by Michael E. Shea
The blademaster stepped off of the narrow raft and onto the sands of Natimbi. Bright sunlight and light clouds painted the alien landscape in yellow light. Green hills to the south revealed specks of ancient rock structures, monuments to a time now past.
The blademaster stepped off of the pier, a stone pillar fallen into the water. There adventures, hunters, agents, and mercenaries gathered at the word of the Wayfarers and prepared to travel into the lands of Taelosia.
"Are you Calron, friend?" the melodious voice of a high elf turned Calorn the Blademaster towards the north end of the camp. Two elves, tall and slender, stood looking at the half-elf warrior. The speaker wore a suit of shining steel armor with a jeweled broadsword sheathed at his waist. The other wore a green tunic tied at the waist with a length of rope. He carried a tall gnarled staff with a bright jewel at its top. He wore a pair of loose trousers tucked into a pair of tall leather boots, folded over at the knee.
The taller armored elf did not look away when Calron uncovered his scarred face. The smaller elf, however, did. Calron was used to the tiny shock and then conscious dismissal of those who saw his burned face.
"I am Joniethal Silveroak and this is Taulien Redleaf, druid of the Mother." The paladin, Joniethal, stepped forward and grasped Calron's gloved hand in a strong grip.
"I am Calron. How soon do we leave?" The two elves looked at each other and then the druid, Taulien, responded.
Calron nodded and walked to the northern outskirts of the camp to prepare his own small dwelling. He removed his plate mail armor and tunic. The two elves saw the extent of the burn that traveled from the right half of Calron's face to the tips of his fingers on his right hand. His chest and shoulder were twisted ruins of scar tissue. His neck, smooth on one side, traveled in knotted cords of skin on the other. Joniethal had never seen wounds this severe on anyone still alive.
Calron rolled out his thin bedding and rested.
It was late into the night when whispers awoke Calron from dreams of green forests and golden sunlight.
"Why are we here with a half elf anyway? Any one of the eight guard of the Emerald Order could fill his spot and we wouldn't need to fish the sewers of Qeynos to do it." The voice was Taulien's.
"We need a blademaster and he fits the job." Said an impatient Joniethal.
"I don't like it and I don't like him. Did you see his face? It looked like melted wax. And his arm."
"You don't know about him, do you." Joniethal's voice silenced Taulien's whining. "Calron was once a guardsman of Qeynos. He traveled to High Keep before Bloody Kithicor. He guarded the keep when the dead began to walk. Calron was a sergeant in the patrol group that stumbled upon a dark elven wizard and six of his guards. Calron killed four of the six guards when the wizard hit him with a glob of black acid. It would have killed just about anyone but Calron survived. He beheaded the wizard and returned home before falling into a coma. He lost an eye and it took him six months to learn how to speak again and use his right arm. Qeynos discharged him and sent him home but he never made it back. He has been in the wilds ever since.
"When you speak of him, have more respect. He's here with us because he deserves to be."
Calron looked out at the deep blue waters that rolled up the sandy shore while his mind reached back to past lives. He heard the screams of his fellow soldiers as dark elf blade ripped through their bellies. He remembered the feeling of cold heat and the smell of burnt meat when the wizard's acid tore into his face. It was early into the morning before Calron slept again.
Taulien woke early the next morning, a breeze brought strange scents to his nostrils. Hot air left a fine sheet of sweat on his brow. The environment itself reminded Taulien just how far from home he was.
Taulien sat up and looked towards the riverbank. There stood Calron like a statue looking over the strange lands. Calron's broad shoulders and thick legs set him apart from other elves who shared his pointed ears. Wind whipped at Calron's cloak, giving glimpses to Taulien of the blademaster's armorments. Two large swords crossed Calron's back. One, hilted in stained wrapped leather, sat with its hilt above Calron's right shoulder. The other studded with gems and polished stones sat with its hilt below Calron's right arm most likely for an underhand draw. Two other swords, one hilted in onyx and the other in ivory, hung on Calron's left hip from loose wide belts. A long wide-bladed dagger with a golden hilt in the shape of a roaring dragon was tied to Calron's left thigh. The jeweled hilts of two more daggers peeked from the tops of Calron's tall black leather boots.
Though the sea wind ripped at Calron's red cloak, the swordsman did not move. The flash of Calron, screaming and ruined, ramming a long sword through the dark elf wizard's chest filled Taulien's mind and made the druid's skin crawl. As if sensing Taulien's discomfort, Calron turned and fixed his sharp blue eye on the wood elf. Calron's milky eye stared aimlessly from the sagging ruined skin of the right side of the blademaster's face.
A hand clapped on Taulien's shoulder sending shocks of energy through the wood elf's nerves. He whirled around and Joniethal laughed.
"Come, my friend. Save that energy for our travels." the armored paladin slung his traveler's pack over one shoulder. Joniethal turned and saw Calron approaching.
"Tunare save us!" The old elf's wide eyes looked Calron up and down. Both Calron and Taulien looked at the older knight. "How many swords does one elf need? You only have two hands, my friend." Both Taulien and the scarred warrior smiled. The three elves, one of the highlands, one of the woods, and one half human, began their trek into the lands of Taelosia.
They walked over the alien landscape, their eyes taking in every hill and each valley. The purple and yellow clouds drifted overhead as the sun rose to an apex and began to set.
Calron walked ahead of Joniethal and Taulien. Seven hours into their hike, Calron stopped at the top of a high hill. The wind of the upper hills whipped Calron's cloak in front of him sounding like the wings of bats beating in the sky. He stood solid, his one eye focused far out over the green lands that stretched in front of them. The other two elves stepped to his sides, their own sharp eyes following the blademaster's gaze.
Far out upon the green hills stood white structures, their sharp angles shattering any ideas of natural formations. Intelligent hands built these monuments. They sat like lines of teeth from a massive jaw protruding from the lush ground around them. One of these, a large pyramid, stood atop another tall hill. A staircase hundreds of feet long snaked down to the base of the hill.
All three elves stared silently at the structures. Their minds raced with feelings of elation and dread. They had no idea what they might find in these untouched temples but they hoped to find out. A day later they would wish they had not.
They reached the stairs at the base of the hill four hours later. The sun had perhaps two hours before night fell but it was hard for the travelers to be sure in these strange lands.
Large cracks and fissures full of the grasping tendrils of weeds lined the ancient staircase. A layer of dirt covered the stairs. Taulien swept aside the grime of one stair revealing a detailed and intricate script. Taulien looked up at the thousands of steps ahead and imagined how much work it took to carve each stair this way. Taulien and Joniethal shared an uncomfortable glance and began walking up the steps.
The winds grew as they climbed the steps, whipping their cloaks around the three elves as they stepped up the ancient stone staircase. Taulien turned and marveled at the view behind them. He could see a day's journey behind them, all the way back to the river camp. The peaks of other temples and ziggurats dotted the rocky horizon.
The winds quieted down and Taulien noticed the lack of birds chirping or insects buzzing, a sound that became such a constant throughout their journey as not to be noticed until it was gone. The awe and wonder of finding such marvelous structures and the anticipation of finding what was inside closed in and became the heavy feeling of dread in the pits of his stomach. His skin grew cold. Something was here.
Taulien saw Calron stop and knew the swordsman felt it too. The swordsman pushed his cloak aside and drew a sweeping serrated sword, a ruby shined like a fiery eye in the sunlight on the end of its hilt. Joniethal, caught in the splendor of the temple, saw the change in his companion and drew his own blade, a runed elven longsword of silver and gold. Calron did not move. All was quiet. The swordsman looked towards his companions and continued his climb.
As they reached the top of the steps, two tall statues towered over the tiny companions, flanking a massive stone doorway leading into the ziggurat's base. The statues were shaped like small elves, Taulien recognized them as Taelosians. Their arms stretched out, each holding a huge stone brazier burning with orange flame in the dusk of the night. Runes and hieroglyphs covered the walls of the ancient pyramid. The detail in the two massive statues spoke to hundreds of years of carving. None of the companions had any doubt that they stood on an ancient and powerful structure.
Their feelings of awe shattered when the Urok crawled out from behind one of the pillars of the temple.
The crawling creature stood in sharp contrast to the temples around it. While they represented a deep respect and worship of life and higher power, every shape and detail of the hideous Urok spoke in defiance of it. Its presence was an insult to this once holy place.
Grey sickly skin covered it's seven foot long body. Its bone structure resembled a humanoid creature although powerful rear legs and tall shoulders resembled a creature that ran on all fours for many generations. Tall spines jutted through the creature's arched back from a backbone that ended in a long whip-like tail.
Though its long claws and powerful muscles sent feelings of danger into the party, it was the Urok's face that would sit in the nightmares of those who survived this day. The head and face of the Urok were human. Something had plucked out the creature's eyes and sewn shut the sunken sockets with thick black twine. The oversized nostrils closed and opened and when it became aware of the presence of the three elves, it opened a mouth full of glistening fangs and a long pointed tongue. The Urok hissed.
Taulien lost the next few seconds in several flashes of movement. The creature leaped at the party with astounding speed. Only Calron reacted fast enough, throwing his serrated blade point first and simultaneously drawing a short thick blade with his left hand. The thrown sword slipped past the twisting Urok and clanged against the ancient stone of the temple. When the creature twisted around again preparing to tear the elf blademaster open, Calron cleaved the heavy sword in his left hand half way into the side of the twisted creature's throat. Black blood gushed over the stone floor and the hideous beast screamed. Joniethal, his own blade now drawn, stabbed his word into the smooth skin of the beast's back, the elven steel finding the nightmare's heart.
A roar rolled across the hilltop and Calron just had enough time to turn into a balled fist that sent him skidding arcross the stone floor. Taulien turned and saw a white-haired man-beast covered in thick muscles and orange skin painted with sharp white stripes. The druid begain a spell, the arcane words slippign over his lips as the beast's claw raked just over his ducking head.
Joniethal rushed in but met the beast's lightning backhand. Blood sprayed from the paladin's broken nose. The beast cried out in pain as the tip of a long blade pierced through its massive thigh. Calron, recovered from the beast's blow, pushed the blade deeper.
The huge beast twisted and punched hard into Calron's chest. Taulien heard the crack of ribs from ten feet away. The druid finished an incantation and a roaring column of fire enveloped the massive creature. Joniethal, his nose pouring blood down his face, stabbed his longsword through the beast's chest. The creature roared, revealing jagged human-like teeth. Joniethal twisted the blade. The beast reared back, arms out at his sides claws up and howled with a cry that echoed off of the hills for miles. The paladin pulled his blade free and a jet of red blood splashed on his armor. The beast fell forward lifeless as if Joniethal's blade drew out every ounce of it. The huge body lay in a pool of its own blood, a puppet with severed strings.
Calron's wheezing turned the two other elves' attention away from the dead beast. Taulien whispered prayers to Tunare the Mother and a white-blue glow enveloped his hands. Calron's breathing slowed but a watery gurgle still filled each breath.
"I've healed the ribs I could but one of them has punctured his lung." The druid turned to his longtime friend. "It's only a matter of time before his lungs fill with blood
"The wound is mortal."
The two elves only had a moment to share a concerned glance when a wave of darkness fell over them. It was not a shadow nor a sound of deep humming nor a feeling of electricity running through them nor the smell of sower decaying rot nor the taste of acidic copper; but all of these things at once. Taulien's knees became weak. He and Joniethal turned towards the temple and what they beheld would stay with them for the rest of their days.
A figure stood at the temple's stone archway, smaller than the massive beast lying dead on the platform but it filled the two elves with dread to look upon it. It was tall and humanoid with yellow skin and a smooth hairless scalp. One eye was a web of self-inflicted scars but the other burned black and white like a pulse of a dying star. Black robes floated about the figure's thin body. Chains hung from around its shoulders, each ending in a bolt attached to the top of a screaming silent skull. The chains rattled lightly in the temple's winds.
The figure floated out of the temple door and a wave of nausea hit Taulien like a punch in the stomach. The elf reeled as did his paladin friend. The yellow-skinned horror smiled, its lips chanting deeply in an evil and ancient tongue. It lifted one long fingered hand and twisted it a quarter turn, the jagged-nailed fingers splayed wide. Taulien felt something grab and squeeze inside him, twisting his intestines. An unseen force pushed the two elves over the stone platform.
Blackness overtook the young druid. He whispered a prayer to Tunare. Looking at the dark priest, Taulien had no doubt that his end approached on twisted legs and flowing black robes. Taulien's vision closed in as unconsciousness crashed in on him. His last vision was that of the dark priest floating towards him and a figure rising up behind it.
Taulien knew no more.
Light crashed in on Taulien like a falling stone. His head throbbed. It took a moment to get his mind around his location. He thought back, tracing the faded steps from the camp of Natimbi to the twisting serpent of ancient stone stairs.
He looked over and saw Joniethal laying unconscious next to him, his chest moving slowly but steadily. The druid got to his feet in three attempts and his head pounded like a war drum. His eyes focused on the door and the scene in front of it.
A pillar of black smoke billowed into the evening sky. It rose in black lines from a body lying on the stone platform; tiny flames licked at the light winds from its charred back. It was Calron. Taulien tore off his green cloak and put out the flames but he felt the lack of life beneath the green wool. He took it off and beheld the run that was once his companion. Burns and tears covered the swordsman's body. He held a broken hilt in his left hand. His right hand was gone.
All about the stone ground lay shards and slivers of steel. One sword sat half-way cloven into a stone pillar. Two others one hilted in black and the other in white lay crossed in a pool of violet blood. Another sight pushed all other thoughts out of the druid's mind.
A long sword hilted in gold and adorned with white diamonds stood in front of him. Twin dragons roared out from the long handguard and an angel stood defiantly on its hilt, her own tiny sword aimed towards the heavens. It stuck out, buried in the stone platform and right through the dead body of the dark priest. The priest's one burning eye lay dead in a sunken socket.
When Taulien saw the ancient black-robed priest he felt completely helpless. The mere sight of the dark figure stole every ounce of strength or hope from him. But a scarred half-elf, a man Taulien dismissed as crippled and worthless a week earlier, a man with lungs filled with his own blood, stood, fought, and killed this horror that could not be killed.
A tear fell away from Taulien's face as he heard Joniethal stir behind him. Taulien just met the first hero of his life and the man was already dead.