t going to last much longer. Another ten minutes at the most. Wherever you’re leading us, it better be close.”

    Matheius stared at Frost expressionlessly for several long seconds, head slightly cocked. After a moment, Matheius said, “Ten minutes?” Frost shrugged. “About.” Slowly, Matheius nodded. “Fine. Let’s move.” And they did.

    Frost was true to his prediction. Ten minutes later, almost to the second, Graymaw let out a growl, and Matheius nodded at him. “They’re back.” He couldn’t see them, of course. And he definitely couldn’t hear them coming. But they were. He could feel them. They were coming, and coming fast. Far faster than the party was moving.

    “Told you so.” Frost sounded far too cheerful. “How much farther? Will we make it?” Matheius’ lips tightened. They were close, now, very close. For the past ten minutes, they had been making their way deeper into the forest as quickly as they could. But the trees were becoming more and more thickly grown, slowing their movement speed down. And in addition…Matheius shook his head, trying to push away the thought. But Graymaw’s panting response gave voice to Matheius’ concern. “Not if I stay with you.”

    As Matheius had feared, Frost’s storm had sapped the last of the energy from the great wyulf. Already slowed, Graymaw’s movement was now positively sluggish. He panted with each step he took, and despite Aurora’s encouragements, was moving more slowly by the moment.

    “What do you-” Matheius began, but Graymaw let out a derisive growl. “You know what I mean.” The wyulf came to a full stop he gazed all about himself. “The trees here are thick. We might as well be surrounded by a pair of those walls you Two-Legs are so fond of,” he growled after a moment. “Even I just barely fit in here, as thin and bony as I’ve become. If they want to pass through here…” Graymaw’s voice was combative and grim. “They will have to do so, one by one.”

    Graymaw said nothing more. There was nothing more he needed to say. With a twitch of those once-broad shoulders, he sent Aurora tumbling off his back. She landed with an undignified squawk, then clambered to her feet, staring at Graymaw with an annoyed lack of comprehension on her face. “What was that for?” She demanded.

    Graymaw didn’t respond verbally, turning away without a word to her towards the direction from which the dead wyulfs would have to come. Take care of her, Heartkin, Graymaw Sent to Matheius. It was the first and only time in all these days that Graymaw had initiated conversation with him in this manner.

    Matheius’ jaw clenched slightly, as he reached down and lifted Aurora onto his back. “I can walk by myself,” she complained half-heartedly, but made no effort to resist as she settled her arms around Matheius’ neck. Her eyes were fixed on Graymaw, a confused pout on her lips.

    I will, as though she were of my pack. By the Wild Hunt which pulls down even the highest, so it shall be. Some of the tension seemed to leave Graymaw’s frame. For your sake, the wyulf replied, you had best honor that promise. If you fail to, the Hunters will not let you off easily. Matheius forced out a smile. “Hunt well, Graymaw.” He said aloud.

    Die well, Matheius added silently as he walked away. If Matheius would have looked back, he would have seen Graymaw’s head raised high, a look of resolute pride on those emaciated features. And if Graymaw had turned his head, he would have seen Matheius’ fists clench so tightly that blood dripped from them.

    Graymaw did not turn his head.

    Matheius did not look back.

    “Where are we going?” Aurora demanded, as Matheius carried her away. She craned her head, staring at Graymaw’s rapidly receding form with a look of confusion on her face, intermingled with a hint of fear. “Why isn’t doggy moving?” No response from either of the three who remained. “We can’t leave him behind.” No response. “We can’t! Those bad doggies will hurt him!”

    Running alongside Matheius, Frost shrugged. “Better him alone than all us,” he commented. The expression on Matheius’ face darkened immediately, but he forced himself to hold his tongue. What Frost said was no more than the truth, callous though it sounded. That was why Graymaw had elected to stay behind. That was why Matheius had allowed him to.

    Aurora began to struggle, trying to free herself from Matheius’ grip. He easily held tight to her legs, as she tried to kick her way loose. “Hold still. Stop kicking.” Matheius ordered, but she just kicked all the harder. “No! Let me go! He was right, you are bad people,” she screamed. Tears were streaming down her face. “All of you. How can you just leave him? Let me go, I need to go get him!”

    Aurora began to box Matheius on the sides of his head, those tiny fists possessing a surprising degree of strength for such a little girl. “Knock it off,” Matheius gritted out, “Or I’ll knock you out.” That earned him disgusted look from Lyria, and an amused one from Frost. “You have a way with children, don’t you,” the latter panted.

    Unfortunately, the threat seemed to have no effect on Aurora. If anything, she screamed all the louder, and punched all the harder. The repeated blows to Matheius’ temple were actually making him wobble a little as the three continued to wind their way through those incredibly dense trees. Once or twice, he nearly stumbled over those large, knotted roots which blanketed the forest floor. And so he did the only thing he could think of. He knocked her out.

    “What?” A sound of incredulity in Frost’s voice. “You actually knocked her out? She’s just a kid, Matheius! I know she can be a bit annoying, but-” “Save it, Frost.” Matheius’ voice was as clipped as their pace. “If need be, I’ll apologize later.” Frost looked as though he wanted to argue some more, but Matheius held up his hand. “Listen. What do you hear?”

    Frost swallowed the complaint he was about to make and fell silent. After a moment, he said, a look of surprise on his face, “Water. I hear running water.” He looked aside at Lyria, who nodded back at him in agreement. “I hear it too,” she said. “Good,” Matheius said. “Then we will make it.”

    At that moment, a howl split the air, from off in the distance behind. It was a combative, defiant sound, carrying with it a distinct sense of a challenge being issued. Matheius refrained from looking back. “That’ll be Graymaw,” he murmured to the other two. “He’s letting us know that he’s engaged them. We need to hurry.”

    Only scant minutes later, a second howl was heard. This one still sounded defiant, but there was a note of pain mixed in. It also did not sound nearly as strong or as loud as the previous one. Frost and Lyria looked at Matheius questioningly, but he only shook his head, a grim look on his face.

    Almost exactly one minute after the second howl, a third and final howl was heard. It was a sound of defiance intermingled with acceptance, carrying with it a sensation of finality, of cessation. Matheius slowed his pace down for a brief moment upon hearing that sound, as he felt a faint, dying mind brush his own. Remember your promise, it whispered to him. Then the last echoes of that howl died, and so too did the Sending fade away.

    You really do leave a trail of corpses in your wake, a nasty little voice whispered in his mind. Who will die next? The banshee? The little girl? Or maybe Frost, your newest ‘friend’. Based on your track record, probably Frost, the voice taunted him, then cackled insanely. Matheius bit his lips hard. Once more, the taste of his own blood filled his mouth. “Shut up,” he muttered to himself.

    “I didn’t say anything!” Frost protested, thinking the comment directed towards himself. In all fairness, it usually was. Matheius shook his head. “Not you.” A tight smile was on Lyria’s face. “I didn’t say anything either.” Matheius growled. “Never mind. Just ignore that.”

    The sound of water was growing louder and louder now, even as the trees of the forest continued to grow closer and closer to each other. Despite their haste, their pace slowed down, as they were now half-jogging, half-climbing through dense undergrowth and massive, raised roots that came to above their waists in height. The water sounded so very close, but such was the density of the foliage around them that it was nowhere to be seen.

    Then all of a sudden, the forest came to an end. It was a sharp transition; one moment, they might have been in the deepest part of the thickest jungle known to man. Then the next, not a single tree could be seen in front of them. Instead, the party found themselves on a riverbank, before a massive river.

    The river was extremely wide, to the point where they could barely see the other side. Neither the origin nor the destination of the river could be seen. For all they could tell, it could have stretched from one edge of the world to the other. Such was the sense of grandness which it projected. Nowhere as far as their eyes could see was a bridge linking this side to the opposite shore to be found. That seemed fitting. Somehow, Matheius had the illogical feeling that the river wouldn’t have brooked that.

    The water of the river was dark in color, almost black, and utterly opaque. It reflected nothing; not the dark, cloudy sky, and not the features of the three who stood before it. The surface of the river was utterly tranquil, without so much as a ripple disrupting its smooth, flat perfection. It could barely be told that the river was flowing, and not still. Not a single thing lay on that surface; no insects, no algae, and certainly no birds or fish.

    “Well.” Frost said after a moment. “I’m assuming we aren’t here to take a dip. Are we going to cross it?” Matheius nodded. “How?” Frost asked. “Swim?” “Actually,” Matheius said slowly, “I was planning on having you freeze it, then walk across it.”

    Frost stared at him. “You aren’t serious. You can’t be serious.” Matheius shifted Aurora on his back, redistributing her weight. She mumbled as he did so; evidently, she was starting to come to. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to knock her out again. He shrugged at Frost and turned away, beginning to walk down the shoreline. Behind him, he heard Frost mumble to Lyria. “He isn’t serious, is he? Tell me he isn’t serious.”

    “I’m not serious,” Matheius called back. “This way. Look up ahead.” Frost glanced in the direction where Matheius pointed. A tiny boat could be seen, off in the distance. “We’ll take it to the other side.” After a few moments, Frost and Lyria caught up to Matheius. “How did you know there would be a boat?” Frost asked, a hint of suspicion in his voice. “Bit of a lucky guess there, if it was a guess, isn’t it? In fact, how did you even know there was a river, here?”

    Matheius’ forefinger brushed the hilt of his sword as he answered. “When you tell me how you summoned a snowstorm of blood, and grew a giant ice spike out of your spine, I’ll answer,” he replied evenly. “Until then, I think I’ll keep that information to myself.” Frost raised an eyebrow. “Now, that’s not a friendly gesture,” he reprimanded. Matheius shrugged. “I’m not always a friendly person.”

    Lyria let out a cold, amused chuckle. “Boys,” she said, voice sardonic and derisive. In unison, both Frost and Matheius glared at her, and she met both gazes with an utterly unflappable visage. After a few moments, Matheius broke the gaze. Each time he stared at her face for too long, those empty sockets seemed to reappear, overlaid on her illusory eyes. It, and she, unnerved him. Or perhaps it was his own guilt which made him feel so very uncomfortable.

    The boat in the distance became larger as they closed in on it. It was a small rowboat, of an ancient-looking design and make. It appeared to be made out of wood so warped and splintered with age that it could fall apart at any moment, and Frost gazed at it askance.

    As they drew even closer, they saw that the ground in front of the boat was littered with skeletons of all sorts of creatures. Many seemed human, but there were also animal skeletons, and some which none of them could identify. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, and yet not a hint of clothing, flesh, or skin could be seen. Only bones, long since bleached white by the passing of time.

    A skinny old man rested at the front of the boat, a large straw hat covering his face. His arms were thin but wiry, and mottled with age. His own clothing was hardly more than rags and a loincloth, adequate for covering little more than his modesty, and scant else.

    With a vague sense of foreboding, Matheius carefully picked his way through the field of bones, trying not to disturb them. Lyria seemed to be of a like mind, but Frost showed no such compunction. He cheerfully stomped his way through the skeletons, grinding them underfoot. A series of sharp cracking sounds could be heard with each step he took.

    Finally, the three reached the boat. The old man ignored their presence, barely moving and not making a sound. Only the slight rise and fall of his chest signaled that he was even alive. Matheius glanced at Frost, then cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he said. When the old man didn’t respond, he cleared his throat again, more loudly. “Excuse me,” he repeated.

    “I heard you the first time,” the old man said without moving. His voice was thin, high, and scratchy, an altogether unpleasant sound. “Let me guess. You want to cross the river. Everyone wants to cross the river. That’s why you come here. Am I right?”

    “Perfectly right, old timer,” Frost interjected. “You’d best want to cross the river as well, if you know what’s good for you. Not that I’m threatening you, but there’s a large pack of rather vicious dogs that aren’t far behind us, and if you don’t hurry, things could get a bit less than pleasant for all of us.”

    The old man seemed less than impressed. “Actually,” the old man said, “Whatever they are, they’re already here.” Without removing the hat which was covering his eyes and face, he pointed behind the group. As one, the three of them turned to stare at where his finger was pointing.

    The twelve giant, undead wyulfs had stepped out of the forest, a few dozen feet away from the shoreline. Several of them seemed wounded. One had a large, gaping hole in its chest; the one which Frost had injured, no doubt. At least two others suffered from various fang and claw marks. None of them seemed to be seriously impaired by the injuries. They spread out, forming a semi-circle with a radius of twenty feet or so around the boat. But for some reason, they seemed unwilling to approach the group any further.

    “Don’t bother,” the old man said, as Matheius and Frost began to draw their swords. “They won’t get any closer. They know better than to. I recognize them, and they recognizes me. An old friend, an old enemy, the Host is.” The old man let out a yawn. “Besides,” he added. “They don’t have to get closer. There’s nowhere for you to go, after all. They can wait you out.”

    “Not if you take us across the river,” Frost pointed out, quite reasonably in his opinion, but the old man only yawned again. It was a loud, lazy sound. “If,” the old man finally replied, after the yawn ended. “I could, I suppose. Fine. Rules are rules. If you can pay the toll, I’ll take you across. If not, you’ll have to get in line and wait in the queue, just like everyone else.”

    “Queue? What queue? There’s no one else here!” Frost said incredulously, but the old man only shrugged. “Rules are rules. And, I have to warn you, if you opt to wait in line, there is a minimum waiting period, in order to be eligible to join the queue.” Matheius spoke. “Waiting period? How long?” The old man shrugged his skinny little shoulders. “Not long at all. With the relative lack of travelers, it was recently lowered to just a hundred years.”

    “A hundred years?” Frost yelped. “We’ll be long dead by then!” Underneath the straw hat, the old man seemed to nod, as he gestured towards the bone field in which the three stood. “The anecdotal evidence does seem to support that assertion,” the old man commented. “Maybe it will be shortened again in the future. We’ll have to see.”

    Frost was about to protest further, but Matheius raised his hand. “And the toll?” Matheius asked. “Fifty thousand gold pieces,” the old man replied. “Not a single piece less.” The three of them stared at the old man. “Fifty thousand?” Matheius said slowly. The straw hat bobbed up and down. “We wouldn’t even be able to walk if we carried that many gold coins on us.” The straw hat bobbed up and down again, and the old man once more gestured towards the bones which littered the ground. “That sounds familiar. That’s what they said too.”

    Lyria spoke. “Or, option three. We just take your boat.” Frost nodded vigorously in agreement. “I like option three better,” Frost said. The old man let out a sharp bark of laughter. “Hah! You can try.” His hand made a beckoning motion in Frost’s general direction. “I am serious. Come and try. If you can move this boat, I’ll give it to you and retire. You can have this thankless job.”

    “How generous of you,” Frost replied dryly, as he hopped into the rowboat. Strange. It seemed much larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside. It didn’t seem as though more than two or three could squeeze in, but once he actually stepped foot inside, Frost had a feeling that it could have comfortably fit dozens of people.

    Frost seized an oar, preparing to paddle...or rather, he tried to. Much to his surprise, he found that he couldn’t even budge it. He tried to lift it up again, exerting even more force. The oar didn’t even twitch. Giving up, Frost turned to glare at the old man. “What type of trick is this?” Frost demanded. “What’d you do, fill the oars with lead and tie them down to anchors?”

    “No trick,” the old man replied. “This is my boat, and these are my oars. No one can move them but me. Not even the gods themselves.” There was a hint of no little pride in his voice. “Looks like option three isn’t going to work after all.” The old man’s voice was biting. “Now, if you don’t mind, go somewhere else, unless you’re willing to wait or to pay. If you happen to die nearby, try and die quietly. An old man is trying to get his sleep.”

    Frost narrowed his eyes. This entire time, the old man’s face had been covered by the straw hat; the ferryman hadn’t even so much as cared to look at them. Well and truly annoyed, Frost suddenly reached out and snatched that hat away from him, then leaped off the boat. The old man’s face was finally revealed. Surprisingly, the old man appeared quite normal looking, if old, wrinkled, and crusty.

    The old man’s eyes remained closed. He took a deep breath, holding it for a long moment, before releasing it. “That wasn’t a good idea, kid,” he said, his right hand settling on one of the oars, lifting it out of the water as though it were weightless. “Looks like you chose option three after all. Or, as I call it, I beat the hell out of you, then feed you to the fishes.”

    The old man opened his eyes, glancing at each one in turn. He raised an eyebrow upon seeing Lyria, and blinked twice at seeing Frost. When his gaze came to Aurora, still unconscious and resting on Matheius’ back, he visibly did a double-take. But when his gaze rested on Matheius, his eyes widened almost comically, and he shot to his feet.

    “Kerbero? Kerbero-damos?!” The old man asked, a thunderstruck expression on his face. Matheius blinked. Huh? The old man leaped out of the boat with a single bound, dropping the oar back into the water. His movement was so quick that Matheius was almost startled enough to draw his sword.

    Ignoring the others, the old man walked straight up in front of Matheius, his gaze never leaving Matheius’ face. He didn’t stop until he was less than a foot away, eyes intent. In a rapid-fire voice, the old man said, “Ti vul simosi Kerbero-damos? Lo simosi Kharon-vedel, ti kunha. Ti zedi lo?”

    Matheius opened his mouth, but wasn’t sure what to say. He glanced aside at both Lyria and Frost, but both only shrugged back at him. Their expressions were clueless. As clueless as his own, probably. After a moment, Matheius carefully responded, “Sorry. I don’t understand. I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

    The old man’s eyes remained locked onto Matheius’ face, as though scanning it for information. A curious, almost worshipful look was on his face. Long moments passed in silence, before the old man stepped back and nodded. “Must have.” He jerked a thumb behind him. “Go on. Get in.”

    “Just like that?” Frost asked. The old man turned to glare at Frost. “Actually, you aren’t welcome. But I suppose you can come too.” He once more turned to look at Matheius. “For the sake of...that old friend I mistook you for,” the old man said softly. Once again, he jerked his thumb towards his boat. “Now get in.”

    Outside, half-forgotten, the dead wyulfs trembled, the mist animating them filled with rage as the party entered the boat. It was filled with fury, but was impotent. It wouldn’t go near old man Kharon, not while he was so close to that fearful river. It made that mistake before, long ago. It wouldn’t make the mistake again. And so it could only watch as the tiny boat disappeared into the distance, its prey having escaped it yet again. This time, for good. But the mist consoled itself. One out of four was better than none out of four. And the mist remembered them, now. If any of the three ever returned, it would be waiting for them, next time. It could be patient, indeed.

    Aurora had woken up just moments after they had gotten on the boat. Quite understandably, she was distraught, and wailed and cried so long and so hard that even Frost was half-tempted to knock her out.

    Matheius didn’t know what explanation to give her. He knew what he would’ve told a fellow warrior or soldier. But a little girl? He had no idea how to handle the situation, but silence didn’t seem to be helping. Finally, he turned and looked with something bordering desperation in his eyes towards Lyria. She smiled thinly at him, but took Aurora from Matheius’ hands, and began talking quietly to the girl. Matheius didn’t hear what was said, but whatever it was, it seemed to help. The wailing sobs turned into a series of loud sniffles instead, for which Matheius was thankful indeed.

    The boat-ride itself did not take long; a half-hour at most, perhaps. The old man said not a single word throughout the ride, although Matheius noticed that whenever the old man thought that he was looking elsewhere, the old man would stare at him. If Matheius glanced back at him, he would quickly avert his gaze. It made Matheius feel more than a little uncomfortable. Finally, the row-boat came to a halt. “Here we are,” the old man said gruffly. “Now get off my boat.”

    They stared at him. “Here?” Frost asked, pointing to the land. The old man had taken to what could be described as a miniscule patch of earth in the middle of the river. It was perhaps no more than five feet by five feet in size. The four of them could barely stand together on the patch. “I think you must be mistaken,” Frost said. “We were hoping you could get us to the other side. Not on an ant-sized island.”

    “Are you the ferryman, or am I?” The old man retorted irritably. “Here is where you need to go, and here is where I’ve taken you.” The old man pointed at Matheius. “Ask him. He probably knows. He’ll tell you.” Frost turned to look at Matheius. “Matheius?” Frost said, using the latter’s name as a question. Matheius hesitated, stroking the hilt of his sword, before nodding. “He’s right. Here is where we need to go.”

    “You guys are all crazy,” Frost mumbled cheerfully as he stood up. “Fine. I’ll go first. Land ahoy!” Wobbling just a little, he stepped off of the boat, onto the small patch of land. And promptly vanished. The old man raised his eyebrow. “Next. Get a move on. I want to go finish my nap.”

    Lyria helped the still-sniffling Aurora off the boat, then joined her on the miniature island as well. Both of them vanished, leaving only Matheius and the old man left. Once again, the old man was staring at him, a strange expression on his face. Matheius cleared his throat. “Well then,” he said, as he began to stand.

    The old man suddenly rushed him, catching Matheius off guard and bearhugging him. The ferryman pounded Matheius on the back so hard, Matheius thought his organs would come out. “Keare ti katu, Kerbero,” he whispered into Matheius’ ear, before releasing him and taking a step back and clearing his own throat. “Now get off my boat,” he whispered in a husky voice, as he once again donned his straw hat, covering his face and eyes.

    Matheius stared at him for a long moment. Suddenly, he felt as though he knew this person after all, although when, or where, he couldn’t say. Bits and pieces of memory swirled about him, tantalizing, but disappearing whenever Matheius tried to reach for them. Matheius could only shake his head. “Thank you for the ride,” he said. Then he, too, stepped off the boat.

    Everything changed in that moment. The dark, dreary clouds disappeared. The sky turned a rich, deep blue, and the sun turned radiant. Colors seemed to return to the world, all at once, as though whatever had been leached out in the Gray Twilight had suddenly been replaced. It was both beautiful and dizzying.

    The air grew colder, but was crisp and clean, and had the smell of life. The water around him disappeared, and was replaced by a carpet of freshly fallen snow. They were in a forest, but one made white and beautiful with snow. Something cold touched Matheius’ face, and as he looked up, he saw a few beautiful snowflakes drift about in the gentle breeze. And for the first time in what felt far too long, Matheius heard birdsong. Matheius let out a single sigh. That sigh spoke more than he possibly could have said in words.

    “I know,” said Frost from behind. Matheius turned and shared delighted grins with him. Aurora had stopped sniffling, as she stared in awe at the beautiful surroundings. And even on Lyria’s cold, beautiful face, Matheius thought he saw, for one brief moment, a hint of a gentle smile. “This,” Frost proclaimed, “This is what being alive is all about. Hell, I’d almost forgotten.” Matheius nodded at Frost. There was no way he could disagree with that.

    And that’s when the ground beneath their feet exploded.

    Author's note: Shucks, just in the past couple of days, the rating went from 4.5 out of 2, to 3.17 out of 6, meaning that in the span of a few days, this was rated 4 times at an average of 2.5. I must have annoyed someone, or some people must really dislike this . If it's the latter, I sure wish/hope you'd come and actually tell me!
    Last edited by Ren Wo Xing; 02-11-08 at 05:40 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.

  13. #53
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    RWX, Don't let yourself be upset by the rating..just ignore it; i love your story n am now a dieheart fan of yours ; b

  14. #54
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    If it's any consolation, my GUNDAM fanfic took a similar hit during the week. I think somebody's pranking us.

  15. #55
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ren Wo Xing View Post
    Author's note: Shucks, just in the past couple of days, the rating went from 4.5 out of 2, to 3.17 out of 6, meaning that in the span of a few days, this was rated 4 times at an average of 2.5. I must have annoyed someone, or some people must really dislike this . If it's the latter, I sure wish/hope you'd come and actually tell me!
    Hmm, sounds like a planned scheme!

    In any case, how do you view the rating information, such as how many people voted, and what is the exact rating?
    TC to Ken: "You need to watch the ending of ROCH 83."

  16. #56
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Chapter 18: A Murder of Crows

    Tuoh and Spectre were arguing again. Several times in the past few weeks, it felt to Tuoh as though Spectre was deliberately belittling him before his men. And more than a few times, Tuoh knew that Spectre was belittling him to his face. It made the elder magus furious, all the more so because while none of the Lord-Captains of the Ravens were ever overly courteous, he had never been disparaged so much to his face. That, and the red stone set in his head, served as a constant reminder of what he had lost.

    “For the last time, Spectre,” Tuoh barked. “Stop trying to undermine my authority. This is my mission!” “Your mission?” Spectre countered in that disturbingly calm, eerie voice of his. “This is your Master’s mission, Archmagus. You would do well to remember that.” Tuoh growled. “I remember that quite well, Captain. I also remember quite well that-”

    “Lord Archmagus.” A voice interrupted their argument. “I have news.” Tuoh glanced at the silver-haired person who just spoke. Senschal, his lieutenant and most trusted servant. He had served House Delmonda for almost as long as Tuoh had been an Archmagus. Senschal was a true telepath, a rare individual even amongst mages, and was now serving in the capacity of operations and communications coordinator for this matter. His face was a mask of concentration as he communicated between all of the eight teams stationed in the area.

    “Scryer Yanji sends his compliments, and reports that the scryers have detected a rapidly increasing spike in energy flux in the target area.” Senschal paused for a moment, then continued. “The exact patterns are different from any that we have encountered previously, but the structure seems to be analogous to our gate spells.” Another pause. “If their assumptions are correct, the energy should plateau to a level which would allow for someone to be transported here within thirty seconds.” Senschal turned to look at Tuoh. “Your orders, Lord?”

    The Archmagus rose from the carved stone chair upon which he sat. He purposely refrained from glancing at either Owl or Spectre. He held command for this mission. “Inform all teams of the situation. Teams one through four should begin to prepare the interdiction spell. Five through eight should be on alert.”

    Senschal was silent for a moment, forehead furrowing in concentration, then smoothing out. “Interdiction spell prepared. All teams on standby alert, Lord.” “Good,” Tuoh said. “Have the scryers link in an image of the general location of the energy flux to my personal chambers.” “I already have, Lord,” Senschal answered. “It should be coming through now.”

    By now, both Owl and Spectre were on their feet, as they joined the Archmagus around the large scrying pool in the middle of the room. The circular pool, around five feet in radius, was Tuoh’s pride and joy, and one of the most valued heirlooms of House Delmonda.

    Most scryers opted to use water, as it was cheap, but could provide the clearest images due to its transmitive properties. More affluent scryers would use glass; the images that it generated, although not always as clear, was often more stable and less prone to being disrupted. Truly wealthy mages would use crystal, but House Delmonda possessed, as far as Tuoh knew, the one and only scrying pool which used the incredibly rare liquid crystal.

    As images appeared on the surface of the pool, its quality shone keenly. Tuoh imagined that he could see each flake of snow and every falling leaf, so clear and crisp was the picture. But he couldn’t afford to spend time to admire his treasured pool now. Far more important things were happening.

    “Scryers report that the energy flux has stabilized and reached a plateau, Lord,” Senschal reported, but Tuoh waved him to silence. He could tell that himself. A image of a man had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He was covered with a white cloak, and possessed a silvery head of hair. Tuoh couldn’t see his face, but knew well enough who that person had to have been, and Spectre confirmed it. “Frost,” the latter murmured.

    A moment later, a young, red-haired woman appeared out of thin air as well, followed almost immediately by a little girl with strawberry blonde hair who couldn’t have been much older than ten or eleven years of age. Tuoh glanced away from pool for a brief moment to look at his companions.

    “Who are they?” Tuoh asked. “No idea,” Spectre answered, whereas Owl only shrugged his shoulders. Tuoh’s lips twisted slightly as he returned his gaze to the scrying pool. He wasn’t too interested or worried in them, anyhow. There was only one person that he was really waiting for. One person he was just dying to see.

    Long seconds passed with no sign of the man who killed him, and a frown appeared on Tuoh’s face. Where is he? He wondered to himself. Surely he is still with them? Tuoh turned and glared in Spectre’s general direction. It was still too difficult to look at him directly. “Well?” Tuoh demanded. “You told me he would be here. You guaranteed he would be here. That is the only reason why we’ve been waiting here for several weeks, now.” Spectre’s reply was curt. “I told you that Frost would be here. I made no mention of the swordsman.”

    Tuoh was about to snap back, when a lazy comment from Owl interrupted him. “He’s here.” Both Tuoh and Spectre turned their gaze back to the pool. A slender, dark-haired man had appeared, one with a hard face and an even harder set of blue eyes. That face had almost been the last thing which Tuoh would see. Tuoh remembered that face.

    “He’s here after all,” Tuoh said. “Senschal, order the interdiction field to be created immediately.” “Done, Lord.” Tuoh nodded. “Are those four above any of the explosive spells we mined the area with?” In the weeks which they had spent waiting for the arrival of these long-awaited guests, Tuoh had ordered for the entire area to be filled with detonation spells underneath the ground. It had been his hope to knock out the enemy party in such a way with one swift stroke.

    “No, Lord. They are close to several, but aren’t standing directly on any,” Senschal reported almost immediately. Damn. “Detonate the closest ones anyhow,” Tuoh ordered. “That will knock them off balance.” “Done.” The image in the scrying pool suddenly brightened many fold and shook from the huge explosions which had erupted. They kicked up a thick cloud of dust, marring the pristine white perfection of the snow as well as blocking direct sight of the targets quarry. But even through the thick dust, Tuoh could see the faint blue haze which suddenly appeared. Rather unnecessarily, Senschal said, “Interdiction field has been created.”

    “Good.” Those four were trapped. There was no way out of the interdiction field, and the mages who maintained it were situated outside. Nothing and no one who had been caught within could escape the interdictor spell. No one. “Everyone needs to begin to play their parts. Teams five through eight will execute the plan as prepared.” Tuoh turned away from the pool, reaching for his battle-staff. “Let them know that I will be joining them personally.”

    “Ignore both of those last two commands, Lieutenant Senschal. I am taking command, now. Alert my Ravens.” Mid-reach, Tuoh’s hand froze, and he turned to stare at Spectre. “...what?” Spectre stared back at Tuoh evenly. Tuoh noted that he could look at Spectre directly in the face now, and noting, as he did, that Spectre was now wearing a black metal mask. The mask was carved to appear like the face of a long-extinct mythical creature. A dragon, Tuoh thought it was called. Was he wearing that earlier? A distant part of Tuoh’s mind wondered. I don’t think so.

    “I said,” Spectre replied, “That I am taking now command over this mission. Your mages will not move unless I personally authorize them to, and you yourself, Archmagus, are to stay here for the duration of the mission as well.” His voice was matter-of-fact. Tuoh’s face turned pale as he was swept with fury, his old fingers tightening around the shaft of his battle-staff.

    “Arzaiel put me-”, he began, eyes burning, only to be cut off by Spectre. “The Master,” Spectre said, voice stressing the second word slightly, “Places extreme importance on taking the target alive. He gave me very specific orders to ensure that it happens, and gave me permission to do what I must in order to guarantee that no...accidents...occur to him, in the course of the fight.” Spectre’s masked face betrayed no emotion, but Tuoh thought he saw a hint of derisive contempt in those stunningly black eyes.

    “You have no authority to-” Tuoh began, but was cut off once more. This time, by the burning, searing pain which erupted in his forehead. It felt as though the cursed jewel in his forehead had suddenly increased a thousand-fold in temperature, and was burning a hole straight through his skull, into his brain.

    His battle-staff clattered to the floor, released by suddenly nervous hands. It was followed shortly by a thudding sound as Tuoh, too, collapsed. For a full ten seconds, he writhed on the floor, consumed by the greatest pain he had ever imagined. Ten seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. Even when the burning sensation finally did die away, the pain lingered, departing only slowly.

    Face pressed to the ground, Tuoh saw a pair of black leather boots walk towards him. The movement and pace was unhurried and deliberate. When they came close, he cringed, afraid that he was going to be kicked...but the boots only stepped over his head, as though he didn’t even exist, as they continued on their way. Seconds later, Spectre’s voice could be heard from behind Tuoh’s form. “You have your orders. I expect you to follow them. My Ravens and I will handle everything.”

    Long minutes passed before Tuoh was able to sit up. Still longer, before he was able to rise to his feet, and that only with the support of his staff. Shuddering a little, he turned to glare accusingly at Owl. “Why didn’t you say anything?” Tuoh demanded. Owl only shrugged. “Nothing to say.”

    Forehead still throbbing painfully, Tuoh swore. “This is my operation!” He yelled, out of a mixed rage and humiliation. “What am I supposed to do now? Just sit here and stare at the scrying pool like an idiot?” He was livid enough that he almost brought his staff down against the pool, but he just barely managed to catch himself in time. Destroying his priceless family heirloom wouldn’t help matters at all.

    Owl sat down, leaning his arms against the side of the scrying pool, his fingers adopting a meditative posture as though he were seriously pondering the question. His lips were pursed, and his gaze was distant. For several minutes, Owl was silent, with the only sound in the room being that of Tuoh’s labored breathing. Finally, Owl turned his head towards Tuoh. He nodded. “Probably.”

    __________________________________

    Shit!

    That was the thought which entered Matheius’ mind when the beautiful, pristine image before him had suddenly exploded with hellfire. Several gigantic explosions had suddenly occurred nearby, and the force of a particularly close one had knocked him back a considerable difference. If it weren’t for the fact that he managed to stabilize himself mid-flight and come to a rolling descent, he might’ve been badly hurt.

    Slowly, Matheius stood up as he assessed his surroundings. He had been knocked some distance by the explosion. He could tell where it had occurred; an enormous cloud of dust had arisen, far off in the distance in the direction from which he had been thrown. None of his companions could be seen, and Matheius quickly scanned his memories for the last positions he had seen them hold. After a moment, he let out a relieved sigh. None of the explosions had occurred directly underneath them. With any luck, they would be alive.

    Where was he, anyhow? Who had laid an ambush for them here, and how did they know? One of the questions was answered as the sunlight suddenly turned blue. Matheius raised his head towards the sky. A dome of blue light had appeared, stretching across the sky and covering a vast distance. An interdiction spell, Frost had called it.

    Damn. Mages. Matheius shook his head. The chances of this being coincidental or accidental had just dropped to be vanishingly small. He had been set up. With a light snick, Matheius drew his sword. Wielding Ajatha in his left hand, Matheius began to walk in the direction of the explosions, where he had been earlier. He needed to find his companions.

    His pace was slow, as he winded his way through the snowy woods, sword in hand. It had to be. He needed to be careful. And as he continued to walk, his pace became progressively slower, until after only a few minutes, he came to a stop entirely.

    He bent his waist as he stuck his sword into the snow-covered ground. The sword slipped into the hard, frozen earth as easily as though it were slipping into a sheath. With a tired, wry half-smile on his face, Matheius straightened his back as he stood up straight again. He glanced to his left. Then to his right.

    “All of you might as well come out.”
    __________________________________

    As Vedan was silently making his way through the woods towards the area where the explosions had occurred, he heard someone shouting in the near distance.

    “Help! I need help!”

    It was the voice of Dredal, one of his subordinates. Startled, Vedan turned his head in the direction from which it came. It was some twenty feet away from him, to the south. That isn’t where Dredal was stationed. I thought he was set to guard the perimeter. What the hell is he doing there? The Raven wondered to himself.

    The crow-shape masked hid the confusion which showed on his face as Dredal hesitated. He had his orders, to search for and locate the two or three criminals which were expected to show up here, but he couldn’t just ignore Dredal either.

    “Help! Can someone please help me?” Dredal’s voice could be heard again, more desperate than before. Vedan growled. Hells. A grimace on his face, he headed in the direction of Dredal’s voice, temporarily setting his orders aside. Ravens, even new ones, were too valuable to lose.

    There were enough men on this mission, anyhow. The powers that be had ordered three full Murders of them to carry out this task. Thirty Ravens! It was unheard of to send so many on any assignment. As the saying went, “One Raven is worth a regiment; ten of them, an army.” It was a saying which the Ravens bore with no small pride. And Spectre himself, one of the three legendary Lord-Captains, was commanding this mission!

    Everyone had been curious as to exactly what was going on, but for once, the Ravens had been completely stonewalled. None of them, Vedan knew, had been able to get any information at all about this mission, save that the orders had come from at least as high as the Commander, if not the Master himself. These people they had been assigned to capture must be valuable targets indeed.

    Vedan’s estimate was off by only very little. He found Dredal lying without his mask against a tree trunk, roughly twenty five feet from where he had first heard Dredal’s call. Judging from the way Dredal’s leg looked, it was broken, and badly at that. Vedan’s attention was split between Dredal and the corpse lying face down next to him.

    “What the hell are you doing here, Dredal?” Vedan demanded, as he squatted down by Dredal’s side. “And who the hell is that?” He gestured towards the corpse, but didn’t approach it just yet, his first priority to tend to his man. He gently touched the purple, swelling area on Dredal’s leg. Dredal screamed, and Vedan cursed. Definitely a broken leg.

    “I was sent to inspect the area, and make sure everything was set properly,” Dredal gasped out. “This man appeared out of nowhere, and suddenly, everything went to hell. The mages set off the explosions, and both of us were knocked flying by them. I made it. He didn’t.”

    Vedan nodded. There was something about Dredal’s story that seemed strange, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. It wasn’t his priority right now, anyhow. They had been ordered to take everyone alive. If one of them had wound up dead, even though it was no fault of the Ravens...

    Vedan let out a curse, then stepped over Dredal to examine the body. Just as he was about to turn it over, Dredal gasped, “Wait!” Vedan turned to look at Dredal. The man was sweating buckets, and his face was tight with pain. “What is it?” Vedan asked.

    “Need...to tell you...something,” Dredal gasped. Each word came out more slowly than the one before, and Vedan frowned. A broken leg shouldn’t be so debilitating for a Raven. Dredal must have suffered internal injuries. Once more, Vedan turned away from the corpse, kneeling down next to Dredal.

    “What?” The look on Dredal’s face was excruciating, as he seemed to struggle to force the words out. They came out as an incomprehensibly low whisper, and Vedan frowned again. “You have to speak louder. I can’t hear you,” Vedan said. A look of exasperation was mixed in with the pain on Dredal’s face, and he beckoned Vedan to come closer still. Vedan bent his head, leaning in so that his ear was directly next to Dredal’s lips. “What is it, Dredal? Tell me.”

    The word ‘me’ came out as a strangled gasp, as some cold, sharp, multi-pronged object suddenly punctured Vedan’s stomach. Underneath his mask, Vedan’s eyes went wide, as he jerked back. Trembling, he stared down to see what he had been stabbed with. His eyes went still wider as he saw what it was.

    It was Dredal’s hand! Only, it didn’t look like a hand. Blackened, hard, and sharp, it looked more like a claw from some decayed creature. Pain battling with uncomprehending fear, Vedan slowly turned his gaze upwards, to stare at ‘Dredal’s’ face.

    A hideous black visage with empty eye sockets grinned back at him. In that moment, fear won out, paralyzing Vedan’s entire body. He wanted to scream, but couldn’t muster out so much as a whimper. But even when the finally the fear released him, Vedan could no longer scream. He was dead.

    A few minutes later, ‘Vedan’ stood up.
    __________________________

    Shit.

    Remarkably, Frost’s first thought was the exact same as Matheius’ as the ground only a few feet to the left exploded. Out of all three of the adults, he was the closest to the explosions, and consequently tossed the farthest, and in the exact opposite direction of Matheius.

    Unlike Matheius, he didn’t roll when he fell to the earth. His white cloak fluttered as though brushed by a faint breeze, as he slowly, almost lazily descended from his fall. There was no impact at all when his feet touched the earth. The snow on which he landed didn’t even seem to register his weight, and he left behind no footprints. It was as though a spirit had descended from the heavens, gently setting foot on the snow but leaving no trace of its coming or passing.

    “Shit,” he repeated, this time out loud. His cheerful voice was at odds with the swear, and he shook his head, taking stock of the situation. What the hell had happened? The explosions were clearly fireball-mines; he himself had ordered their use in the past. But why here? Why now? His pupil-less white eyes narrowed in concentration, as he considered the problem.

    Suddenly, they widened, then narrowed again, as Frost spun around, staring towards the northwest. “Him?” Frost said aloud to himself, then nodded. “Has to be. That son of a *****.” His voice was still cheerful, but with a slight edge to it. “Oh, Owl, why couldn’t you keep your yap shut?” Frost let out a melodramatic sigh. Then again, after the debacle at the Temple of the Rising Sun, Owl probably had no choice but to discuss everything with the Master.

    “Well. Shit,” Frost said a third time, letting out a long breath. Then he smiled. It had to be Spectre, and Spectre was often difficult to deal with, but he wouldn’t be, this time. The grin on Frost’s face widened. He had something on his dear brother this time, that his brother didn’t know about.

    But what to do now? For a moment, Frost was torn between hunting for Matheius and the others, and confronting Spectre. After a moment’s hesitation, Frost decided on the latter. Matheius was a big boy. He could take care of himself, even if Frost repeatedly had to pull his bacon out of the fire. Spectre it was. He needed to get this nonsense brought to an end.

    As Frost began to walk to the northwest, he started to whistle. He couldn’t help it. Frost was, by nature, a cheerful, carefree fellow. The sound echoed in the otherwise silent forest, and several times, Frost was half-tempted to stop and admire the sound of his own opus. The sound was, Frost was quite certain, magnificent. But alas, he told himself, duty comes first.

    Several minutes passed. A bright, blue field popped up in the sky above, surrounding the entire area as far as Frost could see. For a brief moment, his whistling came to a pause, before he resumed it again. Enough mages had been brought here to create an interdiction field that large? This might be a bit more difficult than he had anticipated.

    A man dressed in black and wearing the mask of a Raven suddenly descended from the top of a tree. He landed with smoothness and grace, though it was nothing compared to Frost’s own descent. The Raven went down to one knee, standing in the way of Frost’s path. “Greetings, Lord-Captain Frost!” The Raven said. “Lord-Captain Spectre ordered me to bring you to-”

    The sentence was interrupted as Frost reached the place where the Raven was kneeling. Without even pausing, Frost casually kicked the Raven on the side, towards the left. The power of that kick was tremendous, and sent him flying ten feet in the air. This time, when the Raven touched earth, the landing wasn’t nearly so smooth.

    “Don’t patronize me. I hardly need you to tell me where my brother is,” Frost said casually, continuing his leisurely stroll without missing a beat. The Raven was unable to respond. He felt as though his organs had been crushed, and as he tried to stand up, he sank to the ground again in pain. He coughed, and a little blood came out from between his trembling lips. All he could do was watch Frost’s receding back, and listen as the sound of Frost whistling slowly faded away.

    For another period of time, Frost continued to walk and whistle, unimpeded and unencumbered. After ten or fifteen minutes, Frost came to a circular break in the woods, matted with a layer of freshly fallen snow. Walking to the center of the circle, Frost came to a halt and glanced at the surrounding trees. The woods here were particularly dark and silent

    “Alright, now. Here I am. Come out of hiding, brother dearest!” Frost called out cheerily. He received no response. Spinning around slowly, Frost carefully examined the entire area. “Come out, come out, where ever you are!” Frost said in a playful, childish tune.

    After waiting another moment, Frost said, still in that childish, sing-song voice, “I seeeeee you!” Suddenly, he swiveled around with blurring speed and pointed to a particularly dark area, at a place where the shadows of two large trees met. A small object flashed out from that fingertip, glittering under the sunlight as it flew through the air with a speed which even an expert crossbowman could only dream of.

    As it reached the intersecting shadow of the two trees, the small object suddenly came to a completely and sudden halt. Seeming to slowly rotate in mid-air, it appeared as nothing so much as a fingernail made out of ice. A hand reached out of the dark region, two slender fingers gently pinching the tiny projectile between them. Crunch! The bit of ice was crushed into tiny pieces of icy dust.

    “There you are, brother dearest,” Frost said, a grin on his face. “I told you I saw you. Why so shy? Come on, step outside of the shadows which I know you love so well. We need to chat.”

    A person, or rather, the outline of a person, stepped out from the trees. His entire body seemed blurred and indistinct, almost more insubstantial than substantial, as though it were almost, but not quite see-through. The only part of him which was sharp and defined and clearly visible was the Dragon mask which covered his face.

    “Oh, Spectre, Spectre, my dear brother, Spectre,” Frost said, a teasing, mocking edge to his voice. “I see you still like to pretend that you are a ghost.”

    “Oh, Frost, Frost, my dear brother, Frost,” Spectre retorted calmly. “I see you still like to pretend that you are a human.”

    __________________________
    “Hello? Is anyone there?” Only silence greeted Aurora’s call.

    “Helloooooooo?”

    The sound echoed in the seemingly empty woods for several long seconds. After the sound died away, Aurora was once more met with silence.

    “Where did everyone go?” The little girl wondered to herself. Things had gone BOOM and BANG for several seconds, and there was a lot of dust and snow flying all over the place. She didn’t see what happened to everyone, and now, everyone was missing.

    “Hello?” She tried again, to no response. She sat down on the snowy ground, back against a tree. A pair of fat tear wobbled in her eyes. The beautiful snowy forest, which had seemed so enchanting to her just moments ago, now interested her not one bit.

    “Where are you all?” Aurora whispered to herself. “You didn’t all leave me, did you?” Those two fat tears began to roll down her face, and were shortly followed by many others. “Now I’m all alone again.”

    She huddled, hugging her legs against her little chest. She thought of Graymaw, of her doggy, and she cried at him having been left behind. The nice lady had only made her feel better for a little while, but now, her doggy’s leaving-she refused to think of it as death-hit her again, hard. Even though she had only known him for a few weeks, it felt to her as though she had known him for years. She missed him badly.

    She thought of Frosty, and she cried even more. It wasn’t that she liked him that much. It was more that he was usually rather nice to her. Frosty humored her more than anyone else had, although she knew that her doggy cared about her more, and always made her smile and laugh with his jokes, even if she didn’t always understand them. She liked to joke with him too, like when she gave him that wormy apple. She wondered if he ever realized it was on purpose.

    Surprisingly, though, she found herself even crying for Mister Mat. She didn’t know why. Mister Mat wasn’t a nice person at all. He was a bad person. He had left her doggy behind, and he had hit her. Hard! But for some reason, now that she was all alone, she missed him as well, maybe even more than Frosty. He made Aurora feel safe, when he carried her. For some reason, Aurora knew that as long as Mister Mat was with her, she would be alright. But now, he was gone as well.

    She was all alone again. She had been alone before. She hated being alone. And so she cried, and she cried, and she cried. The tears flowed unceasingly, melting some of the snow by her side and forming a small, wet puddle underneath her. This made her only feel all the more miserable, as she cried some more.

    After a long time passed by, Aurora heard the sound of footsteps crunching on snow headed towards her, stopping one foot away. She raised her head, eyes swollen red, and vision blurry from tears. She sniffed, wiping her face and blinking rapidly to clear her vision. “Mister Mat?” She asked, hesitantly. “Is that you?” She rubbed at her eyes, trying to see the person’s face clearly.

    The mask of a Raven greeted her gaze.

    This one is hot and fresh off the presses, gents! Just completed.
    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. #57
    Senior Member Grundle's Avatar
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    Nice update! This story just gets better and better.

    I was sad to see doggy die though
    --=={Grundle}==--

  18. #58
    Moderator Ren Wo Xing's Avatar
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    Chapter 19: Ralian’s Heir

    A single snowflake fell from the sky.

    Its descent was gentle, slow and majestic. Nature had sculpted its form with loving care, giving it a unique shape and form. As the sunlight reflected off it, it gleamed with a luster which precious diamonds and rare crystals-poor imitations of it both-could only dream of.

    Frost’s pale white eyes appeared to have become drawn towards that snowflake. He was silent; his gaze, contemplative. He stood there watching it make its slow descent, a pleasant, almost peaceful smile on his face. What was he thinking about? No one could say. Not even Spectre, his ‘brother’, who stood a dozen feet in front of him.

    The beautiful, unique, perfectly shaped snowflake fell to the pure, snowy ground, joining with its uncountable multitudes of brethren. Instantly, it could no longer be distinguished from the others, and even Frost’s keen eyes lost track of it. Frost let out a long, wistful sigh, then turned to smile warmly at Spectre.

    “And I was wondering how those mages managed to wait for us here. So it was you, you old bugger,” Frost said cheerfully. “How long has it been? Five years? Ten?” Frost glanced around. “Where’s Blaze? Is our little sister here as well? We can have a regular family reunion if she is.”

    Spectre did not move at all. “No. She isn’t.” As always, his voice was absolutely devoid of inflection and passion. Frost let out a second sigh. “What a pity! Maybe another time. Now.” Frost smiled at Spectre, a twinkle in his eyes. Time to get to business. “Would you mind telling me what the bloody hell you boyos are doing here?”

    Spectre cocked his head silently. “I left specific instructions with Esmerelda back in Sarkham. I asked her to inform everyone that I was on a special mission, and that everyone was to adopt a hands off situation for now,” Frost said. “As Esmerelda is one of our finest spymasters, I really find it difficult to believe she didn’t send you the message. You won’t try to claim that, will you?”

    Was that a crinkle of amusement in Spectre’s eyes? If so, the amusement was not reflected in his voice. “No. She sent us your message in full.” “Really, now.” Frost’s voice was mild. “Then please do explain to me, why it is that you’ve not only come here to interfere with my plans,” Frost gestured all around him, “But even brought five of our men with you. Athos. Melvir. Drinval. Seleun. Crist. You boys might as well come out now.”

    Hidden eyes turned to look at Spectre. Spectre hesitated, then fractionally lowered his head in a nod. In a blink of an eye, five men dressed in black and wearing a Raven’s mask stepped out of hiding in unison. Together, with Spectre, they formed a circle around Frost. The five Ravens cupped their right fists in their left hands while bowing their heads slightly. It was a respectful way to greet a superior.

    “The Ravens pay respects to Captain-Lord Frost,” they said, then raised their heads. Frost examined each of their faces. Although their features were hidden behind their masks, a hard, challenging look was in the eyes of each of the men. Completing his inspection, Frost sighed, then turned to look back at Spectre.

    “Considering that these are your top five students,” Frost said wryly, “You haven’t trained them very well at all. That murderous intent is just oozing off of them. I’d be able to smell it from leagues away. What a very poor showing,” Frost teased, and the eyes of those five grew only stonier.

    “Perhaps,” Spectre answered calmly. “Or perhaps, it simply doesn’t matter whether or not they suppress their intent at this moment.” Frost grinned at Spectre. “Touchè,” Frost allowed. “But you still haven’t answered my question, brother. What are you doing here, interfering with my plans and operation? The Master won’t be very happy with you.”

    This time, there was a definite smile in Spectre’s eyes, although even that seemed dispassionate. “I very much doubt that, Frost,” Spectre replied. “Considering that it was the Master himself who ordered me to ‘invite’ you back to see him.” A deliberate pause. “Alive, if at all possible.”

    Frost let out a little laugh. “It almost sounds as though you intend to take me back by force!” Frost answered. “Surely, you wouldn’t be so silly as to try that, would you?” His white pupils shone ever so slightly with a faint glow. “Not this far north. Not in a place this cold, with the snow freshly fallen, and with the sun so bright in the sky.”

    “That was and remains my intention, little brother,” Spectre responded. “I may prefer the darkness, and you may prefer the cold, but do you really think that you can match both myself and my five finest men?”

    “Oh?” Frost glanced at the five men again. “Is that what they are here for? And I thought they were only good for...huh. Nothing, actually.” Frost winked at the five men, who glared back at him. “You boys do remember that assaulting your superiors is an crime punishable by execution, don’t you?”

    “Unless,” Spectre interjected, “That superior has been named by the Master as having become a traitor or rebelled. Which you, Frost, have been declared to be under the suspicion of being.” Again, that ghostly smile in Spectre’s eyes.

    “You should not have aided a rounin swordsman in murdering Archmagus Tuoh, who is, incidentally, quite displeased with the both of you. Nor should you have assisted him in evading capture, especially when he has learned the forbidden techniques of the Spellbane.” Shadows seemed to swirl around Spectre’s hazy form. “There’s no way out of this one, Frost. You cannot talk your way out of this. I recommend you surrender.” Spectre’s voice indicated he would rather Frost not.

    “Things change,” Frost quickly replied. “Events change. Let me ask you a question. How long has the Master been seeking the remnants of Babilu’s Sin, mm? A hundred years? Two? Do you really think he’ll be happy with you when he finds out that you’ve caused me to be unable to deliver it to him?”

    Frost had the satisfaction of seeing Spectre’s form freeze. No words were spoken for a long moment. Mirroring looks of confusion could be seen in the eyes of the other Ravens as they stared questioningly at Spectre. None of them had any idea what this ‘Babilu’s Sin’ was, nor why Spectre seemed to be so stunned by Frost’s words. Frost wasn’t surprised. Few to none knew of it.

    No artifact, no relic, no group of relics was more powerful. Nothing could equal it, and its very existence was shrouded in secrecy by design of man and god alike. Even Spectre only knew a little about it. According to the Master, it was the raiment of an ancient lord whose learning and might had reached such a peak that he dared challenge the gods themselves with the aid of that artifact.

    Depending on which version of the myths one believed, either the gods themselves became frightened of his growing power, or were outraged by his blasphemous acts. Whichever version one might believe, all accounts agreed that the gods destroyed the lord and his entire empire. Supposedly, they had destroyed the raiment, but the Master had believed otherwise. He knew otherwise. The proof of it was in his own hands!

    Babilu’s Sin! The single piece which the Master had started with had let him conquer the world. The second, which the Master had taken from an old man who was the last of his family line, had let him extend his life indefinitely. Acquiring the rest was the Master’s deepest, most secret desire. But the remnants had proved to be elusive in the extreme.

    Spectre finally spoke. “Are you implying that you have found it?” Frost nodded, a slight smile playing on his lips. “Two pieces. As many as the Master has...and the man who holds them right now is going to lead me to the other three.” Frost cocked his head a little. “That reminds me. How many Ravens did you send to take him down?” “Ten,” Spectre replied, distracted. So that’s why this mission was so important. Why both the Commander and the Master got involved. Did I make the correct choice in coming to take Frost, instead of him?

    “Ten?” Frost said, breaking Spectre’s train of thought. Frost raised an eyebrow at him. “A full Murder, eh? Are any of them my men, or are they all yours?” Slowly, Spectre shook his head. He was still digesting Frost’s earlier claim. “I brought only mine for this mission. Why do you ask?”

    Frost paused, then shrugged and let out a chuckle. “Because I think you’ll lose them all.”
    ______________________________

    Nine masked Ravens surrounded their lone target. The tenth Raven lay in a pool of blood some distance off. Whether he was alive or not was uncertain; he neither moved nor made a sound. But then again, Krenos thought to himself, that is as it should be. Ravens who were injured were trained to do nothing that might distract their brothers in battle.

    Despite everything, we underestimated him. Underneath the mask, Krenos’ face was grim as he carefully watched the master blade-for a master blade the man most certainly was-they had surrounded. We knew he was good. We didn’t know he would be this good.

    Raven Jaiden had been just a little too eager when the battle was beginning. It was his first official mission as a Raven, and he had wanted to make a name for himself. His eagerness had led him to be just slightly ahead of the other nine as they had first rushed the master blade. It was nothing major; he was just a step or two ahead. Krenos hadn’t thought to call him back. And Jaiden had paid for it.

    It had taken the blademaster only two strikes. The first had pierced Jaiden’s sword arm, forcing him to drop his blade. The second pierced Jaiden’s chest, and was followed by a swift kick that knocked Jaiden some distance to the left, where he now lay. Those blows had come unbelievably fast. So much so that Krenos had actually murmured a quick cantrip to determine what spells the blademaster had been strengthened by, to move so quickly. Krenos’ shock had only increased when he realized that the answer was ‘none’.

    Krenos had immediately ordered for everyone to retreat twenty feet and prepare strengthening spells of their own before engaging. The blademaster hadn’t pursued; he simply stood there and watched, an intrigued look on his face, as the nine Ravens prepared minor spells to speed up their reflexes and empower their blows. And now...Krenos grimaced. And now, even with all spells prepared, this man was still able to match the nine of them.

    Krenos moved the fingers of his free left hand slightly, in a quick pattern. It was a coded message in handspeak, the special sign language which only Ravens and their masters could understand. Behind the blademaster, Raven Jel’al nodded. His own fingers dancing in arcane gestures, Jel’al began to weave together a shadowy bolt to blast the blademaster with.

    He hadn’t even fully finished when the blademaster, without looking, stabbed backwards and somehow ripped apart the energy lattice of the spell. Spellbane. Krenos’ lips tightened. This was definitely the man they were looking for. Bringing him back, and alive at that, was going to be a considerably more difficult proposition than he had anticipated.

    Krenos twitched his left hand again. Again. In unison, the nine of them attacked, and the air was filled with the dark gleam of flashing magesteel, and the clanging sounds of sword ringing on sword. The Ravens were good. Very, very good. Their forms swirled around their target, moving so quickly that they became little more than a single, nearly-indistinguishable black blur.

    But if they were a dark blur, the blademaster became shadow itself as he swiveled, parried, dodged, and occasionally even struck back at them with a blade that appeared to be of a quality at least as high as those which the Ravens bore. Something else which the Ravens had almost never encountered.

    The man was not only fast. His swordplay, although Krenos could not recognize it, was brilliant beyond imagination. More than half of it, Krenos was convinced, had to be pure improvisation. But if it was, it did not show. Each succeeding move flowed together as a single, continuous whole, as though the swordsman had practiced them for decades longer than he appeared to have lived.

    Five seconds passed in the blink of an eye, and Krenos moved his left hand. Back. As smoothly as they had started, the nine of them retreated to once more form that circle around the blademaster. Krenos glanced at his men, then at the target. His men were unscathed for the most part, although judging from the shoe print on his shoulder, Redous appeared to have taken a flying kick. The target seemed to be unharmed as well, save for the tiniest of nicks on his right arm. A lucky strike from Krenos himself.

    The target slowly spun in a semi-circle, looking at each person before settling his gaze on Krenos. There was a weighing, measuring look in those calm blue eyes. Krenos found it a bit discomfiting; it felt as though the man could see straight through the mask which Krenos wore.

    “You!” The blademaster suddenly said, pointing at Krenos with his right hand. It was the first words he had spoken since the battle began. “What is your name?” Krenos signaled his men to remain silent and on their guard. “Krenos,” he said. “And you, blademaster?” Krenos’ voice was as calm as he could muster. Again, that weighing, penetrating look. “Matheius.” A name none of them recognized.

    “Krenos, then,” the man named Matheius said. “You are good. Very good. Tell me something. Why is it that men who are so clearly skilled as yourselves, act as the running dogs for Savant scum?” He addressed Krenos, but the question was addressed to all of the Ravens as a whole.

    The Ravens tensed. Rage appeared in their eyes, and a few of them even let out rumbles of anger. Krenos didn’t blame them. He himself had to fight down an upsurge of fury. How dare this man belittle and insult them like that. To be selected as a Raven was to be acknowledged as one of the best, and to join a proud, centuries-long tradition of honorable service.

    Calm, Krenos signaled his men. He did not reply until he himself had cooled down. “It is the highest of honors to be allowed to serve in the capacity which we currently do,” he retorted calmly. “It isn’t something I would expect a rounin, no matter how talented, to understand.”

    The man named Matheius let out a single cold chuckle. Unveiled disgust had appeared in his eyes. Strange, Krenos thought to himself. For some reason, Krenos felt that part of the blademaster’s disgust was directed towards himself.

    “Perhaps not,” the blademaster said. “Perhaps I cannot understand. But I do know that Ralian Conori, who founded the Whispering Shadow swordplay that you use, Krenos, would be vomiting blood right now, to see his heirs being the dog of the Savants he fought for so long.”

    The eyes of Krenos’ men widened, and as one, they turned to look away from the blademaster to stare at him, to see how he would react to that insult. Stay focused, Krenos signaled them with irritation. The man was clearly trying to bait them into losing their head and making a mistake.

    Privately, Krenos was both surprised and worried. This man had managed to correctly identify his swordplay, and even the founder of that swordplay, in the middle of a large melee that had lasted only seconds. His breadth of knowledge must be incredible. But he couldn’t let any of that show.

    “Ralian Conori,” Krenos answered evenly, “Was as loyal and faithful a man to the Towers and to the Master as we ourselves are. Your attempts at playing mind games with me are futile. You know nothing of Ralian, you know nothing of the Whispering Shadow, and you certainly know nothing about me, Matheius.”

    The swordsman named Matheius smiled faintly. “I know nothing of Ralian? I know nothing of the Whispering Shadow swordplay?” He actually folded his arms across his chest, as though the Ravens surrounding him didn’t exist. “Do you think you are fit to discuss swordplay of any sort with me?” The blademaster said, the mocking derision in his voice plain for anyone to hear. “I’d stake my life against your toenails that I could perform a better example of the Whispering Shadows swordplay than you!”

    “You go too far!” Orion, one of the younger Ravens, burst out. He was hot-blooded, as younger people tended to be, and his eyes were heated. It looked as though he was about to say more. SILENCE! Krenos signaled furiously, and Orion subsided, although the look of fury remained in his eyes. It was mirrored in the eyes of many of the other Ravens as well.

    Krenos, on the other hand, wore thoughtful look. This could be a good opportunity to break the stalemate. “You claim to understand my swordplay, and that you can beat me with it.” Boldly, Krenos took a step forward, ignoring the muted gasps of his men as he left the protective formation. Seamlessly, the circle of Ravens reformed around the two of them. “Prove it.”

    The man named Matheius cocked his head slightly. Again, that weighing look in his eyes. It was followed by a small, knowing smile. I see what you are trying to do, that confident smile said, and it won’t work. “And the stakes?” The blademaster asked. “What do I get if I win?” “Nothing,” Krenos answered. “Because you won’t.”

    Krenos’ voice was filled with the utmost confidence, and for good reason. Despite his youth, he was widely acknowledged to be the greatest master of the Whispering Shadow style in decades. Part of this was admittedly due to the fact that the transmission of the Whispering Shadow fighting style had been corrupted and distorted over the years due to a lack of practitioners, causing gaps to appear in both theory as well as practice.

    Krenos had spent years of his life filling in those gaps, by extrapolations from other parts of the style, as well as completely new, innovative techniques which he himself had invented. The end result was a greatly improved and vastly more powerful Whispering Shadow style that had won his way to promotions, as well as earned him a reputation as a genius amongst his peers. There was no way this arrogant stranger could be better than him at it. None!

    “Fine,” the blademaster said. “And if you win?” “If I win,” Krenos answered, “You surrender to me peacefully. You have my personal guarantee that we will not hurt you, although you wounded at least one of my men. In fact, we are under strict orders to take all of you alive.”

    Krenos waited, holding his breath as the blademaster named Matheius seemed to consider his challenge. Then the blademaster nodded, and Krenos let out that breath. “Fine,” the blademaster said. “I accept.” “Good,” Krenos said. “When you lose, I expect you to keep to your word.” The blademaster let out a cold smile, but did not otherwise respond.

    A smile of Krenos’ own appeared on his face, hidden underneath that mask. The blademaster would. He was the type to. His pride wouldn’t let him back out of an agreement like this. Krenos could tell.

    The blademaster suddenly raised his sword, pointing it straight up into the air. He held his right hand behind his back, while both legs were held in a straight line. Krenos was forced to tamp down a fresh spurt of anger. The Shadows Bid Welcome. It was a stance that was used only when a teacher was preparing to instruct a raw student.

    Fine, Krenos told himself, as he prepared to fight. Let this man posture and insult me as he wishes. As far as I am concerned, this battle is over.

    ______________________________

    “Oh?” Spectre’s voice had returned to its usual lack of passion. “You must be very confident in the abilities of this friend of yours, Frost.” Despite being without inflection, Spectre more than adequately portrayed the doubt he had regarding Frost’s claim. But Frost only chuckled.

    “Let me ask you a question, Spectre,” Frost said. “If you locked me in a room with ten Ravens, and told us that either only they or only I could leave, who would you expect to walk out? Me? Or them?” Spectre barely hesitated. “You.” He raised an eyebrow. “But we are not talking about you. We are talking about your friend.”

    Frost smiled. “However. If instead of those ten Ravens, you put him and me in that room...” Frost shrugged, then spread his hands wide. “I really am not sure who would be the one to get out.” It wasn’t an easy admission for even the easy-going Frost to make, but it was a genuine one.

    “As good as that?” Spectre murmured. His voice still sounded skeptical. “As good as that,” Frost confirmed. “But you don’t have time to be worrying about this right now,” Frost added. “Not about him, not about me, and certainly not about disrupting my mission. The one you should be worrying about is yourself. And before you say anything,” Frost added, forestalling Spectre’s next words, “No, that isn’t a threat. It’s a statement of fact. It can only mean bad things for you if you take me back to see the Master.”

    “Just because you claim to be on the track of Babilu’s Sin?” Spectre asked. Frost laughed. “That’s only part of it. The second part is the fact that I recently found out about an instance of startling incompetence on your part. You really don’t want me to tell the Master about it right now, especially considering that you are costing him Babilu’s Sin.”

    Spectre shook his head. “How many times have you tried to bluff me today, Frost?” He asked. “It won’t work. You must be getting desperate.”

    “Bluffing? Desperate?” Frost raised an amused eyebrow. “Is that what I am? Fine. Tell me if this is bluffing. Several decades ago, the Master assigned you a very important mission; to wipe out the Willow Forest monastery and its monks. After a brief battle, you returned and proclaimed that you were successful. Am I right?”

    “Ancient history,” was Spectre’s calm response. “What does that have to do with anything? That is hardly an example of incompetence on my part.” Frost retorted, a teasing look in his eyes, “True. It wouldn’t be an example of incompetence. If, in fact, you actually had succeeded.”

    A second time, Spectre froze. “What do you mean?” “I mean,” Frost said, enjoying the situation as much as he had earlier, “That you failed. Those bald vegetarians played you, Spectre. That entire battle was a farce. They tricked you, then escaped to the plane where I and my companions just arrived from. All of them. I personally saw over a hundred Willow Forest monks, and some of them were quite good.”

    “You’re lying,” Spectre said after a moment. A hint of uncertainty had crept into his voice. Thinking back on that distant memory, it did seem as though the monastery had fewer defenders than originally estimated, and that the battle ended a little too quickly. Frost scoffed. “You know I’m not, and the Master himself can test my truthfulness when he sees me.”

    “What do you think is going to happen,” Frost asked rhetorically, “When the Master finds out about this. Do you prefer him thinking of you as being incompetent, or as having lied to him? Because those are the only two choices you have.” Frost leaned forwards. “I will also tell him that you prevented me from finding all of the remaining pieces of Babilu’s Sin for him, due to the personal grudge you hold against me. And he will believe me.”

    “If I were you,” Frost lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “I’d just leave Frost to his own devices, and try to find some way to track down and eliminate those monks. That way, even if the Master eventually finds out, no harm, no foul, right? You avoid infuriating the Master, and Frost will fulfill his mission. A win-win situation for everyone. What do you say?”

    As Spectre remained silent, a slow, wide smile began to spread across Frost’s face. Everything was going to work out. He was sure of it.
    ______________________________

    At the moment when their blades first touched, Krenos became slightly worried.

    The essence of the Whispering Shadow swordplay could be said to lie in two principles, embodied in two words. The first word was ‘sticky’. The second word was ‘soft.’

    ‘Sticky’ referred to the principle of ‘sticking’ to an opponent, so that no matter how the enemy might dodge or parry, the sword of a Whispering Shadow practitioner would always remain near the opponent’s body, as though it were the opponent’s actual shadow. ‘Soft’ referred to the principle of exerting as little force as possible against a strong opponent, avoiding direct clashes of power and instead wrapping itself around the opponent. The opponent would feel as though he was surrounded by a soft blanket, his movements hindered and restricted.

    When the contest had first started, Krenos had been careful to follow the ‘soft’ principle of his swordplay. He knew full well the strength of the blademaster’s blows from the earlier group battle, and was determined not to have a direct contest of strength. Instead, Krenos intended to entangle the opponent with soft moves and prevent the blademaster from executing his attacks. In the mean time, Krenos himself would steadily bring his own blade closer and closer to the blademaster’s body in adherence to the ‘sticky’ principle, before positioning himself into a winning strike. It was a strategy that had won Krenos many victories over more powerful opponents in the past.

    But this time was different. When their blades had touched, Krenos immediately tried to utilize the ‘soft’ principle and deflect away any power from the blademaster’s blows, only to find that there was no power to deflect. It was as though there was no strength at all behind the opponent’s blows. Instead, he found that the miniscule amount of energy which he put into his blows was being deflected. The blademaster’s attacks were even softer than his own!

    Krenos was young by conventional standards, but a veteran nonetheless, wise and experienced. He had reached his current position wholly through merit. Immediately, he abandoned his attempt at victory via the ‘soft’ principle, and switched to the ‘sticky’ principle.

    His confidence had been shaken, but only slightly. Whereas the ‘soft’ principle was rooted in using and deflecting kinetic energy, the ‘sticky’ principle was grounded in the brilliance of techniques. It was in technique that Krenos shone, and it seemed as though he had made the correct choice. As he had anticipated, the blademaster named Matheius simply could not cope with the innovative changes which Krenos had made to the style.

    The Lady’s Silhouette. The blademaster attempted a classic defense, one which Krenos had long since surpassed with The Lord’s Shadow. The blademaster charged towards Krenos with The Rushing Wind, but was met by and surrounded with The Swirling Tempest. Twin Dragons Roar. The swordsman unleashed a pair of fast, fierce attacks, only for Krenos to meet it with three even faster, even fiercer responses in the form of the Three Peaks of Kanzon.

    The blademaster’s mastery of the Whispering Shadow was flawless, Krenos had to admit. Perhaps even higher than his own in the classical aspects which both shared. But it was also hopelessly outdated, and as Krenos’ magesteel blade drew closer and closer to the blademaster’s body with each exchange, Krenos knew that victory was within reach.

    But then something strange happened. Moments away from defeat, the blademaster suddenly executed a move which not only blocked Krenos’ attack, but actually forced his blade away from his body. Krenos’ eyes widened as he recognized it. Steel Underneath Steel. It was one of the innovations he had made, which he himself had used only a few strokes ago! The way the blademaster had performed the move was perfect, as though he had practiced it for years. No; better than perfect. Krenos’ eyes widened still further. The blademaster had actually improved on it!

    The tempo of the battle completely changed. Their situations were reversed. Now, it was Krenos who struggled to keep up with his opponent. One stroke after another, the blademaster unleashed techniques which had taken Krenos years to develop, with an ease and familiarity that bespoke of years of use. Only, the blademaster’s usage of those techniques was at a higher level than that of even Krenos himself.

    The blademaster had not only corrected flaws within the techniques which Krenos had not yet fixed, but strung them together in ways which Krenos had not even thought about. Soon, the attacks which the blademaster unleashed bore no resemblance to any which Krenos had previously devised, and yet was entirely in the style of the Whispering Shadow swordplay.

    Krenos felt a certain tightness in his chest. Within a matter of moments, the swordsman had forced Krenos’ sword away from his body. Now his sword began to close on Krenos, ‘sticking’ to Krenos no matter how hard Krenos tried to push it away. Before his very eyes, Krenos saw his reputation being shredded to pieces.

    A lifetime of hard work. Of effort. In the face of the attack from this blademaster, the innovations which he had prided himself upon appeared as nothing more than a child’s attempt to draw a picture. His innovation was nothing more than the rough outlines, a childish scrawl. What this blademaster was attacking him with was the real thing.

    The tightness in Krenos’ chest only increased as his opponent’s attacks became steadily more refined. He had lost this challenge, and he knew it. By all rights, he should have thrown down his sword and admitted defeat. But Krenos had no intention of doing so, for one reason alone.

    He wanted to see more. He had spent his entire career, his entire life to this point, practicing and refining the Whispering Shadow. He wasn’t going to throw away this opportunity to see it utilized to such an incredible level. And so, as the blademaster’s sword drew closer and closer to taking his life, the tightness in Krenos’ chest eased and was replaced by a sense of peace.

    Even if he died, it would be to something he loved.
    ______________________________

    A talent. A true talent. That was the overriding thought which ran through Matheius’ mind as the duel continued. He had expected a mediocre fighter who might possess some middling level of skill. Instead, what Matheius had discovered was a Blade of superb caliber.

    Matheius had met Ralian Conori long ago at Ralian’s home during his seventy fifth birthday. The venerable grandmaster was a very old man, fifty years senior to Matheius. But by then, Matheius’ reputation had already grown to such a point where he could and did speak as equals with even such senior swordsmen.

    Both of the two had invented their own respective styles, a very rare feat. Devising a completely new style of fighting was difficult to the extreme. Before Matheius had developed his Arcing Wolf’s Fang, Ralian’s Whispering Shadow swordplay had been the most recent, high quality form to be invented. For this reason and others, in his early youth Matheius had often been favorably compared to the grandmaster, until Matheius had reached a level where instead others would be favorably compared to him.

    The two of them had a similar temperament and hit it off fabulously at the party. Long after the other guests had departed, the two swordsmen, one young and one old, were still happily debating and arguing about everything from martial philosophy to strong points and weak points in their respective forms.

    During the course of the long chat, Matheius had become intimately familiar with every aspect of the Whispering Shadow. Consequently, Matheius had also become familiar with all of the Whispering Shadow’s flaws, of which there were quite a few. He pointed several out, only to see the old grandmaster smile. Ralian, it had turned out, knew of all the flaws Matheius exposed. How could he not? He even brought out a scroll of parchment, on top of which he had recorded every single flaw of the style, as well as the stances and techniques which would seal those flaws away.

    As soon as Matheius had seen the scroll, he could tell that it was the result of years, if not decades, of painstaking work and diligence on Ralian’s part. Every single movement, every single attack and defense, had clearly been polished over and over until it had become a perfect, flawless fit with the original stances in the swordplay.

    Matheius had been astounded. Precisely because of the obvious flaws within the Whispering Shadow, it was not held in exceptionally high regard by most of the skilled blademasters in the world, and even less so within the elite graduates of the San’tamek. But with the changes which Ralian had recorded in the scroll, Matheius was certain that it would easily stand as one of the top tier styles in the entire world. Why, Matheius had asked the old grandmaster, did he not publicize them?

    The old grandmaster had only smiled again. Because I do not want the Whispering Shadow to be flawless, he had said. That way, the generations who come after me who use my swordplay will be forced to innovate, and be forced to use their own brain, rather than mindlessly following in the footsteps of the past. I want for them to devise these solutions. Not me.

    For me, it is enough to know that a talent such as yourself sees that I had solved the problems with the form. I had worried that all of posterity would simply view me as incapable for not fixing the flaws. That is why I created this scroll, even as I feared that others would learn from it. Now I can rest easy. I have no more need of it! With a flourish, he had then thrown the precious scroll into the fireplace.

    The innovations of this Krenos had called to mind Ralian’s words. Although the improvements which Krenos had developed were still a considerable ways off from the techniques Matheius had seen in the scroll, their effectiveness and power was undeniable. If it weren’t for the fact that Matheius had read Ralian’s scroll, he could not possibly have won this battle based upon sheer technique alone. He would have had to overwhelm Krenos with speed and strength, and to the proud blademaster, that felt like cheating.

    The innovations were of Krenos’ own devising. As a person who had also invented his own style, Matheius could tell. It was a difficult thing to describe, but the manner in which Krenos had fought, the ‘oneness’ of his movements screamed to Matheius that this was nothing which Krenos had merely ‘learned’. There was also certain pride in the way Krenos had executed each attack which, coupled with the ‘oneness’, made it easy for anyone with the proper eyes to see that Krenos had developed these techniques.

    What a talent. What a waste. Matheius’ attacks had been coming closer and closer to Krenos as he considered what he should do. I must not kill him, Matheius finally told himself. He is the heir Ralian had been waiting for.

    Matheius’ sword finally broke through Krenos’ defensive line and reached towards Krenos’ neck. The surrounding Ravens gasped. They, too, had been mesmerized by this duel, and only now had recollected that it was a life and death matter. And now, it seemed, it would be death for their leader.

    The tip of Matheius’ sword touched Krenos’ throat...and then suddenly retreated, slicing upwards as it did so through the man’s Raven-shaped mask. Even if I let him live, Matheius thought to himself, I want to see this man’s face with my own eyes. To see this talent who has finally fulfilled Ralian’s hopes.

    The broken mask fell off, revealing Krenos’ face. It was the face of a young man, with golden hair, a strong jaw, and somber grey eyes. It was a face which Matheius had known well, which Matheius had seen often in his nightmares.

    Matheius let out an audible gasp. His entire body locked up and became unresponsive.

    “Vast?!”

    Three inches of magesteel entered his chest.
    ______________________________

    It was an accident.

    Krenos originally had no intention of striking at the man. But when the blademaster had suddenly frozen and left himself exposed, instinct and training had taken over. Krenos attacked, and to the surprise of himself and everyone else had managed to land the blow, piercing the blademaster in the right side of his chest.

    Shocked, Krenos immediately withdrew his sword as the blademaster staggered several feet back, pressing his right hand over the wound. Fresh blood spurted out from between his fingers and he stared, first at the wound, then at Krenos. A look of bitterness was in the man’s eyes. After a moment, blood leaked out of the corner of his mouth as well.

    For some reason, Krenos had to fight the urge to apologize. It was stupid. He had no reason to apologize. The man had left himself open. Anyone who did that in a fight would pay a price, and the man did. But perhaps it was that bitter look in the man’s eyes. Perhaps it was the fact that he could’ve taken Krenos’ life, but didn’t. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that the man had shown Krenos something of incredible beauty, and Krenos had repaid him with an injury. But whatever the reason, Krenos still wanted to apologize.

    _______________________________

    A mistake.

    Blood continued to leak out from beneath Matheius’ fingers, blanketing them with red, but he paid it no heed. His gaze was directed to the man who had wounded him.

    Not Vast. Couldn’t be Vast. He does look similar...but not the same. Krenos might have been Vast’s cousin, or Vast’s brother. The similarities between the two were uncanny, but as Matheius looked more closely, differences emerged as well. Vast was considerably larger, for one thing, and had a less angular jaw, as well as stronger features. Just my wishful imagination. Or my guilt.

    Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop. The pure white snow around Matheius’ feet was becoming stained with the color of his blood as it dripped from between his fingers. He was badly hurt, and he knew it. It wasn’t a fatal wound, but if the blood loss kept up, it might be...and if he continued to fight, the blood loss would keep up, if not increase, from the exertion.

    Matheius watched Krenos, but Krenos said nothing. He looked unsure as to what he should do. Without the benefit of his mask hiding his features, his indecision was plain on his young face. Matheius let out a sigh. He would have to use Ajatha. He had no other options, now. He would have to take the best out of a bad lot.

    Just as the pommel of his sword began to grow red, a long, high-pitched shriek could be heard, coming from a distance away. “Help!” Someone cried. It was a little girl’s voice. Matheius swiveled his head. Aurora. Worse news. The voice was coming from outside the interdiction field. Hell.

    “Surrender,” Krenos said. Matheius turned back to look at him. Krenos appeared nervous. “Surrender,” he repeated, “You can’t possibly keep fighting us now. My offer still stands. We won’t hurt you if you surrender.”

    Surrender. Matheius chuckled between bloody lips. He removed his bloodstained right hand from his chest. Slowly, he slipped it into the bag at his side, fumbling around within until his bloody fingers touched the half-translucent black spherical ball with the rune Anj carved into it.

    A faint red glow surrounded Matheius’ sword, then Matheius. Even whilest bathed by the glow, his features looked gray and ill. I hate resorting to these things. But right now, I suppose I have to. To save myself. To rescue Aurora. No better time. No better reason. “Surrender?” Matheius asked. His eyes were filled the strange red fire which outlined his body. The Ravens uneasily drew back slightly.

    “Do you really think I will?”

    His fingers closed around Anj.

    ______________________________

    “No.”

    Frost stared at Spectre, absolutely flabbergasted. “What?” “No.” Frost began to get angry. “What do you mean, ‘no’?!” Spectre’s responded with equanimity. “I mean, no. I decline your suggestion, although after I bring both you and the pieces of Babilu’s Sin back, I may investigate this story about the monks.”

    “For now,” Spectre continued, as shadows began to gather about him, “As far as I’m concerned, my standing orders are to bring you two back. I intend to, and if your friend really does possess two pieces, all the better. Two pieces in the hand is better than five in the bush.” Spectre’s black eyes were as still as the features of his Dragon mask. “Surrender, Frost. This is your last chance.”

    The smile had disappeared from Frost’s face now, and the hard glint in his own eyes put that of the surrounding Ravens to shame. Frost stared at Spectre, at the shadows coalescing around him, and as he did, both his body and clothes seemed to begin to become translucent. Around him, the five Ravens tensed.

    The bright rays of the sun danced over Frost’s form and were reflected off of it in a myriad of sparkles. He gleamed with a radiance which surpassed that of the earlier snowflake ten-thousand fold, so much so that it seemed that he was bathing the entire area in light. All five of the Ravens squinted against that glare. The only person who seemed to be unaffected by it was Spectre. The darkness around him swallowed up and devoured the light which reached towards him. No traces were left behind.

    A second snowflake fell, drifting lazily down from the heavens and landing on Frost’s shoulder. Whereas the first snowflake had merged into the snowy ground, the second vanished in much the same way into Frost. It didn’t melt. It wasn’t hidden. It simply disappeared...but no one was paying attention to snowflakes at this moment.

    Their killing auras filled the clearing! The sensation of a murderous intent rolled from both of them, suffocatingly powerful in their own ways. The killing intent flowing from Frost had an icy feel to it. It spoke of the promise of the chill of the grave, of an icy coffin from which nothing would escape. In contrast, the killing aura which emanated from Spectre whispered of a silent, mysterious death. Of simply being swallowed up by the darkness, and never being seen again.

    Combined, the two auras dwarfed the one generated earlier by the Ravens. Each of them trembled slightly. They couldn’t help it. They felt as though they were on a tiny boat, being buffeted by winds and waves which were clashing in every which direction. They stood their ground, and would assist Spectre when the time came. But for now, fear gripped their heart, although they would have died before admitting to it.

    Spectre waited, quietly gathering his energy. The shadows around him became so deep and thick, it was as though the rays of the sun had fled from him as he blanketed himself in darkness. No feeble sunlight could penetrate the thickness of that layer of shadows. Spectre did not move. He would not strike first. He had no intention of giving Frost any excuse of self-defense.

    When the Light died away, the Spectre of the Night would strike!

    Frost did not move either. He simply stood there, staring at Spectre. His form grew steadily more translucent, until he appeared to be crystalline. The temperature in the area had dropped at least ten or twenty degrees, filling the entire place with a freezing sensation which chilled the hardy Ravens to the bone.

    Wherever the Killing Frost went, the winter would follow.

    No one could interfere with them at this moment, as their powers approached their peaks. Nothing could keep them from releasing their wrath against each other. Certainly not the five Ravens. No, their part would come later, when Frost tired.

    Spectre’s form had turned completely black. No vision, mortal or otherworldly, could penetrate the shadows he was cloaked in. He was a yawning, gaping abyss, into which anything which entered would disappear without hope of return.

    Frost’s entire body had turned crystalline, as though he had become a block of sculpted ice. The light which touched him was reflected and amplified a hundredfold. Staring at him was much like staring directly at the glare of the sun on a icy white plain; dangerous, and with the potential to easily cause blindness.

    Their energy reached their peaks! And then the world suddenly stilled.

    There was no other way to describe it. The world suddenly stilled. It wasn’t as though time froze. For a brief, infinitesimal moment, everything simply seemed to stop moving.

    The interdiction field disappeared as though it never had been.

    The personal spells and enchantments of every single Savant in the area suddenly failed.

    The magic disappeared from almost all nearby wands, potions, and items.

    The shadows around Spectre parted, melting away in a heartbeat.

    Frost’s icy form returned to a ‘normal’ human appearance.

    Everything in the entire forest came to a complete and sudden halt. And then, as quickly as the stillness had come, it departed, leaving behind the devastation it had visited on all things magical, and some things not.

    For a moment, no one spoke. Then, “What was that?!” Raven Athos couldn’t help but let out a frightened shout which the other four Ravens felt like echoing. Even those not directly affected, such as themselves, had felt that brief moment of total, awful stillness. It was as though everything in the world had come to a screeching halt or had died.

    Stunned looks were in the eyes of both Frost and Spectre as they stared, first at Athos, then at each other. Frost blinked, then shrugged. Slowly, an unsteady smile appeared on his face. “Told you my new friend was going to be a handful.”

    __________________________

    The rapid-fire jabber of excitable children suddenly filled Captain Trinell’s ears. “Captain! The barrier, it-” “Shut up, boy!” Trinell barked, more harshly than he had intended. Every man and his mother saw the interdiction field disappear. And everyone had felt that brief, terrifying moment of stillness.

    What the hell was that, and who did it? Are they on our side? The Captain’s eyes narrowed. Hell, whoever it is, they can’t be on the side of the goddamned mages. It looks like that wiped out all of their defenses. Every damned one. I will never have a better opportunity than this.

    For weeks now, the Seventh Company, also known as the Last Company, had been monitoring the situation in Shtyre Forest. Ever since the Savants had mounted what seemed to be a major operation here, the Seventh Company had lain in wait, camouflaging themselves with a skill born out of decades-no-centuries of hiding. Only one of them had been discovered by the Savants, and he had killed himself rather than betray the Company. A good lad, Chariv was.

    He made his decision. Let’s do this. “Seventh Company!” The Captain roared. “Move in! We’ve been waiting to ambush them for a while. Now let’s gives these sons of bitc.hes a little gift from us rebel scum!”


    [Author's note: This is my second attempt to somewhat work in a bit of a wuxia-style as well as wuxia-type theme into the story. I think I worked it in more subtly and made the transition less jarring than the previous time (at the monastery), but would like your thoughts, readers. Thanks!]
    Last edited by Ren Wo Xing; 02-19-08 at 04:58 PM.
    Blademaster. Hero. General. He was the best there ever was.
    Butcher. Murderer. Traitor. All that he loved, he had destroyed.
    Matheius Randas.
    That Merciless Blade - Legend of the Arctic Wolf.

  19. #59
    Junior Member
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    Default Very good work!

    Ren Wo Xing,

    I have read many wuxia, sci-fi/fantasy, sword & sorcery, action & thrillers. I even write something myself. I just want characterize your writing and story: FUN!

    Don't worry about mixing all kinds of stuff together. It makes a unique blend, truly yours. That is what imagination is for. Keep it up and eagerly awaiting your continuing episodes.

    And THANKS. Lots of thanks.

  20. #60
    Senior Member kwekmh's Avatar
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    Default

    I have not yet fully read the start of the story, but I have read the later parts and I must say it is truly amazing! In fact, your story has given me some inspiration for my future fictions.

    You have done a great job. Keep up the good work!

    Kwek
    Last edited by kwekmh; 02-24-08 at 08:15 AM.

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