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Author: Gene (Rick) Maze
Title: Knight & Maiden [Part I of IV]
Creation Date: 10 JUL 2002
Revision Date: 14 September 2002
O’ Valyndyr of Eldritch kind, where stood you as we bled and died?!
The horns we blew in dire need. No answer came, our doom decreed.
We called forthwith for Elvish might;
Our blades held high against the night.
As children of man, we called for your aid;
Immortal and wise, our salvation betrayed.
By the full of the moon, was the battle fast failing;
One chance still remained, our forces yet standing.
Too long you stood back, watching and distant;
Your power held dormant, no succor forthcoming.
In blood we did falter, foresworn and despairing;
The Darklord strolled mocking –all hope swiftly fleeing.
Our Kings, Lords and Knights, in blood darkly lay;
Our women and children swiftly hunted –now prey.
O’ Valyndyr of Eldritch kind, where stood you as we bled and died?!
The horns we blew in dire need. No answer came, our doom decreed.
Immortal and mortal, as brethren we stood;
Common-Cause our foundation –our oaths fervid and good.
Under God did we perish, in broken faith did we die;
Our salvation betrayed. Your indifference our demise.
You stood in the distance, my people foresworn;
Your might and your power withheld in your scorn.
Unto you and all yours God shall lay down his vengeance;
Your troubles now endless, with no hope for repentance.
So let it be, that you know our despair;
Your arrogance your doom –your love stricken and shorn.
Remember our cries as we died in the night;
Murdered we were in the moon’s evil light.
Suffer you shall, in forgone desire;
Your heart of all hearts forever distant and wanting.
Immortal and mortal both damned we now be;
God’s justice upon us, brothers forsaken are we.
Edwyns Day, 1st Of Mathis, 1251 S.A.
Once again I stand ready, for I know in my heart, if not I, then who? Even now I hear the hordes of the enemy fast approaching, the darkness dispersing as the light from their torches shines forth in the distance. It will not be long now. I know that for this final time I must stand firm, that all those who still live, might have reason to believe we may yet succeed in our quest. In my heart I know it is over, but I dare not let those standing with me sense the abandonment of my hope. Instead I hold my place, my feet firm, my tremors of fear tightly contained and hidden from those behind me.
I glance back briefly and whisper what I believe will be my final words upon this earth, “Be ready my friends, hold true and have faith. This too we shall overcome.” Fine words for a man now forsaken –and one sworn to speak nothing but the truth. Yet even as I uttered those empty phrases, cries were ringing forth in the distance, and I knew we were discovered.
I turned back, eyeing the bridge, my companions gathering behind me. I could hear sinew pop and crack, as they made ready once again. Their sore and wounded muscles flexing reluctantly, their limbs forced into readiness with little hope for surcease either now or in the near future.
The sound of running feet pounding on stone echoed from across the bridge, and I knew the hosts of the Darklord had at last pinpointed our route. Jandar, hearing their approach quickly advanced, ready at my side. “I’ll take my place on your right, my friend, and if God wills it, may we meet again in the afterlife. Yes?” As usual, his rasping voice brought a sense of comfort to my soul. “Yes indeed” I replied. “If God should will it.” I moved slightly left, giving his hulking figure more room at the edge of the landing. The drop-off was at least five hundred feet on either side, and neither one of us was anxious to be the first to test our flying ability. Moments later a shadow appeared to the front, then like a flood they became uncountable. The enemy had arrived.
“Sarina!” I shouted. “Gather your power! And warn us if you can! They come!” I risked a quick glance back –no real hope in my heart. She stood there, head bowed in concentration, the length of her staff held firmly to the fore. What last few options we had were about to be played out. As I turned back I could feel Jandar already blocking a vicious slash, and I was barely in time to block the point of another blade eager to litter the ground with my intestines. I swung back, undercutting the creature’s initial swipe, and in its fervor to impale me it was unable to counterbalance. I followed through with a kick to its lower body and watched as its screaming form tumbled backward, taking three or four of its brethren over the edge with it.
We had chosen well, there was no way to attack us except head-on, and with the span so narrow and sloping, they could send only two or three abreast. The next rally came on fast, and I could sense Jandar’s imminent berserker howl building beside me. I cut, slashed, and parried continuously, doing everything in my power to forestall our planned retreat to the upper landing.
I swung wide; avoiding a spear thrust, and saw his mighty hammer slam into the chest of a zombie. In lieu of the expected crunch, I heard a sickening splat, like a rotten melon on paving stone. The body abruptly disintegrated in a rain of bile and pus. The massive hammer continued its grim work. Swinging round and round, taking out two or three of the enemy at a time. Jandar’s body count seemed limitless as the screams of our enemies echoed loudly about us. For just a moment I thought there might be hope after all. Then the spear thrust again, and I had little time to worry about salvation.
I pivoted slightly right and slammed forward with my shield, deflecting the barbed head into the rock at my feet. I stamped down hard as it thrust past my shields bottom edge and the shaft snapped with a satisfying crack! I quickly followed through, battering the creature backward while finishing my maneuver with a vertical sword thrust –upwards into its groin. It collapsed onto the slope, an impeding barrier of flesh that was quickly thrown aside by those behind it anxious for the taste of our blood.
Whatever lurked at the bottom of the abyss would surely feed well this day. Nonetheless, we were but five though in truth now three, and they were endless. We could not hold forever. Though we fought well and held our place, we both knew time was running out. We were weakening. My shield arm ached, and if not for the tumbled stone bracing it up along the bottom rim I could not have held it in place. All remaining hope now rested with Sarina. If she did not come through soon we were all doomed.
As the battle raged on, my peripheral vision picked up the steadily increasing glow from Jandar’s tribal tattoo’s radiating in the gloom. Their intricate designs afire with that eerie somber battle glow I’d witnessed so many times before. The sacred golden totem strung about his neck was also shining, and brightest of all. I knew then that for good or ill our final moment was at hand. With a last whispered prayer I foreswore all earthly concerns and focused my remaining attention on the battle before me. Let it be, as God should will it.
No sooner had these thoughts come to resolution within my mind, than Jandar’s berserker howl broke free –rocking the cavern and shaking the very span upon which our foes advanced. I watched as uncounted enemy fell backward in panic, hurtling haphazardly into the abyss on either side. Miraculously the span was now clear, even if only for a moment. “Sarina! Now! We cannot hold a second time!”
“Cover your eyes!” Even as she spoke there was a great flash, and a bolt of lightning split the ground between us. Jandar and I flew back, blinded by the power of the spell Sarina had called forth. I realized suddenly I was slipping, the weight of my armor dragging me down. I flailed about, grasping for anything that might forestall my untimely end, and grabbed a small spar of stone jutting out from the edge of the landing. I was hanging by one arm, my left encumbered by my shield. I knew I could no longer hold. As my grip slowly gave way I screamed, “Save them, Sarina! Get them out!”
As the last word issued from my lips, I was grasped and lifted up by a very relieved and grinning barbarian. “Well, I guess the afterlife will have to wait another day. Yes?” He held me there dangling in his arms like a toy soldier, his breath bad enough to wake the dead, his trademark smirk radiating forth –gapped teeth not withstanding. As I hung there suspended, I couldn’t deny the enormity of my gratitude or the relief in knowing I’d once again escaped death’s relentless pull. “Looks like you’re right, my old friend. Can you put me down now?” As I was lowered to the ground I could hear Sarina screaming, “I’m sorry! God, I’m so sorry! There was no time! It was all I could do!”
We were alive, and that was enough for me. Yet there was no time for consolation. “Jandar, where is my sword?! Are they upon us yet?!” Even as I turned, yelling for my weapon, Jandar stood holding it out to me, one eyebrow raised in comic fashion, his bearing one of relaxed complacency. Though confused by his evident calm, I wasted no time reaching for its familiar hilt, the very feel of it in my grasp reassuring in such a way as only a warrior can comprehend. All my loss and fear at its absence instantly dispelled.
“Rikar, come look.” Jandar stood at the edge of the landing and pointed downward with his Great Hammer. His demeanor was slow and unhurried; his relaxed bearing apparent in his every motion. I quickly strode forward and peered over the edge, completely unprepared for what I found. I stood there stunned, amazed at the damage below me, for past the lip of the landing stood a two-foot span of jagged blasted stone, then… nothing!
I spun about. Sudden hope rising once again within my heart, yet I knew, this respite from danger would not last forever. “We need a portal! Sarina can you get us one?!” She looked at me, her visage one of utter exhaustion, shock still apparent in her features, the weariness in her eyes telling all. She merely shook her head, her gaze reluctantly drifting towards Alena. My eyes followed, and for the life of me I could think of nothing we could do. “Is there no way we can awaken her? Can nothing be done?!”
“There is a way….” The voice that spoke was dry and cracked and so weak I could barely ascertain the words. I moved quickly to the still form lying beside Alena.
“Colwyn my friend, you awaken!” I could see the effects of the fever were still rampant upon him. The fact that he could speak at all was a miracle in itself considering the severity of his wounds.
“What do you mean? What way is this you speak of?” I held his head slightly higher wishing we had even a drop of water for his easement, but there was nothing left. Our supplies were nonexistent. Not one flask remained among our baggage, not one scrap of food. We were all at wit’s end, with no safe refuge, no clear way out.
“Know that Alena yet lives… I… ca..nnot.. raise the liv…ing, but I ca…n still raise the dea…d. The choice is… yours. You know… what you… must do. You can still… save us all. Take… my dagger… and be quick…. I have… little… time.”
I knelt, frozen in torment, fully aware of his intent. I knew full well the cost of our salvation. What price the lives of my companions? Must I, a Paladin Of The Light, forsake all my vows and become like the enemy? Eternally damned?! Good GOD in heaven! Was ever a Knight so sorely tested?! Was ever a man’s soul so harshly tried?!
I found my hand reaching forward as of its own accord, slowly grasping and holding Colwyn’s proffered blade. The bone of the hilt felt warm in my grasp, the runes carved upon it glowing dimly as though alive and sentient, aware of my intent and eager for the taste of blood.
A glittering along the sharpened edge caught my eye. For a brief moment my vision skewed, and I became lost in times past. Like a sign from the heavens, the image of my mentor rose firmly before me. His expression cold and knowing, his face like an old oak, hard and worn. The look in his eye was fierce and judgmental. His voice issued forth from my innermost memories, and I once again heard his words as I had so often in my youth.
“It is a Knight’s Duty to hold true and never break faith with those entrusted to his care. Our vows are eternal. And Judged we shall most certainly be upon our final day of reckoning. Know too, that there will be many times when the paths you are forced to follow may seem hopeless and full of despair, your very faith tested, seemingly beyond your ability to bear. Do not sway from what you know to be true. For a sworn Knight of the Order never loses sight of who and what he is. Nor does he compromise when faced with a choice of right versus wrong, good versus evil.
Beware, my son, and remember this paramount truth of which I shall now speak. It is a simple thing, yet I caution you to hold it dear to your heart. For a day will come when you will stand upon the brink of madness and precarious indeed shall your choices be at that time. Now listen closely and remember this simple truth, ‘Beware, you who would fight evil, that you not become evil yourself’. It is a fine line, and one easily drawn, yet too, it is just as easily crossed. Once done there is no turning back.”
The memory left me then, and I found myself gazing down upon the blade held tightly in my shaking hand. Whatever power resided within flared briefly, then quickly faded in defeat. The sentient power, its thirst unquenched, somehow having sensed my inability to perform this most dire rite. I dropped it quickly, the realization of my intended act, and what I had contemplated sickening me and weakening my spirit.
A brief sigh escaped Colwyn’s lips, and as I looked up I saw his gaze fully upon me, a weak and sadly ironic smile upon his face. There was now no need for words, nor any remaining strength to speak them. I watched as the light in his eyes quickly faded, his weakness once again overcoming his ability to conquer it.
I reached down and grasped the dagger once again, gently placing it back in the sheath tied firmly to his side. Might it comfort him in whatever hell he would one day be consigned. As for me, I would carry on.
Quietly I stood, Jandar’s words breaking through my silent reverie. “What now my friend?” I looked back eyeing his hulking figure, as Sarina’s exhausted weeping softly penetrated the gloom. There was only one avenue that yet held hope for our survival.
“We aim for the waypoint!” I replied. “The path ahead is now blocked, and yes, I know we’re fatigued, yet if we move quickly, we can be there within the span of an hour. These hell-spawn won’t expect we’d be foolish enough to double back into their own den when the exit above is so very close. They have no need to hunt us now; they already know we’re coming. We hold the key to our salvation, and our quest yet remains. We dare not fail after having come so far.”
As I spoke my hand surreptitiously pressed against the lower section of my chest plate, deftly feeling for the reassuring presence of our hard-won prize. "What say you?” I asked. “Do we go back?"
Jandar’s brow furrowed in agitation, pondering my words, the seconds slowly ticking by as I patiently awaited his assent. Our hearts weighed heavy as we contemplated the peril our sickly companions would soon be forced to face –knowing no alternate solution remained. In truth, there were no favorable pathways left upon which to tread, and with this knowledge, our fear for our companions knew no bounds.
My thoughts grew distant and I allowed myself to briefly reflect upon the mysterious medallion hidden tightly about my person. Its delicate beauty was truly beyond compare, the Elven Queen carved so exquisitely upon its surface seemed to come alive the longer one gazed upon it.
The twin sapphire’s filling the blue of her eyes were the most intriguing of all, for they reached deeply into ones soul as though urgently calling from some distant dire place. No one who looked within their depths was immune to their mystery, nor their siren-like plea for assistance. The power of this artifact was no small matter nor was its recovery from the hands of its previous possessor. Yet with all our probing, no taint of evil had yet been found in, on, or about it.
As swift as these fleeting thoughts, my fingers –of their own accord– brooked no delay fumbling for the ties securing my lower chest plate. My unconscious need to sit and gaze upon it, overcoming my better judgment. A large vice-like hand quickly halted my progress –startling me– and bearing me away from my unintended transgression. I looked up as Jandar released my wrist; his eye's remaining neutral ignoring my lapse. His words now were solemn and quietly spoken "We go back my friend. We go back".
Jandar quickly pulled me upright and we turned as one confronting our desperate comrades. Sarina watched with haunted eyes as we began distributing the few items we still possessed. I looked in her direction as I cut loose my shield abandoning it permanently to the denizens of this horrid place. I knew it could only hinder me now, and carrying Alena would tax me more than I wished to admit. “Gather your things and prepare yourself as best you may.” I said. “We must leave with all due speed!” Upon voicing our decision, I began the task of loading our unconscious companions.
With sword sheathed and both arms unencumbered I carefully lifted Colwyn and gently placed him on Jandar’s waiting back. Sarina remained silent, her only acknowledgement, the ringing of metal on stone as the butt-end of her iron-shod staff struck the stone of the landing. Wearily she pulled herself upright, as ready as any, her own pack strapped tightly to her back, her dagger sheathed and belted at her side.
I tightened the leather straps firmly across Colwyn’s wasted frame. Jandar quickly grunted that all was well and satisfactorily in place. Giving me a thumbs-up, he stood and turned ready to return the favor. I too now knelt as he gently draped Alena’s ravaged body across me in similar manner. Carefully, he wrapped her arms around the base of my neck deftly strapping her securely in place. Fortunately for me, she was small of stature, and due to illness and starvation, scarecrow light. Of the two of us I was surely the least burdened by far.
“Let’s go.” Neither Sarina nor Jandar bothered to reply. Instead we all turned as one and retreated back the way we had come. Our desired exit thoroughly blocked and our journey now aimed downward and deeper into the catacombs. Our plan was simple; follow the path previously cleared upon our attempted escape to the surface –therein returning three levels down. Then make our way to the last known waypoint. If all went well it would remain as we left it, very cleared and thoroughly unguarded.
Much rested on our speed and secrecy. For if the enemy should discover us retreating back into their abode we were doomed. It was truly a roll of the dice. It was my belief they’d feel certain we’d attempt to fight through this last remaining level aiming for the final gate –thereby exiting onto the surface. If my assumption proved correct, they would congregate there and await our arrival.
None of us could say what the outcome of this gambit might be, time was most certainly not on our side. Hurry we must, before suspicion should take hold and they return to ascertain our whereabouts. At this point, we could only trudge along and pray to our own deities –silently begging for salvation.
“Sarina!” I hissed. “Ward the door!” Quickly I surged ahead sweeping into the chamber, sword raised high, my actions dangerously slow considering the burden I carried. Nothing remained within but a couple of rotted casks and a few bones littering the entryway. Jandar quickly followed suit, Sarina close behind. The stairwell was straight-ahead and spiraled straight down into the depths. We were in a desperate race against time and I maintained my forward momentum even as I spoke.
“Ready?” My companions made silent assent and hastily followed as I started downward with all due speed. Deeper and deeper we descended into the torch-lit gloom, past the same scarred walls we had so desperately sought to escape earlier that day. Amazingly no evidence of our previous rout remained. The abundant scavengers had clearly made quick harvest of all the dead we’d left in our wake. Aside from a few bloody patches nothing stood ready to block our descent.
Level after level proved barren and empty and we made swift progress to the bottom of the stairwell. I paused briefly and whispered back alerting my companions to our arrival. Jandar silently raised his hand, hammer held aloft, indicating his readiness to proceed. I could only hope Sarina was as equally prepared. With sword held at the ready, I once again swept forward into a dimly lit and circular chamber.
I spun left and slashed downward cleaving a scavenger standing directly in my path. It glared, eyes wide, hissing and baring fangs even as it perished beneath my blade. To my right I could hear Jandar’s mighty hammer making quick work of another and we both advanced as rapidly as we may and swung about clearing the chamber.
I turned as Sarina lowered her staff the glow of its power quickly subsiding. Yet fully prepared to shatter any opponents that might remain lying in wait. Fortunately our entrance had been quiet and only the two scavengers, their deaths quick, had been present when we attacked. Now ready to proceed, I quickly led the way into the maze of corridors we had earlier come to know so well. My companions followed silently. All of us racing headlong for the only chamber holding any hope for our escape.
The last bend was ahead and I knew this would be our final moment. I slowed, whispering back as loudly as I dared “Sarina prepare what spells you have! Hold nothing back! Jandar join me on my right and we’ll rush the platform together! We go!” Jandar quickly advanced to my side and we both accelerated as one, Sarina close behind. Charging around the bend, we split, myself going down and left while Jandar went hard right. Sarina held low and center, sending a fireball blasting into the chamber!
Thank God she had acted so swiftly! For vibrating before me –not two inches to my front– was the shaft of a spear, its barbed head now thoroughly buried in the stone of the wall. One more step and I’d have been run-through and very dead. Sarina’s spell had thankfully overwhelmed my opponent enough to offset its aim. I whispered my thanks to God as I spun about ready to dodge any remaining enemy anxious to carve upon my carcass.
Rapid as I was, a second flash of fire quickly shot to the fore incinerating my next attacker. With no immediate threat before me, I ran forward and stood with Jandar. Our combined might easily dispatching the few remaining ghouls still blocking our exit to freedom. We made quick work of it, turning back in time to see Sarina stumble and fall –her form weak and faltering from the saving energy she had expired. Dragging her with us, we leaped across the short span remaining and dropped directly onto the center of the platform.
Our weighted and bulky forms huddled together as the energy of the waypoint ignited, radiating outward and upward, showering all about us. Through the glare we watched as –too late– enemy after enemy flooded into the chamber rushing to block our escape. Their images quickly faded as we traversed the pathways of light and departed at last to safety.
We each stumbled forward as the Harrogath waypoint materialized beneath us. Our bodies making exit in quick succession. As I made ready to release my burden, our hard-won prize suddenly ignited in righteous fury blazing forth from my lower chest. I screamed agonized, as my undergarments ignited, radiating with feral energy.
I could hear Sarina yelling –her words garbled– as she fought to pull Alena from my burning body. Thankfully the straps broke free, both of them rolling backward. Alena, successfully yanked to safety. I heard Jandar roar my name as the waypoint activated for a second and final time. Abruptly I felt the familiar pull as it transported me away from my longtime companions.
I fought with all my strength, straining to remain within the safety of Harrogath. In the confusion I could see Jandar and the others lying shocked and haphazard about the platform. The townsfolk, equally stunned, quickly shaking off their confusion and rushing to their assistance.
The vision lasted but a second and then my world exploded in a kaleidoscopic panorama of living color, viciously tearing me away, tumbling me elsewhere. Waves of agony washed over and through me, my very blood turning molten. The pain continued relentless and unending –viciously burning away what few remnants yet remained of my will to survive.
Peace at last descended, arriving in the form of a cool all-encompassing nothingness. Swiftly it eclipsed all my senses, my pain now no more than a fading memory. I knew not what manner of ending was at hand. Yet even as I passed from this world into the next, my last lingering thought was one of relief. What better way to end ones life than in the successful defense of ones comrades?
Knowing as I did that my companions had escaped –their safety assured– I held no qualms in leaving them behind. My efforts had neither been wasted nor vain. There was still a world to save, and they would live to fight-on for yet another day. No other thought remained paramount.
With no regret in my heart I made peace with my God and allowed myself to be pulled along into the darkness of oblivion. In my Lord’s holy name I would one day be avenged; of this I was sure.
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