The Swallow Takes Flight met Parting the Silk with a ringing sound as the two blades clashed. Dark eyes met blue flames as the taller combatant struck again. Moon on the Water met The Wood Grouse Dances, followed swiftly by Ribbon in the Air meeting Stones Falling From the Cliff. We drifted around the arena, striking out with lightning speed. Tower of Morning flowed smoothly into the Courtier Taps His Fan, forcing me to step back to avoid the glittering blade or have my head split in two. The edges of the swords may have had weaves woven around them that rounded the edges to avoid accidental killings but the armoured man was immensely strong and fast and a strike to the head by any blade in his hands would be undoubtedly fatal.
The void is a cold place, lacking in emotion. If a man spends too long in its cold embrace, he can find it difficult to ever leave. But it brings clarity of thought that you cannot find anywhere else. It allows you to focus in a way that is impossible when you are burdened with emotions. In the void, a man can know that he is the only person in his head. At least, most can.
The man I was facing was different. Locked into his armour by ancient magic, he has the minds of thousands of warriors inside his. They once described it to me as a chorus in their mind and it is reflected in their voice, which sounds as if there are many people speaking as one which indeed there are. It can be quite disconcerting when you first meet them. But never mind for I digress and it seemed he had noticed my pause. One thing has to be said about the Dragon Lord, he doesn’t let anything distract him in battle.
The man I had once known as Cúnaer stepped into The Boar Rushes Down the Mountain without hesitation. I countered with The Falling Leaf and followed through with The River Undercuts the Bank as fast as I could. But it seemed my hesitation had cost me the fight for the Dragon Lord flowed smoothly into The Swallow Takes Flight, stopping his blade just short of plunging into my chest, blunted tip or no. His flaming orbs intensified and I could almost feel the heat from where I stood before he stepped back and used Folding the Fan to silently slide Húron back into its sheath. Then he reached out a gauntlet. I accepted the proffered aid and let him pull me the kneeling position I had adopted when I attempted to use The River Undercuts the Bank.
His tone was oddly warm as he addressed me. “It is good to see that you are keeping your skills sharp Gideon.”
My chuckle was more than a little bitter. “I have nothing left but my blade and my bond to Cerelinde old friend, you know that better than anyone.”
The man that had been my oldest friend stiffened for a moment before relaxing. “You are correct of course Gideon. Forgive us.”
I waved it away, knowing that he had not spoken to insult. The Dragon Lord had the memories and attitudes of thousands of Esterwynnian warriors in his head and he did not insult his friends. What he had said had merely been a friendly quip not unlike those I would’ve expected from Cúnaer before he accepted the role. Intended as good natured banter, he had not meant to remind me of all that I had lost but even so I excused myself and left the public area heading for the chambers I shared with Cerelinde. She alone truly understood what I went through every time I was reminded of my loss.
The sheer agony that came from watching my mother and my little sisters raped in front of me had haunted me for years. I will never forget seeing the men murder them after the deed was done, spilling their heads into the same sack that already held that of my father and my older brother. They had been coming for me when the youngest of the raiders had cut my bonds and leapt at his fellows. He had fought them with everything he had as I grabbed a weapon but it was a losing battle until I arrived and when the men were dead the boy had suffered a mortal wound. He had been no more than a boy following his father and had been horrified at the treatment of my sisters, remembering his own sister. He told me this in the few seconds before he succumbed to death’s cold embrace. Enraged, I had cut through the still living raiders like they were parchment. Some fled.
Then had been a long trek to the capital with the bodies of my family on a cart behind me before I collapsed before the gates. I was weak and nearly delusional. Only Cerelinde’s bond had saved my life, the strength granted by it preventing me from dying there and then from blood loss before I could even reach a healer. Her emotional support had been non-stop for ten years, slowly bringing me out of the shell of fear and bitterness. Cúnaer had been a great help himself but it still only took one wrong word to spark a torrent of emotion.
So it was that Cerelinde came running at the sorrow and fear flowing through the bond to find me curled up into a ball with my back against the wall, muttering that what I was seeing was just a memory. The woman that had helped me through so much pain already sank to her knees beside me
The Dragon Lord
Such a curious man stood before us. It was not the first time we had encountered Master-Magus Azrayle, but it was the first time we had done so in this new body. When he entered the hall his gaze had immediately fastened onto us. After all, we were an enigma to the Cythrathi and one they had always wanted to study. They did not understand how we could all share the same mind and body. Indeed, our existence came very close to openly contradicting their beliefs about death. So far as we knew, we had been listed under ‘Other’ in their records for the past few millennia after we granted them permission to study us which they did for a century. No one understood the magic that bound us together save the first of us and he was tight lipped on the subject.
Eventually tearing his gaze away from me the Master-Magus began to speak. "I bring greetings from his majesty, Emperor Khyron Kalistarion the Second, ruler of the Cythrathi nation and long standing friend of yours. I am here to deliver the wizards that are a part of the trade agreement between the Emperor and your people. One Sorcerer and twenty Warlocks per ten suits of Mithril forged armour. I have already sent those knights who shall be wearing the armour to the trade district to gather what is now theirs and these wizards are now yours." Master-Magus Azrayle bowed deeply as he looked at the Council, again pausing on us for a few moments before beginning to stroke his small black goatee of a beard. "Are there any questions you need to ask or anything you wish for me to convey back to my master?"
The Council were silent but we stepped forward. “There was an agreement signed almost two millennia ago that grants your people a century during which they can call upon us for study at any time. In a few months the Emperor will be able to invoke this agreement. We would like you to pass on this news to him but also to inform him that we will have the right to return to Esterwynne at any time if it’s necessary in order to defend our people.” We spoke in chorus and watched as Azrayle’s gaze sharpened, looking at us appraisingly.
The Master Magus inclined his head. "It will be done, and long have the Cythrathi honoured the wishes of Esterwynne so you shall be able to return when needed or when you wish with no qualms from us, My Lord. The Emperor himself will be informed upon our return and if there is anything you will require when you’re in Sorrowfall then let myself know and I shall do what I can to provide it."
We inclined our head in a mirror of his action and stepped back. “In that case, we see no need to keep you here any longer for we are sure you wish to return to Sorrowfall. We expect to see you soon Master-Magus.”
It was not long after Azrayle had left the hall that our discussion turned to darker matters. Arriane was the most vocal on the current subject of raiders crossing our borders from Crimsip. Farms had been burned, trading caravans butchered. We needed to stop it. The Consul stood before the Council and spoke passionately on the matter. “The Legion cannot patrol the entire border. We either need to recruit a few thousand more men, or we need to eliminate the source of the threat. As you know, I have never been one to preach that we follow the passive route. I believe we should strike against Crimsip hard and fast, drive deep into their lands and remove the current ruler, the Orc who calls himself Chief Zurgug. Only then would we be safe from these raiders.”
Her words were not surprising, for Arriane had always been one to eliminate threats before they had a chance to become truly dangerous. What was surprising was that her fellow Consul Alendril, normally much more cautious and reserved, agreed with her. He too argued about the need to take Crimsip’s mad ruler out of the equation in order to remove the threat of the raiders, although his reasoning was more along the lines that the people of the nation needed to be shown that there was a better way to live than the violence that was so common.
The agreement of the two Consuls swayed most of the Council over to their side and those few doubters who remained also supported the motion after we made our support of the plan plain. Thus it was agreed. I would lead a large contingent of our forces west to attack the centre of Crimsip’s territory, the northernmost expanse of the forest that covered most of their land, while the two Consuls would remain in Esterwynne with the rest of our forces to guard against any attackers.
The village was a large one and Orcs and Goblins could be seen fleeing towards it as we led our forces in the same direction. We called one of the Arch-Magi to us. “Take some of our force round the village and watch for any that try to carry a message to their mad leader. Try to avoid any killing, we want to help these people, not butcher them.” He nodded his affirmative and strode off, calling men to follow him.
We strode ahead of our force that halted just out of bowshot of the village. As we approached an older looking Orc pushed through the press, walking out of the huddle of frightened people to greet us. “Why are you here?” The question was phrased as a demand for answers but we brushed off his tone. We understood why he would be so abrupt considering we had just surrounded his home with a few thousand men. He spoke again when we did not respond to his first question. “Why have you brought an army to our village?”
We tilted our head to one side and looked at him for a moment. He tried to meet our gaze but dropped it less than a second later, something which did not surprise us. We knew very few people who could match our gaze, considering our eyes were nothing more than balls of fire.
“We are here to halt a gross injustice. Long has your ruler, Chief Zurgug, kept you as little more than brutes to serve his aims. I do not doubt that some of the raiders that have attacked our lands have come from this village, nor do I doubt that they only did so because they were commanded to. Your people are at war, with each other and with the rest of the world. We are here to stop this. We will not harm you or your village, provided you do not attempt to stop us from killing Zurgug. Maybe once he is dead you will become part of the council we will establish. Make no mistake, we will kill Zurgug, whether we do so sooner or later is all that will change. Once he is dead, we will teach your people of the world beyond your borders and we will train your soldiers into an army you can be proud of. All we will ask in return is your support should we ever be attacked. Know that you will always have ours should you be besieged. Now that you know why we are here elder, I would know what your response will be. We do not wish to destroy your village or kill your people. We have only one enemy in this nation and he is not you. What is your answer elder?”
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