THE DAWN COMES
Nieven Canthonil and his companions made their way slowly up the road toward the immense Cathedral which loomed on the horizon, backlit by the faint glow of the coming dawn. His companions moved in grim silence, their weapons clenched in their hands tightly and their eyes focused on the building ahead where they had just confirmed their target awaited them. Nieven felt old as he looked on them; he had seen several centuries already and these templars and warriors seemed little more than children to him, but they were among the elite of his temple and of Antioch’s military, and what they lacked in experience they made up for in conviction.
As Nieven and his retinue arrived before the doors of the Cathedral and spread out along the street, he took in the dark beauty of it. A sign hanging above the door announced it as the Bloody Scourge Inn, though the music and laughter emerging from behind the stained glass made it seem somewhat less sinister than its namesake. Nieven said a silent prayer to Jarmila, steeling himself for what was to come and then with a nod to those around him they began to prepare, surrounding themselves with layers upon layers of blessings and protective magics.
The City of Antioch had received an ultimatum from the Shadovar; they held the body of their fallen Paladin Kyra and wished in exchange for returning it, the murderous traitor who awaited trial in their prison, Selucia. Many in the city seemed keen on the idea, especially after news had spread about the atrocities this former priestess of Jarmila had committed. However, this was not Jarmila or Antioch’s way, and so a new option was suggested; to find the one responsible for all of this, who the Shadovar also desperately wanted, Balur Black.
“Black! Come out and face judgement for your crimes!” Nieven’s voice rang out clear in the early morning air and the music and laughter from within died down almost immediately. The dozen men and women who accompanied him spread out further and readied their weapons. Nieven reached up and took hold of the chain about his neck, pulling his holy symbol out from behind his breastplate and invoking a prayer of healing, the warm aura spreading from him to envelope his companions. Within his mind the hushed voice of the mage who was currently monitoring the target from afar spoke “He is coming.”
The doors opened and out stepped a finely dressed man in a horribly macabre top hat with a fiddle in hand, apparently a source of the music from within. There was no mistaking Balur for anyone else, even with the thick shadows that clung and flowed about him. His wide and inviting smile was not diminished by the sight of Nieven and his comrades, and this fact put the old priest ill at ease.
“Why hello there! I do not believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you lot yet. Fans perhaps?” He laughed as he said this, walking a few steps out the door as he tucked the fiddle into a case under his arm and then slung it behind his back. “If you’ve come for the show its much more comfortable inside, my friends. Have a drink and enjoy the music!” With a quick sidestep to make a path, he swept his top hat off his head and gestured with it toward the open doors.
Nieven caught himself taking a half step forward and growled as he shook off the compulsion, waving a hand to his side and commanding “Keep back!”. His comrades, shaken from their own compulsion, set their jaws and took battle stances. A disappointed look crossed Balur’s face and he looked back toward the open door. “Alright, looks like its gonna be a fight afterall! Qheseth! You’re up!” Nieven, was of course prepared for this, he knew the Shade said to be Blacks bodyguard was also in the bar, drinking, according to his mage. There was little information on her, but it was said she was a skilled assassin and more than capable warrior. It would not be enough to protect Black from Jarmila’s light.
“How many?” A husky feminine voice called from inside.
“Looks like thirteen, we can split them if you want!” Black called back, his hat still in hand as he looked on the elf and his fellow hunters with an apologetic smile.
“Sounds like nothing you can’t handle, I’m going to sit this one out” the voice responded, much to Nieven and everyone else’s surprise.
“Are you kidding me? This is your -one- job!” Black fully turned to face the bar at this point, irritation clear in his voice.
“She remains at the bar… she just poured herself another drink…” The voice in Nieven’s mind advised and he started to move forward. To his right, taking a cue from his movement one of his men leapt out ahead with startling alacrity and grace born of his elven heritage. His blade led aimed directly at Black’s exposed spine, but the Shade was not as distracted as he seemed. Spinning on his heel, Black turned to face the oncoming attack with a look of shock on his face, lifting his hat up before him as if he meant to hide behind it. The elven templar’s blade disappeared into the hat all the way to the pommel, impaling the Shade through the chest… or so it appeared.
The look of shock on Black’s face evaporated to one of mirth as he looked down at the elven arm holding the sword which had vanished into the unknown depths of the hat held up before him. Nieven cried out in alarm and rushed forward himself, brandishing his two golden blades which bled the pure light of the sun. Even as Black, gazing into the Templar’s eyes, whispered a few words. Then, all was chaos…
Darkness descended on the street in a violent torrent, whipping through the area and rattling the nearby windows. Nieven could see nothing but he heard his warriors battling for their lives all around him. He focused inward calling on the light of Jarmila and suddenly he was a beacon, aglow with Her grace. The darkness fell back from him revealing to his horror that he was already surrounded by death. Two of his comrades already lay on the ground in pools of their own blood, long past the use of his healing magic. A living shadow that looked very much like a silhouette of Black himself stood over one, blood dripping from its slender fingers, while the templar who had first leapt at Black was viciously stabbing the corpse of one of his sisters in arms with a manic look in his eyes.
The elven priest focused his will, blocking the nightmares that threatened to overwhelm him as he rushed towards Black, who seemed content to stand back weaving more spells of darkness to rain down upon his party. “To me soldiers!” He cried out as he leapt through the miasma and came upon Balur in a flurry of golden light. His blades cut air as the nimble fiend danced and spun from his blows but Nieven did not relent and as he pressed on his swords began to make glancing contact. Suddenly, a golden beam struck Black from the side, eliciting a grunt as he faltered from the impact. The warrior-priest took advantage of the opening, reversing his momentum and aiming a slash so brutal it could have cleaved a demon in two at the side of Black’s head.
The force of the blow sent Black flying into the street where he landed in a sprawl, black blood pouring from his face. Another golden bolt struck him and five more templar converged, their blades hacking at his prone form. What Nieven heard next sent a chill down his spine; laughter, true amused laughter from the fallen Black. “She is gone!” the voice in his mind uttered in a panic as the twisting shadows that erupted around Black suddenly took shape, a red and black feminine blur spinning demonic sword and dagger. Two templar heads flew from their shoulders, while the other three looked down, stunned, as their guts fell steaming onto the street at their feet. Qheseth had joined the fight and as Nieven looked at the carnage around him he realized he had underestimated his foes this day.
The Shade beauty’s dark lips quirked into an amused smirk as she ducked a golden beam and spun her dagger into a reverse grip, sliding it into a sheath on her belt. “You going to live down there?” she asked, not bothering to look down at Black. He gurgled something in response, his laughter bubbling the black blood pouring from his slashed jaw which hung horrifically from his face. He lifted himself from the ground and pushed his jaw back up into place before reaching out towards the sunbeam-lobbing templar. His hand glowed a fiendish green and the templar’s features began to shrivel suddenly as if the very life itself was being sucked out of him. Subsequently, Black’s flesh began to knit together more quickly, restoring his face to its former glory. He rubbed his jaw with a grin “Of course my dear, just gathering them up for you. The numbers are much more manageable now wouldn’t you say?”
Nieven and his remaining templars were at less than half their number now, and though victory seemed less than likely, the story of what happened to Kyra, her soul torn from her body and fed to some monstrous deity, fueled him. He could not leave his fallen brothers and sisters behind to share the same fate; retreat was not an option. Calling out to his Jarmila, Nieven sent a wave of healing magic out, reinvigorating his allies and giving them the strength necessary to fight on. He knew he would lose more before the end, but as long as a few survived they could call their fallen brethren back from death. The air around him swirled with shadows and madness, the old priest raised his blades and waded in…
Nieven’s eyes fluttered open and he found himself crumpled against a building on the far side of the street, bleeding from various wounds. The battle had been fierce, and at one point he thought they might have the advantage as they surrounded and battered at the defenses of the Shades. Unfortunately, it seems that they were being toyed with. An explosion of dark energy had rendered them all blind and nearly dead in its own right, which the assassin had taken quick advantage of, slipping inside their guard to cut them down from behind. Now Black stood in the center of the street directing his shadow and the assassin as they lay his comrades’ bodies in a pile. Trails of blood smeared the street, radiating out from the pile like the petals of a macabre flower.
“I can come. Get you out at least, Nieven…” The voice of the magi in his mind trembled and he understood the fear in it. “Stay away, you will only get yourself killed. If I wished to escape I would be gone already… I will not leave my soldiers here to die alone. You must bear witness, tell the high priest what you saw and make sure they are better prepared next time…” He winced at the mental energy it took to respond, then shuddered as he noticed Black was crouching in front of him. When had he gotten there?
“Good! You’re awake!” Black smiled widely as he reached out and wiped some of the blood from the corner of Nieven’s lip. “You are a priest yes? Don’t be modest I can tell about these things!”
“Yeah, so hard to tell when they are chanting prayers to Jarmila and healing their allies” Qheseth remarked snidely as she tossed another body onto the pile.
“Be that as it may, I happen to be in the market for a priest. Don’t suppose you’d be interested in the position?” Black mused, his brow arched. He didn’t even flinch as Nieven spat blood into his face. “I will never serve your god, demon!”
“No, I suppose not. You’ve the look of one who will break before he bends. Well… mores the pity. I suppose if you won’t serve Her in life, then you will feed Her in death. She is voracious you see…” Black stood, not even bothering to wipe the blood dripping from his face as he left the old priest and returned to stand before the corpse pile. Qheseth had come over to stand next to Nieven’s crumpled form now, perhaps to ensure he didn’t try anything. “If I was you, I’d do my best to bleed out before he gets to you. Just some friendly advice…” She commented dryly as she watched Balur work.
Ahead of them Balur uttered words so foul that they could only be some form of dark speech, the sound of them burning at the elf’s very soul. He watched in horror as the miasma of darkness surrounding Black expanded, becoming a violent tempest of shadows and the pile of corpses that had once been his comrades began to shudder. Dark tentacles slithered out of the spaces between the bodies, wrapping about them and pulling them violently inward, the force splitting and breaking the bodies grotesquely and spraying blood and gore across the surface of the street. Tears streamed down the elf’s cheeks as he watched the defilement, even as the light of dawn crested the cathedral and shone down on him.
“His spell is unstable. He is focused on keeping control… there is still hope Nieven.” The voice in his mind shook him from his shock. “Stay away I said! Can’t you see what is happening?! Stay away and live!” His mental cry was anguished, he did not want to see any more of his people die today. Before his eyes the corpse pile finished collapsing into itself, sinking into an oily ball from which the tentacles he had seen earlier had emerged. The tendrils began to stretch out in his direction and Nieven closed his eyes basking in the warmth of the dawn and praying that Jarmila take his soul. “Live Nieven, Jarmila still has need of you.” The old priest’s eyes snapped open at the words, and he cried out even as the young mage appeared in a flash of light.
The skies overhead bled red as a swarm of meteors cascaded onto the street, sending up plumes of stone and fire with every impact. Black was struck in the shoulder and spun to the ground; his incantation cut off. Beside Nieven, Qheseth had already vanished, stepping through the shadows and emerging behind the magi, a blade protruding from his throat before the last of the meteors had even landed. “No!” Nieven cried out as the man tried to speak, but only bubbles of blood emerged from his lips before he crumpled to the ground.
Qheseth again shadowstepped, this time emerging next to Black as he was climbing shakily to his feet. She reached out an arm to steady him when suddenly a tendril of darkness from behind them whipped out and wrapped itself around her wrist. “What the fuck?!” She cried in surprise even as she lashed out with her sword to sever the offending tendril. Before the blade could connect, another tendril snaked out and wrapped around her other arm, her waist, and Black himself. “Black! Control your spell!” She struggled as Nieven watched, two more tendrils taking the place of each one she felled. Balur laughed as he struggled against the tendrils which pulled him inexorably toward the inky orb. He twisted in their grasp to face the hungry blackness and began his incantation once more, remaining surprisingly calm as he was being dragged toward his inevitable doom.
Nieven lifted his gaze to the warmth of the sun and raised his holy symbol. He prayed more fervently than ever before, begging Jarmila for one last miracle. He felt the holy intensity of Jarmila’s answer as the sunlight concentrated on his symbol, creating a blinding light. He heard a feminine voice curse from beyond the light and felt the thuds of impact against his chest as he was struck by something, though he no longer felt pain. He smiled into the light and it suddenly burst forth in a beam striking both of the Shades who, entangled as they were, had no way to dodge. The blast seared Balur and Qheseth, catapulting them into the dark orb. The sound of their screams filling Nieven with more joy than he was entirely comfortable with. As the pair vanished into the pulsating darkness it seemed to lose its stability entirely, collapsing in on itself and vanishing as though it had never been.
The street was left silent, smoke rising from craters all around; blood and gore spattered about. From the door of the Scourge several patrons poked their heads out, wide eyed as they looked upon what had just been the battlefield. The old priest finally looked down at himself, seeing what had struck him earlier; a pair of obsidian blades protruded from his breastplate and blood dripped from beneath his armor. His lungs were filling with blood, and he was losing consciousness, but his work here was done. He closed his eyes and allowed Jarmila’s light to carry him back to the temple...
(Thanks to Faceless for the excellent story.)