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This is a Fan Fiction Work. While the story and many of the characters are original, locations, minor characters, and references to the Guild Wars franchise are the sole intellectual property of ArenaNet.
Thank you for reading.
My beloved wife and son, without whom I might never have had the motivation to excel in any endevour.
And to my friends in the Guild Wars world. You are my inspiration and my comrades, it is you who make the game great and who make the fantasy a reality.
Guild Wars Beyond: Knights of the Sacred Chalice - Forbidden Wisdom
“To the Knights of the Sacred Chalice and the members of the Officers’ Council, I present my findings with a great sense of excitement and with an increasingly profound respect for your order and for the length and breadth of its history. It is not without an almost childlike exhilaration that I report the recent unearthing of the lost library of Yeou Longroad. Many volumes have been found so far, the majority of which having been written in Old Ascalonian; I have been working tirelessly to translate and restore the books as my associates and I recover them. The first of these aged tomes to which I have applied my efforts include the fabled list of officers comprising the first council of heroes assembled by Founder Torrack Thunderbow and the manuscripts of the first chronicles of the guild in Longroad’s own hand. The chronicles of the birth of your guild and the beginnings of its nearly 330-year history are contained within these decaying artifacts, which we thought had been destroyed along with many other sacred relics when Zhaitan obliterated Lion’s Arch and the Battle Isles over 100 years ago - and Torrack’s original sealed vault along with it. It seems that your guild’s efforts against the servants of Primordius prior to the disappearance of the Dwarves prepared the ancient chronicler for the possibility that the great dragons might awaken. This enormous cache of documents was found in a separate vault in a Dwarven cavern beneath the Shiverpeaks, buried in a collapsed section thought to have been once occupied by the Stone Summit. Before I lose the attention of the the counsel, allow me to present a portion of the recovered material with the hope that I might encourage additional support in this archaeological endeavor.”
—Algeretus Lorca, Historian: Letter to the K.S.C. Officers’ Council
It was a spring day at the edge of the Crystal Desert on an outcropping overlooking the coast. The sun shone down with a heat that could be weighed by the pound while the persistent stillness merely exacerbated the intensity of the heat. The only quality for which a weary traveler might be thankful was the absence of humidity. The only standing form for uncounted miles in every direction was a single man in glistening Sunspear armor. The silver embroidered chalice stitched lavishly into his deep blue cloak flashed slightly as a brief puff of wind from the ocean stirred the hot air around him.
“That’s a welcome wind,” he thought to himself, “Turai Ossa can’t be blamed for succumbing to this wilderness,”
The weary knight was the only remaining member of an 8-man party that had started in Elona and proceeded northward to his present pair of footprints in the sand. He had used his influence as a Sunspear to convince the seven unfortunate soldiers of fortune to accompany him on his urgent mission - a mission that he could not risk sharing with the rest of his guild. He had travelled to Tyria once in the past, following a request from the Zaishen guild, but had never traveled by way of the Crystal Desert - half of his dying party had survived the poisonous wastelands of northern Elona only to succumb to the equally harsh conditions of the realm that had claimed so many of his homeland’s ancient heroes. The salt, sand, heat, and dessication seemed to work in synergy with the tireless efforts of the Forgotten and their nightmarish constructs. It was only the unique experience afforded him by his knighthood that had allowed him to overcome the obstacles that had decimated his hastily-assembled team. The warrior felt his mind wandering as he waited; moving from face to face of his vanished party. His sense of responsibility weighed heavy on his tired heart, but it was his responsibility to the rest of the world that kept him fixed in his position. His mind drifted, nearly hypnotized by the endless dance of the light as it twisted in the heated air rising from the baking surface of the sand. He was almost past noticing when a lone Skree landed nearby, watching him as if she expected him to attack. As a species, the Skree possessed a nearly human intelligence, but generally feared mankind and greeted them with intense xenophobic loathing. This rendezvous was far outside the normal scope of the daily activities of the lives of either of its participants.
“Have you died on your feet, groundling?” it asked in a harsh tone, keeping a safe distance.
The weary Sunspear blinked and fixed his eyes on the newcomer. It was a hunter, barely a fledgling, and was filthy and unkempt either from the long journey or from the skree tendency toward living in squalor. It appeared to be female, though most of her type did in the wild.
“I’m still alive,” he sighed, “Where is your mother? Your matron was the one that agreed to meet me here,”
The skree cackled like a crow, “It isn’t politically correct for someone of her stature to travel so far from her territory - especially not for secret meetings with crawling creatures such as yourself,”
“Uncharacteristically well-spoken for a skree,” the knight forced a grin, but withdrew it as the sudden sting reminded him of his cracked lips, “I guess I am to assume that you are her representative?”
“You may assume,” the skree chirped proudly, “Give me what you brought, so I can be on my way,”
The Sunspear produced a small, leather-wrapped bundle. Even through the thick leather wrapping, it throbbed with dire energies.
The skree fledgling hopped back, spreading her wings, “That? That doesn’t bear the look of a ‘trinket’ as I was told! It bleeds fell magic!”
“Your mother shelters you,” the knight said, stepping forward with the object at the end of his outstretched arm, “She knew what this was when she sent you. You must take this to the Tarnished Coast. There is an Asura there who will take it,”
“I know no Asura,”
“He will know when you arrive. He was one of the ones that originally detected this evil thing. You must fly there. Do not stop in a city or in any place where the dead sleep. Avoid the sea. Find a safe place in the Tarnished coast and wait for the Asura to find you,”
The skree hesitated.
“It will not harm you,” the knight assured, holding it out, “The skree are the only people that can carry it past this point,”
The huntress glowered at him with hawk-like, yellow eyes, “Humans seem to be good at talking,” she stepped forward, “But I care nothing about you and your Asura, or whatever else. What does this do for my people - how did you convince the matron to send me out here for this? Your people would just as soon kill me as look at me and I am expected to fly across an ocean to a foreign jungle... for what? You?”
“For yourself, and for your people - and mine,” the knight stood like a statue with his arm extended toward her, “the less you know about this thing, the better. Just take it. Deliver it and I am sure your mother will reward you handsomely,” he placed it into her claw-like hand and held it fast as she attempted to withdraw it, “If she does not, my guild will. You’ll be a queen among your people - just do this one thing - take this item to the tarnished coast let no creature know if it except the Asura that finds you,”
She looked at the bundle in her hands, his larger hands still clasped around them. It was no bigger than a grapefruit, but very heavy. She could feel it’s immense potential flowing over her like thousands of bubbles in a spring pool, but instead of feeling invigorated, she felt burdened, as if she were committing some heinous sin merely by holding it. She swallowed hard, “I..”
A tremor shook the ground, causing the Sunspear to lose his footing. The skree lighted on her wings until the ground stabilized.
“How do you groundlings survive being bound so to the ground?” she sneered, placing the item into a net tied to her brass armor.
Before the human could respond, a stronger tremor knocked him down again. He looked up to see the enormous, lumbering form of a giant sand wurm towering over him, it’s sightless head seeking something nearby. He had faced more than one such beast as he had made his way to the rendevous point, but this one was different. This wurm seemed dryer, it’s carapace was cracked and the soft tissues between the plates of its body seemed blackened and dessicated. About halfway down its length, the knight noticed several broken spears and a large opening that seemed to pass all the way through its body to the other side. The wurm was dead!
A shriek from the skree brought the distracted Sunspear back to his senses. She stood to his side utterly frozen, wings open and shaking, screaming over and over.
The knight lept to his feet, his deep blue cape shedding crystalline desert dust as he turned to the paralyzed harpy, “Take flight!” he shouted, drawing his heavy scimitar, “Go! Go! You must survive!”
She took only one step back before the monster lunged, hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of undead flesh hurtling toward its target. The Sunspear dropped his shield and wrapped his free arm around the tiny humanoid’s waist, surprised simultaneously by the creature’s light weight and heavy odor. The sand wurm crashed to the dune surface mere inches from the knight’s position, sending a wave of crystals cascading over both the human and the skree.
“Unhand me, wretch!” the young skree chirped, as if the bodily contact was enough of an affront to overwhelm her fear of the wurm, “Let me go! I can’t fly with your ape hands all over me,”
The Sunspear was already off of her before she managed to finish her sentence. His mind was on the beast assailing them.
It rose once more from the sand. A large portion of its cavernous maw had been destroyed in the unsuccessful attack. Two of it’s mandibles hung from ribbons of dried flesh just below its mouth. A dry roar erupted from its gaping oral cavity as if utterly infuriated by the persistence of its quarry. The knight picked up his shield as the beast sought him for another strike. He noticed the skree had not yet fled, “I told you to go, skree!”
“You don’t tell me anything, human!” the half-bird stomped indignantly, then noticed her helmet had been knocked off. It must have been buried beneath the wave of sharp, biting, sand crystals.
The Sunspear could not help but notice how human the creature looked under it’s dirty, rough-made armor, “Please go!” he pleaded, “You are the most important person in the world right now. Go!”
She saw him run toward the creature, fending off lighter attacks with his sword and shield. She opened her wings to take flight, then words dropped from her mouth that she would never have expected herself to say, “What about you?”
“This is my last battle,” the Sunspear roared, weakened from dehydration and already showing signs of injury, “Remember this sign on my cape and seek out my kind if you fail - remember this day!”
“Your kind are oppressors of my people!” she winged herself to a safe altitude, “I’ll never go to the Sunspears for anything!”
“Not the Sunspears, girl!” He desperately drove blow after blow into the undead beast, hewing helplessly at it as if to fell a giant, leathery tree, “Seek out the Knights of the Sacred Chalice!”
“Never trust the past. There has been too much forgotten, too many things hidden beneath the sand of ages. Even your own memory can lie to you...”
— Decimus the Historian
A gentle tinkling sound stirred Yeou Longroad from his sleep. A familiar sound, not unlike the sound of a tuning fork, or the clinking of ice cubes in a glass of water. His hand instinctiely sought the source of the noise, bringing a small tile of bloodstone and crystal before his eyes. The magical artifice was a wonder of modern life and no officer of any guild was ever without one. Even since the days immediately following the great guild wars of the past, these channelling stones, sometimes known as chatter-boxes were used by guilds throughout human civilization.
Yeou swept a finger across its smooth face, awakening the source of the noise. Several messages had reached him from his guild, most specifically, Guildmaster Thunderbow. The text of each message glowed on the stone’s face. Each had been inscribed on corresponding channelling stones help by other officers on missions throughout the world. Yeou habitually ignored the chatter, but messages from Torrack usually meant something interesting. Officer Longroad was routinely sent on odd missions for his guild. The KSC had no shortage of extremely skilled officers - veterans whose records put Yeou’s own brief service history to shame. But Yeou was one of those officers whose knack for creative thinking often found him working on tasks alone and without the awareness of his fellow knights.
Once the other messages from the guild and alliance had been filtered, there remained two private messages from Torrack.
The first read: “Howdy Yeou - I have not seen you at the guild hall in a while. Acmer said he has seen you on the guild’s channelling stone, so it looks like you have been active in Cantha. I have something interesting to discuss when you have a chance,”
The second read: “Yeou - Princess Salma has summoned the leaders of several of the larger Tyrian guilds to discuss a matter concerning increased undead activity in her territory. There may be bounties placed on these zombies in order to get them under control. I still need to talk to you when you get this message,”
Yeou sighed and looked out his window. The endless metropolis stretched out below his flat in Kaineng. Old wood creaked in the eastern wind and the sun was already rising above the distant skyline. He had been from Ascalon originally. One of the survivors of the Searing, but after all of the years of bloodshed and having claimed the lives of enough charr to fill the sea with fur, he found that he preferred the remoteness of Cantha over the endless warfare of Tyria. Daily dealings with the Afflicted made the thought of clearing Kryta of endless waves of undead somewhat tiring, regardless of the reward.
The wooden floor creaked as he sat up on his pallet of cushions. He set the small rectangular stone aside and donned his armor, weapons, supply pack, and his deep blue cape bearing the silver symbol of his order. Once fully prepared, he lifted the channelling stone and cleared his voice as he pressed his thumb on the center of its smooth surface, “Take me the to the Guild Hall of the Knights of the Sacred Chalice,”
On the distant Wizard’s Isle, a massive summoning stone awakened, spiriting the officer immediately to the Guild Hall from his previous location thousands of miles away. Only guild halls possessed such an ability, an ancient magic that worked faster than any Asura Gate; made possible only by the fact that the channelling stones each member possessed were bound to the master stone built into the foundation of the hall. Some have speculated that the otherwise simple communication artifices are only capable of transporting the parties bound to them to their respective guild halls due to some power imbued by Balthazar to the strata of the Battle Isles themselves - but all that mattered to most guilds was that the process worked, and that it saved months of travel time.
Yeou found the hall empty, as was usual for his Canthan time zone. The Tyrian guildmembers must have been asleep or with their families at such a late hour. He silently cursed himself for the oversight and leafed through his notebook to see if he had any Zaishen errands to turn-in while he waited for his associates to arrive.
His chatter rang in his pocket. Taking it out,he saw another message from the guildmaster: “My CS indicates that you are up and around. You want to meet meat the GH?”
Yeou pressed his thumb on the center of the channelling stone and spoke, as if to Torrack, “I am in the Guild Hall now, sir,”
The stone vibrated, creating a tone resembling the guildmaster’s own voice, “I’ll be right there - who else is there?”
Torrack winked into existence in front of Longroad, who upon seeing him, returned the stone to his pocket.
“Good to see you, Yeou. I imagine you must have been pretty busy - I’m used to seeing you at least weekly,”
“I apologize for that, sir,” Yeou replied with characteristic politeness, “I have been spending a lot of time in Cantha lately and the timezone makes it hard to synchronize with Tyrian time,”
“No problem, Yeou,” the mighty ranger chuckled at his officer’s frequently unnecessary decorum, “I have something I would like for you to look into, if you have time,”
“My time is yours, Master Thunderbow,”
Torrack clapped one of Yeou’s pauldrons with a heavy bowman’s gauntlet, “I expected no less. Are you familiar with an Elonian member named Marc Anutanni?”
“I can’t say that I am, sir - though I’m sure I have seen him on the roster. Why do you ask?”
“He has gone missing,”
Yeou looked surprised.
“I know what you are thinking. We found his channelling stone and a large portion of his equipment in a barrel at the edge of the Sulfurous Wastes. Actually we didn’t, one of the Sunspears from his unit did. It seems they are already looking for him - for desertion,”
“That doesn’t sound like something one of our knights would do,” Yeou mused, “Especially there - I mean, where would he go in the wastes? There are a lot more comfortable places to go AWOL,”
“The same thoughts crossed my mind, so I asked some of our people in the area to check it out. My thought was that the Sunspears are still an organization recovering from the war with Kourna, and the KSC has more than enough capacity to locate one of our own,”
“Then I got word from our own search party that Palawa Joko’s minions are also aware of the disappearance and are searching high and low for the man,”
Longroad’s brow furrowed, “He must be pretty popular out that way,”
Torrack grinned, “We both know Joko doesn’t give a rat’s butt whether any of our people disappears or not. There’s got to be more to it than that,”
“That’s what I want you to find out,” Torrack replied, “I’ll be looking into the situation in Kryta in the meantime. Contact me if you need money for expenses,”
Yeou waved the offer aside, “I can handle expenses in Elona. But you have me very curious now. Why would the king of Elona’s undead be searching for a missing Sunspear and why would that Sunspear leave his channelling stone behind so near to that lethal wasteland? I wonder if the Krytan undead boom is related,”
Torrack took a step back and drew his stone from his belt satchel, “I was wondering the same thing. Stay in touch, but keep this matter off the guild channel. Beside us, only a few other officers know about this. We have not had a death in the KSC for quite some time and I want to know exactly what happened before people start asking what happened,”
“I understand,” the younge officer acknowledged.
“I knew you would,” Torrack replied, raising his stone, “I hereby leave the Guild Hall,” and with that, he vanished.
Longroad looked down at the handle of his sword, jutting cavalierly from the scabbard slung at his waist, “Looks like we are on undead duty after all,”
“The White Mantle suffered losses when the veil of godhood was lifted from their so-called deities, exposing the Mursaat as powerful, yet mortal, creatures. The revelation of this manipulation and deceit fueled a revolt in Kryta, led by the Shining Blade—and Kryta fell into civil war. The strongest force for unification, the Shining Blade are scattered and losing power, forced to deal with too many enemies at once. It has become Blade against Mantle, royalists against warlords. All fight one another for control of Kryta.
In an attempt to find a way to turn the tides of war in their favor, both the Shining Blade and the White Mantle have sent agents across the reaches of Tyria, searching for powerful allies or magics. Each side has vowed to bring peace to Kryta—no matter the cost.”
— The Guild Wars Eye of the North Manuscript
Torrack brooded over a hand-drawn map he had received from a Shining Blade operative detailing the areas now overrun by undead. Similar copies of similar maps had been given to the other guild and Alliance leaders at the meeting. According to the hot spots noted on the maps, it looked almost as if new armies of undead were pouring our of the sea. However, outbreaks of undead violence were documented in outposts and village regions near the coast as well.
Torrack leaned back in his chair as the Shining Blade presenter droned on about tactics and possible containment solutions. It was all the same. Kryta had been at war with on force or another since before the charr invasions. What mattered was the people and protecting them.
He looked around the long table, noting one or two faces he recognized and several he did not. All were younger than him and none of them seemed to bring anything to the meeting other than ears to listen to the Shining Blade tactician prattle on and on. After nearly an hour had passed, Torrack knocked on the table with his knuckles.
“Do you have something to add, Guildmaster Thunderbow?” one of the Shining Blade council members asked.
“Just Torrack, please,” Thunderbow replied, “And yes, I have a question,”
“Go ahead,” the tactician prompted, setting down her wooden pointer.
Torrack cleared his throat and help up his copy of the map, “Er, has anyone here noticed that all of the activity is coming from the sea or from coastal areas?”
“Of course, master Torrack,” the tactician replied, “That is why we are assembled here today,”
There was a chuckle somewhere in the back of the room, but Torrack ignored it.
“I say again,” Torrack reiterated, “Has anyone noticed that all of the activity is coming from the sea or coastal areas?”
“What is our point, Guildmaster Thunderbow?” the council member asked, glancing at the tactician, who remained standing.
“It’s just Torrack,” the knight repeated, “And I am just curious if anyone noticed, since that seem significant to me. The sunken city of Orr lies just off the coast and has been the source of a great deal of undead activity, even after the Undead Lich was slain several years ago - yet these outbreaks in towns and villages seem unusual,”
“I imagine that it has something to do with Orr, like you said,” one of the other guildmasters surmised.
“That brings me to my other question,” Torrack continued, “Has anyone contacted Rata Sum to see if the Asura are experiencing anything along their coasts?”
A brief pause followed and it appeared to the KSC guildmaster that such an approach may not have occurred to the Shining Blade. He felt a sudden twinge of guilt as he imagined the tongue-lashing he may have inadvertently brought onto the head of Princess Salma’s royal intelligence department.
“Ahem, well,” the tactician began, “The thought occurred to us initially to bring the Asura in on this matter, but then it also occurred to us that the Asuran elders generally have their collective heads too far up their collective rears to be able to provide any useful intel in a strategically viable amount of time,”
The majority of the representatives at the table laughed heartily at the tactician’s pointed response, including at least one Asura in attendance. Torrack found himself wondering whether that particular representative had a problem with the leadership of Rata Sum or if he just wasn’t listening. He returned his mind to the matter at hand, “Well, be that as it may - I’d like to think that you might have a least sent someone to the Tarnished Coast to investigate. We’ve seen from the movement of the Destroyers up north that the world beneath our feet is very active. Maybe something subterranean is to blame, but we won’t know until we know how far this epidemic reaches,”
“Here here,” agreed a nearby guildmaster, slapping the table with his hand, “The old man has a point - we have seen all manner of horrors ascend from the deep. I myself have had run-ins with afflicted and destroyers both. Ours is a world within a world, to be sure - an’ that’s not counting the supernatural, which was the cause of the Affliction in the first place,”
“Let’s not make wild speculation, gentlemen,” the Shining Blade councilor warned, “The Imperial Embassy has issued a release stating that the affliction was a plague and nothing more,”
“Ha!” the guildmaster spat, “Ha! Anyone who was there and saw the Shiroken and Tagachi’s guild symbols appearing all over Cantha would never be convinced of such an obvious cover story,”
“I’ll be waiting to hear the Kournan government issue us a similar statement,” another alliance leader accused, “That Varesh was just a troubled youth and the Margonites - what?”
“Swamp gas,” Torrack jested.
The meeting hall filled with laughter only to be rapidly silenced by the hammering of a gavel, “That is quite enough,” the council member ordered, “This is not one of your guild halls. This matter is to be taken seriously,” he turned to the red-faced tactician, “Please continue,”
Acmer stood up from his seat in the hallway at the sound of the council chamber doors opening. He spotted Torrack filing out of the room with the rest of the Tyrian guildsmen and worked his way to him through the throng.
“Hey boss,” he greeted, “How did it go?”
“About like I expected,” Thunderbow replied.
Acmer waited for elaboration, but did not receive it. He followed Torrack out of the great hall and into the plaza, “So this is just more zombie farming?”
“I’m not sure what this is,” Torrack replied, “I have volunteered some of our people to help with containment. I’d like you in charge of that, ifyou don’t mind,”
“Whatever you want,” Acmer shrugged, “What will you be doing?”
“I’m going to Rata Sum,” the old ranger replied.
“I would have expected you to be closer to the action,”
Torrack looked over his smoked Asuran spectacles at the taller warrior standing beside him, “I expect there to be plenty of action there,”
Acmer raised an enquiring eyebrow as Torrack resumed walking.
“Do you remember Marc Anutanni?”
Acmer paused, “I think so. Quiet chap - his name only rings a bell because I remember that it sounded like Mark Anthony. A paragon, wasn’t he?”
“Anyway, he is the missing guild member I mentioned to you a day or two ago. Yeou is on a ship right now bound for Kamadan with instructions to find out what happened,”
Acmer seemed surprised, “Yeou Longroad?”
“Don’t look so shocked,” Torrack chuckled, “He is an excellent officer,”
“I’ve no doubt, but I thought that a manhunt would be more suited to more experienced officers. Red Warrior came to mind,”
Thunderbow shook his head, “This is not a manhunt, in my opinion. I think Yeou is uniquely suited to this particular task. Anyway, I want you to take care of this business in Kryta, there are a lot of guilds involved, so just keep us one step ahead of them. I’ll be in touch,”
“You’re the boss,”
Torrack grinned and adjusted his bow on his shoulder in a motion that looked very much like a shrug, then turned for the docks. He knew the situation in Kryta would be in good hands, but the Tarnished Coast was a dangerous place even without undead hoards. He still felt that there may be a connection between the undead activity in Elona and the sudden surge of undead activity in Tyria, but his mind began to spin when he tried to imagine what that connection might be. Though the experienced wayfarer was hardly concerned for his own safety, he nonetheless found himself thinking that the sooner he heard from Longroad, the better.
“The Land of the Golden Sun has weathered a long night and lived to see a new dawn. It has been three years since Varesh Ossa's reign of terror nearly unleashed Abaddon upon the world, and the effects of that event still resonate throughout all three provinces. Kourna, home of Warmarshal Varesh, was perhaps hardest hit in the aftermath. In addition to the dark lord's nightmares, which have yet to completely fade from the minds and memories of its people, Kourna had to deal with a power vacuum after the loss of its leader and most of its military. The Sunspears, along with Morgahn, an ex-general of the Kournan armies, proved invaluable to its recovery. Both Istan and Vabbi fared much better after the death of Abaddon. The Istani, long supporters of the Sunspears, were lauded for the aid they provided in the campaign against Varesh. Attendance at Kamadan festivals has seen a marked increase, as people from across the world come to the Sunspear homeland to pay their respects. In Vabbi, the three princes spread their wealth copiously throughout the province to heal any wounds to their vaunted architecture as well as the rarified sensibilities of their people. Annual performances of Norgu's Nightfall in the Bokka Amphitheatre draw huge crowds...if not rave reviews. All of Elona has prospered from increased trade with Cantha and Kryta in recent years, and many Elonians have begun traveling the world, for both pleasure and adventure. But as word spreads of strange rumblings from beneath the ground, adventurers are likely to return to Elona to investigate.”
— The Guild Wars Eye of the North Manuscript
Yeou stepped off the ship into the searing heat and abrasive dust of Kamadan, the Jewel of Istan. The senses of the open market and of the many people ebbing in and out of the city walls like the tides flooded his ears, eyes, and nostrils. Despite having spent extenisve periods in Elona during the campaign against Varesh and her twisted god, Elona always seemed foreign to the young officer - place to visit, but not a place to live.
A familiar face met him on the other side of the consulate processing center, “Greetings, young Commander Longroad - or should I say Knight Longroad?” The dark-complexioned man approached with an outstretched hand and a wide smile. He was clad in the flowing garments of a Sunspear dervish.
“Lari Ngunda,” Yeou remembered, taking his hand and shaking it firmly, “Were you informed of my travel plans?”
“Nah, nah - but I was made aware when your name came up on a manifest. The Sunspears have been tasked with checking out any ships carrying military passengers,”
“Well, that would not be me. I have never been in the military,” Yeou recalled.
“Nah, it was another guy this time, but your name is hard to miss, Commander,”
“I think that the foreign guildsmen that participated in the last battles during the civil war were given the honorary rank of Spearmarshal,” Yeou corrected.
“Now look at you talking!” Lari rapped his knuckles on Yeou’s steel breastplate, “Blessed goddess Kormir was the one passing out rank like candy, not I. You were an honorary commander last time I saw you,”
“It’s all the same, I suppose,” Yeou sighed, “I’ve always been just Yeou Longroad anyway. The world has too many titles these days,”
“Amen to that,” Lari followed Yeou as the latter began to walk toward the center of town, “So what brings you to Elona after all this time? I thought you swore you’d not be back once all was said an done,”
“That was me jinxing myself,” Yeou stated wearily.
“So what then? Ya’ come back just to get a tan on that pale skin?”
“I’m looking for someone, actually,”
“Someone, eh? There’s a lot of people fitting that description,” Lari bantered sarcastically, his dangling armor jingling as he strode to keep up with the long-legged Longroad, “Maybe I can help you,”
“Maybe you can,” Yeou replied in a neutral tone, “But for now, all I need is transportation to the KSC field office in Vabbi and from there, a fast caravan to the Gate of Desolation,”
The Vabbian city of Kodash was as splendid as the young officer remembered, perhaps more so now that the fear of Abbadon and war with Kourna had been lifted from the backs of its citizens. The fountains flowed from underground streams, charged and pressurized by magnificent enchanted artifices buried in ancient aqueducts beneath the city. The countless fountains and waterfalls produced a fine mist that filled the warm air any time that the wind blew, cooling commoners and nobles alike.
A nearby worker pushed a moist mop over the intricately tiled sidewalk. He bowed to Yeou and Lari as they passed, “This is a breath of fresh air, eh?” Lari mused, “Vabbi has a little too much money, no?”
“I don’t want to get into politics on this trip,” Yeou replied. He scanned the plaza for the Silver grail insignia that matched the one on his cape. No other guildsmen seemed to be out on the street. He shifted his search to the signage propped on the street or hanging from the buildings. Vabbians were very appearance-minded, so signage was always kept to a minimum - a fact which sometimes made finding certain venues difficult. He found that he drew a blank whenever he attempted to recall the facade of the KSC’s regional office, “Captain Ngunda, do you happen to recall where the guild office is? I don’t see the sign anywhere,”
Lari scanned the area alongside his foreign friend, “Nah. Don’t see it,” he shrugged, “Eh. Mebbe they moved,”
Yeou let out a huff as he located his channelling stone and warmed the surface with the palm of his hand. The surface glowed with flowing script. Guild communication was active, as usual. Elona was a popular place for new adventurers, so the stone was flowing with living script. There were only a few names he recognized, “I need to attend more guild meetings,” he thought to himself as he traced a runic command onto the stone’s surface with his finger, limiting the chatter to those conversations originating in his region. It seemed one of his Elonan guildmates was looking for a team to accompany him back to Istan.
Lari looked over his shoulder, “Ho, there’s looking like your ride back, eh? But the timing is a little off,” he laughed to himself.
Yeou scribbled a message onto the living stone with his fingertip: “Officer from Tyria looking for the KSC office in Vabbi,”
The response came almost immediately: “The office is in Kodash, officer Longroad,”
Yeou rolled his eyes, then touched the reply with his thumb and spoke to the stone, “Can you hear me?”
There was a brief pause, as if the party on the other end was forced to stop whatever he was doing to pick up his channelling stone. Yeou’s own artifice vibrated to life, “I hear you,” came the stone’s mimicry of the other knight’s voice.
“I’m in the Kodash Bazaar now,” Yeou replied, “I don’t see it,”
“It’s in the southwestern quarter,” came the response.
A script message from another party appeared on the stone, “I’m at the office now, Yeou Longroad. Head for the Tihark gate. I will meet you outside,”
Yeou traced the letters T-H-X into the stone and returned it to his pocket, That’s the gate we entered through,” He glanced up at Lari.
“Don’t be looking at me now. I’m not part of ya’ guild, Mister Officer - how am I to know?”
Yeou cracked a slightly embarrassed smile, “I really haven’t been here in a while,”
The field office was about how Yeou remembered it. Cramped, and hot, but far from crowded. The guildsman that had contacted him walked to the corner of the front room and sat at an ornately carved, though rather small wooden desk and offered similar wooden chairs to both Longroad and Ngunda. He was muscular and a few scars shown on his face and what little skin remained exposed under his light assassin armor. His Canthan features were deeply tanned and hardened by the Elonan climate, but his eyes were alert and he surveyed both men briefly before speaking.
“Good afternoon, Officer Longroad. I hear your name from time to time, but I believe this is our first time meeting face to face,”
Yeou shifted awkwardly on his chair, still wearing his full suit of Kurzick plate armor, “Ah, well, I was here some time ago, but I am usually working in Cantha and Kryta of late,”
“How are things in Cantha?” the other guildsman seemed honestly interested.
“The afflicted are still causing trouble Kaineng, but they are being contained. Most of the outbreaks are under control now that the source of the scourge is known,”
“But I imagine you are not here to talk about Cantha, am I right?”
“I am actually here to take a look at an item that I heard was recovered recently,” Yeou replied, “Something belonging to a knight named Marc Anutanni,”
The KSC guildsman reached into a drawer in his desk and withdrew a box roughly the size of a shoe. He unlocked it with a ring on his finger and, opening the box, turned it toward Yeou. As Yeou stood and leaned forward, the knight glanced inquiringly at the Sunspear who had accompanied him. Lari crossed his arms, but said nothing.
The box contained a few sheets of paper and a terribly damaged channelling stone along with several other small items. Two copper Zaishen coins, a broken Sunspear battle commendation, and a dirty black feather that looked to have been hastily cut into a quill pen. Yeou picked up the feather and turned it in his hand. The end was coated in a dark brown substance that had stained the shaft of the instrument, “What’s this?”
“To the best of my knowledge, it’s a pen,” the guildsman stated plainly.
“No, I mean what’s this brown material?”
Yeou looked at the man impatiently, a silent reminder of his position in the conversation.
“Er, we believe that it is ink, sir,” the guild member reiterated, “It appears to have been used on some of the paper there,”
Yeou set the quill aside and took the paper scraps from the box, “That’s a very big feather. Not the right color for a flamingo. Is it a Moa feather?”
The other knight seemed confused by the question, “If you’re thinking about a black moa, Officer Longroad, you would be off by several thousand miles. They only exist in Echovald Forest - and are extremely rare even there,”
“It could have been imported,” Yeou mused, unfolding one of the papers, “Our friend Marc may have been involved in some illicit trade which led up to his disappearance,”
“Dassa skree feather, Yeou,” Lari chimed, “You know of any bird in the world what lets himself get sa’ dirty?”
The guildsman behind the desk blinked.
“Why would a knight of the Sacred Chalice be using a skree feather for a pen?” Yeou asked no one in particular. He turned to the Sunspear as if to hand the feather to him, “Is this a common item?”
Lari raised a hand as if to ward off the instrument, “Nah, nah, I can see it just fine. And to answer you - nah. Nah-buddy in their right mind is gonna carry something like that around. Skree carry all manner of vermin - es’ no trophy either. Vabbi is overrun with the pests,”
Yeou returned the item to the box somewhat quickly and turned his attention to the pieces of paper. Both seemed the same, but one was drawn with black ink and the other was drawn with the same brown stain as was seen on the tip of the quill. Each of the papyrus leaves depicted a simple figure of two men, both men seemed to be holding a circular object between them. One of the men seemed to have wings while the other had a sort of flag coming from his back. On the flag appeared to be a wine-glass or goblet with several straight lines above it. Beneath the two figures was a signature and beneath that, a pictogram of some indiscernible sort. That was where the two sheets differed. They were the same in all respects except that on the one drawn with black ink, the signature was above the pictogram, and the pictogram was above the signature on the brown-inked image.
“Any idea what they mean?” the man at the desk asked.
Yeou shook his head, “This thing coming off the stick figure here on the left is obviously supposed to be representative of a KSC cape - it looks too much like our guild insignia to be anything else,” he set the two leaves side by side on the desk, still examining them, “As for this other character...hmm...maybe this is a Lich cultist with the wings here. Then again, maybe this is supposed to be another cape and guild symbol. It’s impossible to be certain with these stick figures. I’m assuming this is Anutanni’s signature here,”
“What’s the other one?” Lari asked, seeming interested enough to lean forward, but not enough to stand.
“No telling,” Yeou replied, “Some kind of glyph. Maybe it’s another signature,” Yeou lifted the feather again and looked closely at the pointed end, then removed his gauntlet and scratched at it with his fingernail. The staining material flaked off under his fingernail. Without warning, he touched his finger to his tongue.
Ngunda was visibly disgusted, “Aw! I did not just see you do that! There is no way to know what that was!”
Yeou set the feather back down and replaced his heavy steel glove, “It was blood,” he stated simply, folding the papers and placing them in his belt pouch, “One of these was drawn in ink, the other in blood,”
“Do you know why?” the knight at the desk asked.
Yeou took the channelling stone and examined it. It seemed normal, but the smooth scribing surface had been heavily marred. Abraded to the point that it would be impossible for a person to use it for communication or transport. The rough surface was incapable of sensing a fingerprint. The officer placed his palm on its face, warming it until the flow of script could be perceived on its damaged surface. Guild and alliance traffic faded in and out as if all was right with the world. Yeou had the distinct feeling that the stone had been intentionally defaced to prevent its use - but why? Only the guild member to whom it was bound could use it to reach the Guild Hall or to send messages. It was only a receiver in this condition. Was he afraid of someone getting it? Why not smash it with a hammer? That would have at least sent a ping to the guild stone indicating that something was up. He placed the stone into his satchel along with the scraps of paper.
Yeou turned his eyes to the man sitting before him at the desk, “Do you know what happened? Why is there a message written in blood?”
Yeou shook his head, “I don’t know. It’s all very strange,” he stood to his full height and took a deep breath, “I’m sorry. I did not ask your name,”
“Takai Nakado,” the assassin replied, bowing slightly then extending his hand.
Longroad gripped it an shook it, “I will be in touch with you probably pretty regularly while I am in Elona. Do you have anyone who can accompany me to the Gate of Desolation? Captain Ngunda here is a commissioned officer and I don’t know how long the Istani government will let me borrow him,”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Nakado apologized, “I am the only one actually stationed in Vabbi at present. The search team that the Guildmaster ordered have all returned to their assignments after filing their report. I have been told that replacements are on their way as soon as some issue in Kryta is resolved. I was just told to standby and keep this for you,” he tipped his head toward the open box on his desk.
Yeou adjusted his glasses, a pair very much like Torrack’s, and looked over his shoulder at Lari, who stood from where he was sitting, he returned his gaze to the seated guild representative, “Ok. I’ll be in touch with you then. If you could, please send a letter to Kaineng for me,”
Nakado pulled a small vial of alcohol, an ink stone, and a brush from another drawer in his desk, then prepared a sheet of parchment stamped with the Sacred Chalice emblem, “What would you like to say?” he asked, brush in hand.
“Send a message to the Imperial Police,” Yeou ordered, “‘Knights of the Sacred Chalice; Officer Yeou Longroad to Kiri Snowblood: I am proceeding to the Gate of Desolation. Need discrete support. KSC to foot the bill. ASAP. End of message’,”
Takai’s brush worked rapidly, dashing ink against the page in a way unique to the Canthan’s native language. When he finished, he blew gently against the page until the ink was dry, then rolled the document into a tight coil and tied it, “Will there be anything else?”
“I hope not,” Yeou replied, turning to leave, “Please keep your channelling stone close,”
As they stepped back out into the broiling Elonan sun, Lari stepped close on Longroad’s heels, “What was all that? What’s happened to this man you are after?”
“I wish I knew,”
“You’re just going to the Gate of Desolation? Just like that?”
“Is that where this man disappeared?”
“Yeou Longroad,” Ngunda gripped one of the sharp pauldrons of Yeou’s Elite Kurzick armor, quickly releasing it when it nicked his hand, “Aie! Wait!”
“I am on a mission, Captain,” Yeou reminded, pausing momentarily.
“The Sunspears are searching for a deserter in that same area,”
“So I have been told,”
“Was he a member of your guild?”
“I believe so,”
“What was he doing there? Did he desert, or what?”
“That is what I am here to find out,” Yeou replied.
“When do you intend to head out?”
“Immediately,” the loyal officer replied, “If I get on with the next caravan headed west, I should be able to reach the Gate by sometime tomorrow - my contact may still get there before me, so I need to get a move on,”
“From Cantha?” Lari seemed incredulous.
“Yes,” Yeou resumed walking at his previous pace, “Zaishen mercenaries are very fast,”
“Then let me join in,” Ngunda offered.
“You are welcome to join me, captain - but remember that this is not a Sunspear affair. If you encounter a conflict of interest, know which side you’re on in advance,”
Lari grinned broadly, “It’ll be like old times, Commander! Gimmie a bit to gather some supplies and send a notification through to Istan. I’ll meet you at the Tihark gate,”
Yeou watched as the captain trotted toward the center of the bazaar. He was not sure how to pursue the matter of this missing man, even with this new information at his disposal. Attacking this mystery was like fighting an Ooze; any answered question simply split into more questions. More importantly, what was he going to report to Torrack?
“The sylvari are a young, inquisitive race of botanical humanoids spawned from the Pale Tree in Arbor Bay - the first sylvari emerging in 1302 AE. The tree was planted by Ronan and raised by Ventari, who were attempting to escape the violence that engulfed Tyria... ...Sylvari are not born. They awaken beneath the Pale Tree with knowledge gleaned in their pre-life Dream. These noble beings travel, seeking adventure and pursuing quests. They struggle to balance curiosity with duty, eagerness with chivalry, and warfare with honor. Magic and mystery entwine to shape the future of this race that has so recently appeared.”
— Unknown Tyrian Anthropologist
“They’re loading for a second go!”
“Keep your head down!” Torrack boomed over the cacophony of combat.
“Incoming!” a hysterical female paragon shrieked.
A huge ball of flame thundered over Torrack’s position behind a fallen tree, crashing into the thick jungle across the narrow path and igniting it as it collapsed in a liquid inferno.
“This absolutely sucks!” Torrack cursed through teeth clenched on an enchanted arrow. He nocked three new shafts onto his bowstring, “Keep your stupid heads down! I’m trying to draw them up here so they can’t use the catapult! Don’t give them any new targets!”
The guildmaster sat up, rapidly releasing the multiple arrows. Before they met their targets, he nocked the arrow he had been holding in his mouth and drew back, “Splinter weapon! Now!” he looked to the ritualist in his hired group, huddled against the paragon behind one of the giant jungle trees, “Wake up! do you want to live?”
The ritualist raised her staff, and stood despite her fear, beginning to writhe in the dance that summoned the desired channeling effect. The arrow on Torrack’s bow was struck with surge of energy.
“Eyes forward!” the veteran ranger shouted to his team of hired hands, then he intoned, as if speaking to his drawn bow, “Barrage,” and let fly.
The arrow glowed brightly and split into three identical shafts, then three more, striking several foes at once while cascading damage upon damage from the previous ritualist incantation. Undead around the rotting siege engine collapsed into heaps.
“I want some burning damage up front on the double!” Thunderbow lobbed three ignited arrows downrange, catching the ground around the corpses on fire, “Let’s go! Covering magic on the point man and keep that ritualist covered!”
The team jumped the felled log and rushed the catapult, slaughtering the undead where they stood. A well-placed sword blow from the warrior on the team collapsed the burning ordinance into the machine, reducing it to a single immense pyre.
“How many more?” the terrified paragon called.
Torrack surveyed the area for more combat machines, “No more siege engines, but the undead keep coming!”
“We have been at this for hours!” the girl cried, smashing a skeletal light infantry soldier back with her shield and gouging through it’s skull with her spear, “We can’t keep this up,”
Torrack fired an arrow through the face of another assailant approaching her from her right, dousing it in flames, “Aren’t you supposed to be a motivation and command specialist? Where were you trained?”
“This isn’t like the training!”
Torrack launched three more arrows into the approaching hoards, then set one loose into the head of one of the four zombie infantry pounding against his warrior’s shield, “A whole guild of elite masters of combat and I hire henchmen - I must be going senile!”
“There is another wave approaching!” the team’s elementalist shouted from behind Thunderbow’s right shoulder.
“Where are they coming from?” the ritualist asked, keeping her back to the burning catapult.
“The river, looks like,” the warrior shouted as he finished off the last of the nearby foes.
“Should I cast shelter?” the ritualist asked, raising her staff to heal the melee fighter on the team.
Torrack did not have long to think. It was rare that he found himself so completely outmatched. His team was only supposed to make a routine trek to Rata Sum by way of Vlox’s Falls, only a few krait were to be expected on this path through Arbor Bay. He had initially thought he could rush through the jungle on his own. He had only brought these rookies because he thought they could benefit from the money and experience. He debated whether or not he should head back the way they had come, since his question about undead this far southwest had obviously been answered. He felt a protective spirit envelope him as the ritualist summoned a sheltering entity in preparation for the inevitable onslaught.
“Let’s see how far we can get,” Torrack announced, “We need to make our way to Ventari’s Sanctuary. I feel very strongly that these zombies will not pursue us that far,”
“That is a holy place,” the ritualist argued, seeming to stare at him through her blindfold, “As combatants, surely it would be wrong to take refuge there,”
“I didn’t ask opinions,” Torrack stated, “Let’s move!”
The group took flight across the wetlands, pushing west through all opposition. Any krait or flyer foolish enough to offer resistance were mowed down by Torrack’s bow and his endless supply of skill-specific arrows. Those unfortunate enough to survive the encounter with the guildmaster and his team of henchmen were obliterated by the surging hoard of undead nipping at their heels.
However, as they neared the grove tended by the centaur Ventari, the nightmarish army seemed to give up the chase and return to the opposite side of the river, where they began to fight amongst themselves and the rising corpses of the krait they had killed moments before. the team waded through the cold, jungle water to the edge of the island where they were met by the aged centaur himself.
“You have no right to bring your battle to this shore,” he said gruffly.
Torrack looked over his shoulder at the monsters receding into the jungle, then put away his weapon and wiped a rivulet of sweat away from his eyes, “I assure you that to bring the battle here is the last thing I want. I would prefer to leave the battle elsewhere and come here without it,”
Thunderbow’s team was too thoroughly routed to appreciate his wit, but the centaur offered a snort in response, “I’ll not see any weapon unsheathed on my island. This is a sanctuary of peace,” he turned and walked away.
“Have you been here before?” the paragon asked sheepishly.
“Once or twice; but apparently not enough times for the old goat to remember my face,” Torrack shrugged, “We two-legs all look the same, after all,”
“Moa and charr have two legs,” the warrior retorted, “Perhaps that beast’s eyes are just painted on to scare predators,”
“You haven’t had much dealings with centaur, have you?” Torrack asked as he stepped onto the dry land, sat, and poured the water from his boots.
“Not enough to be having conversations with them,”
“Best not to bother this one then. Ventari may be a pacifist now, but he was slaying the sons of men long before your father was a twinkle in your grandmother’s eye,”
The ritualist and the paragon sat on the dry grass side-by-side, both soaked with sweat, dirty swamp water, and whatever fluids oozed from the myriads of undead they had slain that day. The ritualist lie back in the grass and exhaled a deep, shaky breath. Thunderbow noticed that the head wrappings covering her eyes seemed moist, but decided not to ask.
The elementalist of the group seemed the most curious about their surroundings, “I can feel a massive energy in this place,” he said, conjuring a flame in the palm of his hand, “It’s like this little island is at the center of an aetheric vortex,”
The old ranger fought the urge to roll his eyes, “It’s probably that big sapling at the center of the island that you are sensing,”
The paragon turned her head where she was sitting. Torrack saw her face light up as she beheld Ronan’s tree, sprouting like a giant, white pig’s tail from the center of the island, “Master Torrack, what kind of tree is that?”
“It’s just plain Torrack, miss...uh,”
“Lyell...” the ranger continued, suddenly realizing that he had not taken the time to learn any of his party’s names. He had been in such a hurry to allay his suspicions that he had rushed out with supreme confidence, never expecting that such an enormous obstacle stood in his way. Now that they had survived such a fierce battle together, he found himself feeling a great sense of responsibility for them.
“Torrack?” Lyell enquired.
Thunderbow blinked, “The tree! Yes. It’s an unknown phenomenon. One of a kind. It’s clearly a magical creature, as you can see by the way the otherwise vicious jungle remains tranquil all around it - but nobody really knows what nature of magic it is,”
“Perhaps it’s an incarnation of Dwayna,” the ritualist suggested, beginning to regain her composure.
“Or Melandru,” Torrack observed, “Who can say at this point? The tree is still young, so there is no way to know what it will do in the future,”
“It’s good enough that it keeps the zombies away,” the warrior acknowledged, plopping down next to Torrack, “That’s all the magic we need at this point,”
Torrack smiled to himself, “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,”
“The other way of looking at it is that we are trapped,” the elementalist said with a sigh.
“That would make you refugees of sorts,” came a feminine voice.
Torrack rose on his bare feet, turning toward the source of the voice.
“The outside world is full of violence and evil, but there is peace here. I have found that I prefer this place to any in Tyria - despite the difficulty one has getting here. My name is Shanda Ginkit,” the female ranger took a bow, “I’m a naturalist and I sell materials on the side to make ends meet,”
“Do you live here?” Lyell asked.
“Not really,” Ginkit replied, “This is just a place where I tend to spend a lot of my time. To me, this place is the center of Tyria. I would hope that one day the peace I experience on this little island would spread to the rest of the world,”
“I share your hope,” Torrack acknowledged, “I’m Torrack Thunderbow of the Knights of the Sacred Chalice. We came here to see whether the undead outbreaks in Kryta were happening here as well,”
Shanda smiled coyly, “I suppose you have your answer,”
“In a way,” Torrack acknowledged, “But it raises some other questions. I imagine this must have to do with something happening in the sunken city of Orr, which lies just off the coast. Do you know when the undead first appeared in this area?”
“I can’t say for sure, since I am not one to venture far from the path of least resistance,” Shanda thought for a moment, “But it couldn't have been more than a week ago that dead soldiers started to appear, then dead animals. They never came close to the island though - we all assume the tree wards them off,”
“Did you see where they came from?” Torrack asked.
“Were they coming from the ocean?” the warrior pressed.
“I can’t say,” the merchant said unconcernedly, “But I have seen undead animals claw their way out of the ground on the other side of the river. The creatures are not friendly with each other either - when there are no living creatures to kill, they fight and destroy each other,”
“The problem may solve itself in that case,” the elementalist thought aloud.
“I doubt the entire population of Kryta would care to join us on this island to wait them out,” Torrack retorted.
“The outside world has been in chaos since the dawn of time,” Ventari trotted up to the group, “But of late, these woods have been in bitter agony. Never before have I seen such mindless violence. It is as if the creatures resting in the earth crawl from their graves and gnash their teeth one upon another in a fit of unspeakable pain and madness - has been so since the flying creature came and so since it departed. Even our tree has felt it, it has awakened it seems. She watches and listens to us now,”
“The tree is watching us now?” the ritualist seemed afraid, “What does that mean?”
“Can you not feel her?” the centaur asked.
“Wait, wait,” Torrack raised a hand, “What flying creature? Was it an undead creature? A tall man with wings and horns?”
“The Undead Lich,” Lyell whispered to herself.
“It was not a tall thing,” the old centaur grumbled, walking back to his beloved tree, “I think not a man. It looked very much like one of your women, but like a bird. It had wings of a bird and was very tired and full of such anger - it was like the krait for it’s intense anger,”
“It was definitely a foreign creature,” Shanda interjected, “Totally different from the local fauna; but Ventari is right, it was a bird-woman; not quite human, but certainly not an animal - and I am sure above all else that it was not undead,”
“Succubi are known to lurk around this area,” the warrior suggested.
“No,” Torrack held up his hand again, a signal to let him finish. He turned back to the material trader, “What was it doing here? Where is it now?”
“I couldn’t say,” was Ginkit’s response, “She came here raving about an Asura and demanding food and water, but when we brought it, she wouldn’t let anyone near her,” Shanda laughed awkwardly, “Made us set it on the ground,”
“And an Asura did come; carrying a little machine, as they often seem to do. She only had to wait about ten hours,” Shanda pointed at the roof of a nearby shack, possibly where some of the people on the tiny island slept, “the crazy little thing perched up there and waited, looking like Grenth himself was after her,”
“A flying woman waiting to meet an Asura?” Torrack pressed.
“That’s about the size of it,”
“And then,” the centaur said from a short distance away, “She gave him something and flew away again. She was not meant to be here. Like a thing from another world - so full of fear and anger. I hope it finds peace whither so ever it went,”
“What about the thing it gave the Asura,” Torrack asked, “That may have been important. Did anyone see what it was?”
“Something that you should pray that you never find,” the wise old centaur replied, staring out into the jungle, “I didn’t see it, but I know it was not something anyone in this war-torn world should find - something bad. Bad beyond imagination,”
“Why did you allow the Asura to leave with it?” Thunderbow felt himself growing frustrated.
Ventari looked squarely at the old ranger from his place beside the tree, “You’ve seen the play between the moth and the flame, two legs?”
“Imagine a moth with the power to conjure flame at will - imagine a race of such moths and you would be imagining the Asura. I am not one to decide what happens in the outside world and, to be frank, I didn’t want that thing here. The Asura gave it a means of leaving my sanctuary and I thank him for it,”
Torrack’s shoulders sank and he took a deep breath.
“What does all of this mean?” the ritualist asked.
“I think it means that we missed our only chance of finding out what it means,” Torrack said simply.
“He called himself Bleen, if that helps at all,” Ginkit offered.
“Bleen,” Ginkit repeated, “It’s all he seemed to say, in fact. Bleen, Bleen, Bleen - he loved the sound of that word and he had a habit of referring to himself in the third person; ‘Bleen has arrived in search of an artifice of great import’, ‘Bleen demands a glass of water’, ‘Bleen is not in the habit of carrying bookah currency’,” she shook her head, “I’ll not be forgetting his name for some time,”
Torrack snapped his fingers, grinning, “That’s actually very helpful. Thank you,” he separated from Shanda and returned to where he had left his boots and soaked equipment. As he approached, he noted his chatter chiming in its pouch.
Several messages from Yeou appeared at his touch:
“Arrived at Vabbi - going to our office in town to pick up the missing man’s effects,”
“Found some interesting things, please call when you have a chance,”
“Field office in Vabbi understaffed, respectfully recommend additional support for guild member Takai Nakado,”
“Proceeding to Gate of Desolation via merchant caravan. To meet collegue there to begin investigation. Am I still authorized to put this trip on KSC’s tab?”
Yeou’s dry sense of humor often made it difficult to tell when he was joking, but his messages frequently made the guildmaster grin. Thunderbow mentally calculated the time difference between Rata Sum and Vabbi, then held his thumb against one of Yeou’s lines of text.
“Yeou Longroad, are you there?”
“I am here, sir,” Yeou’s rough voice echoed from the vibrating surface with a crystalline ring, “Did you receive my messages?”
“I have. You’re still on my tab, buy the way - what did you find?” Torrack began to walk carefully away from the rest of his party.
“Very little, so far,” came the officer’s response, “but it seems that the disappearance may have been intentional, at least it seems that way so far,”
“How do you figure?”
“Marc’s channelling stone was intentionally defaced. Probably to prevent transmission or transport - but it is otherwise intact. It seems that it was intended to allow us to find it without allowing us to find him,”
“He may have just dropped it during a fight or whatever resulted in his disappearance,” Torrack thought aloud.
“No, sir - I don’t think that is the case. The surface of the construct is filed away to prevent any tactile interface. There is not a scratch on it otherwise. He would need a grinding wheel to do this - no mere drop could have achieved it,”
“Why not just break it?”
“I believe that he was aware that breaking it would signal the guild that something was wrong,” the crystalline facsimile of Yeou’s voice explained, “Everything about the condition of the stone and how it was found indicate premeditation,”
Torrack raised his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose, “So you think he really did desert the Sunspears and the KSC?”
“I don’t think so, sir,”
“I said I don’t think so, sir,” Yeou repeated, “There seems to be more to it than that. We found some other things in his effects,”
“Two pieces of paper and a quill pen made from a skree feather,”
“A skree?” Torrack looked over at the glowing tree in the center of the island. A skree - a harpy! A woman with bird’s wings, “Really,” he smiled, “What was on the papers?”
“Just a drawing. Two copies of the same drawing. It looks like a pair of men holding something - one has a KSC cape and the other has some indescenible insignia - either that, or wings. One copy is written in blood, though - which seems odd. Both seem to have been signed by our missing man and maybe someone else - oh, and I think the skree feather was used to make at least one of these drawings: the one done in blood,”
“That’s good work, Yeou,” Torrack commended, “Now we just need to find out what part Joko is playing in this - why is he looking for our missing knight?”
“I intend to find out first thing upon arrival at the wasteland,”
“Good. And Yeou,”
“If you run across any skree that don’t immediately attack you, see if you can ask them about the feather and the drawings,”
“I’ll do my best - I wonder how they prefer their tea,”
“Thanks Yeou - keep in touch,”
Torrack wandered back to his equipment and pulled on his boots.
“Are we ready to head back?” Lyell asked, seeming to have calmed down completely from the intense battle less than an hour earlier.
“Not back,” Torrack said matter-of-factly, “We need to keep moving forward. I’m more sure now than ever,”
“Forward to where?” the warrior asked, standing.
“To where all Asura go when they find something shiny,” the ranger pulled on his other boot and stood, slinging his bow over one shoulder, “Rata Sum,”
“Situated on a peninsula south of Ascalon and west of the Crystal Desert, Orr was a vibrant, proud, and prosperous nation. Its citizens were the favored of the gods, living in the shadows of Arah, the deserted city once inhabited by the likes of Melandru, Dwayna, and Balthazar. Deeply spiritual, the Orrians looked after the buildings and structures left behind when the gods left Tyria, caring for them in the hopes that one day, the divine beings who created magic and bestowed it upon the world would return. The Orrians were a peaceful people, hoping only to do their duty toward their gods and content to be rewarded in either this life or the next. When the guilds began feuding, Orr as a nation tried to stay out of the conflict. This was not the sort of struggle that entire kingdoms got involved in. But when the strife overflowed into armed conflict, and guilds from the other human nations began fighting in the streets of Arah, Orr rose to defend itself and the city of the gods. Soon after Orr mobilized its armies, Kryta and Ascalon did as well, and what had started as a dispute between localized groups became an all-out war. The Guild Wars raged for nearly fifty years. During that time, none of the three human empires was able to assert dominance over either of the other two. While Ascalon, Orr, and Kryta were busy fighting with each other, they became blind to the threat from the north—the Charr. The northern beasts swept in, taking Ascalon in a spectacular magical battle. At first, Orr was saved from much of the fighting. The guilds with allegiances to Ascalon and Kryta withdrew, heading back to defend their homes. Orr regrouped, granted a moment to prepare simply because they were farther south. The Charr had to make their way through Ascalon before they could reach the gates of Arah. But eventually Ascalon fell, and the Charr arrived in Orr. Hopes were high that the Charr would be defeated quickly. The Orrian army was the equal of any in Tyria, and the invaders had already fought a long battle against the Ascalons. But those hopes were dashed in less than twelve hours. The invaders reached the gates of Arah without breaking stride. The Orrians failed to protect their charge. With defeat at the doorstep and the kingdom nearly in ruins, one man turned to a forbidden magic. The king's own personal advisor in the matters of the arcane took it upon himself to destroy the invaders, no matter the cost. Unrolling one of the Lost Scrolls, kept inside a warded vault deep within the catacombs below Arah, he spoke the words of a litany that spelled the end of the Kingdom of Orr forever. There are few who survived that day, now known as the Cataclysm. While the Charr were never allowed to step foot in Arah, few count what the king’s advisor did on that day as a victory. The resulting explosion felled the invading army where it stood, but so too did it sink the entire peninsula, leaving only a scattering of small islands in its place. The beautiful city of Arah was consumed. What’s left above water now lies in a pile of ruins, blackened by the Cataclysm and years of neglect. All that remains in the wreckage of Orr are the wandering dead—those souls unable to rest in the shadow of this great disaster.”
— The Guild Wars Manuscripts
D’Alessio Seaboard was quiet. The wind disturbed the trees, but no other sounds could be heard. Even the noise of birds was absent. If one listened carefully, the sound of the unchanging ocean could be detected, but other than these small ambient sounds, the whole area seemed frozen in time - like a painting only pretending to be alive.
A member of the party coughed, snapping Acmer to his senses. He looked to his side, surveying his team and the other parties assembled there. On all side, before and behind lay the scattered remains of vast armies of formerly undead men, beasts, and monsters. They had been forced to utterly annihilate the walking corpses to prevent them from repeatedly rising to continue the fight.
Among the wrecked corpses fluttered the shredded remains of several guild capes. They seemed excessively colorful among the dried, rotted, and decaying biological material spread in heaps from the beach to the point where they had assembled. There were a few scraps of blue and silver to be seen as well, but Acmer White had made certain that the KSC capes were recovered as best as could be managed. It was unfortunate that the bodies of his comrades could not be so thoroughly salvaged. All of them would have been given proper burials with full Krytan military honors - had they just stayed dead. They might not normally have died to begin with, but whatever was raising the dead took hold of any fallen warrior before any kind of revival could even be attempted. Valiant knights were defeated in battle only to rise again as one of the enemy. They had to be literally hacked to pieces to be effectively stopped.
Acmer was, by far, the strongest warrior on his line. His party was the spearhead of a twenty-two party militia and had taken the fewest casualties. For some reason, his success in this particular assignment seemed a bit empty. For the first time, as far back as he could remember, the powerful First Officer felt fear. Though the feeling was fading now that the fight was over - the battle against these particular zombies was nothing like anything he had ever faced. It was like nothing anyone had ever faced.
A monk stepped up to him from behind. The man’s face was drawn and pale from hours of astral exertion and his robes were dirty, torn, and bloody. A hole in one of the legs of his trousers appeared to have been punched by an arrow. It was surrounded by a circular bloodstain, but lacked a corresponding wound underneath, “I think the worst is over, Acmer,” he said simply.
White noticed that his healer’s voice was hoarse and dry. He said nothing in reply.
“We’ve been through worse than this,” the monk offered.
Acmer glared at his companion, “No, Yin. We haven’t,”
The normally high-spirited healer stepped back and crossed his arms, surveying the destruction, “I’m sorry,” he said, obviously a little disturbed himself, “If I had just been better prepared. None of my revival attempts worked - restoratives of all kinds seem to be dampened by some kind of ward,”
Acmer took a deep breath and let it out in a huff, “It’s not anyone’s fault, mate. This whole bloody battle was like something out of a nightmare. I can only pray Torrack is having a better time than we are,”
“Acmer White!” a voice echoed from the ranks.
Acmer turned to see a man in a red cape running up to him from the east brink.
“What is it?”
“All fronts in this area are vanquished,” the man panted, running up to the squad leader, “The undead have stopped rising,”
White noticed the rudimentary field dressing on the man’s left arm and his missing shield. He glanced over his should at Yin Do See, who had already begun a restorative ritual on the injured man, “Where is the rest of your team?” White asked.
“I’m all that’s left - but I assure you that they are all dead where I came from,”
“That should do it,” Yin assured, “You shouldn’t need that dirty bandage anymore,”
The warrior cut the bandage away and squeezed his own fresh, healthy flesh with his hand. He let out a sigh of relief and smiled, “Thank you very much! I honestly thought I might lose that arm with my monk dead,”
Acmer looked at the bloody bandage on the ground, then straightened. Raising his voice, “Elementalists to the fore! All melee fighters remain on guard! Burn this heap to ashes and prepare to return to the city!”
A tired cry rang out from the ranks as a variety of men and women stepped forward. The variety of their faces and costumes seemed as broad as that of shells on the floor of some tropical sea. So many capable people. It seemed an equal number lie in pieces in the pile of carrion spread all around them.
Dozens of shouts, chants, and incantations sang into the silent air as columns of flame descended from above and geysers of flame erupted from below. The mountains of twitching undead, no longer able to defend themselves or ward the spells, ignited and grew to an enormous bonfire. The wall of fire and smoke ran the length of the coastline and was visible from the towers of Lion’s Arch, miles away.
Acmer stared at the flames, which blocked any view of the sea, then set his mind back to his duty. He pulled his channelling stone form his belt pouch, and pressed his palm to the surface; feeling a moist sensation, he removed his hand, noticing that he had left a bloody hand print. Sighing, he wiped the device and his hand on the leather of his belt satchel and tried again. The device awakened with the warmth of his hand and flowing streams of script floated to its smooth surface. The chatter of guildmates and alliance members washed past in a steady stream, as if all was right with the world. He thumbed through the messages, seeing indications of battes that had gone better and battles that had gone worse all over Kryta. The coasts and outposts to the west of the capitol city seemed to have fared the worst. Just as it had been for his force, they had fought to a standstill only to have the undead simply cease. It was as if someone had closed a valve. Every team that had survived to send a message seemed to say the same thing, “We seemed to have killed them all - area vanquished,”
Acmer entered a similar message, then returned to thumbing through the lines of text that had accumulated since his last check in the dark of the morning. Nothing from Torrack.
Yin clapped him on the shoulder, drawing his attention away from the stone, “The fires seem to be reduced to a controlled burn - let’s head back. We have a lot of people who need rest and several are traumatized to the point that they may desert if we don’t pack it up,”
Acmer turned to the runner in the red cape, “How are your legs?”
“I’m fine,” the young warrior replied.
“Spread the message to all team leaders. We’re done here. All parties are to return to Lion’s Arch,”
The warrior saluted and ran off to perform his task.
White strode to his initial vantage point on the ridge overlooking the battlefield while Yin followed. He lifted a blue bundle from the ground and handed it to the Monk.
“The capes,” Yin stated gravely as he accepted the roll of cloth.
“I’ll take these newbies back to L.A.” Acmer explained, “I’d like you to port back to the Guild Hall and leave these with our Xunlai representative for when Torrack returns,” he sniffed, “It can be a reminder to me when I explain this botch-job to the boss. I don’t know if I’m likely going to have time to check the guild channel with all these guildies returning to L.A. at the same time. If you get anything, PM me directly,”
“Torrack is working on something in Asura territory. Maybe the same mess we encountered here,”
“I doubt he will have any trouble,”
“He might if he’s blinkered by the thought that these are normal zombies,”
Yin’s eyebrows rose.
“If you see something from him on the guild channel, ping me,”
“You got it,” Yin Do See extracted his channeling stone and announced his desire to return to Wizard’s Isle.
Acmer turned to the rest of his party as Yin vanished behind him, “Let’s move out,”
Lion’s Arch was a flood of guildsmen from alliances all over the world. Princess Salma’s original request for aid had been answered by those invited to the council meetings and answered ten times over by all the members of their respective alliances. It seemed almost as if the guilds were as powerful as the whole of the Krytan military.
Despite the catastrophic losses in the unbalanced battles against foes that not only refused to die but also added fallen heroes to their numbers, people seemed to be in high spirits. The city was frequently the host of fireworks displays and the night following the battle that had so furrowed Acmer’s brow was no different. Colorful bursts lit the sky, their flashes illuminating the buildings and the faces of the people below.
White watched the lights in the sky from a table set within Salma’s keep, but kept thinking of the people he knew that had rushed in with him on the front lines. Friends of his that were killed at his side, whom he then had to kill again. Kill and dismember, then burn. His lager was unsatisfying. He stood abruptly, pushing his chair behind him with the backs of his knees, “Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me,” he apologized, “I’ll be off for a moment to refresh myself,”
Few of the guildmasters at the long table paid him any mind. Those that did merely nodded politely or waved him off.
The guard opened the gate for him, allowing him into the city proper. He was so used to brilliant battles that he could not shake the feeling that the gods had played him for a fool. He still had yet to hear from Torrack or Yin. He reached for his belt satchel to produce his chatter, when a voice reached his ear. Seeking the source among the many people moving to and fro in the fountain plaza, he spotted a man in white near the fountain itself. He had his hand to his mouth and seemed to be shouting the same few sentences over and over.
As Acmer watched, he could make out a portion for what was being said, “...repent! Turn back to the teachings of Saul D’Alessio! Turn from your wicked ways, lest history repeat itself! Let the mantle of Saul D’Alessio guide and protect you! The Unseen Ones can defend us from the plagues of the Undead Lich! You’ve turned you back on the true gods and the Lich has returned!” The preacher locked eyes with the big warrior and pointed at him, approaching, “The guilds and their wars spell the end of humanity! As it was in the past, so it is today! History is repeating before our very eyes!” the zealot was mere inches from the KSC’s First Officer, “Repent! Repent of the Undea-!”
Without any warning, Acmer grasped both of the White Mantle sympathizer's shoulders and crushed his nose with a brutal headbutt that sent the man reeling. He released him, allowing him to fall dizzily onto his back, “Be off, you sad little bastard!” the knight scowled, “Knights of my order died today trying to keep this town safe so you could spew your self-righteous prattle and make a general arse of yourself. Tell your Mursatt to come here and make us repent - it’ll save us the trouble of hunting them down!” he stared daggers into the man, taking a step forward which caused the doomsayer to scurry to his feet and escape into the crowd of amused onlookers. The proud veteran’s eyes followed the man’s flight until he noticed the chiming of his channeling stone.
He brought the magical artifice out quickly, seeking the latest message. He noted one from Torrack and one immediately after from Yin indicating that he had received a message from Torrack. He acknowledged Yin’s message with a brief reply, then read the one from Torrack, which addressed the entire guild:
“Howdy KSC! I have been reading all of the messages on the guild channel and am impressed by your hard work. It seems that your efforts have staunched the flow of undead in Kryta and I am certain that Princess Salma is grateful for your service. She couldn’t possibly be more grateful than I am and I intend to reward everyone his due at a grand banquet in our guild hall upon my return from urgent business, which I intend to conclude very soon. Thank you for continuing to make the KSC shine!”
“At least he’s still alive,” Acmer thought to himself, pressing his thumb against the message, “Torrack - do you have a moment?”
“For you?” chimed the glassy imitation of the guildmaster’s voice, “Take two moments!”
“I assume you are aware of the situation here,”
“Only what I saw on the guild traffic. Sorry I have not contacted you up to now, but I have been a bit busy myself. I was right about the zombies this far south. There are thousands climbing out of their graves in the Tarnished coast. Sightings of large groups of them as far as Rata Sum,”
“A lot more. I don’t know if my theory about Orr was exactly correct now, though. How was the battle there? A lot of vanquished areas must have been a high set of bounties,”
Acmer could hear the smile in Torrack’s voice and debated whether to tell him of the horrors he had encountered, “We had a high rate of casualties,” he said finally.
“Did we lose anyone?”
“A lot of people,”
There was no answer from Torrack for what seemed like a full minute.
“Are you there?” Acmer asked.
“You did the best you could, I’m sure,” came the eventual response.
“The usual tactics were not effective. These undead-,”
“They don’t stay dead. I know. There was no way we could have known in advance. These are not the Lich’s leftovers like we thought - something different,”
“They’re doubtlessly something different,” Acmer agreed, “But those afflicting Kryta are all dead. They’ve been chopped-up and burned,”
“That should keep them down,”
“I should hope so,” White replied, “When will this business of yours be concluded?”
“I have no estimates just yet. If all goes well, I’ll have an answer soon - what are your plans for the evening,”
“Now that I have made my report, I plan to get pissed drinking to the souls of my dead mates,” Acmer stated dryly, “Then I’ll find a good place to sleep it off,”
“I’ll raise a glass in their honor as well,” the guildmaster said solemnly, “When you wake tomorrow, collect a list of all KIA and MIA. We need to see that their rewards are forwarded to their families,” Torrack cleared his throat, “When you’ve slept, I want you to send people to Sanctum Kay, Riverside Province, and Majesty’s Rest; I need eyes there, just in case more undead move from where they are gathering in the Tarnished coast,”
“Consider it done. Do you need support where you are?”
“Not yet. I’ll contact you if something comes up - just keep doing what you are doing,”
“Thanks for taking the lead on this, Acmer. You’re the only one I could have trusted to get the job done,”
Acmer looked up as a few more fireworks crackled overhead, “Well,” he sighed, feeling a little lighter, “A hard day isn’t so bad if it’s only one hard day,”
“The Zaishen Order is a guild that holds tournaments to honor and protect holy places. ...They were one of the largest guilds who held sway over the Battle Isles, guild halls, and protected Tyria against forces of darkness. Since Zhaitan's rise, they have lost their old base and have lost contact with Cantha which used to support them. Their current location is unknown. In the past, they followed Balthazar alone but now they honor an aspect of each of the main races' belief about what represents strength in combat such as the Bear Spirit, the charr heroes, the Eternal Alchemy's role in chaos and strife, and the sylvari's dreams of chivalry and courage.”
-Unknown Historian: 1315 AE
Kiri Snowblood was not the type of girl that complained about waiting. She rarely complained about anything, in fact. Her intense training and almost absent childhood had made her immune to practically any form of irritation or discomfort, a fact which made her seem exceedingly laid-back - even lackadaisical - in even the most tense of situations. But her skills as an assassin belied her unconcerned appearance. In combat, she was as serious as a heart attack. Snow-white skin and bone-white hair were uncommon for her region, and the teenage shinobi was sheltered from the time of her birth up until the completion of the final phases of her training on Shing Jea Island. As such, she lacked certain social graces and was known to compensate for her awkwardness by being overly apologetic, frequently asking forgiveness for perceived affronts that normal people might never otherwise notice.
She had been waiting for her assigned mission partner for nearly seven hours when Yeou Longroad and Lari Ngunda finally arrived at the tiny camp known as the Gate of Desolation. Through methods only known to the Zaishen and the Xunlai, Kiri was able to travel to practically any location with astonishing speed. The particulars of this method of travel were a closely-kept secret that was known among such mercenaries as “delivery”.
She hopped from the towering ruin of a broken arch as the caravan passed. Her landing on the salty sand was almost without impact. She stood fully as Yeou reached her, the top of her head barely reaching the height of his chest, “Master Longroad,” she greeted with a deep bow, bending at the waist, “So good to see you again,”
“Hello, Kiri,” Yeou returned, stopping before her, “Have you been waiting long?”
“Long is a relative term, Master Longroad,” her small, songbird voice replied, void of emotion.
The KSC officer noted the sulfurous dust on the shoulders of her otherwise perfectly white costume, “Why didn’t you wait inside?” he asked, “Didn’t you tell me you were sensitive to the sun?”
“Thank you for considering my safety; but I came prepared with a salve that protects me from the sun. What is our assignment, if I may be so bold as to ask?”
Longroad stepped into the shade of the damaged structure from which Kiri had descended, “We need to head into the desert and make our way to the Bone Palace,”
Lari stepped into the conversation, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! We are going to the Bone Palace? And this sweet child is the mercenary you spoke so highly of on the trip - the one you said you worked with fighting afflicted in the great foreign city? Something is not right here,”
“I’m so sorry!” Kiri bowed to the Sunspear captain, “Something is not right! I failed to introduce myself! My name is Kiri Snowblood; it is my pleasure to assist you in this mission,”
“Yah, hello little Kiri Snowbird,” the Sunspear waved patronizingly at the tiny assassin.
Yeou raised an eyebrow, “Do you have a problem, captain?”
“You’ve got to be joking taking this poor child into the wastes,” he chuckled to himself, “An’ you’ve got to be joking thinking you’re just gonna be walking to the Bone Palace,” he snapped his fingers, “Just like that,”
“Oh, it won’t be easy,” Yeou assured, “Those Junundu are not a pleasure to mount or to ride - and everything out there is already dead and hoping we’ll join them,”
Lari threw up his hands, “Well?”
Kiri watched intently.
“Nothing. We’re going to the Bone Palace, you can come if you want,” Yeou replied, looking to his hire, “Miss Snowblood, I imagine you’re hungry. I know I am, shall we break our fast?” the knight began to walk toward the main encampment, where the caravan had come to a halt.
“I hope it is no trouble,” Snowblood chirped, following him like a puppy.
Lari sat on a barrel with his food tray in his lap, Yeou and Kiri sat across from him bearing similar trays. He had since given up questioning the KSC officer’s insane plan.
“So you work together in Kaineng?” he asked in a less confrontational tone.
“Indeed,” Snowblood affirmed between tiny bites of hard-tack, “Master Longroad is my favorite patron,”
“Given her very short service record and our own mixed successes, I’m probably her only patron,” Yeou clarified.
“Ah,” Kiri seemed to have a hard time swallowing, then rapidly imbibed mouthful of water from a nearby waterskin, “Ah! Excuse me for interrupting, but I believe that you are right. Yeou seems to be the only one who will hire me at present,” she examined her own powder-white hand, “The registrar says that it may be because of my pigmentation - it seems that I am too easily recognized to make an effective assassin,”
The powerful dervish seemed incredulous, “Yah, I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact you’re a girl young enough to be my daughter,”
“Indeed,” Kiri smiled innocently, “It surely has nothing to do with that,”
Lari looked to Yeou for some form of reassurance, but found none. He seriously intended to take this child along with them to the kingdom of the walking dead.
Yeou felt it was time to put Ngunda’s apprehension to rest, “Kiri is a registered attache of the Ministry of Purity,” he indicated toward her with his spoon, “Hence the white costume. I have a matching one in Cantha,” the knight seemed to have the Sunspear’s attention, “Have you ever worked with an assassin, Lari?”
Lari crossed his arms, ready to observe.
“Kiri,” Yeou addressed, raising his spoon.
“I would like for you to prevent this spoon from touching the sand, but you may not proceed until I give the word,”
Kiri nodded, “I shall do my best; but I must apologize in advance if I fail,”
Yeou grinned. He set his tray on his barrel as he stood, then he hurled his spoon toward the open sand with as much force as he could muster.
Lari’s eye’s widened. His eyes darted from Yeou, to Kiri, to the flying spoon.
“You may proceed,” Yeou said calmly.
Kiri quickly stood, placing her tray where she was sitting, then vanished without a sound.
Lari blinked in shock as the ghostly white girl winked into existence in mid air, catching the spoon dozens of yards away. She landed like a snowflake, then sprinted back to their resting place, covering the whole distance in seconds. She halted before her patron bearing the spoon before her. It seemed as if she had defied the laws of physics and not a single grain of sand seemed to have been disturbed in the process. Her fleet running had not even left a footprint.
Yeou took the spoon and returned to his seat while the girl did the same, seeming exceedingly satisfied.
Lari swallowed dryly, “Well,”
“Do you feel a bit more confident?” Longroad asked.
“Ah,” the dervish scratched at his bushy black hair. His wide smile returned, “Feeling better now,”
“Colossal wurms roam the sulfurous wastelands of the Desolation. These burrowers tunnel through soft soil with amazing alacrity. Elonians know them by their more formal name: the Junundu. According to historians, the undead lord Palawa Joko commanded these wurms to patrol his kingdom, but the junundu’s inability to tunnel through solid rock limited their usefulness. Myths tell of great heroes using junundu to travel across the wastelands, covering vast distances safe from the sulfuric clouds. More recent accounts describe devastating wails and thunderous attacks that shake the very earth and topple buildings in their wake. According to legend, Junundu society is developed enough that they act in service to a queen mother: a subterranean monstrosity called Aijundu. Lurking below, Queen Aijundu patiently waits for foolish surface-dwellers who would dare to cross her apocalyptic domain. As long as wind shifts the desert sands, some say, she will lie beneath it...waiting.”
— The Guild Wars Nightfall Manuscripts
The sand was hot, but it was the alkali salt that seemed to cause the most irritation anytime the wind blew. The Sacred Chalice knight imagined he could feel the joints of his expensive platemail oxidizing as he listened to the jingle and creak of every metal-clad footstep.
Kiri lighted to his side, taking two steps for each of his, but seeming to barely make contact with the ground the whole while. Lari Ngunda strode at his other side, bearing a heavy scythe on his broad shoulder. His hood was drawn to block out the relentless sun, but the look of mild discomfort was evident even in the small portion of his face that remained visible.
A wide pit yawned open at the crystal blue sky no more than a few hundred yards ahead. A column of churning dust from the basin rose in the perpetual flow of bitter wind, indicating the presence of young Junundu desert wurms. Unlike the colossal sand wurms that were known to ply the seas of sand throughout the deserts of the world, the Junundu were highly intelligent animals and not known for attacking at random. Though it remained unknown upon what manner of prey they generally subsisted, it was a known fact that humans were not usually a part of their diet - though this was probably due to the fact that few humans resided near lethal sulfurous sands that made up the wurms’ domain.
Despite the fact that Yeou had once been familiar with the method by which one might summon and ride a Junundu, an undercurrent tension caused his jaws to clench even as he worked to maintain an appearance of total confidence. Kiri had never heard of Junundu and Lari had only heard horror stories. The times when guildsmen might have had need of Junundu were swiftly fading and the family group would have to recognize him to prevent a very difficult encounter with the ancient Aijundu.
In the meantime, the party continued to glance behind them in order to avoid any surprise aggression from wandering awakened dead. Many such creatures lurked at the edge of the deadly desert, the rag-tag dregs of Joko’s immortal army of dessicated corpses. Unlike the weaker minions of the long-defeated Undead Lich, many of the Awakened possessed intelligence. Some even seemed to retain personalities from their days as living people. Most, however, were merely shambling husks that were more to be avoided than the most ravening of beasts.
Since the inhuman king of the walking dead seemed to be hard at work reorganizing his once matchless army, there seemed to be fewer rogue units stumbling through the rocky edges of his domain. Even so, the team had dispatched nearly a dozen before the four Kournan military refugees they had hired to complete their party hastily bid their farewells and ran back to the gate. The wurm spoor was visible at the base of the cauldron, a small hill of sand piled into a circle by the routine visitation of several of the smaller male wurms.
The trio paused at the edge of the basin. Yeou was carrying equipment that would suit him as both a warrior and a ranger, while Kiri was equipped to serve as both a healer and a killer. Lari stood by as a powerful dervish, recently having learned the hallowed Vow of Strength. Between them were a variety of skills and abilities that would compliment any group - but would be of no use in a few moments.
“I need you both to wait here until I give you a clear signal to join me down there,”
“You’ll get no arguments asking me to keep a safe distance,” Lari affirmed.
Yeou descended into the pit.
“This is the first time I have observed Junundu,” Kiri noted, seeming exceedingly interested.
“My friend the commander is mighty brave to try something like this,” Lari bragged, “I must admit that he learned a lot while serving with me and my Sunspears in Kourna,”
“Master Longroad’s actions do not evidence bravery in this case,” Kiri replied innocently, “he has done this before and his capabilities as a warrior prevent him from being in much danger,”
Lari looked at the girl once, then again. He shook his head and resumed watching the party leader below.
The KSC officer approached with caution, but it was clear that the wurms were well aware of his presence. Before he had come within a yard of the spoor, one of the tremendous creatures burst from the sand, rising more than ten feet over the knight’s head and releasing a deafening roar that shook the sand and nearly knocked the man down. Yeou had forgotten how loud the animals were. He was nearly sickened by the crushing intensity of the roar, but the heat and smell seemed to sap the strength from his legs. He stood his ground nevertheless.
The huge beast inhaled, then descended to Yeou’s eye level with its mouth still open, inhaling a second time. Longroad’s cape flapped in the flow of air, but he stood firm, waiting to be identified.
He noticed a rumble in the distance, followed by a thunderous shrieking roar that seemed to shake the sky itself.
“Aijundu,” Ngunda whispered. Awestruck.
The wurm examining the comparatively tiny warrior raised its head. It turned to the source of the roar, then bellowed a similar cry in return. Several other wurms made their way to the spoor, rising as if to see for themselves the source of the disturbance. Yeou stood firm with his feet planted and his fists clenched.
Kiri watched with keen interest while Lari held his heavy scythe at the ready, his palms sweating, “You telling me that’s not a brave man, Kiri Snowflake? I’m aboutta soil ma’ robes!”
Kiri just smiled, “I apologize for any confusion,” she seemed unable to take here eyes off the little human standing before eight of the magnificent sand serpents, “Master Longroad is a brave man - but he knows what he is doing, so this task requires none of his bravery,”
The little shinobi had barely finished her sentence when the wurm closest to the motionless knight descended upon him, engulfing him completely, then disappeared below the shifting sand.
“Gah!” Lari nearly dropped his weapon.
Kiri stood abruptly, knives seeming to appear spontaneously in her hands.
Both watched as the other monsters returned to the dunes, stirring waves of sand in their wake. All was quiet.
“I wonder if that was supposed to happen,” Kiri said calmly.
Captain Ngunda just stared.
The wind whistled past and the sound of a distant desert bird could be heard, but the desert titans seemed to have vanished, taking the party leader with them. A long interval passed, during which nothing stirred.
Raising his courage, Captain Ngunda shifted the weight of his weapon and extended his foot toward the descending slope of sand. As his foot reached the shifting powder, an immense mouth burst from the ground beneath him, gulping the dervish down like an insect - weapons and all. In the same instant, a second monster exploded from beneath the feet of the cotton-white assassin. With the reaction speed of a snake, the girl jumped straight upward. She sprang to a full four times her own negligible body height, but the beast rose with her. She was barely a bite and vanished into the silent sands with the others.
Kiri silently resisted against the strength of the wurm’s stabilizing esophageal muscles. Her mind worked at a feverish pace, but remained far from panic. She was unable to see, unable to breathe, and barely able to move. She thought about her patron and her guild, she felt a burden of guilt as she thought of her failure - an elite mercenary lost to a wurm; upon realizing the inevitability of her demise, Kiri cease her struggle. She yielded to the silence of death, she only hoped that her honorable service to her only employer would be enough to earn her a chance to glimpse the Hall of Heroes.
A familiar voice called out to her from the abyss, “Kiri, Lari,” it was as if it was inside her head, “Are you two there? I saw you swallowed,”
Kiri noted that she could see. She could feel the sand. She could breathe, and somehow, she was able to hear her patron’s voice.
“Kiri! Lari! Don’t resist the wurm,” Yeou’s voice echoed in her mind, “You’re a part of it. My guild made a pact with these creatures long ago. They will bear us through the desert. While they carry us, we will be one with them their strength is ours and our minds are theirs,”
Kiri willed herself to stand, feeling herself rise several yards above the surface of the dunes. She recognized the other wurms somehow. One was Master Longroad, the other was the man who complained a lot. She felt a powerful emotion well up within her.
The standing wurm bellowed an ear-shattering roar, shaking the ground and knocking nearby Awakened off their feet.
Yeou felt the exhileration that the girl felt, the enormous power that he shared with the wurm in which he was riding, “Lari. Are you there?”
“I am,” came a familiar voice, “I’m not believing this at all. Where is my original body? Is this how it ends for us?”
“This is the experience of riding the Junundu,” Yeou explained, “They do us the honor of bearing us to the other side of the desert,”
“I am gonna lose my mind,” Lari replied, “This is a story for the ages!”
Yeou’s laughter echoed through the minds of his party, “Let’s move out. We have a lot of ground to cover before nightfall,”
“I apologize if it is presumptuous to say so,” chirped the ethereal thoughts of Snowblood, “but I thought I was going to die - now I feel that I might become addicted to the size and power of this creature,”
“I just want to get out of it,” Lari commented, “The story I get to tell about this is the only thing making this worthwhile,”
“Cut the chatter and focus,” the KSC officer commanded, “This is like taking your first steps. You’ll be limited in what you can do and the wurm has its own way of fighting. You’ll need to master it before we encounter some of the other, equally powerful beasts living in this desert. Stay close to me and only attack if I do,”
“The hub of Asuran activity on the surface world, Rata Sum was quickly and magically erected when the race arrived from their native underground homes. Geomystic generators dot the area, providing free power to the town. Some find the atmosphere within the town uncomfortable, saying you can literally feel the Energy being sucked from the air, but the Asura vow this enchanted technology is "perfectly safe".”
— Notes on a map of Tyria; circa 1078 AE
Torrack’s party of henchmen bid him farewell as they entered the Asuran city. While the rest seemed eager to get far from the ranger as if the danger in the jungle would somehow follow him, Lyell the paragon gave the older man a hug before stepping back and thanking him.
“What’s all that for?” Torrack asked, feeling flattered.
The paragon shook her head, “We would not have made it through that area had it not been for your leadership,”
Torrack just grinned and shook his head, “Me and my leadership couldn’t have gotten through that alone. Everyone did their part - that’s the reason we survived,”
“Anyway,” she hoisted her shield onto her back, “I just wanted to thank you. My job is to be a leader, someone the party can rely on when things get tough. You showed me where I am and where I need to be. If you are representative of your whole guild, I hope one day to join it,”
“I’m the guild master,” Thunderbow laughed, “You can join it right now if you want; there is no expereince requirement. We train our own,”
Lyell raised a hand, shaking her head, “Please, no. I would be forced to decline,”
The guildmaster seemed puzzled.
“I’m going back to Chahbek Village to start school again,”
“Far be it from me to tell a young person not to return to school,” Torrack acknowledged, shaking her hand, “But when you’re ready, seek out the Sacred Chalice wherever you are. Tell them Torrack sent you,”
“I will,” Lyell smiled, “Farewell, Guildmaster Thunderbow. I don’t know what it is you are seeking, but I hope you find it,”
“I do too. Have a safe trip back to Istan,”
As the girl trotted off to the trading booths, Torrack felt his focus return to the matter that had brought him so far from the territory of his own species. This fellow Bleen had more than likely passed through the Asuran city after his meeting with the harpy at Ventari’s island, assuming that he was not still present therein. Even if the little creature had bypassed Rata Sum on the way to some secret location, other Asura in the city were sure to know of him. The tiny people were geysers of information and were often able to spew data, both useful and useless, in tremendous volume and at the slightest provocation. Torrack took in the city as he strode to the central plaza. The air always had an electric feel - almost a coldness - as if the sun shone upon a person without the requisite heat. It was a known fact that the magical equipment providing the city with light, heat, running water, and defense from wild animals were powered by powerful cubical constructs that used magical energies to convert light and heat energy from the environment into various, more practical forms. The ability to penetrate the fabric of the physical plane and derive functional energy from the astral plane through the use of enchantments and crystalline energy sources was a feat that only the Asura had achieved. It had enabled them to live underground for so long that no other race on Tyria had record of their existence before the destroyers had forced them to breach the surface in search of safety. Their almost genetically inherent knack for higher reason and invention made them the center of many great discoveries, but even more great disasters.
Torrack had been to Rata Sum many times since the days when the Asura first began building it. He recalled the tiny things and their machines. Frightening constructs of steel and stone, lumbering across the ground like things not quite alive, but far from inanimate. He could still remember the impossible power of the aether driven earth-movers, or the buildings that grew from small cubes placed on the ground. Those days were not so long ago, but in the light of the now thriving Asuran city, they seemed like a dream. The council had long forbidden the use of such powerful machines within the city limits, so any new discoveries of mechanical giants were only to be found in “secret” Asuran labs scattered throughout Tyria. The old ranger walked a path of artificially manufactured stone that matched the tone and texture of the nearby buildings, seeking a familiar face.
To most humans, the Asura looked very similar to each other. It was sometimes difficult to tell the males and females apart. All were about the same size, all had the phenotypical over-sized eyes and ears, all wore similar clothes and head-dresses. Only one who lived with them or had Asuran associates, seemed to be able to pick a particular member of the species out of a crowd. Not knowing what Bleen looked like was a fact not particularly helpful to his search.
“There’s a silly creature I’ve seen before,” Torrack turned to see a small being exiting one of the buildings carrying a box about the same size as she was, “Be a good brute and help me for a second, will you?”
“Do I know you?” Torrack asked, suddenly realizing that he had never quite gotten used to the Asuran tendency for rudeness.
“You’re Torrack Thunderbow,” the Asuran female replied in a gruff, impatient voice, “You’re the leader of the Knights of the Sacred Chalice and you got a reputation with some of our people for your service in the campaign against the destroyers. You’re also a fan of fine Asuran eyewear - and a big spender - which the only reason I bothered to remember you,” she shifted the weight of the box, “A little help, please?”
Torrack knelt down to take the crate, which seemed insultingly light.
“Ah,” the little Asura stretched her stubby arms, “Strength is truly wasted on the lesser creatures,”
Torrack rolled his eyes as he carried the box to a familiar pedestal across from the market corner of the main plaza. As she ascended the ramp behind and stood eye-to-eye with him, Torrack found his memory of her returning. This was Kwat, one of the city’s regular merchants. She specialized in consumable items, all of which were very rare and expensive. No wonder she had remembered him as a big spender, one had to be in order to even consider her wares.
“Just put it on the ground there, dear,” she indicated to a spot with dead grass near the base of her podium.
“That’s a good boy,” she smiled widely, showing countless needle-like teeth, “Now, can you be helped?”
“Well,” Torrack cleared his throat, “You already know me, so I’ll cut to the chase,”
“A rare habit in the generally circumlocutory human species, how refreshing,”
Torrack paused, hoping to indicate that he had been interrupted.
“You may proceed,” Kwat snapped her tiny fingers.
“I’m looking for an Asura named-,”
“Kwat?” her ears lifted.
“Bleen,” Torrack continued, “I believe he has something of mine,”
Kwat’s lips twisted slightly, “Bleen?” she crossed her arms, “What kind of business would you have with that obtuse oddball? I can assure you that there isn’t an item in Tyria that can match my consumables for quality or effectiveness,”
“As I said, he has something of mine,” Torrack improvised, “He’s... working on it and... he’s... late in getting it back to me,”
Kwat blinked, seeming only to restrain her own curiosity through a substantial effort. When Torrack ceased his explanation, the words boiled up within her, seeking escape, “What was it he was working on?” she asked finally.
“That is a private matter,” Torrack replied, “I can’t be telling everyone I meet. I need to limit who knows about it,” he adjusted his bow on his shoulder and took a step back, “And since you don’t know where to find him-,”
“Hold on, hold on,” Kwat raised a hand, “Don’t try to play mind games with an Asura, manling. I know what you’re trying to do,”
Torrack paused expectantly.
“You’re trying to get a service for free! Not here in Rata Sum,” She shook her head, flapping her long ears, “You want me to tell you where to find Bleen? I’ll tell you, but you have to make it worth my while. For all I know, you’re off to buy something that I could just as easily have sold you,”
Thunderbow sighed, “What about carrying your box for you?”
Kwat scratched her chin, “Pretending you know how to do business, eh? Fine then, that will get you a discount - but it’s just because I like you. You would have done that anyway, so it shouldn’t be part of the deal,”
“So what do you want in return for Bleen’s location?”
“This really is your lucky day,” Kwat pulled a wrapping away from a tray of shining marvels, “You not only get the information and the discount - but you also get one of my special, one-of-a-kind items. Each is a bargain at twice the price, so I’ll only charge you half of that - what a deal!”
Torrack raised an eyebrow, “So you’ll be selling me an item at the regular price then?”
“Wow! Math! If I had any cookies, you would definitely be getting one,” Kwat grinned.
“So the discount only covers the fact that you would also be giving me the information I seek - If that’s the case, just give me the information,”
Kwat seemed genuinely surprised by this reasoning, but quickly regained her businesslike composure, “Aw, come on! Are you broke? I happen to have a finance plan, if you are interested,”
Torrack took a deep breath, “Just give me one of the Resurrection Scrolls and tell me where he is,” the knight pulled the required funds and materials from his satchel and handed them to her impatiently.
“Thank you,” Kwat exchanged the item for the materilas she would need to make a replacement, “Bleen’s little hole is in the basement of the city’s central pyramid. It’s a common living place for the less successful apprentices and unemployed inventors, er-,” Kwat seemed to catch herself, as if debating something internally, “Uh, but he is not there - at least I do not think he is there. He actually left town on foot several days ago,”
“I know he went into the jungle,” Torrack persisted, “but if he did not come back, then who would know where he went? What was his destination?”
Kwat glanced back at her table of wares.
“And I’m not buying anything else! The deal was that you would tell me where he is, not where he was,” Torrack pointed the newly-purchased scroll at her, “False advertising is a serious crime,”
“Hold on, now, let’s not do anything crazy! A guildmaster is the kind of customer that a merchant takes care of,” she held up both hands, “I can still make good on my bargain, I just need to update my own information. Follow me,”
The Asura hopped down and began walking toward the city’s single, giant pyramid.
“Where are we going?” Thunderbow asked, already feeling like any additional time spent following this rabbit-trail would be time wasted.
“Though my vast intellect allows me to perfectly recall events I witness while I’m doing my work, I don’t know this Bleen character very well, since he’s not my type of Asura. I don’t habitually mingle with the poor. However, the society of Polymock players are generally less particular with their company. Since I’ve seen him playing the game in the past, I expect to find a closer associate of his in the area adjacent the Polymock Coliseum,”
They reached an entrance that seemed to be guarded by an Asura of questionable repute, “What can be done for you?” he seemed to be speaking to Kwat, but was watching Torrack with his big, dark eyes.
“Get outta the way,” Kwat demanded, turning to the ranger as the other Asura shuffled away from the door, “You better stay here,” she said, pointing at the ground, “It gets a little rough in here and I want to protect my reputation,”
Torrack found it difficult to imagine a valid reason for the tiny merchant's concern, but consented to wait while his guide entered without him. The rough little guard stepped back into place as Kwat closed the door behind her, still eyeing the much taller and arguably far more dangerous guild master. Observing the serious look on the guard’s face, Thunderbow fought back a chuckle. He decided to have a seat in the shade while he waited, which he felt would be at least as productive as continuing to silently provoke the pint-sized doorman.
He had only just seated himself when Kwat emerged from the enigmatic little doorway, looking left and right for him. She noticed him as he stood, regarding her, “Hey, now, Torrack Thunderow of the KSC!” she stomped up to him, “I thought I told you to wait there,” she pointed at what might have been the exact spot to which she had pointed before, “I even indicated with my finger exactly where I wanted you to wait for me. I looked silly coming out and having to search all over Tyria for you,”
“I’m sorry,” Torrack conceded, “Can you tell me where he is?”
“One of his impoverished game-crazed gambler friends told me that he went out to meet somebody, then he was supposed to go to a cave,” she cleared her throat, “One crawling with spiders,”
The old ranger’s disappointment was palpable, “A cave with spiders? Can you be more specific?”
“It’s to the south,” came the simple reply, “That’s all they said. Go on and check! If he’s not there, come back and we’ll discuss how I can make it right - maybe a discount or something,” she raised her hand, shaking her index finger, “but no refunds. That’s company policy, after all. They’re consumables, not recyclables,”
“Thank you you, Madam Kwat,” Torrack bowed, “You have been... a help,”
“On your way then,” she dismissed, “Oh and be sure to send your guildsmen my way,” then she crinkled her miniature nose, “But don’t send any that aren’t at least a little famous. It’s bad for business,”
Torrack did not validate that statement with a response, instead merely bowed again and headed for the city’s southern gate.
At the edge of the city, the infinite expanses of the jungle stretched out before him. Torrack knew that it would be unwise to go out alone, but he did not have time to wait for someone from the Guild to make their way to the all but inaccessible Asuran capitol. He knew on the other hand that he was onto something that needed a clear head and a pick-up group would be a bad idea that could slow him down and would probably only work to add more names to the already long list of grieving mothers whom the KSC owed for lost sons and daughters. It was then that he heard a chime from his channeling stone. Yeou.
“Torrack: I have reached the Bone Palace. I thought Aijundu had forgotten me, but we made it in one piece. Please contact me when you have a chance,”
Torrack felt hopeful that something had been found. He held his thumb against the officer’s message, “I’m here Yeou - what have you got for me?”
“Just a second, sir,” an unusually long pause, “I think they plan to arrest us. I will need to make this quick,”
“Joko’s minions do not seem to recognize us,” Yeou responded in his regular all-business fashion, “We were forced to engage a group of them just after I sent that last message. It only took us about a second to dispatch them, but it was still unexpected,”
“You were attacked at the palace?” Torrack was honestly surprised, “Joko is supposed to be neutral these days; his zombies are supposedly all docile now,”
“I have no explanation at present,” Yeou replied, “They attacked as soon as I turned my back on them. I see one of the generals coming now. I’ll get back to you shortly,”
“Port back to the guild hall if you get in over your head. I can’t risk losing you over a missing person,”
“Acknowledged, but I have a mixed party. I’ll have to look out for them regardless,”
“I would expect nothing less, but be careful - there is a lot of weird stuff going on lately,”
“Yeou? Are you there?” Torrack began to feel a twinge of anxiety, “Yeou Longroad!”
Nothing at all.
Torrack sighed, then pressed his thumb to the surface of the stone again, “Take me to the Guild Hall of the Knights of the Sacred Chalice,”
“The Bone Palace... The very name strikes terror in the hearts of all Elonians. From this dark, foreboding edifice, Palawa Joko struck out across the Desolation to conquer Elona. It is said the souls of the dead enslaved by Palawa Joko still writhe within the walls, screaming for release... ...The undead lord of the Desolation, Palawa once controlled the valleys leading north out of Elona from his strategically positioned Bone Palace. Commanding hordes of undead followers raised from ancient tombs, he invaded Vabbi, intent on conquering it and using its riches to make him even more powerful. After he was defeated by the great Kournan hero, Turai Ossa, his body is said to have been imprisoned beneath a huge stone plinth. Many villainous individuals have attempted to commune with the spirit of the Scourge of Vabbi. As long as his history lives on, people will remember his name...and as the saying goes, history is still being written.”
— The Guild Wars Nightfall Manuscripts
“Why were you attacked?” Ngunda questioned, his weapon at the ready, “You said we would be able to just walk right in,”
“We did just walk right in,” Yeou replied, trying to sound a little more calm than he actually was, “We were not attacked until we passed by the first group of guards,”
“I apologize for interrupting, but it would seem that we are being surrounded,” Snowblood sounded as calm as a girl at a picnic.
Longroad’s eyes darted from one death-masked mummy foe to the next, gauging their shuffling body language to determine which would take the lead in the inevitable attack, “When they are too close to fall out of reach, we need to cut through the ranks behind us and make a break for the nearest wurm spoor. Only I can summon them, so I can’t hold the enemy off. I’ll need Lari to make a Vow of Strength and mow them back while Kiri keeps him up with heals,”
“Got it,” Kiri replied without hesitation.
“I guess I’m the meat shield, then,” Ngunda swallowed, “Don’t let me down, little Kiri Snowball,”
“Failure is not option,” Kiri stated plainly.
“I am afraid that none of that will be necessary guildsman Longroad,” a raspy, ghoulish voice echoed off the walls of the dead palace.
“Is that him?” Kiri asked.
“No, girl,” Lari whispered, “That’s one of his generals,”
The skeletal abomination regarded the party leader with its empty eye sockets, “I am General Huduh,” it introduced as it stepped between the ranks of mummified guards, the winds have been speaking of your arrival, though we expected a larger group visiting for the honor of Lord Palawa Joko - could it be that some of your comrades have already joined us in death?”
“We are the whole party,” Yeou replied.
“How impressive,” the skeleton wheezed through its eternal smile of gleaming white teeth.
“We have come to seek an audience with your Lord Palawa Joko,” Yeou offered politely, “We are representatives of the Knights of the Sacred Chalice,”
“So it would seem,” the ancient general replied. He stepped up to the warrior, finding the living man slightly taller than himself, then turned his blank face to the shattered remains of three palace guards at his feet, “If this is your manner of requesting a royal audience, I must assume that the kings of your homeland change guards frequently,”
“We were attacked first,” Yeou stated, “We can apologize for the disrespect of the mess we made, but we will not apologize for defending ourselves. It was an unprovoked attack,”
The general returned his empty gaze to the living man before him, “Well said, guildsman Longroad. I will take you to my Lord Joko. Let us see if your bravado amuses him enough to disregard the slight of destroying his guards before his very palace,”
The group was spared the chains normally reserved for offenders who managed to reach Joko's palace by somehow surviving the impossible trek through the toxic desert. But what they lacked in chains, they made up for in guards. Yeou's three-man team was overseen by more than 20 guards as they made their way through the crypt-like corridors of the barren palace toward the central chamber. As they passed through two tall, heavy doors made entirely of shards of bone and ivory, the party stepped into an unusually lavish room with high ceilings and glistening white floors. The walls were set with innumerable precious stones and mosaic patterns appeared to have been made with polished chips of bone and human teeth. Everything that was not gold or jewel, was the bone material from long dead creatures, all polished to a glassy sheen.
"How lovely," Kiri noted, taking everything in. Yeou was expressionless behind his dark glasses. Captain Ngunda swallowed, imagining how many of the decaying corpses he might be able to take on, should things go badly before their king.
Lines of dead soldiers stood in silent attention at either side of a lavish Vabbian rug that ran from the large hone doors to an enormous ivory Dias that supported an equally elaborate throne. On the throne, sat the 7-foot tall mummy king, Lord Palawan Joko. Despite his imposing height, he seemed very small from the distance across the throne room, especially when compared to the size of his throne. One could only imagine the living appearance of the giant monster of whose bones the heavy chair was made. The living appearance of the one sitting upon it was even more difficult to imagine.
The undead monarch rose to his feet, "I hear the beating of young hearts," the monster seemed to growl, "come forth my foolish children,"
Yeou had spoken with this ancient lich only once in the past. Joko had briefly stood alongside the armies of the living during the advent of Abbadon's nightfall. Yeou and several heroes of his guild and others had lead and been lead by some of the undead minions standing in that very throne-room during the last bloody battles of that war.
The knight approached the Dias between the rows of mummified warriors and mages, standing motionless in their unidentifiably ancient armor.
Palawa Joko stared down at the living man with milky white eyes. Had the two of them been standing on equal ground, Joko would have stood a full head taller than the six-foot-four Ascalonian warrior. Standing in front of his throne atop the high ivory platform, the undead
creature towered over him, seeming to dare him to speak.
"No begging for your life?" the king enquired, "I can give you eternal life," Joko waited, crossing his arms, "Ah! I see, one muted by manners," he snapped his fingers, exciting a tiny puff of dust, "Speak, Yeou Longroad. Do not make me tell you why you have come; I want you to tell me, though I already know. Let me see if you will lie to me the way your search party lied to my lieutenants at the edge of my domain,"
Yeou stood still, never raising his gaze to meet that of the king, "Lord Joko the ever-living: we have come with two questions. I believe I may be able to deduce the answer to one of them,"
"Out with your question," Palawa commanded, "I have infinite time, but my patience is limited,"
“My Lord Joko knows the nature of the search sent by my guild prior to my arrival,” Yeou intoned politely, “The guild representative before my Lord requests an explanation of why our fellow is the subject of a military search within your domain,”
The ring in Joko’s mouth seemed to twitch as if he were manipulating it with his idle tongue, “Your fellow is a thief,” the mummy lord grunted, “Here have I been gracious and tolerant. Your guilds have been given leave to traverse my domain and to rid it of the remnants of Abbadon’s monstrosities. Yet, when we find something and make effort to possess it - you of the living world find it dangerous or name it evil, then seek to take it from me,” he extended a long, wrinkled, and dry arm; his gnarled fingers splayed with the palm facing the ceiling, “From my own hand!”
“The action of the man for whom we are both searching was undertaken without the knowledge of the guild,” Guards raised weapons as Yeou reached into his satchel. Joko raised his hand, allowing the human to proceed. Yeou displayed the damaged channelling stone, “He made every effort to keep this matter from us as long as possible,” Yeou returned the stone and took a breath, “If it pleases my Lord, the KSC would like to join the search for this man,”
“He is already dead,” Joko snapped, taking his seat.
Yeou accidentally made eye-contact with the decrepit monarch, but quickly returned to his respectful position of attention, “If it pleases my Lord to reply, the KSC would like to ask how the great and mighty Lord Palawa Joko came by this information,”
Joko cackled, “Having the item in his possession outside a barren wasteland such as that wherein it was found guarantees his death - I need no clairvoyance to know he is dead - either by the desert, or by the item he bore out of the desert,”
“May your servant extend the query to include why my lord seeks him, if my lord is so confident that he is dead?”
Joko grinned, “Because I am dead,”
The knight’s mind worked. Searching for a body? How long could that possibly take? It seemed evident that Joko’s zombies would have pursued the man if he had indeed stolen something from them - if the knight had died in the desert, why wouldn’t they have found him? Did Joko have some idea where he was? Yeou did not get that feeling from the conversation. Then it occurred to him.
“Do you think that he has become an undead?” Yeou blurted, forgetting the usual redundant polite speech.
Joko raised a wrinkled eyebrow, “You’re quite the little fox. Most of your kind lack the requisite lifespan to gain much wisdom - I’ll forgive the lapse of protocol. I’ll allow you to speak plainly henceforth, as it amuses me to do so. Do not misuse this privilege,”
“You have my thanks,” Yeou replied, nodding his head, “It will make speaking less cumbersome,”
“To answer the question, I think that he has become an undead, yes,”
“The nature of the immortality of yourself and your armies remains a mystery to my people-,”
“As it shall remain,”
“As my lord wishes,” Yeou disregarded the interruption, “Does a death in this desert result in zombification?”
“I am the lord of this world,” Joko stated with a sweep of the arm, “It is by my own power that these minions stand before you. I have heard stories of a charlatan in your own country that had obtained a similar power - destroying his whole city in the process. But that fool was a follower of Abbadon and as such was without a future. I follow Joko. My minions follow Joko. I find this to be an arrangement with far greater longevity,”
“The Undead Lich was defeated quite swiftly as compared to your continuing reign,”
“Pah!” Joko cackled again, “You are a flatterer!”
“But I am no closer to understanding the situation,” Yeou replied, “My mission is to find our missing man or determine what happened to him,”
“And I have told you,”
“If you are searching for a zombified KSC guildsman, whom you claim has taken something of yours, I can only assume that his death and resurrection occurred as a result of some influence other than those over which you have control,”
Joko’s face lacked any expression.
“The item,” Yeou continued, “Whatever he took has something to do with raising the dead,”
Palawa Joko stood, “Your wisdom is limited if you continue to pursue this path of reasoning. You must know that I cannot allow such wild ideas to return to the living world,”
Lari and Kiri both began surveying the room, counting guards and exits. Yeou’s mouth looked like the only thing that had a chance of saving them. They would not stand much of a chance should the thousands of undead occupying Joko’s palace and the domain surrounding it suddenly turned on them.
“With the greatest of respect,” Yeou maintained a calm exterior, but could feel sweat collecting inside his armor, “I am a full officer of the Knights of the Sacred Chalice. It is not a rank earned by weaklings or cowards. Your kingdom is only now beginning to rebuild and the damage that my team and I would do to you and your guards today will pale in comparison to the damage that several hundred guildsmen with parties of equal or greater strength would to to the remnants of your kingdom,”
“You dare to threaten me before my own throne?” Joko seemed both shocked and enraged by the sudden audacity of Longroad’s statement. He calmed slightly, “I have heard greater bluffs from greater men, child,”
“Is your secret worth calling my bluff?” Yeou asked, “I just want to find the missing man - or his body - I have no reason to keep from you whatever it is he was carrying,”
Joko seated him self, leaning forward with an elbow on him knee, “You own man was the one that took it from the dig, boy! It’s nonsense to lie when everyone knows the truth,”
“I am not lying,” Yeou replied, staring right into Palawa Joko’s lifeless white eyes.
The ring in Joko’s mouth twitched again. He rested back in his giant, skeletal seat, “Very well. I believe that the item can raise the dead. I had not had a chance to use it - or even to see it - before your friend captured it,”
“From where was it stolen, then?” Yeou asked, “I had initially thought it was stolen from my lord Joko’s possession,”
“It was found in my domain, therefore it is mine!” He cracked his skeletal hand against the arm of this calcified throne.
“It is without a doubt, yours,” Yeou conceded, bowing shallowly. He had not come to start a war between Palawa Joko and the KSC, “If I find it during my search for the missing man, I will return it to you - it is the intent of the KSC maintain friendly relations with all the governments of the world. We are keepers of the peace, after all,”
“Of course you are,” the undead king patronized, “Proceed on your quest,” Palawa motioned his guards to escort the party out of his imperious presence, “Ah, and after your wonderful associate slaughtered my diggers and my guards, he was said to have fled northward with a group of spear-chucking Istani tribesmen,”
Lari stiffened at that last remark, but continued walking as the guards let them out.
Yeou remained silent and allowed himself to be led away, certain that Joko was tired of hearing his voice.
“And you there, little fox,” Joko called after him, “I find myself liking you. Should you decide to share in my immortality, do feel free to return,”
Yeou was not certain if that was an offer or a threat, but he turned and bowed regardless, “By your grace,”
As the giant bone doors creaked closed behind them, they could hear Palawa Joko’s cackling laughter within.
“What do we do about this item?” Lari asked, “If your man was a Sunspear and he had Istani with him, that would probably mean a group of Sunspears was involved,”
“I’m sure the Sunspears have searches ongoing for them as well,” Yeou replied.
“But a thing that could raise the dead? Diggers?” Ngunda’s wheels turned, “Maybe they found it out in the desert - something from long ago,”
“There is no telling what lies beneath the sulfur sands,” Longroad admitted, “Or why there are sulfur sands there at all for that matter. There is a city in your homeland that dates back further than the histories of most nations. Who can say what was going on here before Joko came around?”
Kiri looked upward, “It is growing dark. What is our objective from this point?”
“We need to get back to civilization,” the captain advised.
“Lari is right,” Yeou acknowledged, “But we are running out of time to come up with useful information. We need to stay on Marc’s trail before it gets too cold,”
“What then?” Lari seemed a bit frustrated, “You can’t be thinking we’ll bed-down here,”
Yeou took in the wind, the inescapable stench of sulfur and the cracking dryness of the dust mingled with the leathery reek of desiccated rot from the hundreds of living undead passing to and fro around them. Even though he had been through some of the most inhospitable places the world had to offer, it remained unnerving to be surrounded by so many walking dead. The fact that they were docile and could even hold meaningful conversations made them even more unnerving, “Not here,” he said, “Joko’s ego took a bit of a thumping today - I do not think that he was truly intimidated by my bluff,”
“You were bluffing?” Lari stepped in front of the team leader, “Your guild had no plan for rescue?”
Yeou grinned, “Anyway, we need to be on the move. Joko could find what he is looking for at any moment and he would have nothing to keep him from changing his mind about letting us go,”
“Where will we go, Master Longroad?” Kiri asked.
“We need to ride the sands to the ruins in the north. There will be spirits and minions of Joko there, but there are also hired swords as well as research and archeology teams at work there. We will be a little safer when it comes time to sleep,”
“Anywhere is better than here,” Ngunda said.
“Ever been to the Underworld?” Yeou taunted.
“Anywhere in Elona is better than here. Let’s be movin’,”
Yeou and Kiri watched as Ngunda took the lead toward the west gate. Yeou yawned as he drew his channelling stone out of his pocket, then started after his friend the Sunspear, the little mercenary following close on his heels.
“Monks employ a direct conduit to the gods, and the answers to their prayers come in the form of healing and protection for their allies and damage to their enemies. Combined with any other profession, Monks can alternate between supporting their party and dealing damage to opponents. Monks enjoy Divine Favor, which provides extra healing power, while their healing and Protection Prayers help to keep their allies strong and healthy. Smiting Prayers, on the other hand, call down divine anger on enemies, exacting holy damage that ignores armor, though damage-dealing is not the Monk’s specialty. What Monks lack in firepower they make up for with their unparalleled gift for keeping their allies alive.”
— The Guild Wars Manuscripts
Yin Do See sat at a wooden table in the courtyard of the Sacred Chalice guild hall. Guildmates from all over the world frequently winked into existence at the center of the yard, ran about their business or formed teams with other guild members, then winked back out of sight. Thus was the power of the guild hall. It enabled a force like the KSC to make coordinated efforts around the globe without taking the kind of time that often made larger military forces vulnerable. Only the neutral Zaishen seemed to possess a greater capacity for rapid transit, but as one of the only surviving organizations from the original guild wars, that secret ability might forever remain unique to them.
It seemed that the world outside only existed on his channeling stone, but it was through that stone that Yin watched. Torrack frequented the guild at least twice as often as the average guildsman on assignment and it was not unusual to meet him in the hall if one simply waited. Yin had been waiting since his last mission with Acmer. He felt lost in a personal soliloquy, discussing the events of the battle that had taken place only about a day before. A gentle breeze blew and the leaves of the great green trees brushed the sky as pink and grey clouds meandered by. All was at peace, but Yin’s mind was a different story.
“I’m taking my party forward! Rangers, lay down covering fire! I want this over by lunchtime! Yin, stay close to our group. Our party is almost all offense, so stay alert,”
“I got it,” Yin said brightly, “This should be a walk in the park,”
“Easy money!” laughed one of the warriors standing along with Acmer.
“We’ll be at the head of a chevron formation,” Acmer explained, “I’ll be at the point. We have healers in the middle. We will break through the main group of undead and then both sides of the wedge will engulf the two divided groups. This will let me take out the enemy’s healers and mages while we body-block any melee’s they might have,” Acmer thumped one of his party mates on the helmet, “That’s lady Salma’s plan, at least. We’ll do that as much as we can. But you know how I like to do business - I want to get in fast and hit hard,”
A cheer echoed from the offensively-tuned KSC parties centered on Acmer’s group.
A runner in a green cape arrived among them, “All teams on the north and east perimeter are in position for the push south,”
Acmer nodded, grinning, “All right,” he looked to the warrior-mage on his right, “Give the call to charge,” he commanded, “We’ll hit them like a hammer,”
The monk blinked, returning to the present day.
“Yin,” the newcomer repeated, “You OK?”
“Sure,” the young monk replied, “Yeah, of course,” he looked the guildsman over. He recognized him, but did not know him. An alliance member, perhaps, “What’s up?”
“Oh nothing, I was just passing by to unload some of my loot from an outing. I wanted to know if anyone had heard when Torrack was going to have that big banquet,”
Yin shook his head, “He is still tending to business on the Tarnished Coast,”
“You mean he hasn’t contacted any of you officers yet either?”
“It hasn’t been that long,” Yin defended, “I’ll be sure to sent out a message as soon as I know something,”
“Thanks, man,” the elementalist smiled and issued a command into his channelling stone, vanishing shortly thereafter.
Yin stared at the area where the other guildsman had vanished. Without knowing it, his mind beganto wander again.
“We’ve got several men down on the front line!” one of the rangers called, “Somebody get more healers to the front!”
Yin ran to the fore, preparing a powerful resurrection incantation when an arrow whizzed past the female dervish in front of him, striking him in the leg. He tried to take another step, but could feel the shaft grating against his femur. The sickening pain sent him to his knees, which cause the already unbearable pain to increase with the stretching of skin and sinew against the arrow. The young monk felt his breakfast working its way up his throat. He fought it back and gripped the arrow, but it was held fast by the broad head.
The ranger from before ran up to him as another warrior jumped over him on his way to the clash, not ten yards ahead, “Can you get it out yourself?” he threw his bow over his shoulder.
“Ack!” tears welled up in Yin’s eyes, but he fought to remain calm, “It’s a broad-headed arrow,” he explained through clenched teeth, “It’s bleeding me out,”
The ranger took off his glove and shoved it into the much younger man’s mouth. Another arrow streaked by, barely missing the ranger, intead planting deeply into the chest of an unfortunate necromancer standing close by. Grenth’s follower smacked the ground, an instant kill. The ranger didn’t seem to notice, “You’re gonna wanna bite down on that, son,”
Despite his extensive training and experience, Yin might never have been prepared for when the ranger thrust the arrow all the way through his leg, then snapped the arrowhead off and pulled the shaft back out. His furious groan of sheer torment was muffled by the leather glove in his mouth, which the ranger quickly yanked back out and returned to his hand, “Heal yourself, boy - you’re no good just sitting there! You’re a man in demand,” he loaded his bow and began firing arrows toward the front.
The monk cast healing spells through his clenched jaws until the wound had closed and the bleeding was staunched. He looked to the fallen necromancer, preparing to cast an aura that might revive him, but the servant of Grenth was already back on his feet with the broken arrow shaft still jutting from his chest. Yin jumped up, his bloodstream full of adrenaline from the injury had had sustained, “Wait,” he called out, “let me help you,”
The necromancer looked at him as if he had only just noticed him, then ran at him, shrieking. He took hold of the monk’s soft robes, tearing at them with his fingernails and teeth like a wild beast, “What are you doing!” the healer protested, “Wait!”
A wide blade burst through the necromancer’s face, covering the monk with a spray of blood. The blade withdrew, then came smashing down on the man’s head, cleaving him nearly to the pelvis. The tip of the blade had cut through one of the outer layers of Yin’s robe as well, but had missed the healer’s flesh beneath. The dead man fell away to reveal Acmer’s powerful form. His was the hand that had borne the sword that destroyed the raving necromancer, “What the hell are you doing, Yin!” Acmer shouted, “I don’t need you back here in the back!”
“What are you doing?” Yin attempted to resurrect the fallen necromancer, but the spell would not take effect, “You killed one of our allies!” he looked at Acmer in disbelief, “What’s happening?”
“There’s no time!” Acmer shouted, “Our signets don’t work - we need all the monks and ritualists up front NOW! If our men get taken down, they get back up on the enemy’s side! Keep them alive! Go! go! GO!”
The chime of a channelling stone drew the young monk away from his daydream. He took his from a pocket within his robe, then noticed that the chime had come from the stone of a guild mate nearby. He found himself thinking about the bundle of capes that he had stored for Torrack in the guild house. He had debated whether to clean them before folding them and putting them away, but had decided it best to leave that up to the guild master when he returned. Like Acmer, Yin Do See had been left behind in Kryta rather than accompanying the guild master on his quest. Like Acmer, Yin had been a critical player in the effort to prevent the undead hordes from entering Lion’s Arch via the seaboard; and though they had succeeded he, like Acmer, was dealing with his own feelings about the almost supernatural circumstances of the battle. The amount of astral energy necessary to raise so many dead bodies - and keep raising them as they were beaten back - was beyond imagination. Hundreds of necromancers would have been exhausted maintaining even a portion of that army of ravening fiends.
He crossed his arms where he sat, “Torrack would not allow himself to feel guilty about this,” he thought to himself, “That’s the way a leader has to be,”
As he sat in thought, Torrack Thunderbow appeared in the center of the courtyard, holding his channeling stone in his hand.
Yin stood abruptly, knocking his chair down behind him.
Torrack turned at the sound of the chair hitting the ground. Seeing the familiar face of his best healer and youngest officer, Thunderbow raised a hand and strode over to him, “Howdy Yin, how ya’ been?”
“Torrack!” Yin smiled broadly, then quickly tuned to right his chair, “I’m fine! How are you? Did you finish your business in the south?”
“Not yet,” Torrack replied, “I just wanted to port over and clear my head, but I’m glad you were here. It’s a stroke of luck, actually, because it means you’re not busy - you’re not busy, are you?”
“Not at the moment,”
“Great,” Torrack clapped his young friend on the shoulder, “I just need to get a few things and-,” he was interrupted by a chime on his chatter, which he checked, finding a message from Yeou Longroad.
“Torrack: the palace worked out. Nobody hurt. Following a lead to the north. Got some info you may find interesting. Please contact me when you get this message,”
Thunderbow glanced up at Yin Do See, “Ah,just a second, Yin. I have to make a call real quick. It’ll just be a second,” the guild master pressed his thumb to the line of script, “Yeou Longroad, are you there?”
“Good evening guildmaster,” the stone rank in response, “You caught me at the edge of wurm territory - that’s good timing,”
“You said you found something? Good news, I hope,”
“Not really news, sir,” Yeou replied, “Just information,”
“Well,” Yeou began, “I believe that the missing man may have had a reason to go missing, but I have not pieced that together just yet. It seems he entered the desert and took something that Joko’s people found out there somewhere. I don’t know how he knew where or what it was, but Joko told me that it might be something with the power to raise the dead.
“Like a focus that boosts necromancy skills?” Torrack asked.
“No sir,” Yeou replied, “Like a thing that raises the dead by itself, at least that is my suspicion. Joko thinks our man is dead already; said if the desert doesn’t kill him, the thing he stole will,”
“Okay. So why are they searching if they think he is dead?”
“I asked that same question,” Yeou explained, “Joko thinks that if he died in the desert, the thing would have revived him as an undead,”
“What if he didn’t?”
“I don’t know,” the officer admitted,”I got the vibe that Joko thinks the item would kill him if he left the desert, though he never said how exactly,”
“It seems a little inconsistent for an item that raises the dead to kill someone,” Torrack mused, “It would seem redundant, since you would think that it would just resurrect him again,”
“The mummy king wasn’t particular about the means, but he seemed certain of the ends. It’s possible that Joko’s statement has a mixed meaning - I doubt that if I pressed him further I would be able to be here taking to you right now,”
“No, no,” Torrack assured, “That’s excellent work. I feel like I understand a lot more than I did before. Thank you for the update!”
“Just doing my duty, sir,” the officer replied, “I will try to contact you as soon as I find out more,”
“Thank you very much,”
Thunderbow placed the stone into one of his pockets, expecting to use it again shortly. Turning to Yin Do See, he said, “I think I may have an idea about all of this undead business, but the center of the problem is in Arachni’s Haunt - I could use the help of a good healer,”
Yin smiled, “I don’t know any, but I’m willing to tag along,”
“Good!” Torrack looked motivated, but exceedingly tired, “We need to do our part on this whole mystery - Mr. Longroad is getting way ahead of me. I’d like to have something to tell him next time he makes a report,”
“Is he working on the Krytan situation as well?”
“Not as such,” the ranger replied, leaning on the table, “He is searching for a knight that went missing - but the situation in Kryta, and now the Tarnished Coast, might actually be related to Yeou’s manhunt in Elona,”
“Interesting,” Yin smiled, “When do we leave for Arachni’s Haunt?”
Torrack stood, stretching his back, “Immediately... after I get something to eat and take a few minutes to rest. Rata Sum was my point of origin when I transported myself here, so we will port back as soon as we are ready - then we’ll start a little manhunt of our own,”
“Except for the obvious differences (lack of skin, hair, a working circulatory system, and so on) the undead army are very much like any living human army. They have military ranks, a chain of command, and a set of marching orders. The bulk of the army is made up of once-living humans, though there are tales that when this force marches into battle, the animated skeleton of a once-grand dragon marches with it. There is much speculation about the undead of Tyria and what their goals might be. Many believe that they are the remnants of Orr, those lost souls who were so disturbed by the destruction of their home in the Cataclysm that they refuse to pass into the next life. Others believe there is a more sinister force motivating these creatures, a malevolent being who has raised the resting dead to do his bidding. Some even say this mysterious leader is a powerful lich lord who rules them all from behind the front lines. But most of this is just campfire tales and barroom gossip, for there is no one who lives today who can claim to have seen this creature in the flesh (so to speak).”
— The Guild Wars Manuscripts
A crushing hammer blow left Acmer coughing on his back. The now undead peacekeeper enforcer lunged at him with his hammer raised. It’s cold body bristled with the shafts of dozens of arrows, but it kept coming. It was as unstoppable as the hoards of undead he had faced on the coast. Another arrow struck it in the head as it attacked, knocking the hammer off course and giving Acmer a chance to roll to the side, lashing out with his blade. The pain of swinging his arm indicated more than one broken rib, but the blow struck true - crippling the brute’s knee. The abomination fell forward as Acmer regained his footing. It struck out with it’s hammer from its prone position on the ground, taking two more flaming arrows as it did. The massive hammerhead caught the knight in the right shoulder before he could turn his shield to the blow. Several more undead joined the fray as Acmer hit the ground again. Blood welled up in his mouth, but the rage and adrenaline kept his mind on the fight, his damaged body had no choice but to obey.
“Where’s my bloody support!” He roared, finding that his shoulder was unable to support the swinging of a sword. Dropping the sword, he rushed to the enforcer as it attempted to rise, kicking it in the head with his heavy, armored boot. He kicked it a second time for good measure, raising his shield with his good arm and bringing it down on the monster’s neck. The edge of the shield crushed vertebrates and caused contusions of the already dead flesh, but the maddened warrior brought it down like a shovel repeatedly until the undead melee fighter’s head was completely severed.
Acmer rose to his full height as two of his ranger’s arrows whistled past him to strike a member of the next wave of undead, igniting it where it stood. The injured knight spat blood onto the double-dead creature’s face and kicked the severed cranium from his sight, “Where the hell is my bloody healer!” he howled.
The hired healer, suddenly distracted from his efforts to keep himself and the other magic-wielders alive, turned and focused several regenerative prayers in Acmer White’s direction.
Acmer could feel his flesh and bone mending as he recovered his sword and ran to face the fighters harassing the back group of his formation. One of the new wave of undead warriors gave Acmer chase, but received arrow after arrow in the legs until it fell forward and was forced to crawl toward the party. An elementalist summoned fire from heaven to immolate the animated corpse along with several passing in the adjacent area. Still more jumped through the flames and over the bodies of their fellows. Some ran on all fours, some bore weapons and armor, some ran at them despite missing limbs, making to attack with their hands or jaws. All were in varying stages of decay - even newly dead men, women, and children were among them.
Acmer severed the head of one of the soldiers attacking the small group of monks, stomping its fallen body into a dusty pile of broken bones. He pointed his sword at the monk that had just healed him, “You and I are going to have a chat after this if you don’t start paying attention,”
“A thousand pardons!” the little, bald man begged, finding the knight easily as frightening as the hoards of zombies surrounding them.
“We got more on the ridge,” the ranger called out, his blue KSC cape flapping the in the northern breeze. He cast several more flame and bleeding traps around himself and in the path of the oncoming hoard. Acmer rushed forward to intercept the monsters rushing the ranger’s position. He noted that the older ranger was holding his own impressively well. He had barely moved an inch during the whole encounter. White made a mental note to recommend him for a special commendation once their mission was complete.
The team was far more conservative this time, they kept a tight group around the healers. Smiting prayers and revival skills were ineffective on these zombies. The team was forced to just grind them away with continuous bursts of flame, arrows, and blades. The concussive force and heat of myriads of fire and earth techniques kept the endless army of undead from attacking with any kind of impressive strength. They seemed to lack mages and their archers were not accurate, merely spraying arrows at the small group of humans with no particular target in mind. A shrieking undead village woman clothed in bloody rags hurled herself at the warrior, but Acmer batted her away with his shield, sheering off the head and right arm of a skeletal soldier to his right. Ickerous ooze welled from the gruesome corpse’s split torso as it collapsed to Acmer’s side. A flaming arrow buzzed across White’s field of view, embedding in the forehead of the undead woman that Acmer had just knocked away, coating her in liquid flame. She grasped at the knight, trying to get close enough to scratch or bite some un-armored patch of flesh. The pitiful abomination’s sizzling flesh threatened to burn him as she clawed at his shield. Acmer thrust his sword under his shield arm and, holding the blade against his body, gripped the exposed ribcage of the burning corpse with his sword hand. He ignored the pain of his armor heating around his arm and threw the woman backward into the decaying monsters behind her, spreading her agony among them as they also ignited.
There was no way of counting how many they had killed. Several were felled with a single blow, while others seemed to fight until there was nothing left of them. Acmer clipped the legs off a ghoul that tried to rush past him. As he stabbed down into it’s back, he felt the relief of a healing spell wrap his cooked right arm.
“Let’s move to higher ground!” he called, holding the line as the back ranks shifted uphill.
The stepped ridges of the mountains and hills overlooking Twin Serpent Lakes offered an easily-defensible position for fighting the growing numbers of undead, especially since they seemed almost incapable of significant damage with ranged attacks or magic. As they ran, the party was forced to halt frequently in order to fight their pursuers back. Flame seemed like the only consistently effective means of stopping them in their tracks and the paragon in the group had been shouting incantations that conjured flame at the end of every arrow and the edge of every sword for so long that she was growing hoarse. Nevertheless, Acmer’s seven-person team had held together for nearly an hour without a single casualty. Charred bones and piles of ash lie scattered in every direction like a the leftovers of a nightmarish feast.
As they fought, they noted fewer and fewer human corpses in the hoards and increasing numbers of undead beasts and monsters. Acmer had dispatched a pair would-be archers that had run out of arrows, readying himself for a confrontation with the lumbering shell of a long-dead swordsman, when pair of heavy bone scythes burst through the zombified warrior, shredding it asunder to reveal a troop of skeletal serpents.
Arrows from a higher point on the ridge rained down on them. Several Shining Blade troops appeared to have taken a position near the area the Acmer had chosen.
“Looks like those Krait are a little ways from home,” the older KSC man with the bow noted, priming a barrage arrow.
“Splinter weapon!” A ritualist cried, while the weary paragon sang another anthem of flame. Acmer’s sword glowed as if fresh from the forge. The ranger let fly as the warrior rushed in to greet the newcomers. His blows shattered bone and fried flesh, while dozens of arrows rained down all around him. As the Krait came, he held them back. a constant flow of holy magic kept him healing at a rate equal to the rate that he received damage. Acmer’s armor ran with the black blood of the undead, his shield looked like a collection of dents and scratches, and his sword was beginning to yield crushing blows like that of a hammer. The edge looked more like that of a wood saw than a finely-crafted blade. Summoned spirits appeared around him, but quickly withered and vanished under the pressure of whatever field had been dampening signets and holy magics.
Thus ended the eighth wave.
Officer White retreated to the ridge where he had stationed all of his ranged fighters. He was sweating and his hands were shaking, but the smile on his face was unmistakable. The adrenaline rush and the rush of victory were the true rewards of combat, though he also knew that his party would be taking home an enormous bounty for the hundreds of kills they had accomplished so far.
“Would you look at that?” one of the Shining Blade on the mountain top said to his fellow.
White ascended to the uppermost part of the mountain. Looking northward in the direction of the archer’s pointing finger, he was able to make out a group of Mursaat fighting their own version of the battle that the human party had just survived. Their powerful magical ability seemed effective enough, but was only prolonging the inevitable. Leaving an uncountable mess of remains in their wake, the yellow-clad creatures fled northward and out of sight.
“I wonder if any of those floaters had bounties on their heads,” one of the Shining Blade troops chuckled, “Didn’t know quite who to root for in that little match,”
Acmer returned to his team, “We need to decide whether to keep fighting or move to safety and recover,”
“You’re the party leader,” the sun-tanned ranger said through his bandanna as he leaned on his longbow.
“That I am,” White acknowledged, “but I’m giving you a choice. I can keep this up all day, but I have no way of knowing how many more of these things there are,”
“Also, it seems that each wave is different,” the paragon said with her raspy voice, “That last wave seemed like it was all Krait - and the last wave also seemed... fresher,”
He looked to the monk and ritualist, “All right?”
“We’re all good, Officer White,” the monk said.
“We may want to think about heading back,” the elementalist on the team suggested, “You said our mission was just to keep an eye out - we have come and seen. Now it would be good to survive long enough to make our report at LA,”
A necromancer sitting next to the monk shrugged, “I’m useless on this mission anyway,” she admitted, “My minions don’t obey me out here for some reason. I only know a few other skills and us having to destroy every corpse to keep them from getting back up really keeps me out of the fight,”
The muscles in the knight’s jaws worked as he thought. He did not want to leave the area without at least neutralizing the bulk of the threat, but this was no ordinary vanquish mission. The flow of enemies was slow, but endless. They had killed cattle, pigs, moa, people, krait, bears, raptors... and horrible, shambling combinations of the aforementioned. Anything that had died to the west of their position seemed intent on taking them out.
“We’d best be on our way,” the ranger suggested, “No reason to keep up like this. We can go back and put together a better party with more specialized skills and equipment,”
“They’re not normal undead,” Acmer argued, “We’re just learning how to deal with them by trial and error,”
“Well,” the older man sniffed the air, “today’s definitely been a trial. Ya’ really wanna keep this up ‘til we got ourselves an error?”
Acmer took a deep breath.
As he let it out, the ground trembled. The ranger dropped to his haunches while the elementalist stumbled and was steadied by the monk. The tremor subsided momentarily, but was followed by a violent shaking of the whole mountain. Two of the Shining Blade troops at the top of the mountain dropped out of sight and the whole of Acmer’s party was knocked onto their backs. As Acmer rose, the shaking gave way to an explosive eruption from the side of the mountain as it disgorged the plate-covered, serpentine body of a tremendous beast.
“What the?” the necromancer stuttered.
The ranger whistled, “Be an Infernal Wurm, if ever I saw one. Something must have stirred it from the depths of the ground below us - looks like this one has seen better days,”
Acmer would have agreed, if had been given time to speak. Without roaring or giving the normal warning one might expect from such a beast, the decaying undead monster began to glow bright red.
“Seige attack!” the paragon called out, “Brace Yourself!”
The wurm spewed a profusion of flaming bile at the group, Acmer ran to attack the monster as the blast passed over him, all others took cover except the ranger, who was at the center of the blast and unable to escape. Seeing it coming, he raised his hands, “Burn us both!” he challenged as the wave of lava arched toward him, “Pain Inverter!”
The blast struck him directly and knocked everyone else off their feet. The reciprocal damage promised by the preceding enchantments ripped the attacking beast from stem to stern, releasing an uncontrollable fire upon itself. The monster roared wildly, then dropped from its place in the side of the mountain, spreading a tsunami of flame along the steppes to the ground.
Acmer jumped to his feet, turning as the necromancer’s scream echoed into the clear skies above.
“Save him! Save him!” the elementalist shouted as he conjured water to wash the flames away. The water hissed into steam on contact, but the magic-laced flames burned still brighter.
Both the monk and the rituatist were working to quench the flames and restore the man, but their diminished capacity was slowing their efforts.
The ranger was not completely engulfed, but it was clear that he was gone. The old man cut his cape away from his neck and cast it away from the fire. He looked up at Acmer with bloodshot eyes. His agonizing grimace was apparent even behind his bandanna, “Let her burn!” the ranger ordered through tightly clenched teeth, “Can’t feel it now anyway. I’ll not be back as a zombie - get yer’selves back. I’m’ma cast a trap on myself and get this over-with,”
Acmer’s eyes shot to his healers. Both of them shook their heads, “Everybody back,” Acmer ordered, looking at the man who had fought along side him anonymously since the first battle on D’Alessio Seaboard, “I need your name,”
The ranger’s one working arm rigged his body with his most powerful flame trap, then looked up at the team leader, barely able to breathe, “The Knights of the Sacred Chalice never fight alone,” he wheezed, then activated the trap.
White was forced to jump back as the pyrotechnics exploded around the man, reducing him to ashes in an instant. The scenario seemed unbelievable. Acmer stared at the pyre as if he had never seen fire before, finally breaking himself away to retrieve the cape. Almost half of it was burned away, but the Sacred Chalice in the center still shone brightly.
“What the devil was that?” the monk asked.
“An infernal wurm,” the necromancer replied, “From the depths Tyria,”
“No,” Acmer said roughly, folding the cape to a size he could pack, “It was an error. We will return to the outpost immediately and make our report. Whatever is happening is quickly growing beyond our capacity,”
“The grandeur of this ancient Elonian city can still be seen amid its crumbling visage; echoes of a noble and grand purpose. Originally established to watch over the Mouth of Torment, Morah was ever a haunted place. It was abandoned two hundred years after its founding, succumbing to the spread of the desert. Recent ruptures from the crater have further destroyed this once majestic city as the Realm of Torment seeps in through the cracks in reality.”
— Notes on a map of Elona; circa 1078 AE
The wurms vomited Yeou’s party near the rocky foundations of the Ruins of Morah. They still had a ways to walk before reaching the ruins themselves. The sky was dark, but it was impossible to know the time by the condition of the sky. Abbadon’s attempt to enter the physical plane had so severely damaged the fabric of reality that this region of the endless poison desert stood in perpetual night. Perhaps time would heal the wounds torn open by the evil god, but for the time being, the living world was forced to coexist with the horrific marring left by the malevolent deity.
The tired, dirty, saliva-coated trio worked their way through the biting winds and driving dust to the edge of the ruins. Abbadon’s tendrils still extended into the dark sky. The broken buildings were empty and silent. Only a few lonely people clung to their campsite while wandering spirits meandered in the shadows. Despite the heat of the desert, the consistent wind blew cold.
The group rested near the campsite and were greeted by the other adventurers there. It had been a long, long day. Perhaps more than on day, Yeou had lost track. Now that they had arrived, they had no choice but to take a little time to rest before attempting to follow Marc’s trail northward - past the impasse that separated Tyria and Elona - even to the Crystal desert, if need be. The fortunate fact about traveling in such remote desolation was that the few people they met were likely to remember other travellers relatively well. Yeou purposed to ask around as soon as he had taken some rest.
Lari threw down his pack and weapons near the fire, making a bed of the sand and a pillow of his satchel. His dervish robes were made for the desert and he needed little help getting comfortable. Another Sunspear at the camp greeted him with a salute and offered him some of his food. He and Lari gabbed in their native tongue while Kiri plopped down next to where Longroad had laid his pack, sitting straight as a pin with her legs crossed and eyes closed. Yeou was still standing, watching the odd technique, though he had seen it plenty of times before. She would sit there, half asleep, until he made ready to break camp. He had worked with the odd little assassin enough to know that she always considered herself to be ‘on duty’ - he had never seen her rest any other way.
He set his shield down next to her and noticed her watching him with one eye, “We’re not leaving for a good while, Ms. Snowblood,” he said quietly, “You have my leave to rest for the time being,”
Kiri smiled and closed her eye, seeming to instantly return to sleep.
The tired knight stretched and walked around as he collected his thoughts. The area was eerie, but not without a certain morbid charm. The darkness and the stark outlines of the long-abandoned stone structures against the turbulent sky possessed a mystic awe that seemed increasingly rare in the ever-shrinking, evermore thoroughly charted world. He had camped nearby with his unit ages ago, when the fight against the fallen god still raged and the Margonites roamed the area in vast armies.
Yeou was lost in thought near the edge of the outpost when a sound caught his ear. He surveyed the darkness past the light of the campfire, but perceived nothing, then he heard a whisper. It was a shrill, shaky sound, but Yeou was certain that it was a voice. He looked back to the camp. None of the people present seemed to be regarding him.
Then the whisper came again, “Sacred Chalice?”
Yeou’s hand crept to the hilt of his trusted sword. His specialty was strength, second only to his elevated skill in swordsmanship. If some hidden assailants thought they might have a fighting chance simply because the knight had laid his shield down, Yeou stood prepared to enlighten them.
“Are you Sacred Chalice?” the small voice asked again.
“I am,” the knight replied.
“You’re bound by a pact,” the whisper stated, “You must not hurt me,”
“Who are you?”
“Say you will not attack,”
Yeou sighed, raising both hands, “I’ll not attack unless you show me you are a threat. I tend to find hidden people watching me somewhat threatening,”
Yeou heard a dry rustling in the shadows, then saw a three-toed bird’s foot plant itself in the sand, then another. A winged silhouette became clear against the landscape. A few more quiet steps brought a small skree into the dim firelight. It was missing its crested helmet and though its brass breastplate reflected some of the light of the campfire, the rest of its body was too dusty and dirty to catch much light. Yeou noted one of its wings hanging differently than the other, but gave it little thought. His mind was already working through his examination of the missing Sunspear’s effects in Vabbi. The feather and the drawing. How would this harpy have been able to identify him as a Knight of the Sacred Chalice?
“I am here,” it whispered, “I’ll not come closer - those human brutes already struck me down - and after all I’ve done for you people,”
“Wait, what?” Yeou could hardly believe he was talking to one of these hated travesties of creation. He knew they could talk, but he had usually only heard curses or battle commands from them.
“You call me a monster, but you are monsters!” she pointed a claw at him.
“Did you call me out here to tell me this?” Yeou felt that there must be a connection between this skree and the man he was seeking, but he was also growing suspicious of a skree ambush.
“No,” the creature replied, seeming very weak.
Skree were not attractive creatures, by human standards. Though most of the skree seen in the field were female and exhibited feminine characteristics, they were rough, dirty creatures that lived rough, dirty lives. Some Vabbian myths say that they were once beautiful and angelic, but that was far from true in present times. In fact, they were often so harsh and repulsive that Yeou still felt awkward having a conversation with one.
Yeou lowered his hands, “And?”
“You are Sacred Chalice, like the other human,” the skree stated, “He had a contract with my matron. You must help me,”
“What are you talking about?”
The skree limped closer, it was holding a very small sword.
Yeou’s hand jumped to his weapon, but before he might have drawn it, Kiri Snowblood appeared behind the winged female in a white flash, the points of her daggers jabbing into the skree’s throat and left underarm.
“Wait!” Yeou commanded.
Kiri remained still, her blades halted from delivering instant death to her prisoner.
“I want to question this... person,” Yeou explained, “She is a friend at present,”
“You humans are all so terribly friendly,” the skree growled as she dropped her weapon, either too afraid or too weary to struggle.
Kiri vanished, appearing again behind her employer, “I am ever so sorry for my mistaken assumption, Master Longroad,” she bowed at the waist, “I will understand fully if this incident reflects poorly in my post-mission evaluation,”
“Your evaluation will be unaffected,” Longroad replied, glancing over his shoulder, “Please see if you could get me some drinking water,”
As the shinobi skittered off to obey her orders, Yeou turned to the skree, “What do you want from the Knights of the Sacred Chalice?”
The young harpy opened her mouth to speak, then flinched as Kiri appeared beside Yeou, holding a waterskin. Yeou reached out, offering the water to the skree.
The winged bird-kin snatched it, greedily consuming the contents as it watched him with one yellow eye. It threw the bottle down at Kiri’s feet, seeming on the verge of collapsing. She steadied herself with an awkward flap of one of her wings, “I have a contract,”
“For what?” Yeou pressed.
“I carried your unholy thing to another world - I was nearly killed many times. Your brother told me I can get anything I want. His contract was with my mother, but I want my reward. Why shouldn’t I have my reward?”
The skree’s words were kept to a whisper as if she wanted to avoid alerting the others at the camp, but what she said seemed meaningless at first, almost hysterical. Yeou knew he had to be careful how he posed his next question, “What makes you think he was my brother?” Longroad asked, using the same term the skree used for the KSC guildsman.
“He said to find people with that picture on your back,” skree replied, “Yours and his are the same. My mother said humans know their families that way,”
“What did you carry for him?”
“What about my reward?” the skree stomped.
Yeou reached into his pocket, withdrawing the papers that had fortunately managed to survive the trek from Vabbi, “Is this your mother’s contract?”
She hopped a little closer, craning her neck to see, “Yes, yes,” she said impatiently, “My mother,” she tapped the winged figure on the right, “This is human’s blood,” she touched the stick man on the left, “this is mother’s blood,” she touched the stick skree on the right again, “A holy contract - death doesn’t break it,”
“What about this one?” Yeou held out the black ink drawing.
“Just a copy,” the skree waved it way, “Humans don’t know how to write, so mother made the picture for your brother to follow,”
“Where is my brother now?”
Yeou was not surprised by the answer, “How do you know?”
“I saw it,” the skree said plainly, “A monster killed him in the forbidden lands to the north,”
“How far north?”
“Far, far, far,”
“Past the mountains?” Yeou pressed “The Crystal Desert?”
“I know no human names for places,” the skree gestured as if casting the thought aside with disdain, “Please; I must have my reward. I am dying without it! My wings are broken,”
“You’ll have your wish when I have all the facts straight,” Longroad replied, “If he died there, I’ll wager there is no finding him. The sands and scarabs would have disassembled him in a matter of hours. Tell me of this item. He gave it to you?”
The bird-kin dropped to her knees, her black wings flopped lopsidedly onto the ground behind her, “Why so many questions?” she seemed on the verge of weeping, “I did everything. Everything!”
The knight knelt in front of her, Kiri Snowblood stepped forward with him like a white shadow, “Tell me what it was and what you did with it,” Yeou thought quickly, “I want to be sure you did what you said, so I can give you your reward,”
She looked up at him, her birdlike eyes were moist, but still defiant, “I obeyed the contract. I don’t know what it was. It was just a bad thing - mother signed the contract because the knight said he had friends who would take it far from us. My family was afraid of it. He brought it from the land of the dead. The dead followed him everywhere - we were afraid,”
“Where did you take it?” Yeou asked gently.
“Your lands,” she said bitterly, “I flew with it over the ocean. I was burned by the sun. Evil things found me wherever I rested. Almost I died - many times! I met a small beast in the green lands. It was like an ugly human child, but green like the trees. It met me in the endless oasis across the sea. He took the item to destroy it,”
Yeou took a moment to align the story with what he had already learned.
“Please repay me your brother’s promise,”
Yeou stood, looking over his shoulder. The camp was quiet and it seemed that most of them were asleep, Captain Ngunda included. Looking back to the pitiful little harpy, he said, “Tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you if it is within my power to do so,”
She looked up at the human warrior who seemed all the more big and powerful from her perspective sitting broken on the ground, “I was told I would be made a queen,”
Yeou blinked, suddenly fearing that the dead KSC guildsman may have lied to the poor creature in order to get her to do as he asked.
“I don’t want it anymore,” the skree continued, “I just want a miracle,”
Yeou’s shoulders drooped as he let out a sigh, “What miracle?”
“A spearman knocked me down when I tried to rest here. Both of my wings are broken,” she took a shaky breath, “I’ll die living on the ground like you do - I can never return to my home through the poison desert. Make me whole and I will forgive the promise,”
The knight fought the urge to smile, “As a reward for your honorable service, I grant you the boon of restoration,” he turned to the young mercenary at his side, “See that she is healed,” he looked back to the bird-kin, “You will receive your miracle, will you answer one more question?”
Kiri’s restoration magics had already begun to relieve the pain and weariness in the creature’s broken and abused body. The skree smiled as it raised one of its wings and stretched it to full-span. Yeou noted that he had never seen a skree’s smile. The angular little harpy seemed almost human, “I will answer your question,” she said, “But then I must be on my way,”
“Tell me how the knight -uh, how did my brother reach the crystal desert from our side of the impasse? I have never heard of that having been done,”
“I don’t know that,” the skree stood, seeming stronger as the restoration removed toxins from muscles and mended bone, “The serpents know. They came from the north. We skree hate them though - they are secretive and arrogant. When we see them, we fight them,”
“The Forgotten,” Longroad said to himself.
Kiri lowered her hands, having finished her series of restoration techniques, “This creature is healed, Master Longroad,”
“I will go now, Sacred Chalice,” the skree lifted her small blade and slid it into her girdle, spreading her black wings as she did, “I’ll take the contract back to my mother. You can keep the other one - use it for your schooling,”
Yeou handed her the blood-drawn document, it’s usefulness to his investigation having long passed.
“You have my thanks,” she said, “To be poor on the wing is greater than to be a queen on the leg. If I see you again, Sacred Chalice, I shall stay my hand from killing you,” and with that, she bounded into the air and took flight toward the southeast.
Yeou looked down at his associate, “I suppose that’s all I should ask of a skree,” he said, smiling lopsidedly as he walked back to the warmth of the fire.
Kiri followed close behind, “I apologize for asking a silly question, Master Longroad, but am I to assume that our mission is completed? The fate of your guildsman appears to have been determined,”
“That may be,” Yeou acknowledged, taking a place beside the fire, “But I am still curious about this evil item and about why he took such an arduous route. And what was the point of hiring the skree in the first place? Not exactly a reliable bunch,”
Kiri listened intently from her cross-legged sitting position nearby.
“That bird-girl’s mention of the Forgotten has given me an idea anyway,” Yeou continued, “They may be able to answer everything for us if they were involved,”
“Where shall we find them?” Snowblood asked.
“There are forgotten in this area, but there is no path through the Shattered Heart to the north,” Yeou thought for a moment, “There is a small settlement to the northeast where an exceedingly ancient Forgotten lives. We will head that way as soon as we’re rested,”
“Arachni's Haunt is the lair of a mighty spider and her brood of matriarchs. The web-strewn caverns also contain potent energy veins the Asura tap to fuel their creations. Commander Hixx and his battle krewe were station here to protect this resource, and they're still locked in an unending battle against the matriarchs. These creatures spin webs that no normal fire can burn through. In response to this sticky development, Mamp developed a super-heated staff capable of burning through the silk and setting the matriarch's massive egg sacs ablaze. Fragments of destroyed young can still be found littered amongst the corpses of Hixx's shattered patrol. Destroying the egg sacs, it seems, is a sure way to enrage the spider matriarchs, as well as Arachni herself.”
— Master Dungeon Guide
Reaching the infamous den of spiders was a literal war. Aside from the regular obstacles and wild animals, there were hoards of undead creatures as well. It took Torrack and his team nearly the whole night to traverse the hostile jungle environment, and by the time they reached the Asuran shrine occupied by the krewe of the perpetually-engaged Asuran Commander Hixx, it had also been raining for two hours.
The group took refuge beneath a rocky outcrop above the cavern entrance. Hixx approached through the driving jungle rain as nonchalantly as if it were a calm spring day, “It’s raining bookah!” he greeted, “What brings you beasts of burden to my corner of paradise?”
“Our legs, mainly,” Yin joked, dripping with rainwater.
“That’s a witty one!” the cynical Asuran battle commander clapped, “Mind if I add that to my book? I’ve written a compendium of all the truly clever things I ever heard a bookah say - after years of research, I’m almost at page two!”
Yin rolled his eyes.
“That aside,” Torrack interjected, “We would like to know if another Asura passed this way,”
“Sure, why not? It’s a regular tourist trap around here,” Hixx replied, still standing in the rain, “But one guy did stop through here demanding to enter the cave - real oddball, that one. I can’t imagine how he got out this far without some kind of escort. The fool demanded to enter the cave, even though we still have yet to get the arachnids fully under control,” Hixx shrugged, “He had an expired test permit for a dangerous experiment involving astral fields. I was planning to cite him under the High Council’s Profitable Environmental Exploitation Act, but he didn’t look like he would be stopped and I doubt the Exploitation and Experimentation paper-pushers would venture into the cave after him anyway,” the commander gouged his pointed Asuran Shield into the soggy soil and leaned against it, “Besides, what do I care? Me and my krewe of basterds are here for one reason and one reason only - ta’ kill spiders!”
“Hooah!” squealed two of the commander’s diminutive cadre.
The commander grinned, seeming remarkably tough for his proportions, “For all I know, that experiment of his might explode and take some of Arachni’s spawn with it. Free munitions saves entries in my monthly report,”
Torrack glanced at his much younger companion, who in turn glanced at one of the other party members beside him. The guildmaster cleared his throat, “Um, okay... so, did you catch his name?”
Lightening flashed across the storm-clouded sky as the rain continued to pour. The Asuran warrior glanced back at his team, then looked up at Torrack, “Bleen was his name,” he said simply, “The way he talked, even a human could catch it. It was either his name, or the name of his imaginary friend - he must have said it 75 times while he was arguing with us about cavern access,”
“73 times, sir!” one of the other Asura corrected.
Hixx looked over his shoulder, “I counted 75 times, sergeant,”
“Sir, his salutations were not part of his argument, sir!”
“I’m counting the whole encounter as arguing,” Hixx shouted back to his soldier over the sound of the rain, “Stop eavesdropping!”
“Sir, yes sir!” the sergeant shouted back.
Yin suppressed a laugh.
“We would like to see if we might help you take out a few spiders ourselves,” Torrack suggested, “Mind if we pay Arachni a visit?”
“Do what you want, bookah,” the commander replied, pulling his shield from the ground, “We’ll be sure to note your return to the Eternal Alchemy if we trip on your bones during our next patrol,” with that, battle-weary Asuran commander trotted back to his shrine.
The cave was board and deep, but with low ceilings. Columns of slow-cooled basalt joined the ceiling and floor of the cavern to form thick geometric pillars. The team surveyed the area, which seemed strangely quiet. The groups of lesser arachnids or oozes were not to be found. Torrack had been hunting in this cavern more than once, producing bounties of fire-proof silk along with various other oddities. He silently indicated to one of his men to take one of the high-intensity torches from its tripod near the door, “Let’s proceed with caution,” Torrack whispered, “this is not a normal calm,”
The team proceeded through the cave with the experienced ranger at the head of the pack. Though they heard the sounds of life rustling in the dark and invisible passages surrounding them, there was only minimal resistance from the normally fearsome spiders. They found little use for the web torch, as it seemed Bleen had proceeded before them. Thunderbow followed a path of burned webs and disturbed carrion. The torchlight seemed to play tricks on the eyes as they descended. Movements in the shadows were frequently detected by party members, frequently causing them to pause and look around. The animated firelight from torches placed throughout the cave made the lifeless bones of the spiders’ countless victims seem to dance along the walls and floors and though the team was experienced and confident, they were unable to shake a deep sense of foreboding - something was very wrong.
The second level of the deep cavern was significantly more open than its entrance, it was here that Torrack’s team were ambushed.
Hundreds, possibly thousands of spiders erupted from every dark and unsearched reach of the cave. The party was amazed by the sudden ocean of swiping limbs and gnashing, venomous jaws that appeared not before them, but behind. The warrior and dervish officers, God of Red Warriors and Unseen Reaper, rushed through the ranks of the party to take positions at the back of the group, attempting to limit the approach of the hoard by fighting them against a narrow area linking their position to the upper level. Yin’s healing prowess was drawn to its fullest potential keeping the two fighters alive as Torrack drew back a barrage arrow and let fly. Those vicious arthropods unfortunate enough to have attempted to bypass the sword and scythe of the two point men were decimated by a fiery storm of arrows followed by an obliterating wave of flesh-eating infection as he cast necrosis upon them. Yin Do See supplemented the Hundred Blades and Vow of Strength techniques of the two melee fighters with repeated casts of Splinter Weapon staggered with his regular healing and protective techniques. Shards of earth split from the walls and floors at the dervish’s command, adding to the mounting damage of each attack. The synergy of the elite combat techniques resulted in crushing damage that felled the eight-legged menaces as quickly as they could attack. A paragon-ritualist on the team fought back the poisoning effects of the spider’s bites and skewered stragglers on his side with his spear as Torrack poured arrows into any and all foes that managed to breach the line of blades holding the corridor. Spiders jumped from floor to ceiling, making attempts to pass the team’s human barrier only to be pinned to the basalt by the thick shafts of Thunderbow’s arrows. Explosions of fire and lightening from the staff of Brando Starbuck shook the walls of the cave, bursting the carapaces of the cave crawlers at the back of the enemy group while preventing the reinforcement of the arachnids suffering the brunt of the warrior and dervish attacks at the front. The powerful elementalist officer held his volley in solid succession, supplementing the already brutal waves of cascading melee damage.
The fight was brief but intense and the floors ran slick with oozing fluids from the bodies of slain spiders. At the peak of the encounter, the creatures withdrew, leaving the group with bows drawn and blades raised. Scattered carcasses writhed in their death throes and severed arachnid limbs twitched and spasmed on the greasy, gut-smeared floor, but any assailant that had the power to flee vanished into the depths of the cave.
“What the heck was that all about?” Yin asked finally.
“The attack or the retreat?” the dervish officer asked, shouldering his powerful hooked weapon.
“Both,” the healer replied.
“I’ve not seen anything like that before,” Torrack admitted, pulling one of his arrows out of a nearby spider and returning it to his quiver, “Let’s keep moving. The weird spider activity only supports the idea that Bleen brought something nasty down here with him,”
Through several empty natural corridors they walked, following the path of whomever had passed before them with a torch capable of incinerating the flame-retardant webs unique to the denizens of that particular cave. Much like the area prior, the rocky tunnels seemed bare and void of all life. Only the clutches of giant spider eggs betrayed the recent presence of Arachni’s matrons.
The absence of Arachni’s minions made it possible to move more quickly than anticipated, it did not take long before the group reached a small, dark corner in which they found a small, dark Asura. The small being was hunched over an artifice of some kind. His body obscured the device, but it sublimated an aura of dense shadow.
“Bleen heard your approach, Commander,” the Asura said without turning, “As you can see, the illustrious and brilliant Bleen has been able to avoid any confrontation with these filthy beasts,” he turned, “Which is far more than you seem to -,” his jaw dropped at the sudden sight of the human battle party, soaked with rain, caked with guano and cave dust, and coated with spider entrails.
“Bleen, I presume,” Torrack stepped forward, “You’ve given us quite the run for our money. I have a feeling that you know why we’re here,”
Bleen stepped backward, almost bumping into the machine, “I, Uh, I... I mean,” he cleared his throat, raising his head as high as he could so that he could look down his nose at creatures twice his height, “Bleen is not intimidated,” he sniffed, “Whatever they are paying you, Bleen is prepared to match and exceed it - just be on your way, and the great Bleen will settle-up with you when Bleen the magnificent exits this pit,”
“We are not working for anyone,” Torrack began, “At least, not anyone in particular - certainly not someone who is paying us,”
Bleen’s eyes widened, clearly frightened, “The dragons then,” he whispered.
“What?” Yin asked.
“You’re mad if you’re following them! Brainwashed!” Bleen stammered, pointing at the group, “Insanity!”
“Wait,” Torrack raised his hands imploringly, “Calm down. Nobody said anything about dragons. What are you doing here, Bleen? What is that you have there? Is it the item you got from the skree?”
“How do you know about it?” Bleen asked, shocked, “Nobody knows about it!”
“We know about it,” Torrack stated, “We think it might be causing a lot of trouble,”
“N-nothing! Nothing compared to - compared to what it could do,” Bleen defended, “You don’t understand - you can’t understand. The magnitude,” he swallowed dryly, “The magnitude of the implications of the mere existence of such- such an artifact,”
“This item raises the dead, doesn’t it,” Torrack was not asking a question.
Bleen looked at him, “Yes. It-,” he swallowed again, taking a deep breath through his nose, “It awakens things. It is a solidified manifestation of a tremendous life-energy-driven astral inversion of some kind. It should not exist,” Bleen raised a tiny fist as if in defiance, “I must cause it to cease to exist. I mean, Bleen must cause that, Bleen the brilliant!”
“Bleen the narcissistic,” Reaper mocked.
Torrack held up a hand to silence the dervish, turning again to the Asura, “I think that’s all an act,” he said to his team while looking at Bleen, “This little man is penniless. A debt-laden refugee from the Polymock pit,”
“That’s a lie!” Bleen snapped.
“Is it?” Torrack replied, “I came here from Rata Sum, Bleen - your fellow Asura told me a thing or two about you,”
Bleen frowned deeply, balling his little fists, “I will not be mocked by a bookah! You have no idea what I have been through!” he shouted, stepping aside to reveal the device behind him, “What this has put me through! I’m not a gambler, you sweaty ape!” he shouted, tears coming up in his oversized eyes, “I spent all my gold to perfect and build this device - only to go further into debt locating and securing the horrifying thing I found with it! Now I must destroy it in order to protect the world! I am a hero! Bleen the hero!”
The frustrated speech was loud and undoubtedly sincere, but it was the Asuran’s machine that seemed to capture everyone’s attention. It sat on the hard basalt floor, projecting a black, swirling miasma in which a large, oblong crystal appeared to be suspended. It floated in a seething sphere of shadow, around which even the light seemed to bend. The view of the cave wall behind the device seemed twisted and distorted by the powerful magic field it was producing.
“What is it?” Torrack asked finally.
Bleen seemed to have forgotten his righteous indignation, not to mention his awkward habit of speaking in the third person. The opportunity to explain some complex artifice (especially one upon which an Asura was working) was a weakness that was common with the species, “I developed this device with the hope of using it to detect fluctuations in the fabric of reality. There are many planes of existence - our plane, the Mists, the Realm of Torment - the various and sundry astral resonances of the conceivably infinite variety of existential dimensions represent pathways, weak spots that can be tapped for energy or used for travel. The Asuran gates make use of this same science. The equilibrium between the planes is the core of the Eternal Alchemy,”
“What does this have to do with a-,” Torrack gestured toward the dark aura suspending the artifact as he searched fro the proper word, “a crystal that can raise the dead?”
“When I was testing the machine, I found that it had difficulty functioning around any area with high concentrations of magical energy. Dense astral fields had the effect of bending reality in such a way as to prevent a clear picture of the relationships between this plane and others. I spent a lot of gold traveling from place to place in order to find a place with a very level reading,”
Torrack noticed that his channeling stone was chiming, as were those of the other guildsmen of his party. Yin was the first to read his, “Acmer says they lost another man in a battle at Riverside Province,” he explained.
Unseen Reaper read his, “Yeah, but there are messages coming in from all over that the zombies are just dropping dead,”
Torrack sifted through the script dancing across the smooth face of his own chatter. Reaper was right. Dozens of messages had been placed on the guild’s channel. Undead were dropping in their tracks all over Kryta.
Thunderbow turned to the Asura, “What does this mean?”
“The containment is working,” Bleen replied, “The field stabilized less than an hour ago. I expected to destroy the artifact, but I am unable to gather enough energy. The cave is thick with magic, but I’ll need vast amounts more before I can implode the crystal,”
“What is the crystal?” Torrack asked, stepping closer, “How is it able to do what it’s doing?”
“I don’t know what it is,” Bleen answered honestly, “It’s very old. It’s resonance seems to indicate that it is at least as old as the Great Giants, Giganticus Lupicus - but it could be much older. It is the single most concentrated piece of crystallized magic I have ever seen - a literal astral inversion - more powerful for it’s size than the bloodstones themselves,”
“Where did you find it?”
“I didn’t,” Bleen stated, “I detected it. I theorized it’s location based upon the magic pressure it exerts on the temporal plane. I employed a human to find it - anyway, it’s older than our histories of the world, do you see? It might be part of what caused the giants to die out - there is no way to know, but I know that it must be destroyed. Only a few places in the known world possess similar readings - our Central Transfer Chamber, for example. It’s the kind of thing that could cause global cataclysms if discovered or put to use - the end of the world,”
“Is he crazy?” Yin asked, “What’s he talking about?”
“I’m not too sure either,” Torrack replied, “but if it’s responsible for the new undead plague, then I agree that it must be destroyed,”
“Then we need more energy,” Bleen placed his hands on his hips, “Lots more. The containment field is taking everything I can get from this cave - I’ll need exponentially more energy to collapse reality around the crystal,”
“What about the generators in Rata Sum?” Yin asked.
“Perfect, but impossible,” Bleen said, scratching behind one of his long ears, “Rata Sum is a hub of Asuran activity - my people are the last ones that need to know about this. Even I am tempted to experiment on this artifact - to learn how it works and harness its power - but it’s too dangerous. All I want to do is get rid of it and make it so nobody can ever find it,”
“What then,” Torrack asked, “I don’t see many other options,”
“Why not just leave it here?” Yin Do See asked simply, “It seems fine just as it is,”
“No-no-no-no-no!” Bleen shook his head, “It’s too close to civilization here and it would only take one of those mindless spiders or bull-headed military officers knocking it over to unleash it’s power again, then WHOOSH!” Bleen flung his arms outward.
The party watched dumbfounded as the Asuran’s arm passed through the containment field, striking the crystal and sending it clattering to the dusty cave floor.
All was silent. None of the people in the chamber dared to take a breath.
“You see how easy it is?” Bleen said at last.
“Just put it back,” Torrack said, fighting to remain calm as the sound of something stirring in the upper cave reached their ears.
Bleen scrambled to replace the crystal, but it was like balancing a needle on its point. The urgency and the shaking of his hands added nothing to his chances of finishing quickly.
“Here they come!” God of Red Warriors alerted, raising his shield and sword.
In the dusky depths, the old ranger could see the glistening bodies of another wave of exceedingly wroth spiders. However, unlike the first unprecedented assault, all of the spiders in the coming wave were enemies that the party had already killed.
“Body-block them!” Torrack commanded, “Form a perimeter around Bleen!”
“Rally the meat shields!” Reaper joked, taking up his position beside the team’s other melee fighter.
“I need protectives on everybody,” Thunderbow continued, “Yin: this is all you, buddy!”
“I got it,” Yin raised his hands confidently, already preparing a volley of powerful restorative and defensive skills.
Torrack drew back an enchanted Barrage arrow, whispering a command that caused the tip to ignite, “Those zombies will stop once that crystal is back in the machine, right?” he released the arrow, sending a wave of flaming shafts into the first ranks of undead arthropods.
“No no!” Bleen adjusted controls on his device, still holding the crystal in his hand, “I mean, yes! If it is contained, the power that emanates from it is forced to recirculate within the pocket dimension created by the containment field generator; if the undead are animated by its power, they will be halted immediately,”
The first wave of re-animated spiders crashed against the party’s hastily-assembled defensive line bashed and scratched against blades and shields, seeming stronger than they did when they were alive. They ignored blows that severed limbs and seemed unaffected by attacks that impaled and flayed them. The attack was relentless, even against the multi-layered, redundant torrent of damage dealt to them by Thunderbow’s team of elite knights.
“They keep coming!” the paragon reported, holding them back with his shield.
“Not coming!” Red panted from heavy exertion, “They’re re-assembling! Putting themselves back together,”
“That’s new!” Torrack acknowledged, launching a combined volley of incendiary arrows and necrosis, “Focus everything you have on burning them - let’s see if their ashes get back up to fight again,”
“It’s the proximity to the artifact,” Bleen explained as he tried to balance the crystal shard and adjust the parameters of the pocket dimension simultaneously, “The spider’s astral bodies are ignoring the damage to their physical bodies - the artifact is allowing them to hold themselves together,”
Torrack drew back for another salvo of flaming arrows when a familiar voice chimed from his pocket, “Torrack, can you hear me?”
Thunderbow released the barrage, quickly touching his channeling stone as his hand reached back for another arrow, “I hear you, Yeou,” he fired another shot, pinning an undead spider to the wall, “Now is not really a good time though,”
“Understood,” Yeou replied from Torrack’s pocket, “I will contact you again later,”
Torrack pulled another shaft from his quiver, touching the chatter before nocking it to his bow, “It’s OK, go ahead - I just can’t do a lot of talking right now,” Yeou rarely called the guildmaster directly for any reason, preferring the formality of written messages. As such, Torrack knew whatever it was must have been important.
“It’s about the missing man,” Yeou said calmly as the battle raged in the cave, “I believe he has been killed. I met with a skree that was able to explain the drawings I found. It was apparently paid to deliver a powerful magical item to some part of Tyria from the Crystal Desert. She gave it to a little green man - probably an Asura, maybe a grench,”
“I think we figured that part out,” Yin said between spells, knowing that the officer on the other end of the stone had no way of hearing him.
“Our missing man came upon the item in the toxic desert, possibly at the edge of Joko’s Domain. He and a team stole it from a team that was apparently digging it up, then fled northeast - maybe as far as Dzalana - where he made a deal with the harpies to fly the item to some pre-determined location,”
“Pull into a tighter group!” Torrack ordered over Yeou’s calm voice, “Don’t let them get through! Hurry it up, Bleen!”
“Don’t rush me!” Bleen shouted, focused intently on his work, “You’re making me nervous!”
“I’m getting a little nervous too,” Yin yelled, sweat already darkening his robes.
“...I don’t know much more about it,” Yeou continued, “I have an idea about who I might be able to ask - but I think Joko considers the item to be his property and I am certain that he will do whatever it takes to get it back. That is all,”
Torrack was unable to reply. The unstoppable hoard had pressed them back as far as they could go. The fight crowded the little Asura as he tried to stabilize the crystal, and arrows were becoming less effective, not to mention there being few of them left.
“What’s the plan, chief?” Red called from the front.
Torrack had no time to think, he knew they could not hold this fight forever, “How much longer, Bleen?”
“It took me almost seven hours the first time,” Bleen replied honestly.
Yin’s eyes rolled, “Oh, perfect!”
“But,” the Asura corrected, “I think I learned enough that time to shorten the process by at least fifty percent,”
“Yay!” Reaper groaned sarcastically, maiming a boiling mass of arachnids with each blow of his scythe, “That gives us three and a half hours! Let’s have a picnic!”
“You’ve got to do better, Bleen,” Torrack said gravely.
“More trouble!” God of Red Warriors announced from his place beside the dervish.
As the undead spiders continued to fight, the cavern before them and the only way out suddenly filled with a sea of living spiders, headed by their infamous queen, Arachni.
“Fire, fire!” Torrack ordered, turning to officer Starbuck, “We need a wall of fire - we can’t handle that group now - we’ll be overrun,”
Flames appeared from every angle as a powerful spell was cast by the group’s powerful elemental mage, followed by a shockwave that shook the cavern, knocking many of the spiders down. Shards of sand sprayed the area at Reaper’s command, but the undead spiders continued to rise along with reinforcements from any of Arachni’s living minions that had succumbed to the onslaught.
Torrack reached to his quiver, finding it empty, “We are done,” he said to himself.
“Torrack!” Yin Do See was shaking from the strain of keeping his fellows alive against such impossible odds, “What do we do?”
Torrack looked back at the Asura, still working on his machine.
Without saying anything, the guildmaster slung his bow across his back. He grabbed the crystal, stuffing it into his pocket. He lifted the Asura, thrusting him under his left arm, then lifted the small containment field generator. In the same movement, he took his channelling stone from his pocket, pressing his thumb against its smooth surface.
Bleen struggled weakly, “What are you doing? Are you crazy? Now I have to start over!”
“I’m about to break a guild rule,” Torrack replied, raising his stone, “Deliver my party to the guild hall of the Knights of the Sacred Chalice!”
In an instant, the party vanished, leaving the spiders to fight with each other.
“Lair of the Forgotten: Time has not been kind to this last bastion of a once-great empire. The erosion caused by the outward creep of the Realm of Torment has eaten away at the very foundations of this forgotten citadel, dropping much of it into a vast sinkhole. It is said the lone living witness to the Margonite assault on the Gates of Heaven and Abaddon's defeat at the hands of the Five Gods still resides here, all but abandoned to the mists of time.”
— From a hand-drawn map of the Desolation; date unknown
Acmer White stood at the top of the stone stairs leading to the central courtyard, surveying the sprawling landscape of the large guild’s island fortress. He had searched the records for the names of the guildsmen lost in the widespread battles against the undead. The battle-scarred veteran failed to find any rangers in the registry that were not counted either among the living or the dead, but the one that had served with him at Twin Serpent Lakes was not among them. In fact, most of the deaths had been new, lazy, or otherwise inexperienced knights - a new knight would not usually have the field experience or general combat prowess to be eligible for training in an advanced Asuran technique like Pain Inverter. An apparition? How was one to ever know in a world where such madness was happening. White put the matter out of his mind. He had placed the burnt cape with the others, which lie in a neat stack with others brought in from other fronts all over Kryta. Acmer was a fighter and that was that; too much brooding took the energy out of life. He watched the sky for a brief moment before feeling a yawn coming on.
It was in the midst of a long and satisfying yawn that several knights burst into existence all around him. A dervish landed in a tree, a warrior fell onto the grass dozens of yards away, and a paragon appeared several feet above a flight of stars, which he hit totally unprepared and tumbled down. Behind White, in the main courtyard area, an elementalist dropped from thin air onto the KSC’s startled Zaishen representative, the Xunlai agent managed to catch a terrified Asura that winked into view along with the stunned guildmaster, who crashed atop the none-too-soft Xunlai chest. Yin Do See popped into sight at the center of the circular courtyard only inches from the ground and landed lightly on his feet.
Torrack blinked and shook his head, recognizing the guild hall but disoriented by the unexpected nature of his arrival. He held the field generator in one hand and in his other he held a common stone. Standing, he set the generator on top of the chest, pressing his hand to the smooth surface of the inanimate rock that was once his channelling stone. Nothing. He noted Yin and Bleen nearby, “Is everybody OK?” he asked.
Unseen Reaper dropped from the tree as God of Red Warriors and the paragon collected themselves. Brando Starbuck apologized to the Zaishen representative and stepped toward Torrack and Yin. Acmer also approached.
“What was that all about?” Reaper asked, massaging an injured shoulder.
“I don’t know,” Torrack replied,”I have never tried that before,” he held out his ruined chatter, “My stone is spent, though. It’s just a rock now,”
Yin took the dead channeling stone, “Wow. I’ve never seen that before,”
“I guess there is a reason why transporting more than one person like that is forbidden,” Torrack mused, “At least we made it out alive. I will have to see if I can bind a new one to myself before I leave the hall,”
“The artifact might have been responsible for the phase shift during teleportation,” Bleen added, “Its magical density is too great. We are lucky that we were not reduced to particles or fused into a single mass,”
Thunderbow gave Bleen’s image more thought than he would have liked, “Yes, well I suppose that is fortunate - but our alternatives didn’t look much better at the time,”
“Give me the artifact,” Bleen reached out a small hand, still powdered with dust from the cave, “I must contain it - everything in this region will be affected by it if we don’t hurry,”
Torrack surrendered the crystal and Bleen immediately set to work restoring his machine.
“You have been keeping busy,” Acmer greeted.
Torrack smiled, shaking his head, “It’s a long story, Acmer. Thanks for holding things together,”
“I just happened to be here depositing another cape,” White replied, “I’ll need to head back to Riverside Province to check on my team,”
“Re-assign them,” Torrack said, “I want you with me now that we have this thing in our possession,”
“What thing?” Acmer asked, “That little machine?”
“The crystal,” Torrack corrected, “It’s responsible for the zombies,”
Acmer looked at the Asura, then back to Torrack, “You’re joking,”
Torrack shook his head.
“How the bloody hell?”
“It’s not possible to explain it,” Torrack said, “but the thing is immensely powerful - it disturbs the natural order of life,”
“It’s an astral inversion,” Bleen explained, hunched over his machine, “a concentrated mass of crystallized magical energy so potent that its existence disrupts the thin veil between dimensions,”
“There you have it,” said the guildmaster.
Acmer shook his head, “That’s nonsense. Something like that would have been noticed by now, don’t you think? Where did it come from?”
“Elona,” Torrack replied, watching Bleen work, “From the deep desert - it was apparently buried deep underground - only recently discovered,”
“Ah,” Acmer nodded, “How appropriate,”
“You know,” Bleen said to nobody in particular, “Its being found in the desert actually makes a lot of sense - not only would it explain why it had not been found up to now and why its effects on the region were not felt, it might also explain why that region is a poisonous desert to begin with,”
“And why the deserts are swarming with undead,” Yin suggested, “Man, think about that a second - that’s wild!”
“We will need to prepare a place for this machine once it has stabilized,” Torrack announced, “We can keep it here at the guild hall indefinitely. It will be far from the mainland and under our protection at all times,”
While Torrack’s team assisted Bleen with the stabilization of the containment field at the Guild hall, Yeou’s party marched into the broken and weathered remains of the ancient fortress of the forgotten. The old spires and remnants of forgotten buildings from times immemorial lie lifeless among the rocks and shifting sands of the merciless desert. Even the few sorts of hearty adventurers and treasure-hunters that occupied the dark, skeletal remains of Morah seemed absent from the Lair of the Forgotten.
Yeou Longroad had all but given up any hope of finding the lost guildsman. He was also relatively certain that the mysterious item had left Elona as well. The only thing that he thought he might be able to do before either returning to the guild hall or travelling to the Crystal Desert would be to see if he could obtain any information at all about the item itself. A once powerful healer, the indescribably old Vissh Rakissh still lurked among the dusty ruins of his species’ first and last Elonan outpost. The civilization of the primeval race of mystics slithered across the lost lands of Tyria long before the first historical human text was ever penned. Like other ageless beings such as Glint and Kuunavang, the Forgotten had born witness to the events of a past so distant that they were regarded as myths even in the days before the first human sword was forged in Cantha.
An avid student of Tyrian history, Longroad eagerly awaited the opportunity to meet Vissh Rakissh again. His first encounter with him had been very brief and was motivated by military objectives in the war against Abbadon. This time, he felt that he had more time to discuss the things that the aged creature had seen in his inconceivably long life.
Lari Ngunda and Kiri Snowblood had walked in silence with the knight for almost the entire trek across the less toxic area of the desert. With speed in mind, Yeou had been able to avoid conflicts with the roving wildlife and Joko’s patrols, their few meetings with resistance were brief and merciless. The dogged KSC officer felt as if he had accomplished very little during his investigation and had little patience for obstacles.
“I feel like my legs are going to walk themselves off,” Ngunda huffed as they reached the first shade of the ancient outpost, “I be hoping that friend of yours has more to share with us than some old stories - water might be a good start,”
“There is water here,” Yeou said calmly, “But Rakissh is the only living thing here, so mind your manners - he’s not prepared for guests,”
“What do you expect him to know, Master Longroad?” Kiri asked.
“I have no expectations,” Yeou replied simply, “But it is possible that Rakissh will know something that might be useful to determining what happened to Marc Anutanni - or the item that seems to be central to the questions surrounding his disappearance,”
Spirits bound to the physical world by lost hopes or by pure stubbornness watched the trio as they walked through the dead streets and between the remains of wasted buildings. Vissh lived in the cavernous remains of a toppled Forgotten building and rarely ventured far from there except to find food or to watch the desert sun rise and set. All of the Forgotten were naturally adept at desert survival and had resided in the Crystal Desert since the oceans there had dried away.
The serpentine creature must have detected the party’s approach, since it peeked its head from the entrance of its den moments before the three humans reached it, “Ah, travelerss it sseemss,” he whispered.
“Hello, Vissh Rakissh the wise,” Yeou greeted respectfully, nodding his head in a quick bow as he approached.
Rakissh crept out of his hole in the wall, seeming amused by the greeting. He chuckled softly, a sound like a series of hisses, “Ssertainly an unexsspected vissit,” he replied with the hissing accent peculiar to his forked-tongued people, “What iss it you sseek, child? Are you losst?”
“Lost is a matter of perspective,” Yeou replied, stepping close enough for a proper conversation, “I wanted to ask you a question or two,”
“Assk what you like,” Rakissh seemed unable to speak above a whisper, “But I resserve the right to ansswer in my own way,”
Yeou cleared his throat, “Would you happen to have met another man recently - one possibly interested in reaching the Crystal Desert from Elona?”
Vissh’s large eyes narrowed, “Why would I have met ssuch a man?” he asked.
“I believe you have wisdom unique to the Forgotten,” Yeou explained, “That man is part of my guild and has gone missing. As a member of my guild, he would have been aware of your existence and of the connection between the Forgotten and the Crystal Desert,”
Vissh’s long tongue flicked out, then returned to its place in his mouth, “I know ssuch a man asss that,” he said, “but I am ssurprissed that you do not know where he iss. Ssomeone ssent him on hiss quest, wass that not your guild?”
“I can assure you it was not,” Yeou replied.
Kiri and Ngunda glanced at each other.
Vissh looked over the warrior’s shoulder to the people standing behind him, “Sshall we sspeak alone?”
Yeou checked behind him, only seeing his trusted associates, “These two are well trusted and familiar with the situation,”
“It iss not for the ssaftey of the information, but their own ssafety,”
Yeou dismissed the two, asking them to take time to rest and refresh themselves while he and the serpent entered the cool shadows of Rakissh’s den.
Kiri walked to the nearest shadow and sat patiently.
Ngunda leaned against a rocky wall next to her, “Ya know,” he surveyed the sparse ruins, noting the portion of the outpost lost to a giant sinkhole, “This isn’t much of an outpost with only one guy living here,”
“‘Forgotten’ can be singular or plural,” Kiri stated calmly, “In that respect, the outpost is properly named. It is indeed the lair of the (one) Forgotten,”
“Ya, lil’ Kiri Snowpea,” Lari shrugged, “But I had me thinking this would be a special place; but it’s a graveyard - this whole mission is a graveyard buried in a graveyard,”
“Expectation is the root of all disappointments,” Kiri said as she sat with her eyes closed, “Please forgive my observation, but you may benefit from cultivating greater personal objectivity,”
“Bah!” Ngunda laughed, “I’m not disappointed; I just mebbe this would be a nice place. All in all, I never thought I’d be doing something like this. In a few days, I seen more a’ my homeland than I seen in my whole life. Nobody gonna believe I met Palawa Joko in his Bone Palace. Nobody gonna believe I traveled in the great Junundu. Vabbian plays are easier to believe than the story I can tell about this, but m’boy the commander doesn’t even think twice about it,”
Kiri remained silent.
“Ya listening to me, little one?”
Kiri opened one dark eye and beheld the tall, dark man for a moment, “I am always listening,”
Ngunda sighed, “Makes a man start to feel like he been left behind,” he continued, “We all thought we were heroes during the wars, but guys what went off with the guilds... I’m feeling like I’m falling behind,”
“Perhaps you are,” Kiri said as she sat with her eyes closed.
“You’re a blunt one, Kiri Iceblood,”
“I apologize for seeming blunt,” Kiri’s eyes remained closed, but her voice was calm and innocent as always, “but I am unable to understand your thoughts. If you would like to do more, do more. Your decisions are yours, but regret is a cancer. I think of my time with Master Longroad and his associates as a learning experience. I experienced these things for the first time as well, but my not having done them before is no cause for regret due to the fact that I was doing other things before now,”
Ngunda seemed to think for a moment, resting the back of his head against the rock wall against which he was leaning as he looked up at the moon in the dusky sky, “Maybe it’s different for a man,” he sighed at last.
“Maybe,” Kiri said neutrally, then fell silent.
Rakissh coiled on the floor of his den, summoning light from his staff, which he placed into a hole in the floor at the center of the room, “Ssso long ssinss I have ressieved guesstss,”
Yeou remained standing. He did not think this particular Forgotten was dangerous, but the mysterious and arcane race was not without representatives of its violent side. The road-worn warrior had seen plenty of that particular kind during expeditions into the Crystal Desert and was naturally guarded, being unfamiliar with the individual.
“You sseek information about your guild mate, yess?”
“Did he come here?”
“Yess,” the serpent replied quietly, “He wanted to esscape the dessertss of Elona,” the Forgotten’s tongue flicked, “He carried with him the Dragon’ss Tear,”
“It iss not a tear from a dragon,” the Forgotten raised one of his four arms, “It iss the name the first of my people gave it - and things like it. Remnantss from the before timess,”
“Before humans?” Yeou asked.
The serpent answered with his hissing laughter, “Before everything,”
Yeou thought for a moment, suddenly distracted by thoughts of the Dragon’s Tear, “Do you know what it is?”
“The Tear?” Rakissh paused, “It iss a crysstal,”
“Do you know of the story of the bloodstones?” Vissh asked.
“The story of how the five human gods gave magic to the world? Yes. It is common knowledge where I come from,” Yeou replied.
“Have you ever thought about the power needed to make ssuch thingss - or from where ssuch power might have come?”
“I have wondered,” Yeou said, “In my idle time,”
“Then you have ssomething to think about,” the old reptile grinned, “The dragonss know of thesse thingss - they fell from the ssky long before my time,”
Yeou took a breath, “So it’s a mystery to you as well,”
The Forgotten nodded slowly, “To all but thosse of age and wissdom greater than mine and of all my people - only they know the nature of itss beginingss and endingss. However, I have borne witness to itss surfacing onsse in the passt. It iss a alterer of fatess and a mover of worldss - a catalysst and a cursse on thiss world,”
Yeou was “And my guildsman?”
“Hiss sstory wass one of great ssacrifisse,” the Forgotten ancient began.
Kiri and Lari looked up as Yeou exited the cave. Nearly an hour had passed and the two had both dozed off. Yeou shared their shadow, taking his chatter from his pocket.
“What happened, Master Longroad?” Kiri asked, rising to her feet.
“Ya, Commander,” Ngunda seemed interested, “What did you hear?”
“Listen in while I make my report,” Yeou replied, “It’s an interesting story,” he swept his finger across the surface of the stone until he was able to find his most recent message from the guild master. He pressed his thumb to the stone, “Torrack, are you there?”
Longroad scribed a note on the guild channel, asking Torrack to contact him when he had a moment.
“So what happened to the man?” Lari pressed, “Did the snake know what happened?”
“Show some respect, Captain,” the knight said, sitting on the sand next to where his two comrades were standing, “Vissh Rakissh did meet with Marc while he was still carrying the item. He called it a Dragon’s Tear and he said that Marc found it at a dig that Joko had initiated - just as we had deduced from our conversation with Palawa Joko himself. Vissh didn’t know where the dig was or how Joko knew of the item, but Marc found out about it from an Asura. Apparently Marc was convinced that the Asura had found a way to destroy the item and made it his mission to capture it and deliver it to him,”
“A noble cause,” Kiri observed.
“But why?” Lari asked, “We know this thing raises the dead and that Joko was trying to get it, but Joko and his army are all already dead - I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. Why did the man keep it a secret?”
“I have no idea about that,” Yeou said, “I personally think that the mission would have been a lot more successful if he had involved the rest of the KSC, but Vissh said that Marc was crazy about the idea that anyone who helped him was in danger. He may have made himself hard to track in order to prevent us from trying to help him,”
Lari nodded, “Very much like a Sunspear. That info will be helpful in removing the blemish desertion from his record,”
“Indeed,” Yeou acknowledged, “In any case, our old friend here also said that Joko was pursuing Marc vehemently. The guildsman only managed to find his way here while trying to escape - I may have overestimated his resourcefulness initially, since he seemed to find Vissh Rakissh, and thereby a secret Forgotten path through to the Cyrstal Desert, entirely by chance. Marc told Vissh that he had been pursued and driven northwest by Joko’s undead agents and that he had originally tried to reach the coast and travel north to the Crystal Desert by sea - the same way he had heard Turai Ossa had done,”
“That’s rather impressive,” Kiri said, sitting next to her employer.
“Nah,” Lari corrected, “That’s blinkin’ amazing - he might have ascended with all the guts it took to get so far carrying that thing,”
“Our guild is not known for recruiting weaklings,” Yeou stated plainly, “He probably planned to meet the scree so far north because he knew Joko was after him and wanted the trail to end with him. It leads me to believe that he may never have intended to survive in the first place - Marc basically took on a suicide mission in secret,” Yeou looked up at the moon that seemed to hang looming over the destroyed Forgotten outpost, “We might never have known of his sacrifice if the Sunspears had not contacted Torrack,”
“What shall we do now?” Snowblood asked.
The weary officer scratched his nose as he stared at the sky. The desert sky always seemed so clean, so visible compared to the obstructed skies of Cantha or the smoke-filled skies of Ascalon. As he sat there covered in the grit and grime of days of hard travel, he thought of Marc and his sacrifice. He had probably never met the guild member and wondered if Marc had ever known of him. He fought the urge to think of his death as having been needless, instead considering the deep, personal honor he had shown through his actions. His tired mind wandered to his dingy flat in Kaineng and his unfinished work there. His mission had not exactly been glorious or action-packed, but it had been a good bit of work and he felt it about time to consider the case closed. The skree had witnessed his death and everything they had seen up to that pointwas corroborated by the mendicant Forgotten hermit. There was no telling where the Dragon’s Tear had gone, but if it were to turn up, the guild would surely be ready to do whatever needed doing. As for Marc, Yeou would do his best to see that he was honored for his service. He would probably need to find the Asura... but that would be a task for another day.
“Yeou Longroad,” Lari Ngunda leaned over him, “You there, man?”
Yeou’s eyes focused on his friend, “Ah, yes. What next? Well, I suppose I’ll need to make my report to Torrack, then we can head back and tell the Sunspears what happened,”
"The Unending Ocean, also known as the Great Sea and the Clashing Seas, is the giant body of water that separates the continents of Tyria and Elona from the continent of Cantha. The island chain known as the Battle Isles resides within the Unending Ocean, between the three continents. In ancient days before the Exodus of the Gods and the distribution of magic, the Margonites ruled this ocean before they lost their humanity.”
Torrack looked at his reflection in the face of his new channelling stone. The magical constructs were exceedingly expensive, but no modern guild could function without them. His old one sat on his desk in the guild office. He wondered for a moment whether he had set a bad precedent by using his old stone to transport himself and a non-KSC person along with his party. The rumor was that one would be killed if one made the attempt. The old guild leader felt relatively certain that the replacement cost alone, which was roughly equal to the cost of a Celestial Sigil, probably worked to deter most would-be heroes from using their stones for last-minute rescues. The fear of death by teleporting halfway through a tree or another person only reinforced the forbidden nature of such an act. To prevent the need again, Torrack had spent 100 gold to provide Bleen with a temporary guest badge that would allow him some limited access to the hall for the sake of maintaining the machine.
He held his hand against the stone, warming it with his own life energy, thus binding it to his very soul. Once fully customized, it would only respond fully to his commands and he would once again be remotely accessible to his guild. A mild tremor sent a rumble through the stone building, causing the guildmaster to rise from his seat and move to the door. There had been a few tremors of this kind while the Asura continued to tweak the settings on his enigmatic device. He had worked tirelessly in the courtyard since the time of their arrival, refusing food, water, or help of any kind.
Torrack could see him working from the door of his office. Acmer and Red stood over him watching while Yin sat at work cataloguing the capes and effects of the fallen guildsmen. The guild master had noted that Bleen had ceased calling himself by his own name. Torrack had the feeling that some, if not all, of Bleen’s over-the-top arrogance had been an act. The little Asura’s self-imposed mission to save the world and the poverty and isolation that had come as a direct result of its undertaking must have pushed Bleen to overcompensate.
Bleen glanced over his shoulder at the guild master as if he noticed that he was being watched, “Thunderbow,” he said, “Mind coming over here for a second?” he looked to God of Red Warriors and Acmer White, “Amscray, you two,”
“What?” Acmer raised an eyebrow.
“Thunderbow, tell your armor-plated goons to give us some privacy,”
“Yo,” Red pointed at the little scientist, “This goon saved your scrawny, little, green buttocks from Arachni less than an hour ago,”
“Yes, yes,” Bleen waved him off like a child.
“Just give us a second, guys,” Torrack stepped up to the Asura at work, “What can I do for you, Bleen?”
“It’s this guild hall,” Bleen stated as another mild tremor shook the courtyard floor, “The system is not getting enough energy,” the dark field flickered as it recovered from the tremor, “I believe that the containment field is in a state of decay,”
“Is that what is causing the earthquakes?” Torrack asked.
“The tremors are caused when the field weakens enough for the crystal’s magic to mingle with the physical world,” Bleen explained, “The battle isles are a realm directly controlled by your human god, Balthazar. I suspect there is a certain... incompatibility,” he sniffed, “In addition to that, the region does not possess latent magical energy sufficient to power the device - if the field ruptures...,”
“If the field ruptures, what?”
“We would only have minutes to restore it, or the power it emits could begin to tear this island apart,”
Torrack straightened to his full height, placing his hands on his hips as he took a deep breath, “Then we have to move it, I suppose - how much time do we have?”
Bleen returned to work on the machine, “An hour or two, I think. I can keep it going for several hours if I keep adjusting the resonance of the containment field. But, there is still the issue of energy, I’m not sure how long the machine will run,” he looked over his shoulder at the old ranger, “I had it in the cave for a reason, you know. The veins of magic are very strong in the subterranean areas around Rata Sum,”
Before Torrack could form a response, and without any fanfare or warning, Yeou Longroad blinked into existence in the center of the courtyard, channelling stone in hand.
Torrack turned, feeling the light rush of air that the new arrival had displaced. He grinned at the sight of the road-weary warrior as he stood there, covered in Elonan desert dust, “Yeou! My good friend, it seems like ages since we parted company,”
“Master Thunderbow,” Yeou nodded a bow, seeming not to notice the other guildsmen, “Your chatter seemed to be malfunctioning, so I thought I might visit the guild hall to see if you were here. Looks like I timed my visit just right,” he noted the Asura hard at work in the corner of the yard. He seemed confused for a moment, but his tired face quickly showed signs of understanding, “I see it was an Asura after all,”
Thunderbow laughed, “I think you must have been born completely unable to show surprise,” he gestured to the Asura, “You figured it out for yourself. This, is Bleen,”
Bleen waved uninterestedly, his face never turning away from his work.
“That must be the Dragon’s Tear,” Yeou said, his eyes indicating that he was referring to the artifact suspended in the dark containment field.
Bleen stopped and stood, ceasing his labors for the first time since his arrival, “Ah! It has a name, then?” a smile full of needle-sharp teeth stretch across his face, “How fascinating!” he approached the dirty traveler wringing his hands anxiously, “Tell me, how did you come by this information?”
“Yeou was the knight on the trail of the guildsman who found the crystal,” Torrack explained.
“The knight I hired to find it,” Bleen corrected, looking up at Longroad, “All my tests indicate that the artifact’s existence predates any of the sentient races on this world, perhaps even the Seers and Mursaat - even Giganticus Lupicus - who would have named it?”
As Yeou inhaled, preparing to recount the story of his meeting with Vissh Rakissh, the ground began to shake. The tremor was much stronger than those previous, causing the wall nearest the machine to crack and the Asuran inventor to loose his balance. He landed squarely on his miniature hind end with a thump that seemed impossible for his size, “Yow!” he shouted, jumping back onto his short legs while rubbing his rump, “Son of a bookah!” he instinctively looked back to the containment field generator and was struck motionless by what he saw.
A few of the others, including Yeou and Torrack, followed the Asura’s gaze and were similarly frozen with bewilderment. The shaking of the stone floor of the courtyard had upset the tripod supporting the small machine and, as the group watched for a single, dilated moment, the entire construct toppled onto the ground. The glass-like sound of the crystal clattering against the cobblestones of the KSC courtyard echoed as the entire guild hall stood in silence, then a low rumble began as if something volcanic were stirring beneath the ground.
Bleen rushed back to the machine, attempting to restore the containment aura. Onlookers were unable to determine if he was chanting an ancient incantation or rattling through a long string of interconnected Asuran curses. The ground remained stable, but the deep sound emanating from beneath the group’s feet seemed to be growing louder - or closer.
“Bleen,” Torrack stepped closer, “I’m hoping you’re going to tell me you have this under control,”
“The machine is failing!” Bleen was sweating, holding the crystal above the dead field emitter with one hand while adjusting settings with the other, “At the very least, I’ll need more energy to restore the field - I - I can’t tell if it’s not getting enough power or if it’s broken,”
Yin stood, “Torrack! We need to port that thing out of here! what if something happens to the guild hall?”
“Let’s just use an elemental spell to fling it into the ocean,” Red suggested.
Bleen shot the warrior a look that could freeze molten lava, “You sir, are an idiot,”
“And you’re about to be a punching bag, you fast-talking little midget!”
“Enough,” Torrack ordered, “We can’t port it back the way we came. We would port back to Rata Sum - it would be a disaster,”
Yeou stood by, not fully informed as to the nature of the events unfolding. A puff of black smoke rose from his shadow, dissolving to reveal Kiri Snowblood. Yeou looked down at the young shinobi as she rose to her full height beside him, seeming deeply drained.
“Miss Snowblood,” Yeou acknowledged, “Welcome to the KSC guild hall. But, I recall asking you to wait for me with Captain Ngunda,”
“My deepest and most sincere apologies, Master Longroad,” she was breathing heavily.
“Who is this?” Torrack asked, doing his best to avoid the appearance of being deeply distressed as the rumble below continued to slowly escalate.
“This is a mercenary I hired to assist me in my investigation,” Yeou explained, looking back to the girl, “It must be important for you to deliver yourself all the way here,”
“It is important, Master Longroad,” she said, “Delivery at this distance is a great drain - please forgive my sickly appearance,”
“Well?” Yeou asked as Torrack returned his attention to Bleen and the other guild officers gathering around him.
“The Order of Whispers, Master Longroad,” Kiri said, seeming to recover slightly as she stood, “they have surrounded the Lair of the Forgotten and are seeking the Dragon’s Tear. Captain Ngunda is holding a defensive position with the Forgotten mystic in his cave. The generals of Palawa Joko were also visible on the horizon a the time of my departure,” She took a deep breath after reporting the news as a single, long sentence, “An engagement is expected. The captain urgently requests your return,”
“Yeou came from a very remote area,” Brando Starbuck announced from his position standing between the two groups. He turned to the dusty warrior, “Lair of the Forgotten, was it?”
Torrack wasted no time. He took the crystal as he had done before, stuffing it into his pocket. He hefted the small generator as he faced his officers, “Gents, we are going to the desert!” his eyes turned to Longroad, “We’re part of your party now,”
Yeou nodded, raising his channelling stone.
“No, no!” Bleen clawed at Torrack’s arm, “You’re all suicidal! The desert is eternity’s graveyard - there is no way to know what this crystal might stir once you arrive!”
“Better the desert than our guild hall,” Acmer stated, “You have your guest badge; you can port back here if it gets too rough for you,”
“I go where the artifact goes!” Bleen assured, “It’s my discovery!”
“Then let’s do this,” Torrack nodded to Yeou, “Mr. Longroad, we’re ready when you are,”
“Kiri,” Yeou looked down at his hired blade, “Join us when you’ve rested,” he pressed his thumb to the stone, “Take my party back from whence I came,”
The party of eight vanished, leaving Kiri behind.
She stood silently, her porcelain-white face flushed slightly at the thought of being left behind while her patron faced his mission without her. She knew that the Zaishen would not smile upon her failure to support according to her obligations, but she also knew that another delivery over such an enormous distance would put her life at risk. She spied the chair where Yin Do See had been sitting and made her way toward it as her world began to spin. After taking two dizzy steps, the exhausted shinobi promptly collapsed.
“Dare not speak the name of the Master of Whispers – not unless you have a good reason for doing so. This cryptic figure is so mysterious that he's hidden his real name; instead, he's always addressed by his title. The Master of Whispers has unquestioned command of an efficient organization, although many debate what form his authority actually takes. One rumor holds that he's the province's spymaster, keeping a job where he serves as a central collector of information from spies across the nation (and perhaps beyond). Others believe he deals with supernatural threats, training his agents as ghost seekers and demon hunters. Whatever the truth may be, he often finds reason for traveling with adventurers exploring Elona (and perhaps beyond). His reasons for doing so are strictly on a need-to-know basis. You're just not ready to learn that yet.”
— The Guild Wars Nightfall Manuscripts
The dust blasted the adventurers as they dropped into the windblown sands at the edge of the Lair of the Forgotten. The group rose from where the channelling stone had sent them crashing into the hot dunes of the sulfur-stinking desert. The abrasive sand poured from armor and robes as they stepped into view of the desolate ruins. Men in red cloaks and desert wrappings stood atop every structure that rose from the sand. A ring of them encircled the humble entrance of Vissh Rakissh's abode. The small figure of a single Sunspear dervish could be seen between the crimson-clad figures, blocking the ancient doorway with his scythe.
Torrack found himself deeply impressed by the scene, "You seem to keep good company, Yeou,"
"I do my best," Yeou acknowledged from the head of the line, "I'm hoping we have arrived in time to be sure I keep him,"
A shout rang from one of the men atop a nearby structure, signalling the assembly of the party's arrival. Men moved to intercept and the weapons of seven knights flashed as they came to bear.
“Hold there!” a voice rang out from among the red-clothed throng. Before the call had a chance to echo, the large group halted, barring the knights’ progress until a very old man arrived. He appeared between two of his men, stepping through the gap to stand before the assembly, “Who leads this party?” has asked boldly, “Yeou Longroad, or guild master Torrack Thunderbow?”
Yeou stepped aside, “If the guild leader is part of a guild party, he is the leader of that party,”
The old man faced the elder knight, “Torrack Thunderbow. What is your business here?”
Torrack thought for a moment, then cleared his throat, “We understand that one of Yeou’s associates his threatened by your order. We have come to see about that,”
“Ha!” old man scoffed, “I am the Master of Whispers, Torrack Thunderbow! How easily it seems our power is forgotten!”
“Then it’s true that you’re here to cause trouble,” Torrack replied, “that seems unlike the order we all fought alongside in the war against Abbadon,”
“We are the same as we have always been,” the Master of Whispers replied calmly, “As always, we act in the interests of protecting Elona and its people,” he pointed a bony hand at the Asura, “Your meddling and curiosity may very well bring about the end of this age! The end of the age of humankind,”
Bleen shrank from the old man’s accusing glare.
The Master of Whispers looked back at Torrack, “Your young officer has done a fine job of leading us here. He found clues and made connections that it might have taken us a very long time to find and perhaps an even longer time to connect,”
The party looked at Yeou, but Yeou remained focused on the Master of Secrets. His face showed a clear expression of irritation.
“A guild can be judged by its members,” the old man continued, “Your people are impressive to say the least - your comrade Marc Anutanni managed to elude us almost completely - but I discuss this only as a courtesy. Your guild’s starry-eyed drive to-,” he raised both hands, curling his fingers to indicate quotation marks, “- ‘Save the world’ has put that same world at risk, even as the curiosity of the blessed goddess Kormir nearly brought Nightfall down upon us only a few years ago. The time comes for me to arrive at the point,” he extended a condemning finger toward the knights, “You will tell me what you have done with it,”
“Done with what?” Torrack bluffed, “Surely you’re not thinking that we’re standing here feeling at all threatened by your little army of men in red dresses,”
“Speak for yourself!” Bleen whispered imperatively from his hiding place behind Yin at the back of the group.
The knights held fast, some noting the looks of puzzlement exchanged between the few dozen Whispers agents surrounding them.
“This path is already perilous,” the Master of Whispers warned, “Watch your step,”
“The Dragon’s Tear eluded me,” Yeou stated truthfully, “I know what you know about it, perhaps more, but I was unable to find it myself - just as it seems you weren’t,”
“Don’t toy with me, young fox,” the Master commanded with a dismissing wave.
“Master!” an agent called from an elevated watchpost, “Joko’s army is fully-assembled to the southeast - they seem to be rallying for an assault,”
The Master waved his group to the side of the ruins opposite the advancing army of undead. As his followers broke ranks and moved away from his side, he scowled at Torrack, “The Dragon’s Tear had best be far from this place,” with that, he rushed to join his men.
Thunderbow turned abruptly to Longroad, “Did you know these people were following you?”
“Negative,” Yeou replied, “Though I suspected that Joko would be after me to see if I would find the item and return it to him,”
“So what do we do about this? Yin asked, “Shouldn’t we give the crystal to them? They’re the good guys, right?”
“We’re the good guys,” God of Red Warriors interjected.
“The artifact must be destroyed,” Bleen emphasized.
“I agree with you,” Torrack acknowledged, “Let’s get Yeou’s friend out of here, then find a place to set the machine back up again,” Torrack looked quickly over the horizon, “The ground isn’t shaking here, at least,”
“What about the mummy’s army?” Acmer asked.
“Go have a look. Take Red, Yin, and Brando,” Thunderbow addressed his other officer, “Yeou, go get your friend and we’ll head out. The Order of Whispers can handle Joko’s awakened minions; I see no need to risk getting into a conflict with two armies at once,” he held up Bleen’s machine, “We have more important things to do anyway,”
Yeou ran to the entrance of the Forgotten ancient's home. Lari seemed relieved to see him, "The cavalry has arrived, eh?" he rested the scythe on his shoulder, "Your little merc jus' up and left me!"
"She came to get me," Yeou explained, "You didn't happen to say something like 'I sure wish Yeou was here' did you?"
Ngunda grinned, "And spare myself all this honor and glory? Now why would I go an' do something silly like that?" he coughed, then leaned toward his friend, "Guess I owe lil' Kiri Snowdrift a drink,"
The aged Forgotten approached from behind the Sunspear, “The Whissperss sseek the Dragon’ss Tear. It appearss that you are not in league with them,”
“We aren’t,” Yeou replied, “I’m sorry for all of this,”
“Thiss iss merely a ripple in the endless river of time,” the serpent replied, “But I ssensse the crysstal iss near - thosse that ssleep are awakening,”
The thunder of powerful magic shattered the silence the hung over the dead city. Torrack burst into view, followed by Reaper and Bleen, “We’ve got to go, Yeou. The Whispers are gone and Joko’s forces are rolling in,”
“I think they’ve seen us,” Acmer called as he and his group ran toward where Torrack and Yeou had assembled, “We got ranged spells coming in at random - If they don’t already know we have the thing, they must have a strong suspicion,”
“Okay,” Torrack clapped his hands together and interlocked his fingers, “Let’s all port back. Bleen has his guest pass, so-,”
“No, no!” Bleen interrupted, “We can’t take the artifact back,”
“And I have a man here who will need to cross the desert to get out of here,” Yeou admonished, “I can’t leave him - I also accidentally put Vissh Rakissh in danger by visiting him. I have to stay regardless,”
“That’s suicide,” Yin stammered, “Two guys against an undead army? You’ll need support,” Yin stood beside Yeou.
“One dervish should be enough,” Unseen Reaper noted, glancing at Captain Ngunda, “But two will finish things twice as fast,” he took his place alongside Yin.
Red grinned broadly, “I’ll not be outdone by a couple of boys with farm tools, a monk, and a wet-behind-the-ears new officer,” he stood beside Longroad, striking him on the pauldron with his fist, “You’ll be needing somebody to keep you alive,”
“And you’ll need someone to keep you alive,” Acmer added, crossing his arms, “I guess I’m due for a little more exercise,”
Torrack laughed, shaking his head, “Okay. Then we stay. Joko’s army is not a band of raging zombies, they will probably leave once they’re convinced they won’t get what they’re after by messing with us,”
“Come,” Rakissh beckoned, “Take refuge in my home. The cavern iss deep and I have many sspacess for the hiding,”
As the team entered the darkness and silence of the ancient serpent’s home, Torrack could feel magical energy of the evil crystal concealed within his pocket. He felt that it was only a matter of time before any of the dead that lie dessicated and preserved beneath the sands of the desert might begin to stir. He was also concerned with the effect it might have on Palawa Joko’s awakened military unit as it entered the city.
Another shock struck the ground near the Forgotten building in which they had taken refuge. It was followed by more blasts, then the sound of ghostly shouts and roars could be heard echoing through the narrow stone threshold. Outside the building, the dead had already begun to rise from their graves within and without the ruins. Skeletal remains of the forgotten who had died during the days when the Margonites still walked the world as men struggled from their resting places deep beneath the shifting sands. Insane with the rage imbued them by the artifact, they lashed out at anything within reach, clawing and biting the similarly dead but far less savage minions of Joko.
Magic rained down from the spells of awakened mages, shredding the decrepit, ambling corpses as they clawed their way out of the ground. Broken bones tumbled onto the ground only to pile back together and rise again as monsters more gruesome and nasty. The first ranks of awakened dead serving under Palawa’s generals were slaughtered by the maddened ghouls and ravenous undead Forgotten, rising in the wake of their own destruction as reinforcements to the mindless undead throng.
Surveying the clash at the front of the formation, the awakened general serving as Joko’s own eyes and ears turned at the sound of commotion in the hind ranks. He turned on his heavily armored, skeletal steed, seeking the source of the noise. Several of the rear ranks were engaged with what appeared to be the broken, re-animated bodies of scarabs and similar desert scavengers. All dead and stirring a cloud of dust with their frenzied attack on their equally dead victims.
Vissh peeked from his rocky doorway, “They are fighting amongsst themsselvess,” he whispered, turning to watch for a moment longer, “No...not each other...,” he turned to Longroad, “The crysstal!” he slithered closer to the knight, “It iss here! Who among you hass the Dragon’ss Tear?”
The Forgotten’s large eyes shot from face to face of each of the party, finally falling on Bleen, who merely squeaked and pointed to Torrack.
“I have it,” Torrack admitted, reaching into his pocket.
“Keep it far from me!” Vissh hissed, raising his staff, “Why have you brought it here after sso much effort wass exhaussted in collecting it?”
“It’s kind-of a long story,” Torrack explained.
“It will be your lasst sstory,” Rakissh sighed, returning to the entrance of his cave-like quarters, “For the dead will climb to their feet again and again forever - asss long asss that sshard iss near. I ssought to offer you ssanctuary, but alass - I have trapped you here,” he flicked his tongue, tasting the violence outside his house, “When the sspawn of that evil thing are no-longer disstracted by the Awakened troopss of young Palawa Joko, they will sseek it out,” he looked back at the guild master, “Even when they find it; even when they kill uss all, the ssuffering will only have jusst begun. We will kill and die again and again until we are naught but dusst,”
The team stood for a moment in silence, the sound of a few nervous swallows could be heard. The deep sound of a heavy impact broke the silence, sending streams of dust from the decaying ceiling. But the silence returned too quickly. The old ranger looked to his fellows as if seeking ideas, but all were quiet. Some, like Yeou, Acmer, and God of Red Warriors, were thinking; while others, like Ngunda, Bleen, and Yin seemed worried, ready for orders. Brando and Reaper stood off to the side, Reaper already had his channelling stone in his hand. Torrack was faced with an impossible decision: order his party to retreat, leaving Rakissh and Ngunda to a fate worse than death, not to mention the sacrifice of the honor of his guild and leaving the Dragon’s Tear for Joko to eventually obtain - or Keeping his honor at the cost of everyone’s lives while possibly still leaving the crystal for others to find later. The opposing forces in his mind left him unable to fully commit to a decision.
“I might be able to fix the generator,” Bleen suggested, “It might at least weaken one of the two groups fighting outside,” he cleared his throat with a light cough, “But it could take time - time during which we would need to try to avoid dying,”
“We’ll set up a defensive perimeter that will prevent anyone from getting in here,” Acmer recommended, “An arch formation at the doorway; I’ll take point - these monsters have already embarrassed me on the battlefield more than once. It’s time to return the favor,”
“Now you’re talking!” Red grinned.
“That seems reasonable,” Yeou agreed, “It’s really the only option,”
Bleen blinked, “You muscleheads are going out there?”
“Aye,” Acmer acknowledged, heading for the door.
“There iss alwayss a chansse they will not approach before the little beasst hass repaired hiss machine,” Vissh whispered, slithering aside to let the warriors pass, “You sshould conssider fighting only asss a lasst ressort,” Vissh’s tongue flicked, “Long, long ago, humanss had a phrase: ‘Foolss rush in where angelss fear to tread’... ,”
Acmer looked back at the Forgotten as Yeou and Red passed outside, “Angels are nancies,” he said simply, “There is no place where we fear to tread,”
The sand stirred by the battle between the two groups at the edge of the ruins had already filled the air, yellowing the sunlight and reducing visibility like a fog.
The three warriors squinted against the scouring dust as the healer, ranger, mage, and dervish assembled within their triangular formation. The metallic clanging of weapons rang throughout the area along with growls, grunts, and shrieks, interrupted only by the explosive noise of spells, the breaking of dried bones, and the crackling of growing fires.
"Looks like Joko's army is losing," Torrack noted, taking in the scene.
"Let's hope that little troublemaker gets his machine up and running quickly," Red said to nobody in particular, "Even though it looks like small group of units, they could give us a hard time if the battle moves this way,"
"I'm hoping he times it so that the bad zombies take out most of the neutral zombies before that machine takes the bad zombies out," Ngunda mentioned.
A few of the knights laughed nervously.
"This is a perfect position for us anyway," Yeou noted, "The cave can be easily defended, even against a large number of foes,"
"It should be just like Arachni's Haunt," Yin compared, rubbing his hands together.
Torrack stood at the center of the group, ready to support with a full quiver of arrows. He felt proud to be standing beside his party of powerful officers, but he remained serious and alert. The situation was presently relatively calm, but they teetered on the edge of a confrontation with a vastly greater force; a scenario that Thunderbow generally tried to avoid even under the best circumstances. Their minimized capacity for healing and their inability to revive fallen allies made matters all the more grave. He knew the warriors would hold the line as long as they could, but the bulk of his hope rested on Bleen and his ability to contain the evil magic of the cursed artifact.
In the farthest depths of the cavernous ruins that were Vissh's home, the Asura worked feverishly on his device. Though the sparsity living organisms usually seemed to indicate that powerful veins of magic would be similarly sparse, the equipment seemed at least a bit more responsive than it had been at the guild hall. He had mentally recorded several settings that saved him time in conjuring the field, but containment was always tricky.
The ancient Forgotten lingered near, watching and listening to both the activities of the Asura and the activities of the knights outside his door. It had been centuries since he had even heard the name of the Dragon's Tear spoken aloud. To see it before him was like witnessing the nightmares of his forefathers firsthand.
“How did you come by thiss?” Vissh asked after a seemingly long interval.
Bleen continued his work without hesitation, “I found it using a device I developed, though I can’t imagine that you would understand what that means. Anyway, I detected a disturbance in the flow of ambient magic in this region, which led me to theorize that there was a concentration point present in physical space,” the scientist continued as if he had little care whether or not the Forgotten was actually listening, “I was actually able to measure readings from several locations throughout this hot, dusty continent and thereby triangulate the exact location of the concentration. I needed to know what the concentration was, but I knew I could never make it on my own - so I hired a brute to go and find it,” Bleen sighed, “The honor-bound fool must have discovered the true nature of the artifact somehow and took it upon himself to steal it from the more... tame... undead monsters. It was everything I could do to convince him to at least deliver it to me for study,” he sniffed, “I used my machines to compare the resonances of the artifact with those already on file in the great libraries of Rata Sum and was able to determine that the artifact was exceedingly dangerous. What little communication I had with that guildsman I hired confirmed my suspicions and told me exactly what to expect,”
“Where wass it found?” Rakissh asked.
“That I don’t know, just the area - which I have forgotten. Only the other undead and the dead KSC guy know exactly where it was found and how it was contained up to now,”
“But thiss will contain it?” Vissh gestured toward the machine with one of his four arms.
The sound of human shouts could be heard at the door as fighting began nearby.
Bleen looked over his shoulder momentarily, then returned to his work, applying greater effort than before, “This will contain it,” he said, “This must contain it,”
The team stood fast against a wave of bone, dust and steel. The front lines of the mob of insane zombies crashed against sword, spear, scythe, and shield like a horrific avalanche, but the Knight of the Sacred Chalice held fast. Their position was strong, held against a narrow passage leading into Vissh’s cave. The warriors and dervishes took the brunt of the assault, while the softer members of the team supported from within the thick stone walls. The savage onslaught of the mindless hoard put enormous pressure on the team outside the door, but lacking magic or powerful ranged capabilities, they were unable to interrupt the constant flow of restoration and protective magic flowing from the hands of Yin Do See. It was rare in modern times to see a healer as young or as capable as Yin, but time spent travelling with adventurers like Torrack, berserkers like Acmer, and psychotics like Red had given him experience that defied his years. Nevertheless, keeping the party alive as they endured a rampage like none any of them had ever faced taxed him to his limits. He could feel the cells of his body beginning to break down as he exhausted his reserves of astral energy. Beside him, Torrack and Brando fired continuously into the middle and outer ranks of the hoard, not noticing that their only healer was beginning to fade.
The ancient mystic slithered up to the cavern entrance behind them, raising his own staff to assist with the healing and protection of the team. The rush flowed through them all as the ancient healer’s forgotten magic took effect.
“Thank you,” Torrack acknowledged, too busy to look away from his targets, “Has Bleen begun his work?”
“Sstability is near,” the old reptile hissed, forcing his healing spells through his aged staff, “The imp workss with hiss very ssoul; it iss for uss to match hiss effortss,”
Starbuck dropped a cascade of fire down upon the middle range of enemies crowding to have a chance to kill the resisting human force. The flames seemed to catch and burn everything, but the reanimated corpses collapsed only to re-assemble into enemies more tortured and more ghastly than before.
“These put up quite a fight!” Reaper commented between blows, “Definitely made of tougher stuff than those re-tread spiders!”
“Don’t jinx us!” Thundebow ordered, lobbing a salvo of flaming arrows into the midst of the swarming throng.
God of Red Warriors bashed an enemy backward with his shield and laughed as he thrust his sword through the head of a decaying scarab at his feet, “I thought we were toast back there!”
“What about here?” Ngunda blocked an axe with the shaft of his scythe, turning it away as he swiped the back end of it across a zombie soldier’s face then back-swung the blade into its chest.
“Fried chips,” Acmer laughed, plunging a blade through the face of human corpse that attempted to attack him by climbing over the back of one of its fallen comrades.
Yeou fought more silently, being less a part of the group despite his position as an officer. He was a master of the Hundred Blades technique and was at his best when facing a tight group of foes, but he was also used to leading small parties - and to fighting alone. The horrid beasts and undead corpses clawed at his shield and grasped at his sword. He fended off hands, claws, beaks and fangs; keeping his same determined expression. He had a great appreciation for the skills, power, and unconcerned banter of his fellow warriors as they fought the mounting army of unbeatable foes; but he kept his part of the battle to himself, pushing himself harder and harder. Yeou was not the youngest, but he felt himself far-removed from the founding knights alongside whom he now fought; he was a loner - a man who made his way by himself and carried his honor internally.
“Wake up, gentlemen!” Torrack shouted, “We have something big coming through!”
At the farthest edge of the fray, two shambling mesas thrashed through the dried flesh and brittle bones of the psychotic undead, while the Awakened army continued its struggle at the edge of the city. The frantic zombies seemed almost to ignore the giants as they crushed their way through them - in the few closer glances the team could spare, they could see that the mesas were broken and decayed; undead monsters also fitfully making their way toward the Dragon’s Tear.
“They’re undead!” Reaper shouted over the tremendous noise of the battle.
“No way,” Red denied, “Mesas are constructs, like golems; aren’t th-,” a shrieking undead forgotten crashed against his shield, nearly knocking him down, “Gah!”
Acmer slipped his blade between its ribs and pried it away, casting the lightweight skeleton backward against its fellows, “Let’s hold it together!”
The first of the pair of mesas reached the line of knights on Yeou and Ngunda’s side of the arch. The first blow hit them like a wave of rock. Ngunda and Yeou both raised their weapons in defense but were smashed onto their backs by the blow. Arms buckled and ribs cracked, but the pair climbed to their feet despite intense and dizzying pain. Yin and Vissh had all but completely restored them by the time they closer their gap in the line, driving weapons into the monster’s trunk. The freakish beast roared in anger and frustration more than pain, swiping at the small living creatures that dared to defy it. Longroad raised his shield as the crushing blow hurtled toward him. The beast’s monstrous arm glanced of his shield, spraining his left wrist and knocking him to the side and into he rock wall of the entrance he was protecting. Despite the damage to the knight’s shield, the full blow was indirect and impacted with explosive force inches from where he had smacked the wall himself. The raging monster drew its arm back from the cloud of rock dust its punch had stirred, revealing a cracked and broken stump where its claw was once connected. Though dizzy from the shock of the attack, it seemed that Yeou had managed to relieve the beast of its offending appendage.
As the officer returned to his place on the line, restorative magic swirling around him to mend every wound, he saw Ngunda drive his scythe deep into the creature’s left thigh. The Sunspear wrenched the blade through the beast’s plate-covered, dry flesh, critically weakening its leg. The monstrosity collapsed sideways as its leg folded and snapped like the trunk of an ancient tree. Several flaming arrows struck its massive head and body before it finally toppled to the ground. It's huge arms swung madly, sweeping the ground at waist level. The knights stepped back while Captain Ngunda, then Unseen Reaper both plunged hungry, curved blades into its plated, eyeless head.
"Move back!" Brando ordered, conjuring a massive blast of elemental flame.
The two dervishes dove backward between the impenetrable wall of warriors, narrowly escaping the white hot torrent that dropped from the heavens, engulfing the Mesa and all of the horrid ghouls that were already scrambling over its thrashing form to get at the group.
A burst of hot air permeated with the stench of burnt flesh and hair rushed over the team as they continued the fight. The heat was as relentless as the endless swarm of adversaries and the dust clotted in their sweat and dried in their throats. Swords severed limbs and shattered bones; scythes ripped away armor and crushed ribcages; arrows perforated anything that moved, and fierce elemental magic obliterated the rest. Any living army would consider ceasing an assault after sustaining such devastating losses - but the undead continued to rise. Monsters, each more horrible and ravenous than the last, pounded the group in an endless cycle of destruction and resurrection. Like the encounter in Arachni's Haunt, the KSC officers were fighting a losing battle of attrition against mounting numbers that showed no signs of halting their siege.
The second shambling mesa reached the line on Acmer and Red’s side. The two dervishes rushed behind the wall of knights to add their offense to the warriors’ defense. The elite fighters wasted no time in dispatching it, but the maneuvering required weakened the defensive line enough for a few of the smaller creatures to pass through.
The old ranger was the sole middle-range combatant on the party, he frantically sprayed arrows into the three small, undead beasts that had slipped through the line. Brando finished them with a blast of flame only to look up as the titanic mesa fell forwad on shattered limbs, forcing the melee fighters to move aside or be crushed. The monster’s massive body created a bridge between the knights and swarms of undead fiends scaled its still-writing form to get closer to the evil artifact hidden in the depths of Rakissh’s cavern.
The men on the outer line spent a fraction of a second in absolute terror as they watched the undead pass them by, rushing into the cave. In that same second, they found themselves completely surrounded - islands of life in a flowing ocean of hostile death.
The zombie hoards rushed the cave entrance like a flood.
“Fall back!” Torrack commanded, feeling the hollow grip of despair creeping up within him, “Get into the cave! Go! Go! We’ll hold them at the door!”
The two dervishes made it in, thrashing and clawing at the throng with their scythes. The close quarters made the attacks difficult and hampered their stronger attacks. The defense was failing. Yin and Vissh worked at a fevered pace, doing their best to keep everyone alive while Torrack and Brando blasted at the roiling mob of fierce, skeletal monsters.
A section of the enemy collapsed at the door, as blades and shields ripped through them from the outside. Acmer burst through the mass of zombified monsters with God of Red Warriors at his shoulder. They were injured, but still more than a match for any individual enemy. Healing magic restored broken bones, bite marks, and lacerations as they took up their positions beside Reaper and Lari, sealing the defense at the door. The monsters continued to rush in, but were unable to breach the edge of the KSC defense. They bit and hacked at the swords and shields of the defenders, and at the bodies of each other. The undead shrieked and roared, howling at the denial of their goal. The melee group at the front of the defensive line was gashed and mauled only to be healed again, refusing even an inch. If they could hold the cycle of combat and healing, they could defend the corridor for a great deal of time.
Yin felt a chill as he healed the team over and over again, “Torrack!”
The ranger released another barrage arrow into the wall of, “Keep them alive, Yin,” he said, beginning to grin, “We might just pull this off,”
“I can’t sense Yeou!” Yin exclaimed, sweating.
Shocked, Torrack broke his concentration away from the battle and rapidly counted heads, “Not good. Acmer! Where was Yeou!?”
Acmer was busy holding the defensive line even as the sand rubbed him raw and the heat sapped his body of moisture and energy, “Didn’t see him - I’m a little busy right now,”
“Got split-up!” Red reported, enduring similar pressure, “He’s not back?”
“He iss in the midsst of the fray,” Vissh whispered with his eyes closed, still seeming to cast powerful healing spells through the walls of his cave.
“We need to try to open up a way for him to get in,” Torrack commanded.
“Not possible!” Acmer argued over the noise of the extreme close-quarters fighting.
“Even if they weren’t fighting,” Ngunda dug at the mass of claws and fangs with his scythe, “They be packed to the ceiling - there ain’t no way in hell!”
Thunderbow swallowed hard, seeming momentarily unable to fight, when he heard a shrill peel of laughter echo from the depths of the cave. The laughter had barely echoed to silence when the wall of murderous corpses collapsed in an avalanche of bone, dried sinew, rags, armor, and dust. They tumbled to the ground, one upon another, in a pathetic, stinking heap. Like a house of cards, they dropped, revealing the light of day and the confused Awakened army on the horizon. There, halfway between Joko’s troops and the Lair of the Forgotten, stood the battered and beaten form of a single knight of the Sacred Chalice.
He looked back at the entrance of the cave, grinning exhaustedly through cracked lips. His expensive Asuran tinted glasses were missing a lens, his ornate Elite Kurzick armor was dented, scratched and stained, and his tattered cape hung from his shoulders like a towel that had been used to tease hungry Mandragor - but he remained on his feet.
Torrack laughed out loud.
"You need to learn to move faster, Longroad!" Red sheathed his sword, "Learn to get through those body-blocks!"
Acmer chuckled and Yin released a sigh of relief.
Bleen rushed to the area of the cave where the battle had been fought, slowing at the sight of the smoldering piles of lifeless bodies.
"Looks like we made it," Torrack smiled, "Let's push the mess outside and light it up,"
"The containment field has reached 85 percent stability," Bleen announced, "The field can hold at anything over 80 percent indefinitely. It will take time, but once it reaches 100 percent, it will seal the artifact in the fabricated dimension and require a lot less magic to maintain,"
"How long?" Thunderbow asked.
"It's hard to estimate," the Asura replied, "The system is buffering energy; it requires more than it's getting, but it can increase field saturation slowly through the use of a series of metered surges," Bleen raised his hands as he cleared his narrow throat, seeming to hold an imaginary object before him, "You see; the way I managed to sustain an astral interleave-,"
"That's good," Torrack interrupted, "Let's get these bodies out quickly," he pointed out the rough doorway, "Joko's boys are recovering from their confusion - they will march on our position soon,"
Yeou moved toward the Forgotten's cave. His legs were heavy and his adrenaline was draining away quickly, but he had managed to survive the encounter and had a duty to return to the cave to assist with the disposal of the formerly animated corpses before they had any chance of rising again.
As he trudged through the smoking rubble, stepping over broken bones and bent weapons, he noted a few red-clad figures gathering on the taller structures hanging over the bone-strewn sand. On the mountain ridge overlooking the ancient Forgotten’s lair, the bearded leader of the Order of Whispers stood silently, regarding the battle-weary knight with an expression that almost resembled curiosity.
Longroad looked over his shoulder to see the greatly-reduced legion of Awakened soldiers approaching. In the brief moment that he watched, he noticed a tiny white figure wink into view between him and the ranks of organized undead soldiers.
The knights in the cave noticed their comrade standing still in the burning sun, which had risen full during the battle that had just ended. They all shared the same confusion when they saw him turn and run toward the opposing force. Torrack moved closer to the entrance to see what was happening, but was stalled when something snagged his leg.
The floor within the cave had begun to move and part of it was wrapped around his ankle - a part that appeared to be in the form of a bony, severed hand. Thunderbow whirled to face the Asuran inventor, “Bleen! The crystal!”
Bleen blinked in shock, hesitating at the sight of the stirring corpses at his feet.
“Bleen!” Torrack shouted, kicking the hand away from himself, “Go NOW!”
As the diminutive inventor skittered back down the dark corridor, the evil creatures began to rise again. Slowly, but surely, the bodies began to reassemble, fighting against all that was natural to rise again to their rotted and broken feet.
The weary team smashed and destroyed the freakish constructs as quickly as they could rise; dust and splinters of bone littered the cave, scattering in the air and ricocheting off the rock walls. They fighters literally shovelled the twitching husks out of the cavern as they broke them down. Their elementalist unleashed vast gouts of flame onto the bodies before they could rise, but the few enemies they faced in the cave paled in comparison to the innumerable multitude rising in the daylight outside the cave.
As the team struggled to re-secure their makeshift stronghold, the unstoppable army of death and un-death rose a second time. As the ghastly horde once again filled the narrow doorway, officer Yeou Longroad could be seen running toward a distant figure about to be overtaken by Joko’s minions.
The crystal quivered in the fluctuating containment field as the Asura rushed to assess the situation. He read through the myriad tiny readout crystals glowing on the control panel, each displaying a separate sequence of astral frequencies. He altered their mountings, moving them closer or further from the central emitter in order to adjust the resonance of the field. The tear it had created in the continuum of reality was as delicate as a snowflake and balanced like a soap-bubble under the pressure of immense cosmic forces.
It the field was destabilized, but retaining overall integrity. The readout crystals were showing an increase in overall integrity, but the layers of the dimensional rift were growing dissonant.
“No implosions today, my gem,” Bleen cooed to his machine as he carefully adjusted each of the resonators, pausing after each minute change to check the readings, “This is the closest we have ever been - I’ve nearly got you locked away completely,”
He heard a footstep behind him, but ignored it; he had no time for Torrack or his cadre of muscle-bound brutes. The containment field was almost fully developed - once complete, the artifact could remain sealed away by only a tiny fraction of the energy used in assembling the field. His work was almost complete. The world was almost safe. Bleen was almost a hero!
“Surrender the crystal, little beast,” a harsh voice ordered.
Bleen did not recognize the voice. He spared a second to glance over his shoulder, glimpsing only an unfamiliar face and flowing red robes before returning to his work, “You have no idea what you are talking about, you pitiful, sand-sodden, desert dunce,” Bleen growled, “A mental microbe like you must not be allowed to force me to fail,”
“The crystal must be hidden,” the Whispers agent stepped forward, raising a staff, “It is our duty to hide it before any more damage is done,”
Bleen turned, facing the nameless agent with a snarl full of pointed teeth, “Then we are in agreement - now if you would cease this meaningless distraction, that is precisely what I intend to do,” Bleen returned to the meticulous tuning of his machine, “Perhaps you could occupy yourself while you wait. Try counting your fingers or toes; that’ll have to do, as I’m afraid I’m all out of nuts and berries,”
Insulted, the agent strode up to the machine, levelling his staff at the obstinate inventor, “You will surrender the crystal,” he commanded, “Every second we wait is a second closer to oblivion!”
“Every second you distract me is a second closer to me losing my patience!” Bleen stood with a start, pulling a small cylinder from his dirty, tattered robes. At the press of a button, the cylinder extended into a heavily modified Asuran staff, “I’m getting sick and tired of being underestimated by empty-headed knuckle-draggers! You want to try and destroy the world, go ahead and stop me from sealing this artifact away - but I’ll not go down easy, and I’ll not go down alone,” the segmented staff crackled menacingly with elemental energy in the inventor’s hand. Though his scowl was not the most intimidating thing the Whispers agent had seen, his feirce irritation was palpable. The red-clad agent raised his weapon in defence.
Bleen glanced back at the controls of his device, rapidly calculating the rate of decay between the current time and the last adjustment he had made. The field was only barely doing its job as it was, a few seconds would make little difference. He faced the agent, raising his weapon, “The rod is the only cure for your variety of ignorance,”
Kiri Snowblood came to her senses encompassed by the sound of warfare. Disoriented, she only seemed to remember her attempt at a return delivery to the Lair of the Forgotten. Her senses returned quickly, the shadows around here took form as gruesome undead warriors, seeming to be fighting each other. The sun was blinding and the noise deafening. She felt the sensation that she was sliding over the sand. A nearby explosion shook the ground, adding to the swirling cacophony that surrounded her. A shadow passed across her face - a bird - no, a flag... a cape. As her focus returned, she recognized the silver emblem of her employer’s guild and realized that a tall man in damaged Kurzick armor was dragging her through the sand as fast as he could, slicing his was through any resistance he encountered. Blood from his hand had stained her white garment red and his cape fluttered in shreds from his shoulders.
“Master Longroad,” her throat was dry, but she felt her energy beginning to return.
The knight released her upon hearing her voice, “Get up, Miss Snowblood,” he said without looking back, “We need to hurry!”
Kiri rolled to her feet as several Awakened ran past, on their way to face a greater threat surrounding Vissh Rakissh’s cave. She noted the battle between the two armies of undead and the steady gaze of a skeletal general’s hollow eyesockets as he surveyed the fray from atop a high dune. A zombified tengu broke ranks to engage Yeou as Kiri stood, but was quickly dispatched, then ripped limb-from limb by the knight before it had a chance to rise again.
The assassin was dumbfounded by how completely the situation at the Forgotten’s lost city had deteriorated. Her patron was stomping toward the open desert at a pace that required her to run in order to match.
“Master Longroad!” she called, “I sincerely apologize for my presumption, but are we the last of your party? What has happened?”
“We’re not lost yet,” Yeou said shortly.
“But the battle, Master Longroad,” she trotted beside him, only then noticing how thoroughly trounced appeared. He held her breath at the sight; her training allowed her to keep her head, but she had been totally unprepared for a delivery into a warzone on the losing side.
“The battle isn’t going anywhere,” Yeou stated, his eyes fixed on the horizon ahead of him.
“Master, please forgive me,” she cleared her throat, “Are we defeated? Is this a retreat?”
“No,” Yeou replied without breaking stride, “This is a tactical recalculation,”
The Master of Whispers stood atop the rocky peak that towered above the ancient Forgotten’s equally ancient abode. He watched as the knight and assassin fled to the edge of the city and observed as the first infantry ranks of Joko’s legion clashed with the rearmost elements of the body of swarming undead assaulting the narrow entrance below him. The minions of the mummy lord were far more organized and capable than their mindless, frenzied counterparts - but each one that fell in the engagement rose again as one of the enemy. Joko’s forces were formidable, but hardly able to compete with the power endowed by the evil artifact. The old man had seen many things in his long life, but this scenario was among the more unusual.
“Master,” one of his agents approached, “Only one of our team was able to slip in before the monsters resumed their fight. What is happening in that cave?”
“The less anyone knows, the better,” the master sighed, still watching the battle below, “Our only objective is to secure the crystal. I don’t know how they found it, but we need to get it before more people get involved and hide it once and for all,”
“What of the guild that currently possesses it?”
The old master stroked the whiskers of his long beard, “That remains to be seen. Motivation is everything and they seem intent on protecting it. If they share our motivation, we can let them live. If not... well, we must capture the crystal either way. It is not a secret that should ever be known by the sons of man,”
“I await orders, Master,”
“Return to the perimeter,” the old man ordered, “We must remain ready to take the artifact from whomever wins this little battle,”
“And what if the human warriors succeed in thwarting the seige?”
“Are the powder kegs in place around the cave entrance?”
The Master of Whispers inhaled through his nose and exhaled slowly, seeming quite calm, but burdened by conflicting opinions, “Then the answer to that question remains to be seen,”
“Rush in, rush out, flame!” Torrack picked up another arrow from the floor as sand shards ripped through the air around him, “Keep up the pattern!”
“What the hell is that little freak doing back there?” Red shouted, closing one eye as a thin rivulet of blood trickled across his face from a cut on his forehead, “I’m gonna have to throw this sword away after this!”
“Sell it off as scrap!” Ngunda responded, striking another in a chain of hundreds of blows against the writhing, burning mass of roaring undeath.
The group jumped aside as another blast of flame struck the grasping wall of bone and charred flesh. As the blast took effect, the team leapt back into the fight. Torrack joined the warriors at the edge of the clash. Out of arrows, he hacked and slashed with a sword that one of Joko’s double-undead soldiers had dropped as it was ground to bits and burned. A hand reached out for him, but was promptly whacked off by Acmer’s own blade.
The only light in the cave was that of the fire burning away the more damaged of the animated corpses. The horde had filled the door all but completely as creature upon undead creature packed itself against those before it denying the small party of knights any hope of escape. Smoke had already begun to descend from where it had accumulated at the roof of the cave, and the oily stink of burned flesh and stale decay tainted what little breathable air the warrios could manage to inhale as they continued their battle. The low thunder of powerful spells shook the cave, adding dust to the soup of pollutants in the cave’s diminishing supply of oxygen. The knights were deaf, blind, breathless, dehydrated, and exhausted, but on they fought. The stakes were too high and none of them wanted to see any member of the team fall to the onslaught, so they continued to push; holding the line against foes that seemed to grow stronger with each blow they managed to strike.
A burst of powerful air magic cascaded off the rock walls, scattering splinters of basalt and granite across the small chamber. The blast had narrowly missed the small Asura, partially due to his small stature. Not missing a beat, the inventor unleashed a massive bolt of lightning that cracked the floor as it sent a deafening shockwave through the small room. The Whispers agent barely managed to raise his staff in time to intercept the attack, receiving an electrifying blow that encompassed his whole body, throwing him backward. The agent rose quickly, his robes still smoldering at the edges.
“Durable,” Bleen noted, taking a moment to make a minor adjustment to the operating parameters of the machine he guarded. He looked back at the agent, who was already charging another attack.
Bleen blasted him a second time without hesitation, “I certainly hope you are a new recruit,” he scoffed, checking the machine as the agent rose again, “If you are ranked any higher than that, it’s just sad,”
“Surrender the crystal!” the agent demanded with a shaking voice.
Bleen shot a blinding burst into the agent’s face, more a slap than an actual attack, “You’re welcome to it if you can get past this tiny little Asura,” he mocked, “Did you think it would be easy, bookah? Why don’t you just quit now and let me finish saving the world?”
The agent fired several small pulses in sequence, forcing Bleen to dodge out of the way, then made a bolt for the machine.
The Asura pinned his feet to the cavern floor with a snaring spell, followed by another blinding burst, which he finished with another electrocuting blast from his staff. The agent was knocked to his side and slid along the floor, but was able to drop a relatively powerful wide-range burning skill in Bleen’s general direction.
Bleen dove to avoid it, but was caught at the edge of the conjured downpour of flame, “Ow, ow, ow, ow!” He threw off the outer layer of his clothing and stomped it out, giving the Whispers agent a moment to regain his feet.
The angry inventor lobbed several consecutive electrical attacks one after another, forcing the agent to flee from the area nearest the field generator. The salvo of magic cracked and shattered the dark rock walls behind the agent with each missed shot, filling the chamber with dust. Bleen rushed back to his defensive position beside his machine, assessing the stability of the field by reading glowing indicator crystals through the smoke and dust that was rapidly filling the small space. The field had climbed past 90% overall integrity, but it was so thin that it seemed certain the artifact was still reeking havoc on the surface. The field would solidify at 100% - if they could only keep it going. Thinning the field weakened its effectiveness, but it was the only way to keep integrity growing with so little latent energy. Once the field was complete, the excess power could be used to broaden the gaps between the temporal world he occupied and the ephemeral pocket dimension he had created - stopping the flow of malevolent enegy.
He noted movement in his peripheral vision. Glancing back, he saw the Whispers agent rising again. The red-clad mage whispered an incantation that healed the more severe of his wounds as he levelled his staff at his opponent.
Bleen scowled, shaking his head as he raised his own weapon, “If I had half a gold piece for every time some blockhead made a simple task difficult, I could cease applying for grants altogether,”
The sun blazed overhead as the battle outside the cave raged. Baking in that blazing sun, the bleached bones of an awakened general rested upon the bleached bones of his horse. His gleaming armor was hot enough to cook food, but he did not feel it. He was one of the few fully sentient members of the undead king’s growing military force and it was his mandate to recover the lost artifact at any cost. He had followed the impudent human swordsman at a distance since the hour he left Lord Palawa Joko’s palace. The lost item was now finally within reach and he was not willing to lose it after coming so close. The sight of his legion being ground to dust in the struggle against the madness of the rage-driven zombies barely phased him. Wars of attrition were nothing to warriors that were already dead. The only thing that mattered was the kingdom and his duty to defend it and to assure its continuation. It had been his duty for centuries and this was just one in a long, long, line of missions.
He turned his skinless face to the direction in which he had noticed two humans fleeing shortly before. They were nowhere to be seen. He thought he had recognized them, but it was of no importance; the only humans that mattered were the ones that stood between him and his prize.
He returned his attention to the battle, watching as his mages and acolytes blasted the horde with their most powerful abilities. Dried bodies and limbs scattered in flames, but began to reassemble as soon as they hit the ground. If flesh still wrapped the bones of his face, the general might have managed a smile at the sight of the destruction. It had been hundreds of years since he had led a large force against another force of equal or greater power. Not since the days of Turai Ossa had he enjoyed the thrill of leading his legions into battle.
Despite the satisfaction of watching his troops fight, he was aware of the fact that he was losing. He noted the flapping red robes lining the edges of the rocky outcroppings overlooking the ruined city and remained aware of the team of powerful human fighters hold-up inside the cave. It was apparent that there were multiple fronts in this engagement and he would have to be willing to break off the fight with the rampaging zombies if he expected his force to be the last one standing. The maddened and masterless undead were the most potent adversaries he had encountered to date and he was unable to account for their voracity or their capacity for regeneration. He entertained a hunch that the artifact had something to do with it, and that it was the shared goal of all parties present to obtain it for themselves. As he thought, he considered the possibility that such an item might be more trouble than it was worth. Should such an uncontrollable destructive force be conjured from the very soil underfoot anywhere the mysterious artifact might come to rest, it could be less a boon to Joko’s supremacy and more a threat.
The general had little time to ponder further, as a rumble from behind broke his train of thought and attracted his attention. The distant dunes to the rear of his battle group seemed to shift and stir, raising a column of dust. His empty eyesockets beheld the shifting soil for a moment, not fully comprehending what he saw. The realization struck him as the unmistakable form of one junundu wurm, then another, rose from the surface of the desert. Even from the distance, he could see their mouths opening.
“Junundu seige!” he howled, summoning his aides.
Two gilded mummies ambled up to the general’s horse as two biological explosive charges screamed over them toward the battle in front. They impacted before the aides could receive their instructions, blasting dozens of brittle belligerents to splinters.
“Get those units back!” he commanded, “Sound the order to pull back!”
The skeletal general cursed as he spurred his horse into action, riding out of the path of the siege, “How could I have overlooked that as a possibility? Who would have planned so far in advance?” he looked back at the two wurms slowly approaching as they stopped only to launch further siege attacks; finally connecting the pieces in his mind, “Touche, little human,” the whisper whistled from his lipless mouth, “by the gods, I should have killed you back at the palace,”
The impacts of extremely heavy blasts outside sent deafening shockwaves through the upper levels of the cavern. Torrack and his team lost balance and were forced to fall back several feet in order to re-establish their defensive line. The sound of a tremendous roar could be heard even over the cacophony of combat and the countless shrieks and howls of the undead. The Knights of the Sacred Chalice fought bravely. The banter and joking had ceased. What little of their voices could be heard was limited to coughing and commands. Smoke and darkness filled the cave and their weapons and equipment were failing. Every inch the undead gained renewed their strength and sapped the magical capacity of both the healer and the elementalist of the party.
Several explosions outside shook the cave harder than before, but the fighters were able to keep their footing. The last of the blasts sent a ray of sunlight through between the skeletal bodies of the seemingly endless river of enemies assailing the serpent’s lair.
“Looks like they thinning out!” Ngunda wheezed, drenched in dirt and sweat.
Another blast sent a mass of undead surging forward. Bone chips and sand blasted the group of defenders as sunlight bathed the first chamber of the cave.
“What the hell?” Acmer climbed to his feet along with the others while the dismembered corpses strewn all over the floor slowly began the reassemble.
“Is it Joko’s army?” Yin asked, shaking with fatigue.
“Who knows!” Torrack shouted, picking up his second-hand weapon, “Force them back while we have the chance!”
The exhausted party hacked, bashed, pushed, and shoveled the twitching, grasping remains out of the cave, finally reaching the outside air. They coughed and gasped the dry air and were overcome by what they beheld. Two massive junundu thrashed madly through the ranks of undead. They ground them to dust beneath their bodies, crushed them in their jaws, and took turns crawling to a distance that allowed them to launch their devastating siege attacks. The area was strewn with craters and un-salvageable bits of biological material.
Nevertheless, the relentless walking dead still fought for access to the cave, forcing Torrack to reform his defensive line. The wurms continued to slaughter the undead in droves and to hold the Awakened legion at bay, but they were too big to enter the cave and too heavy to attempt movement on the rocky surfaces around the ruins.
“Hold the line, gents!” Torrack ordered, panting and fatigued, standing on the front line alongside the warriors and dervishes, “Break them down and burn them! Nothing gets through! This will be our finest hour!”
Bleen struck at the agent with his staff, “Well, you’re a mentally-deficient primate,”
The beaten Whispers agent blocked the blow, “You’re a flop-eared, egotistical, little midget,” he gasped for breath, raising his own staff for a blow.
Bleen hefted his weapon to block, “Are there, any big midgets, you fool?”
The agent fell to his knees, utterly exhausted. His blow was barely a tap against Bleen’s staff. His hood was torn away and his black hair stood on end from the electricity he had taken in the battle with the Asura.
Bleen dropped back onto his rump, breathing heavily. Neither he, nor his opponent had any more energy to fight. Both of them were burnt, beaten, electrocuted, and barely able to continue their struggle. The field generator had sapped all of their astral energies and left them locked in a physical battle that had left them both injured and exhausted.
Though Bleen was much smaller and far outclassed physically by the agent of the Order of Whispers, he had fought valiantly to defend his machine and the two combatants had battled each other to a standstill.
The man in red robes coughed, “It was for emphasis, you little toad,”
“Little, little, little,” Bleen mocked, “I’ve never been called that before,” Bleen turned weary eyes to the machine, “Creativity must not be a requirement for your organization,”
“Just shut up,” the operative wheezed, “Your game is over as soon as the rest of my associates arrive,”
Bleen scoffed, “Your associates will have to get past my associates,”
“My associates could mop the floor with your-,” the operative was interrupted by a light beeping from somewhere in the chamber, “-what’s that?”
Bleen snapped his fingers, rising to his feet with renewed energy. He scrambled to the crystalline control panel and was overcome by compulsive laughter, “It’s done! Ha HA!” he shook his fists above his head, “It’s done! The great BLEEN has saved the world!”
In the daylight, the undead hordes dropped where they stood. They fell in piles at the feet of those opposing them. As they collapsed, the party of human defenders dropped as well. Recognizing that Bleen must have succeeded, their resolve gave way to their fatigue. Ngunda dropped to his knees and collapsed onto his back, dropping the broken stick which was all that remained of his once expensive Sunspear scythe. Thunderbow dropped similarly, casting his bent sword aside. Yin fell forward, unconscious; utterly drained of energy. God of Red Warriors dropped his dented shield and sat on the sand, while Acmer jammed his dulled blade into the ground, leaning against the hilt. Brando sat beside the unconscious monk, while reaper leaned against the interior of the cave entrance, propping himself up with the remains of his weapon.
The laughter echoing from inside the cave could be heard at the entrance, confirming what they already knew. Bleen had succeeded. The crystal was sealed at last.
The two giant wurms vomited their occupants onto the sand before the group and burrowed away, leaving Yeou and Kiri behind to reunite with the rest of the party. Unfortunately, they were too far away to be able to stop the platoon of men in red from descending to the cave entrance an entering the cave, simply sidestepping the haggard party of knights collapsed in the sand. The Master of Whispers headed the group, striding through the crushed skeletal remains and sheds of burned flesh and fabric. He squinted against the smoke as he descended, finally reaching a small chamber at the lowest level of the tight cave. A single Forgotten barred the entrance with his staff.
“It iss finisshed,” Rakissh stated, holding the staff horizontally before him with all four of his arms, “It iss sssealed away. Do not dissturb it,”
“Stand aside venerable one,” the old man commanded, “You know not what you are doing,”
“It iss you who knowss not,” Vissh replied, “Do not dissturb the masschine,”
The Master clacked the heel of his staff against the stone floor, “Stand aside, ancient one,” he repeated, “do so, or I shall have you moved from our path,”
Vissh flicked his tongue, glaring at the human with his large, grey eyes. It seemed for a moment that the old reptile might resist; but in the end, the ancient relented, slithering out of the way.
Both Bleen and the Whispers operative looked up when when new torch light entered the small room. The agent rose to his feet and stood at attention. Bleen remained seated, but held his weapon before him, as ready as he could hope to be.
The Master of Whispers seemed to ignore the appearance of his stalemated operative. The swollen lip, the black eye, the torn and burned red fabric of his uniform, the smell of ozone - none of it seemed to phase him. He had only one thing one his mind, “Why is the crystal still in the possession of this...” he glanced at the inventor, then returned his attention to his subordinate, “person?”
“My apologies Master!” the nameless agent stammered, “He resisted with great force,”
“Well,” the old master sighed, raising his staff toward the Asura, “It seems we’ve wasted enough time,”
“Sstop thiss at onsse!” Vissh slithered past the Order, standing between them and Bleen, “Are you sso blind as to misss what hass been done? The Dragon’ss Tear iss finally at resst,”
The Master lowered his weapon, “Explain,”
Yeou Longroad and Kiri Snowblood rushed up to their comrades, thinking them to be lost. As the assassin projected restoratives into the dizzy monk and the more exhausted members of the team, Yeou reported directly to the guildmaster.
“The Whispers!” Yeou questioned, “What are they doing? Are they going to get the artifact? Do they know about the machine?”
Torrack acknowledged that Longroad was in a slightly better condition that the rest of the team due to his having fought from inside the junundu, but he himself was beaten and barely able to sit up, “This old body ain’t what it used to be,” he coughed, “We held it together, but any longer and we would have been undead ourselves,” he grinned. His lips and nostrils were black with dust and soot.
“Do the Order of Whispers know that we succeeded?” Yeou asked again, “We can’t let them take that crystal out of the machine!”
Torrack blinked, forcing himself to think clearly, “Go, Yeou!” he commanded, “Stall them; we’ll be along shortly,”
Yeou rose, “Kiri: keep healing them until they are fit to move,” he rushed through the stone entrance without another word.
“Master Longroad!” she called after him, still healing Unseen Reaper’s wounds, “What about support?”
No answer. The knight was already on his way.
The upper level of the cave was dark and stank of death and smoke. The lack of oxygen during the recent skirmish had extinguished several of the torches, forcing Yeou to navigate through areas of total darkness. It was not long before he should hear the hissing intonations of the aged Forgotten, seeming to speak with great intensity and purpose. He heard no other sound but that of his own footsteps and the metallic clatter of his heavy plate mail as he ran. He had only just glimpsed the light of torches in the inner chamber before his passage was blocked by a small army of red-clad operatives with weapons drawn.
Longroad drew his own weapon, holding it with both hands in the absence of his shield, “We fought side by side against the greatest of foes,” Yeou began, “Don’t force me to fight my way through you,”
“Go back where you came from,” one of the agents said, “We are doing what must be done. Spare us anymore trouble,”
Yeou could already hear more footsteps approaching from behind; the clamour of heavy armor echoing against the cold rock walls of the cave was unmistakable, “The rest of my party will be here in a moment. You will not stand a chance,”
“You dare to resist us?”
“That’s my line,” Yeou retorted, “We are the ones who found the Dragon’s Tear and worked so hard to seal it away - what do you intend to do? Bring that army of undead back upon us?”
“Yeou!” Torrack called, “What’s happening?”
“The Whispers are blocking my path,” Yeou replied over his shoulder, “I can’t see the machine, but I can hear Vissh Rakissh back there,”
Acmer and red arrived first, followed by Torrack and the two dervishes, “We can’t let them mess this up!” Captain Ngunda exclaimed, “We can’t handle another fight like that!”
“Shh!” Reaper elbowed the Sunspear.
The to other warriors raised their swords against the Whispers agents alongside Longroad and the sound of wood under stress could be heard close behind as Thunderbow drew back an arrow, “I’m sure my officer has already asked you to move once,” Torrack stated menacingly, “Twice is our limit for today,”
The agents hesitated, seeming threatened, but undecided whether they were more afraid of the knights in front of them or the Master of Whispers behind them.
A tense moment passed during which the slightest movement threatened to incite a conflict. Torrack’s callused fingers gripped his bowstring through holes that had worn through his gauntlets. His weary hand begged him for a reason to release the arrow, one of the few he had managed to salvage from the cave floor.
“Stop this immediately!” a bold voice boomed from the depths of the cave.
The agents parted to reveal the silhouette of a gaunt figure against the torchlight in the small chamber at the end of the narrow corridor. Though his face was obscured by the glare of dancing firelight, his identity was obvious to all present.
“All of you, be calm and lay down your arms,” the Master of Whispers commanded, “There will be no more fighting today,” the knights could not see his face for the darkness, but it seemed that he was looking at them as he spoke, “Come forward, that I might have words with you,” he beckoned with his hand, then turned away, entering the chamber where the evil artifact was sealed.
The Master addressed the mangled party of stalwarts as they entered the torch-lit room where he stood beside Bleen and his pummelled operative, “We have learned of your deeds and heroism,” he began, “Resisting all odds and all opponents - even the Order of Whispers - to protect this item and in turn, protect the living world from it,”
The knights stood silent.
“Even so, you must know that we cannot allow this crystal to remain here, or anywhere that anyone might find it or learn of its existence. Such knowledge is forbidden to mankind. Forbidden for our own safety. Your fates were sealed the moment you came in contact with it,”
The knights’ hands immediately sought weapons.
“Wait,” Bleen interrupted, “It’s not like that!”
The Master of Whispers raised a hand, continuing, “At least, that would normally be true. Your valor is a testament to your worthiness, not to mention how difficult you would be to subdue. Your associate has decided to vanish in your place,”
“Bleen?” Torrack was aghast, looking down at the Asura, “What are you talk-?”
“It’s alright,” Bleen stepped forward, “It is a great opportunity for me,” he blinked, as if suddenly understanding what Torrack and the others must be thinking, “Oh, no - I have not agreed to die for you,” he grinned, broadly, “The Order of Whispers has acknowledged the greatness and genius of Bleen the saver of worlds!”
The Master of Whispers palmed the Asura’s large head and shuffled Bleen back to his place behind him, “We understand now what you were trying to do and we will be taking the machine away in order to avoid something like this happening in the future. We also understand that we do not know how to operate the artifice and that specialized knowledge will be required. Your associate has agreed to join our order and help us keep the crystal secure,”
“Bleen,” the disappointment was clear in the guildmaster’s voice. He knew that once Bleen vanished with the Order, he would never be seen or heard from again.
“It’s okay,” Bleen seemed unfazed by the circumstances surrounding him, “As I said, it is a great opportunity. I can re-invent myself, you see. This thing cost me everything and I thought this was the end of it. I had no plan past sealing it,” he chuckled, “I guess I expected fanfare or some such nonsense - but we are all adults and we must be realistic. The great Bleen is unknown, unheard-of, and flat broke - I’d go back to Rata Sum more of a nobody than I was before I invented the damned astral phase sensor or the dimensional generator. The old man here has offered me the chance to explore the unknown!” he seemed exceedingly happy and excited, despite the various injuries covering his body, “I’ll have free access to the secrets of the world. Imagine the knowledge - if you can imagine that far - just imagine it!”
The leader of the Order of Whispers cleared his throat, “In any event, we will carefully move the machine from this place and I have decided that as long as you do not resist or attempt to follow us, we will grant you amnesty for your interference,”
“Very kind,” Yeou replied sarcastically.
“You have the word of Torrack Thunderbow,” he looked at Bleen, then back at the old man, “May Kormir bless you and keep you,”
The Master said nothing in return, simply bowing his head. He turned to his men and signalled them to begin moving the small machine.
Several mages focused energy from their staves upon the artifice, stabilizing it as it was lifted by two porters in red robes. It would be a long slow walk to the surface.
Thunderbow and Longroad were the first to emerge, followed closely by Acmer, Red, Kiri, and the other weary warriors. As their eyes adjusted to the blinding light, they beheld the standing form of a skeletal general seated upon a tall horse. Their armor shone like mirrors in the desert sun, adding to the effect of intimidation that his size and height might already have had. Behind him, an army of Awakened warriors stood at the ready, stretching from one side of the ruins to the other. A force easily equal to the one they had only barely managed to survive against less than and hour before.
A hollow feeling of dread struck the party as they took it all in. To put it quite simply, they were doomed and they knew it.
The general watched as the Order of Whispers slowly exited the cavern with their payload. His skeletal face was expressionless and silent. As the men in red recognized the threat, they rapidly formed a defensive perimeter around the men bearing the machine, a few more joined them from their posts on the rocks nearby, but like the Knights of the Sacred Chalice, they two were forced to acknowledge the hopelessness of their situation.
“Ah, such a valiant defense,” the skeleton hissed. His fleshless face seemed as if it were locked in an eternal grin, “And you,” he pointed at Yeou Longroad, “You are quite the little fox indeed,” the general cackled mildly as he re-took his reins, “You are all better off dead, you know - power andcunning make for a dangerous combination when wisdom is removed. Playing with forces beyond your ken is no task for mere mortals,”
“Make your point,” the Master of Whispers demanded bitterly.
“The crystal is with you, yes?”
The group remained silent.
“Silence is louder than shouting,” the general clacked his jaws as he thought, producing a sickening hollow sound that seemed to echo in the stillness, “Do you think that because I lack eyes of flesh that I am blind? If you will not answer me that, answer me this before I decide how you will die,”
“We will answer,” Torrack replied, stirring his courage for his inescapable demise.
“Was the crystal responsible,” the general’s teeth ground for a moment as he determined the best way to phrase the question, “For the enemy that we so recently shared on this field of battle?”
“It was,” Torrack replied.
“That is undoubtedly why you want it,” Yeou added.
“Nay,” the general laughed again, “that is why my Lord desires it,” he raised a hand, seeming to signal an assault.
The knights, Sunspear, mercenary, and Whispers agents all drew their weapons and charged their magic - then stood dumbfounded as the Awakened army turned and began marching away.
The skeleton cackled again, longer and louder than before, tossing his head back as he completed the peel of evil laughter. He glared down at the humans with empty eye sockets, ever wearing his eternal grimace of bleached white teeth, “Such apprehension!” his grainy voice was thick with sardonic pleasure, “Is death so frightening? Perhaps not so frightening as oblivion. I have chosen a death for you; a death not by the hands of my men. Not today,” he spurred his horse and turned it in the direction his troops were marching.
“Wait!” Torrack had to know what had just happened, “Why?”
“You tease fate!” the Master of Whispers growled, remaining ready for a fight.
The ancient general turned on his steed, “Perhaps it is because you are not a cat that you seem to think curiosity is harmless,”
The living side of the conversation was silent.
“It is because...,” the undead military leader seemed thoughtful, “It is because my duty is to protect the domain of my master. Were I to bring that thing into my Lord’s kingdom, I would be failing in that duty,” he resumed his departure, “And because I was once a man - death is so much more permanent than life. Why rush the tide when it will come in due time,”
The humans watched as the army marched away. They crossed the rocks and the dunes into the poison desert, tirelessly treading the stinging sand toward Joko’s domain. The Knights of the Sacred Chalice and the Order of Whispers stood side by side, silently watching as the army of sleepless dead shambled out of sight, their passage obscured by the dust of the changeless desert.
“One might expect that such an adventure would be forever remembered, but it might seem that in the grand scheme, it was destined to be forgotten. Other than the record provided by Yeou Longroad in his recently recovered journals, the events of this epic tale were lost in the sands of time. The secret behind the Dragon’s Tear remain sealed to history and we can only speculate as to its effects in those bygone days and the results of those effect here in our present time. Though expeditions to Elona are planned, the rise of the great Elder Dragons prevent any such expedition from being made now or in the foreseeable future. Having said this, I reiterate that it is only through a fervent study and understanding of history that we might be able to piece together the great mysteries of our time. Phenomena such as the emergence of the Sylvari and the awakening of the Elder Dragons begin and end with questions. If the past serves us any purpose, it is at the very least to provide us wisdom for our continued pursuit of a brighter future.”
—Algeretus Lorca, Historian: Personal Notes
Lari Ngunda separated from the party in Vabbi, allowing the knights to depart to their hall by way of their channelling stones. His first duty was to make a full report of his activities to the ranking Sunspear in the city. Though he was able to clear the name of the KSC guildsman who fought and died protecting the horrifying secret of the Dragon’s Tear, he was never able to report as to the nature of his own efforts in the Desolation or to elaborate upon the mysterious circumstances surrounding Marc Anutanni’s flight and disappearance. Shortly after a hearing in Istan, wherein he swore to the legitimacy of his secret adventure into Joko’s Domain and vouched for the honorable intentions of Anutanni’s supposed desertion; Captain Ngunda left Istan to travel the world as a paladin, hoping one day to achieve the same level of honor and courage that he had witnessed in those few days about which he would never be able to speak.
In the days following the party’s return, the guild hall of the Knights of the Sacred Chalice was host to an unprecedented celebration. The guild master had returned and, as promised, held a huge banquet for his triumphant guild. He was sworn to secrecy regarding his efforts and the efforts of his party in the desert, but that fact seemed to make him celebrate with greater enthusiasm. the long tables were spread with all manner of food and drink and guildsmen from all corners of the world were present. They had bested the undead horde and had helped to protect Kryta from a threat greater than Princess Salma or any of her advisers could possibly have imagined. The officers sat at a table apart from the rest of the guild and their allies, several of them enjoyed food and drink with loud and boisterous excitement while the few that had ventured into the Desolation with the guildmaster enjoyed their time with slightly greater sobriety. Regardless however, everyone ate their fill and drank to the heroes of the campaign and to the dearly departed.
Torrack gave a great speech and was rewarded with great applause - and, in the tradition of the guild, the stores and coffers were opened and rewards given to those members whose contributions lifted them above their peers in the battles surrounding the great human city. Acmer donated his reward of gold to those who had served with him on the seaboard and Yin graciously returned the rare staff the he received to the guild vault to be used as an award to another guildsman someday in the future.
God of Red Warriors, Deceiving Chaos, and Unseen Reaper seemed the most gratified in the celebration, telling jokes, boasting, and proposing toast after toast to friends, foes, and inanimate objects alike. Brando remained aloof, as most mages seem to do, but wore a satisfied smile on his face all the same.
Few noticed that Yeou Longroad was missing. It was the loner's custom to avoid large gatherings. His chair sat vacant between the shoulders of his jubilant fellow officers, wreathed with a blue ribbon from which hung a strip of gilded parchment that read, "Away."
A whole table was set near the center of the courtyard to honor the lost heroes of those hard-won battles. Capes bearing the silver insignia of the guild hung from empty chairs, showing various degrees of damage. Some were burned, some cut, some bitten and torn, others impaled; but all hung in their places with dignity - KSC's guests of honor. More than 3 dozen circled the table, including one very small one at the head. Among the brass name markers on the table, which lay before each of the empty chairs, all were known to the assembly except two. Of these two, one was labeled "The Unknown Ranger," and the other was labeled "Bleen the Great,".
As the party died down in the wee hours of the morning, it was these two to whom Torrack and Acmer raised their final glasses.
Yeou Longroad set his bag down on the wooden floor of his small apartment in the northern districts of Kaineng City. The quarters were cramped, but familiar. He disengaged the clasp that connected his scabbard to his belt and set his sword and recovered shield near the foot of his bed. Sitting on a small stool next to a small desk, the warrior removed his recently repaired dark-lens spectacles and unfolded a message that he had found nailed to his front door when he arrived home.
“Master Longroad, I am sorry to bother you as I am sure you will be wishing to rest after our most recent assignment. I wanted to inform you that Afflicted have been sighted in large numbers near Vizunah Square again. If you are interested, I will standby to assist. Most sincerely: -Kiri Snowblood,”
He set the note on the desk next to his spectacles and stretched, “Rest...,” he sighed to the ceiling with a lopsided smile, “What’s rest?”