Monday, September 06, 2010

Fiction - Beginnings; Janon

Note: This blog entry is an early version of a chapter in my published work Beginnings: Part I.  This version is unfinished and rough, and does not reflect the entirety of the finished product.  Still, if you are the type who enjoys seeing different stages of the creative process, I hope you enjoy this particular iteration.

Silence pervaded the small village.  It was an eerie, unnatural silence that set the hairs on the back of your neck to standing.  No birds chirped their summer song, no workers went about their day, no children laughed or even cried.  The only thing to be heard in the entire place was the last crackling sounds of dying fires, as all that remained of many of the village’s buildings smoldered in the waning sunlight.  Everything was dead; everything except the small group of horrified onlookers.

Five of them stood, just on the edge of the village, still and silent in the morning air as if reluctant to break the deathly silence.  Two wore heavy armor of plate and mail, held steel shields between them and the horror of the dead village, and carried swords gripped tightly in white-knuckled fists.  One wore the robes of a spellcaster, his hands folded in the sleeves of the robe as he nervously eyed the surrounding forest.  His was a dark countenance, and he seemed decidedly out of place among the group of armored and stalwart warriors.

The fourth man that was standing was in the center of the group, wearing chainmail and a holy symbol of the goddess Elissah, known as the Forest Keeper by those who worship her.  This man’s head was bowed, his eyes closed, and his face streaked with tears.  He held his hand on the shoulder of the group’s fifth member, their leader.  Here was one of Elissah’s chosen.

The light of Chaerlenthon, the sun in the sky, gleamed off the blade of the young man kneeling in prayer.  Borne on the weapon’s hilt was a carving of a large leaf and two antlers, the symbol of Elissah.  The young man’s hands gripped his sword tightly, and he leaned his forehead against the weapon’s pommel as he wept, praying fervently.  His eyes were shut tight, not against the horrors of the slaughtered village, but so that he might shut out all that was not his connection to the divine.  All he saw was his goddess’ pure beauty; all he heard was her loving voice.

His name was Janon Alvar, and his heart was broken with grief at the sight of the village before him.  Life is precious to Elissah, and Janon as her champion had taken all the goddess’ teachings to heart.  Though he also wore heavy armor of plate and mail, Janon did not look the type who would normally do so.  Fair-skinned and towheaded, the young man had a slight build and was short of stature.  He was thin and small, a permanent result of childhood sickness that he would bear to the end of his days.

On the day he was born, the midwife declared Janon a lost cause, said he would not last the winter.  Janon’s mother, the greatly respected miller’s wife and village seamstress, had refused to give her son up for dead.  Whether by her tender ministrations, the boy’s powerful spirit, or the intervention of Elissah, the boy did not die.  Unfortunately, he also did not get much better.  Janon spent his first fourteen years in miserable sickness.  Never able to stand for very long, unable to join his friends in their games, he was forced to spend days at a time in bed or sit uncomfortably in the shade watching his friends fight mock battles.

Many were the occasions that his sickness drove Janon to the brink of death, when his breathing would become so shallow it was barely noticeable, or his heartbeat so weak his mother cried out in horror when she believed him dead.  Yet this was apparently not to be, as time and again the boy returned to full life.  Each time he did, he returned to wakefulness more angry and bitter than before.  He was a difficult child to get along with; short-tempered and caustic, angry at his lot in life and bitter that he had no choice but to cling to it.

It was several days after his fourteenth birthday that the miracle occurred.  The whole village knew of the miracle; it would have been difficult for them not to notice the sickly boy’s incredible and sudden recovery, but Janon had never once told the story of what happened.  He never told of his attempted suicide, the tub of water he had taken such pains to collect so that he might drown himself out behind the village.  The water had been cool, dark and inviting.  Every fiber of his being was prepared, and he was bitterly resigned to this death as he submersed himself in the water.

Through the surface of the water, Janon had seen the clear blue sky.  Only a few wispy clouds marred the perfect surface, and far in the distance a fragment of land drifted lazily near his own home fragment.  Small ripples on the water’s surface distorted the sky, but Janon had found it a peaceful final sight as he prepared to open his lungs to the water.  He had been ready, and at first when he saw her he thought it was a vision caused by his closeness to death.  Though he had been unable make out her form properly through the water’s surface, it was easy enough to tell what he was seeing.

Green hair of leaves blowing in the summer breeze, brown skin of fine oak, and emerald eyes the color of eternal summer, even little Janon had known he was looking upon a blessed dryad.  Much more than the savage, dangerous dryads that could be encountered in the wilds, this was a daughter of Elissah; one of her most revered servants, given a spark of divinity.  When she reached down and touched the water, sending a ring of tiny waves across the surface, Janon had realized he wasn’t seeing a vision.  The blessed dryad was actually there, in his presence.

Coughing and sputtering, he had broken the surface of the water in amazed shock.  The coughing almost killed him, weak as the boy had been, but the dryad smiled and placed her hand on the boy’s back, and his lungs cleared of water.  Panting to catch his breath, he had looked slowly up at the strange woman in awed reverence.  She was a fantastical creature to be sure, formed of wood with living leaves for hair.  Her nakedness caused the boy to blush, and she smiled gently at his embarrassment for her.

“Why do you seek death, child?”  The dryad’s voice was smooth and calm, the sound of spring rain or a gentle autumn wind.

“I…” Janon had hesitated, unsure if he should answer.  “I can’t do it anymore.  I’m tired of being sick and useless.”

Leaning down, the dryad had kissed Janon’s wet hair.  “Yet you are not ill, Janon Alvar,” she had said.

His lungs clearing and his muscles strengthening even as he listened to her words, Janon had felt joy surge through him like he never believed was possible.  He was weak, both from the near drowning and a lifetime of inactivity, but the burning in his muscles was gone, the ache in his head and the trembling in his bones, it was all gone.  He looked up at the blessed dryad in joy and worship, scrambling out of the tub to kneel before her in humble gratitude.

So many words had come out of his mouth at the same time Janon was amazed he didn’t bite his own tongue off.  He tried to ask the dryad why he’d been so blessed, tried to thank her, tried to praise both the dryad and her mother Elissah.  All his words were silenced as the dryad laid a calming hand on his shoulder.  She tilted her head quizzically, almost like a curious animal, and granted him another smile.

“My mother wishes for you to serve her, Janon,” she had said.  “Life is precious to her, and for too long you have lamented the gift of life which you have been given.”

Tears had come unbidden to Janon’s eyes then, as the dryad spoke what was in his heart.  She had been right, terribly right.  Not a day of consciousness had gone by that Janon, just a youth, had not cursed his own life and wished to die.  Never had he prayed honestly to Elissah, never had he thanked her for her protection or guidance of his village, never had he honored her name.  He had been too bitter, too consumed with his own sickness and misery.  There were even times, in the darkest nights, when he had cursed Elissah for his plight.

“Why me,” Janon had asked, his voice cracking as he began to weep, “why have I been given this gift?  I’ve never been faithful.”

The blessed dryad had reached down and gripped Janon’s chin with her fingers, strangely soft and warm even though she was formed of the wood of her mother’s tree.  Tilting the boy’s face up to her look at her, the dryad had spoken lovingly, yet in a tone that suffered no argument.  “You have been ungrateful for your life, Janon, but your frustration with this sickness is not unjustified.  In your sickness, you were to turn to your goddess, not curse her in despair.”

Janon had burst into tears at that point, had begun sobbing in great sorrow and regret.  “I’m sorry,” was all he managed.

“I know you are, Janon,” the dryad said, smiling, “and so does my mother.  She has hope for you, and she wishes to forgive you.”

“What does she want me to do?” Janon asked in earnest.

The blessed had dryad smiled, and almost seemed to giggle playfully.  “Why, you must worship, dear boy, and pay your respects.  My mother loves you, wishes joy for you, and asks only that you praise her.”

“I will!”  Janon had kissed the dryad’s hand gratefully, fervently.  “I’ll attend church every day, and I’ll praise her in all things!  Thank you blessed dryad, and thank your divine mother!”

The dryad had been silent for a moment, gazing thoughtfully at the boy, until finally she spoke, almost hesitatingly.  “You could thank her yourself, if you so wished.”

Janon had been almost knocked breathless by the very idea of such a thing.  For him, just a bay, and an unfaithful one at that, to be granted audience with a goddess was almost unthinkable!  “I couldn’t,” he remembered stammering, “I wouldn’t know what…” his voice trailed off as the dryad silenced him with a gesture.  She had turned and walked a few steps away, facing into the forest that was her home.

“I can offer you a great gift, Janon,” she spoke softly, and the young man had strained to hear her words, “if you are willing to face the challenge.”  Something in her voice had seemed almost fearful, though what she might be afraid of Janon had never been able to guess in all the intervening years.  Yet he had heard that caution in the blessed dryad’s voice, and he had grown concerned.

“What challenge, divine one?” he asked nervously.  He had been desperately grateful for the blessed dryad’s gift, and wanted to repay such generosity, but her tone had not implied good things to come.

“I offer you a shadow of the power of my mother to carry within yourself, Janon,” the dryad had spoken after another moment.  “You will hear her divine voice in your heart, and in your mind.  You will speak in her name and wield her authority among your mortal kind.  Your prayers to her will be as manifestations in the world, and you will strike down her enemies with divine power.”  She had turned to face the young man again, her face grave as she continued to speak.  “Yet you will be expected to put yourself in the face of every danger to threaten my mother’s people.  You will battle her most dangerous enemies and you will face your people’s deadliest threats.

“In the midst of these great gifts and dangers, you will be expected to prove your faith in my mother on a daily basis.  Every morning you will give your life into her hands, and she will look into your heart.  If your faith is strong you will continue to serve her in this world, but if your faith is lacking, you will be called to serve her in the next realm.  I offer you, Janon Alvar, a place as one of my mother’s champions.”

Initially stunned senseless by the shock of such an offer, Janon had only been able to choke “why me?”

“Because through your sorrow and anger, I have seen in you a good heart,” the dryad had smiled.  “I see in you the heart and the will to do great things.  For while your body has been wasting away, your spirit and wisdom have only grown.  Even in your darkest bitter thoughts, you have spent your days pondering the deepest of questions, and almost invariably you have come to the most righteous and noble conclusions.”

Janon had been completely stunned to silence.  He couldn’t think of any simple words that he might say to reply to such a tremendous pronouncement from a divine being.  Instead, he had only stared at the blessed dryad in mute awe.  After several long moments, silently, he simply bowed down and pressed his forehead to the forest floor, humbly submitting himself to the dryad and her mother.

Within a heartbeat, his first test had taken place.  Small tendrils had grown from the ground to wrap around his hands and his legs.  The pace at which they grew quickened and they soon enveloped his arms and legs entirely.  Only moments later more tendrils grew before his eyes, and these spread to envelop his entire head.  Panic welled up inside him as he realized that these vines meant to choke him even as the vines around his arms and legs held him in place.  Instinct told him to fight these vines, to rip free of them and flee this danger.

Yet in the moment that he first began to struggle, another thought struck him.  These living vines were not some unnatural phenomenon that was going to take his life; these were sent from Elissah herself.  Awe and reverence had overtaken fear in that moment, as Janon immediately saw the vines as the caress of a goddess, and he was humbled.  Elissah was known to all as a goddess of love and of life.  Janon had nothing to fear.  Relaxing in the grip of the vines then, he had waited in silence, knowing full well that when the goddess wished she would loosen the vines and give him air.

Only moments later, his faith was rewarded.  The vines had slowly loosened their grip on him and, sliding across his face with what he had thought was like a mother’s caress, they retreated back into the ground.  Janon had inhaled a great breath of air gladly, smiling joyfully as he realized he had passed his very first test of faith.  He looked up to speak to the blessed dryad again, but she had already left.  In the place where she had been standing was a single leaf, likely from her own divine head, and it was the most pure and green and living thing in that whole forest.  Clutching the leaf to him as if it were his own life, young Janon had stumbled back to his village in awed humility.

From that day on, Janon had devoted himself entirely to Elissah.  He not only attended every ceremony ever held at the temple, he spent most of his free time there as well.  What time wasn’t spent there was spent talking to the soldiers in the militia, begging them to teach him how to fight.  In time the very strength of his faith, not to mention the miracle of his healing, was enough that those in the village who knew how to fight were gladly offering their expertise to the upcoming young champion.

Janon’s body had been forever damaged by the sickness he was born with, and never gained much in the way of muscle or stamina.  It seemed he was doomed to be small, both in stature and in physique, until the day he left for Elissah’s immortal realm.  Though his instructors lamented this fact, Janon never allowed it to hold him back.  When his body grew too tired to continue training, he found the strength in his faith to keep going.  When he was too weak to land a decisive blow, his prayers lent divine strength to the swing of his blade.  The strength of Janon’s faith made up for his body’s weakness.

Though there was no specific ceremony or congratulations for completing any sort of training—there was no official training, since Janon’s village had never before had a champion among them—eventually Janon knew that he was ready to protect his goddess’ people.  He maintained his presence in the temple as always, and he kept up his military training, but he began to add other activities to his daily routine.

Soon he became a common sight along the village’s small defensive wall, keeping an eye out for gnolls, kobolds, and other dangers alongside the village militia.  He began to create more of a presence for himself among the village as a whole, walking throughout its members.  Janon would pray with those who asked him to, would chastise people who strayed from Elissah’s teachings, and he would lend aid wherever he was able.  By the time he had reached twenty years of age, he was known throughout the entire village.

With very few exceptions, things had continued as normal.  Various attacks made by the bestial races were fended off, in the midst of which Janon would stand at the front of the ranks, his faith shining like a beacon in the night.  Dangerous and unruly members of the village were also dealt with, a sad but necessary duty to keep Elissah’s people safe and healthy.  Then came the day when smoke had been sighted off to the northwest, in the direction of the next village.

Having long been friendly with their neighboring village, banding together in times of need when dangers grew too much for one community to handle alone, the people of Janon’s village were greatly concerned to see billowing black smoke in the afternoon sky.  There was talk of sending out the militia to help, but similarly was there talk of fortifying the walls against whatever danger had befallen their neighbors.  Most everyone wanted to go to the aid of their friends, but none were willing to put the village at risk to do so.

For both reasons, Janon volunteered to go and see if the other village needed assistance.  He had asked for volunteers, and was pleased when two young men with whom he’d fought before stepped forward.  He was also pleased, and not surprised, when Father Malcolm volunteered to go along.  A newly ordained priest of Elissah, Malcolm was a steadfast friend and someone with whom Janon had spent much time in discussion and prayer during his time in the temple.  The shock of the day, perhaps of the year, had come when Alem Yol had volunteered for the journey.

Standing up from his prayer, Janon turned now to look at the group’s dark member.  Alem was decidedly out of place among the other armed and armored men, wearing the robes of a wizard and a perpetual scowl.  His dark hair was slicked back with oil, and his narrow brown eyes scanned the horizon with a cold intensity that belied the anger that Janon knew dwelled within.  He had seen that anger personally, on the battlefield in defense of their village, several different times.  When Alem unleashed his power, the enemy suffered many terrible fates.  Not for the first time, Janon wondered exactly why Alem had volunteered to come on this journey.

The two of them didn’t exactly get along, that much was certain; Janon a military man sworn to defend Elissah’s people, Alem a magic user who thought only of himself.  Janon didn’t trust anyone who wielded arcane power, and rightly so since it was wizards who had made possible the great betrayal in ages past.  Still, though he practiced magic, Alem couldn’t be said to be lax in his worship practices, and that’s all that mattered to Elissah’s champion.  Janon didn’t have to like him, though.  With an inward sigh, he approached the brooding man.

“What can you tell me, Alem?” he asked.  The other gazed about the area for several long moments before answering.

“I sense magic,” he said, his was voice strong and confident, almost in defiance of those around him.  “Controlled magic, to be specific; a wizard was here.  Recently.”

Janon was confused.  “A wizard…you say that like you’re not one.”

Alem scowled at Janon in disgust, as if the warrior had admitted to improper relations with his own mother.  “Your ignorance is astounding.”

“What…” Janon bit his tongue to keep the rest of his retort in his mouth.  His ignorance in the ways of arcane practitioners was an inarguable fact.  “Well then, what can you tell me about this magic?”

Alem closed his eyes and seemed to sigh, as if counseling himself to patience.  “It doesn’t work that way,” he said after several moments, opening his eyes to gaze into the smoldering village.  “I can sense the residual use of magic, but that doesn’t mean I can tell you who did it, or even what they did.  I’m not a walking divination ritual.”

Waving his hand dismissively, sighing to himself in disgust, and wondering again why Alem had come if he wasn’t going to be of any use, Janon turned to the other members of the group.  “There aren’t any survivors, Elissah has told me that much.  We’ll make a sweep through the village and bring together every poor soul we can find.”  He looked to the priest, “Father Malcolm, will you and Alem start preparing graves?”

Malcolm nodded, and glanced at Alem.  The spellcaster might have been angry and intolerable, but he like anyone was sensitive to the needs of the dead as he would expect others to be when he died; he nodded and turned to follow the priest.  Janon and the two other armored men, Peron and Gregor, headed through the village in search of bodies.  They didn’t have far to look.  Less than one hundred feet into the village they found the remnants of human, orog, and serkethian corpses.  Not a single one was intact.

In the street they saw people whose torsos had been completely ripped apart, and their limbs strewn about nearby.  Looking into the remnants of buildings they could see piles of meat that might once have been living beings.  They only way to tell apart the race of each was whether it had human or orog skin, and the serkethian fur was easy to distinguish.  Beyond that, they couldn’t tell which arm belonged to which torso, which head belonged to which face, or which stomach belonged to which species.

The three men stared in numb horror, unable even to react.  This was an unthinkable amount of carnage.  It wasn’t even a slaughter.  It was simply something else entirely.  Janon tried to speak but found his throat constricted and his mouth dry.  Clearing his throat and licking his lips, he croaked “gnolls and kobolds don’t do this.  Not even trolls do this.”

“Who?” was all that Gregor could manage.  He didn’t look good; his face had lost all color and he looked like he might be sick.

None of them could answer Gregor’s question, and could only stand and stare around in horrified silence.  The most horrifying part of this slaughter, beyond its grisly and brutal nature, was its impact.  Janon had sent Alem and Malcolm to begin digging graves, but without bodies to bury what good would it be?  They couldn’t possibly bury a single person, not like this.  Without the funeral rites, without the grave to mark their passing, how would the reapers know to come collect these souls?  They couldn’t make it to the afterlife without the reapers, and the reapers wouldn’t know they needed help if Janon and his men couldn’t hold funeral rites.

“Maybe…” Janon still found it difficult to speak, “maybe if we bury them together, the reapers…maybe they’ll know who is who.”  Even as he spoke the words it sounded ridiculous, childish, foolish, and pointless.  The rites performed for each person individually.  This was impossible.

Anger welled up inside Janon.  It was not his anger though; it was the anger of his goddess.  As her champion his connection to Elissah was strong, and he could feel her mounting anger with each passing moment.  Here was a village that had served her well, a village of innocent people who had never harmed anyone, doomed to an eternity of torment as their souls tried in vain to reach the next life.  Janon felt his goddess’ anger build inside and sweep over him like a wave, washing away his fear and his revulsion at the grisly scene before him.

“Find me a clue,” he spoke, his voice harsh with rage.  “Find something we can use to track down these murderers.”  He stopped suddenly even as he finished speaking, turning his head slightly to the side.  His helmet muffled many of the sounds that might have been in the dead village, but as he glanced down a small pathway between two heaps of rubble that had once been buildings he thought he heard something.

“Did you—” Janon began, but he was interrupted when the cackling laugh of a hyena was heard echoing through the village.  Four of the brutish creatures rounded the corner of the building near Peron and Gregor, where the two were staring in horror at a smear of blood and meat that might once have been living creatures.  Without thinking Janon surged forward, pushing his way past the other two men to stand between them and the gnolls.  “Malcolm!  Alem!  Get here now!” he cried as he raised his shield.

The men were in a good position; at least they had that much going for them even if they’d been caught by surprise.  No one had ever accused gnolls of being patient enough to wait for tactical advantage.  They were in a small street between two burned-out buildings, and the gnolls were coming from the end of the street that opened into a tiny village courtyard.  Just across the courtyard, taking cover behind the village well, Janon saw two more gnolls readying small bows.  Those arrows would be a problem, given the pack tactics that gnolls usually fought with.

Then suddenly Janon was given no time to think.  Rounding the corner alongside its smaller brethren, carried forward by its mad faith in the demons that gnolls worship, a much larger gnoll carrying a very large club came barreling straight at Janon.  The club the gnoll carried was a thing of horror; large and fitted with gnoll teeth protruding at all angles, the thing was dripping blood and looked almost eager to tear through flesh.  Horrified by the gnoll’s weapon and unprepared for the fight at all, Janon only barely got his shield up in time to block the gnoll’s heavy strike, and his arm jarred painfully with the impact.

Peron stepped forward next to Janon then, his shield and sword raised.  “We’re with you, Janon!” he said, his face hard with conviction.  Gregor behind him seemed willing to share the sentiment, but even as he bolstered himself for combat his eyes remained glued to the pile of meat and blood on which Peron and the big gnoll were standing.

Three of the smaller gnolls, their route cut off by their blood-hungry leader, split up to run around the buildings.  Janon called out a warning to Malcolm and Alem, hoping they were on their way.  The warning, as it turned out, was not necessary.  Father Malcolm was quickly nearing the three warriors, followed by a cautious Alem, and neither was caught surprised by the smaller gnolls that ran howling around the corner of a nearby building.  Their savage claws swung wildly, but they were too eager and even Malcolm’s relatively sparse training was enough to keep him safe.

Janon blocked another attack, this time by the smaller gnoll in front of him as it tried to leap away.  Peron, ever ready and stalwart at Janon’s side, caught the gnoll in the face with his blade, and the beast went down in a flurry of claws and yelps.  The two men had no time to celebrate though, as a new member of their enemy, this gnoll even bigger than the one with the terrible club, carrying a vicious flail and wearing a strange headdress of bones, stepped around the corner and bore down on Janon.  The holy warrior only barely got his shield up again, yet this time he was more prepared.  Taking the blow in stride he managed to bring his sword around his shield and force his attacker back a few steps.

As arrows from the two gnolls in the rear began to fly dangerously close to the humans, the gnoll with the club howled angrily, his cry echoing throughout the village and sending its allies into a frenzy of claws.  For several moments it was all the small party of humans could do to keep themselves from being ripped apart, and Janon heard Malcolm give a grunt of pain as some gnoll’s claws found their mark.  Glancing back, he looked to Malcolm who nodded wordlessly that he was alright, and the two men refocused their attention on their adversaries.

Behind the majority of the fracas, Alem had been taking careful stock of the situation.  Ignoring the smaller gnoll attacking Malcolm, he focused his attention on the true threats; that being the two leaders in front of Janon and Peron.  Moving his hand in an intricate pattern, clutching an enchanted rod against his chest where his allies could not see, Alem began to weave a spell on the biggest of the gnolls.  It was bad enough, as far as his companions were concerned, that Alem practiced arcane magic; let them find out the actual source of his power, and they would not react well.

From behind his shield, Janon was surprised to suddenly see a magical crown of some sort burn into existence on the head of the gnoll he faced.  The gnoll’s head snapped back as if he’d been struck in the face and his eyes, which had already been mad with demonic fury, began to roll wildly as some sort of spell took hold on the beast.  With a howl the gnoll swung its flail wildly, as if trying to strike at the very spell that had infected its mind, and nearly took off its companion’s head.

Gregor, already on edge due to the slaughtered villagers and pushed even further by the sudden vicious attack, couldn’t handle seeing the already slavering gnoll go even more berserk under Alem’s spell.  Dropping his sword, he crouched down against a building and clutched his shield as if trying to hide underneath it completely, sobbing as he begged Elissah for her mercy.

There was no time for any of this, Janon knew, they had to win this battle quickly or they would not survive it at all.  He quickly brought his sword up and kissed the pommel, the symbol of Elissah.  “Be with us today forest keeper, I beg you,” he whispered.  His prayer was answered almost immediately, as the blade on his weapon began to glow a bright green with the power of Elissah herself, and Janon smiled in exultant joy.  Stepping forward he made a vicious slash at the crazed gnoll, which had just enough sense to be afraid of the glowing sword and scramble out of its way.

Without warning an arrow whistled into the fray and landed with a thud in Janon’s left shoulder.  The young man screamed in pain and nearly went down, and his faith alone kept him on his feet.  He could feel the arrowhead digging into the muscles of his shoulder, and his shield began to grow very heavy very quickly.

Malcolm saw the arrow strike, saw Janon begin to stagger, and knew he had to do something.  Desperately, lacking the training and battle experience of the other warriors, he struck at the gnoll that was slavering and yelping in front of him.  By some miracle of Elissah, his mace found its mark and thudded into the gnoll’s skull with a loud crack.  The beast dropped, and Malcolm felt a surge of pride as he watched his enemy fall.  He looked to Janon and sent his heart out to the goddess they both served so fervently.  “Be with him Elissah, please don’t let him fall today,” he prayed.

Janon felt the pain of the arrow receding, felt the love of his goddess flow through him in a healing wave of life.  He knew that Malcolm must have asked Elissah to intercede for him, and he was grateful.  He would have to thank the priest later.

Alem saw all of this, yet cared for none of it as he kept his attention focused on the big gnoll he had already ensorcled.  With a wave of his hand he sent another jolt of magic into the beast’s mind, causing it to spasm wildly and swing its flail about haphazardly.  This time it nearly struck its companion in the shoulder, and Alem smiled to himself as the smaller of the two gnolls yelped angrily at its companion but, in the thick of combat, couldn’t do much about the situation.

Almost as an afterthought, Alem pointed a finger at the remaining of the four small gnolls.  The beast was oblivious to Alem’s presence, so focused as it was on Malcolm, and it never saw the attack coming.  A strange bolt of dark crackling energy shot from Alem’s finger and bored into the gnoll’s skull.  The maddened creature dropped without a whimper, unmoving.

The only enemies left were the two archers across the way, and the two big gnolls faced by Janon and Peron.  For his part, Peron was trying to end this fight as quickly as possible; he saw the same tactical situation that Janon did, and knew they wouldn’t last long.  Lunging to the left he suddenly brought his sword around to the right and shifted his weight, dangerous on the slippery mound of dead villagers but a necessary risk.  This gamble paid off as Peron felt his blade strike home, heard the gnoll yelp in pain, but the beast was not done yet.

The bigger gnoll, with a powerful roar and a shake of his head, finally forced Alem’s spell out of its mind.  The crown on its head dissipated in a puff of golden smoke as the beast brought its flail swinging wildly in its rage.  Janon ducked easily, and was glad he did as the gnoll’s flail smashed hard into the remnants of the building he stood next to, sending chunks of wood flying.  He took advantage of the situation though and brought his shining weapon forward in a swinging arc, driving the gnoll back with one strike and ripping chunks from the beast’s bone armor with his second strike.  He was gaining ground, and both combatants knew it.

Malcolm, free now of the gnolls that had been threatening him, rushed to Gregor and knelt beside the incapacitated warrior.  “Gregor!” he cried, taking the man by his shoulders and trying desperately to get his attention.  “You have to get up,” he yelled over the sounds of battle, “Gregor, they need you!”

Gregor looked up at the priest, and in his eyes Malcolm saw no comprehension whatsoever.

Alem also took advantage of the death of the last gnoll between him and the main battle, focusing his attention completely on the biggest gnoll.  He began to whisper strange words, dangerous words, threats and curses that echoed from the sky above to the soul of the gnoll he glared at.  As always happened when he did this, Alem felt the world around him grow even as the distance between him and his target seemed to shrink.  The gnoll looked at him in surprise, for it could feel this new connection too, and it could sense the danger.  For at least a moment its attention was focused on Alem, who finished another spell and unleashed it against his target.

Tendrils of the endless night sky seemed to wrap themselves around the gnoll, as if they would smother it.  With a vicious snarl and shake of its head however, the beast shrugged off Alem’s spell as if he were an apprentice.  Alem mouthed several obscenities, berating himself for making such a stupid mistake.  Attempting to attack this large beast’s physique was as useful as poking it with a dumpling; he would have to stick to tearing at its mind.  Already, he was digging through his repertoire, granted by his terrible and distant ally, deciding which spell to use next.

Janon, however, knew nothing about Alem’s curse or the failure of his spell; he knew only that the gnoll’s attention was focused elsewhere.  Eager to take advantage, he made a lung forward and the gnoll only barely stepped back and brought its flail in to defend itself in time, but it wasn’t completely successful.  Janon felt his blade strike home, and saw the gnoll’s bestial face twist in a grimace.  He smiled grimly at his enemy, yanking the blade free and stepping forward to continue the assault.

The gnoll however, took this event in an entirely different light.  It roared at Janon viciously, falling further into its demonic rage as it felt its own blood spill onto the ground and mix with that of the villagers.  Raising its flail in the air it gave another battle cry, and Janon felt his heart rise into his throat even as his stomach seemed to fall.  Even the champions of the gods can know fear, and Janon knew it in that moment.

Seeing its companion fall farther into rage, the gnoll with its vicious club cackled gleefully in its hyena voice and brought the terrible weapon down heavily.  Peron managed to get his shield up in time, but that only proved to be a detriment as the club’s weight battered the shield down against Peron’s own face.  One of the club’s claws caught Peron on his shield arm, ripping a terrible gash as the weapon was dragged away.  His shield was almost ripped away, and Peron stumbled forward and almost pitched onto his face.

Malcolm reached out desperately and managed to grab hold of Peron’s sword belt, helping the man keep his feet.  He stood and placed his other hand on Peron’s shoulder.  “Our goddess is with you Peron, do not despair.”  He closed his eyes and begged prayed fervently.  “Elissah please, heal your servant, so he might protect us.”  Even as the words of the prayer were barely past Malcolm’s lips, the wound on Peron’s arm began to close and the warrior felt his strength returning.  He gave a quick nod to Malcolm in thanks, mouthed a prayer to Elissah, and stepped again to his enemy.

Alem saw all this and decided, from a simple tactical standpoint, that it would not do for one of the group’s only frontline combatants fall.  To keep the attention of the gnoll while Malcolm healed Peron, he focused his attention on the beast and, whispering words of terrible truth, he forged another connection to it.  He could now feel the world distantly, see it large and imposing around him, even as he saw the two gnolls dangerously close.  They were the only two creatures in his world now, and he knew them terribly well, knew that he could tear them apart.

The gnoll that had been threatening Peron was distracted now, its attention turned on Alem as it felt this terrible connection forged, but Alem was not concerned.  He knew that Peron would do his job and keep the beast at bay, and so he focused his own attention back on the true threat.  Heeding the whispers of his benefactor, Alem looked into the terrible eyes of the gnoll, easy to do at such close range, or so it seemed to him under the effects of his magic.  He looked into those eyes and, for an instant, their gazes locked.  Alem had his enemy right where he wanted it, and in that instant he whispered a single word.  He had no idea what the word was, only that it was some truth; that his benefactor would make sure the gnoll knew precisely what that word meant, even if its mind was incapable of remembering later.

In the intimacy of Alem’s connection with it, the gnoll heard perfectly.  It heard the whispered word perfectly, as if Alem had stood right next to it in a quiet room and spoken in a clear voice.  The word bored into the creature’s brain and it heard the whispers of Alem’s mysterious ally, heard the truth of the terrible word and knew a fear with such sickening reality that it staggered back from that horrible gaze.  Fear mingled with anger as the gnoll felt part of its mind slip, and it swung desperately at a foe that it knew it could defeat.

Janon was unprepared for the gnoll’s attack, and his shield came around too late to stop the attack.  The beast’s desperate attack caught him on his right side, and he heard something crack as the head of the flail caught him in the ribcage.  The other gnoll, seeing this opening, took advantage and brought its vicious fanged club to bear, striking Janon on his right shoulder.  Teeth dug into his shoulder as the weapon was ripped away, and Janon fell against the building to his left, gritting his teeth in pain and determination.

Now was not Janon’s time, and he knew it.  Elissah would not let him fall in such a way, not when this village still had yet to be avenged.  With a defiant cry he shoved away from the building and stood firm.  Pain ripped through his body, his right shoulder and ribs seemed to be on fire, but he ignored them and stood firm, glaring up at the highly surprised gnoll.  The small man just wouldn’t go down.  Arrows still rained in, and Janon was dimly aware of Peron’s cry of pain, but he could only focus on standing up, focus on his enemy.

The big gnoll was furious, tired of this fight, and sought to end it quickly.  Bringing its flail up in both hands it brought the weapon down on its opponent.  Janon blocked the blow with his shield but, weakened as he was, the impact of the gnoll’s strike drove him down to his knees.  Gritting his teeth again, he kept his shield raised and used its protection to force himself quickly into a standing position again.  He knew that if he stayed down for too long, he wouldn’t have the will to get back up.

Taking a deep breath, Elissah’s champion focused his will on the enemy.  “You face justice today,” he said, as he brought his weapon around in a vicious arc.  The sword’s blade still glowed a fierce green, the light of a living forest, and seemed to burn ever brighter as it got nearer Janon’s enemy.  With a deep thud the weapon struck home, buried nearly halfway into the gnoll’s torso.  The beast screamed directly in Janon’s face, weakening by the moment but not down, when suddenly a strange, dark bolt of energy crackled past Janon’s shoulder and struck the gnoll in the neck.  Gurgling, making sickening sounds, the creature slumped down and did not move.

Seeing one of their powerful leaders fall, the two gnolls that had been firing arrows from across the way immediately turned tail and ran, yelping as they did.  The remaining gnoll, bloody and vicious, looked to see Janon, bloody and faithful, turn his gaze in its direction.  The man stepped forward and brought his shining weapon down on the gnoll, scoring one hit even as he raised his weapon to strike again.  Desperately the beast turned to flee, but it was too late.  Janon’s weapon sank deep into the gnoll’s neck, and he watched with grim satisfaction as his enemy fell to the ground.

Slowly, as the heat of battle faded from his body, and the light of Elissah’s anger faded from his weapon, Janon began to come back to reality.  He turned wearily, weak from his injuries, and saw Peron on the ground with two arrows in him.  Instantly concerned, Janon rushed forward, but Malcolm held out a calming hand.

“I will tend to him, Elissah can heal these wounds.” He indicated Peron’s shield arm, the one that had been ripped open by the gnoll’s fanged club.  The wound was closed, but in its place there was still a red, raw area that would take some time to fully heal.          Janon knelt before Peron, grimacing with the pain of his injuries as the energy of battle slowly left his body.  He put his hand on Peron’s shoulder, traded looks to be sure his friend would be alright.  Peron nodded grimly, and Janon rose with a groan to go see about Gregor.

Gregor was still curled up beneath his shield against the burned out husk of a building, though he had stopped blubbering since the last gnoll had been killed.  Janon reached out to Gregor’s shoulder, getting the other man’s attention.  “Gregor…” he began, but he stopped speaking when a shadow fell over him.  Startled, his hand gripped his sword tightly until he looked up to see Alem standing over him.

“This coward is the least of our troubles, champion,” Alem said wearily, the strain of using his magic so recently was evident on his face.

“What are you talking about?” Janon asked, standing up to face Alem.  “I don’t have time for any of your intimidation, mage, and I won’t have one of your kind speak ill of a good soldier.”

Alem scoffed visibly, and raised his hands to encompass the village around them.  “Open your eyes beyond your faith, Janon.  This is not the work of gnolls, and our enemy might still be out there.”

“I realize that,” Janon said, trying his best to remain calm in the face of this man.  To suffer a magic user’s insults to good men who took sturdy sword in hand rather than focus on obscure and dangerous arts was almost intolerable.  This, however, was not the time for arguments.

“What is it you think I don’t see?”  Janon forced the question, tried to not sound condescending.

Ignoring Janon’s tone, Alem walked a short distance away and pointed down what had once been a small alleyway.  “I had intended to circle around the building, just to be sure there were no other gnolls,” he said slowly, and Janon didn’t believe a word of it.  “I decided to remain with the group however, when I saw that.”  Janon took a few steps down the alley, his eyes followed the direction Alem had pointed, and his blood very suddenly ran cold.

“Gnomes,” Janon spat the word.  In his terror the word was barley a whisper, but it hit his companions with the same impact as if he had shouted it.  Gregor gurgled, hid deeper underneath his shield, and possibly threw up.  Malcolm uttered a terrified prayer to Elissah, while simultaneously trying to hold down Peron who was attempting to stand and draw his weapon.  Janon himself had his sword held ready, and his shield held high.  Alem had the good grace to avoid looking smug, or perhaps he was too terrified himself.

Dark gnomes, as they were commonly called.  Oncedwarves, as they were known in some circles.  None of these men had ever once seen a dark gnome, which to them was simply evidenced by the fact that they were still alive.  Terrible, merciless, vengeful, depraved little heathens, oncedwarves were a nightmare that parents didn’t even use to frighten their children into obedience.  The threats to get children to sleep were always kobolds stealing them in the night; threats to make children eat vegetables often involved trolls.  No parent would ever utter such a claim that involved gnomes.  It was too horrible.  They were too terrible.

Janon’s gaze lingered on the object Alem had pointed out, the leg of a suit of strange mechanical armor jutting out of the rubble of a building.  Dark gnomes were known to practice many heathen arts, the most blasphemous and terrible of which was the creation of mechanical contraptions that offended the gods and defied natural order.

Yet beneath this terror, Janon could feel the stirrings of Elissah’s righteous anger.  She did not fear dark gnomes.  The goddess held only pity and anger for the lost earthen folk, and now she lent her champion some of her courage.  Taking a long, deep, calming breath, Janon looked around at the group.  He even took Alem into this gaze; facing dark gnomes brought all people together in common cause, regardless of conflicting beliefs.

“Elissah has brought us here for a reason,” Janon spoke calmly.  “Her people have been slain by heretics, and it is our calling to bring holy retribution on them.”

Alem was vehemently shaking his head before Janon had even finished the first sentence.  “That is madness!  To fight gnomes is death!”

Janon turned a cold, hard gaze on the spellcaster now.  To tolerate the man’s insults of other humans was difficult.  To listen to words of such blasphemy, words going against the stated wishes of their goddess, was intolerable by specific divine law.  “Are you questioning her will, Alem?”  Janon’s voice was calm, but the tip of his sword bent almost imperceptibly in Alem’s direction.  His right, even his responsibility, as Elissah’s champion was clear to all in this situation.  He was an enforcer of her divine will; one who insured all mortals obeyed her divine law.  Alem could be called many things, but he was no heretic and he was certainly no fool.

“Of course not, champion,” Alem said, with a respectful bow of his head.  “I just don’t think—”

“I didn’t ask you to think,” Janon interrupted.  “I told you to obey, and my commands come from Elissah herself.”

Alem ground his jaw for several long moments.  The willful and individualistic natures of those who practiced arcane magic were widely known facts; just one more reason why Janon did not understand why Elissah would even tolerate such practices.  At length however, Alem made the right choice.  “As the forest keeper wishes,” he said quietly.

Janon nodded and, after a few moments, he couldn’t help but be moved to sympathy for Alem.  He stepped closer to the spellcaster, leaning in to speak quietly.  “I know you’re afraid,” he began cautiously, “we all are.”  Alem did not meet Janon’s gaze, but the champion continued.  “I’m sorry I threatened you, but you know as well as I that to question the will of our goddess is blasphemy.  We can’t allow our faith to waver at a time like this.”

Alem’s jaw worked, but still he remained silent.  Yet his hardened expression seemed to be softening, so Janon kept going.  “Elissah also knows how frightened you are, and she can certainly feel my own fear.  But look around us Alem,” Janon waved his shield toward the piles of meat that had once been villagers, “these are our brethren in faith.  They were loyal and good and innocent folk, and they were slaughtered without mercy.  Who knows what the oncedwarves did to them before the end?  Elissah would never make such a demand of us if the situation wasn’t so grim.”

With a sigh, Alem finally returned Janon’s gaze.  “Why us?” he asked.

Janon couldn’t help but smile.  “Because my faith in her is strong enough that I can get us there, and your power in the arcane arts, intolerable though it generally is, will be invaluable in wreaking vengeance on the heathens.”  Alem couldn’t very well argue this point.  To do so would not only be incorrect, seeing as he was known as a powerful destructive force, but it would be an insult to his own ability and personal honor.

“I hope you plan on using intelligent tactics, Janon,” Alem said quietly.  “None of that ‘field of honor’ cripe you’re so fond of.”

Janon couldn’t help but chuckle sardonically.  “Alem, in this situation, against these enemies, I wouldn’t dare take that chance.”

The two men, divine and arcane, warrior and mage, opposites in so many ways, could not be more in agreement.


Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Fiction - Beginnings; Mechises

Note: This blog entry is an early version of a chapter in my published work Beginnings: Part I.  This version is unfinished and rough, and does not reflect the entirety of the finished product.  Still, if you are the type who enjoys seeing different stages of the creative process, I hope you enjoy this particular iteration.

With one smooth, slow stroke the silvered dagger blade slid across a soft leather cloth.  Tiny fragments were left behind; the smallest bits of hair one might imagine.  Had they been allowed to grow they would have been silky and full, a lustrous ebony that shined in sunlight and glimmered magically under the light of the twin moons.  Yet this would never be.

In a similar single stroke, the dagger blade swept once across a smooth black stone, and again from the blade’s opposite angle.  Fragments were again left behind, these too small for the naked eye to register, and the blade came away incrementally sharper than before it had swept across the cloth.

The blade came up to the young woman’s head, her hand steady and practiced in its movements, to scrape across her scalp from the top of her forehead to the back of her neck.  She moved the blade slowly, not out of fear but to ensure full use of the blade’s deadly edge.  Silver glinted in the early morning sunlight, not quite broken over the horizon yet, as she ran enchanted blade across arcane tattoo.  Her scalp had been imprinted, with painstaking precision, using the finest inks to shape an intricate pattern of magical runes.

Precisely the meaning of these runes was known only to the woman herself and those learned few in the world who had studied the arcane.  This was exactly as she would have it, though she would prefer if at least a few less people were able to translate the runes.  The more advantages one could gain the better, and an enemy’s ignorance is an advantage to be treasured.  The woman smiled at this thought.

Her name was Mechises, and she was a mage of prominent standing in her home village.  She shaved her head now as was her morning ritual, as was the daily ritual of many of her race.  There would not be a single hair visible on her head once she was finished, just as it was every day of her life.  Not a single strand grew below her neck, but no matter how hard they had tried her peoples’ most learned experts in the field of selective breeding had not managed to eliminate the growth of hair on one’s head.

Mechises took this in stride, and treated the ritual as an exercise in dedication.  It was a test of her ability to remain consistent, just as much as her dedication to magic, and in her opinion the ability to maintain this ritual was yet another of her many assets.  She forced herself to look forward to the ritual every day, whether it appeared necessary or not, as a test of her own ability to endure mundane repetition.  Were she to view it as an onerous burden, she might be inclined to slack off now and again, so she maintained a tight control of her opinion of the task.

This ritual took several more minutes as Mechises systematically scraped the razor-sharp dagger across every possible surface of her scalp.  By this point in her life she was of the opinion that she had mastered this task; she did not press hard enough to dig the blade into her scalp, did not hold it so loosely that she inadvertently left even a strand of hair, and held the blade at precisely the correct angle to shave as close as was physically possible.

It would have been simple for Mechises to have done this task with the aid of her beloved magic, if she had wished to do so.  Developing a spell that would clear her scalp of any hair would have been a relatively simple task.  There were even a large number of other wizards among her people who had developed spells to do exactly that, and Mechises might have easily purchased such knowledge from them.  She had long ago chosen not to do this however, more for practical reasons than anything else.  Mechises was not a morning person.

Groggy, grumpy, and more eager to fall back asleep each morning than she would care to admit, Mechises knew full well that she had to keep a tight rein on herself or risk succumbing to laziness.  The sharp blade on her scalp, though it did not cause damage in her expert hands, helped her to wake up.  Not to mention the time spent with this ritual allowed her to run through a series of mental calculations and processes intended to bring her to full cognitive ability before she opened her spellbook.

She was going through those processes even now, running through a series of mathematical formulae even as her hand made another pass across her scalp.  Her people in general were fond of math, geometry, and physics, and Mechises was no exception.  Though she had not dedicated her life to science and engineering as did many of her people, she approached life with a similar mentality.  Such was the legacy of her people; a price paid, a choice made, and a path deliberately taken by the race as a whole.

Her people had once been earthen folk, called dwarves by the less tactful members of other races, in a time long past existing memory, though Mechises and any other member of her race would rather slit their own eyes than acknowledge such a fact.  The ancient gods had given each of the earthen folk a special gift, and that of Mechises’ people had been a skill with metalwork.  Fatefully the gnomes, as that particular group of earthen folk were called, had developed a fascination with physics and engineering.

Many wonders were developed in that age, though by current standards they were primitive and uninspired.  In those ancient times however, the inventions were marvels of the age greatly sought by others; most of all by the powerful, mystical, and deadly race of orcs.  Already mighty in their mastery of both the martial and arcane aspects of war, orcs sought to gain mastery over the new developments being made by the gnomes.  In those days the orcish empires stood as the only true threat to the world empire, and their demands were not taken lightly.  Fearful of angering the orcs, yet confident that the other member races of the world empire would back them, the gnomes politely refused.

As orcish armies descended upon the fragile gnomish cities, the mechanically-inclined earthen folk begged the gods and their allies for aid.  They expected to see the other earthen folk, the forest dwelling dormal and their mountainous brethren the kodor, come marching over the horizon in deadly formation, weapons in hand, ready to aid them in a desperate fight against their immensely powerful enemy.  In the same breath they prayed to their creators, humbly calling for divine aid in their most desperate hour.  They were not prepared for the response.

In a stunning display of divine arrogance and outright foolishness, the old gods demanded that gnomes lay down their engineered weaponry before any aid was given.  Equally surprising, the other earthen folk reiterated the gods’ idiotic demand, refusing to send even one soldier until the gnomes agreed to give up their machines.  This was absolute madness!  The gnomes had only to look to the front lines in their battles against the orcs to see that machines were the one and only thing standing between them and extermination or worse.  Desperate, the gnomes expressed this precise fact to the gods and their brethren, again begging for aid.  The gods and their slavish masses reiterated their foolish demands.

Left to fend for themselves, the gnomes stood no chance against the might of orcish armies.  Even with their wondrous machines, they could not match orcish physical power, could not outwit orcish generals, and had no adequate defense against orcish magic.  One by one, field by bloody field, gnomes saw their cities fall to orcish forces.  Their one single victory was a systematic strategy they called scorched earth; they razed their own cities when it came time that the orcs were about to breach the final defenses, leaving not a single bolt of machinery behind to be scavenged and reverse-engineered.

By the time the last blow was struck, not a single gnomish city had been left standing.  Gnomes were reduced to a pitifully small number of tired, frightened individuals desperately searching the countryside for each other.  Only pure determination and not an insignificant amount of luck kept these gnomes alive long enough to find each other and band together for survival.  Though remaining fragmented historical estimates vary, there could not have been more than several hundred gnomes in existence during those dark times.

Frightened, defeated, and rightfully angry, these remaining gnomes cursed the old gods and damned their treacherous brethren.  They turned their back on religion, vowed to never again have anything to do with the world empire, and dedicated themselves wholly to engineering.  Though the exact location is lost to history, it is known that that small group found a secret place hidden away from the world and built a city that would come to embody their newly embraced obsession with engineering.  With each passing generation the city became more like a single giant machine in which the gnomes lived, adding to it continuously as they developed new ideas.

Moreover, the gnomes completely forsook everything that they had once been.  They refused to call themselves gnomes, and no longer even acknowledged that they were members of the earthen races.  Instead they began to refer to themselves as the betrayed, a title unto itself, though the other races had taken to calling them dark gnomes on account of the escalating viciousness in their general demeanor.  This vicious nature took on a whole new aspect as the betrayed took their rejection of past identity to whole new levels.

Earthen folk do not breed.  This stems not from an inability to breed, but an agreement with the gods to provide the earthen folk with new children to reward their faithful service.  Partly in a deliberate act of blasphemy, but mostly from a lack of options, the betrayed instituted breeding programs to continue their devastated race.  What’s more, they applied their newly embraced scientific attitudes to the act of breeding, and began selectively creating offspring that took their race down specific paths.

Deliberate, methodical, unrelenting, and ruthless in their application of this selective breeding, the betrayed slowly left behind everything that they had once been.  Earthen folk are slightly shorter than humans, and the betrayed took this even further.  Stockiness is considered an asset among earthen folk, and the betrayed came to despise this as unnecessary and wasteful, preferring to develop their race along much more svelte and athletic lines.  Most importantly, earthen folk treasure their beards and value grizzly warriors, and the betrayed began to see all hair as a disgusting embarrassment to be done away with.

The result, after several thousand years (the millennium known as the Age of Purgatory notwithstanding) was what Mechises considered her rather impressive form.  She was an arrogant young woman, and not without reason; among her people she was considered one of the more attractive women of her sizeable village.  Standing nearly four feet tall, she was considered attractively tall among her kind.  Her head was invariably smooth and well-formed, its beauty enhanced by the pattern of runes tattooed in a flowing path down the middle of her skull.

Her chin was delicate and narrow, flowing nicely with her high cheekbones and full pouting lips.  Her pert nose separated two large eyes with striking silver irises, and she always took care to keep her makeup in perfect condition.  She was of the arcane caste, and so she not only wore a little more makeup than most other women of the betrayed, she wore darker makeup to denote her status as a spell weaver.  More importantly, the prominence of her family in the upper echelons of society demanded that she maintain her appearance at a higher standard than women of more common stock.

Her family’s impeccable genes, in addition to her forebears’ abilities in matters arcane, were a large factor in their prominent status, and Mechises was a prime example of her bloodline.  She carried herself with a natural grace and dignity that could not be learned.  She had hips capable of bearing healthy children, but not unattractively wide, and a narrow waist that enticed any male who saw her.  Her chest was not considerably endowed, but was very well formed had gotten her into both more trouble and advantage than she would readily admit.

All of this natural beauty she was careful to enhance with masterfully tailored clothing.  She wore a shimmering robe of dark purple fabric that seemed to flow over her form like dark wine, split in an enticing manner to show just enough of her shapely legs.  The cut of her robe, and a velvety black vest fitted tightly around her midsection, provided anyone she met with a rather distracting view of her chest.  She also wore small black earrings and, on the left side of her nose, a tiny red jewel piercing.

She wore a delicate silver chain around her neck, from which hung the arcane symbol for the abjuration school of magic, dangling gently between the swell of her breasts.  Her small hands were wrapped in soft black fingerless gloves, and she protected her feet with supple black boots that had been enchanted to keep out moisture and extreme temperature.  All in all, Mechises was considered to be a prime example of the beauty of her people, and a rousing success of generations of selective breeding and high society upbringing.

For the moment however, she was just finishing with her morning ritual.

Giving a little sigh as she made the last scrape of the blade across her skull, Mechises was pleased to clean the dagger one last time with its soft cloth and sheath the weapon in her left boot.  As dedicated as she was to her morning ritual, as focused as she was in maintaining personal discipline, she was never displeased to finish this task.  Her next morning task was another matter entirely.

Shifting partly to the side, Mechises leaned over to reach into her traveling pack and pull out a thin, well crafted book bound in dark purple cloth.  The front of the book was etched in silver with her name, both in the ancient common tongue and the language of magic.  Around the edges of the book were other silver etchings, small and glowing with their own light.  These runes were a protection she placed on her book, in the unlikely event that someone else ever got their hands on it.

Running two fingers across a particular set of runes, Mechises uttered a quick phrase in the language of magic.  Were she to touch the wrong runes, or speak the words incorrectly, opening the book would send a shock of arcane energy coursing along her nervous system.  The protective effect on her book was similar to that of failing to correctly cast a spell, though it would reach much more deeply into the core of her body.  Such protective measures were common among many wizards of the world, regardless of their particular race.  With a quick gesture of her hand and a single word of magic, Mechises created a tiny spark of light that floated just above her left shoulder.  The light of the twin moons and the early predawn light had been adequate to shave her head, but would be insufficient for reading her book.

Turning to the back of the book, she found one of many bookmarked pages and opened to the two most common spells she ever cast.  With practiced familiarity she read through the two spells, speaking them without even genuinely reading the words; opening to the pages was a matter of preference, to ensure that she could see the correct words and would not get ahead of herself.  Though simple, these particular spells were long and it would be easy to forget her place without a guide.  Her hands, almost absently since she was so practiced, went to several pouches at her belt.  Without breaking a syllable, Mechises spread fine oil over each hand and then, moving on to the next spell, she dabbed a fine silver powder on each cheek.  In less than half an hour of spellcasting, she had rendered makeup immaculate and her person thoroughly clean regardless of what the events of the day held in store for her.

The feeling of magic coursing through her body, even in the casting of these two rather insignificant spells, was the same joyous thrill that it was every morning.  Never intended for mortals, arcane magic was a power far beyond the simple linear, limited existence that any wizard lived.  To touch it was to feel the power of creation.  There was danger in this power, great enough to rupture every internal organ in her small body if she performed these rituals incorrectly, but the reward for success was a feeling of tremendous power and euphoria.  Not to mention the small, often underestimated benefit of achieving a desired result by forming the power of creation into the shape one specifically wishes.

Flipping back to the front of the book now, Mechises set to the task of choosing which spells to prepare.  If the difficult part of all arcane magic was casting a spell adequately enough to avoid damaging one’s own body with the flow of magic, then the problem with wizardry in particular was the question of remembering complex, highly specific, and often seemingly illogical concepts and calculations necessary in the casting of any spell.  Others who used arcane magic had their own methods, but wizards and mages were the ones to master arcane magic through sheer dedication and focus.  Such a task was not easy.

Some spells were so complex that in order to cast them, Mechises had to speak words that made no sense and would trick her tongue into painful contractions if she was not careful.  This was done while simultaneously doing mathematical calculations in her head that would make any scientist balk at their sheer illogical and seemingly inconsistent results, and forming her hands in incredibly precise gestures.  All of this, of course, is the last thing that anyone wants to be doing on the field of battle.  Amidst the stress, the danger, and the rapidly shifting events of combat, very few wizards would ever be able to adequately cast a spell, not to mention the nightmare of being attacked while in the midst of such time consuming verbal, mental, and physical contortions.  No Mechises, like any wizard, would be doomed if she ever attempted to cast her most powerful spells fully in the moment.

Thus, long ago, wizards of ancient times had developed the idea of building their powerful spells in such a way that they could essentially be pre-cast.  The contradiction of the term itself notwithstanding, it was an idea as simple as loading a crossbow before carrying it into battle.  During their development these spells were written in such a way that the majority of the spell, as much as possible, could be cast without actually releasing the power or achieving the desired result.  The last few words, one or two specific gestures, and perhaps a nonexistent number or two were left unsaid, unformed, and unthought.  When the time came, all one had to do was complete those last few actions.

This of course came with tremendous problems all its own.  The complex words, thoughts, and gestures made for a difficult task of casting in the first place, but the power they generated was considerable and very dangerous to carry around in a mortal body.  Each arcane spell must channel arcane magic through the caster’s body, and as these powerful spells were left incomplete their magic must be stored within the caster’s physical self until such a time as it can be correctly released.  It took years of training and dedication, as well as a great deal of focus and willpower, for any wizard to develop the ability to carry this power inside them without collapsing and vomiting their own innards.

Skipping past the first section of her spellbook, the section containing much easier spells that could be cast at a moment’s notice and which she knew by memory, Mechises came to the section containing her most difficult spells.  She was no apprentice wizard, by any definition, yet like all wizards she did have her limits.  She could only carry so much arcane power in her body at one time, and she would have to carefully select which of her spells to prepare for this day.  Fortunately, knowing what lay ahead today made her decisions rather simple.

First she chose a spell that would form a roiling ball of flame bouncing across the ground at her direction.  Knowing that she would be encountering large groups of enemies today, she knew this would be quite useful.  The spell’s capacity to last for quite some time, held together by sheer willpower, made it even more valuable for this day’s efforts.  Carefully she set about casting the spell, leaving only the last portion unfinished.  Later this day, perhaps she would be speaking those words to sending a flaming sphere among her enemies.  She smiled.

Turning through the pages of her spellbook, Mechises next selected a spell based upon the element of air.  This spell sent a rush of air at an individual’s back just as they jumped off the ground, and was useful for making quick escapes or, as she intended to use the spell today, sending a warrior leaping over enemy defenses to sow death among their ranks.  Again, Mechises prepared her spell by casting all but its last words.  She could feel the power of arcane magic roiling inside her, like a tidal wave held back by nothing more than a strand of silk.  Closing her eyes she concentrated, focused her will on remaining strong against this power.  The magic held back, stayed within its confines among her soul.  That had been a particularly useful kind of spell; one that, though difficult and complex, she could repeat by retaining fragments of its power within her and correctly reiterating the final fragment.

Most obvious of all her spell selections, she next prepared a spell that dealt with light and space.  A simple illusion, but one that was difficult to maintain, with such a spell she could remain unseen by her enemies no matter how fine their eyesight; all she would need do was choose her footsteps carefully to avoid being heard.  This spell she also prepared, speaking its words carefully and adjusting her inflection with each syllable until she had them perfect.  The power within was much greater now, as she quickly neared her limit.

Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves and let the power settle within her, the young woman’s brow furrowed in thought as she considered her the next spell to prepare.  She was having a difficult time choosing between two spells, each of inestimable value in today’s circumstances.  One spell was a terror on the battlefield, causing a massive explosion of flame that could envelop a great many victims, while the other spell was an illusion, tearing into an individual’s mind as he recoiled in horror from an assailant that was not there, leaving him vulnerable.  The former spell was easily as valuable as the flaming sphere she had already prepared, if for slightly different reasons, while the latter spell could be used to incapacitate an enemy commander most handily.  Mechises’ only dilemma was in considering how likely she was to run across one of the enemy’s commanders.

Finally, deciding that sending her sphere of flame through enemy ranks would be adequate, she settled on the illusion spell in the hopes that she would encounter one of the higher ranking enemies today.  She did so enjoy that particular spell; it was entertaining to watch her victim scream and jibber in uncontrolled terror, swinging wildly at nothing even as madness ate away at their mind.  Again she prepared her spell, feeling more power build within her small body with each word spoken, thought formed, and gesture made.  Finished, she sat back and closed her eyes to again tame the roiling power within.

There were times when Mechises wondered if wizards of other races, nearly all of which were considerably larger than her, found it easier to carry the magic within them.  It seemed a simple enough idea, although she had to admit that it was rather foolish when one actually thought about it.  Magic was after all a nonphysical power, and the same amount could as easily fill a thimble as an entire castle.  Not to mention the existence of wizards among the unai, a tiny race of people who stood no more than a few inches tall at best.  Still, foolish as the notion was, it was one she sometimes considered while meditating to contain the power she was carrying in her small body.

As always, this meditation proved a challenge that she was eager to overcome.  She managed after a time to settle the power within her, keep it contained and under her control as best as any mortal could manage, yet it was not easy.  Mechises envied the control she had seen her uncle Nale exhibit, preparing six of these powerful spells to carry within him.  The young woman hoped to have that kind of self control one day.

Opening her eyes at last, Mechises noticed that while she had been absorbed in her work the sun had finally broken over the horizon.  Dismissing her magical light—a brainlessly simple cantrip that required almost no effort, taught to any apprentice—she stood slowly and looked around the small camp to take stock of things.  They had no campfire, so as to avoid alerting the enemy of their presence, but had slept with their bedrolls close together for security.  Three bedrolls the size of Mechises’ own were arranged neatly in a circular pattern around where a campfire would have been.  The group’s fifth member, a crude human who demanded payment in alcohol and meat, apparently used no bedroll.  He was nowhere to be seen, but that was not unusual in the morning.

“All finished?”  The voice came from behind her, and Mechises turned to see Coyle standing from his seated position where he had spent his hours on final watch.  He was as attractive as most men of their carefully engineered race, and Mechises was never displeased to lay eyes on him.  The young man’s head bore no tattoos like Mechises had, but he kept it as smooth as did every member of their race.  As a member of the warrior caste he was well built, not overly muscled but wiry and agile, practiced with any number of weapons and in tremendous physical shape.  Mechises let her eyes wander over her companion’s frame appreciatively, and noticed he was doing the same.

“Yes, only just,” she said in response to his query.  “I appreciate your discretion in allowing me no distractions this morning.”  She smiled sardonically as she said this, and Coyle gave an amused chuckle.  Only the other day she had berated him quite thoroughly after he had decided to don his armor while she was in the midst of preparing spells.  Her concentration had not been broken so much as she had simply found the jarring metal noises intolerable while she was engaging in such a delicate and deadly task.

Mechises went to stand beside Coyle, and the two of them looked out from the cover of the thicket they were in towards the vulnerable enemy.  The man was second in command of this little strike force, taking orders only from Mechises herself, and they had developed a manageable rapport over their brief time together.  Her task was to accomplish a specific mission and see to it the other members of the small group did their part.  Coyle’s task was simple; keep the enemy away from the wizard.  He was not at all unsuited to this task, a fact for which Mechises was grateful but not particularly surprised.  Like many of the betrayed, he had after all been born to his task.

He was a member of the warrior caste, aggressive and militaristic.  As far as she knew Coyle had been born to parents who were also in the warrior caste, and he had taken to his birthright from an early age.  Though not a family with very much political or monetary power within their society, his was a family respected by other members of the warrior caste.  That ringing endorsement had been more than adequate for Mechises to choose this warrior as her second for today’s mission.  She glanced over at him, taking in the profile of his face and the glint of early morning sunlight in his emerald eyes.  He would likely be quite a pleasant bed companion, too, though she hadn’t yet had time to test that hypothesis.

Sighing to herself, Mechises put that thought to the back of her mind and focused again on the day’s task.  She gazed long and hard at the small village they were going to attack, a village that was blissfully unaware that only yards away on either side were warriors and spellcasters seeking their death.  Once again, as she had done upon their arrival the night before, she took note of the few small towers along the village’s wooden wall.  She noted the number of guards, all sleepy and eager for the arrival of their replacements.  She noted the weak point in the wall, a small notch that lowered one section of the wall that was surprisingly close to a tiny hillock not far away.  Their human companion would be sent over that wall by the spell of air she had prepared earlier.  Not very far down the wall from that, she could see the gate through which she and her escort would walk.

Be prepared, a voice suddenly said in her mind, we strike within the hour.  Mechises looked up and strained to see across to the other side of the village, where the bulk of their force was hidden.  The thoughts had come from Acheshi, telepath and adjutant to the leader of this expedition.  We are ready, Mechises thought, knowing that Acheshi was still in her mind expecting a response.  She gave the thought a playful, teasing air, reminding the telepath of their last intimate encounter.  There would be no response to such playfulness, not at a time like this when Acheshi was busy sending her thoughts to other similar strike forces around the village, but Mechises liked to play with her friend all the same.

Turning to Coyle, Mechises gave him a wordless nod.  Well practiced, the warrior knew exactly what this meant and turned to go rouse the group.  Mechises turned back and kept her gaze on the village, listening to the sounds behind her as Coyle quietly woke the two sleeping dark gnomes.  The two were twin brothers, Teek and Delf, not unattractive by the standards of the betrayed but nowhere near as handsome as Coyle.  Such a comparison did them no justice among the society of their people however, and so the two were relegated to life in the lower strata.  They did not complain; they were after all good and loyal soldiers.

Wordlessly Coyle went off into the trees and located the final member of their party, the human called Samos.  Teek and Delf set about packing up the group’s camp, rolling up bedrolls and picking up the utensils from last night’s dinner.  There would be no breakfast this morning, there never was on any day the betrayed attacked a settlement of the other races.  Blood for blood was their motto, since by the inaction of the other civilized races the dark gnomes had been nearly exterminated.  No on this day, on any such day of vengeance, the only meal they would eat would be their enemies, roasted to perfection over the fires of their own crumbling homes.

Coyle soon returned with Samos, the large man preferring to sleep out among the wilds as did his savage people.  Mechises grimaced at the uncouth mannerisms of the human, as he entered the campsite with a belch and was very likely scratching himself in a most undignified manner.  He was massive compared to Mechises’ people, and even by many human standards truth be told.  Standing six feet tall, his chest and shoulders were extremely broad and muscular; the man was physical power given form.  His face however was blocky and rough, Mechises hated to look at it.  Worst of all, the man’s face seemed perpetually covered in stubble and his head sported long flowing brown hair past his shoulders.  It was all she could do to keep from gagging every time she saw him.

Still, he was good at what he did and as long as they paid him well he didn’t seem to mind their brutal tactics.  Speaking of which, it was nearly time for the group to be off.  Mechises walked back to the camp and began to help Coyle into his armor.  Delf helped his brother Teek don his own armor.  Delf was not trained as a frontline combatant like his brother, but was instead used as a scout and assassin, unseen until the enemy felt his blade in their backs.  Mechises planned to use him extensively in this engagement.

Warwalker armor, that being donned by the two soldiers this day, was among the greatest inventions the betrayed had ever produced.  In many ways it resembled simple plate armor; comprised of shaped plates that covered the wearer from head to toe, the only better protection was actual plate armor itself.  Unfortunately warwalker armor did tend to leave a few places unprotected, but these were relatively small openings and the armor more than compensated for this shortcoming with its primary function.

About the only problem that had come from the choice the betrayed made to deliberately breed themselves into a smaller form was the disadvantage this gave them on the battlefield when facing larger enemies.  Unwilling to be outdone, the dark gnomes had taken to solving this problem with typical efficiency and had succeeded marvelously.  Beneath the protective plates of warwalker armor, at the joints and in the chest and powered by a small compartment at the armor’s back, were intricate yet sturdy workings that increased the wearer’s physical ability by leaps and bounds.  Finally strapped into his armor, Coyle reached down and picked up his sword and shield, each large enough that they should have been normally used by a man the size of Samos.

Mechises stood and went to the back of Coyle’s armor, opening the panels there and eyeing the gauges with a critical eye.  She was certainly no engineer, but there was not a betrayed alive who did not know at least the basics.  She tapped the little glass cylinder containing a disgusting, shivering green goop, and could not help but grin wickedly to herself.  That which fueled the devices of the betrayed was a terrible thing indeed, and one of which other races would be horrified to learn.

Some time after their near eradication at the hands of the orcs, the betrayed had come to discover quite inadvertently that the blood, in fact every tissue, of the race of goblins proved to be a highly efficient source of fuel.  Unfortunately it proved difficult, even with enslaved goblins, to extract this fuel in a sufficient quantity to be of any real use.  Undaunted, the betrayed set about to ridding the world of goblins whether they had been asked to or not.  Over a series of ruthless campaigns they tracked, caught, and enslaved every known goblin that had ever walked the face of Esaria.  Modifying the tenets of their own selective breeding program and applying it to their goblin slaves, combined with not a small amount of arcane manipulation, they had systematically reduced goblins to the point of being no more than shapeless, semi-intelligent goo.  Disgusting ooze that did nothing more than slurp around in holding cells, breeding incessantly until the day it was used for fueling some device.  Just like this unlucky individual in the back of Coyle’s armor.

Confident that Coyle’s armor was in perfect condition, Mechises closed and secured the back panel with a few deft twists.  The armor hummed quietly as Coyle stretched his arms and tested all the appropriate movements.  Nearby, Samos burped.  Mechises turned to him and pointed towards the village.

“Last chance tall one, do you still wish to accompany us on this attack?”  She kept her cold, silvery gaze on him unwavering.

Samos shrugged and gave a lopsided grin.  “Sure, if you guys got any more of that drink I had the other day.  Plus you said there’d be coin.”

Mechises smiled accommodatingly.  “Quite so, as much as you can carry from the village,” she said.  Turning back to her other companions, she motioned the group to the edge of their encampment.  Still out of sight of the village, the five of them waited in breathless anticipation.  The two armored warriors, their suits humming quietly, flexed their fingers that held sword and shield.  Delf licked his lips in eagerness, and even Mechises found herself excited.  From one of her pouches she pulled a small blue crystal sphere, kissing it for good measure.  It was her arcane focus; the device that would help her channel arcane power the way a spigot makes it easier to control water.

From the village, they could now hear the sounds of people going about their morning routine.  Farmers set about their morning routes on the meager farmland they could fit within the defensive wall, children laughed as they avoided chores to play favored games, and priests walked throughout it all and gave their blessings of the day to the villagers.  The attackers understood none of the words being spoken in the village; it was the language taught by one of the gods, a language that no betrayed would ever learn.  They spoke only the ancient common tongue, words that had been forbidden by the new, much more active gods.

Mechises’ lip curled in contempt.  Prayers of the faithful were easy to identify in any language; those simpering, monotonous tones were enough to make the young woman’s skin crawl.  It was why they were here, why they would feast upon this soft little human village before the day was through.  These servants of the gods did not deserve a peaceful life.  Gripping her small blue orb in anger, Mechises found she truly was eager for the attack to commence.  Within moments, she felt Acheshi’s thought within her mind.

Kill them all.