Hidden Honor

Driving from behind his shield Lintharin powered huge overhand strikes down onto the enemy. Shoulder to shoulder the melee ensued with skirmish lines being forgotten and now totally un-discernable. Brute strength allowed the Nemenon warrior to free up his sword arm and carve up the enemy with his keen-edged long sword. Standing over six foot and built like an ox, the thirty year old, plate-mailed, veteran-mercenary was a solid combat platform and a perfect example of what one could expect to face in the Iron Companies front line.
To his left, perfectly managing his space and the distance between him and his Nemenon comrade in arms, Skeld, the Warpig, scythed into the ranks of unfortunate grageld infantry. His huge two handed cleaver hacked down grageld after grageld as his thickly muscled shoulders worked the two-handed sword through the bodies of his enemies. Slightly younger than Lintharin the Northman was a few inches taller and while exceptionally muscled was not as densely packed as the Nemenon warrior. As like most Northmen he also preferred the lighter chain-mail armor to the sturdier but restrictive plate. From behind the wild boar toothed helm he cursed with glee at the carnage.
Continuing their own impromptu skirmish line, and holding the ground assigned to them was Cathbad. The monster Northman, who bordering on seven foot and rippled with hard bulging muscle, was as close to a mythical giant as had ever been seen. Wielding his versatile bastard sword either one-handed or two-handed, he thrashed open a space around him, literally carving it out of the tightly packed grageld ranks. The doglike bipedal enemy yelped and snarled, but mostly just died under his onslaught. Armor and weapons were simply chopped right through by the immense power generated in his swings. Although only in his early twenties still, the chain-mail wearing Northman was counted as a veteran, like his comrades in arms.
On the opposite flank Navar, straightened the line as he too drove from behind his kite shield. His immense two-handed sword was strapped across his back, preferring to wield his deadly short sword in the close quarter melee. With every devastating thrust from behind the shields protection he disemboweled or at least incapacitated an enemy. Like his comrades he was powerfully built and packed out his six foot frame rather impressively. Trusting in the safety of good old plate-mail he, like Lintharin, looked like a combat platform. In his early thirties the Lukian professional soldier was an old hand at war. He did it better than anything else in life.
Methodically the line advanced like a wedge being driven into the grageld mass. The rest of the Iron Company heavy infantry carved their way to the four stalwarts and reformed a front line. Like a broom sweeping the trash off the floor the line swept the gragelds back. Although still vastly out numbering the heavy infantry, the gragelds could do nothing. At the valley’s entrance the gragelds disengaged lest they be driven into the canyon beyond.
Cursing and snarling and brandishing their weapons in the air the routed gragelds scattered across the plains beyond, back to their encampment. The Iron Company halted at the entrance to the valley and waited like a defiant break-wall having held against the tidal wave, as the gragelds slowly disappeared.
“Company, at ease!” bellowed Sergeant Baele.
The line lowered weapons and took a breather. It had been a close one but the heavy infantry had come to the rescue. Then again the resilience of the Iron Company was well known. The king of Jarlden knew this and it was why he hired the mercenary company of five hundred heavy infantry to come and fight in the war he was waging with the war mongering gragelds. Very little was known of the men-beasts known as gragelds. Literally over-night they appeared in the ancient kingdom of Haliac and in a few months had overrun it.
With refugees streaming into the neighboring countries the seemingly unorganized gragelds set out to crush neighboring Jarlden. Even with time to prepare for the invasion, the Jarlden army was driven back. Only with foreign aid and mercenary assistance was the tide stemmed. What the gragelds wanted, beside loot and pillage, and how their society worked, was a mystery.
They were natural fighters standing almost six foot with powerful builds. They wore armor and wielded weapons. Their actions were cohesive although often didn’t need to do much more than resort to horde tactics as there were so many of them. With their dog like faces and the snarling and growling, they were very intimidating.
For around six months the five hundred member Iron Company had been on the payroll of the kingdom. Initially they had been heavily involved in opening the main roads and linking up the besieged cities in order for them to be re-supplied. Now they were campaigning in the west where they were providing the backbone to a Jarlden regular army campaign to secure the western provinces and to create a single front by driving the gragelds east and north toward the Haliac border.
Fantastic successes were almost totally reversed when gragelds launched a surprise dawn assault on the army encampment outside the valley town of Bellhalt. Huge losses were suffered by the regular army units as they scrambled to mount a defense. Luckily the Iron Company, the only mercenary unit in the west, managed to create a skirmish line around its four most accomplished warriors and drive the vastly numerically superior grageld force out the valley completely.
“I hope this means we can break for breakfast,” pondered Cathbad as the giant north man, like all the Iron Company, had missed his morning meal.
“It’ll have to be lunch,” noted his northern brother Skeld as he removed his boar toothed helm and wiped his forehead. The sun was already high in the sky. The battle had lasted from sun up to nearly midday.
“I really don’t care what its called as long as it involves food,” grumbled Navar as he picked pieces of grageld gore off his armor and flicked them onto the ground.
Sergeant Baele gave the about turn command and the Iron Company marched back to town.
The Iron Company had the unusual situation in that their leader and commanding officer was a medical surgeon. Doc was a former military surgeon officer in the Riegestanian army. He always fancied himself more the warrior than the doctor and formed the Iron Company almost two decades ago. He proved to be an astute tactician, but relied on Sergeant Baele to lead the troops. It meant that battle wounds were given top attention and very few members were lost to post battle injuries.
Baele was a former Drageda non commissioned officer who retired after the Bayleland war. Still fighting fit in his mid forties he had the respect of the men and never asked them to do anything he wasn’t doing first.
It was not an easy task to get into the Iron Company and for every hundred applications only one new member was accepted. Every man was a seasoned professional with the freak Cathbad being one of the youngest. The short couple of miles back to their encampment saw them pass the sea of dead grageld bodies, and Doc and his medical staff tending to wounded Iron Company members. Doc left his staff to deal with the remaining battlefield wounded and joined his troops back to town.
“We lost a few today I’m afraid,” admitted Doc as he rode his horse next to the sergeant.
“We can be thankful it wasn’t everyone sir,” noted the austere soldier.
Baele was always impressed at how quickly Doc summed up a situation. It had been his bold decision to drive a wedge into the gragelds and let the flanks straighten to create a front line from within the gragelds. It had put a lot of pressure on the men but it allowed the surviving regular army units to mop up the gragelds that were cut off while the Iron Company drove on.
When they got back to their encampment just outside the town the order was given to stand down. Tired but not exhausted the Iron Company broke rank and made for their various tents to relax, clean armor and weapons and get something to eat.
“Great, thanks,” smiled Lintharin to Cathbad as he dumped his blade and started stripping off his armor. Cathbad was starting up the fire and preparing to boil up some tar-tea.
“Fuck you,” growled the huge youngster, “I always end up fucking making it!”
“Tar-tea?” grinned Skeld as he arrived, “Thanks Cathbad!”
“Fuck no!” snapped the annoyed north man, “Make it yourself!”
“Man you can bitch,” muttered Skeld, “I’ll make next time I promise.”
Mumbling something incoherent Cathbad got the fire burning and hauled out the ingredients.
“How about you?” he asked Navar as he arrived at their tent. The four companions always billeted together.
“I’ll pass thanks,” shrugged the Lukian. He rarely had the dark rich liquid. It often left him feeling a little under the weather.
“I suppose this means we wont be marching north today,” theorized Skeld as the staunch Northman sat down and began working on his battle gear.
“I know what I’m going to do,” grinned Cathbad as he stirred the pot and sniffed the aroma of the tar-tea.
“Everyone knows what you are going to do,” laughed Lintharin sitting cross legged and working a nick out his blade with a wet stone. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, Cathbad went chasing skirt.
“We should be getting some down time now,” postulated the muscle mountain ignoring Lintharin and thinking of the local sex workers who had been doing brisk business since the army arrived. The life of a professional mercenary didn’t revolve around much more than fighting, training, drinking and fucking.
Before they had finished cleaning weapons and armor, and scoffing down a pile of chow, Baele made his rounds.
“Alright lads,” he announced gruffly as he got to their tent, “Obviously we wont be marching today. We will be holding up until the wounded can move and to give time for a few niggles to be cleared up. For the record its estimated at around two thousand enemy dead. R&R is set out in two shifts, seniority first.”
“Fuck,” cursed Cathbad.
“Keep an eye on our shit,” grinned Skeld as he and the others prepared to leave. While armor was left behind, none of them went without weapons.
“Whatever,” muttered Cathbad annoyed as he busied himself with rearranging his gear.
***
“She’s just a child,” exclaimed the grey haired scholar. His colleague shrugged and sighed.
“And the only one who can do it,” added his thin hook nosed colleague.
“How do you think she will take it?” asked the first. The hook nosed academic bit his bottom lip and frowned.
“How does anyone accept their destiny?” he answered with a question.
“Even if she accepts, how do we get her there?” queried the grey haired man.
“That’s not our concern,” his colleague stated, “We better prepare the ceremony.” Not much will concern us if we’re dead when she fails thought the first scholar with a heavy heart.
In the darkness the amorphous mass experienced as close to joy as its black soul could. The pathetic stupid mortals with their noble ideas and misguided intentions unwittingly played their part in the rise of the dark emperor. The chosen one had been anointed.
***
Navar stood and swayed, gripping the table for support. The din of the crowds raucous behavior was a dull murmur as his ale addled brain focused all its capacity on motor movement. It was only having marginal success. He turned to survey the tavern common room. It took a full few seconds for his vision to catch up with the turn.
All around soldiers and merc’s packed out the room. Wenches were in short supply and here and there one wench entertained up to five men. Fights would break out when it came time to take her up to a room or back to the tents. The professional workers would service a dozen men tonight and make a small fortune.
With great effort he stepped over the prone carcass of the comatose giant Cathbad. The Northman had won three drinking contests in a row and the privilege of securing the services of Amanda, a favorite professional, first tonight. With the alcohol already coursing through him he rutted her right there over the table where they had been drinking. No-one felt like a broken jaw and so he was left alone to finish. Soon after satisfying himself he passed out and hadn’t moved since.
Both Skeld and Lintharin had procured services that afternoon and were now heavily engaged in a drinking contest whose rules seemed quite open to interpretation.
Navar had opted for a bath and had missed out on the afternoon whoring. The following day possibly would mean hitting the road so he was determined to get some action asap. It had been four days since the battle. Stumbling he ploughed head long toward the bar skittling a soldier or two before slamming into the bar and grabbing it tightly. He managed to secure his feet under him and leaned over the counter motioning for the barman.
“Listen,” he slurred to the man as his head swam, “I need a wench and I don’t want sloppy 21sts from this lot.” He cast his thumb over his shoulder at the debaucheries activities behind him. The barman gave him a tired look.
“This isn’t the big city friend,” he told him, “What you see is what you get!” Navar grabbed him by the tunic rather roughly but without serious intent.
“Buddy!” he slobbered, “Organize! Come on!” The concerned barman, fearing for his safety, smiled and tried to extricate himself. The grip was vice-like.
“Well,” he stammered, “I might know someone.”
“That’s the spirit!” grinned Navar patting him on the shoulder so hard that it hurt.
“It’ll be expensive,” he added, “Five silvers.” It was steep considering most wenches went for one or two.
“Done!” roared Navar absolutely rat-faced as he fished out the coin and slammed it down.
It was pittance compared to what the Iron Company took in pay. To get the best the king had to pay. The barman scooped them up quickly and motioned to the mercenary to follow him. Navar staggered after him. He led him to some ground floor back rooms and knocked on a door.
“Shayleen,” he called. The door opened and an unassuming young woman opened.
“I don’t have it,” she whispered downcast.
“I have a proposal,” said the barman, “Entertain this soldier and you have another months grace.” She looked totally horrified by the suggestion.
“I am not a whore,” she stated defiantly.
“It’s that or the street as of tomorrow,” whispered the barman, “I am not a charity organization!” Navar heard none of this as he steadied himself against the wall.
“Ok,” she grimaced finally, opening the door to reveal a small sparse room with not much more than a bed and a babies cot.
The barman waved Navar in with a dramatic flourish of his arm and a sly grin. He had just managed to indirectly squeeze another months rent from the single mother and avoided a roughing up from a drunk mercenary. A good whore could be up to three pieces of silver for a night. The room cost three silvers for a month. He had just scored a bonus of two silver pieces!
Navar staggered in and smiled. While Shayleen was a simple young woman with a decent figure, in Navar’s ale brain she was stunning! She was petrified by the size of the man.
Firmly but not too roughly he pushed her on the bed and stripped her. Even as drunk as he was he could undress a woman by instinct. He had done it so many times it was as natural as breathing to him. She clenched her teeth and shut her eyes as he mounted her. As he rutted away he thought he heard a baby crying. Ignoring it he slammed away. Once satisfied he rolled off her and passed out. A good day had concluded in the best possible way for the veteran.
***
Even with the sun high in the sky and not a cloud to be seen, it was not unpleasant marching. A chill wind swept down off the snow capped mountains and licked at them every so often. The Iron company trudged across the plain keeping a careful eye open for any gragelds. They would be seen for miles anyway. The remnants of the Jarlden regulars marched along side them. The destination was the Halax-ford. If they could push any grageld elements there out of Halax and secure the ford then they will have opened yet another important route, a waterway north from the capital. The danger was that they would be the northern most finger of the Jarlden forces grasp back of its land. The Iron Company knew that it was up to the task.
“You know of course what the shittest thing is about this posting,” enquired Cathbad.
“Yes we know,” sighed Skeld, “No women.”
“Nothing,” muttered Cathbad in disappointment.
When they heard their orders were to retake and hold Halax, Cathbad was quick to point out that there wouldn’t be any women there. It was a grageld held area. Gragelds did not take prisoners and those that didn’t make it out before Halax was overrun, were now dead.
“It sucks,” agreed Navar who was still pondering what had happened that night in the inn.
He remembered laughing and cheering when Cathbad banged Amanda right there in the common room but not much else. He had woken up the next morning in an unfamiliar room to a baby crying. Looking around he saw a not unattractive young woman hold a baby to her breast. He had a headache that could drop a buffalo. It was better once the rug-rat shut up and started sucking. Navar got up and dressed. She said nothing. Excusing himself he prepared to leave and put three silvers on the table. She looked shocked. Navar judged her to be alright and so thought three was fair. Her shocked face caused him to quickly drop another and hurry out. Yes it would suck without female companionship there. None of the local whores could be convinced to travel along due to the danger of the posting.
“What’s supposed to be the ETA on reinforcements once we take the place?” quizzed Lintharen.
“Sergeant Baele said something about two weeks,” offered Navar.
“Two long weeks,” sighed Cathbad with a shake of his head.
***
“Lord Rebex, sir,” nodded the tall blond armored knight as he stepped forward and introduced himself, “I pledge my sword!”
“Thank you Lord Rebex,” noted the ancient cleric, “Your reputation is one of high skill and dedication to duty. Your presence will be most welcome.”
Lord Rebex nodded with a curt bow and stepped back. The proud young knight had jumped at the chance to take on a quest as noble as this one. Only twenty-two years old Rebex had been frustrated at the lack of opportunities to prove himself. He was equal to, if not better than, his mentors and peers in martial ability, but he had never had the chance to test himself in a war.
Plaucine, the wizened high cleric of the Church of the West, stood and addressed the assembled warriors. They numbered ten in total and comprised some of the most promising and brave men of their time.
“Brave warriors,” he began, “Some of you have come from far at my bidding. You all understand the nature of the quest and just how important and dangerous it is. Failure means the end of the world as we know it.”
He let the words sink in as the ten men nodded grimly as they regarded each other. Besides the ten men and the cleric and his staff in the immaculately decorated temple audience chamber, there sat a small girl-child of around ten. She sat to the left of the cleric Plaucine, and was dressed in the white gown attire of a noble child. She was pale of skin with raven black hair that reached the middle of her back. She didn’t smile and just watched the proceedings with her big blue eyes. Yet she was no noble child. A vision led a priest of the Church of the West to an orphanage in the capital where he found the child. He knew she was important and took her to be raised by the church. In time she began to fill ancient prophecies and became a portent to the rise of a great evil. When news filtered down to the kingdom of the fall of Haliac and the rise of the gragelds, they knew the time had come. The ancient tomes wrote of the child who would defeat the evil. Pure innocence versus pure evil. Nothing detailed the confrontation or the results, except it would take place in the Black Temple in the heart of his emerging kingdom. That was what was once Haliac. The ten warriors were tasked with the extremely tough assignment of getting her to Haliac and finding the temple.
“Come here Alyssa,” smiled the cleric extending his hand. She stood and took his hand and came and stopped next to him. She seemed neither shy nor captivated by the men’s presence. “These are the men we talked about.” She nodded.
***
With one savage overhand strike, Skeld Warpig brought his massive blade crashing down, splitting the gragelds skull in two. Lashing out with a boot he pushed the dead grageld off his blade and hoisted the two handed cleaver high above his head as the next grageld came charging in. This shot was slightly off and instead of splitting the skull he lopped off the arm at the shoulder. Gushing blood the shocked grageld howled in agony and dropped. Ignoring it he strode forward to meet the next grageld stupid enough to charge him down.
Lintharin let him go and concentrated on the half a dozen gragelds emerging from a stone building on the other side of the road. Rushing them, he barreled the first one over with a shield rush and slashed the next ones neck open. Bottlenecking them in the doorway he slaughtered them one by one. Not even the last one tried to surrender or beg for mercy. Lintharin disemboweled him and looked around for more action.
Navar held the top of the stairs leading up to once beautiful terraced gardens. Wielding his two handed sword once again he drove down on the stream of advancing gragelds repeatedly with devastating slashes that killed with every blow. The gragelds ended up being slowed by having to clamber over the bodies of their fallen comrades. Slipping and sliding on the blood slick stairs the gragelds yelped and scowled but were undeterred. Navar was unfazed and slaughtered the final one with a dramatic heel spin and decapitation. Breathing heavily but evenly Navar looked for more.
Cathbad hoofed in a sturdy looking door and scanned the interior of the dwelling. Nothing. He continued down the street. Bodies were everywhere. Another hoof and another door. Still nothing. Cathbad was getting annoyed when he spotted two gragelds scamper past a side street.
“Get the fuck over here!” he bellowed and sprinted after them.
At his voice they turned and ran at him weapons drawn and howling. Both were cut down with almost no satisfaction to Cathbad. He shrugged and looked for more.
“Seen any more?” the voice of Lintharin called down the street.
“They’re getting scarce,” admitted the giant.
“About time I suppose,” muttered Lintharin as he joined the north man. The two eventually linked up with Skeld and Navar who were also out of gragelds.
It had been a bitter struggle to dislodge the gragelds from Halax. All the Jarland regulars fell as the fighting eventually made it to the streets. The Iron Company split into small units of ten to twenty and literally hunted the gragelds down, pocket by pocket. An entire week later it looked like they were finally done for the loss of around a hundred veteran soldiers. It was the most expensive conflict they had been in to date. The grageld dead were in their many thousands.
The mercenaries headed back to the fortified town hall which had been made HQ to make their report. Similar units arrived to say the same. Finally the ford town of Halax was theirs.
Without taking time to rest the Iron Company set about digging in. All accesses to the small walled town were barricaded and ditches were dug to make all approaches even more difficult. Supplies were taken stock of and search parties went through the town to see if anything was missed. The near four hundred veterans were split into four shifts to maximize rest time. When the gragelds came back to try and retake the town, rest would be in short supply.
At the first opportunity they had got in quite some time, the four stalwarts went through their equipment and cleaned and maintained where it was needed. Then they bathed and took on a meal before catching some well earned downtime.
A commotion stirred them after what felt like mere seconds, but was in fact hours. Bleary eyed and grouchy Navar went to investigate while the others swore and rolled over. The jaded unflappable professional warrior thought he had seen it all but was given a surprise when he got to the front of the town hall.
Some of the units searching through the town had come upon a securely locked house. After breaking down the door they came upon a scene of unparalleled barbarism. The house could only have been used as a grageld brothel. Two dozen men women and children had been secured in there and used from time to time as sex toys for the man-beasts. Their condition turned the stomach. They were barely recognizable as people. They were naked, dirty, emaciated, carrying wounds from abuse and nearly totally mentally broken. Some Iron Company wounded actually climbed out their recovery beds to make space for the pathetic creatures. Doc dropped what he was doing and left Baele to administer as he and his medical staff went to work. All but one responded to the treatment. The one who died was a girl of around seven who was just too far gone to be saved.
An anger unknown amongst these jaded professionals simmered. It was no longer just a job and death was no longer enough of a punishment. The Iron Company yearned for the return of the gragelds.
***
“Repeat that cleric,” asked a mortified Doc. It wasn’t that he hadn’t heard what the young man had said, but more that he hoped that when the man repeated it he would say something other than what he did.
“She is the chosen one,” the badly wounded man of the cloth managed to stammer. The poor young mans face was swollen and bruised from repetitive beatings, and several weapon cuts, now bandaged, decorated his back and torso.
“Does that mean something to you sir?” asked Baele, confused at the sudden interest his CO had in the stranger.
After securing the Halax-ford and spending nearly a week reinforcing it, the Iron Company was ready to withstand the grageld attempt to retake it. There was minor concern that reinforcements from the south were nowhere to be seen. The expected two weeks were up. The finding of the brothel had the men lusting for a fight. Instead of a grageld army, a stranger in tattered white robes stumbled out in front of the walls and collapsed. He had come from the east, right out of grageld territory.
He was brought in and tended to. He told an incredible story of how he and ten knights from several nations had attempted to take a small girl deep in ancient Haliac to a place called the Black Temple, and how they had been swamped by gragelds. One or two knights managed to break free with the child while the rest were slaughtered. He himself only managed to escape with his life. Feeling the quest was doomed, he resolved to head back and find more help. Just about all scoffed at the ridiculous tale but Doc seemed unnerved and when the cleric mention the ‘chosen one’, he went white.
“I’m afraid it does mean something Sergeant,” he muttered through clenched teeth, “It means we could be proper-fucked.”
***
“Gather around men,” ordered the commanding officer, “Stand easy.” The dozen assembled mercenaries did as they were told. All were more than just a little curious as to why they had been summoned by Doc. A few noticed the old mans brow was a little more furrowed than usual.
“All present and accounted for,” confirmed sergeant Baele. Doc nodded to his 2ic.
“As you are all aware, a man appeared at the city walls from the north. Some of you might even have heard the story he told. I am terribly sorry to have to say I think it is true.” There was a murmur of surprise and a little shock from the men. “The man is a cleric of the Church of the West. As a young man I studied the scriptures and even contemplated taking my vows, but I didn’t. I do however know the prophecy of the chosen one. All that has come to pass, and all that the man has told me, leaves me with no doubt that the child they were taking was in fact the chosen one. What this means is that a major event in the history of mankind is unfolding. The gragelds are the ‘plague’ that was foretold and Haliac is ‘the ancient land that once was, now reborn dark and evil’. Effectively what it means is that we can fight these gragelds from now until eternity and we will never crush them until the head of the snake dies. The black temple is this head.”
The men looked at each other, processing the information. They trusted Doc to the end of time. It would appear the time had come.
“What are you proposing Sir?” asked Navar, the first to speak.
“I am proposing an expedition into Haliac to find this child and get her to the Black Temple,” stated the veteran military commander. The statement brought a loud murmur. No-one seemed to like that idea.
“Excuse me sir but aren’t we the most northern position?” asked Skeld, “If we leave to cross the border, aren’t we risking being enveloped?” Doc nodded and as the murmur built he held up his hand for silence.
“I don’t propose we pull up stakes and rush off, but we need to do something,” explained Doc, “You all know I am no crusader but the reality is that we might be mankind’s last chance.”
“To do what sir?” asked Navar.
“I am looking for volunteers to go to Haliac while the bulk of the company holds this position,” continued Doc, “I called you lot in because you are the most experienced men I have.”
“And compensation for this ‘little job’?” asked Lintharin, always the pragmatist.
“I will offer triple pay to any man who goes,” stated Doc. It was generous considering the Iron Company was extremely well paid to start with. Lintharin snorted in derision.
“Count me out,” he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, “Sounds too much like suicide.”
“I’ll go,” volunteered Navar.
He had been thinking of his sons in Lukia and realizing just how poor a father he had been thus far. Work kept him away so much he hadn’t even bothered to marry their mother. He supported them financially but not much more. Deep down his paternal instinct stirred, shaking up a sense of responsibility to them. This was something they could be proud of their old man forever.
“I’ll also go,” offered Skeld.
For him the thought of the little girl, practically alone in occupied Haliac struck a nerve with him. His own sister had been kidnapped in one of the many raids the northlanders did to each other and taken far from home. He had set out to find her but failed to get there in time. She died from injuries sustained at the hands of her new master. Skeld saw to it that he died slowly and painfully but Sigrid was still gone.
“Err me too,” added Cathbad.
By his reckoning there were stacks of gragelds in Haliac and with no women in Halax he needed to indulge his other passion, killing. Besides it would kill him to have to listen to the others voicing their bragging rights when they got back.
None of the other assembled veterans stepped up. Most found it difficult to believe that the tale the cleric told related to the Prophesy. They believed well enough that Doc believed it but they didn’t believe the cleric was telling the truth. He was a delirious weirdo from their standpoint.
“Only three,” sighed Doc with disappointment.
“I’ll go too,” volunteered Baele eager to please his CO.
“Thank you but no,” decided the commander, “We can still expect to do battle here and I need you for that.” Baele understood and nodded.
The three volunteers looked over at Lintharin who they expected to join simply because they had.
“Forget it,” he sneered at their stares, “You may as well fall on your sword now!”
Lintharin was the quintessential mercenary. It was all about the coin. Here he saw little profit for much risk. Details like the end of the world, or worries about the future of loved ones meant little to him. He had a few rugrats running around the continent of Thort from numerous casual dalliances. However if he could have done something to prevent them coming into the world he would have. He had been known to punch a lover in the guts to induce a miscarriage in the past. Those that had his children didn’t try and seek him out. It was dangerous given his reputation.
“Come on Lintharin,” smiled Navar, “You going to let us trundle all the way over to Haliac alone?”
Navar and Lintharin had joined the company at roughly the same time. From the start they hit it off and became firm friends. Navar had been there for his buddy numerous times and he considered them to be good friends. It occurred to him there and then that this was the first opportunity, in all these years, for Lintharin to be there for him.
“Fuck right off,” scoffed Lintharin, “If you want to be a bunch of idiots ‘crusading’ into the gragelds home, then you need to cough up quite a bit more coin for me to come along.”
Navar frowned at what he considered to be unlike Lintharin. Why was he acting this way? Navar wondered if it was possible he had misread the man right from the start?
“Three it is then,” stated Doc grimly, “The rest of you are dismissed.” The remaining mercs got up and left.
“Don’t worry sir,” nodded Navar, “We can do it.” He said it not wholly believing it.
“Lintharin’s going to feel like such an ass when we get back,” grinned Skeld rubbing his hands together vigorously. His grageld body count was sure to top Lintharin’s after this.
“Lads,” began the commander, “I don’t need to tell you this is going to be a mother-fucker of an outing. Please stock up on whatever supplies you need. I will also make mounts available.”
“We’re infantry sir,” stated Navar, “We’ll keep our feet on the ground. Besides no horse could carry Cathbad!”
“Hey!” exclaimed the big man, but did not deny it.
“How do we even start trying to find the girl or the temple?” asked Skeld.
“The priest says he has recovered enough to return with you,” announced Doc, “Without him I’m afraid it would be literally a needle in a haystack.”
***
“Protect the priest!” yelled Navar as he drew his huge two-handed sword and maneuvered so that he, Cathbad and Skeld formed a triangle around the petrified priest.
Heslre, the cleric, broke into a cold sweat as he watched the mass of gragelds swarm over the rise and descend whooping and howling toward them. It was dejavu. In almost the same spot, he and the knights had been ambushed. Now there were less of them and these weren’t even knights.
“Come get some!” yelled Cathbad with almost glee.
“Two gold says I get more than you fatboy!” chirped Skeld his pulse racing in anticipation.
“Done runt!” responded Cathbad.
“Focus!” bellowed Navar as he dropped the visor on his steel helm.
Heslre’s jaw dropped at the apparent enthusiasm for the fight these huge men had. Screaming war cries they competed with the gragelds for sonic superiority. Like a wave breaking over a rock the gragelds connected with the trio, and were smashed.
The scythe of the grim reaper would not have been as effective, as Navar carved up huge swathes of grageld. His mighty blade worked its deadly arc and grageld after grageld was slashed down. Grageld blood washed over the plate mailed veteran until he was drenched from head to foot in it.
Next to him Skeld, also wielding a huge two-handed sword, was just as effective. Cursing northlander slang, he drove the blade down again and again in crushing overhead strikes. Limbs and body parts flew about as the meat-slab took the attack to pieces, literally.
Between them Cathbad was barely able to contain himself. Gripping his Bastard sword in two hands he reduced the wall of gragelds into bloody gore. With each slash, cut and thrust, he ended a miserable life.
Despite the battle raging for hours, the gragelds could not swarm their numerically inferior opponents. Soon the trio stood literally on a pile of grageld bodies which grew gradually, as more gragelds died, to an imposing ten foot height. Yet still the dog beasts scrambled up the hill of death only to be cut down and added to the pile. Once the trio had created the high ground the fighting became easier as the momentum of the horde slowed. It was with almost an unbelievable relief when the last gragelds clambered up and were executed with the blood drenched blades of the trio.
Heslre was beyond words and beyond belief as he sat down on a dead grageld body and surveyed the carnage. He was dripping in grageld blood which had sprayed all over him. The stench was near immobilizing as blood, death and waste matter mingled in the hot sun. Around him the three mercenaries were nearly dead on their feet with fatigue.
Skeld and Cathbad both rested foreheads on sword pommels and gasped for air. Navar was on his knees, his blade standing straight up in the nearest grageld as he sucked in the air.
“Fuck me I’m knackered!” gasped Skeld after a while.
“For the record,” panted Cathbad, “I am now officially ahead of Lintharin in the body count.”
“No arguments here,” breathed Navar.
He had never been pushed to the limit like that ever. Looking around he figured there were more than two thousand dead around and under them.
“I don’t know what to say,” gasped Heslre, “You are unbelievable.”
“Not really,” shrugged Cathbad as he sat down with a groan, “They were only gragelds.”
“Only gragelds?” exclaimed the cleric, “Its only gragelds that overran this kingdom.”
“Well we weren’t here,” explained Navar as he thought about standing and then rejected it.
“But they are animals,” continued the man of the cloth, “They are beasts that just know how to kill. Its all they do!”
“Exactly,” put in Skeld, “Gragelds are dumb animals. Look past the snarling and howling and they are nothing more than dumb mindless animals. They were even too stupid to retreat. I mean they died to the last one!”
“They honestly get way too much credit,” agreed Navar playing down the total annihilation of the army which ambushed them.
Heslre marveled almost more at the dismissive humility of these pure warriors, than at their staggering skill. For the first time since he set off with the knights under Lord Rebex, did he feel like there was some hope.
“Where to from here little man?” asked Cathbad standing up straight and rolling his shoulders.
“I’ll show you,” nodded the dedicated scholar, standing up and hefting his pack over his shoulder.
***
“Take your filthy paws off her!” snarled Lord Rebex. It was a wonder he was even conscious, never mind the fact he was still as defiant as ever.
A huge gnarled, rough, clawed hand lashed across his cheek. The already cracked cheek bone fractured further. He grimaced but refused to cry out. Unable to support himself the proud knight sagged against his bonds, just managing to keep his bloodied head up.
With a dry chuckle the ungainly, lumbering creature turned back to the petrified small child manacled to the wall and poked her with a long dirty claw. She squealed and it chuckled some more.
Alyssa was as afraid as it was humanly possible. The creature that poked and prodded her and towered over her was right out of her nightmares. It was the largest thing she had ever seen. Its bald leathery dome scraped the roof as it moved around their jail. Huge bulky muscled shoulders, which obscured the neck, extended down into massive clawed appendages. Wide lidless, almost reptilian eyes seemed to watch everything and large prominent nostrils sapped up every aroma. Warm fetid breath seeped out its jagged tooth maw and washed over her. All this bulk was supported on disproportionately small legs, so that when it ambled around the cells it was most reminiscent of a gorilla’s gait.
Rebex feebly strained against his bonds once more. This was not the glory he had sought. Angrily he thought back to the ambush. It was the first time any of the knights had seen gragelds and their savage assault had stunned them. Their yelps and howls chilled him even now. The knights were swarmed before they had time to properly prepare themselves. Half went down in the initial assault. Rebex had had the presence of mind to grab Alyssa off her mount and charge the ambush. It was a standard tactic in order to break the ambush. Unfortunately there were just too many and the knights were cut off from each other and savaged. Only he and Lord Freicker, who was badly wounded, escaped. Lord Freicker died not long after from his wounds.
Lord Rebex resolved to press forward, even with out the cleric to guide them. He had a fairly good idea from his discussions with the man of the cloth where this temple should be. Rebex and Alyssa in fact made it to within sight of the foreboding black temple when new potent beasts which flew and ran, overwhelmed him. The new creatures seemed impervious to his blade and moved with lightning speed. Their high pitched shrieks as they swooped or sprinted toward their prey actually stunned one. Rebex figured he was done for, but inexplicably they resisted killing him and bore him and Alyssa off into the temple.
There he was tortured and toyed with much to the amusement of the numerous creatures there. His jailer was the most brutal, if not creative in his torture. Stoic as always the young knight refused to break. He did not know how long he could keep it up.
A slightly built figure entered the prison dungeon and silence was instant. Rebex willed his head to turn and regard the stranger. Heavily swaddled in grey robes with a deep cowl obscuring any facial features it came to a stop roughly half way between Rebex and the child. The head turned and examined each of them. The dark recesses of the hood gave no indication to the nature of its appearance. The jailer had rapidly backed up and obviously feared the unassuming but mysterious stranger.
“Thank you for bringing her to me,” rasped the stranger as though speech was done with difficulty for him.
“She is here to destroy all this evil you bastard!” spat Rebex as a surge of adrenalin boosted him. Or was it fear?
“That was one of her life paths, once but no more,” admitted the hooded stranger, “Now all she can do is fulfill her destiny and facilitate the end of the old world and the rise of the master’s, the Dark Emperor.”
“Never!” grimaced Rebex as he refused to even entertain the idea.
“Never?” paused the mysterious individual, “Its already happening.”
He glided over to the cowering little girl and grabbed her wrist with a gloved hand. Producing a thin sharp blade he made an incision. She screamed and tried to pull away but the grip was strong.
“I’ll kill you, you animal!” threatened Rebex straining once more as anger over rode the pain. The hooded figure ignored him and watched the blood slowly drip into the small black basalt saucer he now held. After only a small amount had dripped in, he took it away and left. Rebex continued to curse him while Alyssa sobbed and clutched her injured arm.
***
“All proceeds as planned my master,” announced the heavily robed follower. He placed the black bowl on the skeletal altar and bowed.
“I sense an unexpected anomaly,” echoed a deep thundering voice.
“What anomaly?” asked the faithful servant.
“I sense hidden honor,” it continued, “It has become a potential flaw in the greater plan.”
“Tell me master and I will thwart it,” begged the dedicated disciple.
“Three warriors approach,” the voice thundered on, “Great is their skill and greater still is their resolve.”
“I will dispatch some grageld,” resolved the servant.
“Already a grageld army has fallen to them. Send another and it will surely fall too,” warned the faceless voice.
“Then I shall send the reavers,” decided the disciple as he doubted just three could stand against so many gragelds.
“Do not doubt my words worm!!” roared the voice as it sensed its servants thoughts.
“No master!” gasped the disciple as he threw himself to the ground in humility, “It is as you say.”
“Proceed with the ceremony,” ordered the voice, “She must die.”
***
“I was once here you know,” muttered Navar as he gazed down on the once densely populated central city of Nerlexes in Haliac. From their vantage point high on the crest of the mountain pass leading down into the valley city, they had a panoramic view of it.
“It didn’t look like this I’ll bet,” sighed Skeld as he too took in the sight.
Of the built up thriving center of commerce, just rubble remained. Only a towering black column, rising out the ground in the middle of the rubble, gave any indication of activity.
“The black temple?” asked Cathbad staring at the dominating structure.
“That is it,” confirmed Heslre.
“Doesn’t look like any temple I’ve ever seen,” shrugged the giant northlander.
“And hopefully none of you will ever see again,” whispered the cleric. It had taken some hard marching but finally they had reached it. On the way they had stumbled on two smaller gargled units numbering just over a hundred each. Both were put to the sword after two intense engagements.
“What’s that?” queried Skeld as he shaded his eyes and peered over at temple where numerous black dots, at this range, poured out the top.
“That doesn’t look good,” admitted Navar as he drew his blade.
The others did the same. The dots made a beeline to the companions. As they came closer, and they were moving like lightning, one could make out they were flying bestial creatures. They were just none any of the companions had ever seen before.
“You know the drill boys,” chirped Skeld as he and the others took up positions.
“Yeah!” grinned Cathbad. He was getting bored with killing gragelds. This was exciting!
Disgorging their trademark high pitched shrieks the reavers swooped down on the trio and their priest. Heslre fell to the ground clutching his ears as the sound wave stunned and injured him.
“Shut the fuck up!” snarled Skeld as he lined up the first one.
The sound was irritating but hardly debilitating. He swung and collected the first as it dove down on him. The result of the two colossal forces connecting was that the reaver was sliced in two at the waist. Skeld had to step back as the impact of the reaver on the blade was deceptively heavier than he had expected. Flopping around like a fish out of water the two parts of the reaver thrashed for a while on the stone ground, spraying grey-green blood everywhere.
Navar ignored the shrieks and from the high guard lashed at the first one in range. The precise strike split the creature from head to gut. Its momentum ripped it off the blade, and the body, in almost two parts, slammed into the solid warrior and bounced off. Navar too was surprised at the weight and force of the seemingly slightly built beast. Must be the speed he decided.
Cathbad was also intent on chopping one in two but as it reached him it altered its flight path and tried to go for his neck. The mighty swordsman adjusted his grip and instead of slashing it, he rammed the blade directly into it. It ended up impaling itself with its own momentum as the entire length of Cathbad’s blade sliced through it. Bouncing it of his shoulder, Cathbad let it hit him, and shrugged the dead corpse off his blade, already looking for the next one.
The reavers continued to dive in on the trio but soon discovered that the trio were masters of controlling their space. With their long blades they were killing the reavers a good two foot beyond the reavers range for attack. Reaver bodies piled up quickly and with a shrill shriek they disengaged and high tailed it back to the temple.
“Come back pussies!” sledged Cathbad as he almost laughed at the rapid withdrawal.
“Well now we know they’re smarter than gragelds,” noted Navar.
“And fuck loads tougher,” exclaimed Skeld examining the near blunt edge of his blade. The others noted similar results on theirs. Navar knelt down next to one of the bodies and examined it carefully. Their hide was leathery in appearance but as hard a steel breastplate and slightly thicker.
“No wonder,” he muttered as he tapped the hard material.
“Like chopping stone,” mused Cathbad as he whipped out his whetstone and began sharpening his blade. Methodically the others did likewise as Heslre slowly recovered.
“You men become more and more remarkable the longer I stay with you,” gasped the cleric, “How is it that noise didn’t immobilize you lot?” The trio looked at each other and shrugged.
“You should date more cleric,” suggested Navar, “Once you’ve had enough women whine at you, then this is nothing!” The other two chuckled.
“I’ll take this any day over that slut Mandi from Drageda,” mused Cathbad, “Remember her?”
“You going to have to narrow it down a bit,” responded Skeld with a mock thoughtfulness, “I loose track of all the whiny bitches you fuck.”
“You have no room to talk,” defended Cathbad with a twinkle in his eye, “At least my whiny bitches had a choice, unlike certain household slaves that we won’t mention here!”
Skeld grinned as he recalled how he had impregnated a certain nobles’ entire female slave staff compliment, in revenge for him not allowing Skeld to see the nobles’ daughter.
They finished up re-sharpening their blades and got ready to set off. Now it was time to enter the very heart of darkness.
“You believe this chosen one is still alive cleric?” asked Navar as they descended down into the valley and the ruined city.
“Something tells me so,” he admitted, “I suppose it’s what faith is all about.”
“It’s a long way to come for nothing,” added Skeld. He was having difficulty believing a small child was somehow still alive in there.
“We better not have used up all the monsters already,” muttered Cathbad. Then this trip would really have been a waste!
***
“Stop them or I will tear out your dark hearts myself!” rasped the grey robed disciple of darkness and chaos.
The hulking lumbering dim-witted beasts frantically scrambled down the huge, long corridor, and headed for the main entrance. The devoted follower spun around and glided back to the ceremonial chamber. Who were these ‘anomalies’ he wondered? How could three mortals defeat an army of gragelds and then a flight of reavers? The dark emperor would not be pleased.
Inside the ceremonial chamber he checked that all was in place. Just the female child needed to be brought in. The sun was not yet right, it was not yet at its zenith. Soon it would be time. Soon the anomalies would make no difference.
***
“I must say I was expecting something in the form of a welcoming committee,” stated Navar as he gazed into the huge dark opening that was the main entrance to the dark temple.
“Me too,” muttered a bitterly disappointed Cathbad. The giant youngster almost pouted he felt so hard done by.
The trio and Heslre had picked their way through the rubble of the once proud city and maneuvered all the way up to the temple. So confident of their power were the forces of darkness that they hadn’t bothered to have a gate or door on the black temple. It was beyond their comprehension that anyone could approach the temple unbidden.
“I wouldn’t be disappointed just yet,” grinned Skeld as he spotted the ambling shapes of the thickly muscled enforcer beasts of the temple. Half a dozen ten foot tall mountains of muscle growled and rumbled as they spied the trio and made for them.
“Yes please!” cheered Cathbad as he sensed a challenge. Hefting up his blade he advanced on them.
His two comrades in arms followed his lead and advanced on the imposing monsters. Heslre held back and unbelievable fear rooted him to the spot. Not even these men could take on these giant beasts, surely?
Cathbad stepped up and swung at the first hulk. Despite its size it moved fast and lashed out with a clawed hand, and parried the blow. The young north man only just held onto his blade as the force of the parry reverberated down his muscled arms. He ducked as the other claw swung overhead and regained his composure. He lunged forward and stabbed the monster in the gut. Despite his powerful thrust the blade only entered about two inches. A trickle of dark blood seeped from the wound as the beast rumbled louder. A lesser man would have been discouraged at the very least. However Cathbad just got angry.
Skeld fared little better. Faster than Cathbad, he connected the muscled monster before it had a chance to parry. He wide arc strike ‘bounced’ off the beasts leathery hide. He cursed and leapt back to avoid its counter strike. He then drove an overhead chop right between its eyes as the beast leaned forward from its over extended swing. Once again the two handed blade ‘bounced’ off its skull, but this time there was a small amount of blood.
Navar had the luxury of spotting his companions attempts before he closed ranks with the next one. Purposely he waited for its strike and then instead of going for the body he attacked the swinging clawed hand. He expected the force of the connection to sever the arm off at the wrist. His body jolted as the blade cut deep, but the force with which it was placed lifted Navar off his feet and dumped him on his back. Even a fine warrior would have lost his grip on his weapon given the circumstances. Navar held onto his. He rolled and was on his feet to see the next beast step up. Behind it the one he had struck looked at its useless dangling claw and in frustration ripped it off with the other and tossed it aside. Navar rapidly backed up as the next one smashed the stone underfoot where he had been standing only a fraction of a second ago.
With an almighty battle roar Cathbad swung with all his might and cracked the beast he was fighting across the temple. A substantial gash appeared. Where any other thing he had fought would have been skull-capped, It just staggered. The second one on Cathbad enveloped him in a bear hug from behind. Cathbad cursed at being caught so. It squeezed him tightly in a vice like grip. Throwing back his head he smashed the jagged sharp teeth in the beasts maw. It shrieked and dropped him. Blood streamed down the back of Cathbads head where the teeth had slashed him open.
He spun and drove his blade double handed into the creatures throat. The fury driven thrust saw the blade plunge an entire foot into the front of the throat. It gargled and drooled blood as it staggered backwards, dying and clutching at the piece of steel protruding from its throat. Its backward motion ripped the blade from the north mans hands. In a near blood range Cathbad leapt at the first, still stunned, beast and proceeded to wrap it in a head lock. It roared and snarled as the immensely muscled human arms encircled it’s almost non existent neck.
Cathbad out roared it with a focused and maddened yell and he leaned back into the wrench of the beasts neck. Unbelievably there was an audible crack and the beast slumped to the stone floor, dropping the north man.
Skeld avoided the second beast by maneuvering around his first one. Blood from his head slash seeped into its eyes, affecting its vision. Several well places strikes opened more minor scratches, but nothing mortal. A random slash from the beast opened up a deep chest wound on the sturdy human warrior. Skeld grimaced in pain and channeled the energy to fuel his attack. With two precise strikes he hacked out both eyes of the near blinded, and now totally blinded, beast. Shrieking it swung wildly and ineffectually. Skeld now concentrated on the next one. Like the first it advanced swinging.
Wary now, Skeld avoided the claws and noticing the disproportionately smaller legs, so he focused there. Ducking under one of its swings he shoulder rolled and came up on a knee. Swinging the huge blade like a scythe he sliced open the monster’s shin. Howling it brought both claws down on Skelds back like hammers as it hobbled back. The veteran north man was driven flat by the blow.
In pain he snarled and rose to his feet. The beast was still backing up, unable to put any pressure on its savaged right leg. Grinning through the pain Skeld advanced menacingly and shoulder rolled again, and savaged the left shin, smashing it. Snarling, howling and drooling it dropped onto its back and tired to reach for its battered pins. Silently and savagely Skeld rained down the overhand strikes onto the beasts head. With morbid satisfaction he watched the head slowly separate from the body and the beast went still. Looking around he spotted his blind one. With a roll of the shoulders he sauntered up behind it and thrusting the blade two handed, he administered the coup de grace to the back of its neck. It dropped stone dead.
Letting the beast advance, Navar repeated what he had done with his first one. As the beast swung he attacked the swing and this time collected it sweetly on the marginally weaker wrist. The clawed hand flew free from the muscled arm as the warriors fine blade sliced neatly through. Bellowing it slammed its other claw into the solid human warrior. The long claws scraped off the plate mail but did not penetrate. Navar grunted under the blow and took two steps back.
The beast advanced and Navar could see the original one, also missing a claw, flanking him. As the beast stepped up, instead of backing up, Navar stepped forward and as it opened its mouth to roar, Navar thrust the blade with all his might through it, popping it out the back of its head. Instantly silent, its legs buckled and it dropped to the floor as a rush of air escaped its lungs. Momentarily weaponless Navar faced the last charging beast. It collected up the steel clad soldier and drove him across the room and into the wall of the temple.
Navar managed to draw his short sword moments before he was pile-driven into the black wall. The force sent a crack running all the way to the roof of the cavernous entrance hall. All the air was driven from Navars lungs and pain wracked his body. He dropped to the floor. The beast took several unsteady steps away from the wall.
Navar chuckled through the pain as he watched the beast stand there, a short sword buried to the hilt in its left eye socket. The momentum of the body slam into the wall had caused the short sword to be driven into the beasts brain. All Navar had had to do was position it a split second before impact. With a groan it toppled backwards as dead as a door nail.
“Fuck yeah!” nodded Cathbad as he dragged his blade from the throat of the dead beast.
“That’s going to leave a mark,” noted Skeld as he gingerly touched the shredded chain mail and blood soaked tunic underneath on his chest.
“That was a touch rough,” sighed Navar, understating the situation, as he slowly made it to his feet. Pain was everywhere but he doubted anything was broken. He ripped his blades clear from his two beasts.
Heslre entered the dark huge room, once again surprised by the actions and the attitude of the fast becoming legends. He decided there and then to simply believe that nothing was beyond these larger than life characters. A far off scream made all four turn and prick their ears.
“Alyssa,” whispered Heslre, “She’s alive!”
“Not for long if we don’t haul ass,” snarled Navar as he took off down the only corridor leading out the large room.
Cathbad and Skeld were right behind him. Streaming out of side passages and from up ahead came masses of gragelds. It was as though the forces of darkness were throwing everything they had left at the heroes. Like a plough tearing into virgin earth, the trio cut a path down the hall.
“We must find a ceremonial chamber,” explained Heslre from his protected position inside the triangle. Fear was a thing of the past for him. He had supreme confidence in the warriors.
“What’s that up ahead?” yelled Navar as he hacked his way forward. He was almost drowned out by the close confines racket of whooping and snarling gragelds.
“Looks important,” agreed Skeld and he carved open his path to the huge double doors.
Reaching the doors, Skeld and Navar turned and held back the swarm of gragelds as Cathbad sheathed his blade and put his shoulder to the doors. At first they moved less than an inch. Issuing a string of blood curdling curses, Cathbad forced the doors to open bit by bit until a loud cracking and then snap was barely audible above the din of battle.
The huge doors swung open and the gragelds shrieked and backed off. The sacred place was off limits to their lowly kind.
Inside, the grey robed disciple sneered from deep within his dark, shadowy hood. Meddlesome mortals he thought as he hastily incanted the final phrases of the dark ritual. Alyssa was stretched over the bone altar and tied in place with black silk bindings. Small incisions had been made all over her near naked little body and black ink sigils ‘tattooed’ her face and chest.
“You’re too late puny mortals!” screamed the disciple as the sun reached its zenith and a thin beam of light shone down through the prism in the ceiling of the fifty foot high room.
Alyssa screamed and the heroes charged. The disciple grinned and thrust out both gloved palms sending a shock wave of magical energy streaking across the room. Behind the heroes Heslre and a number of cowering gragelds were tossed like rag dolls into the air and sent skittering across the stone floor. The three companions barely missed a step as the shock wave broke over them like a wave on a harbor wall.
The disciple hissed in shock as the trio were on him in a flash. Three blades plunged into his frail frame and then hacked his remains to the ground. Navar left the two to complete the execution and cut the child free.
“Fuck me!” exclaimed Cathbad as he prodded the remains of the mysterious disciple to just find cloth and white, sun-bleached bones. Skeld backhanded the big man across the cheek.
“Language fatboy,” he scolded and indicated to the child now wrapped in Navar’s cloak and arms.
She trembled and stared wide eyed at the imposing men. Cathbad gasped and held a hand to his mouth in embarrassment. His eyes apologized.
“Is this it?” asked Navar glancing around. Heslre came hobbling into the massive ceremonial chamber, a bit bruised from his tumble.
“The ceremony has been disrupted but we need to perform a ceremony of our own,” informed the battered cleric.
“This is your show ace,” noted Skeld, “Get to it.”
Heslre nodded and hauled out a book and some herbs from his backpack. All of a sudden the sun disappeared behind dark ominous clouds.
“Does that look good to you?” queried Navar with a raised eyebrow. Skeld and Cathbad shook their heads.
Feverishly the cleric tossed the herbs and read from the book. Lighting cracked overhead.
“Bring me the child,” ordered Heslre as he removed a small crystal bauble the size of a childs ball from his backpack. Navar brought him Alyssa and put her down.
“Do you know what you have to do?” he asked the girl child.
Still shivering she nodded. A bolt of lightning shattered the prism in the ceiling sending jiggered shards crashing to the floor. Navar covered both cleric and child while Skeld and Cathbad gleefully took the opportunity to bat the larger pieces away, using their swords as clubs. Lightning arced through the gap in the ceiling and snaked down, touching the bone altar. Instantly a swirl of shadows reached up from the floor and formed a twenty foot tall tentacle and horned demonic creature that solidified into a material form.
“I thought you said we disrupted the ceremony!” barked Navar at the cleric as he drew his two handed blade again. It didn’t occur to him that he might not be able to even touch this godly manifestation.
“We did!” exclaimed Heslre, “The chosen one lives! This is merely an avatar manifestation. It’s mortal!” It roared as it stretched to its full height. Tentacles lashed out as it spied its surroundings.
“If its mortal I’m going to kill it!” grinned Cathbad and charged yelling war cries. Skeld wasted no time and rushed over too.
The avatar’s tentacles cracked like whips as they intercepted the charging warriors. Cathbad was smashed off his feet and sent tumbling across the stone floor. Skeld was flicked into the air, to come hurtling to the hard stone floor where he bounced nearly a foot in the air. Navar halted his charge and placed himself between the child and the avatar. It sensed the child and strode over.
“Do it now Alyssa,” encouraged Heslre trying not to look at the creature advancing on them. She began to recite arcane words, her voice faltering with fear. She took the bauble from the cleric and held it aloft. It began to glow.
The avatar screamed as though the very words caused him pain and lashed out. Navar was there to parry two huge tentacles, slicing them open where he connected. His actions forced it to momentarily change its focus and sweep him out the way. Another two tentacles crashed down on the stoic defender. He ducked one but was barreled out the way by the other.
Before he had finished sliding across the stone floor he was up and scrambling back toward the beast. Heslre prayed as the child continued to chant and the avatar rose above them ready to kill.
All of a sudden it roared in anger and spun around, black icor streaming from a savage wound to its back.
“Hurts don’t it?” snarled Cathbad as he swung his blood drenched blade again, severing a tentacle brought up in defense. Just as it prepared to crush the little mortal it reared in pain again as another foot of steel from Skeld plunged into its side.
“Take that fucker!” growled the pain fueled north man.
He withdrew and plunged it in again. The avatar was still deciding who to batter when another searing pain raced up its back as Navar in a full charge buried his two handed sword into its back. Like wolves surrounding a bison, the trio snapped at the massive beast from all angles, not allowing it a chance to focus on any of them. Blindly it lashed out with its remaining tentacles battering each one in turn away, only to pay as the other two not being smashed whittled away at it. The stone floor was slick with its godly bodily juices.
The most unfamiliar feeling of despair gripped the unnaturally powerful avatar of the dark emperor. It realized it was dying. With an ear splitting roar that literally shook the entire temple, the avatar tried frantically to leap at the child. This final move opened its defenses and three blunt and bent blades ripped their way into the avatar’s broken mortal form, extinguishing the last flicker of life it had.
Like a giant redwood the thing toppled over, crushing its bone altar on impact. An eerie silence descended on the scene interrupted only by the panting of three exhausted warrior legends. Cathbad stumbled up to the still mass of avatar flesh. He laid in with a solid boot to its side.
“That’s for fucking up by sword, fucker,” he panted and then leaned against it. His two companions grinned, while Heslre just shook his head in disbelief.
“Is it over?” whispered Alyssa. All that remained of the bauble in her hand was dust which she let fall to the floor. Heslre looked down at the still shaking child. Taking the edge of Navar’s cloak he proceeded to wipe the ink markings off her face.
“Its over,” he confirmed, “Well done child.” She smiled and stopped shaking.

Epilogue

The trio took the child, the priest, and a barely alive Lord Rebex back to Halax where a bored as shit Iron Company waited. Nothing had come their way and in fact Jarland regular army units had already started arriving from the south. All the areas where gragelds had been besieging, reported a general scattering of enemy forces as though they suddenly became unfocused and unorganized. Still dangerous as individuals the gragelds abandoned their sieges and aimlessly roamed the land as Jarland and mercenary units set about hunting them down.
Doc welcomed them back and tended to their severe wounds. News spread of their exploits firstly through the company and then rapidly through the army and then the entire kingdom and Thort.
At face value one would have been inclined to scoff at the claims, were it not for a few important facts. Firstly the tale explained the sudden change in the gragelds, secondly it was told by a highly respected priest of the Church of the West, thirdly it was corroborated by a Lukian noble knight, Lord Rebex, and forth Cathbad produced some otherwise unexplainable trophies, including the very head of the horned avatar of the god of darkness and chaos. These trophies eventually found their way into the trophy room of the king himself with a plague, penned by Heslre, detailing the story behind them.

Heslre returned to the church with Alyssa where they continued to raise her. When she came of age she decided to take her vows and follow the path of the Church of the West. Lord Rebex returned home a hero although he himself felt undeserving of the praise. Nevertheless he accepted it and was soon a high ranking and hard working military commander in the Lukian military.
Praise, fame and fortune was heaped on the trio as was on Lord Rebex and Heslre. For the most part they took it in their stride and took advantage of the new opportunities that presented themselves to them. The trio indulged in all manner of luxury they wished, from fine food, fine liquor and many fine women. Finding the new lifestyle had only limited appeal, they soon invested their sizable fortunes and returned to the Iron Company where they continued to win battles and live larger than life.
THE END

This post was submitted by Peter.


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