Voice of Ruin – The First
The sun was starting to descend toward the horizon over the Freylund Forest in far western Sommerlud. The very air seemed to hum faintly with a vibrant energy that invigorated those passing through it, and the birdsong seemed livelier and the trees greener than anywhere else in the country. Winter's touch was beginning to be felt in other northern lands, but not in Sommerlund. There was indeed a reason for this, a closely guarded secret. But how long could it be kept, the guardians of this forest wondered?
In a clearing near the forest's northern edge a young man sat calmly on an old log, his hands resting on his knees and his eyes shut in silent meditation. One ear pricked slightly as he heard a bird cry out above, warning another of its kind that a human had entered their territory, but he didn't move or react to the bird's call at all, and after a minute it flew away.
But then there was another sound, a faint rustling of something passing through the bushes on the edge of the clearing. It was only there for a second before stopping again, but the man opened his eyes and called out with a faint smile, "I see you've still a thing or two to learn of staying silent, Chill Wind."
"This is hardly fair!" cried out a gangly boy of no more than sixteen summers as he walked into the clearing, followed by another two about the same age, a stout, stocky boy and a whisper-thin girl with fiery red hair peeking out from under her hood. Each of them wore a grey cloak fastened with a metal clasp engraved with a picture of the sun, just like the young man. "How in the world can I be expected to sneak up on a Grand Master?!" he went on.
"You plan to be one yourself one day, don't you?" the young man smiled even wider and stood up from the log, his meditations obviously over for now. "Imagine when you'll be catching the initiates trying to sneak up on you!"
The young man looked intensely at a campfire he'd built, and at a mental command the dry tinder he'd placed underneath started to burn. He was Brave Blade, the name given to him by the Order of the Kai. The leader of the order had said the look in his eyes during training had been just like the leader of the order's when he'd been a boy.
Brave Blade was indeed a Grand Master within their ranks, one of the most elite of even their distinguished order of specially-trained warriors and well-versed with their many unique powers. Normally a training expedition like this was left to less senior Kai Lords, but a friend called Bright Star had been trying to divine the future with one of the new skills the leader had taught him, and told Brave Blade it would be for the best if he left the monastery for a few days. He'd wondered several times what Bright Star had been getting at, but had to admit it was a welcome change of pace to be outside putting his abilities to use.
"Come, my lords," Brave Blade said to the others. "Show me the proof of your skills."
"Come see, Grand Master!" the girl, Red Fang, said proudly holding up a pair of forest hares she'd shot for their supper. She tapped the weapon she'd used to do it against her thigh, one of the few surviving Redalion-type automatic crossbows. Brave Blade had learned quickly the weapon was her most prized possession, and had learned from listening to the initiates talk during their trek that it greatly amused her not to confirm the rumors that the leader of the order himself had given the crossbow to her.
She was a feisty young warrior, a stealthy hunter and already skilled in the art of healing with a touch and speaking with animals. Her teachers confidently predicted she would go far in the order. Perhaps she'd get the chance to show her skills against something more than rabbits on this trek.
"Well done, sister," Brave Blade congratulated her. Red Fang smiled and drew a dagger from her belt then set about preparing the animals for their supper. Chill Wind watched her skin the hares in revulsion for a second, then squeezed his eyes shut and looked away.
Chill Wind had been given his name because of the sensation of his psychic potential the Kai Lord who'd inducted him had sensed even before he'd begun studying with them. Indeed, Brave Blade understood that he'd already mastered psychic combat, both offensive and defensive, as well as the power of telekinetic movement and detecting danger with a mental sense on the first level of the order's teachings. But it seemed he was just as far from being at home in the wild as Brave Blade had heard.
"And what have you found for us, Boar?" Brave Blade asked, turning to the last member of their expedition.
The boy, Steady Boar, silently presented a small bundle he unwrapped to reveal a large selection of berries and forest vegetables he'd found. He also produced a cloth from his backpack and unwrapped it to reveal four good-sized trout he'd caught.
While Boar enjoyed a fair bit of ribbing over his lackluster name, Brave Blade believed everything he'd heard about the boy earning its meaning. Boar was said to be one of the most powerful and resourceful warriors and hunters among his fellow initiates, and Brave Blade had immediately noticed how recently his axe had been honed and how new and expertly-woven the string he'd used on his bow looked. He clearly took pride in his skills and the tools he utilized with them.
"I still don't see why we're expected to catch our own food," Chill Wind grumbled. "You're all just rubbing my face in it!"
Red Fang grinned. "You're just saying that because you're outside your safe little classroom now, and it's us who are lording our skills over you."
"That's enough of that," Brave Blade intervened. "Have your fun, but never let it come between you. We are all brothers in the battle against darkness. If our world falls, then the final victory goes to the enemy who is the enemy of all. Preventing that is your sacred duty."
The initiates all nodded as one in response to the Grand Master's warning. They knew well that the order had been all but wiped out before, and the masters of darkness had almost had the chance to engulf all of Magnamund in the absence of the Kai's protection. That was something all of them swore never to allow to happen again.
"Besides, I think I found enough to keep you and I both fed, Chill Wind," Brave Blade smiled and unwrapped a cloth containing a pile of roots, berries and edible plants. He held up a puffy white root with a dark purple vein running its length. "Have one of these, it'll give you energy for tomorrow's trek.
Chill Wind took the root but looked at it for a long moment then up at Brave Blade with uncertainty. Red Fang started to say something, but then bit her lip and fell silent.
"Speak up if you've something to say, sister," Brave Blade urged her.
"Grand Master?" she said, not sure if she should honor his request, but after a second of deliberation, Red Fang said, "That's called scartongue. It won't give you energy, if it touches your tongue you won't be able to taste a thing or speak a word all day long."
Chill Wind gaped at the news, but Brave Blade smiled softly in approval. "Well done, Red Fang. You recognized this for what it was, but more importantly you stopped an ally before he had the chance to make a mistake. Chill Wind would've survived it, of course, but you used your knowledge to keep him from being put through it, and you had courage enough to speak up and say your teacher wasn't telling the truth. Now, let us feast, my lords!"
Red Fang and Steady Boar nodded, and Red Fang slowly smiled at the declaration before the two of them began preparing their catches for supper. For his part Chill Wind took another look at the root, took another at Brave Blade and then at the other initiates as they happily went about their tasks. Then he threw the root over his shoulder into the brush and went to watch them at work and learn from their efforts. As much as he could stand to watch, at least.
After finishing their meal the Kai Lords broke up to pursue their own tasks. Grand Master Brave Blade retreated to the center of the campsite and easily settled deep into meditation. The initiates divided up what order each would stand watch that night. There was little danger in the forest so near the monastery for the likes of them, but it was a habit they were made to get into for the time they became more experienced and embarked on long journeys into unfamiliar and dangerous territory. They were powerful, but they were not immortal, and the kinds of enemies the Kai would be called upon to fight were powerful as well.
Red Fang took the first watch, slowly walking the perimeter of their campsite as the campfire died down to a few glowing embers. Her eyes strained as the darkness became almost total on the moonless night, the heightened senses she was training to develop starting to take over and giving her vague outlines of shapes in the forest around her.
A small hint of movement in the brush indicated a rabbit…no, it was too low to the ground. More likely a curious fox that took the Kai party for hunters and was wise enough to take its business elsewhere. She playfully sent out a mental call that she and her friends meant it no harm even though she knew it was gone and not returning.
As she made her second circle around the encampment Red Fang heard a dry branch snapping and whipped her short sword from its scabbard, the dying light of the fire casting rays of red light across its honed edge.
But Red Fang lowered her weapon and sighed in disgust as she recognized the "intruder" staggering closer in the dark. It was only Chill Wind making his way closer to her, and while Red Fang was only beginning to unlock her powers of higher senses like seeing in the dark, Chill Wind hadn't even managed to take those steps.
"You're not taking a watch, Wind," Red Fang reminded him. "What are you doing?"
"I can't practice and try to improve my shortfalls?" Chill Wind asked. "Besides, there's nothing in the forest we actually need to post a watch to guard against. Help me learn to see in the dark, Fang! You're already picking it up!"
Red Fang sighed, but then grabbed Chill Wind and led him by the arm away from the campsite until they could no longer even see the remains of the campfire.
"What are you doing?" Chill Wind demanded.
"I believe it's called 'sink or swim,' " Red Fang answered him. "You want to sharpen your senses, I'll give you a real challenge for them. Look that way," she grabbed him by the back of his head and turned his face toward the darkest part of the forest. "Look straight ahead. Tell me when something starts to come into focus."
Chill Wind squinted and did as he was told, trying to focus his senses as he did when marshalling his psychic powers. Then he stared hard into the darkness for a minute. Then another. He could swear he was just starting to make out the shape of a bush or a tree branch in front of him when suddenly something jabbed against his forehead and pushed his head back.
"You fail the test," Red Fang chuckled, pulling her fingers back from his forehead.
"What's the matter with you?! I was being completely serious!"
"Maybe that's your problem? You take everything so seriously, everything's a skill to be learned," Red Fang replied. "I know you learn how to recognize tracks, and tell what plants are safe to eat and which ones are poison. But this is something I learned to feel, Wind. You give yourself over a little to the wilder part of your instincts."
Chill Wind stood in the dark brooding for a minute. That was exactly what the masters had been telling him when trying to teach him the Kai skills utilized in the wild; to go deeper into his survival instincts and the part of his nature that they stemmed from. With the psychic disciplines in which he excelled it was the other way round, with Chill Wind letting go of himself and embracing the power of serenity and the incorporeal. He'd learned quite a few things about conveying his messages to animals, but everything else he tried to learn about the order's wilderness teachings seemed to lead nowhere.
"I was hoping I might get to take a step in the right direction without the masters looking over my shoulder," Chill Wind grumbled. "It just seems worse when they're there, sometimes. Watching me for anything at all. I don't know why I can't do it, but Mindblast comes so easily..."
"Well, how do you do Mindblast?" Red Fang asked suddenly. "I'm still trying to get it down."
"You start out doing it bit by bit, stimulating the part of your mind that focuses the power of the attack," Chill Wind explained. "Then after you can do that reliably, you learn to focus it on the mind of an opponent."
Red Fang sighed. "That's what the masters always say. I just need to find that part of my mind and be able to spark it."
At that Chill Wind couldn't help laughing a little. "I guess they tell us all the same things, huh? Have you ever noticed how Grand Master Brave Blade talks exactly like the Supreme master?" he asked. "Will we sound like that when we get to their level?"
She chuckled a little at the remark. "I don't know, Wind. It's a little different for me, I think. I've been able to spark that part of my mind that the power comes from a couple times, but when I try to go farther it's like I just…don't really care. Learning to hunt and shoot and talk to animals, that all just seems like things I'm actually going to need when we're advanced enough to leave the monastery. They tell me I'm getting quite good at Mindshield, though…sorry, didn't mean to ramble."
"You know he can hear you, right?" someone suddenly interrupted, and in the dark the two Kai Lords jumped in surprise. Red Fang spun in the direction of the speaker, crossbow primed to fire, until she made out the figure of Steady Boar. It had been the first words he'd spoken on the expedition.
Chill Wind gasped, "Boar, did you really have to sneak up on us like that?!" But after a second realized he was still feeling the presence of something, and it was coming from somewhere else. There was a dull throb at the edges of his mind. Something powerful and deadly was nearby.
"It serves you right," he retorted. "Sentries are supposed to focus all their attention on spotting danger, not idle conversation. If some attacker ambushed us in the dead of night, we wouldn't have any warning thanks to you two."
"Quiet!" Chill Wind snapped. "We aren't alone! Something's coming! Something…big!"
Suddenly they heard another voice, this one quiet but sharp and commanding. "Silence, all of you!" It was Grand Master Brave Blade, and he immediately followed, "Over here, and not a word, whatever you do!" The three initiates slipped over to where Brave Blade had taken refuge at the edge of the clearing, and held their breath as a dark shape flew overhead.
They could just barely make out the shape of a giant winged creature, almost invisible against the moonless sky; only heightened senses such as the Kai's could have seen it at all on such a night. It had huge clawed feet that could easily smash a grown man, and stubby but sharp-looking barbs sticking out all over its shape, completed with a long knobby spike on the tip of its tail.
"Ishir's tits, what was that?!" Chill Wind exclaimed, but a sharp glare from Brave Blade shut him up.
A minute passed before Brave Blade asked, in a whisper, "Indeed, what was that?"
"A Kraan," Red Fang answered.
"No," said a deeper voice, Steady Boar's.
Brave Blade looked over at him. "And why do you say that, Boar?"
"The wings were far too wide," Steady Boar replied. "I'll bet a week's work in the stables that's a Zlaanbeast." The Kraan and Zlaanbeast were both breeds of massive flying creatures bred and used as mounts by the servants of evil. Zlaanbeast were favored by the most powerful and influential among them because of the creatures' impressive speed and stamina, but they were rarely seen after the establishment of the New Kai Order.
Brave Blade nodded at his young charge. "Very good eye, Boar," he said, but grimly. "And I don't suppose I need to ask any of you what it means to see a Zlaanbeast."
"Someone very evil has business here," Chill Wind whispered. "And it must be very evil business itself for them to come so close to our monastery."
"Indeed," was Brave Blade's hushed reply. "We must follow it and find out what its purpose is. Stay close, my lords." And with that he was running through the darkened forest, not making a sound or leaving a trace of his passing. Red Fang took Chill Wind by the arm and led the way through the darkened forest as best she could without leaving him behind.
Ages seemed to pass as they scrambled to keep up with Brave Blade as he slipped through the forest in almost total darkness, but they didn't dare rely on anything more than their enhanced senses to find their way through the trees. If the Zlaanbeast or its rider realized they were being followed, the Kai Lords might never find out what their mission was.
Finally the winged behemoth started to descend near the northwestern corner of the forest, near a rocky outcropping. The beast touched down on a sheet of dirt in front of it, and a robed, hunched humanoid dismounted from the back of the Zlaanbeast. By magnifying his vision Brave Blade could see it reach into a satchel hanging from its shoulders and pulled out a spherical object as it walked to a cave opening that the Kai Lord certainly didn't remember being in this part of the forest. An agent of evil's interest in the location explained much about that, though.
All at once Brave Blade's senses seemed to explode with pain and he could feel a frigid sensation covering his body and starting to leech his energy away until he concentrated and managed to raise his mental defenses. The object the figure was carrying was a source of horrific evil power, of that there could be no doubt, and it made up the Grand Master's mind of what had to be done.
"Go to the monastery and tell them what's going on," Brave Blade ordered his charges.
"But what about—" Red Fang started to protest, but Brave Blade silenced her with a shake of his head.
"Something must be done now or they'll be able to carry out whatever they're planning," he explained. "And you're not ready for something of this magnitude. I'll not throw your lives away tonight. I'll try to stop this, but if I can't you must send a force to succeed where I failed. Use your lanterns, but go swiftly…Go! Kai and Ishir go with you!" he whispered, invoking the names of the gods of good. And again he was off, sneaking through the darkness and avoiding the gaze of the Zlaanbeast as the fell creature waited for its rider to return.
The three initiates waited for a moment, exchanging glances in the dark and silently asking the question of whether they should just leave in the face of an obvious danger scant miles from the home of the order. Finally Red Fang was the first to scuttle away from their vantage point, and Chill Wind followed, lighting his lantern once he was sure they were out of sight of the Zlaanbeast. Steady Boar waited another minute, looking down as Brave Blade expertly made his way undetected to the cliff face without the evil creature noticing him, then disappearing into the cave. Hesitantly, Steady Boar turned and followed after the others.
After a minute of weaving through trees and bushes he spoke up. "This isn't right. The Grand Master shouldn't be left to deal with this by himself."
"He has a much better idea of what that was than we," Chill Wind spoke up. "And this isn't an armed force, Boar. If no-one managed to deliver word to the monastery we could very well have another second slaughter of the Kai! I don't like this either but there is no ideal option."
Suddenly they all noticed another point of light swinging around some distance ahead and recognized it as someone carrying another lantern. Had someone from the monastery noticed the Zlaanbeast too, and sent someone to investigate? Chill Wind lowered his own lantern as Red Fang strained her eyes to try to recognize the other person in the darkness, but the other lantern started to come closer. They'd been seen.
And it wasn't the only one; the owner cried out in a harsh tongue and others started to close in around them. As they did the young Kai lords froze as they could now make out the skull-like helmets of the intruders in the forest.
They were surrounded by Drakkarim, savage warriors in the service of evil.
Not to his surprise, but to a growing feeling of dread, Brave Blade found that the interior of the cave was lit by a row of torches on one wall. He followed them to a chamber where a stone dais had been placed in the center that a group of six men in hooded red robes stood around, waiting for the grey-robed figure who had just arrived to enter. But as he placed the orb he'd been carrying on the dais, Brave Blade froze.
This was no man: he had a gnarled black claw in place of a hand, and under his robe was a wide, bird-like foot. He was most probably a Nadziran, a race of some of the most fiendish of the servants of evil on Magnamund, mostly thanks to their natural skill as sorcerers and alchemists.
The orb was something Brave Blade didn't recognize, looking like a simple sphere of crystal but caked with obscuring frost. Indeed, even with his Psi-Screen up Brave Blade could still feel a terrible frigid power inside it waiting to be unleashed. And he had no doubt he and the rest of the Order of the Kai were its intended targets…
One of the red-robed men threw up his arms and collapsed to his knees, bowing before the inhuman sorcerer, and the others wailed before doing the same. The sorcerer seemed unfazed by their gesture of supplication, but the one who'd been the first to bow rose to his knees and spoke. "We lowly devoted welcome the coming of the keeper of dark wisdom," he said to the unimpressed-looking Nadziran. "The orb of ruinous power has been delivered to us, and we will see the will of our dark master done, under the watchful eyes of his agent!"
At that an imposing shape seemed to melt from the shadows, and Brave Blade almost choked as he realized how serious the situation truly was, for this was no simple cult leader who appeared. It was a hulking reptilian creature in the shape of a man, with arms wide enough to smash such a man in two with a single vicious swipe.
He had not one head but two, a long crocodilian face extending from each shoulder. His chest, legs and arms were garbed in a dull gray armour decorated with elaborate designs of monstrous beings fighting and slaughtering humanoid races Brave Blade knew to represent ones like his own. Across the breastplate was a depiction of the sun being eclipsed a malformed face that Brave Blade could only guess was meant to be a depiction of Naar, supreme god of evil and no doubt this demonic being's direct master. How had such a thing gotten to Magnamund, let alone so close to the Kai monastery?
The robed cultists turned toward the two-headed monstrosity next, and their leader called out to him, "Dakathraak the Doom-Caller, mighty Sentinel of the Scarlet Tower, Marshall of the Writhing Horde! We the faithful pledge our lives and souls to the successful completion of the mission on which our dark lord has sent you!" He fell on the ground as he ad with the monstrous sorcerer, and Dakathraak looked on with what Brave Blade swore looked like boredom. He reached past the cultists and picked up the orb, cradling it in his scaly hands.
Immediately there was a blast of icy air that scattered the human cultists all over the floor and blew back the hood of the Nadziran, but otherwise the dark sorcerer had no reaction that Brave Blade could read from its twisted wolf-like features.
"You are of course prepared with what we need to amplify its power," Dakathraak's right head spoke in a voice that sounded to Brave Blade like the grinding of stones together.
"Of course," the sorcerer replied, looking at the dazed cultists as they scrambled off the floor, a faint but malicious smile forming on its misshapen face that made Brave Blade suspect its human accomplices were what it really meant.
Silently Brave Blade reached under his cloak, unshouldered and loaded his bow. He knew a single shot was all he'd get before his enemies knew they'd been found, and one arrow was bound to be nothing to a demonic champion of the dark god.
But the sorcerer was another matter. It seemed to have a vital role to play in the dark business they were involved in even after delivering the orb, but what was more, Brave Blade had heard tales from his leader that some Nadziranim could assume the shape of dragons if they entered battle. If that was a threat he could spare himself, he intended to.
There was a soft creak as Brave Blade drew back his arrow, then let go and it whistled through the air and as soon as the servants of darkness had heard it Brave Blade's arrow had already buried itself in the evil sorcerer's neck. It opened its mouth in a cry of pain but no sound accompanied it, then it tumbled back and hit the ground with a *SPLAT*, its body already melting into thick black slime that oozed out of the openings in its robes.
"TREACHERY!" bellowed the lead cultist and drawing a saw-toothed dagger from inside his robes. The other cultists produced weapons of their own from within their robes and turned to the opening where Brave Blade stood. His face was stoic, showing no fear of the likes of them, but secretly already gathering his powers for when they made their move.
"Do not worry, mighty Doom-Caller!" the leader said, advancing on the Kai Lord. "You'll not have to dirty your hands with this scum!"
Then was when Brave Blade struck. He concentrated on the sheet of dust and sand spread across the floor of the tunnel and it suddenly sprayed into the midst of the advancing cultists, pelting their faces and billowing into their eyes and throats. As they coughed and cried out in pain. Brave Blade clenched a fist and uttered the words of a battle spell, then thrust his fist forward.
An invisible wave of force surged down the tunnel and knocked the cultists down. Dakathraak snorted in disgust and set down the icy orb on its dais. At this Brave Blade threw back his cloak and reached for a weapon, but his hand went past the short sword he usually favored. Against an enemy like this he needed every advantage he could possibly seize.
His closed his hand around the hit of another sword and a tingle of power rand up his arm and his fingers seemed to mold themselves around the grip. An image of Ishir the moon goddess worked into the center of the crossbar started to glow, the eyes opening as the weapon recognized its wielder's touch. As he slid it free from its scabbard the hardy Sommlending steel of the blade, already honed with potent magic, started to turn black as it drank in the darkness of night around it and pulse with power.
Dakathraak callously stomped on the bodies of his mortal followers, crushing them into the stone floor. Their lives were as nothing as soon their use to him was as nothing. He took one look at Brave Blade, crouched and ready to strike, and one head snorted in derision. "Am I meant to fear that weapon of yours, Kai?" the other sneered, exposing needle-like teeth. "I know you can fight with bow and blade, but so can I," he continued, and in the blink of an eye a gleaming silver axe was clutched in each of his taloned hands. "And that is not my only weapon…"
The dark envoy's other mouth opened wide and a strange, dirge-like call started to issue from it. As Dakathraak closed to fight, Brave Blade could feel his strength and will to fight slowly slipping away. Desperately he marshalled his mental defenses and could feel the drain on his reserves slowing, but there was no doubting they weren't strong enough to hold out for long. If only he'd mastered the order's highest tier of mental protection…but there was no time to worry about that now, only about destroying that orb before it could be used against his comrades.
"FOR SOMMERLUND AND THE KAI!" Brave Blade yelled with all of his strength, determined to show this hellspawn the Kai would not falter before him. He and Dakathraak swung their magical weapons at each other, and as the blades met and the entire cave erupted with a blinding burst of power.
The battle was joined.