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  #26  
Unread 20th of July, 2010, 01:44
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Shade was asleep when the guard came calling, her bedding set atop a row of casks in an otherwise unoccupied wagon. Good thing she was thin, else she'd never have fit into the spot. She had been out late, scouting, but come back here when the moon set to catch some sleep.

She slithered down before he called a third time, shivering in the chill air, and stuck her head out to hear what he had to say. Her frown deepened at his words, the periphery of her mind registering the unusual amount of commotion in camp. Not the first he'd talked to, she was sure.

"Where is he?"

The words are icy cold - dangerously precise and razor edged. He would not have sent for her unless things were bad, and judging by the whiteness of the guard's face and the wildness in his eyes, things were bad. He told her, then stammered out something about finding Nicos and then he went off. Gritting her teeth, Shade threw on her cloak and boots, reached up into the makeshift bed and drew out her swords, buckling them on as she started for the door.

***

Her breath is steaming as she approaches Cadrius, standing vigil over the dead man, her eyes sluicing the surrounding area for any sign of movement as she slowed to a walk. Nobody else here, yet, but they wouldn't be long. His posture told her there was no immediate danger, but it did little to ease her nerves.

"What happened?"
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Unread 25th of July, 2010, 17:46
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The guard found Nicos climbing out of the bed he had shared with one of the drivers. She was a tough no-nonsense woman - she had to be to earn the respect of her fellow teamsters - and wasn't his preferred partner, but the nights were cold and she was willing, so the bard made do. The real goal of his affections was the wife of one of the guards, serving to pay the passage of his family as they migrated to the duchies. She was attractive and bored with a possessive husband, and it was all Nicos could do to keep himself away, knowing that the caravan was no place for that sort of drama - at least not until they were closer to their destination and he would be able to slip away afterwards. So he contented himself exchanged meaningful looks, whispered conversations and sharing his nights with his current paramour.

Getting the gist of the message from the guard - something about Cadrius, the woods and a corpse - Nicos stopped long enough to slide on his armour and strap on his sword before setting out. The mail had lain exposed to the night air, was covered in damp and held onto the cold like jealous lover, so by the time the bard found Cadrius he was half frozen and deep within a peevish mood.

"Mother of sin," he called out to Cadrius and Shade as he stalked up to them, breathing out great clouds of steam. "How many times do I have to tell you two, when you murder someone hide the body afterwards. Look, there's a small ditch just there, look, not ten feet away. Drag it over, toss some branches on top and you're done."
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Unread 26th of July, 2010, 22:13
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The slit-eyed look Shade shoots at the bard carries the implication that his final resting place may well be the small ditch he indicated. Instead she jerks her chin at the corpse, twitching her cloak tighter around her spare form.

"A guard. One of ours. Gutted by gods know what."

Except they all knew: Skathros, or something like him.
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Unread 27th of July, 2010, 00:49
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A whisper of boots crunching through the thin film of frost and the feeling of eyes colder than the chill morn is the only sign of her arrival. Shade. The enigmatic, haunted woman is as easy to read as the changing wind. Her voice is soft as if she is reluctant to puts words to air. To speak of this is to ensure that it is real. It is now wrought from nightmare and made flesh. Details overlooked now demand attention. The blood, congealed in the cold, is dark but not yet brown. It will be a few days yet for that.

He opens his mouth to reply when Nicos’ barb rings out across the clearing, shattering the morbid tranquility of the scene.

“Useful, as always,” Cadrius mutters.

He turns around to see Shade standing with her arms folded, eyes flitting about the scene half-curious, half-looking for further danger. Nicos strides up to the two, his breath puffing in the air. The bard blows into his hand, trying to warm it.

“Nice day for a murder, eh?” He says, clapping Cadrius on the arm.

“Jaunty, as always,” Shade says.

“I suppose it does not need to be said that this is suspicious,” he says. “A lone guard has his throat slit and his belly drawn out. With the blood around here it looks like he was dragged to that tree. Why?”

“A feud with another man on this caravan wouldn’t have ended like this,” Nicos says. “It’s too…too brutal.”

“Aye,” Cadrius agrees.

“I think you know what did this,” Shade says, her voice soft but rich with ill portent.

Their gazes lock. Cadrius fights off a shiver from creeping down his back.

“No,” he lies. “Please tell me.”
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Unread 28th of July, 2010, 08:07
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"The dreaded marsupial Tree-Bear," Nicos interjected. "A vicious predator, they lurk in trees above unsuspecting travelers and then, bang, they fall upon their victims. The poor bastard never stood a chance."

His lone encounter with the walking dead had unsettled the bard deeply; the tales Cadrius told of a plague had been source enough for a score of nightmares since. Falling serious he glanced in the direction of the caravan, Gregor would be along in a few minutes so their time alone was limited.

"My question," he said in a low voice. "Is are we being stalked?"
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  #31  
Unread 28th of July, 2010, 22:21
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Instead of answering, Shade's eyes travel from the corpse back along the blood trail and trampled grass. Her body follows, until she stands perhaps a score of yards from the tree, at the edge of the clearing.

"Here is where he was attacked."

The prints weren't clear, but clear enough. The implications put a chill in her that had nothing to do with the environment, and for once she is grateful for the sun. Despite her unease, her voice stays even, without emotion.

"He must have seen or heard something, come to see what it was. Look at his throat."

The pair did, and through the blood it was black with bruising. One could almost see the hand encircling his thick neck.

"He was lifted up and disemboweled while he hung there. His throat was slashed after, else there would be more blood."

She looks at them, the skin between her shoulder blades crawling. It meant something inhumanly strong, and something with both cunning and malice. Hard to say if it was a warning, or if it was simply killing people at random. Her eyes are very clear and very hard.

"Yes, we are being stalked."
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Unread 20th of August, 2010, 11:54
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Nicos eyed the bloody trail and felt a chill that had nothing to do with the winter air settling around them and, as irrational as it would be for the creature to still be nearby, was glad he had taken the time to don armour before setting out into the woods.

"From now on either one of us or Blarth is on every watch, every night," he said looking at the others with a grim face. "And everyone sleeps with weapons close to hand. I'll take Lynn and Juni aside later to make sure they know what is happening, but how much do we tell Gregor and the others."
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Unread 31st of August, 2010, 02:43
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"We tell the others nothing of what we suspect."

Apart from her moving lips, Shade's face is utterly still, grey eyes hard as granite. The words hang like icicles in the frigid air, cruel and sharp. The scar that divides her face gleams whitely in the morning sun.

"It can only harm our purpose."
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Unread 6th of September, 2010, 12:01
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"We have to tell them something," Nicos shot back with indignation. "They outriders saw attacks like this, they'll already know something is up. Besides, he ... it isn't just hunting us, it's taking out anyone that gets in its way. We have to give the rest some sort of warning."
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Unread 8th of September, 2010, 03:21
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"What good will a warning do? The group of us were hardly enough to drive him away last time. Telling them we're being hunted by creatures that can slay their guards with ease and can't be killed by any normal means and they'll throw us to the wolves."

The words did not come to her as easily as it sounded, for Shade knew that it condemned good men to death. Nicos was right, in that a man should know what he was up against. But they didn't have the luxury of doing the noble thing. They needed to survive in order to get the help they needed to cut this thing off at the root.

"Winter is here. No matter what we say the truth is that in a fight with these creatures we lose. We need to get to Cadrius' contacts if we want to stop it, and to do that we need the caravan."

She halts then, her eyes piercing, her face rigid. Filled with an emotion that she couldn't name, the one time thief knows she can't just leave them to their doom. She would redouble her own watch, be the eyes and ears for the things she wouldn't tell them about. It wasn't enough, not nearly, considering the facts.

"There is no choice."
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Unread 10th of September, 2010, 13:53
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"No choice? What good?" Nicos said back, his voice starting to rise. "This thing didn't attack the caravan, it waited until he had wondered off on his own. We won't be able to get to the dutchies and find help if it manages to pick people off one-by-one until we're the only ones left!"

"Besides," he added, bringing his voice back under control. "What sort of people would we be if we just stood there silently while we let people be butchered. We have to tell them, if not the truth then something."
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Unread 14th of September, 2010, 02:16
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Anger flares at the bard's words but it quickly flashes out, like heat lightning in the summer sky. Shade knew he was right and she doesn't have the heart to start another war between them, like she had when she deliberately caused the fight that pushed her out of the group. He deserved better than that, especially from her. She starts again, quieter, more reasonable.

"We have a responsibility to these people, yes, but we also have a larger responsibility to stop this thing. If it means we need to be close with the truth, then we will be close with the truth."

She pauses, gauging the words.

"But yes, that is different than saying nothing. Obviously, a man has been slain. We will say to the caravan master that he was overpowered by something much stronger than a human, but that we see no evidence that points to any known creature. Until such time as we know what we are dealing with, we must not wander alone and we must take to standing watch together as well - at least in pairs, if not larger groups."
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Unread 20th of October, 2010, 00:34
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Cadrius sighs and runs a hand across his head. His eyes light upon the congealed blood that is dark and still by the blades of grass sheathed in scabbards of frost. This man has, had, a name. He had a family. He had a life. He had a story. These have all been snatched up and scattered simply because he had the misfortune of traveling in their company. Cadrius fancies that his life, and the lives of his companions, must suffer from some cruel curse for them to bring so much death and misery to the world around. Perhaps it would be better if they were to simply die and bring no more sorrow to the world.

That will not happen. He cannot relinquish his hold on life. Duty has been his master for lo these many years and it is not about to strike down his bonds yet. The others are bound to it as well, though they are not so obviously shackled as Cadrius. He would urge them, Shade, Nicos, Blarth, and Juni, to buy horses and ride south until their steeds could carry them no further, and then buy another set of horses and do the same again. The fallen paladin would see them fade far beyond the horizon, somewhere perhaps across the southern sea, where the black-eyed dead could not menace them.

But they would refuse, of course. Nicos would make a quip, Shade would simmer with quiet indignation, and they would remain. Perhaps it was due to Isac’s sacrifice. The Morning Lord had given his very life to purge the evil from Shade’s body. Perhaps they accompany Cadrius out of obligation, or out of guilt. Or perhaps they simply are simply living proof that there are still good men in this world with stout hearts and the will to stand against the dark.

He wishes he could say the same for himself.

“Aye,” he says, meeting Shade’s steel gaze. “It will be no boon to know of the dead that stalk us, and it is wise to hold watch in pairs.”

Nicos cocks an eyebrow. “But?”

Cadrius lets his breath slowly stream out through his nose, sending steam jetting through the chill morning air. He often forgets that before the bard had made his days traveling with these unlikely companions, he had kept his belly full with the skill to read his audience. The fallen paladin makes a vow to not underestimate him again. It is one of many on a never-ending list that spirals onward in an ethereal scroll in his mind.

He looks down at the corpse for a moment before looking back at Nicos. “But a man is dead because of us.”

The bard bites back a pithy retort showing restraint that Cadrius appreciates. “Yes, he is.”

Shade’s voice is quiet but hard. “What would you do about it?”

“I do not know,” Cadrius says. “Gods help me. I don’t know.”

“What is this then?” The wagoner’s thick voice calls out. He is flanked by two of his men and bears a half-moon axe with a haft that has been well-worn through time. Gregor is dressed warmly, with fur poking out from the neck of his fastened cloak. His thick moustache bears a hint of frost.

Cadrius says nothing but nods his head toward the body. Gregor brushes past him while the two men mutter prayers to the gods for safe passage of the soul and to not plague the living. They have no idea how close they are to the truth.

Gregor kneels next to the corpse, ignoring the browning blood crusting against his knee. He pulls one of his woolen gloves off and reaches out to brush a few strands of errant hair from the corpse’s face. The fatherly gesture catches Cadrius off-guard, reminding him of days long since past.

“It was strong,” Cadrius says, “to overpower him so. Though we know naught of what it was.”

“And why are they here?” Gregor says, looking back over his shoulder.

“Shade is an expert huntress and knows the tracks of every beast while Nicos possesses a keen mind and a sharp eye. I asked for them to attend should there be any details that I have missed.”

“And what have they found?”

Cadrius sighs. “That if this was a man that did this he was strong to kill Branden, vicious to do it so, and cunning to disguise his tracks.”

“So you have learned nothing then?”

Cadrius remains silent.

“What will you do, Gregor?” Nicos asks.

“We will take care of his body, as in the old ways,” he says, his voice stony and hard like the mountains of his homeland. “Then we will be away from this evil place and we will speak of it nevermore.”
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Unread 17th of November, 2010, 04:12
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Shade bristles as Gregor dismissed the results of their search, her anger not at all feigned despite their own deception. It stung all the more because even with the knowledge they had withheld, the man was still right. They had no inkling of what might be in store, and helplessness was ever a bitter cup.

He favors her with a withering glance as he turns away, signaling his men to bear the body with them. The three companions remain after this thing is done, none of them speaking. Shade's breath clouds as she exhales; beneath her cloak, her hands grip the twin hilts of her swords with impotent aggression.

"A man is dead. Because of us. We must see it does not happen again."
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Unread 24th of November, 2010, 08:24
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How can things seem so normal, Blarth wonders. It's been a few days since the disembowled corpse had been found in the woods, and a little more than a week since Market Day. To Blarth's eye, however, life on the road had largely returned to normal. Sure, everyone seemed a little more jumpy when taken unawares, and no one was talking about the two incidents (Gregor's injunction was being taken very seriously), but other than that, life was disappointingly normal.

Of course, no one in the caravan knew what had happened back in Tradeholm, and thus they remained blissfully unaware of the potential danger.

Still riding with the camp crew, Blarth was supposed to report on anything strange that happened during break-down or setup to the others. Indeed, each member of their group had responsibility for watching a different part of the caravan. If anything happened, or even showed signs of happening, there was some hope that vigilance could avert disaster.

It was this vigilance that had Blarth wandering through the camp now, looking for one of the others. This morning he had noticed a crow following the camp riders. At first this hadn't seemed unusual, but while resting the horses after a stream crossing, Blarth had noticed that the crow had perched nearby. More out of boredom than anything else, he had started throwing rocks at the bird to scare it off. Oddly, the crow hadn't moved until Blarth managed to hit it dead on, not even flinching when one of the stones had gone low and hit the branch that the bird was perched on. Add to that the black ooze that the bird had left behind once hit, and the oddity of the event started to take on a decidedly sinister tone.

Spotting Juni around one of the campfires, Blarth nods his head at to signal her to join him out of earshot of those she was with.

"Where are Cadrius, Shade, and Nicos?" Blarth asks when it is safe to do so, "Something strange happened today."
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Unread 27th of November, 2010, 03:32
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Cadrius had carried the stones himself, helping Gregor and the other caravan guards create the cairn as requested. Gregor had selected a copse of trees off the main road where prying eyes and looting hands would be less likely to find the body of Branden Marbech and stain his memory. Cadrius had been grateful for the suggestion that they use a cairn. He had not seen the telltale darkness oozing out of the man’s corpse telling of the necromantic infection, but he had little appetite in taking chance for granted. Heavy rocks would likely serve better than shovels of earth in weighing down a body that had inclinations to rise again. Woe be to any would-be grave robbers.

The ceremony had been as quiet as it was solemn. A few men spoke, a prayer was muttered, and then it was done. Gregor’s edict held true, and none spoke of it again. Life within the wagon train had resumed its usual plodding pace, reflecting the slow, rough going along the frostbitten roads. Each night the ruts froze, creating hardened casts of the last wagons to travel through that area. The morning ride, before the earth softened up under the sun’s shining face, was often so bumpy that Cadrius preferred to walk.

Sarra had withdrawn after Branden’s funeral. After Tradeholm, Cadrius had hoped to shield her from death, if only for a little while. It was hard enough that she was an orphan, having borne witness to her would-be protector hacking apart her neighbors and family after the darkness had taken them; she didn’t need to see more lives lost as a result of this plague, or the agents in the service of its creator.

Cadrius was not her father, did not pretend to be, but he had taken her as a charge and he would be damned, again, if he would not deliver her into safety. Each morning he woke and checked on Sarra before going to fetch whatever leftover stew was being cooked up by the foul-mouthed cook at the center of camp. Cadrius would bring two steaming bowls and a couple slices of hard bread back to the wagon. She would accept them and on good days she would speak to him, but not since Branden. She took food, would eat it, and then would either sleep or gaze vacantly at the road as they trundled along.

That night, Cadrius sat at a small fire built by his own hands and stared into the flames. The fire leaped and danced, delighting in the consumption of wood for its pleasure. The fallen paladin wondered how much longer it would be until he burned for something’s entertainment.

“Cadrius?”

“Hmm?” His head popped up, his introspection shattered. “Juni. Good evening. What is it?”

It occurred to him that despite their days of travel on the road, and what they had both witnessed, Cadrius knew next to nothing about the woman who had fled with them along the southwestern roads that wound their way to the Hundred Duchies.

“It’s Blarth,” she said. Her eyes were worried which, in turn, caused Cadrius to reach for the scabbard of his sword before she finished her sentence. “He wants to talk to us.”

“Aye,” Cadrius said, standing. He glanced in the wagon briefly, finding Sarra asleep, and then turned back to Juni. “Let us go.”
  #42  
Unread 29th of November, 2010, 01:38
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Juni always knows where each of the others is at any given moment now. She doesn't think about using her psychic power to locate them, she just does it automatically without even trying. Knowing where they all are and that they are safe... Well, it is one less thing she has to worry about, a small bit of comfort in a world of uncertainty.

So when Blarth came and asked her, "Where are Cadrius, Shade, and Nicos?" she knew the answer right off the top of her head and told him. Now she has gone to fetch Cadrius at one of the camp fires while Blarth is out gathering up Shade and Nicos.

Juni has been making more frequent use of her psychic power in other ways lately too. Riding in the wagon, she often surreptitiously uses her psychic eye to scry beyond the next bend in the road up ahead. Precog is turned on, at least a little bit, almost all the time, but especially after dark. Since the attack on the guard, and all the secrecy surrounding it, she has been on edge and can't seem to relax. Even in sleep her psychic sense is active, although when she wakes she remembers nothing meaningful of the visions that haunt her dreams. Always pale of skin, the young seer seems even more drained of color than usual, with dark smudges beneath her eyes that stand out like bruises.

But she is not the only one. Juni has noticed that none of her friends are sleeping well at night any more, as if they consider themselves to be always on watch. Faces are drawn and haggard. Hands twitch toward weapons at the slightest noise or disturbance.

She would have said that, of all of them, the ever easy-going Blarth was least affected by the strain of the last few days. So it is with an even more pronounced sense of trepidation that she hastens along with Cadrius to the meeting the half-orc has called.
  #43  
Unread 10th of December, 2010, 00:53
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Shade was seated upon a tall boulder, knees drawn up to her chin, skin pale from the cold, when Blarth and Nicos found her. When she looks at them, her grey eyes are as frosty as the morning air, the waxy skin of her cheeks drawn tight over the bones beneath. She looked even leaner than she had in the past, yet at the same time sturdier, as if these weeks had shed any ounce of her being that was soft or green. Her calloused fingers immediately slide to the hilts of her swords and she rises to a standing position with lithe grace, still atop her perch, senses straining.

"What is it?"
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Unread 19th of December, 2010, 13:14
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"When Cadrius and Juni get here," Blarth replies, not wanting to repeat himself. Fortunately, he doesn't have to wait long, as Juni's seemingly unerring sense of where people are brings them around very shortly.

After explaining the incident with the crow, Blarth continues, "I think we're being stalked, watched for weaknesses. It's only a matter of time before one is found."
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Unread 22nd of December, 2010, 01:09
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“Spies, eyes, lies” Nicos says, sending a stone spinning off into the gloom with the flick of his wrist. His smile is ever his sardonic armor against the world. “It’s all the same.”

“Perhaps,” Cadrius says. The great sword and shield are slung over his back, but he cannot help but feel unarmed at the spectral threat of a dark presence that stalks them. It is a foe that cares not if it loses an arm, a leg, one soldier in its cause or a dozen. It will come without tiring and without wavering until its grim purpose is filled.

“What are we to do about it?” Shade’s voice comes from on-high.

Cadrius looks over at Shade, perched on her boulder, her hands never straying far from the hilts of her blades. She seems at that moment like a great cat, poised to strike some unsuspecting fawn or foal. But even the fiercest of predators relax and Cadrius is not certain if Shade is ever anything but readying herself for the next kill. She is ever the rope or bowstring drawn taut.

“Get to the Duchies,” Cadrius says, “as fast as this train will travel. From there we can reach the Church’s seat and appeal to them for aid against the growing dark.”

“But you said that one of these things killed that poor guard.” Juni’s voice is soft, but carries a weight to it. “He died because of us.”

“And it will be us dead in the frost if we strike out on our own,” Shade says.

“We are all safer together than apart,” Cadrius says. “The sentries need to be kept closer to the fires at night and in pairs, not alone.”

“It might be that there’s only one of them right now,” Nicos says. “Maybe it isn’t doesn’t know if it could succeed in a frontal assault.”

“But the crows,” Blarth says.

“Aye,” Nicos says. “The crows.”

“Again, then it is best that we move as swiftly, but as safely, as we are able,” Cadrius says. “It must know we draw closer to civilization where it will be harder to strike at us directly.”

He leaves out the possibility of these foul creations stalking them within the walls of a town, wearing a suit made of flesh and sinew. That they barely know what it is that hunts them is terrifying enough. He does not need to plant further ghosts within that graveyard—not yet. But looking up at Shade on her rock the expression on her face shows that her mind is already two steps ahead of his.

“So we huddle together and try to survive,” she says. “For a few more days.”

“How many?” Juni asks.

“Ten,” Cadrius says, “perhaps a full fortnight.”

“A lot can happen during that time,” Blarth says.

Nicos shakes his head, his grin returning. “You don’t know the half of it, my boy.”
  #46  
Unread 30th of December, 2010, 01:37
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Ten more days, and then how many more?

She watches their little meeting break up, each of them retreating to their comfortable patterns, the habits they'd formed to shield themselves from the harsh truths of the world. Shade is acutely aware of her own defenses, of the stony wall she put up to hide her own turmoil and uncertainty from those around her. Cadrius looks her way as the others disperse and she meets his gaze without flinching.

They had only known each other a short time yet the depth of their knowledge defied that span. Moments of crisis showed you what a person was made of, and they'd shared more than a lifetime's worth. No surprise, then, that he knew her mind. As the others leave she drops lightly to the ground, her boots crunching softly in the snow. A chill wind makes the bare trees moan eerily.

It was her gut reaction to be angry - angry at the predicament they were in, angry at her part in this chain of events, angry at his stoic refusal to accept any path other than the right one. It was, after all, one of her defenses - a way to cope with the unfamiliar, the frightening, the dangerous. Isac's meddling, in part, had mitigated that. He had, unwittingly or not, solidified the designs that had been forming in her for a very long time, designs that she had been confused about. Cadrius himself had played a large part in that confusion, highlighting as he did those things she was so desperately trying not to examine.

But she was different now, having finally come to a place where she could begin to accept her reality. The things she had imagined she wanted were so very distant from those things that gave her purpose, made her feel whole. Not that it was easy, or that her anger was gone but for now she speaks softly.

"We've been lucky up til now, with just one attack, if even the beasts can be so turned."
  #47  
Unread 31st of December, 2010, 16:50
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She is right, of course. The simple and unavoidable truth is that they are lucky to still be alive. Drawing breath is a miracle itself and there is little reason to believe that it will continue without outside interference. The thing out there, the shadow in the dark, that hunted them is either malicious in its desire to instill terror, or has some ulterior motives for delaying their demise. He wants to believe that they are too many for it to run rampant in their midst, tearing and rending, painting the frost with their blood, decorating the trees with their guts.

He wants to believe it, but he isn’t certain.

“Yes, we are lucky,” he says. “We always are.”

“Spare me the sermon about gratitude,” she says. Her spit is graceful in its arc, landing in the dry, curled brown leaves draped thick over the dirt. “I’m talking about life and death here.”

He sighs. “So am I.”

Her scowl shows she’s in no mood for mincing words.

The lines in his face are deeper than they used to be, casualties of carrying more than he should. The bags beneath his eyes are heavier and thickening. These days his sleep comes in fits. Each night is a mishmash of tossing on the thin bedding and lying awake listening in the dark for death to come for him and Sarra. The days have become a haze; it hardly seems that the sun has come up before it is on its way back down again. He wonders where the days go, where time goes, and how he could acquire more of it when it seems to be running out faster and faster.

“The Church will help us,” he says. “Provided we can reach them.”

“The Church?” She makes an obscene gesture. “The same Church that tried to have you killed?”

He nods.

“Why would they help us?”

“Because,” he says, “it is not about us. It is about them.”

The Church is an entity like any other, rooted in its ability to hold power and exert influence. A lord needs men to serve him, a merchant needs wares and customers, and a church needs believers. The difference is that the church, or this Church in particular, is never short of customers, never short of servants, and is always in demand. The world is a terrible place, dark and vile, full of hardships and pain. The offer of an eternal reward, of protection from that which lurks in the night, is not a difficult sale to make.

But a merchant must provide his goods to his customers, a lord must protect his people, and the church must deliver on its bargain as well. While it is difficult to demand a refund after one has died, the Church stands against abominations, things that are unclean and blasphemous to the world itself. These monsters, this plague, and the font from which it flows are their domain. They must deal with this threat, must mobilize to burn it clean at its source. If they cannot do this, if they cannot protect the innocents from this horror, then what purpose do they serve at all?

Her eyes glitter, cold in the dark. For the first time he wonders if Shade is even her real name. “What makes you think we’ll even make it there?”

His laugh is bitter as he turns his back to her and walks toward camp.

“Faith.”
  #48  
Unread 28th of February, 2011, 17:21
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The sun stands at the highest mark it will reach today. The cerulean sky is as clear as can be with a bright, but cold, sun shining at its apogee. Puffs of breath roll from man, horse, and dog, as the train makes its way through the road that runs between the hills and mountains separating the wilder lands from the kingdoms of men. The nearby hills are covered with the greens of pines and spruces who ever hold their color as badges of courage against the cold. As the hills climb higher the snowline appears, a marked border between the courts of autumn and winter. White reigns above. The evergreens hold the snow, their many arms blanketed while their deciduous brethren hold little at all, having cast their burdens aside weeks earlier. At the very top are the craggy faces of the mountains. These are truly the old kings of the world, with wisps of clouds hanging about their stony visages. They have held court since the world was young and have watched countless men rise and fall during their time.

Three days had passed since the discovery of Brenden’s savaged corpse, frozen in the morning air. Pallor had settled in over the band for the last several days. Gregor had done little to hide the fact that one of the men had perished though he did his best to obfuscate the details surrounding the death. Brenden had been well-liked by the other guards and even their attempts at honoring him through drink fell flat. Yet by midday on the third day, some life had creeped back. Men spoke in voices that were above a hush and the occasional laugh could be heard. Even Gregor appeared to be restored to something more akin to his usual gruff self.

Gregor calls a stop for half a hand to water the horses and fill skins from a nearby stream. Cadrius stands outside of a wagon. Juni’s voice is muffled slightly by the canvas. She is teaching Sarra something she learned from her youth. Cadrius isn’t certain what it is, but he cares not. Anything that can be done to stir the morose youth from her near catatonic state is welcome to him. For the hundredth time he reminds himself that he merely needs to escort her to the Duchies and put her under the care of someone he can trust and naught more.

The nights have been restless but quiet with the fires built high and the sentries kept in close. Each of the companions has taken their turn staring into the dead of night while the night stares back at them. Cadrius has spent hours gazing off into the black with nothing save the crackle of the fire, the snores of men, and the cold stars above for company. It is during those darkest hours that he finds himself most full of doubt. When the light is gone and the night hems in close he is at his most hopeless. Specters of his past live anew, guaranteeing him failure.

Afternoon passes quickly, the sun cutting its shallow path through the sky and sinking fast toward the west. Camp has already been made by the time the sky is painted with faint pinks and pale purples. Kindling and wood has been gathered and stoked into a fire. The men who wish to try their hand at hunting are allowed to do so, but only in pairs. Wooden bowls are brought out and the company forms a line as a thick, bland stew is ladled out, steaming in the early evening air.

“Nicos,” Cadrius says, inclining his head to a stump nearby. “Would you favor us with a tale?”
  #49  
Unread 19th of March, 2011, 11:25
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Finding a pair of saplings which were long enough and had the requisite curves had been tough, but a little persistence on Blarth's part had paid off and he was now contentedly shaping them with a knife. If he had timed things right, and the caravan didn't start an unexpected climb, he would just finish the skis about the same time that the snow started flying at their elevation. The green wood was more vulnerable to the cold and probably wouldn't last beyond the season, but he wasn't exactly interested in waiting the couple of years it could take for the wood to cure properly. A little extra tar, and he'd have something serviceable. He doubted Sarra knew what proper skis felt like anyway. The idea of treking through snow fields under your own power just didn't seem to occur to most humans. They let horses and oxen do the work and used sleds most of the time.

His mind only half on the work beneath his hands, Blarth still couldn't get the feeling of being watched out of his head and regularly scanned the area around him. He hadn't seen any more crows, or other animals for that matter, with the same pattern of unusual behavior, but even so Blarth still shivered at the thought of animals turning on the caravan and leaving behind the kind of mess that he'd found in the stable in Gilgal.
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  #50  
Unread 28th of March, 2011, 12:54
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Nicos gazed into the fire at the request for a story, seeing what only he knew within the flickering depths, reaching back into his memory for a classical tale to tell, one that seemed fitting for their haunted journey through the forest.

The bard cleared his throat and began speaking. He told a tale of a Merchant, a man who was well off without being wealthy, a man who worked hard but treasured his Daughter more than any coin or jewel in the world. A man who whenever he set out on a journey, would always ask her what gift or boon he she wished him to bring back for her.

“’Just a rose’” Nicos said, pitching his voice up to carry feminine overtones. “Always she would reply ‘Just a rose,’ valuing her Father’s thoughtful care and safe return more than any treasure.”

While on a journey the Merchant was caught in a fearsome storm, driven to take shelter in an ancient and seemingly abandoned castle. When he explored his temporary shelter, the Merchant found a freshly cooked meal laid out, as well as dry blankets and a warm fire, but no sign of any inhabitants.

Feasting upon the food – and sleeping within the dry blankets before the warm fire – the Merchant spent the night in comfort. Waking the next morning, he discovered the evening’s meal had been cleaned away and an enticing breakfast awaiting. He feasted once more, growing used to the strange ways of the castle and with the storm having passed during the night, prepared to resume his journey. It was when the Merchant was setting out that he saw a rose garden for the first time. Remembering the promise he made to his Daughter, he plucked the most beautiful of the roses and tucked it within his coat

Sooner than the disturbed petals had floated to the ground, the lord of the eerie castle arose from the shadows and revealed himself as a terrible and mighty creature, more Beast than man and filled with fury.

“I fed you!” Nicos proclaimed, throwing his head back and casting his voice low so that it had a guttural, angry edge. “I gave you my hospitality free and thankless when you intruded upon my home, you repay me with theft? No, you will repay me with your life!”

The Merchant fell to his terrified knees, begging forgiveness, saying that he had merely taken the rose as a token for his Daughter. Considering this, the Beast relented but the width of a hair, consenting not to slay the Merchant, suggesting instead that he would hold the man prisoner. Again the Merchant pleaded for mercy, saying that this would leave his Daughter alone and unguarded in the word, and again the Beast relented, giving the Merchant leave to depart and put his affairs in order, but only so long as he returned within a week, upon pain of death.

The Merchant left and swiftly returned home to began making the needed preparations. His Daughter, ever a wise girl, saw that something was amiss and needled her father with questions until he broke down and revealed to her the truth of the castle, the rose and the Beast.

Horrified at the thought of her father being held captive by the fearsome monster, his Daughter waited until night fell and snuck away, making her way to the castle to wonder the abandoned corridors calling upon the Beast to reveal himself. When he did, she recoiled in disgust, for the Beast was frightful to look upon beyond her imaginings. Remembering her father whom she loved dearly, his Daughter steeled herself, begging the Beast to allow her to take the Merchant’s place, reasoning that as the rose was taken for her, she should be the one to serve the punishment. The Beast agreed and took the Daughter prisoner.

Time passed for the Daughter and she found her stay more pleasant than expected. The Beast, for all that his appearance frightened her, was gruff and quick to anger, had another side that was gentle, wise and sad beyond measure, and took pains to treat her well. Eventually, the last of her fears faded and she grew fond of the creature until they became close friends.

A month after she had placed herself in the Beast’s custody, the creature asked her to marry him. She refused, for all that she had warmed to the Beast, the thought of marring herself to someone with as horrifying a visage as he possessed filled her with revulsion. Unwilling to the tell her capturer and tenuous friend the truth, she proclaimed that she could never marry someone she knew nothing about, for the Beast had guarded his history and secrets well.

That night the Daughter dreamed of a handsome Prince who came to her bedchamber and told her a tale. He told her of a young Noble who was betrothed in a political alliance, to a neighbouring Countess. The Countess was a nice girl, but the young Noble didn’t love her and only entered into the betrothal contract with reluctance. The night before he was due to marry, the young Noble and his companions set out to grow intoxicated and enjoy the company of women who's virtue had a negotiable value.

So late did his carousing take him, that the next day he slept through the appointed time of the wedding, leaving his intended wife abandoned and humiliated. The Countess’s rage was awesome to behold, and she revealed herself as a powerful sorceress. She cast a spell and laid a mighty curse upon the young Noble. He was to be crippled, stricken with weakness yet unable to die. Stuck forever in the grips of the spell until he either found true love to free him, or had his heart broken unto death.

Daily the Daughter would dine with the Beast, discuss philosophy and religion, walking the lawns or working on his endeared rose gardens together. Each day the Beast would ask her to marry him, and each day the Daughter would refuse, conjuring ever more spurious reasons for the rejection, too ashamed to voice that she could not, would not love him due to his dreadful appearance.

Nightly the handsome Prince would come to her sleeping mind, would woo her with fanciful tales and flattery until, despite herself, she began to fall in love with a man she knew to be nothing but an insubstantial dream.

The seasons passed and The Daughter grew melancholy, torn between the waking world and a Beast who desired her, and the dreamtime with her Prince she loved but could never have. One day the Beast asked her to marry him, and she again declined her consent, stating that she could never be married without the presence of her father the Merchant. The Beast looked at her with his terrible and sad eyes, and offered to release her. If she but agreed to wed him, she could return to her father and fetch him to the castle where they could all live in opulence together. The only condition he placed upon her, was to return within the week, or consequences too fearful to name would befall.

Weathered and worn from her endless ordeal, the Daughter finally agreed and set out to return home that very day, carrying with her a mirror that allowed her to see the castle, and a ring that would transport her back if she turned it three times.

At the first sight of the Daughter’s return, the Merchant was overcome with joy, thinking that she has escaped. But when she told him of her agreement to marry the monstrous creature, and the two were to return at once for the wedding, he became he was horrified and afraid.

He delayed their return, at first pretending commitment and appointments that could not be broken, later feigning sickness, until as time ticked past and they were on their final day, he confronted the Daughter and demanded to know if she loved the Beast. The Daughter remembering her dream Prince, answered with truth and woe that she did not and the Merchant admonished her not to enter into a loveless marriage, that she had escaped and should not so easily throw away her freshly regained freedom.

With great reluctance, the Daughter agreed and went to bed, sleeping for the first time in many months without her Prince.

In the morning she woke, feeling an unsettled and surging guilty regret at having abandoned the Beast. Being careful that the Merchant did not see her, the Daughter gazed into the magical mirror and commanded it to show her the castle. Cast onto the polished surface was revealed the Beast, sprawled upon the ground and motionless in his favoured garden, surrounded by withered and dead roses. With a cry of alarm the Daughter at once grasped her ring, twisting it thrice until she was returned to the castle and her Beast’s side.

She gathered the creature in her arms, crying for him to arise, that she was sorry and had returned as promised. Her tears, heavy with regret and grief fell upon her Beast and under that gentle shower he began to transform. The monstrous features which had once so terrified her faded away, revealing the form of her dream Prince. She cried anew as she gazed upon the features of her beloved, remembering the tale he had first told her and lamenting that she had come so close to having her true love only to have thrown it away.

“Even as the prince returned to his true form, the worst of the curse revealed itself,” Nicos said, his voice flat and hollow, allowing the pathos of the tale carry itself. “The Daughter began to change, to transform her beauty into something bestial, inhuman and loathsome to behold. The spell, originally cast upon the Prince out of love torn asunder, transferred to her, marking her forever as a traitor to the heart and destroyer of faith. Her fate settled upon her and she became the Beast unredeemed.”

The story concluded and Nicos gazed out into the night in silence, the crackling of flames and shallow hiss of breath filling the sudden void left by the conclusion of the tale.
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