The March of the Rose
Copyright© 2015 by R22CoolGuy
Hall of Kings, in the catacombs below the palace in Cumbra, Tarra, in the fourth year of the reign of Queen Dana Whiterune.
Motes of blackness began to appear in the air, swirling about in the center of the Hall of Kings, near the Dais of Swords. The motes began to coalesce into a large mass pulsing and throbbing with power.
"Hand of Death, I require an audience," the mass declared.
"What do you require, Oh Prince of Hell?" the astral image of DeathBringer asked, appearing high above its stone. "You know the law prohibits you from being here."
"I come on the bequest of my master," the voice of Lord Belial, Prince of Hell, replied from within the mass. "As long as I maintain this form I have broken no laws, Hand of Death."
"Be quick with your petition, your presence taints the holiness of this hall."
"My master requests that Nightbringer be seeded into the world."
"Is this a random placement or does your master require a specific location?"
"My master requests that Nighbringer be placed in the Northern Wastes, near where the Black Tower once stood."
"You understand that the law dictates that Lightbringer must also be seeded?"
"We are aware of that requirement. We also understand that it cannot be placed in the same general area. We therefore request that it be seeded as far from the chosen site as possible."
"Is there anything else your master requests?" DeathBringer asked with a bored tone.
"Not at this time, Hand of Death," the voice of Lord Belial replied, as the mass of swirling blackness began to dissipate until finally the hall was as it was before.
"So it begins," DeathBringer proclaimed and then faded as well.
The inner stones on the left and right of the third tier of the throne began to glow and then fade away. A moment later the outer stone on the left side of the third tier also began to glow and then faded away as well. All in all, three swords were seeded, the last by the Hand of Death. Dark laughter began to echo throughout the Hall of Kings.
The Northern Wastes, near where the Black Tower once stood, Andor. Current time.
Large clouds began to form in the afternoon sky above the lovely, vibrant vale where once the Black Tower stood, situated within the desolation that was now known as the Northern Wastes. The Dragon Back Mountains kept the clouds from dropping down into the Eastern Realm where they could release their life giving water. Instead the clouds rebounded back against themselves until they grew into black and ugly thunderheads.
Lightning began to flash within the clouds as the air pressure dropped, while the occasional booming of thunder signaled the approaching storm. The storm continued to build as lightning flashed more frequently and more visibly, while angry, black clouds collided with each other. A bolt of lightning lanced down out of the clouds, striking the earth on a hilltop some half a league to the northeast of the vale. In its wake a black stone appeared with the hilt of a sword sticking out of the top.
Rain began to fall and hiss into steam as the raindrops touched the scorched and bare earth. As the rain increased small rivulets of black oily water began running down the slopes of the rolling hills collecting into greater streams, filling every depression with puddles of black oily water.
The rain lasted for perhaps half an hour and then slackened and finally stopped. The clouds began breaking up until once again the grey cloudless sky appeared. Even as the sky cleared the area saw no noticeable increase in light, as if the area was under a perpetual grey dreariness.
The ground refused the water so it lay in puddles and pools. The water itself was brackish and oily, polluted with whatever had tainted the earth. The sword and stone sat on the hillside glowing with the aftereffects of the lightning strike. A viscous black mass oozed out of the ground below the stone and began to travel away, sliding along the earth like an octopus gliding along the seafloor, and like an octopus the mass had tentacle like feelers radiating out from all sides, touching the ground, searching and feeling, inspecting the many depressions. The nightmare ooze had traveled about a stone's throw from the hillside when it abruptly stopped and concentrated all of its feelers at one particular spot. The oozing, pulsing black mass of energy flowed into the ground at the spot it had been testing, disappearing like sand from the top of an hourglass.
The ground began to shift and move, and finally a clenched black gauntleted fist burst through the surface and then opened, splaying the fingers of the gauntlet outward. A moment later another gauntleted fist repeated the process. The ground was moving violently between the area of the two hands and slowly a black plate armored torso and dragon-helmed head rose from the earth!
The armored suit continued to rise from the earth and finally stood before the grey bleary sky. In the distance wolves began to howl and then the eerie screech of some fell creature silenced the wolves. The armored suit turned and started walking toward the direction of the hill where the black stone rested at the top.
The black plate armored suit climbed the hillside and stopped in front of the black obsidian stone. It inserted the gauntlet through the intricately wrought filigree style guard, with small sharp thorns, and grasped the pommel. The wire tightened up around the clenched fist, piercing the gauntlet with its thorns.
"What is your name?" a voice boomed from the stone.
The voice was low and coarse, as if damaged from inhaling too much brimstone. It was not a pleasant sounding voice and would inspire fear in anyone who heard it.
"Ragnar, a High Lord of Thangdaemon!" replied the armored suit. "Known as 'The Fiend'."
"Will you be my wielder, Ragnar, the Fiend?" boomed the voice.
"Yes, Nightbringer, as I have before," Ragnar replied, and then pulled on the hilt, drawing the sword from its stone.
"Then I will be your sword, Anti-Paladin," the sword replied as Ragnar drew it forth and held it high in the air.
Nightbringer, the Fist of Satan, was a longsword; blade hammered out of unrefined black archanite, with a basket style guard, swept hilt, wrought from silver star of archanite. The intricately wrought filigree style guard had small sharp thorns designed to pierce the hand of the wielder when gripped.
"BEHOLD, I AM NIGHTBRINGER, THE FIST OF SATAN. WILL YOU TAKE UP THE CAUSE OF THE DAMNED?"
"I will be Hell's Champion!"
"Then summon your steed, Anti-Paladin!"
Ragnar, the Fiend, High Lord of Thangdaemon, lifted his visor and brought his fingers to his lips and whistled. In the distance the whinny of a horse seemed to answer his call, and soon the galloping of hooves could be heard in the distance. Presently a black charger, armored in black plate, galloped into view and climbed the hillside. The horse stopped in front of Ragnar and bobbed its head up and down, pawing the earth. Ragnar swung up into the saddle and put his spurs to the horse's flanks and pulled the reins to the left. The charger reared on back legs, pawing the sky with front hooves as Ragnar drew his sword and held it high. The sword burst into crimson flames, the crimson of Thangdaemon, while the runes on the black blade glowed a deeper black. Lightning flashed and thunder roared as bolts of lightning struck the outstretched sword. Ragnar then sheathed the sword and the charger bolted forward, as if shot from a crossbow. The stone on the hillside began to glow and then faded away.
Nightbringer had returned!
A small village to the north of Rockyvale in the Eastern Realm, east of the Thangdaemon Forest, Andor. Current time.
The armored hero slowly advanced on the dragon's cave, his shield up and his sword at the ready. A large red dragon head appeared from the mouth of the cave and breathed fire on the armored knight. He brought his shield up to deflect the fire and continued to advance until he was within striking distance. He swung the great broad sword down across the snout of the dragon, cleaving deep into its flesh. The dragon screamed in pain and tried to attack, but had no room to rear back and bring its talons to bear. The best it could do was either breathe or try to snap at the intruder, both of which caused it great pain. The knight pressed his attack, swinging the sword again at the dragon, this time across the right eye, slicing it open and rendering it useless. The dragon howled in pain and tried to retreat, but the knight pressed forward, swinging the sword again and again. Blows continued to rain down upon the dragon's head until finally the beast had had enough and crumpled to the ground, dead.
The knight deftly moved around the dragon's carcass and further into the cave, following the tunnel until it opened into a vast cavern. Treasure littered the floor: gold, silver, jewels, and other finely wrought baubles, but the knight never wavered from his quest.
On the far side of the cavern was a large metal cage, and within the cage stood a weeping maiden. She stopped crying as the knight approached.
"My hero! My savior!" she cried out. "What is your name?"
"I am called Neelam, my lady," he replied and swung the sword down across the locked opening, cleaving the lock in two. "I have come to rescue you."
"Oh, thank you, Sir Knight!" she exclaimed as the door swung open.
"Neelam, I like that name," the maiden announced breathlessly as she hurried from her prison, and toward her rescuer.
"Neelam, get up! If I have to come in there to wake you there will be Hell to pay!"
Neelam slowly awoke and sighed, the dream fading away. In his dreams he was a hero -a knight, but in reality he was little more than a scullion, a kitchen slave. He lived in a small hut behind the kitchen of the village's lone inn and worked, nay, slaved for the innkeeper and his wife. Hut was a generous description; it was originally a small three-sided wood shed that had been closed in with a fourth wall and door. It had a dirt floor and a cot with hay mattress. Scullion was the accurate job title, scullion by way of indentured servitude based on the debt his dead parents had left behind. Neelam was in his fifth year of a ten year stint, having been indentured at the age of twelve.
"Neelam, answer me!" the innkeeper commanded and shook the door.
"I am awake!" Neelam finally answered and sat up.
He pulled on his leggings and fastened his worn boots and slipped on a tunic and belted it with a hemp rope. After dragging his fingers through his hair he crossed the room and opened the door. It was still dark out. The false dawn was still an hour away at least, but it was time to start his day.
His day, what a laugh! It was not his day, he had no possessions, had no lawful right to own possessions. This was not his day, this was just another day of drudgery in his miserable life -nay, not life, mere existence. This, like every other day, was the innkeeper's day. The only time he was anything, was during his dreams! Sometimes during the day when he had a spare moment he would watch the guard practicing their drills. At night after the end of his seemingly endless chores he would take a small portion of time, the innkeeper's time, and practice his skill with the stick that he had fashioned into a mock sword. That skill he would then use in his dreams to battle dragons and other terrible creatures. But the dreams were short, and they were not real no matter how much he might wish differently.
Neelam shuffled into the kitchen with his head down and shoulders slumped forward. The posture of a defeated soul; defeated after countless times of being whipped and mis-handled. The actions and demeanor of a whipped dog that continued to return to the hands of its tormentor. But even a whipped dog eventually has its day of reckoning, and unbeknownst to Neelam this day was his.
He grabbed the bucket and after filling it with water, grabbed the mop and headed into the great room to begin his duties of the day. After the hearth was cleaned and swept out he placed all of the chairs on the tables and began mopping up the mess from the previous day. After the great room was cleaned and ready for the day he dumped the mop water and started on the stables. Fortunately, there were only three horses being lodged so he did not need to muck out all of the stalls. When he was finished with the stables he reported to the kitchen and the cook.
Neelam's parents owned a small farm just north of the village that not only produced food for the village but also tribute for the larger city of Rockyvale that the small villages and farms in the area were beholden too. Neelam was an only child born late in his parents' lives. Like most of the area's farmers, Neelam's father was coin-light and debt-heavy. When his parents died from an outbreak of influenza the farm was sold to pay off outstanding loans, and Neelam entered into indentured servitude to finish paying off the debt.
He had been working for the inn for the past few brutal years, the local keeper having bought his debt from another. The village's lone inn, like many others, was part meeting room, courthouse, as well as official lodging for visiting dignitaries, since most village elders had not the space for such things. This made the innkeeper an important man in these outlying villages, possibly only second to the village elder and sometimes even greater. Even the local sheriffs stepped lightly around the innkeeper. This particular innkeeper was a harsh taskmaster and many of the patrons followed that example.
Neelam was delivering food during the dinner rush when a patron purposely stuck out his leg and tripped the lad. Neelam went down in a crash of bowls, soup, bread, and ale, most dripping from his clothes. The general laughter of the room, coupled with the indignity of his situation, had finally caused a small spark of backbone, and Neelam popped up and swung one of the wooden bowls. The swing was wild but effective, catching his tormentor full in the face, crushing his nose and spraying blood upon his compatriots. Unfortunately for Neelam his tormentor was a high-ranking member of the visiting dignitaries from Rockyvale.
Neelam looked around wildly at the other men at the table and then took off like a spooked deer. He dodged a grab for his tunic from one of the men at the table and slid under the legs of the innkeeper, who was trying to block his escape. He crashed through the swinging doors of the kitchen, skirted around the large wooden table in the center of the prep area, and bolted through the door and stopped quickly, trying to determine his next course of action. Neelam looked around wildly and darted toward the edge of town and freedom beyond.
Neelam headed in the direction of the old family farm since he knew the area better than any other, having spent time in the nearby foothills hunting and fishing. He had a place in mind to hide out until he could slip away to the south, or possibly brave the forest and see what was west. He had heard tales about the great lands on the other side of the cursed forest and decided to see for himself if they were true. He had been traveling about an hour when he be heard the bay of dogs -hunting dogs!
Neelam's escape turned into full-on panic flight as he tried to put distance between him and the dogs, and more importantly, what the dogs represented. He knew the men from Rockyvale were in town to hunt the wild boars that frequented the hills north the town. The man he had hit with the bowl was the nephew of the Baron of Rockyvale, which meant they were probably hunting him now. Neelam made for some ancient ruins in the hills some two hours to the northeast of the town. Scampering up the game trail, and dodging in and out from the trees, he tried but failed to put distance between himself and his pursuers. The dogs were gaining fast, and with them probably the hunters as well.
The path quickly began to level out as Neelam entered the ruins with the dogs hot on his trail and closing fast. He stopped in the middle of a stone road and turned to the noise of his pursuers when three large hunting mastiffs turned a corner and began stalking him, growling menacingly. Neelam started backing up when the lead dog leaped, smashing into him and sending them both backward, crashing to the cobblestone road. The stone floor gave way around them and the two bodies, one dog and one man, fell through the roof of some subterranean chamber. In the process of falling the two intertwined bodies rotated with Neelam on top, trying to hold the dog off from ripping his throat out. The fact that Neelam fell on top of the dog probably saved his life when they crashed to the floor, some twenty feet below the surface. The dog was dead, having been crushed by Neelam as they landed. Neelam was in bad shape himself; he saw that his left arm was lying in a peculiar direction, and he could see the bone of his forearm bulging the skin outward. There was a sharp pain in his chest every time he breathed in, the result of a probable broken rib pressing against a lung. He tried to move his legs, and he was partly successful since the right one responded to commands. Moving the left leg, however, caused intense pain localized at his hip and he stopped trying to move it.
He laid there dazed until the sounds of dog barking and whining brought him around. He slowly pushed himself backward off the dead dog's body, and away from the opening, looking behind for a place to hide.
"Where did he go?" Neelam heard from above, and put more effort into finding concealment.
"Looks like the floor gave way there," a different voice replied.
"Boy, are you down there?" a third voice asked, the voice echoing in the chamber.
Neelam continued to back away from the opening, more quietly now that he knew the men were above looking for him. He was using his good leg and arm to half push, half pull his broken body. The pain so intense that he bordered on unconsciousness and feared he would slip away and be found.
"Bring some ropes and light a couple of torches," the second voice commanded.
Neelam slid backwards across the ground until his head hit a stone structure. He looked around, but in the darkness was unable to make out any features. He watched a light source -a torch, drop down from the ceiling and land by where the dog laid dead. A second torch soon followed after and gave Neelam enough light to make out his surroundings.
He was laying against a black glass looking stone block, completely out of place with the rest of the structure of the chamber. It was not attached to anything, just resting on the ground in the middle of the chamber. Neelam looked up and almost gasped in astonishment until he remembered his predicament. There was a sword hilt sticking out of the stone block!
A noise in front of him caught his attention and he turned as a second coil of rope had dropped from the opening, dangling next to another. The hunters were going to repel down and Neelam was trapped without a weapon!
He looked back at the hilt of the sword and reached up as far as he could with his good hand and just touched the grip with his fingertips. He was not expecting the shock of energy traveling back down his arm and almost let go of the pommel grip.
"What is your name?" a voice, soft and light, asked. The voice had a sibilant quality to it, as if the speaker's tongue was getting in the way of its speech. Neelam initially thought the voice was audible and then he realized that he only heard it in his head.
"Neelam," he replied, audibly. "I have no other."