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Author Topic: Now Non-Chronological Order of A Dominion of Tyrants  (Read 538 times)

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Offline Myen'Tal

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Now Non-Chronological Order of A Dominion of Tyrants
« on: January 16, 2020, 11:52:20 AM »
Black Pacts


     Leagues beneath the Garden Palaces of Tu’shik, underneath the subterranean crypts of the Royal Tombs, Tabia felt an unsettling sense of uncertainty. An oppressive darkness cloaked the tunnel walls and the sand beneath her feet. Only a dozen torches scattered further down the caravan’s length, now smoldering from extended use, could hold back the darkness with their flickering flames.

   “Tabia,” Adofo waved his torch from several leagues ahead, a dim light in the darkness. “Come quick, I’ve found something!”

   “Out of the way,” Tabia hurried to his side and shouldered the burly warrior from out of her path. “Don’t touch anything.”

   “Seven hells,” Adofo shrugged, Tabia could sense his sneer aimed at her back. “What is this?”

   Tabia inspected the great stone slab of a door blocking the path forward. She quickly ran her torch over the dusty surface, unveiling ancient scripture and symbols chiseled into the stone until they became recesses in a greater framework.

Tabia did not spare Adofo a glance. “Warriors of the Zarquin Guard do not ask such questions. Just keep your sword ready.”

   “You’re expecting something behind this door?” Adofo stared at the scripture in amazement. “What could possibly be living down here, giant rats?”

   “Found it!” Tabia placed her gloved fingers on a hidden lever and forced it down until it clicked softly into place. “I would advise, Adofo, that you keep your torches nearby. The God-King has commanded us to enter, but not even he has entered this place for many decades.”

   The grinding noise of stone ground upon stone deafened Tabia’s ears. Adofo planted one step back and readied his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. A quiet chorus of hesitant murmurs and disagreements rumbled from the caravan behind them.

   “Silence!” Adofo commanded. “Zarquin, attend your charge!”

   “Yes, yes,” Faki, one of Adofo’s lieutenants, spurred his warriors on. “Make sure these archaeologists don’t fall on their scrolls and ink feathers!”

   A dozen men garbed in robes of cream and crimson, chainmail glistening softly in the flickering light, approached the schism opening between the stone slabs barring the path. They held their bucklers tight across their chests. They readied their swords so that they could cleave through even passing shadows.

   Adofo nodded approvingly as they formed a wall of flesh and steel before the chasm yawning open before them.

   “You first,” Adofo gestured to Tabia as the granite slabs jarred to a sudden halt. “I don’t think we’ll be using our blades, but we remain ever at your back.”

   “Step carefully,” Tabia sneered at Adofo’s confident grin before she stepped into the abyss beyond. “Gods know what’s become of this sacred sanctum.”

   “Crumbling artifacts,” Faki hawked and spat, quickly dogging Tabia’s footsteps. “Toppled ruins. That is all that remains here.”

   Tabia waved her torch back and forth across the widening chamber that they had entered into. Faki had spoken the truth, she realized, as the remnants of a great reliquary became unveiled before the cautious caravan.

   Thousands of Qarthite warriors, hewn from stone, bronze, and clay, lined many of the open spaces beneath half-collapsed arch-ways. They stood in silent vigil over the stranger monuments that loomed over them. Tabia attempted to near them, but could only make out the tell-tale signs of the many limbs that decorated each statue before Adofo tugged her back toward the safety of the caravan.

   “Can you read any of this?” Adofo flicked his torch over scripture-etched walls of dusty obsidian. “This is not Qarthite. It almost hurts my eyes to read it.”

   “A dead language, Adofo.” Tabia dismissed. “Nothing more.”

   Adofo’s irritable sighing betrayed his mounting impatience. “Will you tell me at least what you’re searching for?”

“Something forbidden,” Tabia confessed. “Trust me, Adofo, you’d be best not remembering a thing about what you’ve seen here today. For I shall remember.”

“Corpses often fall short on memories.” Adofo forced through clenched teeth.
Tabia whirled around on him, torch leveled directly in front of his eyes. “I carry the manifestation of the Tyrants’ will with me. Strike me down, and the seven hells you keep speaking of shall swallow you whole!”

“Seven… eh, enough,” Adofo cursed. “Find what you’re searching for and let’s be done with this crumbling heap of stone! The blasphemies hidden in these depths make my skin crawl.”

“Adofo…” Faki cautioned. “Let’s just see this through. Then we can toast to the God King’s generous reward, eh?”

Tabia’s laughter lilted from several meters ahead. “Your friend has the right mind for this sort of thing. Turn back if you’re frightened, Adofo, and give your friend the commander’s badge.”

“Don’t just shy there, Zarquin!” Adofo snapped. “After her. If something happens to Tabia, we’ll be swaying from our necks outside the gates of Tu’shik!”

The Zarquin Guard quickly jostled forward, a caravan of scribes and scholars scrambling not to fall out of their shadow. Tabia glanced behind her, but pressed on all the same. She tread a path interrupted with toppled over statues, all of them of ancient Qarthite origin, and waded through the thick of their ruin.

A spark of light in the near distance made Tabia jump with fright the moment she realized its presence. Hesitant, she drew nearer to the light source until she realized that the light of her torch reflected off something glassine in material.

   A soft disturbance crept from further down the chamber halls as Tabia caught her own reflection in a mirror the color of red wine. Gentler than the most imperceptible sighing, within the silent chambers of the reliquary, there was no warrior of the Zarquin Guard or Palace Attendant who did not freeze at the luring sound.

   “Weapons ready,” Adofo whistled sharply, suddenly beside Tabia once again. “Approach with caution. Remember, stay together and fight as one.”

   “Are you certain this is a danger?” Tabia’s murmur felt like it resonated off the reliquary’s walls. “There’s no cause for alarm, yet.”

   “I am not paid to take chances.” Adofo gestured for Tabia to fall back into his shadow. “Faki, let us combine our eyes and ears, brother. We lead from the front.”

   “Your command is my oath.” Faki acknowledged and made to stand beside his superior. “I’ll keep my torch primed for you, better that you hand yours to a scribe.”

   “Here,” Adofo spun round and shoved the torch in his hand into Tabia’s embrace. “Keep your scribes in line, Tabia. No one flees, on the God-King’s command.”

   “Stop stalling and move out already!” Tabia made a brief whistle.

   Adofo gestured with a point of his chin for Faki to take the lead. Adofo dogged his footsteps, eyes peeled in any direction that Faki did not directly focus on. The other members of the Zarquin Guard formed a tight phalanx around the caravan and marched in the shadows of their superiors.

   Tabia marched behind the safety of the phalanx, surrounded by a gaggle of superstitious and fearful scribes. As the caravan pressed forward in ominous silence, the artifacts and relics crafted by Qarthite artisans seemed to wane in number and scale, until all that remained before them was only the way forward. Statues of strange beasts of mythology gazed upon their progress with lustful eyes, spaced between seemingly endless archways that delved off into the reliquary’s most decrepit corners.

   “amphetamine parrot,” Faki’s voice shattered the suffocating silence ensnaring the caravan. A forceful impact punctuated his distasteful language. “Another doorway, Tabia! This… this one is scrawled with some diabolic scribbling… I cannot read it.”

The phalanx parted to allow Tabia closer inspection. She stepped forward to join Adofo and Faki before a massive slab of alabaster marble inset with the same glassine, wine red material that she had glimpsed in the mirror before. Painstakingly chiseled into the mirror’s surface, were hollowed recesses in the form of more sinister hieroglyphics and scripture.

Tabia gently lifted her torch to better see in the light, but found her hand quickly seized in Adofo’s own snare.

“I hope you know what you’re doing.” Adofo cautioned, but slackened his grip so that Tabia could achieve her work.

“This door is sealed by rite of blood.” Tabia scrolled her fingers across dimly-lit hieroglyphs.

“It cannot be opened without sacrifice. I-I do not understand. I am not certain how to proceed.”

“No soul was ever meant to understand how, Tabia.” A disembodied voice crept through the under-dark like a gentle breeze. It was a sinistrous amalgamation of several feminine voices speaking roughly in chorus. “This world is too brief already without prying eyes gleaming such, treasured knowledge..

“Woeful, have the times grown, that your master now sends gaggles of slavering attendants in his stead. Has he grown so vain? Does his courageous heart wither with fear? Or is it desperation that drives him into the shadows?”

“Your blasphemy shall reap his wrath,” Tabia shouted, torch held out for any sign of the creature. “He would certainly cast you back into the shadow of the Seven Hells!”

“Enough,” Adofo interrupted. “Find it and bring me the severed wretch’s head!”

“You need not look far, little man.” The enigmatic voice surged over them like a wind from the passage behind them. “I shall not shirk from your gaze.”

A thin sliver of tongue the color of dark blood lolled from out of the shadows and into the flickering warmth of the torchlight. A maw of teeth that curved like the perfect points of a ram’s horns followed suite. The grounded roots of each tooth gleamed in the darkness, fading into burnished browns toward the center and then to oily blacks at the very tips.

They were small enough not to alter the creature’s facial features, a blend reminiscent of elf and human as if she been borne from such a crossing.

Yet, an other-worldliness bled into those pristine features, that Tabia would have otherwise thought divine. Oppressive eyes of oily crimson and viper’s slits seemed to bubble and writhe from within as if blood boiled from underneath. Lengthy streams of raven hair cascaded down her crown of four curving horns that could rival a Minotaur's.

Beneath her arms were another set of limbs lined with whipcord muscle. She held them cupped in a way that sketched a strange symbol with the intricate positioning of her fingers.

A simple colchis of deep sapphire laced with filigree of ruby garbed the creature’s deceptively towering height. Tabia figured it stood four heads over the tallest man in the caravan.
The caravan looked on in horror for the briefest moment, before the first terrified scream sent most of attendants flying in a panic.

The Forbidden One fixated her gaze upon Tabia, a coy smile on her lips, before it laid into the discordant horde attempting to fly past it. The creature scarcely seemed to move either of her four arms, but she caught two scribes by the crown of their heads.

She tracked her upper arms back and forth, an effort that seemed near effortless to Tabia. Bodies flew through the dusty passage. Dull, sickening crunches echoed through the lonesome cavern as corpses impacted against the monuments gazing ever onward.

The Forbidden One tore the two attendants still in her snare messily into halves with a violent pull of her arms.

In the span of a shallow breath, the caravan in Tabia’s charge had been gruesomely murdered.

“Seven hells,” Adofo cursed from out a mouth too slackened with shock to be considered intimidating.

Tabia craned her head to stare Adofo directly in the eyes. “What are you doing?” She insisted.
“Defend us!”

Adofo considered Tabia for a long moment, his skepticism slowly eradicated by an expression of grim determination.

“Brothers,” Adofo addressed the thirteen warriors huddled in front of him like a bulwark of flesh and steel. “Our very lives depend on the severing of this blasphemy’s head. Fight well, and may the sun rise for you tomorrow! Charge!”

The Zarquin thundered their war cries and broke ranks in unison. Tabia watched the first and bravest amongst them make a vicious cut at the Forbidden One’s midriff. The creature flicked her wrist at the grizzled warrior and slit his throat with the same gesture.

A second Qarthite leapt over the back of his wounded comrade, but Tabia blinked and in the next moment, his arms were hewed from his body.

“Together, you imbeciles!” Adofo encouraged them. “Encircle her! Strike from every angle!”
From the right flank, three of the Zarquin guard charged forward together, their shields held out before them with their swords readied for a sure thrust. On the left, Adofo, Faki, and another warrior pushed their advantage at the same time.

The Forbidden One backpedaled, the ghosting image of swords manifesting between her fingers vanishing and reappearing as she tracked her arms back and forth. A fountain of blood arced from the formation on the left flank, a skull cleaved from someone’s shoulders.

On the right, Adofo parried one of the ghosting blades with a mighty clamor of steel on ethereal steel. Faki sprinted at full tilt, sliding into the Forbidden One’s guard and making a vicious cut behind the creature’s kneecap.

A keening howl of agony tore through the Zarquin ranks like a sudden gust of wind, but they held firm. More war cries burst from out of the shadows as other Zarquin emerged behind the Forbidden One.

The Forbidden One whirled backward, her movements more akin to a dance than any battle maneuver. Her arms cut across one another like a labyrinth of blades, some finding their mark and hewing down more of the guard. Others were successfully parried by the trained and practiced eyes of Adofo’s most experienced warriors. 

The clamor of battle reverberated through the reliquary. The screams of the dying punctuated every several clashes of steel on steel. Diabolic screams were torn from the Forbidden One’s throat as the Zarquin steadily landed a true blow here and there.

Tabia quickly realized that she stood alone by the doorway blocking the clearest route to safety. Only a sprawl of dead warriors and scribes and thick slathers of blood left in the sand between them was her only protection.

“Faki!” Adofo shouted over the cries of the last Zarquin Guard to fall on the forbidden one’s blades. “Save yourself, brothe--” Adofo’s sudden gasp of surprise was torn out of his lungs, impaled on the length of two blades.

Defiant, Adofo could scarcely lift his hand, as if he made to strike the Forbidden One one last time. Unceremoniously, the Forbidden One cast his corpse into the shadows with a ferocious kick.
Tabia froze in horror, Faki’s shadow receding as he fled back toward the surface as quickly as he could manage. She wanted to call out to him, but whatever desire she had to was quickly robbed by the Forbidden One’s unsettling gaze fixated on her.

The creature, credit to the Zarquin Guard’s martial prowess, knelt unsteadily upon one mightily wounded knee. A thousand cuts marred her once unblemished skin, a few large bruises the tell-tale signs of shields leaving their mark on her.

Beads of sweat and blood dripped down her unnatural body, her hair matted and sticky with blood and viscera of her foes.

In spite of her condition, the Forbidden One lifted her head skyward and laughed in skeptical disbelief.

“That, was not how I was expecting this fight to go.” The Forbidden One shifted around to gaze at Tabia once more. “But I’d rather them defiant, than meek and soft. Which one would you be, Tabia?”

“Who are you?” Tabia eked out a murmur under her breath. “How do you know of me?”

“Such trivial questions,” The Forbidden One answered. “What need of you of their answers? What need of you of concern, when you’re nothing more than meat strung up on strings, like a puppet? You’ll dance to my tune, won’t you, Tabia? You’ve searched my eyes, and found your own soul wailing back in them.

“What need of you such incorporeal beauty? Better that it belongs to me in the end.”

   Tabia could avert her gaze from the Forbidden One no longer. Lost in the creature’s eyes, she felt her spiritual defenses crumbling in great heaps. Her defiance guttered. Her faith withered enough to fall from her mind like a rotting fruit from a dead tree.

   Tabia glimpsed the Forbidden One’s eyes and felt content in her sudden, new enthrallment. A faint spark in the darkest corner of her mind, instantly recognized that only this creature could ever undo the curse she had woven over her.

   “Are you listening, Tabia?” The Forbidden One turned away from her to gaze in the direction that Faki had departed.

   “What?” Tabia quipped impulsively, her sentience returning in foggy, gradual waves. “Gods, but what is your will?”

   “I said that I have need of you.” The Forbidden One beckoned her forward with a curl of her talon-like finger. She spared a intentful glance and haunting smile in Tabia’s direction. “It shall be a monumental one. Are you still listening in that thick skull of yours?”

   Tabia sank to her knees in the blood slick sand and prostrated herself, knowing that anything less would spell her demise.

   Tabia did not attempt to hide the shame in her words. “I-I swear, nothing but death would keep me from it.”

   “Very well,” The creature cooed. “Then listen intently…”.

« Last Edit: March 25, 2020, 10:50:58 PM by Myen'Tal »
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Re: Ashes and Embers (Chronological Version)
« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2020, 09:27:29 AM »
Qi Burns & Fades


Sirius, the Baleful Eye of the Heavens, scoured the Valley of Carrion with its feverish heat.
Shimmering rays coalesced from the crystal skies overhead, gathering on the barren oasis before him. Aslan felt the kiss of the desert wind, a brief and unreliable reprieve from the blistering warmth on his bronze skin.

Aslan felt as if he would burst into flames, draped in shimmering robes of cream and crimson with glinting chainmail showing underneath. He stayed by the oasis, anchored beside the barren crater by the presence of his brotherhood, eagerly awaiting his command.

“Pity,” Aslan’s voice rumbled like disquiet thunder in his throat. “You see my warriors?” He gestured toward the nearest of the broken Qi warriors, bound on his knees before the edge of the dried oasis. “We merely sought to test our mettle against worthy foes… Do you see me, Qi?”

Bloodied, battered, and a hair’s breadth away from mortally wounded, the Qi being addressed could scarcely lift his head to look Aslan in the eye. It was all that he could do but glance toward Aslan’s feet and hurl a wade of phlegm at them.

“Your first sin was the pride of thinking yourselves of our caliber.” Aslan sneered. He gave the command to dispose of his prisoners with one cutting gesture.

The single rank of Zarquin Guard, a score in number, hacked their unsheathed blades into the necks of each of their assigned charges. For each single stroke, one kill was made. As blood seeped into the arid sands, the Qarthites planted their boots on the backs of their foes and kicked with mighty force.

Aslan shook his head as he watched the bodies topple into the oasis unceremoniously.

“Unthinkable,” A rough, mocking tongue struck Aslan where it thought he’d be weakest. “You’ve stolen their honor as well as their lives. Whatever could these men hope for in the afterlife now, brother?”

“What do the defeated ever want in death, Azat?” Aslan shrugged. “As far as I know, it is nothing.”

“Careful,” Azat chuckled, making light of the massacre before them. “That old fool Ibrahim might come barking at you if he heard such scornful mocking of the higher powers.”

“I do not speak of gods or Ibrahim’s… elder myths.” Aslan frowned in distaste. “It is regrettable that Qarth must be built off of the broken backs of the helpless. Qi does not hope to stand against the might of the Dominion.”

“Ehh,” Azat dismissed him with a sigh, climbing to sit upon a boulder splattered in gore. “Let the dead know their rest. Let the vanquished have their toil. It is simply the way of things. It’s a cycle you see, one that shall repeat until Qarth too is toppled when we’ve become too weak and frail to stand upright.”

Aslan glanced up from the corpse-littered oasis to stare Azat in the eye. “Things must be truly dire if even Ibrahim can say that you doom and gloom too much. Don’t speak such words amongst the ranks.”

Azat cocked his head to one side and shrugged. “Is there any use in fleeing our inevitable doom? What our hands struggle to build, is never meant to last. How much more ferocious would all of Qarth be if they lived by such words?”

“Enough, wayward brother,” Aslan smiled in spite of himself. “This valley burns, and the Qi Tribes are reduced to ashes. Qarth rises from the embers, as it has done so again and again.”

“Very well,” Azat agreed. “Bones cannot be sown in a land of peace, neither can blood flow in streams into the rivers. Salt cannot be sown without hate or prejudice. The conquered cannot be bent by anything lighter than an iron fist and sharpened blades.”

“Good,” Aslan gestured for the Zarquin to fall into formation and resume their march. “My Zarquin are the finest warriors to ever grace Qarthite soil. You think them ravenous wolves, but they are proud lions to a man and woman. I’m entrusting their lives to you, you understand? Don’t test my patience or my judgement.”

Azat heaved with scornful laughter. “I’ve never relied on either of those, Aslan, and never will. I shall see our mission done. I won’t make promises for warriors who’ve sworn that each day would be their last, if need be.”

Aslan frowned, but hid his emotions cautiously. “If such a time comes nearer too quickly, you know my signal.” A vicious smile graced his scarred features. “Remember, your life is not worth more than any one of them.”

“Just be certain you achieve things on your end.” Azat shot back. He gazed out over the horizon with cold, raven black eyes. “Be swift and remove yourself from here. Come dawn, blood shall come flowing back into the canals of Tu’shik.”

“It is only one head, Azat.” Aslan folded his arms and made to join the departing throng of Qarth warriors. “You need not risk everything to steal it off someone’s shoulders.”

“Arpiar!” Azat beckoned to the score of Zarquin lingering by the oasis. Each of them was marked with several lavender bands tied around their blade-arms. Warriors gifted from Aslan’s own retinue to serve Azat and his mission. “Swifter than wind, is there any man who could glide farther than you across the sands?”

“Your command is my sworn oath.” A lean warrior with raven hair that flowed down in straight locks rushed to kneel down before Azat’s boulder. He cupped one fist in his palm and bowed his head. “What would you have of me?”

“Look to the east.” Azat pointed past the steep slope of the oasis into the valley proper. He paused until Arpiar craned his head in the direction of several settlements dotting the landscape. “You see those Qi settlements? Take this…” Azat produced a pristine scroll of bundled parchment, written over with neat and tiny scrawl. “Go deliver this to the chieftains who dwell there. If none deign to reply to the words written in this missive… well, you may slay them.”

Arpiar inclined his head in agreement. “I shall do ask you ask. If they dare return the missive to me, I shall come back with each of their heads. Of this I swear.”

“I trust in your oaths of loyalty.” Azat waved him away. “Go now and do not return until you have succeeded.”

Azat watched Arpiar stalk away in silence, fetch the nearest horse held in wait for him by one of the attendants, and quickly depart.

Azat beckoned toward the Zarquin once again. “Nishan, you may approach. You have something to say?”

Warily, a heavily scarred brute with short locks of auburn hair stepped forward out of the score of warriors. He knelt on the bloodied sand without hesitation, one fist held in the palm of his hand.

“Azat?” Nishan lifted his head to stare Azat directly in the eye with his one good emerald eye. The other stared into the back of Nishan’s skull, only milky white color staring back. “I only regret you’ve chosen Arpiar to venture forth alone. The Qi shall grow bold when they see only one warrior making demands of them.”

“There is nothing to regret.” Azat shrugged. “Arpiar shall return by nightfall, three chieftain heads his gift to me. I would not ask that you venture forth with him. I have other plans for the Scarred Child, you see?”

“Name your demand.” Nishan’s emerald eye glinted with ferocious bloodlust. “By Qarth, I’ll see it done.”

“Look to the east.” Azat pointed beyond the oasis, in the direction of three settlements. “You see those Qi settlements? Take five warriors and raze each of them to the ground. Torch anything defiant enough to stand before you, and let your swords spare nothing they can cleave through.”

“I understand.” Nishan grimaced, but did not seem hesitant. “Blood and ashes will be all that remain.”

“Good.” Azat waved him away as he did Arpiar. “You’re not as swift as Arpiar. That is why I sent him out first. Now go and do not return until you have succeeded.”

Azat watched Nishan bow once out of respect, then shout out five names, answered by five of the Zarquin Guard. Together, they retrieved their horses held in wait for them, and set out across the dunes.

“The rest of you!” Azat beckoned to the thirteen warriors still lingering by the oasis. “Come gather round this mighty boulder and hear my words!”

The Zarquin formed a loose circle around the boulder. They did not bow, but respectfully inclined their heads. Together they intoned, “Your brothers listen!”

“Listen well, then.” Azat replied. “Qi burns, and Qarth rises from the embers. Oaths you have all sworn, and others we’ve sworn again to see through before dawn’s next light.

“All of you are survivors of great wars… Aslan could count each of you among the first generations to march from the Gardens of Tu’shik, sword and shield in hand, to sacrifice your lives for something far greater than glory or fame.

“Sadly, none of us are so young anymore, are we?” Azat grinned wolfishly and earned rumbling laughter from the stoic veterans. “But good men must sacrifice what little they have, so that great men may build better futures. Courage, iron, and steel are the weapons of good men. Prosperity, equality, and quality of life… these are the weapons of great leaders, tyrants and kings.

“Without the former, there is no latter. So, we wield our weapons against foes that stay the hands of great men, so that they shall continue to wield their weapons unencumbered. I ask each of you, right now, who or what do you swear your oaths to? Shall you sacrifice what you promised for Qarth? What say you?”

“Qi fades!” The thirteen chanted. “Qarth rises from the embers!”

“Good!” Azat thundered suddenly. “When I am brought the heads of three chieftains, their villages ablaze in a storm of smoke and ash—I anticipate warriors of legend, an infamous retinue shall come riding out of Reaper’s Lantern. We have our orders to see them all dead before dawn’s next light. Before the fate of this valley is sealed for centuries to come.

“I need not warriors, I require butchers of steely nerves and iron resolve. For certainly even with the fourteen of us, it shall be no easy prey we hunt. Prepare yourselves for carnage and battle, and a dreary demise if the fates are not with you. May the sun rise for all of you tomorrow.

“Dismissed!”

“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Re: Ashes and Embers (Chronological Version)
« Reply #2 on: January 20, 2020, 06:57:23 AM »
~***~
 
     Long hours passed since Azat had spoken with the two men he had sent forth. Dusk faded into night. An impregnable darkness crept into the chiseled mountain pass of Reaper’s Lantern. Azat and his entourage of thirteen Qarthite warriors waited till the sun vanished and the stars shimmered in the sky.
   
     They waited out the cold desert night in silence. Only a smoldering flame was allowed at the campfire, but the Zarquin huddled around its warmth as if they would freeze in its absence.
   
     Azat felt the kiss of boredom shift toward a drowsy sleep, but each breeze of frozen air bit him back into wakefulness. The wind bit and bit, until the clatter of hooves on craggy rock finally greeted the Zarquin at the mouth of the mountain pass.
   
     Azat and others craned their heads toward the sound, hands readied on the hilts of their weapons. Cheers erupted from the party instead as a familiar face rode mounted into the mountain pass to greet them. His garb was splattered with blood and his chainmail was battered and rent. In one hand, a blazing torch ate away at the shadows that clung to his face.
 
      The rider tugged on the reigns of his warhorse until the mighty beast reared up to a halt. Arpair dropped the reigns of his mount to tear away a long length of bloodied rope from his back. Azat gazed upon the length of rope that Arpair held up to him so triumphantly, the fearsome heads and matted hair of three chieftains entangled in its bind.

“Arpair, my swiftest herald, what do you return to me?” Azat bellowed with hearty laughter.
“Three chieftains as I had asked? Or did you steal away the heads from unfortunate farmers?”

“My Lord, for you!” Arpair threw the heads at Azat’s feet, his expression victorious. He pointed toward the three settlements on the horizon. “Gaze upon your work, completed!”

Azat casually glanced toward the east, where three infernos blazed into the night like great comets fallen to the earth.

“You do the Lion honor.” Azat acknowledged him with an inclination of his head. A gesture scarcely seen in the darkness of night. He pointed toward the severed heads. “Are you still worthy to fight?”

Arpair grinned through untamed, matted hair. “I fought from midday to dusk, my lord. My armor is damaged as surely as my sword and shield. But they are yours, if you need me.”

“No.” Azat dismissed him with a wave. “You’ve done enough, my swiftest. Ride forth into the night and rejoin with Aslan’s retinue. You will not want to be here when the time comes for battle.”

“As you say.” Arpair hid his skepticism well, but seemed to know well enough not to second guess his commander. “May the sun rise for all of you tomorrow.”

Azat and the others did not watch Arpair depart, but their exhalations spurred him on into the night.

“Douse the flames,” Azat commanded his warriors. “And welcome the embrace of the shadows. We lie in wait for our quarry for the rest of the night. Stay near one another, the cold’s bite will be sharp.”


~***~
   
     “Qi fades…” Nishan recited the mantra to himself, basking by the great inferno his five men weaved across the Qi village. “Qarth rises from the embers…”
 
       Five warriors on horseback galloped through blood-slick roads. They rode in separate directions, their torches setting fire to any unblemished structure from one end of the village to the next. By the time they had ridden to the settlement’s end, the fires had taken root long enough that the Qi warriors hidden amongst them were forced to flee out into the open.
 
      Nishan sighed with great relief that many of the common folk had fled weeks prior. He would not have hesitated, but his desire to slake his bloodlust with that of the unworthy was non-existent.
 
      Nishan watched scores of Qi warriors amass amidst the flames of their burning homes. As was their want, they garbed themselves in the hides of exemplary beasts of the wilds and laced their skin with piercings of their bones.
 
       The Scarred Child gazed upon them and saw no fearful men amongst their number. They barked ferocious war cries and hoisted their weapons high. Nishan watched them from a safe distance, noticed their wrathful gazes studying him in return.
 
       “Warriors of the Qi!?” Nishan thundered. “Have we stolen your spines!? Will you not fight for what blazes around you!?”
 
      The Qi stood their ground, but did not answer him.
 
      “Fine,” Nishan snorted derisively to himself, then bellowed like thunder in a clear sky. “Zarquin, attend your master’s command! Let their blood wet the sands!”
 
      Nishan did not wait for confirmation from his men, but spurred his horse toward the Qi with frightening speed. He unsheathed the wicked sword bouncing on his hip with a shrill cry and held his buckler tight across his chest.
 
       An uproarious wave of cries erupted from the Qi as Nishan bellowed a ferocious war cry. In the corner of his one eye, he caught the silhouette of another horse charging into the Qi from the opposite flank. He spurred his horse to the quickest speed, readying himself to trample men underfoot.
 
      The Qi scattered at the last moment to let the other rider through. Nishan realized too late that it was headed on a collision course.
 
      “Magar!? Hovan!? Avedis!? Change your course!” Nishan commanded. He lifted his hand to announce himself as a comrade, but froze at the sight of a corpse, without either limbs or head, galloping toward him.
 
      The collision slammed Nishan with force enough to throw his own mount into the blackened dirt. His warhorse toppled on top of him with a sickening crunch of shattered bone and twisted muscle. A primal scream tore itself from out of Nishan’s throat, the world before him nothing but a blur of motion.
   
    Several bursts of sudden, agonizing pain lanced into his gut and chest in rapid succession.
           Then the world shifted into hues of permanent black.

~***~
 
      “Nishan!?” Magar screamed in defiance. He flicked his wrist and a Qi’s sword hand toppled away from the wrist. Before the mounted warrior could ride past him, Magar smashed the rim of his shield across the back of his foe’s head and sent him toppling into the dirt after his severed hand. “Where in all the hells could he be!?”
 
      Another Qi hidden behind the facial mask of a fearsome beast rode up to strike Magar down from behind. Magar pulled hard on the reigns to turn, but knew he was too slow. Hovan charged past him at full gallop and unseated the masked warrior with a well-placed thrust of his spear through the Qi’s vulnerable neck.
 
      Blood lashed out to slather Magar’s face, but he saw clearly enough to parry a strike from another passerby.
   
     “Death from afar!” Avedis cried from the shadows. An arrow darted into the back of the rider seeking Magar out. The Qi galloped several paces onward before he fell away into the arid dirt.
 
      “Magar, Nishan’s likely dead!” Hovan cast the torch in his offhand so that the flames exploded into ashes and embers in the face of another foe, interrupting their charge. He rode past the blinded warrior and cut him across the throat. “He was at the other end of the village last we saw! A score of men I saw him charge into! We should fall back while we can! The mission is done!”
 
       “I won’t flee while there’s Qi blood yet to be spilled!” Magar parried a powerful strike from a wooden club, splinters and shards flying from his shield. “Do you hear me!? Your masks do not frighten me!”
   
     “Enough, Magar!” Hovan circled around Magar, his spear warding off a dozen foes closing in for the kill and slaying another pair of the masked riders. “Come, let’s ride! I won't linger to see if you’re still at our backs!”

        “I’ll cover the both of you!’ Avedis loosed volley after volley into the masked Qi. Several warriors were forced to limp out of the fight back toward their blazing village. A handful of others laid sprawled on the earth from his attacks. “Get your hides out of there!”
 
       “Your backs shall break building our cities!” Magar spat defiantly. He wheeled his warhorse around to trail Hovan’s retreat toward Avedis. “Remember these words!”

~***~
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Re: Ashes and Embers (Chronological Version)
« Reply #3 on: January 22, 2020, 07:44:47 AM »
   
      “Azat!”
       
      “Azat!”
   
      “Azat!” 
 
 
  A singular cry rolled over the craggy rocks of Reaper’s Lantern. The sound crept behind the unturned stones and echoed into the frozen breeze, before it vanished somewhere deep within the impregnable darkness.
 
      A sickening feeling welled from deep within Azat at the sudden taunt. The thirteen Zarquin clustered tightly around him like a living bulwark of flesh, iron, and steel. As their master remained appraising and silent in response to the challenger, so did the Zarquin refrain from ushering even a loud breath.
 
      “Come forth, son of Qarth!” The champion thundered from shadows. “I have brought you a gift fit for kings!”
   
     Suddenly, a lonesome torch blazed into life in the very heart of the mountain pass. Where shadows once clung, a warrior three heads over the tallest men stood, his stance challenging. His form was lean, but rippling with whip-chord, heavily scarred muscle. Swirling patterns of obsidian circles flowed over his trousers.

The stitched together hides of a pair of Lantern Tigers draped the otherwise bare upper body. The hides were crafted in such a way that either tiger head graced both of his shoulders.

In one fist, the freakish warrior lifted a lengthy rope entangled with three bloodied heads. Azat instantly recognized the casualties: Nishan, the Scarred Child stood starkest amongst them. Yervant, one of the five warriors he had sent with Nishan. Arpair, who Azat had incidentally sent to his doom.

The nauseous feeling churning within Azat’s stomach stoked and burned until it became a ferocious fury.

“You say that your gift is worthy of kings?” Azat countered from the shadows. “But you bring only three heads instead of the six that ventured from here. Did the other half elude you somehow?”
The Giant of a man heaved with vicious laughter, his tone brutally short, and his accent barbaric in its coarseness.

“Your fourth head!” The Giant ripped free another loop of rope dangling from his waist. Azat counted the head of another Zarquin entangled in its bind. Azat did not recognize it. “But this is unfit for either of us! You hide in the shadows while I stand out in the open like a fool… unveil yourself, let us speak warrior to warrior.” 

“Azat,” One of the Zarquin tilted his head towards him and whispered. “Tell him to unveil his army first, the deceiving bastard!”

“No,” Azat smirked. “This is not how things will play out… all of you remain where you stand. If I cannot strike down this brute with my own sword… fall back to Aslan and relay what happened.
“And before you fret at your command, I’ll demand your safe passage in return for my head to this brute.”

A chorus of whispered disagreements and denials assailed Azat’s shrinking back as he pushed forward to meet with the giant. The Zarquin cursed themselves, but did not dare disobey their orders.

Azat made a point to clamber loudly over the rocks of Reaper’s Lantern as he drew nearer to his challenger. To his credit, the giant merely held his ground and waited in patience for a silhouette to emerge from the dark.

“Here I am, mighty Qi.” Azat waved his hand and stepped into the torchlight. “You have found me… How do you know of me?” He looked respectfully up and down. “You do not fit your legend very well. None of them mentioned you were a half-giant.”

“Kin and foe alike call me Baal.” The half-giant grinned, showing surprisingly pearl white teeth, too chipped to be perfect. “And I am merely an emissary, sent on behalf of my people to be Qi’s champion.”

“Qi’s champion?” Azat scoffed, then barked with laughter. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Because Qi fades,” Baal gritted his teeth and rasped. “And Qarth rises from the embers. You threaten to break all of our backs upon the foundations of your empire.”

The laughter stifled in Azat’s throat as he considered Baal’s words. “You speak of an alliance between your people and the Qi? Your honesty baffles me… why would you say this to your enemy?”

“Why does it matter?” Baal grinned again. “When I’ll shatter your spine across my knee and claim your head as my own?”

“Personal combat, then?” Azat asked, then nodded in agreement. “If you should slay me, then allow my men safe passage to fight another day. If I slay you… your men will break anyway. Qi fades, after all.”

“Not for much longer.” Baal frowned. “But I’ve heard your terms and accept none-the-less. Before dawn breaks, the Tribes of the Qi and the Clans of Khanar shall celebrate over your broken corpse.”

A hundred cries, so close in proximity that Azat froze from the abrupt blast of their combined voices, shook the earth with defiant battle cries.

“Qi remains! Qi remains! Qi remains!”

“Shall we begin?” Baal asked. “No point in shirking from the inevitable.”

Azat smiled with that wolfish, confident smirk he had. He spun on his heel and turned his back to
Baal without a word and stalked away. He heard Baal bristle with soft, rough laughter and called for a choosing of several weapons to be brought to him. On the other side of the mountain pass, the Zarquin Guard waited with bated breath.

“Nishan and his retinue? Aripiar too?” One of the Zarquin questioned Azat as he approached.

“Dead.” Azat quipped. “Most of them. Magar, Hovan, and Avedis may still be alive.”

“Aslan would lay this giant low without even blinking.” One of the Qarthites spoke up. “You shall do it in his place, Azat, of that we are certain. Bring honor to the names of the fallen.”

“What do the dead care of honor or any of those things?” Azat countered. “Rather we not bother them with demands to follow the living. Let the dead have their rest… Be prepared for any fate.”

Azat turned his back on the Zarquin Guard and proceeded into the no man’s land between them and the opposing Qi forces. In the center of that empty space, Baal waited for him with a patience born of surety and confidence. Strapped upon the half-giant’s back were several javelins and a shield, a sword sheathed on his hip, and a two-handed great axe gripped in both of his gnarled hands.

Azat unsheathed the wicked sword sheathed on his waist and locked his shield tight across his chest. He approached with caution, until Baal’s misty breath breezed over his raven hair.
 
      Torches once hidden behind invisible men were brought out of the masses of the Qi horde. Practiced in the tradition of blood feuds, the Qi hand picked to bear the blazing lights marched around the combatants until they encircled them in one sphere. Azat noticed their perfect spacing. He witnessed the way they held their torches up high to reveal their stoic faces, scarcely concealing their untamed bloodlust.
 
       In the limelight of the torches, Azat could barely make out the Zarquin Guard clustered together just outside of the arenas bounds. Their silhouettes were unmoving as if they were built from stone instead of flesh. He knew they watched the duelists with expectant eyes.
 
       In the limelight, Baal loomed over Azat, his stature even more apparent than it was before. The Half-Giant gazed off in the direction of the Zarquin Guard, then slowly crept his gaze back to Azat.
 
       “If this were another day and time,” Baal flashed a vicious grin. “I would regale myself with tales of your exploits. Some of your warriors are men of legend. Legends hacked apart under my axe. Know that I acknowledge their sacrifice and honor their courage.”
 
       Azat lifted his gaze to look Baal in the pit of his ocean blue eyes. His eyes reflected a similar admiration. “May the gods call you with the next sunrise. If that is your fate.”
 
       “Have you made peace with your past?” Baal asked. “For I am eager to spill blood and proclaim myself victor.”
 
       Azat tightened his fingers around the handle of his moderate buckler. Obsidian, his wicked sword, gleamed in the flickering flames of the torchlight.
 
       A confident smirk crept its way into Azat’s stoic expression. “Do your worst, son of Kharan.”

        Baal screamed with such concussive force that Azat’s hearing was drowned beneath the whistling tune of deafness in an instant. The sheer shock quickened his scattering footfalls and cleared him away from the first decapitating strike.

Baal pounced forward, his stance like that of a primal tiger. The single-headed axe whirled around the half-giant’s head before lashing out in a great arc. Azat dug his feet in and cut to the left of the rightward swing. The axehead bit deep into the wooden shell of his buckler, raised overhead. Splinters and shards sprayed both combatants.

Azat pushed under the axe and answered Baal with one keening cut. Obsidian glimmered briefly like light glancing over a vein of quicksilver. Baal cried out, the sound more ferocious roar than pained. An arc of blood spurted after Obsidian’s exit from Baal’s flank.

A vicious elbow thrust toward Azat, but he slid across the sands to a safe distance. Baal followed into the movement with a downward chop, then ended the sequence with a low sweep. Azat slipped away from the downward arc without effort, but the end of the sequence off-footed him enough that he tripped over himself.

Azat followed his descent into the sand with a fluid roll. Baal’s crushing boot landed with enough force where he had fallen a moment ago that cracks ran in rivulets in the rock below. Azat pushed himself back onto his feet, but Baal was upon him and sent him flying with a mighty kick to his midriff.
 
      The night sky raged in a blur of motion, but Azat sketched out Baal rushing toward him full tilt. Baal ran him down in the span of a breath and brought his axe down in one momentous blow meant to cleave him apart.
 
      Azat ripped Obsidian free of his own bloodied skin and cut with the reckless precision of a blinded serpent. The blade whipped out toward Baal’s dwarfing silhouette and smacked some part of him with a meaty thwack. The sound was followed by a singing cut that drew an infuriated scream from Baal.
 
       The axe impacted into Azat’s right shoulder, but Obsidian had stolen much of the force out of the blow. Azat still cried out in pain, blood spraying from the rent chainmail and splashing Baal in his neatly wounded face.
 
       A mighty fist clenched Azat by the throat, lifted him partially into the air, then slammed him back into the rock and sand with a loud thud. Azat answered with a strong sweep of his buckler into Baal’s stony jaw.
 
          Baal took the blow in stride and picked himself out of the arid sands of the arena. Fingers clenched around Azat’s throat, he found himself pulled onto his feet with the half-giant.
 
       “Do you see me, Zarquin?” Baal spat flecks of blood through battered teeth. His face was cut and battered to hell, but he smiled as if he had just experienced all the joy in the world. A joy that he could only find in the chaos of battle. “You’ve met your match…”
 
       The Qi watching from the arena outskirts chanted in unison. They called for Azat’s sacrifice. They called for his blood. They called for an end to all that he had wrought.
 
       Azat cut with obsidian with all of his strength, but Baal accepted the ragged wound carved into his ribs as if he hadn’t felt it at all.
 
       “I never told you,” Baal heaved with grim laughter. “Baal is my name, because I am a demon of battle! I finish my foes by crushing their throats with my bare fist, and removing their heads with brutal force… this is sacrifice enough for the Qi.”
 
      Azat tried to spit in Baal’s face, but the leaden force pushing his throat in sapped him of strength and concentration. Blood rushed to his head. His lungs struggled to breathe. The world began to shift into non-distinct hues. His hearing began to degenerate into nothing but chaos…
 
          “For the Twelve Tyrants of Qarth!”
 
        A thick spray of blood slathered Azat and immediately, Baal’s crushing grip slackened into nothing. Azat collapsed upon himself into the blood slick sand. As clarity quickly came back into focus, he made out Baal’s headless corpse half buried in the sand.
 
       “My Lord, for you!” Azat sucked in gaping mouthfuls of air between wretched fits of coughing. Hand on his throat, he looked up to the mounted figure gazing down upon him, sword pointed toward Azat in salute.

“Magar!?” Azat managed a ragged word between heaved breaths.

Magar did not pause to see to Azat’s person, but instead pointed his sword to Avedis and Hovan charging past him at full tilt.

“Tear their ranks asunder!” Magar bellowed to the moon itself. “Litter the valley with their bones!”

Hovan crashed into the ring of Qi, who now fled for their lives. Several men vanished beneath the hooves of his stallion, crushed into the sand. His spear struck like a serpent’s kiss, again and again into any Qi brave enough to stand before him.

Avedis swept in from the left, but kept a short distance. He answered the nearest Qi with a volley of arrows. Goaded by the sudden attack, the Qi sounded their war horns and countered charged blindly into the night. One hundred men clambered relentlessly into Reaper’s Lantern until it seemed as if a living wall were going to drown the Zarquin in a tide of death.

Azat recovered himself quickly and readied obsidian and his shield. Rushing footsteps from behind betrayed the presence of the thirteen warriors who came to reinforce him. He did not have to give the command. The Zarquin Guard locked their shields together, formed a bulwark, and braced to receive the charge.

“Always one to fight on your own, brother!” A wrathful voice that could only belong to Aslan seemed to thunder over even the war cries of one hundred Qi. “But Qarth was never built on the sacrifice of one man alone!”

A dirge of a warhorn sounded behind Azat at the mouth of the mountain pass. The night sky, once dim and ominous, brightened with the light of a thousand flaming arrows descending from it. The tide of Qi writhed and shrank as they were showered by flaming death. The few who remained amongst the hale and healthy in that horde shattered in an instant before the army approaching them from the other end of the pass.

“I’m aware that I did not forbid your death.” Aslan clapped Azat hard across the back as he approached from behind. “But I thought it went without saying.”

Azat managed to grin through his exasperated, bloodied, and bruised features. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“Where are all of my men?” Aslan made a point to count each and every living Zarquin with lavender bands tied around their wrists. “You’re missing some.”

“I made no promises,” Azat grimaced. He cleaned the blood out of his eyes with the sleeve of his robe. “Remember?”

“Of all of them, you lost the Scarred Child and Arpriar?” Aslan frowned deeply. “A shame, that…”

“I won’t dwell on those about to perish here today.” Azat countered. “You wouldn’t have come with…” Azat gestured to the seemingly endless column of warriors marching into the mountain pass. “Such an army unless the Qi have come in greater numbers.”

“Worse than that,” Aslan folded his arms and watched the remaining Qi scamper out of the mountain pass. “There’s a detachment of Kharan Half-Giants headed straight for Reaper’s Lantern. I think you met their emissary?” He gazed down upon the headless corpse at his feet. “Quite the diplomats, eh?”

“Hah!” Azat barked. “You could say that.” He sobered. “What would you have of me, brother? You’ve always been Erasyl’s chosen. I’ll lend you my sword.”

“Erasyl executes the defense of the Gorgon dunes.” Aslan informed him. “Select several units from my forces and rendezvous with him. The Qi and the Kharan will be bringing the brunt of their force into that wasteland. They know where we are weakest.”

“And here I thought we’d finally draw swords together.” Azat finally replied after considering his orders. “A shame, truly.”

“Why?” Aslan shrugged. “Erasyl himself shall arrive soon to lead the counterattack from your defense. You’ll fight beside the most exalted of us all. And you know he’d have it no other way.”

“If it must be so, then let it be.” Azat sketched a mocking bow before he turned to depart. “Zarquin Guard, attend your master! I have other business to attend to…”

“My Lord,” Amidst the countless thousands now crammed into Reaper’s Lantern, Magar saluted Azat the moment he turned to face him. “Four worthy kills shall I reap in your name! Each in retribution for the men who died in your service! The dead would sing your praises for avenging them!”

“The dead are reciting the myth of how Magar slew the half-giant at Reaper’s Lantern.” Azat dismissed him with a flick of his wrist. “They care not for the man that nearly had his head ripped off by the giant himself.”

Azat did not glance behind him as the Zarquin Guard chanted his, Aslan’s, and Magar’s name and vanished into the endless throngs of warriors.
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Re: Ashes and Embers (Chronological - Portents of the Wanderer)
« Reply #4 on: January 24, 2020, 07:20:36 AM »
Portent of the Wanderer

   Tabia walked gingerly along the beaches of the Forlorn Shores. In the distance, the cawing of crows and other birds of carrion carried over the rumbling winds. The skies above bellowed with celestial thunder. The waning sun on the horizon withered until all was cloaked under a vast, star-lit void.

   Tabia paused after some time of aimless wandering. She caught sight of Centarus, the Pale Moon, bathing the placid waters of the Void Sea in glimmering moonlight. The tide waxed full and surged onto the white sands until they crashed over her sandals.

   She knew the Forbidden One never strayed far from her side.

   “I don’t understand,” Tabia gazed off into the breaking waters. She caught sight of a beautiful woman of rich caramel skin, a lengthy trail of russet hair bound into the shape of a long, arched braid that swept down to the small of her waist. Bright eyes of amber watched Tabia’s still form as they sank back beneath the waves.

“Not everything is meant to be understood within a brief period of time.” The Fobidden One’s voice crept up from behind her, but Tabia sketched out the creature’s form scant feet from her side. “Such an enrapturing sight, the endless waters. Certainly, makes one treasure the rarest, smallest treasures in life.”

“Won’t you tell me what you are?” Tabia gazed up toward Centarus and found a small semblance of comfort. “You’re asking much of someone that has no horse in your personal vendetta. I have no reason to do as you ask, even should you send me straight to the grave.”

“Call me Zesiro, little Tabia.” Zesiro, the Forbidden One, answered. “If I could only choose one reason to show you why I spared you, Tabia, I would have to settle on your defiance. It is courageous. Ultimately, it is unpredictable too. I do love that in any woman.”

A pleasant silence, interrupted by the breaking of the waves, allowed Tabia to reflect and piece together her thoughts.

“You stole away my memories, my sanity, and my pride,” Tabia pondered aloud. “Only to return them to me as a gift of your unending kindness. You could have left me broken. You could have chained me to your will forever. Do not misunderstand my puzzlement, I respect your mercy.
“If only you had afforded Adofo and the rest of my caravan the same treatment.”

“Perhaps,” Zesiro considered Tabia’s words and shrugged dismissively. “Comprehension is a strength of yours, I’ve discovered. You should use that gift, little Tabia, to ends much grander than these trivial questions.

“Adofo was no ancient enemy of mine, but he did prove himself an inconvenience. Is it not enough of an answer that I wanted you to myself? The far more important question, is that if you wanted your kin alive, why didn’t you stop me?”

“It was by the grace of the Firstborn himself,” A faint smirk crept on Tabia’s lips. A smoldering pride blazed in the pit of her chest. “Lord of the Twelve Tyrants and the Dominion of Qarth. It was his command alone that stayed my hand from smiting you utterly.”

“I should have defied Erasyl’s will,” A veil of reminiscence cloaked Tabia from head to toe. “But I trust deeply in his wisdom. I thought he would not let us come to harm.”

Zesiro sighed with a shake of her head. “I’m certain he had no other intention, but in the grand scheme of things, he is my pawn. I am not one of his. Were you his consort? I never knew him as one to settle for less than all the splendors he could reach out and touch.”

Tabia tilted her head back and chortled at the question. “I am no consort of his. Neither are we more intimate. He is my friend. Sometimes that comes with certain perks, but he does not own me.”

“Intriguing,” Zesiro chuckled, amused by the prospect. “It is a good thing that we have found each other. Qarth rises from embers, but her hours wane and her flames gutter.”

“I must confess,” Tabia arched her brow. “I thought you would ask me to plant a dagger in his chest. I thought you nothing more than an assassin, at first glance.”

“I am not your lover-friend’s enemy,” Zesiro corrected. “I am his benefactor and patron. I would only see him succeed. You and I desire the same thing, Tabia. If you cannot trust what I say, then leave… run to Erasyl’s side. He will confirm all of your suspicions and fears, and that they are not at all what they seem.”

Tabia stared out over the black waters and felt her lips form a genuine smile. “I shall do as you say. If Erasyl speaks that you are true… I shall aid you, as you asked. That would be nothing short of his command, I know it.”

Tabia spun on her heel and walked away from the shoreline. On the horizon behind her, she noticed the labyrinth of open walled spires reaching high into the heavens.  Their staircases were aglow from the light of lanterns hung over their heights.

Leagues beneath those spires, grand citadels of sandstone and granite overlooked sweeping hanging gardens and urban sprawl so incredibly dense that they built steadily toward the skies rather than spread beyond the all-encompassing walls that ringed the great city.

It was a vast collage of strange geometrically shaped architecture that clashed together at various angles. Entire structures seemed flipped entirely, their thinner proportions sunken deep within the earthen bowels of the citadel. The end of some buildings seemed precisely cut like staircases that one simply could climb, but not step down. Entire plazas encircled great spherical monuments that poured freely with fountain water.

Tabia looked upon the twisted citadel and instead felt the warm embrace of home rather than the unsettling nauseousness that any foreigner would feel. She would take the nearest ferry across the Grand Canals of Tu’shik, and enter by the Dam’s Gate.

Tabia knew she would finally be home, but felt an unsettling fear of the unknown as she considered Zesiro’s cryptic warnings.       

~***~

   Tabia lifted her hood so that it fell over her eyes and tread gently across the limestone bricks that paved the Grand Canals’ dockyards. A gilded framework surrounded each kilometer length of brickwork, chiseled by generations of the finest artisans so that they worked like a living map, pointing to any nearby dockyard, ferry, or storage keep.

   Usually bustling with maritime life, the endless hordes of Qarthite sailors, merchants, and foreign emissary delegations had waned into the smallest of trickles as the evening progressed toward midnight.

   Warriors of the Zarquin Guard clustered around the dockyard of a particular ship Tabia rapidly neared. A short man with a vicious voice barked at a group of Kharan Half-Giants nearly twice his size. She gingerly passed the great Quinquereme by as one of the Kharanites revealed an axe and neatly cleaved the short man’s head almost completely off his shoulders.

   Zarquin Warriors gathered behind their slain superior did not lift their swords. Tabia heard foreign screams as hidden archers shot the Khanites into the crystal cyan waters of the canal. She heard swords being drawn in the distance and a command to storm the ship before she slipped out of sight.

   A stranger’s voice greeted Tabia from scant feet away.

“Jumanah’s light on your path, stranger.” A youthful woman’s cheery voice struck like a sudden lightning bolt in a quiet sky.

Tabia gently turned her head toward a wooden bench, where a woman with hair of both rosy red and burnished chestnut watched her with a broad smile.

“You tread softly,” The woman mentioned with a mirthful smirk. “But you’ll never avoid every eye out here in the canals, understand? Best to tread loudly with a caravan of armed soldiers, if you truly wish to be left alone.”

“You speak in truths, young lady.” Tabia lifted the hood off her shoulders, a sign of acknowledgement. “But where are your guardians? They’ve vanished in the dark of their own shadows, as far as I can see.”

“My kin call me Shoushan.” The woman reclined further onto the wooden bench. In the wane moonlight, Tabia noticed the soft glimmer of chainmail beneath her flowing robes of crimson and cream. “My warriors are taking care of the dispute you just witnessed on that Quinquereme you passed by.”

“You’re Zarquin?” Tabia felt her heart skip a beat. “Forgive me, sister, I’d not mean to come off as beguiling.”

“It matters little,” Shoushan lifted a hand in a gesture for calm. When she spoke, Tabia was reminded of the warmth of the hearth-fire. Her smile could melt the ice off blackened hearts. “I was only curious about the hooded woman sneaking around my Grand Canal. My only suggestion is that you do not cause trouble in these late hours. My Zarquin can be more forgiving when the heat beats us all into lazy indifference. But at this hour, ill things could betide many a stranger who rouses their wrath.”

“I am…” Tabia bit her tongue sharply before she uttered the rest of her retort. “I am on my way into the Great City. I am headed for the ferryman.”

“You were going to say you aren’t afraid.” Shoushan gracefully rose to her feet in spite of her armor. Tabia spied several wicked scars that marred her skin, but only added to the untamed flame of her natural beauty.

“Curious,” Shoushan encircled Tabia until she eventually came to rest directly before her. “Why aren’t you?”

“Remove yourself from my path,” Tabia suddenly commanded. “I have the God-King’s authority.”

Shoushan arched her brow and considered Tabia with a long, cool look. Her bright expression quickly transformed into something stony and sinister. The Zarquin Commander’s hand rested intently upon the hilt of her sword.

“I won’t hear such lies in the Throne City!” Shoushan hissed. “You have one chance to show me proof. If I judge you a liar, I shall cleave your head off of yours shoulders with one blow.”

“Calm yourself, Shoushan!” A familiar voice interrupted the argument. Tabia craned her head in surprise at the source. Faki cast the door into the Zarquin barracks aside with a thunderous clamor. “If Adofo heard such threats against the God-King’s--”

“Adofo is dead.” Shoushan reminded. “He died in the reliquaries with his entire unit… except you, Faki. They are dead, because of this dumb be-atch, if she’s spoken the truth. How could you ask for calm when a dozen of your brothers lies dead beneath the city?”

“Enough, enough!” Faki stepped between Shoushan and Tabia, a torch blazing in his hand. “You should slake that sword of yours on some Kharanites, if you’ve such an impulse to murder.”

“The Kharanites are our friend now,” Shoushan smiled grimly. “After they learn to submit to our laws, of course. In either case, I won’t stand here and let this woman step a foot inside of Tu’shik. She has dishonored our name and handed our brothers to the Lady of Misery and Sorrow. Not over my corpse, she shall not pass!”

Tabia gestured for Faki to step aside with a dismissive wave of her hand. Faki hesitated, then looked back to Shoushan, who made the same gesture.

“If this must be settled with blood.” Faki grimaced. “Then just fight to the first cut. There’s already been enough murdered brothers and sisters today.” He cautiously retreated back toward the wooden bench. 

“Show me your symbol of authority,” Shoushan unsheathed the wicked sword on her hip with a cry that cut through the foggy night air.

“Are you deaf?” Tabia accused. “Did you hear a word Faki mentioned? Of course, I no longer have it! We all fought for our lives down in the caverns!

“If you do not proof of your authority,” A vicious smile crept onto Shoushan’s lips. “Then no one should be able to validate your untimely demise.”

Shoushan lunged forward with a powerful thrust, aimed to run Tabia through in the span of a quick breath. Faki’s sword intercepted the blow, but Shoushan feinted and parried in such a way that Faki was thrown over her lowered shoulder and into the cyan waters of the canal.

Tabia did not pause for either of them to recover. She sketched intricate symbols in the air while Shoushan was momentarily distracted. She uttered the practiced mantra that came to mind and her fingertips suddenly blazed bubbling, liquid fire. Driplets cascaded off of her fingers and left miniature, scorched craters where they hit the limestone.

“Come,” Shoushan noticed Tabia, recovered her footing, and ran full-tilt toward her opponent. “For the Firstborn! Glory to the Tyrants of Qarth!”

Shoushan thrust once more, a hair’s breadth away from tackling Tabia to the dockyard floor. Tabia winced heavily from sudden, fresh pain. Blood streamed from the deep cut carved across the length of her right cheek. The Zarquin Commander meant to channel strength into the blow, to turn her graze into a decapitating strike.     

Shoushan twisted around to fulfill her tactic, but Tabia reached out and planted the palm of her flaming hand squarely on the Zarquin’s chest. The searing heat earned a gasp out of Shoushan, the liquid flame quickly eating through cloth and armor.

Tabia thundered the trigger word at the forefront of her mind. The miniature flames on her fingertips ignited into a roaring stream of liquid fire. Panic seized Shoushan first, then her feeble screams as the flames took hold became loud enough to be heard across the canal. Her arms, once poised for battle, flailed wildly as she was reduced to cinders.

The scorched carcass clattered in a heap upon the ground. It was serenely lifeless and silent in contrast to what it had been before.

“Seven hells!” Faki cried out as he climbed out of the canal. He looked to Tabia with wild eyes.

“Have you gone completely mad!?”

“Be grateful that you’ll continue to breath, Faki.” Tabia lifted her hood so that it fell over her eyes. She continued her hastened walk toward the ferryman’s boat. “Gods keep you breathing till you’re too old to breath, old friend.”

From the Quinquereme in the distance, shouts of alarm followed in the wake of Shoushan’s sudden death. The sounds of battle echoing from that lone ship still continued well into the night.                                   

~***~
« Last Edit: January 24, 2020, 07:24:49 AM by Myen'Tal »
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Re: Ashes and Embers (Chronological - Portents of the Wanderer)
« Reply #5 on: January 26, 2020, 10:04:06 AM »

   The Ferryman’s raft drifted across the still waters of the Grand Canals. A soft breeze swept in from the eastern horizon at its back and pushed it gently until it glided across the canal at a steady pace. The Ferryman himself, a middle-aged man of dark chestnut skin and an intricate beard of black braids laced with gold, disturbed the waters only occasionally with a dip of the oar.

   Tabia cast a nervous glance toward the Dam’s Gate. The massive gateway and dam hybrid loomed ever nearer, to the point that she could spy the outlines of guards and the lanterns they held up to the night air. Yet the nearest series of ramparts that would let her onto the battlements of the first wall still seemed impossibly distant.

   “How long?” Tabia questioned insistently. “I do not have all night.”

   “An ill night for ill-temperament, my daughter.” The Ferryman glanced into her eyes with a father’s mirthful smile. “You need not fear the perils of the night on my raft. Gaze about you.” He gestured with one grand sweep of his arms toward the leagues of open, still water between them and the nearest dockyard or city gate. “Your woes are already long behind you. We shall arrive soon, may as well make yourself comfortable.”

“You have my thanks,” Tabia feigned a grateful smile, but still twiddled her fingers restlessly. 

“It is no trouble,” The Ferryman replied. “Still, a bad way to go for that young woman who hounded you so mercilessly. I pity the shameful state of her remains. She learned her lesson too late, but it is far from the final hour for you, young lady.”

“What are you playing at?” Tabia cast the Ferryman an irritated, skeptical look. “You know that I’ve commited murder?”

“What person would not have heard that Zarquin’s zealous screams?” The Ferryman clucked his tongue. “Half of the Grand Canals must have heard her death throes. But rest assured, my daughter, only the warriors of the Zarquin Guard would care to take notice. Us lowborn must be cunning, we must remain above all things.”

“Save your own skin, then.” Tabia sneered. “Just get me where I’m going, ferryman.”

“We approach the ramparts,” The Ferryman reported, gesturing toward the dockyards that rapidly approached. “Fifty pieces of copper or five pieces of silver is all that I ask in return.”

Tabia stared across the cyan waters and took in the details of the dockyards in the near distance. Where the other end of the Grand Canal held only a scarce amount of ships at best, the actual dockyards of Tu’shik were filled to the brim with hundreds of anchored vessels. The gilded walkways were buried beneath bustling crowds that filtered in and out of the Tu’shik’s maritime district.

Patrols of Zarquin Guard hastened through the crowds, breaking apart the masses to achieve their own enigmatic whims.

“Thank you again,” Tabia repeated genuinely this time. She reached into her purse and produced several pieces of silver. She dropped them into the Ferryman’s eager fingers. “You did not have to risk your neck for me, but you did anyway.”

“A coward like me deserves no apology,” The Ferryman grinned. “I’ve had chances to risk my neck, as you have done tonight. But for tonight, and some nights more, I am content simply to remain. Until one day, I can no longer simply just be. Jumanah guide your path, traveller.”

Tabia considered the strange man for a moment, puzzlement written on her features. An abrupt force seized the raft as it was jarred to a halt on the docks. The Ferryman did not wait for Tabia, he discarded his oar onto the raft and hurried up the ramparts for the safety behind the first wall.

Tabia remembered herself and climbed off of the raft and onto the limestone brickwork of the ramparts.

“Evening, my sister,” The grizzled voice of a Zarquin Guard made Tabia whirl around with an animated jump.

“Evening,” Tabia locked eyes with a puzzled, heavily scarred visage of a veteran warrior. His face was dimly lit by the smoldering torch he held in his hand. “What is his will, brother?”

“A raft with no ferryman.” The Zarquin Guard looked from Tabia to the abandoned raft behind her. He considered her for a long moment. He cursed to himself. “They spend too many hours drinking themselves to rock-bottom with the setting sun. In either case, I won’t bore you to death with the fines I’m about to heap on this poor bastard.

“I bid you safe travels by moonlight.”

Tabia nodded once and proceeded to vanish amidst the throngs of the nightly crowds. Hundreds of men and women, cloaked against the night, ascended the ramparts like a stream that had reversed course. As she neared the battlements of the first wall, urgent shouts began to swell like rumbling thunder in the dockyard below.

Tabia spared a parting glance behind her where the mysterious Ferryman’s raft lay unanchored. Gathered around the raft were Zarquin Guard, nearly a dozen in number, that had rowed in from the other side of the Grand Canal. The scarred veteran that had greeted Tabia earlier was being screamed at by the leader of the pack.

The Scarred One looked toward the rampart near the first wall and pointed in Tabia’s general direction. The dozen Zarquin did not idle long. They quickly scrambled up the ramparts, their warning shouts forging a path through the crowds. They would rapidly close upon Tabia at such a pace.

Tabia lowered her head and plunged further into the throngs of nightlife crowds. She found herself weaving through a labyrinth of battlements and ancient defenses that turned a solitary wall into the bulwark of a mighty bastion. Hushed curses and rebukes followed her increasingly hasty and reckless footsteps as she pressed through groups of Qarthite men and women at a time.

“Tabia,” A familiar voice cut through the shadows that clung to the claustrophobic stairs. They descended down into the dense urban sprawl of Tu’shik. “You were borne of the shadows, girl. Command them to do your bidding, do not let them disown you.”

Menacing, shouted warnings mingled with surprised cries and screams as the Zarquin Guard barreled through the crowds. Tabia rapidly descended the stairways, suddenly realizing that the crowds had thinned out to the point that she was practically alone.

 She cut pass shadowy alleyways, and small, dead-end spaces that lurked behind many of the luxury establishments. Small hanging gardens hidden behind massive iron gates barred the way into some areas. Other pathways still lead into the rear entrances of many well-lit establishments.

Everywhere she went, the sounds of mirth and laughter resonated from within many a hearth. However, out here in the desert cold and mist wreathed streets, only the quiet murmurs and lamentations of the ill-content echoed from the hidden crevices of the great city.

“This way, Tabia.” The voice called out to her again from an alley so brightly lit that it momentarily blinded Tabia to glance in its direction.

Tabia second guessed her intuition, as the voices of the Zarquin Guard shouted at passersby from scant feet behind her. She banished her thoughts and suddenly turned to descend the small staircase that spiraled further into the back-alley. Her sandals waded through rainwater that had collected enough to come up to her ankles. She gazed down the brightly lit path of the alleyway and could find nothing but barred door after barred door, until the pathway curved out of sight.

A score of footsteps shuffled down the spiral staircase behind her. The keening cry of swords unsheathed from their scabbards rang out in the midst of the alleway. Tabia did not move as they made to encircle her.

“That’s enough, damnable witch!” Tabia squeezed her eyes shut in resignation as the sharp voice of a woman shouted for her surrender. “Keep your hands off your hip, your arms still and away from your person. No sudden movements, yes?”

Tabia lifted her hands so that they dangled uselessly in the foggy air. She spun around to look her captors in the eye as they moved to surround her. Ten Zarquin Guard circled her with practiced ease, their swords readied to cut through Tabia in the blink of an eye if need be.

An amused smile graced Tabia’s lips as she noticed all of the Zarquin warriors were attempting in vain not to heave and haw for every scrap of air that they could get.

The young woman that seemed to be in charge stepped forward to come face to face with her prey. Her raven hair was pulled back into three separate braids, two dangling in front of her temples, and the other falling behind her neck. Her eyes sparkled like pieces of polished emerald, shining out of a face covered in ritual scarification.

The young woman gestured with a point of her chin. “It’s not every occasion that we get a Disciple burning one of our commanders onto death. You were reckless to think that you could simply walk away from that. Give me one word why I shouldn’t command all nine of my subordinates here to run you through, right here and now?”

“Alone.” Tabia replied.

“Alone?” The Zarquin Senior shrugged, her expression blank as an unwritten page. “I understand I said ‘one word’’, but you may elaborate.”

“We’re not alone.” Tabia insisted. “I am not your enemy, Zarquin. Shoushan threatened my life, I acted in defense of myself.”

The Zarquin Senior cast her gaze about the alleyway and considered Tabia for a long moment.

“If the presence of the Gods frightens you,” The Zarquin smiled grimly. “You should have rethought your most blatant murder.” She made a dismissive, cutting gesture. “Kill her. Make it precisely slow. Give me the head when you’re don-”

The crushing blow of a spiked club against the young woman’s skull made Tabia leap backward with an involuntary scream. The Zarquin Senior crumpled into the rainwater with a dull thud, her blood rapidly pooling around her leaking corpse.

The Zarquin nearest the stranger with the bloodied club masterfully parried the next savage strike. His comrade beside him cut down their assailant with a stroke of his sword.

Suddenly, the dozen barred doors that sealed off as many establishments from the alleyway were cast open in rapid succession. Out from the shadows emerged men and women garbed in the tattered robes of rogue slaves; a wild assortment of blades wielded in their hands.

The Zarquin did not idle, but roared their battle cries as the two factions clashed in the claustrophobic confines of the alleyway.

“A coward I was content to remain,” The Ferryman’s voice cut through the chaos by Tabia’s side.
“But tonight, I am no longer content simply to remain. Inspired by your bravery, one could say.”

Tabia considered the rogue for a long moment of shock. In the eyes of the Ferryman, revelation played out within both his and Tabia’s mind as they considered one another.

“Break the Disciple, brothers!” The Ferryman called out and thrust once for Tabia’s neck.

Tabia scrambled out of the spear’s trajectory as it hurtled past her. The weapon struck one of the Zarquin in the flank and forced him to cry out, but it did not fell him. The Zarquin seized the spear before the ferryman could wrench it free. The Qarthite warrior shattered the Ferryman’s nose with a broad swing of his shield.

Tabia hastily sketched runic patterns in the air and made the earth under a clutch of rogue slaves heave until it burst with torrential flames. The flames quickly caught hold of their flesh and clothes, made them writhe and scream until the Zarquin closed in and hacked them down without mercy.

A javelin flew threw the thick of combat and impaled a Zarquin through the small of her spine. She sagged downward to the earth in such a way that it seemed that she had purposefully fallen on the weapon.

Swords clashed back and forth, several of the rogue slaves limped away from the skirmish with hands on their cut open throats. Here and there, the sheer number of slashing and thrusting weapons saw a Zarquin pinned against the wall and stabbed to death.

Tabia sketched more intricate and bolder symbols until the very air shimmered with the searing heat of darting fire. Zarquin and former slave alike went to ground from the criss-cross of scorching blasts. Those too dull-witted to move were set alight and burned the same way Shoushan had.

“Disciple!” An unfamiliar pair of hands seized Tabia by the shoulders and forced her to crouch down from her own incendiary blasts. “Are you crazy? You’ll set half the city on fire, Tabia!”

“Who are you!?” Tabia demanded, but felt herself pushed through the ensuing combat.

More than once did a sword cleave downward to claim her head. More than once did a spear thrust directly for her heart. The unfamiliar pair of hands occasionally removed themselves from Tabia’s shoulders to strike away each weapon with practiced fluidity. Other enigmatic figures weaved through the combat, hueing through whoever deign strike out at them.

Warriors screamed and rogue slaves toppled into pools of their own split blood. As Tabia was guided through the chaos, so did the chaos itself seem to wane and calm until virtually there stood no member of the Zarquin Guard or rogue slave that had not been outright slain in the confusion.

Tabia glanced around her, and could see that death had claimed this particular back alley. Corpses littered the alley from one end to the next, all of them slackened and still in the strange angles and positions that they had died in.

“Their deaths were unnecessary.” A woman’s voice crept out of the shadows. Tabia only now realized that many of the torches that once lit the alley had been snuffed somehow and left much in darkness. “Slave or Zarquin, let them butcher one another till the end of the final breath of life. It is lamentable that we were forced to step in and decide their fates for them.”

A familiar woman stepped out of the shadows, but Tabia immediately sensed something was off about her. The shade of her braided hair was of rosy red and chestnut entwined. Four scars carved from a foe’s sword were etched upon a face already marked with some ritual scarification.

Where her voice should have been bright and cheery, Tabia could sense nothing of the sort from her morose tone. Eyes that shone like pits of emerald stared through Tabia as if she could see the essence of the cloying soul beneath.

Lastly, she was not dressed as a member of the Zarquin Guard. A quilted armor the color of storm clouds, raven feathers, framed with a gold trim, lent her the aura of a stalwart, immovable object.

“Honored Disciple Tabia,” The enigmatic stranger sketched an elegant bow. “I am Shoushan. Exemplar of the Exalted. You burned my younger sister onto death.”

   Tabia remained silent.

   “A wise decision.” Shoushan answered, her response surprisingly apathetic and cold. “I should not have burdened you with such revelations… but I felt that you should know.”

   “You have my sympathies,” Tabia cautiously replied. “I could not stay your sister’s hand. If you want honesty, Shoushan, she brought her own death upon herself.”

   “I agree with you, Tabia.” Shoushan’s nod was nigh-imperceptible. “But youth is reckless and untoward. Her death, too, was ultimately unnecessary.”

   “Will you decide if I am an unnecessary casualty also?” Tabia asked, her brow arched slightly. “No one would certainly blame you.”

   “Someone would,” Shoushan shook her head. “Someone I’ve sworn oaths of fealty to, that I’d rather not cross. We should not linger here before more of the Zarquin come to investigate. You can walk, can you? Then follow my lead. The Exalted shall see you before Erasyl’s throne.”

   Tabia remained rooted where she stood as Shoushan waded through the alley past her.

   “Why was your sister spying on me, Shoushan?” Tabia glanced over her shoulder. “No chance that she ambushed me by accident.”

   “A dozen Zarquin end up dead on your journey into the caverns,” Shoushan pondered aloud. “Their guide disappears, only to resurface sometime later. Did you not think that Erasyl would want to understand the nature of what you encountered in the reliquaries?

   “Enough trivial questions,” She barked. “If you will not walk, one of my sisters would gladly carry you.”

   “Fine,” Tabia conceded. “Though this is all really a great misunderstanding.”

   “Of course,” Shoushan’s shrinking voice carried down from the height of the spiralling staircase back onto the streets of Tu’shik. “You’d be one of the slain here if that were truly not the case.”
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Re: Ashes and Embers (Chronological - Interlude I)
« Reply #6 on: January 28, 2020, 09:18:47 PM »
Interlude I



Azat danced betwixt the crumbling arches of the Old Myrian Palace and practically glided across the obsidian brickwork. Shadows lengthened from the myriad nooks and crevices, and moonlight cascaded freely through the ruins of the war-torn corridors. Obsidian, his wicked sword, lashed out like slivers of brilliance that unveiled those cloaked in the abyssal dark.

   Azat slid across the smooth brickwork and out of the path of a pinpoint thrust meant to puncture his throat. Obsidian cleaved the small glimmer of bluish-white steel with a keen cry.

   Rivulets of crimson trickled down the length of the broadsword’s honed edge. A storm raged over the ruins of the toppled palace, and brought a deluge of frozen rain that cleansed away any trace of death and violence from hilt to bladetip. A numbing sensation tempered Azat’s adrenaline with an inexplicable sense of serenity.

   Rainwater crept into the gaps of Azat’s chainmail and soaked his outer robes through. He felt his movements grow increasingly cumbersome. Yet if his movements had become impaired, then the wretched assassins before him moved with all the grace of slaves chained by their ankles with iron shackles.

   Azat lunged into a precise thrust of his own toward the assassin in his midst. Obsidian hurtled past the blade-less hilt lifted in pitiful defense and punched neatly through soft robes of lilac and ebony silk. A young woman’s slender form spasmed in response as the length of steel was rammed straight through the small of her back.

   Her voice, pure and bright as sunlight deflected off gentle waves, cried out into the hollowed emptiness of the Old Palace.    

   Where blood once coursed in rivulets, now streamed from the exit wound as Azat gracefully retracted his blade from flesh. The assassin toppled backwards into her compatriots. One of her comrades tried to catch her, but was dragged onto the shattered brickwork in turn.

   “Qarth rises,” A lithe man garbed in leathers the color of night, hissed from the shadows. “Myria burns to ruin amidst the phoenix’s flames!”

   “Enough,” Azat slid left of a poisoned dagger’s vicious thrust. He came along the assassin’s flank, even as the hired murderer fainted his next attack and slunk out of reach of the vengeful strike that followed. “None unborn of moon and shadow shall grace the Pinnacle. No man blessed with immortality would slink in the dark behind hired cravens, who flail their blades like children!

   Azat smacked the male assassin with a vicious impact of his elbow to the chest. The strike struck true and knocked the wind from out of the assassin’s lungs. Obsidian made the  fatal cut. A lifetime of rhetoric ended abruptly as blood gushed from out of his sliced open throat.

 The nameless assassin clamped a quivering hand onto the open wound, vainly attempting to stem the blood. Azat seized the figure by his blood slick fingers, commandeering him as a living shield. A flurry of poisoned knives embedded themselves in the dying man’s back. The shield spasmed and foamed till he had gasped his last choked, guttered breaths.

Azat released the corpse in his arms and let it fall upon the ruined brickwork with a wet thud.

“My, my,” A woman with a venemous sneer greeted Azat. She stood poised over the corpses of her dead compatriots. “Aren’t we skilled for a lowborn nobody? I’m almost afeared to try my hand next at killing you.”

A glint of admiration shined in Azat’s gaze. A confident grin flashed on his stoic face in spite of himself. “You’ll not cower in the face of imminent death? I can respect such courage, it magnifies the flame of your defiance.”

“You’ll find that I have a repetoire of death to match!” The woman, incredibly lithe even beyond an assassin’s standards, hissed as she faded into the dark with a few bounding leaps backwards.
“The God-King would see the potential in a sword hand as true as yours, Azat.”

“Tell your God to come himself and beg for it!” Azat shouted into the shadows shifting behind the arches. “He is a craven king that lords from his untouchable throne, built off the back of stolen lands! You won’t break me  by mere mention of him.”

“But Azat, think of your own fortunes,” She sighed from places untouched by the moon’s radiance.
“You could live like  a king for the rest of your days. Sire princes and ladies worthy of the world’s envy. You would be as the jewel encrusted in the center of a crown; everlasting, beauteous, glorious in your radiance and rarity. You could be the greatest sword ever wielded upon the earth.”

“Hah!” Azat bound forward in two steps. Obsidian lashed out, an illuminated blur of steel that clashed against the curved edge of a wicked blade.

Azat drew back a step. His broadsword cut to the left and right of his own shadow. Each strike was masterfully parried with little effort. The assassin weaved beneath a horizontal sweep meant to cleave her in twain. The scimitar in her hands nicked both of Azat’s calves as she dove low with an arced sweep.

Azat stumbled backward, his footwork interrupted. He flowed with his reversed momentum, forging an ordered retreat for more distance.

The assassin gracefully danced in tune with each step Azat placed behind him. Azat finally pushed forward and leapt over a fluid sweep of the assassin’s blade as it swept again toward his ankles. He swept his sword down in a hacking blow that nicked the assassin’s left cheek when she tilted out of the blade’s trajectory.

The assassin flinched from the cut etched onto her cheek. A sly smile slowly spread across her lips even as she watched Obsidian pass the rest of her by.

“Good night, then.” She cooed gently. A vicious slap of taloned fingernails raked Azat’s own cheek.

Realization dawned upon Azat as he considered what had just happened. His blade-dance came to a jarring halt. Instantly, his vision blurred with flaring severity. The five gashes cut neatly into his cheek burned as if scorched with melting acid. He felt his body violently jerk once, then quiver relentlessly until his muscles could no longer keep him upright.

Azat tumbled face-first onto the polished obsidian brickwork.
 
“No challenge!” The assassin proclaimed, triumphant. “What a waste of—”

A  sudden impact of an arrow scoring a wound echoed across the dead silence of the palace corridors. The assassin had no time to cry out. Azat did not see the assassin fall, but could vividly imagine he hired killer gazing down upon herself, hand over the arrow that pierced her heart.

Azat heard another corpse tumble onto the palace floor beside him.

“Clean this mess up, Sahak!” Another woman’s voice, steady and placid like an oasis, surged into the abandoned corridor. “You’ve always been a wonderful marks-woman, Aiman. A pity I never trained you for proper service.”

“Nightbane,” A voice of tranquility cooed into Azat’s ear. A comforting hand steadied him and sat him up right. “It stills the muscles gradually, but quick enough that it can incapacitate even the toughest warrior. It is a quick death and a relatively painless one at that. Hold him!”
A small clutch of shadows kept a respectful distance, immediately approached to fulfill her bidding.

“Get him to drink this,” The voice of serenity commanded them. “It shall undo that witch’s poison!”

Azat could no longer cling onto reality. He slipped into the unending abyss of unconsciousness.


« Last Edit: January 31, 2020, 09:29:21 PM by Myen'Tal »
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Re: Ashes and Embers (Chronological - Chains That Break)
« Reply #7 on: January 31, 2020, 09:23:11 AM »
Chains that Break


   “I never told you,” Baal’s grim laughter echoed in Azat’s skull like the knell of a bell. “My kin call me Baal, because I am a demon of battle!”

   Azat could feel the iron clasp of the half-giant’s fingers slowly crushing his throat. Death never felt so near, so patient in its inevitability. Baal met his own death instead by far swifter means.

   A jangling of leaden chains disturbed the war tent. Azat flicked his raven eyes wide open, immediately heightened with awareness. He flinched, pure horror in his heart, at the sight of Baal’s grisly, severed head dangling overhead. The discarded skull swayed so near that droplets of blood dripped from where a chain had been roughly inserted into the stump of the severed neck and onto Azat’s clothes.

   “Are you frightened?” Aslan leaned in to loom over Azat’s bedroll. A grim smile cracked his stoic facade. “It is a gift. A commemoration to your efforts in Qarth’s victory.”

   “Seven hells,” Azat shot back. He jumped to his feet so quickly that Aslan hurtled backward to avoid being tackled. “You think that a jest!?”

   “Hells, my apology.” Aslan quickly lowered the grisly war trophy. “Your nightmares slipped my thoughts for the briefest moment. I wonder what you did to anger the gods, to have all the souls you’ve slain trail you in your dreams?”

   “What does it matter?” Azat snarled, his body language intense and animated. “I’ve learned many moons ago that their presence cannot simply be cleansed or forgotten.”

   “Calm yourself,” Aslan raised Baal’s severed head once more, this time more deliberately slow. “Gaze upon what’s left of him. Baal’s not coming back for you. Magar made certain of that.”

   Azat paused and drew in a deep breath. He flicked beads of sweat off of his brow. He gazed into Baal’s own lifeless eyes, rolled back into the half-giant’s slackened head so that only milk-white lenses glared back. A rattling chuckle emitted out of his throat as relief crept back into his tense muscles.

   “I’ve never lost a personal combat against any foe.” Azat clasped a hand over his eyes, his left eye peering through the crack of his fingers back to Aslan. “Never thought I’d meet my match those several nights ago. Fighting for my life in the desert night, limbs numb and aching from the cold.

   “Struggling not to become crushed under that demon’s boots… Knowing that I hadn’t a chance in hell of even halting his advance.”

   Aslan lifted his chin a fraction, his expression knowing. “Nothing is meant to last, you said that yourself. You’re not the young swashbuckler you used to be, brother. And yet you live, while Baal toast to your victory in the afterlife. I hear the Kharan Giants do not hold many grudges.”

   “Should I be grateful?” Azat pried his skull out of his hand. “I’m certain the few that aren’t rotting in the valley are waiting to regale me of how they stood against us.”

   Aslan grinned. “A couple of them are waiting to hear from you and I. They were the ones who plucked this rotting skull out of the sands. It is their way of acknowledging our strength and initiating their parley.

   “I think they’d rather hear of your stories.” Aslan shrugged. “Get dressed. We’re to negotiate the surrender of the Kharan Clans. Seems they’ve lost their battlelust all at once.”

   “What time is it?” Azat groaned defiantly. He reached for the nearest jug of wine hidden in bundles of animal hides.

   “Don’t touch it,” Aslan commanded. He did not wait to see if Azat would defy the order and slipped out of the tent. His departing words faded into the desert. “I swear before the Gods, that’s half the reason they’ve cursed you to begin with.”

   Azat rolled his eyes, and shifted the aim of his clutches toward his armor and gear laid out on the floor of the tent. He quickly dressed, briefly imagining of the dead oasis where he had nearly lost his life. He imagined that its pure waters were still there for him to bathe in.
Azat rushed out of the warmth of his war tent and onto the hellish sands of the Scouring. A haze instantly struck his eyes and cloaked the mountains on the horizon under a mirage that made them seem half real. The sand beneath his boots gently seared his feet and the sun baked his skin as if he had stepped into a furnace.

“Seven hells,” Azat cursed. Beads of falling sweat swelled into cascading trails that fell in glistening arcs.

“I think they’ve bid us enter without asking.” Magar craned his head from where he lingered beside Azat’s war tent. “I trust you’ve rested well, Lord. The road ahead of us shall be a vicious one.”

Azat spared Magar the most imperceptible nod and cast his gaze around the Qarthite camp. The aftermath of battle swept through the labyrinth of pavilions and war tents sprawled across the great hills that overlooked the empty wastes of the Scouring below.

Zarquin Warriors scoured endless fields of the slain for grisly trophies and discarded weapons. They had started from yesterday’s sunrise, but Azat could still spy the thrust of spears into the wounded uncovered in their makeshift graves. He swept across the endless ranks of the dead, counted warriors of the Zarquin among the vanquished in numbers he had scarcely seen before.

Hundreds of Qi survivors knelt in organized columns amidst the viscera of the battlefield. Great iron chains clasped their hands behind their backs and linked them together. Zarquin guarding the convoy of the enslaved kept a silent, begrudging vigil as their charges knelt in defeated silence.

A cacophony of cawing drew Azat’s attention to the skies above, where carrion circled overhead with great forces of their own, ready to besiege the ruin that Qarth would be leaving behind.

“How long have you been watching my tent?” Azat called out, but his gaze fell upon no one in particular.

“Since you fell asleep, Lord.” Magar answered. “You had drunk too much and some of us… were worried you’d fall on your sword by mistake.”

Azat shifted around to stare Magar in the eye, a murderous spark glinting in them. “Count yourself fortunate that you saved yourself from death and me along with you. You have my irritable ire, but to hell with it.”

“If you wanted my head, Lord,” Magar smiled wolfishly. “You may take it, but I’d haunt your dreams too. I think you have more than enough foes restless in the afterlife.”

“Aslan cannot keep his mouth shut.” Azat grimaced. “Where are the others?”

Magar pointed with his chin toward a pair of Zarquin huddled over a campfire, of all things to do in the desert morning. They cooked some foul liquid on the fire that they poured into cups.

“Eh, fine.” Azat shrugged. “Are you taking me to the command tent?”
Magar nodded. Once statuesque, his movements became animated as he waded through the thick of the fallen. He bid Azat to follow his lead with a beckoning gesture.

Azat sighed and waded into the scrap and gore after him.

“A shame that I could not fight by your side in the Gorgon Dunes.” Magar shouted over the bustle of the encampment. “I know you would have evened our score. And you watched the King of Men take to the field. I bet his martial might was a site to behold.”

Azat smirked, pointing from behind Magar. “A hurricane in clear skies, as always. Where is he anyway?”

“Departed for Zu’rik, the Citadel of the Enslaved.” Magar answered, treading down a winding path cleared from ruin and decay. “A king has no time to swelter in heat.”

“Already?” Azat folded his arms. “Erasyl swore that he’d never abandon the field till the Qi were subjugated once and forevermore. The Valley of Carrion truly lies under his rule now.”

“You were too lost in your nightmares, lord.” Magar shifted to glance in Azat’s direction.

“Celebrations that lasted seven nights and days marked the end of Qi. The Kharan Giants brought us the heads of the last resistance fighters. Briefly after, the Qi realized they were betrayed and their great horde disintegrated into ashes and embers.”

“Qi burns and fades.” Azat considered Magar’s words. “But what of the Kharan Clans? I do not trust any of these giants.”

“Listen to Aslan’s council, lord.” Magar insisted. “You are right to never place trust in sellswords, but fighting them… it’d be decades before a resolution came about.”

“Nothing we haven’t done before.” Azat dismissed him. “I’m surprised that you of all, Magar, would rather live in some semblance of peace. Hovan and Avedis said you were the last man to flee from the site of Nishan’s demise.”

“I hope the Scarred One drinks to my bravery from beyond the veil.” Magar replied with a swift, proud nod. “Nishan was a good man. He only wanted to see Arpiar through.”

Azat considered Magar’s words. “Do you blame my orders for his death?”

Magar paused in his footsteps before the highest hill overlooking the Scouring. He considered
Azat for a long moment. “Complicated answers, cannot spring forth from sudden questions.

“We’ve arrived,” Magar pointed toward a great pavilion on the hilltop. A palisade ringed around the general’s tent, in turn shielded by barricades of sharpened stakes. “You should ascend alone. Watch yourself in the shadow of the Kharan Giants, lord.”

“You need not remind me.” Azat reached out and grasped Magar’s extended forearm in a parting salute. “Upon a day, I would hear your answer to my sudden question.”

Azat lifted his grip and tread up the lonesome path toward the crest of the hill. Regal standards of chestnut and cream billowed on the breeze. Emblazoned upon the fabric were chiseled, statuesque faces of hollowed, empty eyes. They wept tears of crimson blood. Their melancholy was framed within silver filigree.

The Zarquin standing vigil beneath the billowing standards lifted their weapons to unbar the path. Azat inclined his head in greeting and stormed past them. As he reached out a hand to pull back the folds of silk shrouding the entrance, a woman’s enchanting voice rang out like a soft song in the countryside.

“Azat.” Her voice, languid and warm like dawn’s radiance before midday, crashed over Azat like gentle, surging waves. “Aslan has not yet come. Neither have the emissaries of Kharan.”

   “Aiman.” Azat considered the bundle of silk in his fist and relinquished it with a pleasant smile. “Have the coastal shores become as black as their namesake? For surely the light of the west has travelled much further east in recent years.”

A youthful Qarthite woman of average height and slender of build considered Azat’s flattery with a coy puzzlement. A cloak of amethyst shades, trimmed with the filigree of interwoven scripture, draped an emerald robe of fluttering trails that fell just shy of her sandals.

She noticeably lacked any extravagant, bejeweled crown upon her straightened streams of chestnut hair. A handful of black freckles graced smooth skin the shade of warm, desert sands. In fact, the only artifact of luxury Azat could spy on Aiman’s person was a medallion shaped in the form of an obsidian sphere. Locked away in the dark medallion, a great heart of amber glistened from its chiseled out surface.

“Flattery does not suit an elderly rogue.” Aiman graced Azat with an elegant smile, but she did not bow. “Neither shall it suit the Kharan Chieftains. In either case, I’ve waited patiently for your arrival.”

“Let’s get this over with.” Azat’s pleasant smile soured at the mentioning of the Kharan. “I’d sooner cut the head off every half-giant in this valley, but if Aslan only gave the command.”

Aiman smirked, her interest piqued. “You’d do better not to step foot in that tent at all, if that is your concern. I know why they ail you, so, Azat. I heard a peculiar ‘Baal’ nearly retired you into an early grave.”

“Baal is of no consequence,” Azat countered sharply. He pondered the meaning of Aiman’s words.
“Did Aslan send you to intercept me? He is always keen to waste my time.”

“Of course,” Aiman bubbled with soft laughter. “Aslan simply wants you on your feet. You’re a champion of the Zarquin Guard, stand as if you’re so.”

“Bah, I’ve always been proud of heart and iron of will.” Azat folded his arms and shrugged. “I need not straighten to make it obvious. I need not bend to show my loyalty to the Firstborn.”

“Vain of mind and reckless in your courage.” Aiman corrected. “At least, that is what your retinue at Reaper’s Pass mentioned of you.”

“Did they now?” Azat quipped.

“You knowingly sent Nishan to his death.” Aiman replied. “Others too, had they not proven resourceful enough to escape the trap. Arpiar too died of a needless miscalculation in your strategy.

“Tell me, was Baal’s death truly worth the cost you paid?”

Azat considered Aiman’s rebuke with an irritated expression, tempered by a sudden realization. “It has always been Aslan’s way to throw obstacles in my path. He has never stopped testing me since we were children. This is what all of this is? Another test?”

“To any Lord,” Aiman admitted. “The trial you faced was trivial, nothing more. But you know Aslan, his retinue is worth more than the precious blood you share between the two of you. You lost three of his sworn-brothers, when in reality, you should have forsaken your orders the moment things turned against you.

“You gained nothing from slaying Baal. Baal had everything to gain from slaying you, convinced that he would have marked one of Qarth’s martial leadership for death before the battle that sealed the fate of everything. You should have denied him the opportunity.”

“Aslan does not understand,” Azat shrugged. “I’ve never concerned myself with his brotherhood. He did me some honor with lending his men to my command, so I did what I could to fulfill what he desired. I told him upfront, I won’t make promises for warriors who’ve sworn that each day would be their last, if need be.”

Aiman shook her head in disagreement. “Aslan will keep denying that the Azat he knows can never become something greater than himself. You’ll never lift a finger to help any man or woman, unless your own glory is at stake. Neither is any sacrifice too sacred to commit to, so long as it is not your own.

“You’re no longer so youthful, Azat. Is this all you’re ever going to be? A cutthroat sellsword enraptured by his own image, until the day you’re too weak to continue to fight?”

“Must you always ask?” Azat’s raven stare simmered with passion. He gestured about the Scouring with a broad sweep of his hand. “Gaze around you. Stare into the eyes of the vanquished. I swear that you can still see the horror etched in their lifeless eyes.

“Aslan desires I become something greater than this? That I sacrifice myself to something grander than this glorious heap of carnage and decay? I am already spent, Aiman. What would he possibly have of me?”

“That is not the question I’d be asking yourself.” Aiman stared into the pit of his eyes, unwavering. A sense of admiration pulsed through him. “You are a great warrior, Azat. But some men require that greatness border on perfection. You’ve not realized it, but eyes have been ever at your back now for many years.

“You’ve labored for many years in the darkness of the east.” A knowing smile suddenly brightened
Aiman’s statuesque features. In spite of himself, Azat could feel the iron clasp on his heart slackening piece by piece. “A journey with the light of the west by your side may do you some good.

Have you ever seen the placid waters of the Void Sea? Ever glimpsed the wonders of the Isles of Four Crowns?”

“I hear the shores are black with storms.” Azat grimaced. “With carrion birds that circle over a coast of shipwrecks. I hear that the winds howl like tortured screams as the waves thunder and crash upon the beaches.”

“You’ve read too many legends of old.” Aiman quipped. “You understand that I’m giving you a chance to rest that sword of yours. What would you say if I asked?”

“I’d say, ‘are you really asking’?” Azat felt a spark of mirth underneath his puzzled expression. “Do you really think the west would ‘change anything’?”

“Would you rather remain,” Aiman gestured over the battlefield in the way Azat had done moments before. “Among all of this? Is there really so much here that chains you to this world of endless war, carnage, and tyranny?”

Azat paused for a brief moment. “Before any son and daughter of the Zarquin, I’d not answer that question. Before you, I’ll gladly say that my chains run far deeper than they’d know… Who asked you to come hand me such an offer?”

“What does it matter?” Aiman smirked. “You’d not refuse if you knew.”

“Erasyl would never ask me to leave.” Azat retorted. “And I could think of no one else. Prove my words, wrong, and I’ll consider your own.”

“Honored is the First of man,” Aiman intoned. “But the Autumn Queen has given me a great purpose and in truth, I am in need of a great bodyguard. Aslan said that there would be no other he’d consider sparing. You will force his hand to drastic action, if you refuse and remain here, where you are neither accepted or respected.

“I will not beg for you to see reason, old friend or not.”

“Autumn Queen,” Azat thought aloud. “I’ve not heard the name Hazan in many moons. The Autumn Queen that exists now must be some sheltered daughter of hers. No chance that the one I served so many moons ago is still alive.”

“Your allegiances were much different then.” Aiman reminded him. “No need to wonder why you waste beneath this scorching sun, when you were always born of moon and shadow.”

“The shadows of home soothe me still.” Azat recalled the mantra. “Why do you need a guard?”
« Last Edit: January 31, 2020, 09:24:24 AM by Myen'Tal »
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Re: Ashes and Embers (Chronological - Summary & Update!)
« Reply #8 on: February 3, 2020, 06:09:12 AM »
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen! A chronological version of Ashes and Embers. A lot new content was added, and now I hope that the scenes and chapters have been organized in such a way that they now make sense! I want to thank everyone that came by the thread to follow the story's progress. And thanks, especially, to those who have left valuable feedback!

I have decided that I have shared as much as I am comfortable with at this point in time. I've shared about 18,000 words so far, and I think that is more than enough to give you a taste of how Ashes and Embers is shaping up!

Overall, I would love to know what people think of the character cast beyond Azat in greater detail. I understand that everyone seems to have had a positive reaction to Azat, and that's something I totally did not expect!

What I did not expect, is no one mentioning Tabia much at all :P ;).

I would also love to hear what others think about the story and character progression so far, now that everything is chained in a chronological order.

Currently, I'm about to reach the 50,000 word mark, and it's still going strong!

I am hoping to reach my goal of 70,000 - 80,000 words. I am confident that I shall reach this goal within the next couple of months!

Thanks guys!
« Last Edit: February 3, 2020, 06:11:06 AM by Myen'Tal »
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

Offline Myen'Tal

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Now Non-Chronological Order of A Dominion of Tyrants
« Reply #9 on: March 20, 2020, 08:41:47 AM »
Let it be known that this chronological order no longer exists :). I've reorganized the chapters for what will hopefully be the final time. Hopefully the chapter relocation will be for the better!
« Last Edit: March 25, 2020, 10:56:37 PM by Myen'Tal »
“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
― Glen Cook, The Black Company

 


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