Moonlight transformed the frozen Chordini scrub forest into an alien landscape. The moons, the Three Kinswomen, as the locals called them; Azelia, Gracellia, and Mayana, hung above the land in a triangle. They had not aligned like this in the midnight sky in twenty-two years.
In the darkness, a man, bundled against the cold, labored up an out cropping, grasping a sapling for support. Breath coming in rasps, he looked across the scrub flats to the lights of Harpsfell, perched high up on a plateau, almost apart from the frozen wilds.
He rarely left the Temple these days; he would be far too conspicuous. But now, safely hidden in the shroud of night, he was on a mission to escort some new arrivals to the Temple proper, and that was what was important.
Of course, he could not bring them into the Temple by normal routes. Like him, they were also heavily touched by their Master’s hand, and could not be seen by those not of the Temple. A gloved hand stroked lovingly at the bony ridges that crowned his head and sprouted from his jaw. His Master’s touch made flesh stronger, more magnificent.
Ahead, on a ridge, he saw the wagon, his enhanced night vision picking out the symbol of the three moons on the rough canvas. It was silent. His keen ears registered not even a breath inside the wagon. Then his nose caught the sent of blood. Not the scent of salty human blood, the acidic scent that flowed in the veins of those touched by his Master.
He turned. He had to flee for the Temple and tell them of what had transpired. Even with his enhanced senses, he was caught unaware. The first dagger pinned his cloak to the sapling. The second severed the sword-belt concealed in his cloak.
Before the weapon had clattered to the ground, a shadow broke from the forest and became a man. “You don’t have to bother checking, your monsters are dead.” The man was almost one with the shadows, except for the bottom half of his pale face, and a silver hand emblem that fastened the odd wrapping on his right arm.
“A servant of Dey? Is it not the god-slaves of Hessa who usually oppose our work?” the pinned man growled.
“Dey is the Goddess of those who do what they must.” Another dagger flashed in the moonlight. “Now, I believe that you know something that I wish to know.”
An obscene smile split the other man’s lips, revealing a mouth full of filed teeth. “You don’t deal much with those who serve Kayda, do you boy? Cutting my sword away means nothing.” He hawked and tried to split, but could only manage to drool a foul smelling liquid.
Now it was the shadow’s turn to smile. “You Kaydan priests are so damn arrogant, especially about never feeling pain. You didn’t even notice the other dagger did you?” He pointed to the monster/man’s throat.
Following the finger, the Kaydan’s hand found the hilt of a dagger buried in his neck. The blade had been destroyed as it severed his acid bladder.
“How did I know?” the shadow spoke the words the Kaydan was thinking. At the same time, he struck, moving with a swiftness that defied the eye to bury a pair of daggers into the monster’s shoulders. Acidic blood followed a piercing shriek into the night. “The same way I knew that magnetic daggers can hurt you.” He twisted the blades. “Now, tell me, where is Aravan du Maynar?”
Reeling in pain and surprise, the Kaydan managed to speak. “Who are you?”
The daggers twisted again. “I asked you a question, demon.”
“Pain means nothing to a servant of the one true god.” The Kaydan growled.
“Oh, really?” A grim smile came to the shadow’s face. He released the daggers and stepped back. Saying nothing, he unbuckled the straps that bound his right arm.
“You give up easily. I suppose it is in your best interests.”
The shadow laughed contemptuously. “Not quite.” The bare right hand reached up to grasp the monster’s face. Corrupt flesh sizzled. A torrent of pain washed over the Kaydan, flooding his senses. Every negative emotion man can feel filled his mind. All he could do was scream.
“That’s it, demon, feel what your god has wrought.” He removed the hand and the pain stopped. He leaned closer, his eyes flashing. “Now, where is Aravan du Maynar?”
For the first time since he had been touched, the Kaydan felt fear. His mouth was dry, his body quaked. “H-he was staying in the Old City, studying some books.” He cringed, watching every movement of the hand. “B-but that was weeks ago. He’s gone now.”
“The scriptures, of course the most holy of the writings which even I am not privy to. Now, who are you?”
It was the left hand that drew the sword from the shadow’s back. Black metal glinted above a blood red rose that was part of the hilt. “My name is Vaalingrade Ashland, cursed by your god. Now,” the blade fell. “I am your hunter.”
The three moons drifted overhead.
Chapter 1: Morning in the Bard City
The chiming of the water-clock in the square awakened Vaal. Grey morning light streamed through the thick and cheaply made window of his room at the Six Dancing Horses Inn.
Groaning, he sat at the edge of the bed and stretched. He was not used to such poor accommodations, especially not here in his home city. Harpsfell was known for its exquisite inns and galleries.
Not that he minded staying at the Six Dancing Horses. The food was good, the owner amiable and the two maids far from homely. Still, it was missing some of the more welcome comforts. Many of the better inns in Harpsfell offered running water, heated beds and other spell-crafted items.
Still half blind from sleep in his eyes, Vaal grabbed the only spell-crafted item the Six Dancing Horses offered, a plain ceramic jar, empowered to keep the water within hot. He poured the contents into the washbasin on the nightstand and splashed his face in it.
Finally fully awake, Vaalingrade Ashland ran a hand through scruffy black hair that hung to his earlobes. As he did, he studied the other. A tight binding of black leather wound from his elbow to his palm, held in place by Dey’s silver hand. At least he had remembered to secure the wrappings after last night.
Frowning at the hand as if it had just said something rude, Vaal stood from the bed. He was hardly something fearsome; only as tall as an average Chordini woman, he was pale and a bit on the scrawny side. Aside from the wrappings on his hand, he looked like a farmer’s son and not a very old one at that.
Pulling on a shirt, Vaal paused to look at himself in the ancient stand-up mirror on the far wall. The homespun shirt hung lopsided over his woolen breeches. Both pieces of clothing looked to be made for a commoner, but an expert tailor would notice their high quality.
Ignoring the slovenly state of his shirt, Vaal stepped into his boots, a care worn pair made of black leather. A cloak of drab green wool followed the boots, fastened with a bone pin. Then came a headband made of black material. It all but disappeared under his bangs.
Finally, he picked up his sword harness from the corned. With a swift motion, he drew his weapon from its well oiled leather sheath. The blade shone darkly in the grey light, black iron, etched with the pattern of a rose vine. Here and there, a jag of metal extended at an odd angle where a thorn would grow. A master smith would click his tongue and frown at such a weapon; ungainly, especially for the man who wielded it, the thorns interrupted any chance the weapon had of scoring a killing blow and made it impossible to sheath. A rose of ebony made up the hilt, with a simple crosspiece etched with leaves.
Vaal called his sword Last Kiss and it was the only traveling companion he had had in the last few years. Truly, it was the only one he had needed.
Sheathing the impossible to sheath sword, with equally impossible speed, Vaal strapped the harness across his back, the ebony rose peeking over his shoulder and stole out the door.
The common room of the Six Dancing Horses was empty and silent, except for Jaiya, one of the maids, and the sound of her broom when Vaal came down the stairs.
“Mornin’ to you, Master Ashland.” Jaiya smiled warmly, “I trust you slept well?”
Vaal returned the smile just as warmly. “Quite well, thank you, Jaiya.” He had no idea why the girl insisted on calling him ‘Master’ despite both his insistence that she stop and the fact that he appeared otherwise.
“Would you be minding if I asked after why you’re up so early?” The maid asked. Most of customers of the Six Dancing Horses drank and gambled until the wee hours and slept until noon.
“Just some errands to run. That and I’d like to have a better look at the city.” Not that I’ll tell you that I mean ‘Old City’, Vaal mused to himself. “Its been quite a while since I’ve been here.”
“In that case, you simple have to see the Temples. Some say they’re one of the great wonders on the face of Ere.” Jaiya loved to play tour guide to newcomers to Harpsfell. It made Vaal wonder why she wasn’t employed by the city yet.
But Vaal had no intention of going to any temples today that any normal person knew about. “I’ll most likely end up there in my wanderings.” On second though, faith may be helpful before going down the city the Kaydan mentioned. He started for the door.
“You know Master Ashland; you’re unlike any of our regulars. You sleep early and rise early as well. You pay us well and never treat us bad. I’m glad you’re staying here.”
“As am I.” Vaal said over his shoulder as he stepped on the door.
It was a typical Chordini summer morning. Summer, in Chordin meaning ‘less cold’. A chill breeze blew south from the glaciers and down the streets of the city atop the plateau. Vaal took a deep breath as he paused on the porch of the Inn. The cold air energized him like nothing else.
Allowing the cloak to flap loosely around him, he glanced up and down the street. Most cities on Ere woke before dawn if they slept at all. But Harpsfell, the Bard City where excess was king and magic did most of the mundane work slept in more often than not.
Buildings touched the sky, some topping twelve stories of polished stone, allowed to defy physics by the aid of enchanted runes inscribed around stress points. Only Harpsfell could afford to use this form of magical architecture with such wild abandon.
A scruffy dog was wandering up the street, unafraid of any wagon or foot traffic that would have made his saunter a suicidal act in Spinar at this hour.
Thinking about Spinar brought Vaal back to his senses and the task at hand to the forefront of his mind. He stepped off the porch and headed north toward the markets.
Chapter 2: Unforeseen Variables
A few hours later, Vaal found himself traversing a narrow channel cut into the rocky plateau on which Harpsfell sat. In times past, this channel had been an outlet for thaw water from the plateau, draining into the cisterns of the Old City. From the end of it, he had a perfect view of the ruins.
Anything of value here had been stripped from this place nearly five centuries ago, leaving a skeletal shell of a once great society. Now, the stone buildings provided shelter for all sorts of creatures. Including, Vaal thought, his prey.
It was a short jump from the broken cusp of the aqueduct to the nearest rooftop. From there, Vaal worked his way carefully downward, watching carefully for telltale signs of Kaydans. It didn’t take him long. Stalking down a wide thoroughfare, in what used to be the merchant’s row was a trio of creatures the Kaydans called Imoc-te Vorian or, more commonly, Gargantuas and Vaal that had dubbed (for easier notation) Kaydan fists.
Vaal’s name suited them well, as these beasts were the nearly mindless enforcers of the Kaydan demons. Ten feet tall at the hunched shoulder and covered with a hide akin to a rhinoceros, the fists shambled on all fours, knuckle walking on their massive forearms, which ended in heavy talons. Between their shoulders was a cruel face more suited to some demonic frog that a ham-fisted brute, their wide mouths constantly slobbering.
This particular group seemed odd to Vaal. They moved with purpose and looked about as if hunting something. From Vaal’s experience, fists required constant direction to perform even the most common task, let alone hunt. Yet no priest was anywhere to be seen. Guttural breathing in an adjoining alley indicated there were more about, but that didn’t offer any clue as to why this group was so focused.
Something — something much smaller than a Kaydan fist — flitted across the street. Vaal looked in that direction to see someone crouched in the shadow of a defunct smithy. They certainly weren’t a priest, bundled as they were in a heavy winter cloak, with the hood drawn tight around their face. A scabbard hung clumsily behind them, lolling rudely against their hips. Was the person trying to sneak past those fists?
Why were they even here? Vaal wondered. Old Harpsfell had been veritably raped of anything resembling profitable going on five centuries ago, so pillaged to pay for the building of the new city the followed it. No adventure seeker would think twice about this abandoned ruin. They’d all be on the bill of the Kinos Historical Society, risking their innards on the glacier trying to find lost cities from before Saint’s Landing.
Could they be here hunting the demons? That was a stupid question. The precious few that knew enough to realize demons weren’t just tall tales connected them to the temple of the god of shades, which was quite key to Vaal himself following their trail here to Harpsfell.
Well, whatever their reason for being here, they had made a grave miscalculation if they were going to try to sneak past Kaydan fists. While the monsters weren’t smart enough to out think a dog, they possessed miraculous sensory perception, capable of seeing, smelling and hearing even people dampened by all but the most well honed magics. And if they sense you, and think you’re weaker than them, you’re just a walking meal for them.
Sure enough, one of the trio slowed its pace, sniffing the air. From the adjoining alley and a street a block away, several sharp exhalations signaled that several of the other demons sensed the intruder as well.
Vaal paused a second in thought. He estimated at least nine Kaydan fists down there, all of whom were about to converge on the hapless fool who was now stopped, apparently sensing his impending doom. Even with all of the tricks up his sleeve, Vaal knew he couldn’t fight nine fists at once in the relatively open terrain of that street. On top of that, the resultant feeding frenzy would keep the fists fighting for quite a while — a handy distraction.
The trio in view whirled and prepared to charge. Vaal’s conscience nagged at him. No one deserved to die from being out smarted by one of those bastards, he rationalized. Looking down, he gauged the drop to be almost five stories. Too far to jump, even with his spell crafted boots and cloak. Not to worry though, he thought, no matter how many ‘powers’ people think I have because of my spell crafted devices, my one true power is my ingenuity.
He slipped his hand into his cloak and produced a spool of spidersilk rope, tipped with a specially prepared vial. The silk was the kind one could buy for a few gold pieces from any vendor in Harpsfell, but the contents of the fragile vial was his own invention. A flick of the wrist launched the vial tipped end of the rope across to the opposing building. The vial shattered on contact, releasing its payload of powerful adhesive.
Pulling the rope taunt, Vaal leapt from the roof. Rope paid out from between his gloved hands, slowing his decent exactly as he had planned. Less than a story from the ground, he let go and reached for the Last Kiss.
The Kaydans barreled towards their expected meal, which stood motionless, watching them come. Slavering jaws gnashed the air, anticipating warm meat and hot blood.
Cloak flaring around him, Vaal hit the ground and dropped into a crouch directly in their path. The sound like a low rumble of thunder sounded from his boots as they channeled leg breaking amounts of force into the ground and air. The fists kept coming, encouraged by the new scent of flesh that had fallen from the sky.
The Last Kiss sang with the sound of steel clearing the scabbard as Vaal drew it. No longer did thorns adorn the black metal — such thing served to soften the blow — something Vaal had no intention of doing now. The blade swept upward, held in Vaal’s right hand, slashing a deep wound into the throat of an approaching Kaydan.
The monsters paused, confused by this sudden assault from their food. Their tiny brains also wrestled with why this creature before them only had one arm. And what that hissing sounds was. They didn’t have time to find out.
Vaal jerked his sword free of the monsters jaw bone, and leapt backward, throwing a handful of plum sized, dull black spheres at them. In midair, he twisted around to put his back to them. Just in time as it were. The three second charges touched off the explosives he had hurled, blossoming into a fireball before the creatures’ eyes. Shrieks of surprised pain assured Vaal that he had found his mark and purchased some time.
He looked up, hoping to catch the eye of the wayward traveler. What he saw was the rapidly approaching claw of a Kaydan fist. The ones in the alley had been closer than he thought.
There was no time to dodge, so he bought the Last Kiss up to soften the blow. The parry was far easier and more successful than he had hoped. As the arm continued on its new course, he realized why; where once the arm had been attached to a beefy shoulder by powerful muscle and sinew, it was now held only by a few scant tendons.
The wickedly curved weapon of the traveler — an odd cross between the blade of a scythe and a long sword, which was held by a short handle so that its back curved with the forearm like the claw of a parrying mantis — was in the process of delivering a second blow to the monster, this time, a brutal slash to the ribs.
Nimbly ducking beneath a hammer blow from a Kaydan’s fist, the figure moved closer to Vaal. “Who in the Inferno are you?” said a female voice from deep within the confines of the hood.
Vaal slashed with the Last Kiss, leaving a shallow cut across one of the monster’s eyes. He heard the creatures he had hit with his bomblets recovering behind him. A woman, he mused, maybe I made the right decision not letting these things rip her apart after all. It wouldn’t be the first time, a woman rewarded his ‘heroics’ (meaning times he happened to keep someone from dying while making life miserable for a follower of Kayda) with a kind word and a kiss.
A claw won past his blade, stopped only by the fine magical weave of his shirt. Get your head back to task, Vaal, he chided himself, feeling his face getting hot even a he sank the Last Kiss in the offending creature’s gut.
The woman dropped to a knee and whirled, bringing her blade to bare on the ham string of on of the monsters. It fell, howling, back among its scorched brethren as they finally made it into the fray. “I asked you a question, boy.” She demanded.
Boy? Vaal grimaced. He knew he was short — only around five feet and a hand tall, but no boy could fight like this. “Do you really think that’s important, right now?!” He snapped.
The woman caught two claws on her blade and turned their owners away. “Considering you got me into this, I want to know who you are to see if its worth killing you for it.”
Vaal’s teeth were on edge. Of all the… forget this, I’m getting us out of this and showing her what’s what right now. He fended off another claw swipe and sheathed the Last Kiss.
“What are you doing now?!” The woman said, surprised.
Vaal reached into his cloak and plucked a black tube from where it was secured. In doing so, he dislodged the cork fastened therein. “This.” He dropped the tube and gathered his legs beneath him. He jumped forward, propelled by the magic of his boots. As he hurtled past his female antagonist, he reached out and arm and caught her around the waist. Together, they sailed a good six yards from the knot of Kaydans.
Air mixed with the contents of the tube, causing it to issue forth a thick, foul smoke. The fists gagged on it and pawed wildly at irritated eyes.
Vaal rolled to his feet and offered his hand to the woman with a self satisfied grin on his face. She ignored him and stood on her own. Frowning at her, he turned up the street. “The gas will be gone in about twenty seconds, we’ve got to move, get somewhere up high.”
“Who said I was going to go anywhere with you?” She growled, breaking into a jog to match Vaal’s pace. “I could have just dodged past those Imoc-te Vorian if you hadn’t gotten in my way.”
Something she said tugged at his mind, but Vaal was busy looking for something that offered access to the roof tops. Approaching foot falls trumped all of that though. He had estimated nine fists. Five were in the cloud and the others were somewhere on the other side of it. The heavy, tromping steps promised at least five more.
“Son of a bitch,” They said as one. Vaal wondered for a second if they were referring to the same person.
“No time to do this the easy way.” Vaal announced, producing another spool of spidersilk rope from his cloak. “We’ve got to get up high, now.” He launched the rope skyward, its adhesive tip catching a ledge. “You first.”
“Chivalrous, aren’t you?”
“Chivalry has nothing to do with it. I’ve got a surprise for this greasy trolls.” He watched her start up the rope before grabbing another bauble from his cloak. This was a small sack made of burlap. From within it, he drew a handful of brownish dust. He spread it liberally about the ground below the rope.
At the end of the street, six fists rounded the corner, rushing toward him. From the rapidly clearing cloud of smoke emerged five more. And from the other end of the street came the four he had heard earlier.
Calmly counting under his breath, Vaal produced a small flask and poured some of its contents into his gloved hand. “One minute fifty, one minute fifty three, one minute fifty six…” The closest monster was only four yards way. Vaal rubbed the red gel between his hands briskly until he smelled the sharp acidic smell that told him it was warm enough to work.
“Two minutes two, two minutes…five!” He leapt straight up as the Kaydans converged. Sixteen vertical feet later, he thrust his arms out toward the wall. The gel held him fast to the wall, well out of reach of the monsters’ teeth.
Not that they could even think of biting him. At that moment, the stone ground suddenly sprouted sharp spikes, piercing the pads of the Kaydans’ feet. Howling in pain and rage, the demons stumbled away from the rope.
Vaal easily clamored up the wall. The woman was waiting for him at the top. “Your methods are certainly effective.” She said simply, her face still buried deep within her hood. If she hadn’t been so contemptuous before, Vaal would have envisioned her smiling.
“We’ve bought some time at least. These guys can’t climb, so –” Something heavy hit the side of the wall. He whirled to see a taloned hand gripping the ledge. “How the –”
The woman’s strange blade bisected the grasping fingers. The monster roared as it fell, but more beefy hands caught on to the side of the building. Some were even good enough jumpers to hook an arm over the side.
“Imoc-te Vorian don’t jump like that.” The woman said as if dazed.
There was that word that was bothering him again… No time for that right now though. Vaal flung bomblets at the ledge. The blossoming explosions ripped up rock and maimed hands. The edge of the building crumbled, dumping the Kaydans six stories to the ground.
“Even they shouldn’t be able to recover from that” the woman said. They she made an odd sound. Sort of a yelping grunt. Vaal turned to see that two more fists had gained the building on the other side and were pulling themselves up. One had its claws tangled in the strange woman’s cloak.
The pin that fastened the cloak in front now turned the garment into a garrote under the weight of the ascending fist. She gagged and tried to claw at the pin, finally ripping it loose. The fist fell backward off the building, carrying the cloak down with it. Vaal stood stunned, staring at what was revealed.
Imoc-te Vorian. That’s the word that had been bothering him. Only Kaydans used that term for Kaydan Fists. Even the still human priests called them Gargantuas. It made sense now, in a twisted way. Though more questions were raised.
The hood snapped away from her head, exposing her for the first time that morning to the frigid air of Chordin. Her raven hair billowed about her head in the sudden breeze. Her arms, slim yet strong, were now bared to the elements. Her emerald eyes flashed at Vaal’s stunned expression. But his eyes weren’t looking to hers. They were set on her perfectly flawless, ebony skin.
To be clear, ebony is a word the elves of Nyce use to refer to their skin color and occasionally what the people of southern regions such as Rizen, Novrom, or Taunuan would use as well. But those colors are part of the natural range of humanoid skin, a healthy brown, not black really. Her skin was nothing natural for a humanoid. It was the color and smoothness of onyx, if not as lustrous. Vaal knew her for what she was immediately; a Kaydan demon.
He stood stock still as if stricken witless. His mind swam with questions and odd observations that went against years of data gathered on Kaydans. Why was she fighting against her brethren? Kaydans knew tools for their use when they saw one and any humanoid demon certainly outranked a fist enough to subjugate them.
Yet this one, she cut them down and fled from them. Even stranger, the fists didn’t seem to recognize that they were in the presence of their better.
He suddenly realized that they had both been staring at each other while a number of fists had gained the roof. One such creature now loomed over the woman, maw wide to bite her head off. Two daggers flew from beneath Vaal’s hand, heading straight for the woman’s head.
For a split second, he saw betrayal and a hint of sadness etched into her features. The second after, the daggers tore the air on either side of her head to bury themselves in the joint of the fist’s jaws. The woman’s expression changed to dawning understanding as she whirled, slitting the monster’s throat.
Vaal ducked to the side as a huge hand fell toward him, splintering stone where he once stood. He counted are least six fists on the roof top now and three more arms clawing up the side. The odds were very bad. They would both die here and his questions to this woman would go unanswered.
Determination suddenly welled within him. He would never give up when there was new knowledge to be had — especially not knowledge that could hurt his old foe. The Last Kiss one more sang from her scabbard as Vaal slashed and parried his way to the renegade Kaydan.
“You asked me before,” he said, pressing back a clawing hand, “Who I was.” He sidestepped a charging monster and parried another claw. “My name is Vaalingrade Ashland. Now tell me yours.”
The woman danced as she fought, fluid motion adding speed to her strange blade. His declaration drew a throaty laugh. “I am Nemorra Amun — why are you suddenly so open?”
Vaal wielded the Last Kiss one handed as his other hand reached into his cloak. “Because I need you to trust me and I need to trust you.”
“Then you should have given a different name.”
“We can talk about that later. Just give me half a second to sheath my sword –”
“What?!” She looked almost horrified as Vaal returned the Last Kiss to its scabbard. “Are you insane? You’ll — “She intercepted a claw coming toward Vaal’s now defenseless flank. He seemed engrossed in something under his cloak.
The device weighed almost ten pounds and was too cumbersome to carry if not for the spell crafted pouches in his cloak. Oblivious to the frenetic fight the renegade Kaydan now had to fight to keep him alive, Vaal fiddled with the maze of strings and flanges along the glass and metal surface of the device. It was a box, really, holding flasks and tiny kegs in place and in proper configuration for their contents to mix properly when the time required them to.
This was a sort of test run for the device. Vaal had never used on in combat, but he needed something sure to kill all the fists in one shot. He expertly opened the final flange and carefully put the thing down.
“Time to go.” He said, extracting another spool of spidersilk from his cloak.
“What?!” Nemorra demanded, as Vaal caught her arm and led her to the edge of the building.
“You don’t want to be here in twelve seconds.” He threw the line to the next building and grabbed her around the waist.
“I didn’t say you could –”
“I don’t really care right now.” Vaal said as he jumped.
Oh very, very nice. I want to read more of this.