The Game of Shadows - Part One

By Deuce Traveler


Prologue

It's not easy being a god. Immortality came with the great price of boredom, and if one could not keep oneself distracted immortality could be hell. Brakkart Fellblade knew this well. The God of War, Intrigue, and Lies was expecting important guests and he reached out with his mind to command his servants to clean the Iron Tower. He had dressed his massive, strong human form in all black, a cape of deepest night wrapped around his body. Brakkart caused flames to begin to dance in the pupils of his eyes. He believed in making the right impression. Ensuring that both his home and his body were prepared was a simple and temporary annoyance. What he was enjoying in the back of his mind was the Game.

To understand the Game one had to understand the gods of Austin. The members of the Pantheon were once extremely powerful mortals who achieved a higher state of being. They were selected and made into gods by the Faceless Ones. Not even the Pantheon knew where the Faceless Ones had come from, only that they had created the world and races of Austin. They then gave their creations to the first of the Pantheon to do as they wished. At first these early gods took great pride in shaping Austin, like a painter practicing his art. Boredom set in with the ages, however, and after some millenia the oldest of the Pantheon stood up during a meeting of the gods and ended his own existence. He simply began to fade into nothingness, a smile on his lips as he realized he was finally experiencing something new.

Chaos broke out among the Pantheon. As a member committed suicide a new mortal would be granted immortality by the ever watching Faceless Ones. Some of the gods began to go insane and battle against one another. The remainder of the Pantheon became desperate. With no desire to share such a fate, the distraction of the world of Austin became an obsession for many. Each god had a vision for making the world over in their philosophy. The gods began to manipulate the mortals of Austin as a source of entertainment. The schemes of some of the gods began to effect the schemes of the others in the Pantheon. The gods began to act against each other, using mortals like players on a chess board, and the last millenium had gotten very personal. This was the Game.

Brakkart felt a presence enter his tower followed by a demanding female voice in the air, "Brakkart Fellblade, I, Tigress Silverclaw, come in nonviolence. I wish to walk your halls."

Brakkart Fellblade responded in the respectful manner a member of the Pantheon gave to another. "You are welcome here, Tigress Silverclaw. May my matter give you form."

Parts of the cobblestone floor in front of the Lord of Lies came loose and began to form a tall pile of rock. The rock pile lost its rigidness and began to mold itself, appearing to Brakkart more like putty. The mold formed two lithe legs and two arms, the beginning of curled claws shaping at their ends. A head came next, eyes closed in concentration, followed by the beginning of a long tail. Moments later, Tigress Silverclaw, Goddess of Strength and Darkness, stood in front of Brakkart in her favorite form. She stood upright, looking like a cross between an athletic woman and a tiger. Her tail twitched chaotically in agitation and her eyes shone an eerie green that was enhanced whenever her face was obscured in shadows. She was about to speak when a note fell from nothingness and to the floor between the immortals.

Brakkart picked up the note. It read 'Brakkart Fellblade, I, Cade Mallorn, come in peace. I wish to share wisdom with you.'

Brakkart said into the air, "You are welcome here, Cade Mallorn. I welcome your wisdom."

Multi-colored balls of light began to fall from the ceiling like snowflakes in a gentle winter flurry. They began to gain in frequency and brightness. Without warning the lights disappeared leaving a male fairy floating in midair. The fairy wore a blue tunic and leggings with black boots. His clothes would be considered princely to a mortal, and hid a pair of wings underneath them. White hair bordered his handsome face. His dark green eyes seemed to see everything, and Brakkart always felt nervous under their notice; as if Cade Mallorn, God of Mischief, Desire, and the Fay, could read his thoughts and discover his schemes with a simple look. The faerie had chosen this form to be slightly smaller than a human male, and was therefore dwarfed by Brakkart's massive body. Cade smiled politely and wiggled his ears in greeting. He was known never to speak unless he had something profound to say.

Tigress was already beginning to pace the damaged floor of the Iron Tower impatiently. "I'm glad she's not here yet. Just so you know, I'm not looking forward to having to work with her."

"I'm sorry to hear that, dear," an elder female voice said in amusement, "Brakkart Fellblade, I, Popple, come in tranquility. I wish to enjoy company with you."

Brakkart spoke in a serious tone, "You are welcome here, Popple. I too wish for this to be an enjoyable experience."

Dust began to collect in the room. It began to swirl like a small tornado, more dust coming from other rooms in the Tower. In less time than it took the other two gods, Popple appeared from within the dust. Her form was that of an elderly elven woman, still stunningly beautiful, but with silver hair and pale blue eyes. She held a silver teapot in her left hand and a tray of porcelain tea cups in her right. She looked like an impressive elderly mortal, but no mortal would ever believe her to be one of the Pantheon. But that was the point. Popple, Goddess of Harmony and the Sun, was rumored to be the oldest surviving member of the Pantheon. She was arguably the strongest of them. Her vulnerable appearance made new members to the Pantheon see her as an easy target. However, those who wished her ill soon found that they themselves were the helpless ones in the face of her power. "I just made some of the most heavenly tea for all of us," she said matronly.

Brakkart Fellblade led the group through his Iron Tower and into his negotiating room. Carpets lined the floor, flanked by large pillows. Close to some of the larger pillows and chained to the wall by a collar was the naked Gilian Casca. Her name only remembered by mortal scholars of history, Gilian was one of the greatest heroines of her time. The history books say she went on one last adventure and like all great heroes, was never seen again. Brakkart had fallen for her when he was on Austin in the guise of a male warrior priest. He soon revealed his true nature to her and made her his slave, carrying her off to his Iron Tower. Brakkart manipulated her body to keep himself interested in her. Now her eyes would be bright jade green one moment, to brown, black, and even a shining red before changing back to green. Her hair would go from red to brunette to blonde and back again. She was an exotic and beautiful kaleidoscope of colors.

Brakkart sat next to Gilian, who looked back up at him with a mixture of bloodthirsty hatred and heart wrenching love. Popple looked at her sadly for a moment and then poured tea. Tigress sat across from Popple, not touching her full tea cup and staring hatefully at Popple. Cade 'sat' (actually floated) across from Brakkart, his eyes absorbing everything as he smiled underneath the tea cup he sipped from. Brakkart spoke first, "Entity Simlo has instructed me to gather you here, as you have already heard. As you probably have guessed this involves us choosing a new mortal to join the Pantheon." The 'leaders' of the Pantheon were given the title Entity and were given the task of creating new immortals by the Faceless Ones.

Tigress snorted, "So we all get to choose one? I could have done that from my domain and not come to yours."

"No, I wish it was that simple, Tigress. He wants the four of us to agree on a new member," Brakkart responded.

Popple smiled sweetly at Brakkart, "Oh, now come dear. Tigress and I can't even share tea together. You know we won't be able to agree on a mortal."

The Lord of Lies almost smiled at that. Popple and Tigress were always in conflict with one another. Tigress believed that mortals should be ruled by the strongest of warriors for such a belief would keep them strong. Popple believed that mortals should spend more time developing art and civilization at the sacrifice of war-like tendencies. She wanted aggressiveness rooted out of mortals entirely. Cade was the balance between the two. He believed mortals should be left alone to their own designs. The irony was that in trying to free mortals from immortal influence meant Cade had to get involved in the Game as deep as any of the other gods. Brakkart answered Popple, "I have a contest that I will run. Each of you picks a champion. I've left some artifacts on Austin for them to collect. We give your champions clues to where they can find the artifacts and whoever possesses all three will be our choice for the Pantheon."

"And you conveniently have this scavenger hunt ready? Do you mind if I say that I do not trust you, Brakkart?" Tigress spoke with a smirk.

"Although I'm hurt by your lack of trust, I can reassure you that I was told to run this contest by the Entity Simlo himself. I had the resources for the contest, therefore I will be the mediator," Brakkart replied. He was already counting the ways he could change the loss of resources he was about to endure to his advantage.

Popple sighed, "Very well. This is my champion." After setting down her teacup she opened her hand, palm up. An image of her choice appeared in her palm.

"Heh! That one lacks drive. This is a true champion." Tigress opened her own palm, an image of another person floated above it. Brakkart nodded at the image approvingly.

Cade said nothing, and the slight smile left his face. After a moment of pondering he opened his own palm slowly.

"That one? I'm greatly surprised Cade. It doesn't seem to be your type," Brakkart said and wondered what Cade was up to. It by far wasn't a bad choice, just a surprising one for the God of the Fay. Opening his own palm to an image of a new face, the master of the Iron Tower spoke, "This is what will bring your champions together. A common thread if you will."

Tigress spoke angrily, "I thought this was a contest between the three of us. Now you enter your own champion?"

Brakkart answered defensively, "No, I do not. Don't consider it a champion. I have no idea what this one will do. Think of it as more of a wild card." Brakkart ignored Tigress' angry glare. It wouldn't be the first time they had clashed.

Popple looked into her teacup for awhile and then broke the silence. "Well, we should get started. It's going to be a lot of work for us to move these people in the direction we want them to go. I really don't know why the Faceless Ones can't just pick a mortal. Why do they need us to waste our time on this?"

To the surprise of everyone Cade spoke up, "Don't you ever think that the games that we play with the mortals are just a childish version of the games the Faceless Ones play with us?"

None of the gods wanted to dwell on that thought, but it kept echoing in their minds. For a long time they could only stare into their tea.


Chapter One

"Deuce Traveler would be proud," thought Rune del Strum, the thirty year old mage of 'Ndrangheta. Rune was a short, thin elf possessing hair tied in a pony tail that matched the light blue shade of his unnatural eyes. He was wearing his favorite white robes with gold trim. Not that it mattered to any of the bandits he had passed. The mage had slipped into Valleywatch Keep, nicknamed Bandit Keep, undetected by using his spell of invisibility. The spell took a lot of concentration, and he tried to move through quickly before his mind tired.

Many years ago the Kingdom of Amaranth's rangers were driven out of their border outpost by the bandit king Aric. Now his middle aged son, King Aric II, ruled over Bandit Keep and the barbarian clans surrounding it. The spellcasters guild called the 'Ndrangheta, or Nod to most, knew that the real power behind Bandit Keep was Cyrus Baalslayer. Cyrus Baalslayer was one of the Circle, a group of mages inside the 'Ndrangheta that were conducting the unsanctioned experiment of imprisoning demons of the Abyss for study. The experiment went wrong and the demon was freed, killing most of the Circle outright. Cyrus' own wife, Renella, tumbled through the portal used to summon the demon and was flung into the Abyss. The entire 'Ndrangheta realized something was greatly wrong and rushed to seal the portal before more demons could enter the mortal plane. In the end they were forced to collapse their home onto the demon, but the demon was destroyed and the portal sealed. The portal and tower ruins still emitted great magic, however, and since that day the 'Ndrangheta have found themselves on a constant vigil to protect the remains from their enemies. Cyrus and the other survivors of the Circle were cast out of 'Ndrangheta, despite demands from Cyrus that 'Ndrangheta needed to help him save his wife. Since that day Cyrus has sought access to the Abyss and to the ruins of the tower.

Cyrus had been using his men to scout the ruins, accompanied by brown robed magi unknown to the guild of spellcasters. The last group of bandits were able to recover some ruin artifacts before 'Ndrangheta could stop them. Rune was sent to scout what was taken and estimate what force would be needed to eliminate Cyrus and his new servants.

The inside of the keep was in disrepair with puddles of mud in some corners and doors that were showing signs of rust and decay. The bandits may have been able to take Valleywatch Keep, but they knew nothing of maintaining it. Rune reached a spiral, stone staircase in the center of the keep and began to climb it. He came to a room, its size surprising the young mage. It looked like the entire second floor of the keep was dedicated to a large laboratory. Tables full of scrolls and vials lined the dull gray walls. Young men in brown robes sat indian style in a circle surrounding the staircase Rune had climbed, reciting a mantra. A man in an expensive black robe smiled in Rune's direction, his dark eyes full of amusement. "Rune del Strum! What a pleasant surprise!" The young men sharing the circle with him kept murmuring their manta, eyes closed in concentration.

Rune bristled in alarm. Somehow Cyrus could see Rune through his spell of invisibility. He decided to try being pleasant, "Hello Cyrus. I've come to ask you a few questions."

"Of course, my friend. I haven't seen you since you were an apprentice. I hear you have made quite a name for yourself these last few years. Some say you've been somewhat of a prodigy of the Hidden Cabal."

Rune's cheeks grew hot in anger. The 'Ndrangheta was called the Hidden Cabal until the disaster the Circle had created. The bad reputation the guild suffered afterwards was enough for them to change their name to 'Ndrangheta. The reminder was not pleasant. "I have been informed that your men have taken a couple of artifacts that belongs to us from the tower ruins. I would like it back now."

"Truly? It took days for my men to find items of power in our old home, and now I'm supposed to just forget about their hard work and hand them over?" Cyrus' eyebrows began to twitch slightly and his grin wider. "I'll make a deal with you, Rune, for old times sake. The 'Ndrangheta helps me get into the Abyss, and you get these back," he held out his hands to reveal a silver circlet in his left and a black sphere in his right.

Rune took a step foward, knowing his magic was stronger than Cyrus or his apprentices. "Cyrus, don't be an idiot. You know first hand what came through that portal when you first opened it. You want us to open another?"

Cyrus uttered the words to a spell, and Rune found himself floating in an invisible bubble. "Arrogance! You have much to learn, Rune. You may be admired among your older colleagues, but you have yet to prove yourself to me."

Rune dropped his spell of invisibility and smiled, "You think an orb of holding can restrain me?" He began to push with his own magic and to his surprise the orb did not give.

Cyrus chuckled, "These artifacts enhance the power of my magic, Rune. Not only can I hold a mage of your power through simple spells, I can also destroy you with them."

Rune felt the walls of the orb shrinking around him. In panic, he sent tendrils of magical force outwards against the orb. He was beginning to force the bubble open when the men of the circle began to chant louder. Rune realized they were feeding their magical powers to Cyrus' own. The orb began to shrink again. The young mage tried to clear his mind and stopped using his magic erratically. As he channled more energy trying to burst the orb open, the chanting of the robed men would become louder and the orb would constrict around him. Rune began to tire, sweat forming on his forehead. Knowing he had miscalculated his enemies power, he began to use a portion of his magic searching for a weak spot in the orb. Rune's mind located a section of the orb of holding that seemed almost soft. Taking a risk, he dropped his tendrils of magic and concentrated his energy into one strong punch against the soft portion, tearing a hole that his body tumbled out of.

The robed men that formed the circle began to scream and writhe on the floor, hands gripping their heads in agony. The magical backlash from their destroyed orb took its toll on their psyche. Somehow Cyrus seemed uneffected by the feedback. "Get out of my laboratory," the black robed mage screamed in rage. He unleashed bolts of pure energy from the black sphere that Rune was hard pressed to deflect with an energy field.

The young mage was forced to back away from Cyrus by the massive amount of bolts that were being cast at him. Rune recognized the circlet and knew it could raise the mental power of its user, but that didn't explain why Cyrus was so powerful with the basic spells he was using. Rune realized that it had to be the black sphere that was strengthening his enemy. He dropped his energy shield and ducked, sending a bolt of his own through Cyrus' right arm. Cyrus screamed and dropped the sphere, causing it to roll on the floor. The black robed mage threw two more bolts at Rune. One of the bolts was dodged by Rune, the other hit him in the center of his chest, causing him to drop to the floor in agony.

Cyrus walked towards the fallen Rune, swearing loudly and gripping his limp right arm. "You brought this upon yourself, remember that," he said angrily. The magical bolts that now flew from the silver circlet came at Rune much slower now, as Cyrus wasn't using the sphere to cast from anymore. The bolts were also weaker, but still damaging.

Two lances of energy struck Rune in his back as he struggled to rise. Collapsing onto the floor, the young mage cried out in pain. A few seconds later another lance struck him, sending blood trickling from his mouth. His eyes rolled back into his head and when another bolt caused them to refocus he saw the black sphere in front of his face.

The black sphere seemed to speak to him, a man's voice whispered seductively, "Grab the sphere. Touch it and be saved."

Another blast hit him, lancing through his shoulder. Rune no longer felt pain, but a part of his mind knew rage. A voice laughed delightedly inside his mind as Rune grabbed the black sphere with some untapped reservoir of energy. With a scream he sent three powerful bolts through the black robed mage's body. Cyrus was thrown against the far wall like an unwanted doll, his shimmering blood splattering against the wall's gray color.

Rune's vision blurred as he began to lose consciousness. He felt his body become weightless as his lips cast a teleportation spell. Clutching the sphere tightly he thought to himself, "I'm casting a teleport spell. Strange... I never learned how to teleport."


Chapter Two

Ever since he graduated from the School of Magic in Riversy Azrail Cairnson's life had been an adventure. He and his friend, Astral Eldroon, had graduated in the top of their class when they were approached by Deuce Traveler. Most people in Riversy knew Deuce Traveler as a successful businessman who lived in a small estate on the outskirts of the city. A small percentage of the population knew him better as the first mate of the SS Vesper, and second in command to Yor of the guild called the Evening Star Mercenaries. The Evening Star Mercenaries were known for their heavy drinking and carousing. They were rumored to be smugglers and thieves. Some said they had high ranking officials all over the continent of Arainor in their pay. Azrail had learned the rumors to be true. He was Deuce Traveler's assistant and went everywhere with the man, the most recent trip bringing them to Rodby's tiny Twin Pigs Inn.

After paying the innkeeper for rooms, food, ale, and the use of a hot bath, Deuce and Azrail sat themselves at a table in the corner. Deuce sat with his back to the wall, watching the door. His assistant sat across from him and watched his mentor for a moment. Deuce Traveler was a twenty-eight year old man and more than six feet tall. Although slim, the man was muscular and it showed through his expensive dark blue tunic and cloak. He had snow white hair tied into a pony tail and his eyes were a violet color that spoke of a magical heritage. Occasionally a cloaked figure would come in and share a nod with Deuce, buy a room from the innkeeper, and retire for the night. It seemed very odd and secretive to Azrail, but that was life with the Evening Star Mercenaries. In that guild you made your presence known, and at the same time never revealed what you were really up to.

"Can you tell me why we are here in this tiny town now," Azrail asked his mentor.

Deuce smirked and continued to watch the door, "No, I'll tell you later. The walls have ears. Enjoy your ale and dinner."

Azrail groaned loudly and said, "Well it must be something important for us to travel all the way out to this dump from Riversy."

Deuce seemed to ponder that statement and answered, "It isn't important at all to me or our guild, but it's of great importance to others. I'm going to report to Yor that we have made it to Rodby on time." Deuce grabbed his cloak clask and seemed to concentrate for a moment. The cloak clasp had the symbol of the Evening Star on it and was one of a half dozen scryers used by the guild to communicate. Deuce had never told Azrail where he had gotten his and Azrail supposed that Yor had given it to Deuce when he became first mate. Deuce's face grew somber and he released the clasp. "Captain Yor got the message. He also has found out from Raaf that Rune del Strum was found on the temple altar in Riversy nearly dead. Word is that Saint and Angeli Halofax are administering to him."

Azrail was surprised. Rune visited Deuce's estate often and the two seemed to be old friends. "How was he hurt?"

"They don't know," Deuce answered flatly. "Nor have the informed Nod yet of Rune's location. One of our contacts in the Temple of Riversy got the word to Raaf."

"Maybe it was a wizard's duel. Rune isn't known to be liked in the mage's community. They say he is a trouble maker and not as talented as he thinks he is. Ummm... that's what my teachers used to say when we asked about him after one of his exploits."

"Aye, remember that well. It's called professional jealousy."

Deuce did not say much else to Azrail, and shortly after they turned in for the night. Deuce shook Azrail awake in mid morning, and they gathered their equipment. They traveled to the southwest corner of Rodby and went south along the beach. Deuce was brooding as they approached a beautiful white stone tower with no doors. As the two travelers approached an aquiline face grew out of the stone. Its voice bellowed, "Who wishes to enter the Council Tower!"

Deuce looked impatient, his face growing red, "Oh hell no! I'm not saying that stupid chant again, guardian. You know who I am so open your walls!"

"If you do not identify yourself by the chant I have taught thee, you must not belong here."

"How many times have I been here? Ten times? A dozen?"

"I am sorry, sir. I see you do not belong in the meeting. I bid thee good day," so saying, the face began to disappear back into the wall.

"Damn, you're going to make me do this aren't you? Oh great and powerful guardian of the tower, I, Deuce Traveler, unworthy journeyman and representative of the Evening Star Mercenaries, wish admittance inside your great and wonderful tower."

The face returned and chuckled, "Welcome Deuce Traveler of the Evening Star Mercenaries. Enter." A portal opened that Deuce and Azrail began to enter.

"What was that about," Azrail asked Deuce.

Deuce looked back at him with a grimace, "It goaded me once and I insulted it and its made my life hell ever since."

Azrail was stunned when they entered the tower. A large, circular table of fine craftmanship sat in the center surrounded by chairs. Baskets of fruit and silver pitchers sat in front of every other chair. The walls glowed with a magical light. Stained, diamond shaped windows lined the ceiling, allowing discolored light to shine down from outside. The young mage could hear the ocean waves crashing around the tower. It was the most beautiful building he had ever been inside.

Looking around the room he noticed another stunning sight. More than a dozen people were socializing around the room. Azrail recognized them all from legends. Sade, warrior priest of the Highlander Clan. Sanya Dragonheart of the Dark Army. Therin Ravendark and Rothor of Rockby for Khan's Troopers of the Night. The snake woman, Sloe of the Shimmers of Shadows. Meriadoc the Shortfellow and Eldera, priestess of Nod. Loplin and Froi of the 108 Dragon Knights. Ranzar of the Rangers with his bow. Bliss the self styled Apprentice Mage of the Death Singers. Rosebud McGowan and Rooks of MaD. Lothrain Heimdal and Dalamar, both pixies of the kingdom called the Crimson Empire. Gotrix, warrior of the Red Clan. Howard Wolf in the ceremonial furs of the Wolf Pack. Dakar the dwarven warrior and Sir Eliot of the Riversy knighthood called the Defenders of Amaranth. Members from almost all the major guilds and factions on the continent and the unguilded enchantress Iceess of the Northlands as mediator. Azrail began to wonder why he was allowed to come with Deuce, and felt odd as these men and women began to glare at him for being the stranger.

"Deuce Traveler and... Deuce Traveler's friend. You're late," Sanya Dragonheart spoke angrily. "I acknowledged you in Rodby. Couldn't get up this morning?"

"Actually, I just decided to have a relaxing breakfast and let my apprentice sleep in. Did I miss anything of import?" Deuce sat down at a chair and motioned Azrail to do the same. Sanya simply stared darkly at him for a moment and then sat down herself. The rest of the standing members eventually did the same.

Iceess alone stood. She was an young, dignified woman in snow white robes. Her hair was blonde and her eyes a pale blue, appearing almost frozen. She was a walking legend, most people thinking her a myth. Truth was that she was a hermit, living in the icy wastes of the north. Her presence in warmer climes usually meant something important was happening. Azrail found it difficult to look at her when she finally began to speak, "Thank you all for coming. It is good to see the Council of Guilds once again at peace with itself. The Guild War was not a pleasant moment in our history. Now your guilds find yourselves united against a common enemy. The Brotherhood of the Blade is taking advantage of your current weakness. There is evidence that they have been fomenting unrests in your territories, assasinations of your members, and intimidating your supporters into silence. We shall now open the table to discussion."

Rothor of Rockby stood, proud and strong, "Khan's Troopers of the Night have begun to know this danger to all of us firsthand. We have had two of our high officers killed in their beds. Khan Glarin himself was attacked and barely survived. We of the KTN request an alliance of the guilds for war against the Brotherhood of the Blade." So saying proud Rothor sat.

Sanya Dragonheart of the Dark Army stood next, smiling wickedly at Rothor and Therin. "I must admit that we haven't had as much trouble with these pests as the KTN, but then again we are true warriors. Still, the Brotherhood are pests and pests should be eliminated. We shall consider sending some help."

"Damn you to hell, woman!" Therin Ravendark spat, standing up with a flurry.

"Sit down both of you!" Iceess face and voice were calm, but there was power in her presence that brooked no trifling with. Therin and Sanya sat down, glaring at one another. "Sloe, please speak."

Gentle Sloe of the Shimmers of Shadows stood next. The Shimmers of Shadows were a collection of beastmen who lived in peace with one another away far from mankind. It was said that she was also best friends with Rothor of Rockby and the two constantly traveled together. "Our lands have not been attacked by men, but by undead creatures. It is believed by our wise ones that these creatures are somehow connected to the Brotherhood. We are even now falling back to this horde. To protect our lands, we are with you."

Next, the good natured Meriadoc Shortfellow of Nod stood on his chair. "Oh hello. My turn I reckon. Eldera wishes me to speak for her today since I come with news. The 'Ndrangheta also believe that there is more than meets the eye to the Brotherhood. There is powerful magic blocking our ability to observe them. We have also been encountering strangers and the undead prowling both our ruins and the secret location of our guild. They are looking for something and we do not have the resources to drive them all away. We shall assist thee with some of our magic."

The Evening Star Mercenaries were next. The assembly waited impatiently as Deuce simply sat there in contemplation. Azrail felt a great weight on his mentor's shoulders. Finally, Deuce Traveler stood and spoke, "The Evening Star Mercenaries will not participate in any war. I have nothing else to say." The large man sat as the assembly erupted in angry shouts at Deuce and Azrail. The young mage wanted to hide under his chair and slink away. How could Deuce say no to these great men and women and look so calm about it? Azrail caught Sanya looking at the young mage's discomfort in interest.

Rothor stood in anger and asked for silence, "Deuce, I've known you a long time, or so I thought. I am disgusted! Are you afraid to fight for your brothers?"

Deuce stood up calmly. "Brothers? Are you all brothers? What have you promised each other besides token assistance? The Dark Army promising 'some' help? The Shimmers of Shadows saying they will protect their own borders? Oh, wait! We have Nod promising a portion of their magic. You do not offer each other real help, only to cease warring with one another and take your fight to a common foe. You doom yourselves with your own words. If it wasn't for you petty squabbles you might get something accomplished."

Eldera asked, "You doubt our willingness to fight for one another?"

"Of course I do," the large man exclaimed. "How did the Guild War start, Eldera? The Dark Army began to encroach on your tower ruins, so you hired Khan's Troopers of the Night to stand against them. Soon all the guilds except ours joined one of the two sides in that epic war. And what was gained? The Highlander Clan, Shimmers of Shadows, MaD, and the 108 Dragon Knights are still fractions of their former selves. The Red Clan, Wolfpack, Death Singers, Defenders of Amaranth, and the Rangers were almost entirely destroyed. The Shadow Assasins haven't even been heard of since and I see none of their representatives here. No, the Evening Star Mercenaries have seen your wars and will have no part in them."

Although Deuce did not continue to speak after this speech, Azrail watched as the man stared off into space, becoming more distant as the arguments and accusations grew harsher. He wished he could know his thoughts. The rest of the day did not fare well, with the factions demanding more forces from one another. In the end little was agreed upon except that the guilds would not battle each other in the face of their new enemy.

Deuce and Azrail got up to go as the meeting broke up when Sir Eliot of the Defenders of Amaranth strode to Deuce and gripped him on the shoulder. "Deuce, I know you don't want to get involved lad, but I must ask this of you. Do your sources know if the Brotherhood is in Riversy? Lately we have been losing what is left of our men after they leave our headquarters in the city. No one ever sees these knights again." Sir Eliot was a middle aged man, and a noble one at that. His thick mustache had streaks of gray in it, and his armor was aged with knicks and dents polishing could not remove. He was known to ride through the streets of Riversy giving candy and coins to less fortunate children.

Deuce looked up at his friend with a look of pain, "I will tell you this, old friend, for you were there for me during that bad time in Fellreev Forest. The Brotherhood of the Blade have great influence in Riversy. I would not doubt their involvement in your suffering."

Sir Eliot studied the face of his young friend. Unlike many in the meeting he felt he understood why Deuce did not wish to join the war to come. The knight had seen too many battlefields himself and secretly desired his own retirement to Elwyn one day. Sir Eliot could also see the torment hidden behind his friend's eyes. He felt torn between embracing Deuce and punching the tall man in the face. He opted for a handshake, gripping his friend's unnaturally icy hand, "Then goodbye to you Deuce Traveler, you rogue. Until I have the chance to shake your cold hand again." With that the seasoned knight bowed to Deuce and Azrail and exited the tower with Dakar.

As the Evening Star Mercenaries left the tower Azrail asked, "I don't get it, sir. Why won't we help them? Aren't they your friends?"

Deuce gave Azrail an angry look, "Azrail, shut up." They did not talk again until they reached Riversy.


Chapter Three

Sir Eliot continued to Riversy while Dakar headed to gather some of the knights stationed in Hillby. The aging knight's strong horse, Oathbinder, gave him a head start on many of the returning council members. It was late at night when he reached the military training area of Riversy, and the headquarters of the Defenders of Amaranth. Sir Reynolds and Squire Hansley were awake to take his reins and help him dismount.

Squire Hansley spoke first as he began to lead Oathbinder to the stables, "Hello sir? How did it go?"

"As lousy as expected, young squire. Please unsaddle Oathbinder and settle him down for the night. He isn't as young as he used to be," Sir Eliot requested. He then thought to himself as he felt his aching muscles, "And neither am I for that matter."

The grim Sir Reynolds spoke next, "It's good to have you back, Sir Eliot. We have not fallen on good days." He opened the door into their headquarters and walked in with his fellow knight.

"More missing bretheren?" Sir Eliot asked.

"Two more, Sir Naden and Sir Ferren. They were coming back from a patrol between Riversy and Logby and never returned. They were last seen leaving the city from the south gate of Riversy."

Sir Eliot sighed, "Two good men."

"They are all good men," Sir Reynolds replied. "Get some rest, Sir Eliot. You've had a long ride and we have prepared a room for you. I've just received a message from our commander in Riversy Castle ordering that no one is to leave the military complex at night until we get to the bottom of this."

"We are knights, not cowards."

"And we can no longer suffer any more losses. I don't even have enough men to patrol the surrounding countryside, never mind our kingdom of Amaranth."

Sir Eliot's shoulders sagged and he nodded to his friend. "Dark days for us indeed." The aging knight walked up the stairs to his room and unbuckled his ancient sword, Lightbringer. It used to be his father's, a distinguished warrior who died in a campaign against a clan of gnolls years ago. The beautiful long sword was Sir Eliot's most prized posession.

Sir Eliot had finished taking off his armor when he heard Squire Hansley's scream from the stables. Removing Lightbringer from its seath, the knight ran out of his room and down towards the staircase to the bottom floor. He began to hear the horses screaming in pain and the sounds of fighting downstairs. As Sir Eliot got halfway down the stairs he could see Sir Reynolds and two squires fighting in thier armor against six dark forms. Two other squires and a knight laid dead on the ground. From their lack of weapons it seemed the dead men were taken by surprise. The aging knight almost choked from the smell of death originating from the invaders.

The forms may have been human once, but no longer. Their shrivelled flesh was dark with grime and decay, their eye sockets empty. Sir Reynolds sliced an arm off a creature, but didn't slow it down. They seemed not to feel pain, but shuffled towards the men with taloned fingers and filed yellow teeth. One squire was brought down and began to scream in panic, flailing wildly at the zombie over him. Sir Eliot ran to his aid, throwing the zombie off the squire and slicing the creature in half with a mighty swing. The zombie fell like a heap of trash, its upper torso still trying to reach the fallen squire. More zombies began to tumble through the doors and windows.

The fallen squire was now beginning to stand and asked in fear, "This is impossible. How did they get through the city gates?"

Sir Eliot was struck by that thought. Someone had to have let them in to the military grounds. He bellowed in anger. "We've been betrayed!" The knight cursed Deuce Traveler in his mind, "Damn you, devil. You knew the Brotherhood of the Blade had this much influence in Riversy and you didn't tell me. Who have they bought off? Did they even get to you, Deuce?"

Sir Reynolds snapped him out of his thoughts, "Damn it, Eliot! Grab the boys and get them the hell out of here!"

The aging knight didn't want to leave his companion, but knew he had to if the boys were to live. He grabbed the two squires and ordered them upstairs, hacking at the undead as he covered them. As he climbed the stairs the last he saw of Sir Reynolds was a flashing blade in the midst of a dozen monstrosities.

Sir Eliot led the squires upstairs to the top and third floor. There was a table there covered with a large map of Amaranth. The knight and two squires turned it over and used it to partially block the entrance to the map room. "Quick, we can get out by the windows. Open the far one and take a look outside to make sure its clear," he ordered his squires. He watched the staircase, sword ready.

The sound of breaking glass made Sir Eliot turn quickly. The squires were knocked to the floor as a man covered in black crashed through the window, stabbing one of the squires in the unprotected neck as he dove past. The stabbed squire fell to the floor, holding his gurgling neck and writhing. The second squire charged the figure with a roar of anguish, but the man in black stepped to the side and sliced the squire's sword arm. The second squire dropped his sword and fell in pain.

With a roar, Sir Eliot attacked the assassin. Although he was too fast for the squires, the man wasn't fast enough to evade a seasoned knight like Sir Eliot. The first and second thrust missed the assasin, but the next slice opened his gut. The man screamed in pain and collapsed to the floor, desperately trying close back his opened belly.

The first squire gave a death rattle and was still. The second squire stumbled towards Sir Eliot, clutching his useless sword arm. The windows around the Defenders of Amaranth exploded as more assasins of the Brotherhood of the Blade entered the room from the roof. At the same time, the zombies from downstairs began to climb over the overturned table. Frightened, the squire looked at Sir Eliot and stammered, "S-S-Sir... wha.. what do we do now?"

The aged knight readied Lightbringer, "We die like knights."


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