The Hour of Strife

Part I: The Days of Ending

The empire crumbles, and war envelopes the lands. Magic begins to fail and things that are as certain as time itself begin to come undone. The days of ending are upon us…

Chapter I– The Pale Mage

Seagulls shrieked and bickered as the warship encroached, scattering off the floating bodies with affronted squawks. They flapped and swooped between lines of rigging and sails, soaring off into the clear, salty air to circle high overhead. As the iron-prowed vessel slid gracefully amidst the scaly corpses, marines in high-collared coats leaned over the edge and loosed the occasional bolt from their repeaters.

Admiral Havelock stood at the helm, casting a critical eye across the activity on deck. The presence of their commanding officer put a fire under the ratings, who hurriedly unfurled deep-sea chains and winched up the diving cranes. Rows of warforged divers waited patiently as the lines were secured to their torsos, and an enchanter walked among them, refreshing their salt-proofing. At a nod from the Admiral, the warforged mounted the lip on the hull in unison, leaping into the sea as the lines rapidly uncoiled above. Across the corpse-littered bay, divers bearing the Ironsail industrial stamp, deployed in unison.

Known as the Vanishing Point, the bay had once been host to one of the largest sea-battles in history. Waged against an infamous pirate tyrant known as the Pale Mage, the Yurgoshi and Eltoshi navies had sacrificed their mightiest warships to end centuries of merciless reaving. The region would languish for decades in the clutches of fishmen, with neither nation retaining the naval strength to hold it. As the days of searching continued, the Ironsail holds were filled with bounty of the vast sunken fleet. But it was not until the sun dipped into the sea on the sixth day, that Havelock’s true prize was found.

Its scabbard was encrusted with barnacles, and the fine leather of its hilt was long since eroded. Drizzling saltwater as it was drawn forth, the silken curve of the adamantine scimitar was unmarked, save for the ragged sigil of an unknown daemon. Said to have been anointed in the blood of the tyrant’s entire bloodline, the Pale Mage’s pact-blade, Prodigal, gleamed in the cool light of dusk. Turning over the blade in her wrinkled hands, Alequin Havelock smiled, signalling the fleet to ready sails.

Chapter II– The Arch-Heretic

The screams of the dying echoed in the University’s corridors, as the last of the scholars were put to the blade. Black smoke filled the sky, and ironclad warriors flung armloads of books from the windows overhead. Clad in magnificent cold-iron plate, the Primarch of Dragar’s Order strode across the muddy courtyard, making for the Great Hall of Debate. He was accompanied by a nervous cleric, very recently appointed as the new Chancellor.

“This is the proper fate of heathens,” boomed the Primarch, gesturing as his Templars began stringing up students for burning. He glanced over his shoulder.

“I know it disturbs you to see the Lord’s work done, Chancellor. But godless revisionists cannot be permitted to poison the histories of this country against the Lord and Saviour. We will be rewarded for this, in Heaven.”

Swallowing hard, the cleric kept silent, hurrying to keep pace.

They entered a vestibule whose doors had been smashed open with a ram, and scaled a stairway of opus alexandrium. The Hall’s frescoed dome was inset with silver-glass, reflecting the pools of blood and tangled bodies of the slain academics. Stone carvings of saints, generals and philosophers looked on, impassive. Passing by a row of standing armour suits, the Primarch marched across to where an elderly man lay on the stone. His head had been caved in by a hammer-blow.

“Guildmaster to this blasphemous institution,” he said, nodding at the corpse. “And coincidently last survivor of the heretic Firestrider bloodline. A worthy accomplishment. But there is more to be done.”

The Chancellor cleared his throat. “My lord Primarch. Though I of course applaud your erm … piety, are you not concerned that the regime will look unkindly on this action? The University -

“Debate in this very Hall has proposed to revise the histories of Rhiannon as put forth by the Order of Dragar. That sacrilege alone is sufficient to warrant action, never mind this – atheist’s - ancestry.” He spat on the body.

Reaching out to the chamber’s curved wall, the Primarch ran a gauntleted hand across the masterful paintwork adorning the walls, depicting famous scenes of Rhiannese history. “Some of my colleagues have urged me to cast this place down. Burn it, root and stone. But let it not be said that the Order of Dragar is unforgiving.”

Striding once more from the room, he shouted for servants to clear up the mess. “We will cleanse it first, of course,” he bellowed. “Then we will remake it as an edifice of God’s truth.”

Hours later, Templars returning to the Hall would find household staff among the dead. At the centre of the room, a single tile, stained with the last blood of Firestrider had been pried loose from the floor. Among the ranks of standing armour suits, one plinth was empty.

Chapter III- Greatbow

“I call them Anchors,” explained the wizard, raising his voice above the din. The redcoat smiled and nodded, though he was plainly somewhat distracted. Mud squelched beneath their boots, and they were forced to step aside as more soldiers jogged past.

“Some theories consider emotion to be the basis of all magic,” the wizard continued. “And artefacts associated with widespread or particularly powerful emotions – the shield of a legendary general for example – may leave a lasting magical imprint on the world. This has a variety of applications, and can even be used as a fulcrum for a possessor’s soul coherency post mortem!”

The redcoat nodded along, uncomprehending.

“It’s one of the reasons for the popular superstition that –for example – scorned women are more likely to become ghosts upon death! There is actually a sound magical basis for believing that!”

A spell whistled overhead, and one of the nearby fusiliers swore colourfully. A dull thump rang out, and dirt rained down into the trench. Seeing he was losing his audience, the wizard assured the trooper that he could find his own way further. He was pointed uphill, where a walled dugout was faintly visible in the mist. The mighty standing stones of Thaur Island loomed in the distance beyond.

He was met by a harassed-looking officer, who waved him impatiently inside. “Sorry about the fuss,” he said, gesturing vaguely at the ceiling. “Just haven’t been able to shift these damn elves, its’ been quite the spot of trouble.” Sitting down heavily in front of a large map, he absently offered the wizard a tea, who happily accepted. Reaching into his waistcoat, the wizard pulled out a crumpled envelope, and pushed it across the table.

“I’m aware of your request of course,” the officer said flatly. “I’m afraid it can’t be done. The whole world is going to hell, and we just can’t spare the artillery.”

“Commander, this research could be absolutely critical to resolving the Strife. I’m afraid I –“

“Do you hear that?” cut in the officer.

After a moment, a resounding crack echoed across the trenchworks, followed by a distant boom.

“That installation is the only thing keeping the enemy off this peninsula. Now, my orders are to hold Thaur Island, as I have done for six months. It has cost these lads a hell of a lot, but by the Gods we will hold for another six or until my order change.” He banged a fist on the table.

Standing slightly and adjusting his coat-tails, the wizard again pushed the envelope toward the officer. “Your orders have changed Commander. I am to collect the artefact, and your men are to pull out. There are larger considerations at work here. I’m sorry.”

The wizard stepped back out into the trenches. Keeping his head low, he scaled the steps of the small fort and made for the forward emplacement. Overlooking the downward slope of the craterscape, a steel structure was bolted in place, enabling teams of sweating men to load and fire an immense, gleaming longbow.

Chapter IV- Storm-Lion

The swordsman coughed, and realised he was alive. A throbbing line of pain radiated across his face, and he tried not to move, afraid it would hinge open like a book. Blindly, he clawed around with his hands, fingers closing on a cold iron rung, then a bar. He was in a cage. He smelled smoke, oil, sweat and horses and finally, remembered the battle.

The wagon was surrounded by barbarians, black-armoured and slathered in warpaint. The stink of blood and animal fat followed them, borne by an arctic wind off the Wreathed Sea. In the vanishing distance to the south stood Tyvzbruda, the northernmost mountain ever mapped by civilised men. Cracking an eye, the swordsman recognised a few of his fellow captives, rangers and infantry from the garrison there. They were sworn to hold the upper border of Lorst against the mongol reavers beyond, and several wept in disgrace at their failure.

As the column marched steadily on, the frozen trees towered around them, slender and silent. Muffled by the mist, the crunch of boots and hooves in the snow felt weirdly close and discordant to their ears, and the light became pale through the canopy. They began to pass ominous shapes in the mist, looming marker-stones carved with snarling features. There was excitement as the first of them was sighted, with the savages exchanging barks and flurries in their native tongue. One of the rangers translated for the others.

“These stones mark the Blood-Road,” he whispered.

“What’s that?” someone moaned.

“Take a guess,” snapped the retort.

They strained to hear more, mist blooming from white lips as the ranger spoke.

“In ancient times, there was a warrior known by many names: Harbinger, Beast-King, Storm-Lion. It is said that his coming was presaged by thunder and tempest, and with his own hands, he slew all the monsters and giants in the land. He raised a mighty capital on the plunder of their hoards, and for a time, invited challenge as lord of the wilderness. But after many years, he abandoned the throne, hungry for worthier foes. Then he vanished, carving a path into the north and paving the road with the blood of slaughtered daemons. The tribes believe his crown lies out there still, fallen somewhere in the Everfrost. Many have sought to follow in his footsteps.”

The wagon jolted to a halt, it’s iron wheels groaning in protest. The captives looked around in confusion, before the cage door was wrenched suddenly open. Rough hands grabbed one of the infantrymen, hauling him onto the snow. When he struggled, blows from clubs and fists rained down on him, until his scalp and face were purpled and matted with blood.

“Stop! What are they doing?” shouted the swordsman, as the insensate soldier was dragged through the ice and dumped at the foot of the pillar. “They need to appease him,” murmured the ranger, nodding to the grumbling clouds. “Only the worthy may follow his Road, lest he become wrathful.”

A robed man, wearing a long mane of feathers, roared to the sky. He grabbed the soldier’s lolling head and viciously cut his throat. Ignoring the screams of alarm from the cage, he held the hosing wound in place, pumping arcs of blood across the leonine face of the stone. When the squirting stopped, he let the corpse slump to into the snow.

The march resumed, and the captives were silent for a long time. When the swordsman finally spoke again, the others wished he hadn’t.

“How long is this road? How many of those stones are we going to pass?”

“They don’t know,” said the soldier. “No one has ever found the end of it.”

The column snaked northwards, under a pall of ashen cloud, further into the Everfrost.

Chapter V- The Daemon Duke

Standing silent upon the rooftops, the pale-skinned figures were silhouetted by the swollen moon. After many hours, one of them spoke. “There,” he croaked, and the others cocked their heads to listen.

Across the darkened town, the faint squeaking of a lone, skinny rat, echoed in a drainpipe. Peeking a whiskered nose out from the tiny opening, it sniffed the air, scenting the rich odour of rotting grain. Rough sacks of produce sat untouched in the empty square, some upturned and spilled across the cobblestones. Enticed by the smell, the rat darted across to a sewage channel, hugging the walls as it went. Finally, it scurried into the open, ready to feast. A hunched shape blurred across the square, snatching the rat up in gnarled hands. It stuffed the wriggling rodent into its mouth, crunching eagerly as blood drizzled down it’s chin. Moaning slightly, the figure leaned against a wall, feeling a momentary lull in it’s terrible hunger. Long incisors retracted painfully. Dizzied, it did not notice the slender figures on the rooftop above.

Wiping sticky, sap-like bile off it’s hands, the pale-skinned figure returned to its’ fellows. The splattered remains of the feral vampire glistened on his shirtfront, reflecting the glow of the moon. “That was the last,” he crooned, predatory fangs showing between it’s lips.

“We were too slow in correcting this,” rumbled the Eldest, staring out at the empty landscape of Dalmestria. “These wild ones have guzzled every morsel of blood for leagues in every direction. There will have to be culls, even among our own -". Stopping abruptly, the group whipped around as a candle flame sprang to life in the window of a nearby ruin. In a blur of motion, the coven appeared at the threshold. A tall man stood there, his smiling visage underlit by the simple lantern he bore. Having hunted naught but their own kind for weeks, the coven stared at him, their eyes bulging with barely restrained hunger.

“Hello,” he said simply. “I’m Malach. Won’t you please come in?

Though they had each clearly heard the invitation, only the Eldest found he could pass the open doorway. He edged forward, sniffing the air curiously. “You speak the old tongue?” he asked in Ygmeri, his ancient heart almost giving a beat at the sound of his beloved birth-language.

“I can make myself understood,” replied Malach.

“How came you to learn it? I thought it long extinct?” After so many centuries, he yearned to hear more.

The man only smiled, waiting as the vampire crept closer.

“Who are you?” he demanded, pointing his staff at the figure. "How do you know Ygmeri?"

“Master, he isn’t speaking Ygmeri!” hissed one of the coven. “We can all understand him!”

There was a moment of dawning comprehension, and the Eldest swung back around toward the man-who-was-not-a-man.
“You’re very old, aren’t you,” spat Malach, inches from the vampire’s face. “Very powerful. But as mighty as you are, you've gone an awfully long time between drinks.” The Eldest made for the door, but Malach spoke first.

"I withdraw my invitation."

Red eyes went wide. The air was sucked from the vampire’s lungs, and pain like a thousand burning needles wracked him in place. He felt a kick impact in the centre of his back. He hit the floor, pawing as brackish blood seeped from his pores. Malach kicked the staff from his curling fingers.

“It was you,” croaked the Eldest. “The wild vampires, breeding out of control. You did it, somehow.”

Ignoring him, Malach reached down and scooped up some of the pooling blood in a vial. Examining it with a pleased expression, his robes billowed for a moment. Then he vanished, snuffing out like a guttering candle. As his coven screamed helplessly at the door, Lord Trajkovska remained in place, watching the first dim light of dawn edge over the nearby mountains.

Part II: Firestrider Ascends

The Firestrider brushed ashes from his green coat as he approached the kneeling form of the Daemon Duke. Behind him the still smoking remnants of the Pale Mage blow in the false wind, incinerated in an instant by the Firestriders immense power. As he steps forward he intensifies the flames enveloping the Daemon Duke, sending the pale skinned beast in writhing agony.

The Duke looks up as Firestrider approaches, his skin healing itself even as it burns away. Flames burn flesh to the bone even as the flesh reforms upon the same charred bones. Firestrider flinches away from the horrific sight, but amplifies the flames none-the-less. The Duke grunts, his natural vampiric healing struggling against the pure fury of the magical flames bursting from the Firestriders outstretched staff. Through broken teeth and burnt flesh the Duke spits, drawing a deep ragged breath.
"Bastard. Strike me down and be eternally damned…"

Firestrider seems to consider for a moment. He thinks back to his days at the college in Rhannior, his adventures in Varg, the signing of the Silver Concord and the invasion of his homeland at the head of an army of mages. He thinks of daemons, dragons and battles beyond counting.
And he raises his staff once more.

"I have earned my place in legend".

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