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SANGUINE HEART - {RP Thread}



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Ordeith

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|Sanguine Heart|
{OOC/Sign-Up Thread}


- The journal of Tancred Leicester, Esq. -


29 Frostmarch, 321

Our voyage has now spanned over two weeks, and the fog appears only to have thickened with the passage of time.
The crew is growing restless—and rightly so, for the ship carries only enough provisions for our voyage, plus one extra week. Already those additional provisions have been tapped into. Black spirits are spreading between passengers and crew, despite the collective attempt to keep a brave face.

In the hold, relations continue as previously described. We divert ourselves in ways suited to our professions and dispositions: Several of the more robust knights have volunteered to assist the crew, and move about the deck alongside them. I, myself, have enjoyed several fine conversations with the ex-senator, and the Zenaman, Danios.

We casually toss the hours away—but I am certain we all realize the thinness of our diversions. Should the fog persist, and the ship fail to resupply, we face starvation in the weeks to come. This certainty remains distant, for the time being; but like the strange northern fog, it is felt like a blanket of mildew on our shoulders.

I shall reserve the next pages of this journal for any developments in our condition.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

2 Hearth, 321

I write this entry following the events of 31 Frostmarch, as well as I can remember them. Often I have convinced myself that I am currently experiencing a delusion of hunger—but the splintered helm of the ship is tangible and solid. What I am about to record is no fantasy, and I pray that any who should come across this volume . . . be impartial, and withdraw their skepticism.

On the events of 31 Frostmarch, 321:

Our vessel had continued without rest for an entire day since my previous entry, until the late night of the thirtieth, when the watchman perceived a pinprick of light, through the fog. It was of a warm, golden hue—the long-sought lighthouse, the crew agreed. With determination rekindled, our ship altered its course in the direction of the far-off light. We continued through the night, expecting to meet the shoreline before dawn on the thirty-first.

The light, however, appeared to scarcely grow brighter or nearer—though it was ever-present during the night. At day, it remained visible to us all. Even from within the hold, I could spy it through a porthole; though I would often rise above-decks to catch a better glimpse of it. This distant illumination—apparently, not a lighthouse—would at times flicker and fade, only to reappear shortly after, in a different position. Our vessel, having since lost its orientation with the map, followed.

By the evening of the thirty-first, our luminescent guide became clearer and more defined: One could now observe five distinct points of light, which previously had melded into one. We seemed to at last be progressing across the water; but what had once served as a comforting guide was now as unsettling as the fog it penetrated. An hour passed, into night—and all aboard began to hear unfamiliar voices. We were blanketed in an ethereal whisper, too fleeting for any words to be distinguished—but it seemed as though the very fog had twisted into the shapes of men, and imitated their voices. I cannot adequately describe the terror and unease that constricted my heart . . .

The voices continued, and the five fixed lights towered above us. At last, their identity became known to us all:

Eyes! Eyes! Horrible inhuman eyes, bathing us in their unholy glow! The creature to whom these yellow orbs belonged was enormous, hulking—like a great ogre of the sea, damning us to the depths! The shouts of the crew bestirred me from my sleep, and I beheld this horrid sight, transfixed upon the deck. No human nightmare—no horrid visage from my darkest dreams—could contend with this monster!

Its skull was bedecked with possibly half a dozen horns; and its maw overflowed with tusks and fangs, with no rhyme or reason to their shape and position. A foul vapour issued from between these teeth, overwhelming us with a horrible, rotten stench. Several mates began to lose their bowels, while others—driven mad by the whispers—flung themselves from the decks! I still curse my legs, keeping me rooted on deck, while this hideous apparition towered before us.

It beheld us, and we beheld it; for a sickening moment, silence prevailed. Then the creature's massive paw wrapped fully around the foremost mast—and wrenched it from the decks! It bore its fist into the hull of the ship, and dove its hideous maw into the decks. O, the screams! The sailors were rent apart, their innards painting the decks!

The tumult sent our vessel high above the water, and my vision blackened as in its descent, as the waves crashed over the splinters—of what was once such a proud ship. I recall nothing more, until I awoke alongside my companions. Whether by curse or by miracle, we survived . . . and rose on the shores of Lodovia, our destination.

Salvaging what wreckage we could, our party trekked in one direction, away from the shore. Our persons were remarkably dry, though the impact had mildly battered us all. We said nothing between ourselves; the shock had rendered us speechless, and our only purpose was to find some sign of human life.

Our unspoken pleas were answered by a tiny farm, on the outskirts of what seemed to be a rural Lodovian village. The farmer and his wife consented to share their supplies, and nurse us to health. In the conversation that followed, our emissary party was confronted with the plain, hellish truth:

Lodovia is a land of madmen and demons, with no exit.
Our hosts informed us that a man, appearing to be an adventurer of sorts, had arrived to rest and restock his provisions here. I intend to learn more from this man, and our group appears to be of the same mind.

I shall continue to report my experiences here, as we trek through Lodovia.
 

Ordeith

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The Lodovian sky offered no warmth, and its light was strained through a gray filter.
Hearth had arrived yesterday; the sluggish cloud-cover was a sign of winter's approach.

Tancred Leicester, clad in his scholar's robe and traveling boots, noted the sky with worry. If their group could not travel quickly enough—and could not find any permanent lodgings—the Lodovian winter would prove deadly as any demon. Tancred smiled bitterly. 'Demon.' The word still rings odd . . . and the events of the other night stay with me.

He lowered his gaze, down to the gray little farming village. But I cannot deny proven fact: Lodovia isn't a heathen territory, but a land of madmen and demons . . . Superstition has become real. He thought back to his days at the university, and looked at them through a different lens. Or perhaps it has always been real, and we have just been blind to it.

He turned back towards his traveling mates—now thrust together as never before. Tancred admired their bravery and resourcefulness, of which he had heard several tales . . . but he could not feel any camaraderie with them. These rough-hewn men had been cut from a different cloth altogether—not inferior, merely different. But a patchwork quilt was likely to tear at the seams. I suppose we must make the most of it. If we remain cool, calm, and professional . . . this journey may not kill us.

The Leicester scholar addressed the group: "While splitting into groups would be more efficient, I think it best that we stay together for a while. We can't say whether these people will accept our gold—or whether we have enough for what we need. Either way," he said, "this 'adventurer' seems to be our best lifeline, at this point. I, erm . . . hope that he will be of some help . . . and I hope that we can repay our hosts in some way."

Tancred paused, unsure of how to proceed—then realized that time was wasting away. "This fellow may be leaving soon, so let's continue to discuss while walking, yes? Wherever this query brings us, we will definitely need a map—which this man should be able to give us."
 

OmniChaos

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~*~ Journal ~*~

2Xth day of Frostmarch of the year of 321,

It's been near two weeks now since we set out upon this dreadful ship to the cursed lands of Lodovia, at least, I believe it has. I'm not quite sure how long it has been since we set out or which day it is currently; being on this boat amidst this ever-thickening fog has impaired my sense of time and has caused each day to blur into the next, stringing together an endless, veiled nightmare from which I fear I may never wake from. The scholar has kept a fairly maticulous journal since our voyage had begun. Perhaps I shall inquire the date from him before I write my next entry. It would at least serve myself well to grapple myself back to civilization's passing days.

I found myself locked in conversation with the scholar much of late, partially because, amongst these filthy barbarians and sword-toting imbeciles, one needs to form partnerships among those with even the slightest of educated minds, and partially because the scholar was the only other person on this floating wreck that I could even delve into a meaningful conversation with, let alone an interesting one. I picked at his mind, trying to see what he knew of these cursed lands and if they at all lined up with the stories I have heard. Unfortunately, the scholar knew little of Lodovia's current condition that I, myself, had not already known. Less, in fact. Nothing of the demons I have been told to rule the lands nor nothing of the Dark Steel my "friends" had acquired for me. Far from a surprise, really, but I would have hoped for at least the vaguest of lores.

My dinner has grown even lighter the past few days and I found myself increasingly less satisfied with each passing meal, so I have found myself forced to raid the provisions to satisfy my needs. These barbarians can go without food longer than I can and I must preserve my strength for the trek ahead. Let them gnaw on the boat's wood.

---​

30th day of Frostmarch of the year of 321,

I inquired the date from the scholar today and quickly set to my journal to begin this entry, if only to again grasp the passing of the days.

I went out onto the deck this morning, on the off chance the view had changed even the slightest. It had not. So I retreated from the monotonous fog and the stench of the crew back into the safety of my quarters, where I helped myself to more previsions.

---​

31st of Frostmarch of the year of 321,

Finally, it would seem this nightmare has drawn to a close. This morning, when I climbed to the deck of the ship, I was greeted with what appeared to be a lighthouse in the distance, suggesting Lodovian shores were not far away. I figure we would easily see them, if not for this blasted fog.

The scholar, however, feels differently, suggesting the lighthouse had "blinked" and had even disappeared, only to reappear in a different location. Ha! How preposterous! The trip must have finally broke the poor scholar's mind! It is obvious the scholar's "moving lighthouse" is just his imagination.

There seems to be some commotion arising above-deck as I write this. Perhaps some dolt had made their way overboard. Serves them right if the fool couldn't manage to even stay on board like a...


Giant monster... Sixty... Seventy feet... incoherent scribbling
Eyes... Four... Five... Bright, shining, like unholy ethereal flames...
Horns... incoherent scribblings
Great arms... Raising to crush the shi...

---​

2nd day of Hearth of the year of 321,

I survived. My recollection of that night is limited to nightmaric flashes and the worlds I hastily scribbled down, which I sparsely recall doing.

The scholar, it would seem, was most definitely correct in his previous statement of it not being a lighthouse. I now wish I had place more merit into what I had believed to have been the ravings of a man gone mad. Those poor bastards weren't nearly as prepared for what Lodovia held. Had I placed merit in the scholar's ravings, perhaps our party might still had been more than six.

But alas, I didn't and our ship fell to a beast that exceeded even my wildest expectations of what I was told resided within these borders. That thing--that monster--I fear, is only going to be the first of horrors that yet await us in these lands.
 

Orion

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Talwyn eyed the grey space in front of him, unsure if it was the bland monotony of purgatory, or the fog that was everpresent in weeks past. He sought a way to confirm which one it was, but could think of nothing as he brought into vision and beheld the rough fingertips, grazed against the rough, dense sand of the beach. It bore no more colour than the rest of their surrounds, and was even then only a shade more distinct than everything else about them.

Still, it appeared to offer solid ground to stand on, and so Talwyn used it for just that. He was glad for its presence, as he could hardly imagine himself enjoying the sensation of walking through a purgatorial void on invisible ground or, worse still, falling. Gazing sideways, the beach gave way indistinctly into the melancholy fog. A few yards away and to his left was Vasokol, a man from roughly the same patch of the empire as Talwyn, and his elder by a decade. The man was rough of appearance and sharp of mind, all things considered. He was a man that in some ways stood in the middle of - though not necessarily bridging - the gap that existed between the Tancred and Alcrid and the assorted warriors and knights.

Vasokol was righting himself as Talwyn had, taking in the space around him in silence, before Talwyn broke it: "Vasokol, does the fog not remind you of your homeland? Stave away the scent of death, forget you're gods know where, and it's almost familiar! All we need now are some wolves just starting to catch our scent."
 

Professor Ven

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"In Viköra, boy, if you hear the wolves howl, it's already too late for any merriment. They'll all come in at once, and even the best man with a blade will go down, as surely as any lone elk. We never had a fog such as this; and, my homeland is far colder than yours, Talwyn." Elegáns' right hand rested on the handle of his axe, not willing to be caught unawares, since that blighted beast, that light-blinking demon, had wrought destruction to their ship.

Cold eyes leered out into the inviting fog, hand ready to lift the axe from it's sheath and kill anything that dared to morph out from the ghastly background. He still, luckily, had all of his necessary provisions and equipment, despite the mild swim post-crash.

Vasököl spat, in a very ungentlemanly manner, onto the damned ground which he walked over, cursing it in his native tongue. "Scholar Leicester, where in helvetet are we? Lodovia, aye, but what part of it? Have your man bring up his map - I'd prefer not walking into a debacle similar to the loss of our vessel, especially if I'm the next to be disemboweled by one of those demonic bastards. . ." Though actively alert for any surprises, his mind turned it's spinning, plotting gears, as it had many a time in Parliament before, ticking each of the men off of a morbid mental list.

I am alone, with five other men, trapped in this god-forsaken realm.

Ex-Prefect Aldric Lekain is old, and will eventually tire and become short of breath, or so I hope; six years haven't changed his demeanor from the first time I saw him in Parliament, and needless to say I never wept at his removal. I won't weep for his untimely death, either.

Talwyn Felarus is cordial towards me, though he could be a pawn of Lekain's, despite his pseudo-patriotic ties; Scholar Leicester as well, being the milk-drinker he is.

The Zenian, however, can't be trusted - anyone that's likely to freeze to death at first snowfall isn't worth keeping alive.

The Warbred boy-soldier will get only a single chance to attempt in killing me "for the good of all" before my axe whispers sweet, cold words to his bleeding heart; though, he could be possibly useful, should Lekain attempt anything rash. His dog will be worth good meat if we run low on provisions.

Even if I manage to survive what horrors lie ahead, and any unfortunate demises of my fellow emissaries, there is still. . . .



. . . No way out of Lodovia.
 
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King Naruto

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As he sat amongest the others that had survived that hellish attack on the boat, Almeda kept to himself. Those eyes had peered into his veroy soul. He had never seen something so horrible in his life. Surviving ambushes from assassins to hunting highly dangerous animals were nothing compated to what he had saw. One's mind did not just take such things so lightly. His eye's trailed off into the sky, thinking about if he would live to escape Lodovia. Suddenly he was rushed by his dog companion, licking his face enthusiastically. If there was one thing within the horrors that could be seen as the bright side then it was that Lucius, Almeda's dog, was fine.

As the other men made thier points and were finally gathered together, Almeda stood among them. He was not one to lead but, instead provide advice or bring about if needed. Tancred was right that they needed to ut, speak with this adventurer that resided within the village though it was a toss up if the man would wish to help outsiders. Whatever the case may be, the five outsides of Lodovia were in need of something. Anything that would bring their percent of survival higher or atleast prolong their ill-fated lives that much longer.

"I am with Tancred on this matter. Let us move. Dying here is not in my agenda."
 

OmniChaos

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Soon, the great wolf Skölti would emerge from where he made his din, far to the frozen north, past the borders of Toulonia, Lodovia, and the kingdom of men, where the ground was always suffocated beneath a blanket of white and the sky was as ash; that old wolf would emerge with a hungry howl and gobble up the sun as it rose across the horizon, and with his victory, that old wolf would fly across the sky and blot it out with his gray fur. And beneath his fur, the lands would grow cold and the greens would collapse and die, leaving all barren. He would fly for near three months before the heat of the sun would grow too great for him and Skölti would be forced to throw it back up, where he would then retreat back to his din to recover and prepare to take the sun again. Such was the legend of Skölti and Sol; such was the legend of the coming of winter.

But Lekain did not need legends of old nor did he need a date to know winter was at their heels; no, the ache in his old bones were more than sufficient in telling the man that these lands would soon grow cold and dangerous. And when it did, and the air grew sharp and painful as Skölti's bite, Lekain knew that his life would be in danger. In his old age, he was far more susceptible to the harsh elements, and none of these barbarians--well, perhaps apart from the scholar, who Lekain imagined would remain the most civilized in times of danger--would lend their hands to Lekain should he grow weak of breath. He was the weakest--physically speaking--of the group, and his notorious reputation exceeded him, putting him as a sour taste in surely at least one of their mouths, if not all. That's when he began to contemplate...

What if these barbarians simply decide not to wait for winter to take my life? Perhaps one plans to sneak upon me in the middle of nightfall and take their sword to my throat?

The thought grew a grimace to the man's face. He clutched the diamond top of his cane, massaging it carefully with each of his boney fingers. His right hand slipped slowly down his cane, clutching the shaft just under the diamond. He pushed up on the diamond slightly with his thumb, revealing a hidden blade that glistened slightly as it rose out of the black cane. His right hand opened, each finger slowly uncurling, and tightened its previous constriction. Lekain paused, then pushed the blade back down into its hidden sheath.

But not now... These lands are too hostile for one of my age to traverse alone. The six of us will have enough problem, I, by myself, would be committing myself to death. So, not now. But should they raise their blades to me, then I shall. But not now...

"While we stand here, idling, the adventurer draws further and further away, while winter draws closer and closer to our heels. So, instead of standing here and exercising our jaws, I suggest we make haste, less we wish to fall to Skölti's cold snaps."
 

Ordeith

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Tancred blinked. The response was forceful, but he agreed with the sentiment.

"Indeed," he replied, "there is no time to lose." He felt a certain hostility from the group; knowing that it was not against him personally did not lessen the tension he felt.

Nevertheless, he continued: "We should try not to alarm this man, or the villagers. There is no hiding that we are foreign, but these people have not seen outlanders in years, if at all. I can only imagine how shocking it would be . . . and I'd rather not be run out of town." He had little idea of what else to say, so they set upon the dirt road without any further ceremony.

The walk was uneventful; for long intervals, the cawing of birds was the only audible sound. Everyone was still somewhat affected by the events of the other night, so conversation remained as it had been. Sparse, shallow. Most were simply reaching for something on which they could hold—some camaraderie, in the midst of crisis. Scholar Leicester would occasionally look back on Senator Lekain, should the older man be having some difficulty walking.

They passed into the gray little hamlet with as much calmness as they could muster.

On either side, the thatched stone houses seemed indifferent to their presence. One haggard-looking man, a sack of vegetables slung over his shoulder, took a moment's pause as they passed. He seemed to have only an innocent curiosity. Tancred gave him a cordial nod, silently thanking their hosts. No doubt they've made the neighbors aware of our presence here, so they will not be alarmed. Some children stopped to comment, then ran away—imitating combat noises as they went. Ah, the charms of a simple lifestyle . . . Very quaint.
_____________________________________________​

Following the farmers' directions, Tancred searched for a rest-house on the far edge of town.
A "Maiden in Gray" caught his eye—but not before something else stole his glance away:

A man, clad in worn leather armor and a traveler's cloak, exited the house on the other side of the dirt road. His cowl had been left unlaced, laying atop his shoulders and leaving his face exposed: With a firm jawline, thick brown hair, and a recently-trimmed goatee, he looked to be a little older than thirty years. The adventurer—for it could be no other—approached them with a cordial, confident air. Several daggers and a straightsword could be seen on his belt, sheathed.

The Leicester Scholar took initiative, and extended his hand in greetings. "Good morning," he hailed. "I am Tancred Leicester, a traveler, and these are my companions. All are men of skill and import, hailing from the lands to the east. We have been shipwrecked, if word has not yet reached the town . . . " He paused in a moment of discomfort; the adventurer's grip was firmer that he had anticipated.

"If you would be willing to share your knowledge of the land—possibly a map—we would be indebted to you. If a, erm . . . monetary reward is required," he said, "we have goods of some considerable value, and we welcome you to anything that can be salvaged from the wreck . . . "

Realizing that he had not yet allowed the man a chance to speak, Tancred quickly ended his thought—but was met by only a toothy grin, in return.

"Well-met, Leicester—and friends," the traveler said, with a nod to the group. "Hah! I'd heard of some new faces about, but I assumed they were talking about me. I am Geri, of the Wetlands. The demons have made my home . . . a little unpleasant, so I've been trying to find a nice spot, further north . . . A little too simple, this place . . . " This seemed to distract Geri for a moment or two.

" . . . Ah, but you're not from Lodovia? Really!" He snapped back to the subject at hand. Tancred nodded in the affirmative. "Well," Geri said, "this is a strange happening, indeed. Fantastic! In the awe-inspiring sense, that is. The Fog, letting travelers inside . . .

"This means something—but, whatever it means, you need to leave." He suddenly grew very serious. "If you're really from other lands, you need to return—and let the world know about this place. Let them know that Lodovia is dying from the inside . . . " He gestured to the rest-house without another word. Tancred quickly gathered the group's verdict, and followed Geri inside.
______________________________________________​

"At this point, the region becomes more wooded—and more dangerous," Geri explained, tracing a crescent shape on the map. "Throughout, you'll be facing Treants—tree demons, nasty things—but worse nasties are further inside. So, if you want to reach the land-bridge in the north . . . you should skirt around the Forest Darkroot, between its border and the fortress here."

He copied a mark onto the new map, which had been made from a scrap of reused parchment.
"All should fare well, should you not meet any lunatics on the road . . . or any demons." Geri paused, and pursed his lips. Tancred leaned inward, attentively.

"Perhaps it'd be best if I guided you personally," the adventurer said. "I don't doubt your skills, but you're foreigners; you don't know the land, or the powers in it. I'm not planning on settling down here, anyway . . . "

He once again seemed to lose himself in thought, but his pause was shorter, this time. He spoke before Tancred could express any thanks. "Foreigners . . . . Imagine that! Strange happenings, I say . . . So let's go ahead with it! You fine fellows just might end up helping us all!"
_______________________________________________​

2 Hearth, 321

Every moment, I bless our good fortune—when, but a few hours ago, I cursed the tragic happenings that befell us. Indeed, Fate has proved herself most fickle. In testimony to the odd turnings of chance, I record the events of the past morning:

The adventurer proved to be a stroke of sublime luck; this fellow Geri is both well-mannered and well-traveled. He has offered to escort our party between the woodlands of Darkroot (a hellish place, by all accounts), and the occupied fortress to its north. Geri of the Lodovian Wetlands is a pleasant guide, full of more wit than I'd hoped in a rough-hewn traveler. My last wish is to offend him, for I had not expected much from the Lodovian wanderers . . .

After gathering and purchasing some necessary supplies, we set out this very afternoon, for all of us have received plenty of rest in the past two days. I have only paused, briefly, to record the fortunate events which have all unfolded in a matter of mere hours.

Having experienced the titanic horrors of this land, I dare not to hope—but neither do I despair, as I have since our vessel was attacked. The others in the group seem to be possessed of similar spirits, though I am unable to read many of their expressions. As before, we cannot yet be called a proper traveling party, I think; but perhaps this man, Geri, shall prove to be the common link around which we may turn. I hope that my fellow traveling-mates initiate this bonding, however—for it would be unprofessional and unbecoming for me to behave with any familiarity towards our guide, whom we have only just met.

Should nothing warrant a nighttime entry, let it be presumed that camp has been pitched, and that safety is apparent.
 

OmniChaos

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The last of the light faded from the sky as they finished setting up camp. It was small, rudimentary, but it served their needs perfectly--apart from Lekain, perhaps, who found sleeping on the ground with nothing but bugs and leaves to keep him warm as barbaric and uncivilized as it got. He would kill--literally squeeze the last fleeting breath of air from their lips--if it meant he could again sleep in his soft, comfortable bed.

Lekain rose from where he had made his camp--which consisted of a fur hide that he managed to salvage from their wreck, that he had folded into a pillow; his parliament robes, which he used as make-shift sheet; and his gun, loaded and prepped, in the case one of his traveling companions decided to take their knife to his throat--and collected his valuables, replacing the parliament robe over his frail, aging body and wrapping the fur hide around after it. His gun, which only need be lit for ready firing, he tucked into his sash. He pulled the fur hide closer to his body; it wasn't quite winter yet, but Lekain already felt its harbingers blowing from the north.

The Duke of Gaddall made his way toward the others, moving carefully with his trusty cane along the dark, barren ground to the bright fire of their camp. Around the fire, Lekain saw the barbarians sitting and talking--Lekain imagined it was about their last kill, how much they could lift, or, perhaps, which of them could beat their chest the hardest and mimic the best ape sound (Lekain chuckled as the last image crossed his mind)--and he continued pass them, holding no interest in their trivial measurements of their so-called manhood or whatever they were on about. No, what Lekain had his cold, hazel eyes locked on was the scholar, who was sitting off on the side by himself. He had stilled his tongue for their journey, fearing doing otherwise would prove dangerous, but now that the scholar was alone, Lekain felt confident in approaching him--and he had a bone to pick.

"Scholar!" Lekain exclaimed, but kept his tone low enough for only the scholar to hear. He dug through the files of his brain, frantically searching for his name. "Leicester! I must protest! How dare you make decisions without my say in it? Have you already forgotten two days ago? Have you already forgotten the monster that made short work of our ship? We are in a land of madmen and demons!" Lekain raised a single, boney finger and directed it toward the adventurer who had recently joined their party. "Do you feel it wise to trust him? This Lodovian that we just met? This adventurer lined with knives and a sword? Do you feel it wise to trust a wild dog such as him?

"We follow him blindly like cattle to the slaughter! He claims he is leading us along the safest path, but no--I see through this poorly-veiled scheme. He plans to lead us straight into a trap! Yes! Why, I imagine his thugs are waiting for us now, fining their blades for when they might use them. Oh, but I know! I know!"

Lekain paused for a moment, drawing in the cold air with deep, heavy breaths. Beads of sweat lined his forehead, one of which grew too heavy and traveled down the side of his face, leaving a wet path behind it. The wind let out a sudden howl and, for but a second, Lekain thought it was the hungry cry of Skölti.

The Duke of Gaddall let his fingers drop to the shaft of his cane, pushing up on the diamond to reveal the hidden blade (which was still hidden in the blackness of night). He tightened his grip on his cane like a snake does its next dinner. However, after but a moment, Lekain slid the blade back into its hiding place.

"Scholar," Lekain continued, calming his composure. "We find ourselves in a foriegn land of monsters beyond our wildest imagines, a land of thieves and killers and madmen. I think it is unwise we place our trust in one who might be of them, one who may lead us to ruin. I suggest we rid ourselves of this adventurer, however seen fit, and do so with great haste! We can take the map and make our own way!"
 

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Even with the bonfire several feet away, Tancred could still feel its heat faintly radiating outwards. He was, admittedly, unused to trekking for so long. His shoes, even with their enchantment, were unsuited for long travel—and his feet were suffering as a result.

Sighing, he dug through his satchel for the leather-bound journal recording their journey. A nighttime entry, to end the day . . . Sir Geri has made some interesting remarks this evening, which ought to be recorded. Tancred felt around for his inkwell, but was stopped. A low word from the senator, a fierce look in his eyes, gave the scholar room for pause.

. . . . . .

"I admit that we may have been . . . quick to accept help," replied Tancred, "but I am confident that our safety has not been jeopardized. Even if our guide is a bandit in disguise—even if some of the others join him—the Toulonian knights will keep their oaths. The land may be lawless . . . but, at this point, we can do nothing but trust. Intelligently. And make ourselves useful, in the while. I hate to use such harsh terms, but . . .

"Well, we all need one another . . . and they cannot dispose of us, so long as that is true." The Leicester scholar shifted uncomfortably. "Besides," he said, with an audible shift in tone, "our guide has piqued my curiosity—as, erm, selfish as it sounds. Geri has mentioned spellcraft to me. To my understanding, this land is . . . saturated, with a primal power. A native sorcery, different from our own enchantments!"

His gaze inadvertently shifted from Senator Lekain's, peering into the night sky with an academic's zeal. "Should this be true, in some form or another, we could revolutionize the Empire—once we return, that is! Perhaps some colonies could be established here in Lodovia, returning civilization to this place."

He chuckled humorlessly. "I may be giving myself over to fancy . . . but this sorcery is worth inquiring about. I'm willing to believe it, after what we have seen . . . and if you are adamant, Senator, this will give us a means of fending for ourselves."

Silently, Tancred pitied the older man. The poor fellow is entirely out of his element—though I fare no better. But the Duke is an old man, whose life has been placed in the hands of . . . unfamiliar men. Men of a roughspun cloth. He reflected on this with a heavy heart. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt; I'm sure that any testiness is due to our present condition. And I am sure that any . . . pieces of hearsay are false.
____________________________________​

"To cast sorcery, you first need a wand—well, the proper term is 'conduit'. It doesn't need to be a wand, or even wand-shaped, really . . . but it helps, generally. In my experience, at least." Geri produced a rounded wooden rod, about the length of his arm.

Tancred listened with an all-engrossing interest.
His mind reverted to that spongelike state of his youth; learning was all that existed, for that moment.

"Soul sorceries are the easiest to cast," Geri explained, "because they draw from—well, your soul. From within you. Safe as can be, too. Just muster your willpower, and focus. Draw it into a pinpoint, and let it loose!" At this, Geri made a surprisingly theatrical show of drawing his conduit; he twirled it between his fingers like a baton, then loosed a current of light!

The projectile tore through the air with the speed of an arrow, leaving a trail of shimmering stardust behind it. Tancred—and most everyone else, had he noticed them—started in amazement. Geri smiled with pride. "That's all there is to it, really! You just need to . . . experience it yourself. It can't be explained through words.

"Scholar Leicester," he chuckled, "you brought the topic up. Why not be the first to try, eh?" He suddenly drew one of the daggers on his belt, more quickly than Tancred thought he would be able to. Oh . . . oh, no. He tensed, recalling Lekain's words from the other night.

Geri stopped, and tilted his head in confusion. "Are you . . . ? Oh! Sorry! Probably frightened you to bits, there!" He struck his forehead in a pantomime of stupidity.

Tancred relaxed, to a certain degree.

"Come on," Geri said. "Just slip your glove off, and give me a tiny prick . . . Hm."
Again he paused. "That didn't sound quite like I'd meant it. But you understand!"

The scholar complied, his curiosity outweighing normal sensibilities. Removing his left glove, he offered his hand to Geri—who made a miniscule cut on Tancred's palm. "Now," Geri said, "we'll need some Lodovian wood. Wood is the safest material to use, by the way . . . Probably should've done this before drawing blood . . . " He trailed off, in search of the aforementioned wood.

An arrow, the tip and the fletching removed, was plucked from his bag.
Geri laid the shaft on top of the red bead in Tancred's palm.

The scholar could feel something being drawn out of him, and into the stripped arrow. The wood pulsed with a new life, in unison with his heartbeat. It is real . . . Sorcery is real! That moment was all the empirical evidence he needed.

He channeled his willpower into the wand, as though it were another finger—an extension of his body. His face was illuminated by whitish-blue light—which shot off like a miniature comet! A Soul Arrow! It was a power both of self and of antiquity, like nothing that Tancred had ever experienced.

Geri smiled proudly, and offered to teach the others in turn.
 

OmniChaos

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Lekain slipped aside from the group, staying within close range of his traveling party, but far enough to attend to his own curiosity without interruption. The idea of casting sorcery piqued his interest greatly and the urge to master this power, as quickly as he could, overwhelmed him.

He still didn't trust the adventurer, the one who called himself Geri (Lekain thought the name untrustworthy), but having saw the scholar successfully unleash his "light arrow" spell--and seeing no apparent side-effect overtake the scholar (a twinge of doubt still tugged at the back of his mind)--calmed Lekain's uneasiness and left the man confident enough to try for himself. The duke pulled against the diamond of his cane and revealed the slim blade hidden within it. He carefully slid his right thumb across the edge of the blade, making sure to only cut deep enough to draw blood and not the smallest increment further. Lekain drew breath in quickly through clenched teeth, a sharp pain shooting through his thumb as the blade cut cleanly.

Lekain pulled his thumb back from the blade and inspected his work, watching blood slowly well up from the cut, much like lava pouring forth from a fissure. The duke looked around for a piece of wood, one like the scholar had used, and, in his search, placed his bloodied thumb against his cane. In but a moment, Lekain felt a mystical, foreign--pure--energy rush from his thumb and spread across his hand, up his arm, and to his heart, where it washed over his body totally. As the feeling peaked, it then receded, like a tsunami being sucked back into sea, and the energy drained back into the old man's cane, taking something--a feeling or a rhythm (or perhaps a scrap of his soul)--with it. The duke's thumb began to sting and he found his breath suddenly labored.

Cunning snake! Lekain's mind growled. The others are young enough to handle the spells effortlessly at first, but he knew that I, in my aged state, would fall victim to his treatery sooner than the others; I, who quickly unravelled his poorly-veiled scheme. But I will not be had! I'll make sure to--

Lekain let out a muffled cry (his mental rant cut off mid-sentence), as the slight sting to his thumb escalated to a full burn, which seemed to have enveloped his entire hand. His cane pulsed with an unholy glow, matching the duke's racing heart. The heat that burned his hand continued to grow in intensity, and Lekain felt his hand set a-flame.

This time, Lekain let out a outright cry of pain as the pain grew and grew, and the old duke feared he would burn to death by the nonexistence flame that held his hand taut.

Focus! a voice cried out--Lekain was unsure wheither if it was one of his companions or if it was his own. Focus! Pinpoint! REALEASE!

Lekain pushed through the building pain and focused the best he could manage, sweat running from his wrinkled brow, and gathered the burning energy that had flooded his hand into a single point. Lekain let loose another painful cry as he unleashed the energy that had tormented him. A great, black ball of flame launched from the duke's cane, a great sphere of burning death. The flame shout out straight along Lekain's path and hit a lone tree in the distance, incinerating the tree and leaving it in a pile of smoldering ashes.

Lekain stood wheezing, eyes drawn wide and mouth hung loosely open. Such power! But at such an overwhelming cost! Lekain uncurled his fingers from around the cane and let it fall to the ground. He turned his palm toward his face and saw it had been slightly burnt--nothing a few herbs couldn't take care of--and slowly dropped it back to his side, still shaken by the massive spell that he had unleashed.

Incredible. Simply incredible.
 

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Talwyn watched in fascination as Geri moved from person to person, showing them the wonders of spells and magicks. Talwyn for his own part wasn't wholly content with a wand-shaped conduit, he being a hunter, and instead wondered if the minor blood-letting could be used on weapons and tools, and so engaged him: "Geri, magical friend of ours, an arrow or stick might function as well as anything for a conduit, but can the same be said of weapons, such as a bow or a blade? To enchant them, as it were, with ever-enduring sharp edges or grant additional accuracy and speed to arrows loosed?"

As he waited for Geri to come around to him, other thoughts struck his mind, and voiced them. "I come from the Pajzs Aköd region, which is the closest realm of the Toulonian Empire to this, connected by a narrow peninsula even and bordered by a series of mountains. Even from that closeness, nothing of Lodovia penetrates the fog that sits beyond the peaks my homeland nor seeps between them. The sheer isolation of Lodovia - even from its nearest neighbour in the Empire - leads me to ask: What has transpired in the last thirty years, since formal communications were cut off and made worse by the descending fog?"
 

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Tancred inhaled with a shudder, his awe now tinged with fear. Away in the distance, the hollow tree blazed with something like light—yet very unlike it. His eyes fell on the frail Duke of Gaddall, who no longer seemed to acknowledge their presence.

Fallen at his side, the old man's cane released a trickle of white smoke.
It was crafted from Lodovian metals, he had told me . . . Tancred felt a mixing of feelings at this.

On one hand, it was pleasing to know that Senator Lekain would not be defenseless, that he could contribute his sorcery to the group's skills. Should an unlikely mutiny occur as he'd predicted, the Duke would have arcane defenses to call upon. On the other hand . . . Tancred felt the need to keep a healthy distance from Lekain, though he could not admit his reason for feeling so.

He turned to Geri, who had also stopped to look at the Duke. Eyes fixed on the cane, all humor had vanished from his face. Tancred waited for him to break the silence, but Geri said nothing.

Shedding his obscure fears, Tancred finally approached Senator Lekain—seeing as no one else would.

"Senator, that was extraordinary!" he hailed. Gradually his apprehension felt silly; here was an ally, and a man of the Empire. "I hadn't imagined such a thing as possible, but I suppose your cane is able to channel more power than a mere stick of wood. Oh, it's exciting! Forgive my giddiness, but I simply cannot help myself; this discovery shall forever change the Empire!"

As he spoke, Scholar Leicester retrieved the ex-senator's fallen cane, returning it to its owner. The black metal was completely cool at this point, its surface without mark. Tancred looked back to Geri, who had returned to instructing the others in sorcery. The Lodovian seemed to have left Lekain to his own devices, and was currently engrossed in conversation with one of the warriors—Sir Felarus, if Tancred's memory was sound.

" . . . transpired in the last thirty years, since formal communications were cut off and made worse by the descending fog?" This came from the hunter-knight. The scholar was admittedly curious. Politely excusing himself from Lekain's side, Tancred returned to the bonfire area, hoping to at least gather some notes from Geri's account.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

" . . . seen it done a few times, but it's beyond my area of expertise. I know how to coat a weapon with soul magic—but you'll still need a wand to do it. If any professional sorcerers still live, they could lend you a hand with fancier conduits." Geri scratched his goatee wistfully. "I'm sure somebody has the proper texts for it . . . "

Tancred gave a nod of greetings to both men, then stood in silence with his journal, jotting down notes. Geri smirked a bit, but continued speaking to Talwyn. His smile had returned, but it was a grim smile indeed.

"As for what happened—well, some people still debate about it. Folk in these rural areas think it's shamans, or Old King Red-Horn. But most of us agree that it's the Companions. You've heard of them, yes?" He addressed this to Tancred as well, who nodded in assent. "Aye . . . This is the work of Lodovia's heroes, believe it or not.

"When they slew King Sigmund, the Companions destroyed his fortress and his armies—but they failed to destroy one thing: his Power. I'm no superstitious farmer, but I can tell you that the Lodovian Power is real." He made a significant gesture with his conduit here. Tancred scrawled more notes in charcoal.

"Call it what you like—Sigmund's Flame, the Beast-Soul, the Najvyss—but it affects everything here. The demons are born from it. Men are driven mad by it. When you use magic, you channel it—and the more passes through you, the greater chance you have of losing your mind."

Geri shook his head, hand over his chin. "That's what happened to them. Some three decades ago, Companions shut off the country from the rest of the world, and just started killing by the hundreds—calling up demons like the one that attacked you. In fact, a giant like that was probably one of the first, after getting fattened on a diet of souls . . . .

"My home was far away from the capital, but . . . well, as I told you, it eventually became unfit to live. The Najvyss is part of the land, and it's only a matter of time before the land itself becomes ugly. The village where we met . . . It should be able to survive for a while, but their crops will start to fail in five years, maybe."

Geri paused, and motioned for the others to gather around him. His eyes scrolled from one person to the next, with an almost conspiratorial air. "That's why you need to escape, and return to your empire. The world needs to know," he said. "Lodovia hardly exists anymore—and it won't last very much longer. The Companions are very much alive, and they won't rest until everyone else is dead.

"If I can lead you around Astrid Game-Hunter's land in the forest, we should—"
The adventurer suddenly clipped off his sentence, taking a step outside the group.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In the distance, the tree continued to crackle and burn; for a moment, only that sound could be heard. Then a shuffling noise, following a sound like the low rolling of thunder. The latter sound continued, while the former started and stopped irregularly. Without another word, Geri laced up his cowl, and retrieved the bow from his pack. Tancred watched in tight-chested suspense.

Nearly a minute was spent aligning his shot in the dark . . . Then it flew!
It was met with a painful cry—the tone of a man, with the savagery of an animal.

Geri motioned for the group to gather their weapons, and Tancred could only nod in affirmation, snatching up his wand and his crossbow. Geri's Lodovian-accented voice was a low whisper to them all: "Bandits, no doubt. Half-mad from the Najvyss, I'd wager. Their strength is probably greater than a normal man's . . . so be careful!"
 

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Even as he was to make a comment of Lekain's apparent spurt of flame, and a lewd remark to accompany the elder politician's launch into the dirt and muck, Geri's startled warning disposed of any desire for such frivolousness.

The brush echoed with the sounds of footsteps, the carnal pedaling of boots upon the earth, their thunderous thumping smashing through root and twig and tree. Elegáns Vasököl could hear the madmen chanting their wretched song in unison, as their blades became bared in the clearing. Vasököl's voice added a deep roar to their arrival, as his left hand unsheathed the long sword from the sheath strapped to his back, right gripping the well-honed axe. All thought, all emotion, all pain, was gone within an instant.


Steel met steel as he stared into the eyes of half-formed, half-maddened monstrous human beings, their great, mottled skin oozing with strained blood vessels. The axe leered, slicing the monster's wrist, severing the hand which held the blade from its body. The beast cried, as it struck with both bleeding stump and enraged fist, the blade finding its way within moments to jab into the demon's throat, causing a sickening green liquid to drown the monster's cries, its fall creating a miniature shifting of the earth around Elegáns. Vasököl turned to meet another of these "bandits," his blade still dripping of the verdant blood, the drops searing the turned up dirt and mud as they dripped.​
 
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OmniChaos

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The monsterous bandits, which Lekain shuddered to look at, closed in around the group, quickly and effortlessly encircling the group. They had to be outnumbered at least three to one, Lekain guessed (though he dare not stop to count). The duke rose his cane in a defensive stance (not entirely sure what good it would do compared to these things' brute strength) and spurred a laugh from the bandit closing in on him.

Lekain spotted the scholar from the corner of his eye and spared him a glance that spoke volumes. I warned you! Pray the gods, I warned you, scholar! I told you he was not to be trusted! I told you he would lead us to doom! But your naive heart has led us to this fate! Well, I won't go quietly! I'll drag all these beasts to the deepest pits of the afterlife with me!

Lekain drew his gun from his sash, still prepared and ready for use from the night before. He pulled a match from its pouch and, with no time to scratch it against a stone, pulled the match across the side of his gun. The match ignited with a brilliant flash and Lekain hurried to light the match cord. With the gun completely prepared, Lekain steadied his aim, the one known as Geri in his sight. He was the piper that lead them to their graves, so he would be the first Lekain snuffed from the world.

"Filthy bastard," Lekain cursed in a low voice, his eyes filled with a foreign, firery hatred. "You will be first, for daring to cross Aldric Lekain, Duke of Gaddall."

Lekain pulled the trigger.

As his finger tightened around the trigger, one of the bandits smashed into Lekain's body. The force of the impact knocked the duke off his feet and sent the dead-centered shot instead flying off to the right, hitting a bandit that was sneaking up behind the adventurer square between the eyes. Lekain hit the ground (one or more of his ribs cracked, from the feel of it) the same time as the dead bandit, and his assailant (the ugly thing that had laughed at the duke) threw himself on top of the senator, trapping him between his legs. The grotesque monstrosity lurched forward, his--or rather its--hands reaching for him. The duke threw the cane up to block his hands, which the bandit pushed against. It lowered its head, not human, by any means, but some twisted visage of an ungodly nightmare, and a long line of saliva fell from its lower lip and covered the right side of the duke's face, sliding down the side of his face and tickling (Lekain nearly lost his meal to the feeling) his ear.

"You damned beast!" Lekain shouted, his anger burning into a great inferno. He had forgotten all about the adventurer that had drawn his previous rage. "I won't be your next meal!"

The creature raised his hand to push against the cane, letting out a sound that sounded between a snarl and laugh. As it brought it back down, Lekain pulled open the cane, revealing the slim sword. The creature connected with the blade and lost the top half of its hand in the process. The creature reared back and let out a piercing screech, a sickly green liquid pouring from what remained of its hand. The duke drew the slim sword completely from its hiding place, and, as the creature lurched forward for its revenge, drove the slim sword upward. With the combined momentum of the stab and the creature's lurch, the blade dug through the bandit's jaw, accompanied with a sick gurgle, and ran clean through the monster's brain. It fell dead atop the ex-senator.

"Gah!" Lekain screeched, his breath pushed out of his body by the heap of dead meat laying on his chest. "H...Help...me! This...this thing! Get it off!"
 

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For the hunter-knight, the world slowed as Vasokol engaged one of the creatures, the first to strike a physical blow. Talwyn guessed he would have felt adrenaline pumping as soon as Geri loosed his flaming bolt, but the phenomenon was so new to him - so arcane - that his bodily instincts knew not what to make of it. When steel was drawn and flesh rent by Vasokol, however, Talwyn practically felt a kick in his chest when his heart immediately began pumping faster, as though it was eager to exert itself after the lazy days on the ship.

Talwyn's conscious side was only too happy to oblige, really. With twin movements he was pulling his wolf's-head hood up while dislodging his bow from his chest when he heard the duke Lekain call out behind him, a beast dead but atop him. With some of the unusual powers of a direwolf bestowed upon him from donning the hood, Talwyn could see a virtually straight line was formed between himself, Lekain and his dead assailant, and an abomination approaching out of the darkness the surrounded their clearing.

The next action was all too simple, really. Turning to face the duke and leaning as he did so, Talwyn removed the bow from his person and let it drop the ground, simultaneously bringing his other hand to the ground until he was on all fours. Had he been unclothed, others would have observed the rippling of lean muscles beneath his skin stretching and tightening like a single perfectly-formed string. With an action that felt almost second nature, Talwyn let that tension go in a single moment and leaped forward.

As he arched across the interceding space of some two metres, he brought his left hand to that same shoulder, and his right hand to the forearm of the other limb. In doing so, he presented his right shoulder to the duke's dead foe as he collided with him, rolling the deadweight off Lekain even as Talwyn was beginning to roll over the foe as well. The action continued fluidly, Talwyn drawing his twin knives as his back hit the ground.

A second leap, all too easily made from his compressed state as he somersaulted along the ground, was of course commenced. Shooting forward now with a blade in each hand, he came at his bewildered enemy only just as he registered that the bizarre tackle to his down friend had been turned into the current attack against him. Talwyn used his weight and speed to drive the blades deep, the inner edge of the kukri horizontal across the creature's neck, both crushing and slicing into his throat and all the precious veins around it. At the same time, he thrust his knife into the target's heart until the hilt was flat to its filthy chest, before wrenching the blade's tip upwards, to catch whatever important blood vessels he could in the guthook before wrenching them out.

The result, as the two of them crashed to the ground, was pleasing. Talwyn was able to keep any of the fowl green blood off his person, for it only began flowing readily when they were on the ground, at which time the outgoing vital fluid had to battle gravity and a failing heart to exit its host. When Talwyn observed the flow of blood much slowed, he turned the body over onto its front and - to be as certain as possible of his downed foe's death and immobility - crunched his boot down at the thing's neck. A satisfying and appropriate noise followed, after which Talwyn left the body and, blades in hand, proceeded several metres deeper into the wood, where the fire in the clearing lost its brightness and Talwyn's acquired night vision took great effect.

It was amazing how easily one's enemies could be dispatched when you could be where they least expected.
 

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Two-dozen forms shambled and lurched in the darkness, swinging their weapons madly. For all his hours of training, Tancred found it impossible to move—unless it was to maneuver out of the way. He gripped his arbalest with the clutch of a dead man, though his visibility was next to nil. He only dared fire the crossbow when one of the malformed bandits slouched directly at him, when there was no mistaking its bloated, pale flesh.

The gentle scholar certainly didn't feel like a successful fighter; if anything, he was an obstacle for the others. Between the bandits' ragged shapes, the seasoned warriors moved with deadly precision, while Tancred trembled fearfully near the back of the camp.

Geri's coat swept about him, as dagger and sword parried the bandits' dented axes.
Sir Talwyn switched from bow to daggers with graceful ease, felling the man-beasts near and far.
The foreign Senator Vasokol was a figure of channeled rage, his longsword moving as an extension of his body.

Tancred could even see one of the madmen shot down by Senator Lekain, though the older gentleman was quickly toppled to the ground, stuck beneath a bandit's corpse. He reflexively moved to help his fellow scholar, but couldn't move swiftly enough—and Sir Talwyn ended up freeing the duke. Damn! I'm just so . . . cursedly useless! The logical portion of his mind knew that this was nonsense; his skills merely lied elsewhere. But his chest and throat felt constricted, nonetheless.

"Senator Lekain!" he shouted. "Are you well? Let me help you!"

Readying his wand, Scholar Tancred spurted across the campground-turned-battlefield, his body clenched up. He came upon the fallen duke, whose mutilated foe lay at his side. "Come now," Tancred murmured, "you'll be trampled if you stay here." He winced as he helped the injured old man to his feet. Even Senator Lekain, in his old age, is willing to risk his life . . .

Suddenly Geri was at his side, carefully eying the senator as he kicked another corpse off of his blade. The adventurer was harder-looking, an intense glint in his eyes—probably how he acted most of the time, in the Lodovian wilds.

"Your friend Sir Talwyn has the right idea," Geri said. "Most of these lunatics are dead, but we need to take cover in the woods—now! Look! The bandits didn't come here on their own accord." He extended a leather-gloved hand to the distance. "Come on now, scholars! Move!"

Tancred followed Geri's finger to the plains ahead:

A hulking humanoid figure, its head wreathed with horns, was stomping towards the camp at a frightening speed. Thoom-thoom-thoom-thoom. He hadn't realized it until then, but the thundering noise hadn't been from the mad bandits's drums; it was this creature's footfalls. Snatching up his books and satchels, Scholar Leicester rushed after Geri, who was moving from skirmish to skirmish—freeing their combatants, so that they could flee.

"Run!" Geri shouted over the din. "This isn't something to fight—believe me! Come on, my foreign friends! If you're going to breach the fog, we'll need to cut a path through Darkroot!"
_________________________________________________________​

Over sudden drops and cutting brush, Tancred Leicester ran harder than he'd ever run before. He could hear the thunder of the creature fading into the distance, replaced by the agitated sounds of the wood. A web of unnatural forest noises surrounded him, but with no apparent source—no animals or birds. Yet every part of Darkroot seemed to react to his presence, encapsulating the scholar in a cage of leaves. Fleeing from demons into a demon wood . . . We may be finished sooner than anticipated! Ahead, Geri maneuvered through the dark growth with natural ease, urging them all on.

Tancred could barely see him; the Lodovian man’s coat whipped behind him like a shadow, melding with the flat leaves and branches. Shapes rose from the forest blackness, grasping towards him—but Geri was faster still. Though Tancred could not hear his exact words, the adventurer continued to shout encouragement to the Toulonian emissaries, and his voice served as a beacon to follow.

Eventually the branches yielded, and Tancred stumbled into a large clearing, grasping for breath. Geri continued to search about, though it was clear that he no longer had a definite path in mind. "Well," he muttered in his Lodovian wetlander accent, "it seems we're lost, friends . . . "

Scholar Leicester breathed a trembling sigh, then steadied himself.

This is work. The simple, crucial work of survival . . . He entered the cool, distanced realm of problem-solving. When the knights arrive, a plan can be formulated—a collaboration of our knowledge and talents. In the meantime, I can trace a rough path across our map.

Immediately he retrieved the map from his pack—and in the brightening moonlight, began to project a route onto the parchment. Their situation was already becoming clear . . . "Friend Geri," Tancred called, "would you call this accurate? Take a look, please—"

He stopped. Geri was no longer there. A ragged hole, spotted with blood, had been torn through the brush, leaving the scholar alone with his soon-arriving companions.

He fought down the rising panic. Sir Talwyn must be able to track him down . . . provided he is still alive. So Tancred waited until the knights arrived in the clearing, painfully counting the seconds away.
 

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The Duke of Gaddall stumbled through the brush into the open clearing. His cane became snagged and the senator's balance gave way under him, bringing him forward onto his hands and knees. His eyes were wide and terrified and his breath labored through his gaping mouth, occasionally cracking into a whistling wheeze. Sweat poured from his his forehead and traced the ridges and grooves of his old face. Lekain looked as if he were suffering from a heart attack.

The duke, catching enough of his breath to lift his head upward, turned his exhausted gaze toward the only other person he saw: the scholar. Pulling his cane free from the brush which had snagged it, Lekain used it to steady himself up to his shaky feet. He managed a step forward and stumbled another two steps after. He made his way to the scholar, stumbling all the way, and grabbed ahold of the scholar's collar as a means of both threatening the scholar and keeping him upright.

"Where's the adventurer?" he asked through labored breaths. Lekain gave no time for the scholar to answer. "Gone, correct?" He gave a tired smile, one that still said I told you so. "He leads us into an ambush then leads us into this god-forsaken wood, only to leave us for dead. Pray the gods, I warned you scholar."

The Duke of Gaddall doubled back and collapsed onto his rear end, his legs giving out under him. He raised his head and stared into the sky, his breath starting to calm slightly. A bead of sweat ran into his eye and Lekain fished a cloth from his pocket to wipe it from his clinched eyelid.

"We're going to die in this god-forsaken land, aren't we?" the senator asked, his tone touched with a slight melancholy. Across the span of his long lifetime, with all of his shrewdness, his goals and plans, all of his contacts and connections, and all his manipulation and blackmailing, the senator had never felt in less control of a situation then he did now. "You, myself, all the barb--I mean, knights. We're all going to become nothing more than food for this evil soil...

"What did you say?" The senator stared at the scholar with puzzled look that bordered on anger. Lekain rose with a sudden energy that belied his age by a great many years. His previous exhaustion a fleeting memory, Lekain ran--more of a quick hobble, with his cane beating against the ground--to the scholar and grabbed him by his collar, shaking him in the process. "What did you call me!? Well scholar, out with it! Not so smug and talkative when confronted on the subject, are ye? Call me that again, scholar! I dare ye!"
 

Professor Ven

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He carved up the creature as it lurched towards him, its dying screams heralding an end his crossing of blades. Screams of other dying, unnatural things erupted through the undergrowth, and the Senator left the scene of slaughter. This land has truly gone mad.

Elegáns stormed through the brush, leaping over the dead monsters, his weeping axe leering towards Lekain as Vasököl spat upon the ground. He had no wounds on him as of yet despite his dirty and bloodstained look, though he was sure more of those demons would soon come.

"Lekain, Leicester, though your romance towards one another is endearing - we must press on. If the Wetlander is naught to be found, then leave him to die, or Talwyn may yet find our sole guide, or, the gods be damned, we'll find Geri's corpse strung up for the creatures' food along the way. Regardless, we cannot remain herein Whoever else that still lives of our intrepid band of miscreants will have to fend for themselves if they cannot find the strength to sprint. Anyone that tries to stop our mission must and will be cut down, be it man or beast. I'll not suffer myself to an early grave for the sake of a milk-curdler or penny pincher that can't hold his own in these woods."
 

Orion

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Before he rejoined the party, still moving about as though a wolf, Talwyn made a final pass through the clearing they had rested in before attacked, and collected his bow. He passed with strange speed and silence by the group - no-one calling out or jumping with great fright - all of them apparently agreeing quietly that he would act as scout for the group as they fled the misshapen wildlings.

What followed were tense hours as they passed over the open plains - hardly a spoken word, nor heavy breath despite tiredness exhaustion. The mild fog on the plain gave the entire area the semblance of a gentle, ethereal glow. Without incident, however, they passed from one end of the open plains to another, the massive horned beast that had been encroaching upon them apparently content to remain in the woods.

When the first signs of dawn seemed close, within the forest once more, they settled upon a village. Squat, stone cottages with thatched roofs were arrayed around a central longhouse that dwarfed all the others - towering conical centre with square huts jutting off at opposite ends. The town was silent, and increasing the eeriness of the scene was the lifting of the fog around the area.

A half-hour of investigation turned up a town whose people had clearly uprooted in a hurry - the scraps of meals still warm remained on plates upon tables, cups of water and juices un-drunk. A few chairs were turned over as if in a hurry, and though a fire still licked at a hearth in the longhouse, even it was empty. Had the villagers here fled like the party at the campfire, when wildlings or massive beasts threatened their home?

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Though Lodovia is full of strange and horrible creatures, Entwyrms are among the most unusual, presenting a terrible synthesis of animal and plant. Past their larval stage, the Entwyrm finds itself a suitable 'cocoon' to metamorphose in. This usually entails finding towering, straight-trunked trees, and burrowing directly up into them without cracking their outer layers. Once the entire worm sits comfortably within the tree, it seals the bottom with a solidifying foam, and then it changes with the tree over the course of the next few years.

The wyrm's skin and shallow flesh fuses with the tree, and begins taking over it. When autumn comes by, leaves are dropped, but when spring returns only hundreds of fleshy bulbs grow in their place. Narrow branches at the tree's heights condense and draw close into two or more thick, angular branches ending in spiky bursts of straight, pointed barbs. Buttress roots sprout from the ground where soil used to present a distinct barrier between root and air. Now able to lay the 'seeds' of the baby wyrms, the newly-formed Ent stands up.

This particular Ent had gone down a different path, perhaps one much sadder than its bizarre and quasi-beautiful usual life stage. Toppled by the combined efforts of several disparate bands of the Darkroot Brothers, this Ent's core was cleaved out, but the tree still lived, the Entwyrm's animal essence nevertheless infused across the whole tree. Its seeds were cut away from their branches, and would - in tradition sacred to the Brothers - be distributed to other clans across the whole of Darkroot, to have the wyrm's cycle continued in spite of the host's servitude.

Now hollowed-out, the Ent is made front-heavy so as to never again stand, usually with a small stone fortress of sorts. Then, the rest of the inside is populated and built-in. Walking fortresses fashioned from Ents and controlled by the Najvyss even when on the small side can carry up to a half-hundred Brothers. The ranks filling this Ent numbered near a full hundred, but not one among them were Brothers.

At least, not anymore.

They hailed from the northern regions of Darkroot, near to where the fortress of the Maiden-in-Arms, Ysulda. As with any of the Companions who muster a force beneath their banner, through her own nature and command of the Najvyss, she could at times turn even the most ardent foes to her cause. Currently, she sought the expansion of her realm, and felt it only practical to make use of Darkroot Brothers to clear out the northern woods of inhabitants still loyal to the Game-Hunter.

They had faced death before Ysulda's offer was extended, and now they lived. Better still, their first target was the belligerent clan they had called neighbours for generations, so eager to prove themselves superior they had, year-by-year, rebuilt the central longhouse into greater and greater displays of skill and power. Currently, it resembled a cone with two cubes sticking out the sides, but they all had in their minds the picture of it roughly flat, with the consistency of rubble.

==============================​

Functioning calmly as the spotted for the group once more, Talwyn stood atop the longhouse's highest point, able to see for miles in any direction, with the lifting fog extending that distance by the minute. Off to the east, a line of trees parting and rustling was making its way generally towards them, though the source of such motion remained unseen and silent. Only in the following minutes did the low noises of its motion come to him, a regular pattern of four deep booms, and a quieter but higher noise that stayed at constant volume and pitch.

When the higher hum could be made out as the sound of dozens of voices roaring, Talwyn eased himself off the longhouse peak and slid down the thatched roof to the ground, calling out to the others in turn as he did so. When they were all gathered, Talwyn simply prompted them to leave the place, urging they follow and with no further information. At least it was honest, for he ultimately did not know what came their way, only that he wished to avoid it.

Together, they each moved into the trees north of the village, putting as much distance between the township as them as possible, while still enabling them sight of the place. The group was spread across the two trees they climbed - with particular difficulty for the duke - for the sake of some added stealth and safety. Over the following minutes, the noise of the encroaching monstrosity grew, to the point where it drowned out all other noise.

They had been taken by surprise. The Duke noted the first person moving among the forest floor, but Talwyn noted the glint of a dozen arrows already aimed at them from other people in trees. They wore mottled brown and green, and appeared both lucid and entirely human. Although each carried themselves differently and barked out orders in a different voice, consistent between them was some valuable piece of jewellery - perhaps as a mark of rank - and some item of natural paraphernalia; a bone, a blood-red stick grown in a spiral.

The man with his arrow pointed straight at Talwyn's head had a crown fashioned from the jaw and teeth of some forest animal over his brow. The two locked eyes, and the stranger raised a single finger to his lips, commanding silence. Remaining such, the group of foreigners in the strange land observed the flurry of quiet activity that took place over the following minutes. Several dozen men - split into six groups - made their way hastily toward the village, but ceased before they entered its particular clearing.

Each of the groups gravitated towards particular trees, the based of which were ringed by brilliant red mushrooms. At each tree, a noosed rope was thrown over a solid branch and then caught by one among the group, who would place the loop around his waste. They would quickly be hoisted to the heights of the tree, where they would re-tie the rope around a point towards the tree's top, where maximum height and sturdiness were found. Then, the group would take the end of the rope, and scurry back towards Talwyn and his party, some hundred metres from the actual trees, ropes taut between them on the group and the tree such distance away.

Finally, the source of the almighty booming and roaring came into view at the edge of the village. A tree walked on all fours towards the village centre, stone embedded in the front of its mighty trunk. Holes bored in its sides gave view to the occupants, who were dressed similarly to those nearer the party. The walking fortress picked up pace the closer it came to the longhouse, the roar and boom growing with it, until the sound of a hundred voices within the mobile tree rang out.

The man with the jawbone crown called out "Heave!" and his men did as such. The six shroom-ringed trees immediately began tilting, with six others on the opposing side of the village doing likewise. At the moment the charging tree met the longhouse, the building noticably began to sink. Still, the beast powered through it, and the building continued to sink. The tilting trees stood at sixty degrees off the ground, but when the longhouse fell, they snapped to the ground with simultaneous booms.

Where the longhouse had fallen, now the whole village fell. Straight down. Ground included.

The roar of triumph that seemed omnipresent turned to cries of confusion and chaos as the entire village disappeared beneath the invading and betraying Darkroot Brothers. It was over within five seconds, but where an entire township had now stood there was a perfect cylindrical hole in the ground, fifty metres across and half that distance down, though ten of that twenty five was now taken up with the rubble of the village, the dirt of its ground, the buried trunk of the ent and assorted bodies of victims.

Even then, it seemed, there was still more work to do. The dozen trees arrayed around the former-village, now flat to the ground, were all being ran to by their attendant groups. While eight lifted the trunk and slowly dragged it towards the precipice, another took to the exposed base with flint and steel, striking again and again until it ignited with a flare. Across the other side, Talwyn could see the exposed tree-flesh to be a brilliant red colour before it erupted in blood-red flames.

Each tree ignited, the dozen of them were all tipped over into the pit. What had been moans of pain and confusion redoubled into terrified cries of pain and anguish, to which the greater number of Darkroot Brothers out of the whole responded with triumphant applause. Amidst the resounding cries of victory, the Brother crowned with a jawbone yelled out the Talwyn's group that they could descend now, to which they acquiesced.

Arrows still trained on them, the apparent leader approached them. "I am Kevan, leader of what was Mistbeacon. We hope you enjoyed seeing the trap set off, and its victims felled - the once-loyal troops from the village of Wide Roots. Come, I think it goes without saying you're at least temporarily at our mercy. You'll explain yourselves as we taken our trophy from this victory," Kevan said, now turning to the other Brothers around him, arms raised with fists clenched, "the home of the fallen!"
 
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