The Hunt: The Illian Desecration --- &RPaward

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Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

Post by halfhand » Sat Oct 31, 2020 12:27 pm


“...of unusual fiery academic discord for the scholars at the Saleri Conference to agree on the exact start of the Chaotic Era. There were strong arguments for both the losses at the battle of Tarwin’s Gap, the subsequent Battle of Falme, as well as near disaster at the Stone of Tear. But logic prevailed on the exhausted scholars and it was finally determined that it was the vanishing of the Lodestar that predated all of those catalysms.” - Maluga the Senior. Notes on the Saleri Conference of Chronology and Standards, CE 1.

Troias was an ordinary Illian town of comfortable means, deriving its industry from forestry and its nearby olive groves. It was of moderate wealth, being positioned on a major trade route. The townsfolk prided themselves on their rugged self reliance. They dutifully paid their taxes to the capital and were faithfully King’s men, but for all regards of their daily lives, thought themselves more of Troias than Illian. And they happily lived their lives in blissful ignorance of the dangerous outer world. That is until the events of two years prior that became too much to ignore.

The very first herald of concern was a local olive farmer arriving into town in the dead of winter, with a ludicrous rambling story about a gaunt creature stalking his farm and plaguing his family. The result was his young wife was now dead and buried. To find help for the rest of his family, he had trekked to the village through snow drifts, dehydrated and fingertips already blackening from frostbite, and the flesh on his arms savaged as if by a wild animal.

The village had gathered a small investigatory party, deputizing two of the local game trackers, the goodwife Lordis, and a contingent of hastily armed volunteers. When the party finally arrived at the farm, they found the house and the olive grove without a stir of life. They found the buried body of his wife where the farmer had described it, in a shallow grave barely cut into the frozen ground. But it was odd, for she was already mostly skeleton, despite the preserving cold. Many of her bones were broken, cracked with blunt teeth marks, marrow hollowed out. Goodwife Lordis was able to identify the teeth marks as human. This prompted a more extensive search of the grounds which quickly unearthed more skeletons in shallow burial sites, to the rising horror of the investigators, resembling the farmer’s two sons, and his elderly mother and father. Only the daughter was missing. There were no signs of any other creature.

The search party returned with the horrifying evidence and confronted the olive farmer.

The man quickly broke and confessed. Witika, the ghost of the forest has come into him. The first night it asked him for his wife. He refused. And the second night as well. But on the third, he was weak and could not refuse. And when she laid limp on the ground, with the scent of fresh blood heavy in the air, he could not resist the Witika and he devoured her. And when he had finished sucking the marrow out of her bones, he wept and the Witika left him. But it left him with a hunger that could not be filled. And a hunger that soon overwhelmed his guilt and the Witika came again, and the older son was the next to fall victim. After he buried the remains, he wept and wept and swore the Witika would not win again.

When the hunger inevitably returned, he killed the family goat and cow, drinking their fresh blood and eating their still steaming entrails, but it was not enough. He gnawed on his own arms, carving large strips of meat. But, it satisfied the hunger only briefly. And his baby son was next, but the Witika was insatiable and it turned its eyes on his daughter.

For his precious daughter, he scratched at his last shred of resistance, and there was a desperate battle between him and the Witika. In the chaos, the daughter fled into the frozen woods. The Witika chased her and neither to be seen again. With his family all lost to the Witika, the man finally went to town for help.

Goodwife Lordis matched the man’s teeth to the marks on the bones, confirming his insane story. The trial for him was short and the jury of his peers was unanimous. The man was hanged in Troias square, his last words a wailing warning of the Witika.

The people of Troias found the events disturbing but chalked this up as a farmer gone sick in the head from the winter madness. A strange but isolated event in their peaceful life. A month passed. A messenger from the Council of Nine had stopped by. They formally announced that the Children of the Light have been banned. The villagers shrugged. They have rarely seen a Whitecloak in their lifetime. What need did they have for one? They had no Darkfriends here to bother the honest folks, and there were no monsters outside of the occasional farmer sick in the head. The Witika was already a shadow of a memory.

But then they started noticing the lack of regular visits from the usual farmers that lived outside of Troias. A few men went out to check and only found abandoned farmhouses. In some of them, the denizens had clearly moved away with all their possessions. But in others, all the belongings were left without their owners. They searched more and more homesteads with growing alarm, but only in the daytime. The distant farms were all abandoned. They found farmers still in the larger commune farms or those closest to Troias or the major road. But those farmers were nervous, jumping at shadows, and quickly fled into Troias with all their belongings at the news. Perhaps the Witika was not a madman’s ranting after all.

Soon, Troias was filled to the brim with terrified villagers of the region. The Mayor took events into hand. He was steadfast and decisive, a retired sergeant of the Illian army and knew when the people needed a strong helmsman. It was likely due to his leadership that Troias maintained its survival for so long. With the surplus workers, he instructed them to craft a protective palisade around the city and instilled a militia. And that firm direction and the presence of the walls calmed the populace.

There was a farmers’ draft, where individual farmers would rotate shifts to work the fields closest to the Troas at day time and return at night to safety. This seemed to work for a while. But with the extra mouths and the disappearance of trade, they were starting to starve. Some of the townspeople packed up and left to brave the unknown, and a ration system was installed, but that bought them only a longer time of starvation.

Then came the day the Illian Companions arrived. The people’s hearts lightened. The Companions were the elite forces of Illian. Six of them came with the messenger from the Capital. They were in full polished plate armor that shined in the sun. But these armor were etched with strange markings that looked straight, but started to curve and bend in eerie ways if one stared at it too long. They carried heavy barbed lances atop their massive steeds, also etched with serpiginous lines.

When the Companions first entered Troias, they initially developed a train of gawking children. The Companions were heroes of legend and gleeman tales. The warriors that protected the King, and fought in wars of justice in far-off exotic lands. But the children were the first to notice something off with these men, although soon it became apparent to all. These Companions cloistered to themselves in their rooms at the Inn, spoke no friendly word to anyone else. They did not eat in public, and the trays left at their door went untouched. And their chilling stares. That was the worst. Some thought the gaze was snobbery, but others whispered that it was pure contempt. But all agreed that it seemed their eyes had a red glow like coals, especially in the dim of night.

It was obvious that they would not be the answer to the villagers’ prayers. They were not here to save them from the darkness stalking the countryside. No, their official purpose was to deliver the message from the capital. Lord Brend of the Council of the Nine has instituted what is to be called the Tithe. Two people to be delivered to the capital each week. Men, women, or children. It mattered not. But, two will be required by law. And the Companions were there to enforce the first Tithe.

In their official garbs, the Mayor and the Elders had met them in the square with pageantry and initially in happiness, but quickly resolved into confusion at this news. But the messenger was unyielding. Finally, it was decided that two of the Elders would go as the first Tithe, that they would go to petition Lord Brend, the Council, the King, of anyone who would listen. This was clearly some mistake. Troias would of course heed a draft if war was afoot, but this made no sense.

This was acceptable for the diplomat. He did not care who they were, just that there were two. So with little ceremony, the two Elders packed and left for the long journey to the capital with the messenger and the unsettling group of the Companions. There was a sigh of relief to their departure and fresh hope that the Elders would set things right and would return shortly with a patrol to help pacify their land and bring normalcy.

Such feeble hope was dashed when a messenger arrived the next week with guards in tow, but without the two Elders. When the Mayor questioned their location, the messenger’s only terse reply was “Tithes do not return” and he turned directly to the manner of the next two Tithes.

The atmosphere in Troias was no longer that of greeting saviors, but of a den of trapped voles facing a fanged predator. The last two Elders on the Village Council resolved to give one more attempt, and volunteered again and disappeared with the envoy.

The resilient Mayor came to a decision when they left and placed a gambit on his own neck. The next time the collectors came, their new palisade gate was ordered closed to them. As expected, the Elders never returned. The Mayor greeted the envoy and Companions from above the watchtower.

“We cannot welcome you to Troias today. But we have left out the King’s Taxes for the year before you. Every coin accounted for. You shall not be of want for a year.”

“As you will.” The envoy replied. “But I am here for the two Tithes. Send them out and we shall be our way.”

“We will not be sending out any more.” The Mayor announced. “Until you can explain their purpose or return our diplomats.”

The villagers hidden behind the wall held their breaths in fear.

Outside, the Envoy and the Companions studied the walls. It was a crude wall, but should easily keep out just six men. Yet, there was a sense of nervousness in the villagers as if there was a true sense that these terrifying Companions could tear down their walls with bare hands. But, worse of all, this was a charge that could be levelled by treason, but the Mayor was willing to take the sacrifice to the gibbet. From his time in the army, he carried the notion of the protection of the people is paramount.

Finally, the Envoy spoke up again. “As you will, but next time I come, the Tithe will be four. And so on until the debt is paid. ” And they departed to the collective relief of Troias but with a new sense of uncertainty of when an Illian army may be the next visitor. But to mixed relief and worry, every week the envoy returned with his same escorts. And each time, he would announce to the closed gate a tally that ominously rose by two each week with the grimness of an executioner’s axe. These punctual visits were the only sense of regularity in these uncertain times. They missed only one visit, but it was the same day two farmers failed to return from their shift, and the tally next week was two less than expected. After that, no one left the walls on the day of a collector’s visit.

Meanwhile, the mood within Troias continued to grow darker and darker. The people continued to slowly starve. Cats and dogs have all but disappeared from the streets. People bartered, prostituted themselves, and eventually stole. It was only a matter of time until the first murder and the first rape. It was a shock. Crimes like that were unknown here. There was whispers that the Witika must have passed the walls. But no, it was just humanity. The two guilty villagers were scheduled for the hanging block, but after a long discussion of the jurists, were the first two to be sent unwillingly as Tithes, chained before the gate to be taken by the capital’s collector.

As crime and sin bubbled up through Troias, there was also a whisper of a group of citizens gathering in secret as the League of Patriots. It was the contention of the League that all the ills of Troias had come due to the Mayor’s defiance of the Council of Nine, and that peace would come one more when the Mayor and all his supporters were sent as Tithe and loyalty redemonstrated. And as misery and starvation grew in Troias, the League swelled in numbers and the plot for the takeover became less of a whisper and more of a roar. The clash was inevitable.

Jena took a sip of water for her parched throat, but continued her tale no more.

Halfhand had found himself hanging on to the young lady’s tales, half out of morbid curiosity, and the other a growing understanding of what Jena must have suffered. What did she have to do for her pack of food? “And what was the end? Did the League take over Troias?”

She glowered over the fire. “In a week, a month? Who knows? As sure when desperation crests. This do not be a gleeman tale, with a lesson and a wink. It do be just life. Maybe the world will never know the ending.” Her tale was a dark condemnation. It was true. The frogs of Troias were indeed drowning in the well.

“You have lived in Troas your entire life. Do you not feel any regrets in leaving it behind to its fate? You seem to have some endearment towards the Mayor and your Goodwife.”

“What if I did? If I were to beg you with all my heart, would you stop your mission to come to our aid? Hunt down our Witika of the Forest, scatter the mob of Patriots, and face the Companions? You two have the look that makes merchant guards look like puppy dogs and you may be a match for the first set of Companions, but for how long will you stay and fight for Troias?”

At the two soldiers’ heavy silence, Jena nodded to herself in confirmation. “Then there be nothing for regret. The Mayor knows what the Patriots’ yearn for; it is no secret. He may overcome or not. Troais will find its fate with me or without. It do be the edge of darkness and not its heart. And you two do be running rightly for the moldering heart of the Hummer’s Rot.”

“Hummer’s Rot?” Halfhand mulled over the strange regional term.

She frowned as if this was common knowledge. “Once the Goodwife do show me her poor patient with the Hummer’s Rot. It eats them from inside. Nightly hot fevers and his skin do be draped on his bones. And when you press your ear to his chest, you can hear the terrible humming of his heart like a wounded stray. And the worst part do be the blight spots. First a few black spots on the soles or fingertip, but then an entire finger blackens or the foot. Bit by bit, Goodwife do carve away pieces to halt the black bits, but eventually there is nothing left to carve. That pool soul died in agony, mad and blind. But when she showed me the heart afterward, it was black as mold and growing evil things.”

“It is the heart valves.” Viellain seemed to talk more to himself. He always had a better head for such things. “It is true the heart is the source of your Hummer’s Rot. But, destroying the source will destroy the patient. So it may be with your Illian.“

“Maybe so, maybe Illian will die if you kill its black heart.” Jena retorted. “But far sight better than the rot consuming you whole. A fate worse than death. So my helping you will do much good for all the other Troias in Illian. But, one day, I do promise, I will return to Troias.

“So I do agree to your demands.” Her voice burned fiercely with conviction, ”But I do have one of my own. Teach me everything you know about fighting the Shadow, in men and monsters. Show that an ordinary human can roar back at the Dark Gods that squat over us. So that on the day of my return, I will purge the Darkness of whatever remains of Troias.”

And the fateful accord was met. That day, the two became three.
Last edited by halfhand on Sun Dec 05, 2021 9:49 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

Post by halfhand » Sun Feb 14, 2021 8:38 pm


With Jena as their guide through the decaying wetlands of Illian, the journey became much smoother, albeit not without its challenges. She seemed to have a sixth sense of the negotiable roads and trails that crisscrossed the seemingly impassable bog. With her coveted hunting knife, she had split the length of her wool dress to convert it to a riding dress with a bone needle and thread. This allowed her to sit in front of Halfhand on his warhorse. It was out of the question for her to ride with Viellain on his temperamental Matese that merely greets the girl with bared teeth.

And at each of the nightly resting spots, the two Child of the Light provided the instructions in the ways of the Hunt. Jena seemed to take to the didactic with a sharp aptitude. Hidden behind her backwater facade and rough Illian accent was a seed of keen intellect and curiosity. She took a keen liking to Viellain’s assortments of tools from his remarkable articulating Manus to his razor-whip and his arsenal of flechette. She had a nimble hand and a quick study of the Hand’s projectile handling.

But, the brunt of her attention was on the greater treasure trove, the books of the trade that both Children always carried. It was a surprise to Halfhand to learn Jena’s level of literacy. But, she consumed the books that they shared with alacrity, and only needed bare assistance with some of the more arcane writings. Jena has little interest in sharing any details of her own upbringing, although based on her story of Troas, Halfhand already had his suspicions of the source of her reticence. But, it seemed that she had been raised in the books by the goodwife Lordis of Troas.

So, it was on an average camp night after a meager supper of a malnourished gamefowl, that Jena was surrounded by small piles of the beloved books. From Viellain’s collection came Rakin’s Complete Threat Dossier, the Booke of Wytches, and the Atlus Anatomicus. From Halfhand’s collection came his copies of the Way of the Light, Thais Meditations, and Universal Wordes of Power. Immediately after Jena had received the lent tomes, she had eagerly poured through them for a mention of her Witika. To her eventual disappointment she had only found only a one-sentence reference, in a cursory mention as a Omen of Calamity without even a footnote. However, that letdown was soon forgotten in the wealth of precious knowledge buried within the old pages. However, Halfhand did note her lack of interest in his own books after her cursory flip through them.

“Do not neglect the fundamentals.” Halfhand lectured her as he watched over her study from his seat by the campfire. He chewed slowly on the willow bark resin provided by Viellain, letting the bitterness seep into his throat. It was one of the few things that kept his headaches at bay.

She frowned, her eyes flickered briefly to the books of rhetorics. “I don’t see the point. I find nothing that would talk a draghkar to death.”

Viellain gave a stifled snort without looking from his own work with his makeshift contraptions that seemed to consist of a small copper kettle of burning woodscrap attached to a glass column of marsh water.

“Words may seem light and abstract, Jena, but they can carry the same weight and edge as a sword. With a sword, you may kill your foe. And in a productive day, you may even kill a dozen, perhaps a hundred before you can no longer find the strength to raise your arm. But with the right word at the right time, you could topple a nation or save a soul.”

Jena appeared unconvinced, but agreed to take another look through her neglected books.

Satisfied, Halfhand peered down at what Jena was currently perusing. It was the familiar red-leathered Booke of Wytches with its thick illustrated pages. It was opened to the worn section on the Thirteen Forsaken.

On those smooth vellum pages was illustrated the most vile creatures that were once mortal. There was a page dedicated to each Forsaken, with an artist’s rendition in skilled woodcut relief. There was Lanfear, her willowy figure undulating like a snake, with ink-black braided hairs that trailed the ground behind her like a cape, and Sammael the Destroyer roaring like a lion with fanged overbite, a mane of golden hair and a jagged scar splitting his face. According to the lore, the Forsaken were supposed to have been bound in Shayol Ghul at the end of the War of Shadows, to be unleashed at the Last Battle. Although it was the suspicion of many historians, including the author of the Booke, that they prematurely tread the earth once more.

“Wouldn’t it be obvious to anyone with eyes if they came back?” Jena pointed at the gross caricatures of their beastly faces, as if reading his mind.

“These are just the artist’s guesses based on recount and gossip. If they walk the world now, they would appear like any other man, their evil cloaked beneath normal human flesh. That counts as your First Question of tonight, Jena.” Halfhand raised one finger.

Jena clamped her mouth shut as if she realized she wasted one of her precious questions. This was one of the rules imposed by the Child of Light after the first day of endless questions. Three questions a day. It was a lesson in itself. Questions can be a useful tool, but it can be a double-edge sword and a crutch of the weak-minded. She would have to choose them carefully and methodically, or research the answers herself.

However, Jena pushed forward undaunted. “Then I do use my second question. This refers to the Forsaken as if they had two meanings. One as the damned group of thirteen of the stories. But the second as the peno- penul- ‘penultimate of the Threat Hierarchy’.” She worked out the latter phrase from the book. “What does that mean?”

Halfhand nodded in understanding. The dense prose of the Booke of Wytches was known for dead-end references with minimal elaborations, if any. “I will explain to you the Threat Hierarchy, in which The Forsaken are the namesake of their own tier.”

Halfhand picked up a long stick and drew a curved triangle on the soil. “This is Abralof’s Threat Hierarchy of Powers, how we classify the danger of the witches who wield the One Power. There are five levels, and at each higher ascending level, there is a ten-fold increase in overall strength and ten-fold increase in rarity. Vermis, Behemoth, Leviathan, and Forsaken.”

He stabbed at the lowest level at the base of the triangle and scrawled a V. “At the bottom is the Vermis class. From hedge witches to Tower Novices, they are the most common. The initial estimate was a few thousands in the world, but with the wild awakening in the last decade, we suspect their number may be even greater. Their average power places them at the level of one trained Child of Light soldier.” He picked up a fist-sized rock from the ground. “This rock is a representation of their relative manifest strength. Ordinary appearing, yet in the right hand, enough to maim and kill.” Halfhand tapped the rock lightly against Jena’s forehead who gave not a single flinch.

With the stick, he drew the second level of the triangle.

“The next level is the Behemoth class, of which there are many hundreds in the Westlands. Your average Tower witch or Seanchan damane. These are the equivalent of a ten-man squad of determined Children of Light hunter-killers. The rock of their relative strength would be the size of a catapult round.” He tapped the rock in his hand against a half-buried granite boulder rising out of the marsh.

Then he scratched the third level of the triangle with an “L”.

“And this next tier above is the Leviathan class, of which there may be few dozens in the world. Each individually the equal of at least a hundred Children. The manifest rock of their destructive power would now be the size of the Stone fortress of Tear. A walking army with true city crushing power. “

“And finally, your penultimate level, the Forsaken class. Of their official count is just thirteen, the strongest Dreadlords sworn to the Dark One in the War of Shadows. And one Forsaken can only be matched with the power of a full Legion. At the highest peak of the Children of Light’s strength, the Thirteen Named Legions were raised by the Secundus Lord to await the Thirteen’s revival. The Forsaken’s stone is the size of the Mountain of Mists.”

“And that leaves the tip.” The observant girl pointed at the tiny triangle left unmarked at the top.

Halfhand stabbed the stick into the top of the pyramid. “This is Annihilation. At this scale, we talk more of a force of destructive nature barely contained in human skin. Their stone’s size would be greater than that of the entire Westlands. If even one comes into existence, they have the capacity to destroy the whole world, break it anew, maybe permanently. If the Dragon comes once more. Or if a Forsaken class obtains a tier-raising force multiplier. To oppose an Annihilation would necessitate the entire Order of the Children united. And even that would be an uncertain outcome, because theoretically there is no ceiling to the power of an Annihilation.”

“Then based on this Hierarchy, the pair of you do only be able to face two Vermis-level witches.” Jena concluded as she studied the pyramid, but she arched a brow as if implying the question.

“Possibly. But, Abralof’s Hierarchy is a theoretical construct. If the outcome of all engagements was based simply on pure power, the world would be already lost and we may as well give up. In pure numbers alone, the Vermis now surpass the current roster of the Children. And if the Forsaken showed their face, we may be able to raise five full Legions if lucky, let alone the Named Thirteen Legions. No, if we take the Threat Hierarchy as gospel, the Children would all be huddling in the Fortress against the threat of unopposable power.

“It is thus that we have the Philosophy of Da’vat. It means ‘Just one’. Whether a vermis or leviathan, it just takes one Child of Light. That in the right circumstances, no matter how rare, with the right preparation and the right luck, one simple Child of Light can overcome even the greatest witch.”

“Even an Annilhation?...” Jena asked incredibly, before flattening her ending inflection to pretend it was a statement. Halfhand let it pass without counting it as a question.

Halfhand nods, “Philosophy of Da’vat is what allows a Child of Light to rise and face insurmountable odds. Even a sliver in a million chance is greater than the zero chance of despair.” He points to Viellian who seemed to be already bored with this dialogue. “Just ask our witchkiller there who has listed a Leviathan by himself.”

Viellain snorted in derision. “They’re all human flesh. They sleep and eat. They toss mountains but they’re still mortal. Sheep or Annihilation, they bleed the same to me.” But his bravado seemed to reflect the admiration of Jena. But he tempered his words, “The Hierarchy is not wrong. In terms of absolute power in a faceoff between us and a witch, there is indeed a sheer chasm. Human ingenuity will close the gap, but only so far. If faced with even a Behemoth class, it would be wise to reconsider our strategy. And a single Leviathan would render our little trip painfully short. But only a fool would rush into a battle with one, when indirect methods will work. Even with the tools at Child Halfhand and my disposal, you are actually more equipped to bring down any witch than us. Your innocuous appearance and a hidden dagger will find success where Legions would fall.”

She pondered Viellain’s words comfortably, digesting them in her head. Then she spoke up, methodically picking her words carefully. “But why target witches in the first place? The ones that do not pledge their soul to the Dark Ones like the Forsaken. One of the written theory says their source is the True Source that runs the Wheel of Time. That is not inherent evil. What of the thousands of them that mind their own business. “

“Like for example a village goodwife plying her potions.” Viellain probed carefully. There was a flash of predatory gleam in his searching eyes.

Jena remained silent to the probe, but there was a brief tightness of the corner of her lips.

“I will take this.” Halfhand gestured to Viellian. He sat next to Jena. “That is your question three. Let us say the theory is true. Channelers tap the power of the Creator. But there lay the rub.

“We take it as a universal truth that the Male Channelers will inevitably become irredeemably mad from their use of the True Source. Why would we assume women are immune to this? The White Tower declares this, but they have everything to gain from that claim. When mortals seize that of the divine, they corrupt willingly or not. That is the nature of corruption. No one wakes up one morning to decide to be evil. Corruption is an insidious path that starts with good intention and belief. But one misguided step after another finds you slowly becoming something unrecognizable from what you started.

“It is akin to a rabid dog. Sometimes one may fight a bear with you. But, you would never sleep with your back to one. Nor doubt that the right path is to put down a rabid dog at the earliest, if not only for the sake of the once loyal hound. Unlike many, I do not relish the taking of any life, but I appreciate the necessity of the sacrifice for the greater good. It was not any true evil beast or creature of the shadow that sparked the greatest calamities of the times, from the War of the Shadows to the Breaking to the Trolloc Wars. No, they were each started by a channeler who believed they wielded the Creator’s powers for good.

“And when the Last Battle finds us, and child, pray it does not in our lifetime, and the combined death and misery blot out all those other stains of history, its source will no doubt once again be the catalyst of a single human channeler.”

“So, yes, innocent or guilty, the spilt blood of a witch pave the road for the rest of humanity. It is what we call the Reaper’s Cut. And for the innocent lives of the world, our grim job is to give the reaper his due.”

He picked up one book from his pack and dropped it to the top of Jena’s collection. He could feel Viellain’s eyes boring into his back. The Hand could likely recognize the slim black book with gilded edges. E.M.T’s Philosophy of Nature and Powers.

“That was your last question, Jena. Sharp as always. Read and think. But do remember that an inquisitive mind is blessed, but dangerous is an entirely open mind for everyone. Corruption is not limited only to the witches, and often more subtle.”

And like every night, he left Jena to read in silence and ponder the lessons of the night. But even after that particularly heavy didactic, he could see the burning spirit in the young woman’s eyes, undiminished by the cold edge of his words of reality. And in fact, these grim talks in the dreadful swamps will soon be remembered as halcyon days in the face of the wicked storm that will soon consume their group.
Last edited by halfhand on Sun Dec 05, 2021 9:49 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration --- &RPaward

Post by halfhand » Sat Oct 16, 2021 10:04 pm


Smoke crawled desperately across the dew-soaked grass, leaving a glistening red trail behind him. His dappled gray fur was thickly matted with dried blood, barely concealing the vicious wounds on his skin.

He nosed through the expanse of the Wake-Dream, barely catching the scent of his pack almost at the edge of his limit. He could feel their faint desperation and anxiety mirroring his own. He could pick each packmate’s familiar essence from all the thousands of muted whispers that crowded the Wake-Dream.

He was pulled back to reality as he felt the terrible lance of pain from the terrible wounds carved in his sides, a keepsake memory of last night.

He was leading the pack away from their hunting grounds, heeding the guidance of the Old Dreamers. He was the alpha, in part because of his deep attunement to their voices. The Old Dreamers had warned him of the dangers. This land was dying and bleak. Packs were disappearing, vanishing both in the land and in the Dream. Whispers in the Wake-Dream were silenced, winking out one by one. Smoke always heeded the Old Dreamers, their truths always had served the pack. And so he let the pack of a lean six away, to follow the guiding star that reigned solo in the sky.

But it was too late. Just a few moons in their journey, he sensed them being stalked. Though none of the pack knew the scent in their lives, the putrid smell awoken hereditary knowledge carved into their bones, raising hackles instinctively. The ancient enemies, never forgotten. Shadowbrothers. A full pack of them. Smoke knew deep hate but also an intense chilling fear.

Is it the Last Hunt? Red Mane asked. The pack matron turned her striking face to him.

It may be so. Smoke replied. He had been the alpha for five years, through lean winters and close encounters with the two-legs. But this was the first time he felt such intense fear for the survival of the pack. He could feel the evil presence like one of the traps of the two-legs. I will draw them away. You must escape.

We can fight. She replied, anger bristling like sour smoke on her scent.

Not like this. The pack must survive. You will carry the next generation. Smoke gave a low growl before his mate could retort. Follow the guiding star. Listen for the Dreamers. The pack will follow you. We will run once more together in the True Dream.

With that, Smoke turned and charged back towards the approaching lurking evil. He tried to ignore the last scent of Red Mane, mixed with concern, fear, and desperation. He continued until he could spy the tortured figures of the ancient enemies, before howling a challengeand turning to lead them from his family.

He hoped they would follow him, and they did, trailing behind him like his own shadow. He felt relief when he could too feel the fading presence of his own pack in the Wake-Dream, as they fled in the opposite direction.

The Shadowbrothers chased him through the night, never flagging. Pairs of glowing red eyes glittered occasionally in the distant shadows. Their malicious scent stung Smoke’s nares with just enough core of a wolf’s smell to enhance the wrongness. And twisted in that smell was that of amusement. Snow knew that this was a game to them, like a cub playing with a crawler before squashing it.

Smoke knew the game was coming to a close, as he could feel his limbs burning with exertion. His pack should be enough distance now. He turned to face the Shadowbrothers with a defiant stand. He had faced plenty of challengers within the pack and without, and in his prime even survived a faceoff with a Lord of the Woods. As he watched the red eyes surround him, he stoned himself to show the strength of a True Alpha.

Then the Shadowbrothers pounced on him, rolling over him like an indomitable flood. Smoke has never felt so helpless. Within seconds, he felt like he was a newborn being tossed between the unquenchable jaws of pain. It was like fighting the wind. They left vicious wounds after another, until Smoke finally crumpled before their strikes, still defiant, ready for the end.

Yet, the Shadowbrothers continued to play, through the night, torturing the fallen Alpha inexorably with continued pain and malice.

And the end never came. Through the cruel torture of the Shadowbrothers, when the dawn sun rose, Smoke still breathed from his broken and bloody body, held together by tattered ribbons of once proud flesh. The Shadowbrothers had faded into the night with sunset, leaving him alive.

But he knew he was dying. And in his shattered mind, the last driving thought was to be with his family again before his last breath. To know that they will live on past him. And he found the strength in his front legs to pull his ruined body forward, one slow length at a time. His hind legs hang loose; he could not feel them anymore. The rest of his body screamed in pain with each lunge of his front legs, but he was terrified to die alone. He reached desperately through the Wake-Dream towards the essence of Red Mane. Towards family. He pulled himself forward in that direction, each agonizing lunge at a time.

More than the pain was the feeling of a dark crushing pressure around his mind like a unrelenting jaw on his skull. It was increasingly more difficult to think about anything else.

NO. The Old Dreamers voice broke through the suffocating pressure around his head, like a hoarse shout. YOU CANNOT.

I must. Smoke whimpered like a mewling pup. I must see them once more.

NO. The Old Dreamers’ admonitions became agitated, their voices cutting through the pain and the haze of Smoke’s dying brain and the oppressive dark curtain. DANGER. And then Smoke was left alone in his thoughts once more.

But the warning was enough to instill just enough pause in Smoke, to wrest away control from his basic instincts. He could feel the wounds left by the Shadowbrothers beginning to turn numb, replaced by a gnawing sensation over his entire body. But the worst feeling was the jaw pressure on his brain was replaced by an incessant scratching and burrowing sensation. He knew from memories carved through generations of ancestors that these wounds were not natural. And more importantly, he could feel that his survival was not a mere accident by the cruel enemies.

You live? The familiar thought-speak of Red Mane came through the Wake-Dream. We come. Once her voice would have been a lap of crisp water after a parched journey, but now it brought sheer terror with what Smoke knew.

With all his will, he roared back, and burrowed his mind deeply away from the Wake-Dream.

He knew at last he must not die from these wounds. He remembered the brief image of the gray-stone path that he crossed last night during his desperate flight. A path built by the two-legs. All of his life, he had heeded the lessons to stay away from the two-legs. They were dangerous and capricious, and proven deadly to many of his kind. But they would have to be the answer.

He changed his destination, crawling forward towards the embrace of the True Dream.
Last edited by halfhand on Sun Dec 05, 2021 9:52 am, edited 1 time in total.

Posts: 182
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration --- &RPaward

Post by halfhand » Wed Dec 01, 2021 8:23 pm


“Ring, ring. The Old Grim bell. Here comes souls of ink and eyes of coal. Run, child, run. The Wild Hunt comes.”
Shienaran children’s tale, author unknown.

Child Halfhand touched the side of his head as he felt the Light-cursed headache returning. It seemed to come more often midday, likely exacerbated by the swaying saddle. He could already sense the creeping aura announcing its presence. He could glimpse the crackling spider web forming in the periphery of his vision, almost like something was pressing against the glass pane of reality to break through. Viellain had once called them a “scintillating scotoma” but Halfhand could not recall the technical explanation. Regardless of what these annoying phenomena were, they always heralded the splitting headaches he had inherited from Tefike.

The annoyed Child of Light reached inside a pocket inside his traveling cloak until his fingers found the small paper wrapped package. He opened the wax paper and took out a piece of the willowbark resin and tucked it into his cheek, to allow its bitter juice to seep in his mouth. This seemed to be the only thing able to keep the migraines at bay. He glanced to see that there were only two sad crumbling pieces left. He will have to see if Viellain can decant more, otherwise the long days of travel will soon become nigh intolerable.

The three rode in blessed silence through the deserted Illian forest-lined road with Jena perched in front of Halfhand’s saddle in her usual seat. It was she who first noted the large furred body lying still in the middle of the road ahead.

Viellain gave a small whistle to Matese, and the pair trotted ahead to investigate. The Inquisitor looked down at the form briefly, without bothering to dismount. He looked back at Halfhand and gave a nod, “Just a dying wolf. Just give it a wide berth.”

As Halfhand rode by, he paused briefly to see that it was indeed a massive body wolf sprawled in the middle of the stone road. It was one of the largest wolves he has seen, and he has hunted his share. It has a dappled powder gray fur like a plume of smoke in a cold sky. It would be a pelt any trophy hunter would envy, except its body was covered in vicious wounds and caked blood as if it was turned through a lumber mill. Its chest rose just so slightly, and bubbles can be seen in its gaping chest wounds. It gave a soft groan.

“Wait.” Jena said, as she slipped down from her seat, landing next to the creature.

“What are you doing, child?” Halfhand looked in consternation. “Beware a dying beast. They do not understand your intentions. They are likely to lash out.”

“It do be in pain.” She says, glancing back up at him. “It do be a creature of the Creator. It should at least get the Last Rites and a merciful passing.” She had a familiar fierce look of defiance. Halfhand knew there was no point arguing with her with that look. And who is to argue against her interest in the didactics, at least.

The Child merely grunted, and gave his horse a nudge forward. “The Rites are not for animals. Catch up when you are done playing.”

Viellian had stopped ahead, watching in amusement while drinking from his flask. He gave a arched glance to Halfhand as he joined him, “You better check Materese the Healer for fleas when she is done there before joining us in camp.”

“I know of nothing that can drink your blood and survive.” Halfhand retorted. Let the girl have her childish compassion before this country crushes it from her. He continued on, “I would hate to run into whatever Illianer animal did that to a fully grown wolf.” He looked back at Jena, who was kneeling next to the beast’s head. She had a hand on top of its gray mane, the other on her knife hilt. She was whispering the Last Rites.

“Yes, that has been bothering me as well.” Viellain pondered, “Odd behavior for a wolf to crawl to a road.”

It was at this that Halfhand’s horse whinnied and stumbled on a shallow crater in the road. He swallowed a curse as he glanced down, to see that the crater was an imprint of a giant paw print in the stone pavement as if it was soft mud. That imagery immediately charged his mind with realization and his stomach with dread. It passed through his mind in an instant. The dying, savaged wolf, and the stone pawprints.

“Darkhounds.” Viellain’s mind was not even a second behind.

“Jena, get away!” Halfhand roared as he reigned his horse back towards Jena and the dying wolf incubating the birth of a new Darkhound.

It was too late and too far. As he raced desperately back towards Jena still tending to the incubating darkhound, a black storm of psychic energy exploded out from the wolf’s body as it finally succumbed to its cursed wounds.

For a brief second, with his awakened eyes, Halfhand could swear a tiny glimmer of ethereal energy winging skyward like a departing soul. But that would be impossible. Animals did not possess souls, especially not a base animal like wolves. But, it was overshadowed by multiple black tendrils rippling up from the swirling dense form covering the body. They pursued its target, a black maw high into the sky which snapped close like a towering bear trap.

Then the extension of violent energies sucked rapidly back into it source, which was now encased in a boiling pool of primordial evil that was the proto-darkhound. Its reanimated body’s eyes blinked open, filled with infinite void. With its first instinct on the corporeal plane, it raised its jaws and snapped at the thin girl who was the closest witness of its raising.

It is to Jena’s credit and to Halfhand’s pride that the young girl acted in the only way that ensured her survival. Her prized hunting knife came down, piercing through the snout of the new Darkhound and nailing it to the ground. That bought her one second, but that was enough time for her to roll back and dive into the nearby treeline before the Shadowspawn recovered, shaking its bear-sized head free.

Jena had paid enough in her studies to clearly recognize what she faced and its danger, even if she had never seen one before. Jena had read through Rakin’s Complete Threat Dossier cover to cover at least thrice. At the time, Halfhand has been amused about her interest in fantastic creatures that she would never encounter in the southlands in her lifetime, but it was her curiosity that saved her life now.

But even being aware of their existence was rarely enough. A darkhound by itself was an apex creature of the shadow that few were equipped to handle. For Halfhand and Viellain, a week’s preparation with specialized tools may be enough. To face one unprepared on the open road, would be a suicide run. A normal Darkhound was impervious to most mortal weapons, and even a glancing bite or splash of blood could be lethal. This giant black beast, covered in a rippling black sentient ooze before them could only be a Greater Darkhound.

The only sane move was for the two Children of Light to flee on horseback, to sacrifice the Troiasian girl, and to put enough miles between them. Better two survive, then three to die. A lesson for a girl’s wasted empathy in a cruel world.

But as the embryonic Greater Darkhound howled its chilling cry, black ichor dripping from its snout, and pounced after Jena, Halfhand found himself quickly dismounting from his horse. He grabbed his Iron Warhammer, the only available weapon with enough stopping power for a Darkhound. He raced after the beast, his mind racing, trying to form a desperate plan.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Viellain with the same mind galloping to the edge of the treeline, and leaping from the horse’s back to grab a tree branch, his sharp Manus claw allowing him to grab the bark easily, quickly vanishing into the canopy. Halfhand hopes the Questioner had a better plan than him.

Sightings of isolated Darkhounds through history were spotty as there are few witnesses surviving any encounters. They were harbingers of doom, capable of great destruction, and a relentless hunter. Once a Darkhound had its prey in its sight, it was a matter of inevitability. Born from the tortured and corrupted wolves, they possessed blood and saliva filled with life poison, speed and an unnatural regenerating body that makes most mundane attacks useless.

So it was due to an intersection of many luck factors that Jena was lucky today to survive so long, a feat that few others in history could even boast. She was well acquainted with woods such as these from childhood, and she navigated as she fled through a practiced zig-zag maneuver that allowed her precious minutes. And importantly, she kept her mind a level below pure panic, likely due to the entrained memory burned into her from a similar flight through the woods.

But most importantly this was a Darkhound in its infancy, unfamiliar with the new corporeal body that it inhabited and the new physics of the natural world. While the liquid evil consumed the mortal flesh and replaced it with preternatural machinery, it was still learning the body. The biologic nightmare moved in a jerky halting movement like a novice puppeteer, smashing into trees and tumbling on the ground, leaving chunks of its decaying wolf flesh scattered on brambles. It had not yet mastered its sight and senses as it tumbled clumsily but still eerily fast after the fleeing Troasian girl, closing the gap second by second.

Twice, it approached close enough to snap at her heel, and even a glancing scratch would have been quickly lethal. The first snap was barely deflected by a sharp projectile from the treetops that struck its head with enough momentum to turn its jaw at the last second.

For the second close miss, Jena felt the hot breath at her nape and made a gamble to dive between the forked trunk of a tall, aged oak. She managed to clear it before the Darkhound slammed into the oak’s bulk, cracking the tough old bark nearly in half, and tumbling to its side, stalled briefly.

It was at this opportunity that Halfhand charged in, letting his Regalia of LIght flow through the Warhammer, hoping for a lucky strike. But, almost as if it could sense the Child of LIght’s approach, the Darkhound’s liquid-like body twisted, moving in a way impossible for a canine’s skeleton, its spine popping and snapping unnaturally. More akin to a snake uncoiling and striking, it leaped through the air to meet the Child of Light.

With no other choice, Halfhand swung with his charged warhammer, but as if distance and time stretched around the spectral beast, the hound seemed to slip just around the cold iron as if the weapon was moving in slow motion. With the venomous maw closing in on his face, Halfhand let the momentum of the missed swing twist him as he dropped hard to the ground.

He could see the black obsidian teeth closing empty barely inches above his falling face, the glowing bottomless eyes that briefly looked down at him, before the momentum of the hound carried him past Halfhand as he slammed hard into the ground.

The fall knocked Halfhand’s breath away, and it took him a dangerous second to roll back onto his feet, knowing his intense vulnerability. He turned just to see the Darkhound springing again through the air when a heavy gray blur slammed into the shadowspawn.

The mass of gray fur and teeth wrestled with the shadowspawn on the ground, and six of its kin appeared around them. Large gray wolves. Halfhand hesitated as the new threat, as he debated switching to his longsword. It seemed he got a brief lucky reprieve but odds were even slim now with a pack of feral wolves too.

But the ferocious newcomers seemed to pay little attention to him. The wolves circled the two locked combatants, scruff arched, deep growls brewing, their intense predator eyes only for the darkhound. Was it possible that the wolves were drawn here by the Darkhound?

There was a crack and a pained whimper, as the initial gray wolf fell limp at the foot of the Darkhound. It regarded the newcomers with a wide grin filled with blood daggers, its black body grew larger, swelling until it was twice their size, rippling with undulous spikes. It was an intimidating sight, but the rest of the wolf pack did not hesitate. They charged it as a unit, jaws ripping at the lurking Evil wearing their skin, as ichor and blood splattered over the forest floor, charging the air with stench of sulfur and iron.

These wolves were apex predators of the Westlands, muscle, sinew and teeth crafted and honed by thousands of years of the Creator’s hand for the purpose of killing. But, they were like toys compared to Darkhound. It was something else, of an Ancient Evil and cunning that mortals could not challenge, and these wolves were mortal flesh . And it was starting to now master its corporeal shell to reach the cruel potential of a Greater Darkhound.

The wolves showed no lack of ferocity or courage, almost more than just animal instinct. But in the end they could not surpass the clear gap in strength. It was a slaughter, from which Halfhand could not look away. The Darkhound tore into the canine assailants with glee, inflicting wounds designed for pain and torment. Wolf after another fell in terrible writhing agony, as the Darkhound gleefully rolled in the blood and entrails as it bounced from one target to the other. Its jaws and teeth seem to morph and change from jagged shredded lances to cruel lamprey suckers, the more to inflict pain.

Halfhand just wanted to scream at the remaining wolves to run, but the wolfpack continued to the bitter end. Through the horrors, he could see Jena seemed to be hiding behind the damaged oak.

Halfhand raised his warhammer again and approached the terrible slaughter, knowing that this blood may have bought him the only chance to end it.

As the Darkhound sent the last standing wolf flying limp like a ragdoll through the air, there was a huge crack. Behind him the cracked oak tree began to fall. Jena’s face peaked around the falling trunk from where she had leveraged the leaning tree with her legs. Above, Viellian leaped away from the tree’s top where he had steered its fall.

However, the Darkhound sensed the shadow falling upon it, and leaped out of the way. In mid-flight, it lurched as one of the still wolf bodies lunged up with its last strength and locked its jaw on its haunch, dragging the Darkhound down.

The Darkhound twisted around like a boneless viper, shredding at the wolf with its razor teeth. But even nearly sawed in half, the wolf refused to let go until the oak finally crashed down on them both. The pinned Shadowspawn raised its blood-drenched muzzle and howled, a haunting chill of a wail that froze the blood of everyone in the area.

Halfhand roared through the howl, and slammed his warhammer down on the beast’s head with all his strength and will. It was like striking pure rock. There was a peal of energy blacklash from the collision of two opposing forces that bounced the hammer back, almost tearing his shoulder out of its socket. The Darkhound’s head was flattened into a dark liquid which seethed and boil with agitation, starting to reform.

Halfhand fought the numbness in arm, holding steady to the warhammer, charging it to bursting with the power of his Light, and then sending it crash once more down on the reforming Darkhound.

There was a violent storm of malevolent psychic energy from the strike as the ambient light around almost seemed to dim to twilight, as the primordial being explosively dissipated. Halfhand stumbled backward, but stayed on his feet. It was ended.

Robbed of its shadow possession, the decayed shell of the darkhound was now nothing but rotting flesh that crumbled to fetid dust in front of him.

Halfhand let his warhammer fall to the forest floor. He breathed out the heat of battle. The entire front of the warhammer was caked in thick red rust as if it was exposed to a decade of corrosion.

He looked up at the aftermath at the bloody wolf bodies scattered around Jena unharmed, but her clothes soaked with mud and covered in scratches from tree branches. Viellain slid down a nearby tree, his Manus carving a trail down the bark to slow his ascent. He jumped down the last few feet, landing softly, and with a tug, retracted his hook-and-chain with his off hand. He moved from one wolf body to the other, with a surgical cut at the top of their spine to ensure their complete death, and not to be another Darkhound seed.

“You okay, Jena? You did not get a injury from the darkhound?” Halfhand asks. Jena merely nodded, still half stunned, her face blanched at the bloody slaughter in front of her.

“We should go.” Viellain says. “You have dispelled it, but who knows what it may draw.”

“You two go to the horses. Give me one second.” Halfhand leaned against the oak tree and pushed until it rolled off slightly, exposing the last wolf, the one that held onto the Darkhound to its end. It breathed raggedly, its body a tortured mass of wounds. Somehow, it had shifted so it could touch the decaying shell of the Darkhound, her snout resting intimately next to the crushed skull. But, it looked back at the Child with its fading golden eyes, with too much intelligence for a wild animal. He could swear he could see a sign of resignation in those sad eyes. It locked its gaze with him

It neither struggled or whined, but just concentrated on its labor of breathing. But it was as if it knew what must be done. It had a look of acceptance of its fate. Even in its abject state, it had a sense of nobility, its brilliant red mane no less beautiful which could not be marred by its ugly wounds.

It closed its eyes knowingly as Halfhand drew his sword, as the Child of Light granted it the stroke of mercy.

But before he turned, he paused. He has never done this for an animal, but he laid his blessed hand on the peaceful body and he spoke the Last Ritual of Peace for the red-maned wolf. But he did not feel silly. He felt a presence of something that is anathema to the Tenets. The reflection of a soul leaving the broken body. It touched back at him for just a somber moment. There was a sense of sorrow and regret. It was only for a fraction of a second before it dissipated, but it was enough to carve a deep trough of doubt in his heart.

He carried that heavy doubt as he left the woods, following the trail of destruction back on to the road to the waiting horses.

Viellain and Jena were there, he watched mutely as the Questioner hand the girl her hunting knife that he had recovered. “I have cleaned it of the poison, child. This weapon is suited to you, worthy of a Name, bathed in Darkhound blood. Shrike.” This was as emotional as Viellain could get.

This seemed to have brought Jena out of her exhausted stupor, she received it with a tired flicker of pride.

And then a distant howl interrupted this somber moment, a familiar howl of ancient evil that chilled the blood. Then a second and a third. Closer and closer.

There were no words lost between the three. The Darkhound had sent out a cry of help and now a full pack of nightmares were approaching.

They fled as fast as the horses could gallop, trying to outrun what could not be outrun. And yet even with the certain knowledge of the approaching terrors, Halfhand was still haunted by the uncertain meaning of a wolf’s soul.

The howls behind grew louder and louder.

Posts: 182
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration --- &RPaward

Post by halfhand » Sun May 08, 2022 9:20 pm

“...warned us to flee. [Redacted] fell on us all with [redacted]. His eyes, oh Light, what was wrong with his eyes. Still wearing that bloody white cloak. We had to [redacted]”
- Eyewitness Account #33. Edited Report from the Casnian survivors. Hand of LIght Matis. 924 NE.

“What is a soul, you ask?” The Archivist General echoed Halfhand’s question. “That is a most intriguing and ancient question of the ages, my venerable young Captain.”

Child Halfhand sat at the dusty table in the Third Sanctum of the LIbrary, surrounded by books and tomes. The only occupant was the robed Archivist General who managed this most exclusive of sanctums. The library was perhaps the most neglected tower in the Fortress of Light and the majority of the ranks have never stepped in here. But over the years of procurement, whether by seizure or clandestine excavations, the Library has gathered one of the Westland’s most extensive collections of occult, the most dangerous of them locked down here in the Third Sanctum. Despite sitting high in a tower, there was no window, but galvanic steel sheets laid on brick masonry. Under each shelf of forbidden tome ran a shallow trough of oil. In the eventuality of the compromise of the sanctum, a single flame is enough to destroy it all in an instant.

The Librarian leaned on his tall raised staff, topped with a hanging lantern with a soft flickering flame that danced dangerously every time the staff moved. It was the sworn duty of the Archivist General to destroy all the dangerous literitic weapons here at the slightest sense of a dangerous incursion. Halfhand had the only other light source, a tiny cup of a wax candle that barely illuminated the table. The Archivist General paced slowly behind Halfhand, his light casting dark shadows across the room. He wore the cloak of a Child of Light and a sword scabbard swayed in his belt. He was the only one allowed to be armed in the Sanctum. Normally, he would be seated at his desk, but he liked to pace when he talked.

“What is a soul? That question has been taken up by scholars over the century. But it has special meaning here in the heart of the Children of the Light. Patron Lothair Mantelar in his later writings posited that each soul is simply a fragment of the Light, the manifestation of the Creator. And I tend to agree with the Patron.
“Take, if you will, the black night sky, filled with the void of the lonely eternity. But, yet, it is filled with countless stars, each glimmering, each separated by unfathomable distance. But when you take the stars in the sky together, in a collective, the form of the Light United shine through the void.
“There are some scholars that have believed that if each soul is a piece of the Creator’s Light, then each individual can host a great, vast power that is untapped and unused. Through the years, many sects of the Children have believed the soul can be weaponized, that a soul can be strengthened, honed, and manifest the powers of the Light in the world, just like its physical container.”

“Like what the witches in Tar Valon do with the One Power? Would that not be anathema to the creed?” Halfhand dutifully replied.

“Pah, there is more to the world’s powers than that of the so-called One Power. Only Tar Valon and the true simple-minded think it is the source of all extraphysical powers. It is true that there is enough raw strength there to break the world asunder thousand times, but there are enough Powers that run through this world. There are cases of empaths who can command animals, hypersensitives that can detect auras and prophecies, and dreamers that can manipulate the Unseen World of Dreams, all Talents extrinsic from their One Power. The only true thing that connects them is the necessary component of a Soul.“

Halfhand countered as was used to with matching words with the librarian. “But every man, woman, and child have a soul. Millions upon millions just in the Westlands. What power is there that can be found in something so common? So intangible?” Halfhand pivoted in his stool to turn and face the Archivist General.

A smile flickered on the Librarian’s face. “Are you familiar with Natural Laws? It is a natural law that all systems eventually dissolve into chaos and cease to function. Take an oil lamp as an ordered system. A mastercrafted lantern lights a beautiful flame and lasts for decades. But it only lights for a certain time before it requires more oil. And while you can refill the lamp, the lamp will break down a bit with each use. You can repair it, but with every cumulative repair, it becomes a little more functional until it is an unrecognizable pile of timber and glass ”

“There are no infinite systems. It is obvious.” Halfhand frowned at the tangient. Sometimes it can be frustrating to talk to the Archivist who is prone to meandering into intellectual wilderness. There is usually a final point, but it may take a long time to reach it.

“But there are systems that supercede natural laws, with the ability to create a lamp that will light forever.” The librarian stopped his pacing.

“The Creator.”

The librarian nods approvingly. “Certainly, however any discussion of the Creator outside of the theological nature is of little practical use. His power is unfathomable, immeasurable, and beyond comprehension of our little minds. But, we can comprehend the two systems that directly link us to the Creator. The first is the Wheel of Time, a perpetual motion machine that is driven by the True Source.”

“Which the Dragon used to break the world. ”

“Indeed. The second is the cycle of souls, which each of us interact so intimately. You know the theology. When we die, our soul is regenerated into a new life. It is an eternal cycle, and yet each new soul is without degeneration or flaw. So, then, theoretically each soul too is an infinite lamp. Even a tiny shard of infinity is still infinity. And as powerful in each way as the True Source, if one can learn to tap it. Theoretically of course.

“That would be the holy grail. Access to untapped and incorruptible power. It is a desperate time in a hostile world of demons and black magic, where steel lance and zealotry can only take you so far. “

“But does not a Power like that, accessible, run into the same risks as the One Power that broke the world?” Halfhand pointed out the obvious.

The librarian nods, “Perhaps, but the argument advanced is that this is the gift given by the Creator to his children, and that the power comes from within their intrinsic soul. Not where Tar Valon witches steal and divert the power of the Creator that is meant to drive the world.
“It is not a new belief or theory. Over the centuries and many lost, there were those that worked to unlock the power of soul, of one’s personal Light. Many of these artifacts have been recovered, and studied here. With the goal and purpose to create true Children of the Light, those that can manifest physically the strength of their soul. Unsurprisingly, there were many failures. But I have heard that there were a few whispers of success. Of the secret creation of actual conduits of the Light.”

Halfhand’s heart skipped a beat at this and mouth felt like sand. “How…did they accomplish that?” His throat felt tight like it was under the pressure of a noose.

“Ah.” The Librarian leaned back slowly until his face was almost in the dark and his face unreadable. “There are no records of it, so one may only guess based on the most popular theory that has not been formally ruled out. If one were to innoculate a soul with a terrible consuming evil, it leaves the soul two choices. Self preservation or annihilation. A soul with the intrinsic will to defend itself and destroy its invader might intrain in its human container an immunity as well as etch a mental pathway. Of course you would have to burn through a lot of souls, so I imagine that it would leave a lot of unexplained corpses to bury, or a high tolerance for the sacrifices. But in no way, is the Children of Light leary of sacrifices, or short of volunteers, or as desperate in the current age for its own survival.
“But even in the most successful project, there is a rub. There is also a cost. Too late did they realize that when you create a conduit, that it becomes a two-way path. By the time they created Thirteen, the First fell unexpectedly to corruption. The acolytes made a fundamental mistake in theory. Once you expose an uncorrupted source to the external world, that source is no longer incorruptible. No matter the strength and immunity you have built, eventually, or almost inevitably, it will fail before the ageless patience of the Dark One’s craft.
“It is terrible for a soul to fall to the shadow, if you understand the perpetual nature of reincarnation. Scholars of the soul believe in fact that there was no greater danger in all of creation than the Forsaken Aginor. More damaging than the Kinslayer or the Betrayer of Hope. It is not the action of creating the shadowspawn, but the irrevocable theft and corruption of the river of souls from the Wheel of Time to indwell his twisted creations. Imagine the bright stars of the Light united in the night sky void blinking out by the thousands. Permanently in every subsequent turn of the wheel.” The librarian’s description chilled Halfhand with the half remembered dream-vision of the colossal maw consuming the stars that haunted his dreams.

The Archivist continued. “And that is just ordinary souls. To the corruption of a soul that was crafted to be the Order’s lifeline against the Shadow, that…that is hundred-fold worse and anathema to the Tenets. So, Thirteen conduits would be all there would be, and all written records of their creation purged. It is whispered that a Questioner was assigned to each subject, to watch and to monitor them for the rest of their mortal lives. With one goal, to never have another weapon in the hands of Shadow. The Questioner’s duty is to do everything in service of that goal, no matter the sacrifice or cost.”

“And every one of these subjects had a Questioner?” Halfhand’s mind flashed to a familiar smirking face.

“Whether they know it or not, they would be shadowed for the rest of their life. For the greater good.”

Halfhand spoke without realizing. “Then it is inevitable.”

“That would be the fatalistic view, Lord Captain. But you know Da’vat. We cannot fall into a predestination trap. Some may say it is the desperation of clinging to any floating debris in a sinking ship, but others may call that hope. There is always hope in the core of the soul, and the Dark One can never take that away without breaking the Wheel. Where there is Darkness, there is Light. Never one without the other, and this world is getting darker and darker with every passing breath, so we must kindle what embers we still possess. And few precious embers we have left. And lo, it is said that while the First walks the darkness, none of the other twelve have followed that path. Oh, many have died in sacrifice, perhaps every single conduit.” The Archivest General paused meaningfully, “I would imagine that if there was any left, they would continue to resist the shadow to their last breath.”

There was a long pause. Child Halfhand could not formulate the right words in his mind. The librarian clearly knew much more than he let on, and had drawn the Child into dangerous territory. Halfhand knew the dangers of ill-advised questions, revealing himself with each question he spoke. But the lingering question finally fell and he did not dance around the obvious. “Why now? I have gone through each of the books here over twice. By your skills, you must have easily deduced what I seeked just by the pattern and order of books I perused over the decade. What finally released your tongue?”

The librarian leaned on his staff. His sleeve shifted so his light revealed a small tattoo on his wrist, a Seeing Eye. “Just a bit of knowledge too soon is as dangerous as too much. But so is knowledge squandered. My tenure draws close. My fate calls me soon and the stench of death waits me at every corner here. And what use is there of any kernel of knowledge that I treasure so deeply except to decay in my skull? No, is is time to let it fly free like a sparrow and see where it lands, for better or for worse.”

“If you fear for your life, librarian, I will see what I can do to protect you.” Halfhand said. He knew the politics of the Children was built on a path of daggers, but he did have some favors to call if the Archivist was threatened.

“Fear?” The librarian chuckled, as he walked back towards his desk and rested on his throne-like chair. “It is more liberating. I do not need or desire your protection. But it is enough idle chatter for today. I will be closing the Archives today early for some much needed maintenance, Lord Captain. You can leave the books on the table and I will sort them as usual.”

Hundreds of questions still swam in the Child of Light’s head, but he could tell the Archivist was done. Perhaps, now that the damgate was open, there will be more in the future, assuming his cavalier prediction of the librarian’s demise was not accurate. Reluctantly, Halfhand pushed his books away and stood up, saluting the now silent Archivest before making his way to the exit. He unbarred the heavy metal door, and pulled it open.

He walked into the lighted corridor and blinked his eyes to adjust. The heavy Sanctum door closed behind with a groan and a click of the heavy bar resetting. Across the hallway, Hand Viellian detached from the opposite wall where he was lounging in wait like a sleeping leopard. He fell into Halfhand’s stride, “Did you find what you need? On the Koloi? You spent more time than normal today.” He shook his empty flask meaningfully.

“I got what I needed. At least for today. What I need to for the Koloi hunt.”

“Do you need me along?”

Halfhand slowed in his gait, side eyeing the Questioner, thinking and considering. “You have been with me for many years, brother. We have survived much together, yes?”

“And many more to come, Fratis. To the ends of the world.” Viellain chuckled. “Cursing and grumbling, but I shall cover your back to the end.” HIs words were of sincerity. But when were they not?

Halfhand nodded, more to himself than the Questioner. “I would have it no other way then, fratis. I will always rely on you to do what you need to do.” And though he tried to let his doubts wash away, he could feel them percolating in the back of his mind. The seed has been planted by the Archivist, and his words would echo in his head for the rest of his life.

When he went to visit the Sanctum the next day, he found the Archivist General sprawled on the stairs leading up to the Tower, his lanturn shattered. Ruled an accident by the investigating Inquisitor. But Halfhand had his doubts. All of the librarian’s finger bones were broken. Whatever knowledge he still held was silenced forever. But the seed planted would grow insidiously until its payoff in a decade.

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Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration --- &RPaward

Post by Korsik » Fri May 20, 2022 8:07 am

+4qp awarded for Chapter 8

Posts: 182
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration --- &RPaward

Post by halfhand » Sat Dec 09, 2023 9:56 pm


Jena of Troias held on for her life. The anemic sun was rapidly setting behind them, casting a veil of shadowplay to the swampy woodlands around them. The only light was held by Viellain, a sputtering torch that casts frantic shadows. But even shrouded in darkness, the presence of the chasing Darkhounds left no doubt. Jena could feel them as if their cold dead breath was breathing down her neck.

She clung hard to the Child of Light, gripping the hard armor as the only lifeline against the keening beasts that were leaping and snapping at the air. They fled down the rutted Illian road just a breath in front of the pack of Greater Darkhounds.

The Shadowbeasts’ presence was oppressive like a heavy cloud choking her mind. She couldn’t breath, she couldn’t move, she couldn’t think. Her body was frozen into a state of self preservation. She was no longer in terror. She had reached terror in the flight from the proto-darkhound. Now she was beyond that. She had retreated to her Safe Place. The cage of necessity that sheltered her mind against the terror. She could not be a prey again.

“Hang on, child.” The Halfhand shouted as he swung the iron warhammer out behind him. The momentum twisted both he and Jena, but her gripdeath kept her in the saddle. Her body was in autonomic self preservation, her mind hidden and protected behind her psychic walls.

The hammer met the leaping snarling darkhound with a collision of unnatural green spark. Jena could feel the explosive force through her walls as just a dull vibration.

The concussive force coursed down the entire spinal column of the darkhound, with enough compressive energy to shatter every canine vertebra. The darkhound tumbled to the ground, heavy and unmoving, its head twisted in an unnatural angle. The warhorse stumbled and its riders nearly unhorsed, but the trained steed recovered without turning its ankle or unseating its passengers.

The Child of Light afforded a brief look at the felled hound which twisted like a snake with a rhythmic cracking of every joint popping, as its subluxed head spun like a cogwheel, springing back up to rejoin the back of the pack chasing its prey.

All around them the dark shadows sprang in unpredictable speed that seemed to confuse the eyes. Halfhand held his hammer in his numb arm. That was a lucky hit, and yet it bought them only a second respite. He could smell the acrid sulfur that steamed from the shadowbeasts’ breaths.

He could see the mass of the pack behind him, but also the hazy silhouettes racing far to the sides, likely an attempt to pin them from turning, to herd them to a slaughtering field. Their horses were some of the fastest in the southland, but Darkhounds’ undead bodies knew no exhaustion. His warhorse would wear down first, and Halfhand and Jena would likely be swarmed within seconds.

“Running water, Jena. No matter how shallow.” Viellain shouted. His voice was like a whisper. Jena knew the words, but they had no meaning in her safe place. The Inquisitor shouted again, but the words were even more distant. She was safe in her own cage, warm and protected against the howling winds of the outside world. A place beyond fear, and her own terror that was scratching weakly against the strong walls. She would be safe even if her physical body was chewed to bloody sinew.

There was a sting against Jena’ s right thigh. She barely registered it in her cage. It was not painful but there was a warm rush through her body immediately, a wave that seemed to melt through Jena’s mental walls. She was suddenly hyperware of her body, of her rapidly galloping heart, and her fast breathing, and that warm sting on her right. Her body moved again under her command, and she reflectively swatted at her thigh and pulled out the feathered dart that was embedded there. It was one of Viellain’s.

Outrage rolled through her, then shame, in a dazzling storm of emotion until everything washed in at once, dragging her psyche forcefully back into the world, cushioned in a blanket of artificial euphoria. The howls and roaring of the Darkhound around her, the lathering warhorses under her, and the pain in her knuckles and hands from clinging on so tight. Her tense joints shrieking in pain. Everything felt real again. And yet the terror of the prey, it was dulled and kept bay by an unnatural ecstasy of a cocktail of stimulants and anxiolytics.

“Running water! Jena.” Viellain’s screamed again, tension tightening his normal emotionless voice.

“Turn off the road after the next hill, and drive hard.” The knowledge came easily to her now, out of her mouth. Why was she so afraid in the first place? From her studies, she knew the rapid chemicals were flogging her brain, yet it felt like velvet in her bloodstream.

When they passed the next hill, they turned hard, off the road into the short field studded with trees. The right flanking Darkhound cut immediately, red eyes glowing with rabid anticipation at their prey’s approach. Viellain deftly threw two bags at the feet of the approaching darkhound, with an explosion of red dust. The Darkhounds skidded to a stop around the cloud of dust, losing their momentum as its body smoked, as it stumbled into a skid.

It is unlikely Viellain would have much more brick dust on his person. All their hopes relied on Jena’s intuit direction. The main pack continued behind them, braying and snapping, closer and closer.

Then suddenly the woody land collapsed under them. The horses jumped instinctively, fueled by both training and desperation, and they splashed down into a current of running water with their knees deep. The horses struggled onward through the water almost to their belly. The other side was thirty yards away, and they forged on through the cold water.

The Darkhounds stopped behind at the edge of the water, almost merging together into a dense cloud of black aura. Red eyes stared ravenously at the lost foe. As their prey struggled back onto land on the other side, they sniffed the ground and seemed to separate, intelligently following the river edge in both direction searching for a path to their prey.

They took a much needed breather on the other side, but Halfhand finalled asked, “Where are we?”

Jena’s hands clung to Halfhand like they were vices and she had to command her contorted fingers to relax. There was a long pause as her breathing slowed. She still craved her safe place, but she forced herself to face the world, no longer pillowed by the transient euphoria of Viellain’s vile concoction. “This do be the estate of an old manor. There do be a n natural moat that run a square mile around it. There is a bridge, on the north end.”

“Does the water continue under the bridge?”

“I don’t know… I think so.”

“Be certain.” Viellain turned his horse towards her. “If there is running water all around, we will have a sanctuary. If not, we must continue to flee to the risk of them ambushing our crossing.”

“I think so.” Jena replied her voice soft, but the bone of her spirit was finding its back.

Viellain’s lips were drawn tight, but he gave a look at Halfhand, turning his head. “That must be the manor you speak? No one lives there now?” Up on the rise was a two-story grim structure with precipices that cut a forbidding silhouette in the night sky.

“Abandoned.” She said simply. But then she added “Haunted.”

“We will have to risk the ghosts then. Better them then the hounds.” Viellain thumped his horse, and Halfhand followed as they followed the overgrown hill upwards until the structure loomed over them.

As they drew closer, it looked more like a large fort than a typical manor with walls raised with reinforced towers. There was a road that led up to the main entrance which was an arched overgrown gate. One corner of the mansion was crumpled with debris overgrown with weeds. The visible windows were all barred and unlit. The once well kept black pine walls were now faded and covered in the scars of the elements.

As they rode close, Halfhand could see that the gate was covered in thick cobwebs. They each dismounted at the entrance. Halfhand assisted Jena, who held her knife tight in her hand so tight her knuckles were white.

“Odd. It does look like there was wheel tracks in and out probably a week ago.” Viellain touched the dirt on the path.

Jena gazed up over the manor with slight dread. She knew it well even though she had never been here before. It was the Sleepless House. It was in the dreadful children’s rhythm that every Illian child knew by heart.

Ten Nine, mind your spine
Don’t sleep in the House of Pine
Eight Seven, I so reckon
The Lord to come to hear confession
Six Five, poke the hive
Leave by sunset to survive
Four Three, kiss your knee
He will drink your blood for tea
Two One, need to run
Bone to dust your life be done

“What is this place, Jena.” Halfhand says. “This place is steeped in violence.”

“The Sleepless House.” Jena found her words. The euphoria has slowly leached away, but the unnatural horrors of the Darkhound now seem a recent nightmare. It just left her in a sense of mundane numbness and exhaustion.

“Never heard of it.” Viellain grimaced.

“There was a duke. Lord Steeples. This be once the seat of his power. There was always rumors. Tortures and murders for pleasure. Eventually, enough that the King could not ignore. But somehow the Lord knew. When the Companions finally arrived, all his staff and workers were already dead. Steeples himself hung himself from the Tower, rather than face the King’s justice. Yet they say since, he do be still wander his estates. There is a dare amongst the children of Illian. To stay in the Steeples house over a night. No one has been able to do it. They call it the Sleepless house. “

Viellain examined the main manor. “If the hounds are able to cross the bridge, we will need defensive position within the next hour or two. We can not risk being caught on open ground in the night against a pack. However, I do not want to stay in the house if we can afford it. Legends and myths are based on some kernel of truth, and we do not have time to investigate and clear the house of whatever spook haunt it, as well as risk the dozen of access points. “ He points at a slim structure abutting the house. “That looks like the stables. Our best chance would be to barricade ourselves there for the night, with limited egress points.”

“Agreed.” Halfhand grunts, “Risk the night there, and if we are not sieged the darkhound, we may be able to scavenge brick dust from the manor in the day time.”

The front entrance of the stables opened easily. The locks had long been broken by scavengers. Inside, the stable house had two rows of stables on each side, meant to house individual horses, although most of the doors were now rotting or hanging loose on their hinges. There was shutters on the windows. On the wall near the house there was a hallway inset leading to a reinforced door that must lead into the Sleepless House itself. Above the doorframe was metal shutters.

The two Child of Light sweeped in, torches in hand. They investigated each stall and corner. The place has long been ransacked of everything not bolted down. Viellain tested the window shutters to find they were still quite secure. After their initial survey, Viellain filled the two lamps with oil. They closed the stable door behind them, and closed the bar. From a depleted sack, Villain found the last of his brick dust and laid a thin layer at the threshold of the gate as well as to the door that led to the main house. The exhausted lathered horses were given a stable each, and given the last of the feed

“This place reeks less of evil.” Halfhand studied the empty stalls. “It is obvious that the Lord of the Manor valued his horses more than his actual denizens.”

“Let’s hope it leaves us alone tonight.” Viellain studies the shutters above the connecting door to the main house. “Murder holes. For if the house is sieged.” He laid a thin layer of brick dust below the connecting door as well.

They barricaded the entrance door with a trough. The three began to settle down for the night. There was a water pump that seemed to still work and they at least had water for the night, if not food. They waited weapons ready for two hours for the Darkhounds but there was no violent siege, so presumably the moat barrier was complete.

Viellain's elixir had left Jena at this point, but freed from the aura of the Darkhound, she simply felt drained and empty. She found a stall of her at the corner, the furthest from the door as she clutched her legs to her. She wanted to feel angry, scared, something, but for now she just felt heavy and wanting to let the exhaustion of sleep take her. She had felt this before, but now could put a name to it: battle shock. She had once build a cage for her mind to retreat, but it lay in wreckage when she was forced out of it. She could rebuilt it, retreat once more behind its comforting walls. She would feel safe again. But, she would be useless to the two Child of Light sitting in the room who gave an occasional glance at her. She could not be useless again, nor be abandoned. So, as soon as she heard them talking about the night shift, she interjected, “I will take the first shift.” Her voice was steadier than she felt, her heart quivering.

“Jena.” Halfhand’s voice was strangely soft. “You have gone through more than most war recruits see on the first day of the lines. You should sleep. We can reassess in the morning.”

“No.” Her voice was firm but tinged with desperation. “I can do it.”

“You have nothing to prove, Jena.” Halfhand said. But at the fierce look in her eyes, he acquiesced. “Very well, wake me after two hours.”

With that, the two Children finished securing the stables. With weapons within reach, curled up in their cloak and hay and went to an uncomfortable sleep, leaving Jena on watch.

The girl sat with her back against the wall, watching the barred door, alone with her thoughts. There was a part of her that regretted volunteering for the watch. She was exhausted. But she also knew she would not have been able to sleep either. Always in the back of her head she could still see the glowing eyes and malevolent aura. It almost felt that if she blinked too long, that a creature of shadow would appear immediately after. Yet, holding Shrike in her seemed to give her strength, the steel dagger an affirmation of her abilities to survive.

Her brooding was interrupted by a gentle scratching sound. There was always a harsh whisper of the wind scraping past the many cracks of the stable wall, but this was different, it seemed carried a tempo that was unnatural.

She was immediately on her feet, Shrike held in both hands, surveying the stables. She looked at the two Children asleep in the cloaks. They looked like corpses so still they slept. She was hesitant to wake them up. And as abrupt as the scratching began, it seemed to stop as she listened for it. Was imagination running wild, feeding on unresolved fear?

She picked up the lighted lantern next to her, and began to pace the perimeter of the stables with soft steps, listening and checking the walls and doors. She stilled the moving shadows in her visual periphery. She knew it was just from her lantern’s moving light.

She carried the lantern steadily, casting a tepid light over the walls, covered in small scratches and carving at the height level of children. Most of them were initials and names as a testament to those who were brave enough to come here. Over one of the shutters, the Sleepless House nursery rhyme was carved. Someone had scratched over the word Lord, and written in Lady. Her light also swept over an uncomfortable amount of carved “don’t sleep” admonitions.

Unbidden, she could hear the nursery rhyme in the back of her mind. Ten Nine, mind your spine
Don’t sleep in the House of Pine. Eight Seven, I so reckon the Lord to come to hear confession.
It dug into her mind like an ear worm. But, she clenched Shrike in her hands hard, and fought against it with the LItany of the Child that Halfhand taught her. I am the Fire of Righteousness. The Bane of Chaos. The words always felt pretentious to her and she never took it very seriously, and yet tonight those words offered a shield that calmed her racing imagination.

Six Five, poke the hive, Leave by sunset to survive. I walk the Path of Order. She continued her tentative patrol. The front door and the shutters seem quiet and secure, although for a second she almost hallucinated shadows behind the door.

Four Three, kiss your knee, He will drink your blood for tea. I speak the Word of Truth. Her last stop was the connecting door to the house. Her heart almost dropped as she heard the incessant barely audible scratching start again, but she could not resolve the direction.

Two One, need to run, Bone to dust your life be done. In the Creator’s Shelter, I fear no Shadow or Evil. She paused, leaning down to examine the brick dust line underneath the door. It seemed intact.
As she began to stand up, her light swung over four words carved on the door itself at child height.
“Do not look
Do not scream”

A liquid dripped down from above. As she looked up, she saw the empty slats of the murder hole. There was a presence in its shadow.

Cutting off Jena’s scream, the shadow reached down and pulled her in.

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Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration --- &RPaward

Post by halfhand » Tue Apr 02, 2024 3:09 pm


Viellain rests, but he never sleeps. Especially in a haunted manor. So even with the waif on watch, he merely laid, lids relaxed, but always observing and monitoring. The girl did pass his tests so far. He has tested her with the elemental of iron and silver, as well as the salt and forkroot compounds. It was almost certain that she was at least human. But he was a natural skeptic, there was no one that received certain trust from him. Not even the Halfhand meted more than ninety-five percent trustable. Although he did not trust the girl, he did like her. She had a certain mettle and resilience, a diamond in the Illian rough. A bright ore that would make a sharp weapon one day, if she survived.

So while his body slept in his way, he watched Jena through lidded eyes as she began her night watch. And he watched her investigate the walls, and approach the manor doorway.

So when she was pulled up by the limbs silencing her strangled scream, Viellain was already on his feet, dagger in hand. He sprinted to where she disappeared, snatching up the fallen lantern and facing the murder hole. The grate was gone, but only stillness remains. He was expecting a spectre, but the wafting smell was not sulfur but a tepid earthiness. There was an echo of scrabbling movement quickly dwindling through the opening. The Hand placed an ear against the cold steel of the door and he could hear the same scrabbling movement fading into the distance.

He turned to see Child Halfhand, now wide awake and holding his iron warhammer, a grim facade on his face. “What happened?”

“Something took Jena.” Viellain pointed to the open murder hole. He only had a brief glimpse of the long spiked limbs that seized the girl. His mind grinded through his mental encyclopedia of creatures. The speed and reach of the limb spoke of a predator. There were five possibilities, none of them good.

“Move.” The Halfhand raised the warhammer as the Inquisitor retreated. He slammed the weapon against the iron door, but its ancient steel held. He switched his stance and grip, and targeted the hinges with practice strikes. The solid iron warhammer cracked the rusted hinges, and the door toppled to the ground with a cloud of dust.

The hallway behind it was like the long throat of the house. There was a brief breath of damp air that emptied into the atmosphere of the room, like pungent night soil after a rainstorm. The hallway seemed to go forever, beyond the light rim of the lanterns. The foundation of the house groaned slightly too at the violation of its threshold.

To go in there would be unwise. Viellian knew this without needing to do the calculations. An unknown haunted domicile that limited mobility, blind ambush points, and too many unknown. The best thing would be to sacrifice the girl, barricade themselves in, and leave at first light. To enter further would be nigh suicidal.
“It stinks of deaths, but none fresh. She is still alive.” Halfhand said, his jaw tense, staring into the black maw of the Sleepless House. “Do you have my back, brother?”

Viellain shook his head wryly, “You are insane, fradis. But, I knew what I signed up for. Five minutes. We have five minutes to find her.” He was already at his travel packs. He stored away his traveling duster, and pulled out his assault vest. A black hardened leather cloak, personally chemically treated for sharp and fire resistance. As he buckled it on, he could feel the tight leather around him. The material did not breathe and he hated wearing the smothering second skin for any amount of time. But it was the best protection for the close quarters of the house, and the best chance for his survival.

With a practiced hand like a concert pianist, he deftly stroked his vest with the assault loadout from his pack, as flasks and projectiles clicked securely into their prepared pockets.

As he stood up armed for melee, he saw Halfhand was already ready as well. He had affixed his gauntleted dagger, with his sword in the other hand. The iron warhammer would be too unwieldy in the hallway of the manor, he would have to rely on just silver and steel.

Viellain tossed a wax wrapped package to Hafhand, containing a tabac concentrate resin that the Child chewed immediately. Viellain took a swig from a small flask himself, filled with alcohol dissolved stimulants. He barely felt the burn of the liquid. Both of them were physically exhausted after the darkhound fight and the horseback flight, enough to wear their bodies down for a week. They would be both going in at half strength, propped up by chemical crutches. The liquid strength would be temporary and there would be a heavy physical price that would still need to be paid.

Gazing into the mouth of the Sleepless House, Halfhand gives a brief nod, “Smash and grab.”. His sword in hand and a torch in the other, Halfhand entered, with Viellain reluctantly behind.

The hallway was grand enough to allow a horseback rider through, but yet still claustrophobic. The walls were faded, leaving a faint memory of once opulent design. The once vibrant royal red walls have darkened to the appearance of dried blood. Paintings still lined the walls in their ornate frames, which remained oddly unlooted. There was a contradiction of polish on the frames against the thick cobwebbings that lined the ceiling and corners of the hallway.

Open doorframes filled the hallway leading to cavernous rooms that could conceal any matter of malicious hunters and ambushers.

But most ominously, tiny spots of fresh blood drops stained the wine-dark carpet trailing down the hallway.

Halfhand led the way, his light dancing across the hallway and past doorways. Standard operating procedures would typically call them to clear out each room to avoid being flanked. But, right now, precious time was against them. The golden five minutes trickle down with every breath. If they could not find her in five minutes, her survival plummets to zero, and their chances as well.

They raced past the doorways filled with potential threats, forging into the heart of the manor. Perhaps a hundred paces in, Viellain could catch sounds behind them, initially soft but soon undeniable scratching movements. He swung his light back but whatever trailed them kept just out of the range of light. But with his honed eyes, he can see movements in the darkness, furtive lurching movements from creatures with too many limbs. The more rooms they passed, the amorphous size of their flankers seemed to grow as the noise grew to a restless rumble of skittering limbs. Yet, they never tried to overtake the two Children of Light, seemingly happy to block them from retreat the same way.

Strategies raced through Viellain’s head as they continued forward, the trail of blood (or was it bait) getting more and more sparse. They had no choice but to forge ahead, find Jena, and circle around.

Light appears at the end of the hallway. Halfhand and Viellain gave each other a half-nod, their weapons ready. Feeling the pressure of the pursuers behind, they burst into the white light of the heart of the Sleepless House.

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