The 20th of Ollarune, 994 YK
“We’ll take this ruffian from here, Captain” the commanding Colonel spoke down to Honest from atop his horse.
Dutifully, yet reluctantly, Honest handed over the leash to the manacles restraining the newly captured Thrane General, Charr. From underneath his twisted horns, Honest shot Char a glare which spoke volumes louder than his muffled retort, “This is far from over, lizard.”
Charr continued to be led through the gauntlet of piercing gazes from the 421st. Egnarac spoke firmly a draconic curse, “Niiden pitäisi olla salattu teidän muna hautomossa”, roughly translating to “They should have scrambled your egg in the hatchery”. With his hands he held tightly to Kiri’s shoulders, whose eyes had filled with unbidden tears of vile hatred as she watched her family’s butcher stride off in chains. Arc stood as still as stone with a look as emotionless as death itself, aside from an unrealized fury that burned within his glowing eyes. At the end of the parade stood Arden, slumped up against a tree, sharpening his Cyran issue longsword. Donning his signature smug expression, Arden righted himself and approached the Colonel.
“Stand down, Corporal.” The Colonel ordered, quite aware of Arden’s reputation.
“Private, actually… sir” Arden jibed, “And I was only imagining what your new prize might look like as a trophy mounted on your wall”
“Arden! You’ve been ordered to stand down!” Honest yelled from the front, “Now drop back in line!”
Arden halted chortling, and turned his back to the procession. But before he took his first step back to his tree, his sword burst into glowing green flame and whipped in a wide arc toward Charr’s throat. Instead of meeting scaly flesh however, his sword met the tempered steel shaft the Colonel’s parrying warhammer. Taking his other hand off the reins of his horse, the Colonel swung a small throwing hammer down atop Arden’s sword, snapping it like a twig.
“If you’re quite done… Private.” The Colonel sneered in self-amused boredom. “I’ll not have you sully the honorable name of Cyre for your little vendetta. He will be tried in Royal Tribunal for his crimes.”
Arden’s eyes locked with the Colonel’s, then dropped to Charr’s who took his turn looking smug. Examining the shattered bade in his hand, Arden spat and turned back to his tree.
As he turned however, he saw in the distance a small glint hovering in air. Moments later, a blinding flash burst across the sky. A pillar of fire erupted large enough to see from the 421st’s vantage point nearly 300 miles away. Everyone stood in awe at the spectacle.
Breaking the spell, Arc spoke, “Blast wave incoming. Moving to a more sheltered location is advisable.”
“You heard’m! Move!” Honest yelled. “Get your ass to the river!”
Arden stood for moments longer, still captivated by the destruction before him. It was beautiful, and yet a terrible truth petrified his mind in cold fear.
“ARDEN!” Honest’s voice pierced the torrent’s grip, “Get your ass in gear!”
Shaking his attention free, Arden turned to run, only to find everyone else scrambling frantically toward the river’s edge. Almost instantly he broke into a sprint, just as a sound of rolling thunder began to crescendo behind him. A small wind picked up at his back, and slowly grew to violent gusts as Arden continued the near 500 meters to the water. A disturbingly numbing heat also began to emanate, crawling up Arden’s spine. Ahead of him he saw Egnarac and Kiri struggle to pick up speed as they ran together. Adjusting his course to meet them, Arden pumped his legs as hard as he could. He caught up with them 100 meters from the river. Grabbing hold of each of them, he added his own speed to their nimble footing to power them the last stretch to safety. His blood felt as if it were an fire. Reaching the last couple meters he tossed Kiri to the water, and turned to Egnarac to pull him in front of his pace. A sudden and large explosion sounded on his heels, and in a knee jerk reaction, Arden turned to see the danger barreling down on top of them. The blast took him off his feet entirely, and a menacing blue flame gout pushed him and Egnarac the remaining distance to the river. Egnarac splashed violently into the water. Arden’s body however carried another 20 meters, clear over the opposite bank. His back slammed into the rock slab of the Thrane coast, knocking the air from his lungs and the senses from his mind.
Coming to, Arden hazily looked about to assess the situation as his training had conditioned him. Protruding from his right breast was a large Hoplite spear, blade larger than most swords, shaft splintered in half. He saw he comrades swim toward him, and as his vision finally faded to black he could have sworn he saw a flickering blue flame dancing from his wound.
His life’s blood pouring into the Brey River, Arden Colt grasped at the spearhead that protruded from his chest. The blade was hot and nearly singed clean through his gauntlets as he grasped it in a dying attempt to dislodge it. Every tug was shear agony. In his weakened, semi-conscious state Arden saw gouts of blue flame bursting from his wound as he pulled. A final, laborious pull was enough to free the blade from his chest. Arden stared at the blade as the river waters washed over him. It was the most beautiful weapon he’d ever seen, or ever see again. The blade was elegant, a glowing dragonshard pulsed in the base of the blade, alive with energy.
“Fitting…” Arden coughed a bloody laugh. As he slipped into unconsciousness he saw the devilish visage of his Teifling captain reach out for him.
Arden sank into oblivion.
“He’s waking!” Kiri called out with a smile. Kiri seldom smiled without a few drinks from the flask he gave her. Arden’s eyes blearily opened.
“If I’m dead…and this is Dollurrh…. Did I really get stuck with you lot again?” His voice was little more than a haggard whisper.
“He sounds as if he is in good spirits.” Arc248 assessed.
“He’s alive. I’ll give him that much credit.” Honest Ja’wn said.
Arden lifted his head to look around. They were on a boat. A small row boat heading down some mist covered stygian river. Egnarac and Arc248 each held oars, while Honest Ja’wn sat at the front peering into the distance.
“What Ja’wn? Too cheap to pay the ferryman?” Arden coughed hold his ribs. They were wrapped in linens, the smell of herbal healing salves penetrated his nostrils and quickly snapped him into reality. The spearhead that nearly killed him rested at his side. He was on a makeshift gurney.
“We’re not dead?” He asked looking to Kiri.
“No.” Kiri answered.
“Where in the 12 moons are we?”
“We’re…That’s our country over there…or what was… that’s Cyre!” The mist was a thick grey, no visibility past ten feet or so. The boat was close to the bank of the river. Nothing could be seen but a barren cost. No foliage or growth. Nothing but brown desiccated earth and dead trees.
“We are travelling south on the Brey river. Heading towards the Brelish coast.” Arc248 confirmed.
They came through the Stygian mists to the coast of Breland. The air immediately smelled less of ozone and copper. The midday sun shone bright, no longer obscured by the translucent fog. To the 421st, it felt like being born… born as orphans.
Arden had been drifting in and out of sleep during the journey, but once they set foot and lay his gurney on land, he found himself alert. ARC and Kiri had been taking turns tending his wound, administering apothecary tinctures to help break Arden’s fever. This rotation was ARC, and Arden was surprised to find himself relieved. He suddenly found himself full of questions, and who better to answer them. “2 days?!”
“37 hours, more precisely” ARC said coldly, “Your wound was grievous. The Captain didn’t want to risk you trying to injure yourself further before we could apply primary aid.”
“You drugged me?!”
“ARC, he’s not our captain any more.” Arden said pensively, gazing out over the water into the mists shrouding Cyre. “There’s nothing more to be a captain of.”
ARC stood looking at Arden, his unchanging metal face failing to betray any reaction. “He was looking out for your best interest.”
They both remained silent for a number of moments. “Have you gone back in there?”
“Not successfully.” It was the closest Arden had ever heard a hint of emotion from ARC’s voice. “The landmarks are gone. The fog is impenetrable. Egnarac and I were only able to return by tracking ourselves back to the beach.”
“Any idea how it happened? Any news of survivors?”
“No” The word ran chills down Arden’s spine and echoed through his bones.
“Well, you look better!” Kiri exclaimed waking to see Arden on his feet.
While his sword arm was still in a sling, Arden did in fact feel much better. It had only been a couple days, but it seemed with each stroke they took down the Brey river away from Cyre, Arden’s strength returned. With his left hand, he was practicing remedial maneuvers with the spear-head that had wounded him. “Gettin’ there.” Arden punctuated with a clumsy thrust.
“Oh, so decided to keep it, eh?” Honest said mockingly as he stepped from his tent. “Not at all surprising you’d have a fondness for something that damn near killed you.”
“Yes, well, we don’t all have the luxury of hiding behind a forked tongue and a bronze star, now do we?” Besides Arden, only Eggs seemed amused with the retort. “Speaking of which, isn’t it time you took that off?”
“I will maintain order of this unit until we’ve reestablished contact with command.”
“I’m not sure ‘order’ is the correct usage of the term.” Arden said plainly, in his best ARC impersonation.
Honest sneered before turning to tend the boat.
“You shouldn’t antagonize him like that.” Kiri spoke softly once Honest appeared out of earshot.
“Sorry, kiddo. But sometimes people need to accept the reality of the situation.”
“You can be a smug prick sometimes you know that?”
“Don’t tell me you’re defending—”
“What the fuck do you know about reality?!” Kiri said angrily, “Is everything going to be alright?! Is that what you keep telling yourself?! Swing your sword a little harder, read another book and all will be right in the world?! Some of us aren’t that fucking simple!” She stormed off, snatching her bow and quiver as she did. Eggs followed closely.
Arden looked to ARC, who just looked back with a blank stare. Clenching his teeth, Arden continued to swing his sword. He kept his focus to the distant East, where the giant clouds of fog could still be seen along the horizon, and swung again, this time a little harder.
After a few days the fishing town of Breyside came into view. The town sat at a bend in the Brey river and represented the closest Brelish town to Cyre. The 421st braced for anything. Who knew what would lie ahead. A Brelish military unit could kill them on sight, or perhaps take them in as prisoners of war? But fear was the farthest thing from their minds. Cyre was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. As the boat reached Breland’s shore they found that they were not alone. The small town of 300 was bloated with hundreds of Cyran refugees.
“By the Sovereigns!” Egnarac exclaimed. “Look at them all!”
“I know, there a far fewer than I expected.” Ja’wn admitted, “Surely more made it out alive.”
“Captain, based upon the shockwave and speed of the spreading mist, I calculate the casualty rate of the Cyran populace to nearly 95.8%.” Arc248 deduced.
“Well, I don’t know about you all but I feel my life has been enriched by that statistic… Or maybe the drugs haven’t warn off.” Arden’s words fell on deaf ears as the party disembarked the rowboat and headed into the town. Two Brelish soldiers aided a crying Cyran woman who had been struck blind. Her tears streaked out of her pale wide eyes down the scorch marks on her face. She wobbled trying to get her bearings, the men attempted to stable her.
“May we assist?” Arc inquired.
“You new arrivals?” The Soldier asked not diverting his attention from the woman. “Head over to the registrar first.”
Weaving through the throng of Cyran refugees that mobbed the street the members of the 421st found there way to the registrar. He was a scrawny Brelish clerk too small for combat, dressed in the royal blue robes Brelish officers donned. He stood in front of a rickety table heaped with scrolls and parchment. A short line of refugees formed in front of the man.
“A cattle call. I feel like I’m lining up for slaughter.” Arden jested.
“Just fall in line for once in your life Private.” Ja’wn was not in the mood for jokes. It seemed the week’s events had sucked the twinkle out of the young captain’s eyes. For once Arden did not argue.
After some time the men approached the registrar. “Name?” The registrar said not looking up from his quill and parchment.
“That some sort of alias?”
“I’m fine. These men…these folks behind me are my unit.” The registrar suddenly took interest, looking up from his papers and adjusting his spectacles.
“Military eh? I’ll make a note.” The registrar quickly eyed each of the 421st.
“Perfect.” Kiri sighed “now they’ll know who to kill first.” With that Ja’wn stepped away.
Arden approached next. “They are perfectly willing to try.” Arden said to Kiri patting his new sword slung along his back.
“We aren’t going to have a problem, are we?” the clerk said from behind the registrar’s desk as Arden stepped up. Despite the man’s diminutive stature, he spoke with full confidence. In his periphery Arden notice two Brellish guards tense in readiness. Arden smirked.
Kiri tugged on Arden’s arm, giving him a stern shake of the head when he turned to look. He just gave her the never-reassuring wink and grin, as he spun back around to the clerk, “Problem? It looks like—”
“For Khyber’s sake! Someone grab her!” One of the guards helping the blind woman shouted as the woman stumbled free of his grip in hysterics. Arden glanced over in time to see her trip over a stone. He lunged forward, catching her before she fell. She went stiff in his arms, recoiling from his touch. Arden set her to her feet, keeping a firm grip. It wasn’t until she lifted her head that she calmed.
Her milky white eyes, glistening with the constant flow of tears, seemed to focus and still despite their blindness. Appearing fixed on Arden, she weakly exclaimed, “I see you!” She placed her hand over top Arden’s wound, deliberately adjusting her gaze to look at it. When her eyes met Arden’s once again, Arden could see a subtle blue flicker from behind the surface of those white orbs. Sadly, with her hysteria dropped off to melancholy she uttered, “You carry it with you…”
Arden felt something twitch in his right breast. It was painful like a atrophied muscle finally being forced to move. Arden winced, gripping his chest. The guards guiding the woman came and collected her from Arden. “He don’t look so well.” One of them said, sounding concerned.
Egnarac walked up and put his hand up to Arden’s forehead. Arden barely reacted, eyes still fixed on the woman as she was carried through into the town. “He’s burning up. We need to get him to an apothecary.” No sooner than those words were muttered, Arden’s body went limp. Eganrac quickly caught him.
“Take him to the East side of town,” the clerk spoke, “That is where we keep the wounded. What is his name?”
“Arden Colt.” Egnarac replied.
The East side of Breyside looked like your typical field hospital: completely unprepared, filthy, and swarming with disease. Cots were splayed in no particular order, and for those that had no cots were laid out on blankets on the ground. Kiri had retrieved the gurney from the boat which Egnarac and ARC now carried with Arden laid on top deleriously mumbling to himself. Arden was pouring sweat, and had grown pale even for his Cyran complexion. They put him down near the outskirts on the far East side in the shadow of Cyre’s mistcloud.
“Kiri, find a healer! Egnarac and Arc will tends his wound until you return.” Honest ordered. With that she bolted into the crowd.
“Sir, there seems to be slight amounts of unstable arcane energy coming off his body.” ARC perceived. “Do you suppose it is safe to keep him here?”
“I don’t think his condition could worsen,” Honest responded, “This is as safe as he’s gonna get.”
“I wasn’t referring to him, sir” ARC said looking out amongst the crowd of sick and wounded.
Honest gritted his teeth, “Just keep an eye on him, a healer will be coming shortly.”
“No… he won’t,” Kiri said, panting, “They only got two… in this entire town…. won’t see him until tomorrow… at the earliest.”
They all looked down at Arden mournfully. Arden’s eye’s appeared to be moving quickly beneath his lids, and his mouth continued to mutter uncontrollably. Every once in a while, his arm or leg would twitch, sometimes violently.
“He appears to be dreaming.” ARC spoke.
Honest crouched down next to his compatriot, putting his hand to Arden shoulder. “No, ARC… that’s a nightmare…”
Blue flames licked and flickered just beyond the horizon line. This blue light cast a strange shade on the scene. Thirteen full moons hung in the sky. Arden found himself standing in the center of some ancient battlefield. The field was littered with bodies. Piles of them hacked and mangled terribly. The twinkling of light reflecting off of some reflective metallic surface caught his eye. Looking in the distance Arden saw strange spherical monoliths of impossible alien design dotted the landscape of this wasteland. A thunderclap shook the ground at his feet. Lightning and fire intertwined and struck the ground behind him. He started to run. Moving forward through the piles of bodies he noticed, these bodies were not human. Orcs, goblins, heavily armored hobgoblins in intricate plate mail, all slain by some terrible unseen hand. Arden knew this must be Shavarath, the endless Battleground, where all great warriors come to war endlessly until the end of days.
Honest stepped sleepily from his tent into the cool Brelish night. Rubbing his eyes he walked over to ARC. “You’re relieved soldier.”
“Sir, I am quite capable of maintaining watch. I need no sleep.” ARC replied.
“For Khyber’s sake, ARC. I know that.” Honest said exasperatingly, “Go tend to Arden or…” He paused looking around. “Where is he?”
“Arden. He is no longer here.”
“I can see that!” Honest yelled, waking the wounded and the rest of the 421st from their sleep, “Where’s he gone, ARC?! Weren’t you keeping watch?!”
“Yes, I have remained vigilant since sundown. Arden stood and walked out of town to the East two hours ago.”
“He walked out of town to–“
“ARC! You let one of your dying comrades march out of town without alerting anyone?!” Honest took on a hue of red far brighter than usual, heat visibly raising from his skin.
“Why should we care?” Egnarac’s voice coldly uttered as he stepped from the tent, followed by Kiri. “The man’s a menace and a liability. If he wanted to go off like a dog and die alone, why shouldn’t we let him? Upon his own admission, this unit and hence his loyalties dissolved with Cyre.”
Honest gave a squinted glare in the dragonborn’s direction. Regaining composure, he sternly asked, “Is this how the lot of you feel?” shooting ARC and Kiri and glance.
“Egnarac’s logic is sound.” Arc replied.
Kiri dropped her gaze to the ground, shuffling her feet.
“I see.” Honest said thoughtfully, “Well then, I guess it’s a good thing THIS ISN”T A DEMOCRACY!”
The 421st stood at attention out of conditioned habit.
“That ‘dying dog’ might’ve been right. We may no longer owe an oath to Cyre, to an army that is now dust under a cloud of death. We may be professional soldiers left without a cause for fighting.” Honest marched from person to person as he gave his speech. Other Cyrans around them began to gather. “But I still choose to fight. Not for this!” Honest ripped the bronze star from his armor and threw it to the ground, “I fight for you!” looking at Kiri, “You!” ARC, “And even you!” glaring at Egnarac. “We are more than a unit. We are brothers! All of us! Including that ingrate cur you all are too quick to dismiss. Menace and liability? Yes. But each one of you are alive today because of that reckless bastard. That’s what we do! We persist against odds together!” The crowd continued to grow around the captain. “Our grave is shared, and I’ll be damned if I dig mine tonight because you lot don’t know the meaning of the word ‘family’. All we have is each other. We already lost our country, we are not going to lose that too.”
The 421st stood silent. Honest marched over to face Egnarac still standing at attention. “Have I made myself clear, Eggs?”
“Crystal, as always, sir.”
“Right… well, that’s why I’m the captain, innit?” Honest walked over and retrieved his bronze star lying in the dirt. “Now unless we have any further points of contention, we are going to find our brother and make sure he hasn’t killed himself.”
“Yes sir!” they all said in unison.
“Eggs!” Honest grinned, “You’re on point.”
Arden traveled within the wasteland for years. Not a living soul was found. The endless battlefield was simply dead. Not even the familiar sight of scavengers and carrion beasts could be found. Finally, there was movement ahead. Some foul beast standing on a pile of bodies. Arden charged forward prepared to confront this foe. The creature was taller than two men put together and just as broad. A thick black and purple chitin covered its twisted frame. Its four lanky arms each held a wickedly jagged weapon. Swords longer than Arden’s arm which dripped with the blood of the slain. The creatures face shown with diabolical intelligence. His toothy maw grinned.
“You… I have waited, watched, hungered for this day.” The Creature bellowed his voice echoing through Arden’s mind.
Arden did not speak. No witty retort, no war cry. He pulled his sword
“Ah Vardoger, the ever-changing-blade… it shall be so nice to feel the bite of it again.” The Creature spat and leapt from the body pile with cat-like grace.
The 421st had doubletimed it through the entire night and following day. It became clear to them early on that Arden’s pace did not slow, but rather steadily trailed out directly toward Cyre. For a dying man, he had a surprising amount of energy to give his comrades tireless chase. It was dusk, when they finally caught up with him. The mist surrounding Cyre had cross the Brey river, covering a half mile inland strip, and in that fog they saw Arden. They called to him. As he turned, they saw even from the distance through the clouds his eyes flickering aglow an eerie blue. Arden did not speak. No witty retort, no war cry. He pulled his sword.
“He appears to be engaging us in combat.” ARC said to Honest.
“Oh shit…” Honest muttered under his breath, then louder, “ARC and Kiri, give us cover fire from the rock over there. No kill shots! Understood?”
They both nodded and went to the outcropped boulder.
“Eggs? You ready to feel a little sore for the next week?”
The dragonborn simply snarled, “I can’t say I haven’t wished for a chance to put this whelp down.”
“Good.” Honest smiled reluctantly, “Follow me in!” Honest charged.
“Once more into the breach! Eh?” The Creature attacked striking out simultaneously with all four blades. Arden dodged one blow only to barely escape another. The angles the creature could slice at were impossible for any one man. The air filled with the sounds of gnashing steel. It took all of Arden’s concentration to keep the blades at bay.
But he found a pattern, a groove; the melody that which every swordsman fights by. The sword in his hand came to match every note and chord as they dropped into place as if completely by instinct. His beating heart kept time to the tempo, but Arden was too caught up in the moment to notice that the thumping in his chest was coming from the opposite side of his chest. Arden’s blade ignited in blue flame to match sky.
“Where the hell did he learn that?!” Kiri exclaimed taking aim again with her bow, finding her shots deflected by the whirring blue blade.
“It does not appear that he’s learned it all. Something possesses Arden.” ARC observed.
“Do something, ARC! They can’t last much longer out there!” Kiri pleaded, her eyes fixed on the skirmish as Arden continued to push a trance-like offensive against their brothers.
ARC paused for a moment. “Stay here child.” ARC leapt from the rock, running toward the fight, his hands visibly charging a spell.
The fight reached a fever pitch, neither blade finding succor from the other’s flesh. It was then Arden saw his opening. He thrust slicing at his demonic foe’s chest. The blade barely scratched the thick chitin and shattered.
“Heh heh…so weak Vardoger…I expected more of you.” The Demon sheathed his blades. With one arm he grabbed Arden by the throat. Another two began systematically landing blow after blow on Arden’s ribcage. The final fist held aloft glowing with a blue glow.
“Cry out and I shall make this quick.”
Arden spat blood into the Demon’s face. “As expected…” The Demon laughed, licking the blood from his face with a long barbed tongue.
“Snap out of it.”
The demon struck him again and again.
“Glory in death, shall never be yours.”
Arden said nothing.
“What in Dollurh is wrong with you?” The ground shook. The sky fell. A wall of fire enveloped them both.
Arden smiled finally. “I welcome death!”
“Is that what this is about?!” Honest Ja’wn slapped Arden hard across the face. The blue fire was gone and there was only a thick grey mist. Arc stood holding a smoking open palm at point blank range.
Egnarac turned to ARC, “Thank you my friend. That slice would have sheared me for certain. What made you think to attack the blade?”
ARC responded, “I had a hunch.”
Egnarac looked at him quizzically, but ARC remained silent still looking down at Arden on the ground. Honest was crouched over him trying to illicit a response from him, but Arden had passed out completely.
“His fever’s broken, but he’s torn his stitches. We need to get him back to the town.” Honest said to the others.
“What do we tell him when he wakes up again?” Kiri askedm, rejoining the group.
Honest straightened himself, looking at each person. “You tell him ‘Good morning’” Each member of the 421st understood the implication.