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Conquest of the Crystal

StoriesbyJurixe Apr 4th, 2013 (edited) 37 Never
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  1. The usually bustling cobblestone streets of Cyrene, Heart of the Vashnars, descended into a blessed silence as the last vestiges of daylight faded into the inky darkness of night. Doors were shut, curtains tugged closed, candles blown out and tired bodies laid to rest as most Cyrenians tucked themselves into their beds, safe and warm in their homes.
  2.  
  3. All except for one hooded figure, the door of the tiny cottage creaking faintly as it pushed it open, a chill breeze tugging back the hood to reveal the frightened features of a female Tsol'aa. She froze, her heart thumping wildly, certain the sound would have roused the alarm; but all remained silent, and she eased her way past the door, pulling her hood tighter around her as she walked swiftly towards the heart of the city.
  4.  
  5. She threaded her way carefully through the winding streets, leaving small footprints upon the light dusting of snowfall on the stones. A potent cocktail of adrenaline and terror made her jump at every sound and flinch from every shadow, certain someone, somewhere, was bound to see her and ask why she was out at this late hour. Or perhaps, deep down, she hoped.
  6.  
  7. "Someone will see me, must see me," she thought desperately. "Where is everyone?"
  8.  
  9. Yet the streets remained stubbornly deserted, and it was with a growing feeling of dread that she eventually found herself in front of her destination - the great manor of Ty Beirdd. It was an imposing establishment, home to all scholars and practitioners of the various arts in Cyrene, be they singers, dancers, writers, painters or more.
  10.  
  11. Tonight, however, it was about to receive a few unorthodox admissions.
  12.  
  13. She jumped violently as a clear, ringing sound pierced the silence - the clock tower was chiming a welcome to midnight. Normally melodious and reassuring, tonight each gentle toll sounded like a strident clang of warning to the terrified Tsol'aa. "Traitor! Traitor!" they seemed to scream to her. Whimpering, she covered her ears tightly until the last chime echoed off into silence.
  14.  
  15. Slowly lowering her hands from her ears, she began to pace anxiously up and down, her cloak dragging on the grass as she walked and chewed fretfully on her nails. "It's not midnight. It can't be. The clock tower must be wrong, someone must have tampered with the bells. It can't be. It can't..." she muttered over and over to herself.
  16.  
  17. A few minutes passed uneventfully, and the Tsol'aa seemed to relax a fraction. "It's past midnight. She's late. Maybe she won't come. That's it." She brightened slightly, hope in her eyes and voice. "That's it. That's it. She's decided not to come. Maybe I got the date wrong. I- yes, that's it. She's not coming. I should go home." She seemed to make up her mind. "Yes. Yes, I should go home." Turning on her heel, she took a step towards the main street.
  18.  
  19. And nearly screamed as a cloaked figure materialised in front of her, appearing out of thin air.
  20.  
  21. Clapping a hand over her mouth, she stumbled back in abject terror, almost tripping over the end of her own cloak. Quickly, she tried to right herself, scrambling to place some distance between her and the cloaked figure as she retreated instinctively towards the manor.
  22.  
  23. A faint chuckle resounded from the dark depths of the figure's hood, softly feminine. "We meet again, little Bard."
  24.  
  25. Trembling, she tried vainly to compose herself, lacing her fingers tightly together to stop their shaking. "G-good evening..." she whispered.
  26.  
  27. "Your presence here suggests that you are willing to honour the terms of our...agreement," the figure whispered, her voice low and silken, seeming to weave its way into the Cyrenian's unwilling ears.
  28.  
  29. She took a deep breath, trying vainly to calm herself. "Y-yes. If...if I do this...you promised..." Fear rendered her almost incomprehensible, and a small part of her berated herself for succumbing so easily to it - yet overpowering that minor loss of dignity was an even deeper sense of shame and terror, seeming to control all her thoughts and actions.
  30.  
  31. A slight snort. "Amusing, is it not, the power one wields when indiscretions are revealed," the voice murmured. "Fear not, little Tsol'aa, do this simple task for me and as promised, none need learn of your little interlude with that dashing Occultist...and your fiance, too, can sleep sweet." The Tsol'aa flushed at the undercurrent of condescension and amusement in the sibilant voice.
  32.  
  33. "You- you had no right..." she said weakly.
  34.  
  35. "My dear Bard, if I had not seen you, someone else would," the voice said with deep amusement. "If you think trees and shrubs afford any privacy at all, you know now how sadly mistaken you were. Really, I am surprised that you did not rouse the whole forest with your screams of ecstasy." The girl had to bite her lip to stop herself from uttering a moan of horror, shame flooding her veins at the stinging words.
  36.  
  37. "I...I...nobody will believe you, you know," she said, trying to make a last-ditch attempt to save her pride and those she loved. "Y..you have no proof."
  38.  
  39. The figure sighed. "If you truly believed that, we would not be here. You know that it will merely require a spark to light a bonfire, and I wager I have more than enough material to create an inferno. Do you need convincing? Perhaps a letter to your fiance...I am sure he would be very interested in your enthusiastic research regarding certain physical Occult practices..." The figure made a show of searching for a quill, making soft rustling noises as she rummaged around her pack.
  40.  
  41. The Cyrenian almost lunged forward in her panic. "NO!" The figure paused, turning slowly towards her, and she stumbled hastily backwards, quickly realising her mistake. "I mean...no. That is not necessary." She turned away, a single helpless tear trickling down her cheek. "Fine. Fine. I'll do it, you horrible creature. I'll do it."
  42.  
  43. She couldn't see the person's face, but she imagined bitterly that a satisfied smile appeared on her unseen lips. "We are in agreement, then." The voice turned brisk. "Now, we have wasted enough time. Do as I have bid you, and your part in this is done."
  44.  
  45. Lowering her head in defeat, the Tsol'aa trudged up the steps to the grand oak doors of the manor, the ghostly figure trailing behind. She looked up at the insignia of Ty Beirdd, displayed proudly on top of the arch, and could not stop another fat tear from joining the first.
  46.  
  47. "Forgive me," she whispered, and placed her hand upon the cool wood.
  48.  
  49. Recognising her touch, the doors swung open soundlessly, revealing the shadowed interior of the manor.
  50.  
  51. "Excellent," the figure whispered, obvious pleasure in her tone. "Your debt is paid, youngling."
  52.  
  53. As the Cyrenian walked past the cloaked figure, a gloved hand shot out from the folds of the dark garment, abruptly latching on to her palm in a vice-like grip. A shocked gasp escaped her parted lips as the Tsol'aa tried to twist out of her firm grasp, all of which were completely ignored, even though the faint sheen of nervous sweat on her palm must have made it hard for her captor to hold on.
  54.  
  55. A threatening hiss. "Now, if you know what is good for yourself, disappear. Tell no one, or I will take great pleasure in whispering your infidelity to your fiance before I slit his throat."
  56.  
  57. She nodded fearfully, trembling. A tense moment passed; then the hand released hers, pushing her roughly away at the same time. Stifling a sob, the girl stumbled blindly down the steps and away from the manor, unheeding of the great doors swinging shut just as a dark figure vanished within.
  58.  
  59. ============================================================================================
  60.  
  61. Once inside the manor, Ilaje reached up and lowered her hood, grey eyes glancing quickly around the opulent interior. She allowed herself a momentary smirk of satisfaction, ivory fangs gleaming, before she was all business once more.
  62.  
  63. The Mhun crept soundlessly from room to room, stopping at intervals to examine items or areas of interest. She ran a slender finger down the numerous titles in the bookcases, scoffing slightly at their frivolity; stalked past instrument-filled rooms, and spared only an unimpressed, "Drunken fools," for the extravagantly appointed bar.
  64.  
  65. Just as she was beginning to despair of finding anything useful, a soft glimmering at the end of an eastern hallway caught her attention. She strode quietly towards the faint glow, watching it grow brighter; and then, as she rounded the corner, she found herself before an ornately decorated door. Intricate carvings wound their way around the polished wooden panels, depicting a wide variety of artists immersed in their craft - here a painter, there a flutist, further still a sculptor, all vividly rendered.
  66.  
  67. Ilaje cared for none of these, however; what caught her interest was the brightness emanating from the gaps between the door and the doorframe, outlining the wood in a brilliant corona of light. She placed her hand on the bright brass doorknob and turned, pushing inwards. The door swung open just a fraction before it slammed firmly shut, denying her entrance.
  68.  
  69. Her dark brows drew together in a slight frown as she contemplated the door thoughtfully. Clearly, as in most other House estates, it was enchanted to only allow members access, keeping out all non Ty Beirdd members.
  70.  
  71. Non Ty Beirdd members...
  72.  
  73. Sudden inspiration struck her as she gazed down at her other gloved hand, the one that had caught the foolish Cyrenian girl. She had meant only to scare, at the time, but remembering how the girl had opened the main doors of the manor with just a touch, Ilaje began to wonder if it wasn't some kind of unknown foresight that had driven her to do so.
  74.  
  75. Tentatively, she placed her hand on the doorknob, gently turning. This time, the door swung open invitingly, and it was with a sense of triumph that she stepped into the chamber beyond.
  76.  
  77. The source of the teasing, flickering light was immediately evident; an enormous crystal dominated the room, glittering and shimmering brilliantly in the faint candlelight as it rested atop an obsidian stand. Ilaje bit her lip to stifle a gasp of elation, unable to resist taking in the splendour of the gigantic crystal for just a moment, silently marvelling at how each smooth facet caught and reflected the light.
  78.  
  79. It was the distant chime of the clock tower that jolted Ilaje out of her brief reverie. Knowing she did not have long to linger before dawn broke, she quickly closed her eyes and tried to focus her excited thoughts into a coherent line of communication, reaching out to one particular mind.
  80.  
  81. <General Syuven, may I request your attention for a brief moment?>
  82.  
  83. <Yes, speak,> came the terse reply.
  84.  
  85. She tried to keep the elation from seeping into her thoughts. <I have gained entry into the manor of the Ty Beirdd. And I have discovered that they possess a Master Crystal.>
  86.  
  87. She felt his attention sharpen instantly, and held her breath. <Excellent work, Naga. Have your Housemates assist you with creating an alternative entrance, and inform me when your work is complete.>
  88.  
  89. Excitement and adrenaline thrummed through her veins, but she fought to remain calm. <As you say, General.> Abruptly, he broke the link, and she refocused her thoughts to touch those of her Housemates.
  90.  
  91. The mental presences of her Housemates filled her mind, the cool touch of her longtime partner forefront amongst them. <I sense your excitement, Naga Ilaje,> he whispered to her. <What has transpired?>
  92.  
  93. <I have gained entrance into the Ty Beirdd manor, Naga Visro,> she replied, trying to stop herself from shivering with glee. <And I have discovered that they possess a Master Crystal. The General has ordered that we create our own means of access.>
  94.  
  95. She felt the surprise and elation of her Housemates flare in her mind. A new presence made itself known, soft yet authoritative. <Excellent, Naga Ilaje. I assume you require the aid of Naga Visro?>
  96.  
  97. <Yes, Nagarani Mysha.>
  98.  
  99. <Naga Visro, see to it that this is done. The rest of you, gather at the gates to the city. Do not come unprepared for battle.>
  100.  
  101. A chorus of affirmatives, and Ilaje severed the link, willing her excitement down as she took a deep breath and prepared to channel her magic to the waiting Visro. There was work to be done yet.
  102.  
  103. ============================================================================================
  104.  
  105. The sky was beginning to lighten as the strange Serpent magic finally solidified between Ilaje and Visro, creating a magical passage through the ether. Taking a few steps back in the hallway, Ilaje broke into a run, hurtling herself through the air; a swirling vortex of colours opened before her, swallowing her into its depth.
  106.  
  107. A rush of colour and sound enveloped her briefly before she was spat out onto a stretch of burnt grassland, barren of all but dead grass, rocks and thrashing lycopod plants, hungry for raw flesh. Almost instantly, her slight form was enveloped by the churning red fog that shrouded the landscape, almost as if welcoming her home. She stretched and rolled her shoulders, inhaling the corrosive air deep into her lungs and revelling in the familiar burning sensation in her nose and throat, pungent with the stench of sulphur and decay.
  108.  
  109. Suddenly, Visro's smooth voice spoke next to her. "Come, Naga Ilaje. The army awaits." She nodded her dark head and fell into step behind her invisible partner, following the soft sound of his footsteps as the two moved rapidly towards a towering city of obsidian and stone, nestled upon a forbidding mountain.
  110.  
  111. They navigated the rock-strewn wasteland with an ease born of familiarity, the dark city looming larger and larger as they drew close. Soon, they found themselves standing before a large wooden drawbridge spanning a wide moat, its spiked portcullis raised and hanging ominously over the yawning entrance to the mountain. On the other side of the drawbridge, the orderly ranks of the stygian-clad Mhaldorian army waited patiently, the well-trained soldiers poised to attack on a mere signal. At their head rode a hooded figure, unimposing except for the steed he sat on - a huge black stallion with demonic wings extending from its back, wreathed in heatless, ethereal green flames that threw an emerald cast over his surroundings.
  112.  
  113. Quickly, the two Mhuns made their way up to the robed figure, throwing back the hoods of their own cloaks as they bent their heads in obeisance.
  114.  
  115. "The task is complete, General Syuven," Ilaje said. "We are ready to move at your leisure."
  116.  
  117. The figure inclined his head slightly. "Excellent." Abruptly, he yanked on the reins and pulled his whinnying steed around to face his silent troops. "All of you are to follow one of the Naga. Be ready. We move now!"
  118.  
  119. At his words, shadowy figures materialised from within the neat lines, each moving to head a troop of soldiers. The general himself urged his steed to trot up to Ilaje and Visro, the fresh stallion whinnying and prancing restively with bloodlust, expertly reined in by his rider. He looked down at the waiting Mhuns, and uttered a single word.
  120.  
  121. "Go."
  122.  
  123. As one, Ilaje and Visro turned, drawing up their hoods with practiced ease as they broke into a light-footed jog, retracing the route to the invisible portal at the burnt grasslands. Mhaldorian troops followed behind in orderly formation, moving efficiently through the hazardous, rocky fields.
  124.  
  125. The draw of the wormhole's magic grew stronger as they approached, and finally Visro erupted into a full sprint, moving lightning-fast as he threw himself towards empty air, Ilaje following close on his heels. The intense thundering of steel and hooves upon hard ground echoed his sudden change in pace as the army followed suit. A familiar vortex of whirling, vibrant colour burst from mid-air to swallow the group whole, and abruptly the fog-shrouded wasteland was silent once more.
  126.  
  127. ==========================================================================================
  128.  
  129. The quiet chamber in the dark manor erupted to life as the legions of Evil appeared in a swirl of chaotic colour, the crash of armour on marble especially thundering in the dead quiet of the night.
  130.  
  131. Syuven began barking out orders the moment they arrived, one clawed hand gesturing from atop his daemonic steed.
  132.  
  133. "Leandran, begin refining. Sir Marak, defend him. We need the Malefic Curate to live, for that is our purpose here, after all."
  134.  
  135. A red-robed Tsol'aa bowed his head in deference, turning to the giant crystal. Carefully, he laid his long, thin fingers upon its glittering surface, drawing out a smaller, coloured crystal, which he placed in a small pouch before repeating the motion. A tall, armoured Xoran knight moved in front of the Magi's slight frame, shielding him from attackers as he gripped a dangerous-looking scimitar in each hand, dark eyes scanning the room warily through his heavy helm.
  136.  
  137. "Lay down the gravehands."
  138.  
  139. An Apostate muttered words of death and decay, and the ground trembled under their feet. Cracks began to appear in the pristine marble tiles, spidering wildly as the trembling grew more intense. Suddenly, rotting hands burst through the floor, sending shards of expensive marble flying everywhere as they clawed and grabbed blindly, seeking to grasp anything within reach.
  140.  
  141. "Archers, take your positions."
  142.  
  143. The shadowy figures of the Naga arranged themselves in neat lines near the entrance of the door, careful not to put themselves directly in the line of fire. Most exchanged whips and dirks for sleek bows, others hastily colouring and envenoming their arrows. A few knights sheathed swords in favour of bows as well, though others decided to concentrate on melee combat and grouped themselves in the centre of the chamber with the general.
  144.  
  145. Syuven nodded meaningfully to a scarred grey Troll near him, and with an answering nod the Troll sheathed his rune-engraved rapiers. From his canvas pack, he pulled out a long wooden totem, some six feet in length. Quickly, he used a thin stick to sketch six runes upon its surface, one after another, then turned it to face the entrance and hefted it upright with both his hands, straining slightly under the weight.
  146.  
  147. "Dragons, use your breath weapons the minute that door creaks open. Apostates, if you have soulspears, ready them."
  148.  
  149. Candlelight glanced off the shiny scales of the Mhaldorian Dragons, casting colourful, dancing points of light about the rear of the chamber as some flexed and growled faintly with impatience. Next to them, a group of black-robed people resembling General Syuven stood together, some gripping spears that glowed with an unearthly light. Next to each Apostate was a creature of nightmarish description, which the Apostates would caress and whisper to at intervals - the dreaded Baalzadeens.
  150.  
  151. Surveying the scene before him with a practiced eye, Syuven nodded again in apparent satisfaction. "Good. But it's still lacking something..." A humourless smirk curved his lips, mostly hidden by the hood of his robe. "Ah, yes."
  152.  
  153. He dismounted gracefully from his stallion, striding to the middle of the chamber. Throwing his arms wide, he closed his eyes and dipped his head backwards, beginning to recite a strange litany in an incomprehensible language.
  154.  
  155. A brief sense of searing agony swept over the room as a humble shrine dedicated to the Suffering Lord emerged from the ground, born of Syuven's faith. Quickly, a golden Dragon offered up some corpses from her earlier hunting to sanctify the shrine, and in no time a huge shrine thrumming with colour and sound presided over the area, jostling for space within the confines of the increasingly small room.
  156.  
  157. Appreciative chuckles filled the air, and Syuven's smirk widened imperceptibly. "And now, it is time these ignorant mountain-dwellers fully appreciated the glorious presence of Evil in their unworthy midst."
  158.  
  159. The sun had just begun to rise as Syuven's commanding voice, magically magnified, reverberated around the still-quiet streets of the mountain city, jolting Cyrenians rudely awake and sending guards scrambling for their weapons.
  160.  
  161. "Awaken, pathetic pacifists of the Vashnars, and bear witness to the glory of Suffering! Learn well its lessons, and begin the path to Strength; falter or reject its teachings, and be ground into dust in its unmerciful wake!"
  162.  
  163. As he finished his declaration, Syuven turned his gaze to his expectant, silent army, letting the words sink in. "Be ready," he said simply, though he knew they would be. Bloodlust flashed eager in the eyes of every Mhaldorian present, their stances taut with anticipation. Beside the Master Crystal, the Magi kept refining at a feverish pace, his pouch growing heavy with the weight of more and more crystals.
  164.  
  165. "They are assembling at the gates of Cyrene, General," reported a young Apostate as she whispered to her Baalzadeen. "It seems the defenders of Shallam are with them, too."
  166.  
  167. Syuven nodded slightly. "Let them come," he said dismissively. "If any of you experience trouble, follow a Naga and have them warp you back to the isle."
  168.  
  169. Just as the words left his mouth, the Master Crystal flashed and two figures blinked into existence; one a female Tsol'aa Magi, whom he recognised as Cyrana, the Imperiate of Cyrene, and the other a keen-eyed female Dwarf Runewarden.
  170.  
  171. The Mhaldorians stared at the duo, and they stared back, momentarily frozen with shock.
  172.  
  173. Tentatively, Cyrana reached a slender hand out to open the door.
  174.  
  175. Seeing her move, a quick-thinking Rajamalan member of the Naga reflexively slammed the door shut, continuing to gaze at her warily.
  176.  
  177. Cyrana hesitated, then reached to open it again.
  178.  
  179. This time, the Mhaldorians sprung into attack. It took but a few seconds - a Dragon swept her tail underneath their legs, toppling them onto the ground; Sir Marak vaulted upon his stone gargoyle, whipping it into a frenzy as it crushed the limbs of the Cyrenians underfoot; and almost as if perfectly scripted, both Syuven and Marak reached down from their steeds at the same time, each brutally tearing the sternum from the body of his victim and impaling their bloodsoaked corpses upon them with identical, diabolical laughs of pure malevolence.
  180.  
  181. A clatter outside the door drew their interest, and several attempts to open the door from the other side were made. However, the protective enchantments on the door held; it still refused to open for those not bearing the mark of Ty Beirdd, eliciting frustrated mutters from the defenders. The Mhaldorians simply exchanged disparaging glances and knowing smirks as they waited, the only sound in the room being Leandran's steady depletion of the Master Crystal.
  182.  
  183. "It would be remiss of us to not provide our opponents with some entertainment," Syuven commented as he turned towards the shrine of Apollyon. Bowing his head, he clasped his clawed hands together in prayer, chanting furiously under his breath.
  184.  
  185. The shrine glowed white hot with a sudden surge of energy, and anguished screams resonated through the hallways outside as Syuven seared the defenders's souls with the sheer force of the shrine's power. Deathsenses tingled as Shallamese and Cyrenians alike fell lifeless before the crushing torment that was the will of Suffering, while the dark forces within exulted.
  186.  
  187. When the defenders regrouped slowly outside their room once more, the more alert of the Mhaldorians sensed that the Imperiate was now with them. Silence fell over the casting chamber as they waited, nerves tingling with anticipation.
  188.  
  189. Syuven dipped his fingers into the cool water of his scrying bowl, the surface of the water rippling and smoothing out to reveal the congregated defenders. He frowned briefly, quickly composing a target list in his head.
  190.  
  191. "Slay the Imperiate first," he directed, his voice soft but still authorative.
  192.  
  193. At a signal from Ilaje, the archers strung their bows with venom-laced arrows and drew their strings taut, waiting.
  194.  
  195. The door creaked open, just a fraction.
  196.  
  197. Then it swung fully open, and chaos descended.
  198.  
  199. A volley of arrows erupted from within the chamber, instantly felling the hapless Imperiate once more as her elemental staff tumbled from her lifeless hand. A glowing soulspear hurtled past to sink deep into the body of a second defender, a few more well-placed arrows snuffing his life out faster than anyone could blink.
  200.  
  201. Realizing too late the deadly potency of the Mhaldorian archers, the motley group of defenders decided to charge into the chamber, hoping to kill the Magi who still stood by the crystal, tirelessly refining. Instead, they met only slaughter; those who found themselves paralysed and transfixed by the earth magic of the Troll's propped totem were made short work of by the necromancers, while those who were less easily subdued still had little chance of overcoming the efficient coordination of the Mhaldorian army. Soon, all the defenders had either fled or perished, leaving the Mhaldorians standing largely intact amid a sea of bloody corpses, the soft drip-drip-drip of blood splashing onto the floor resonating within the chamber.
  202.  
  203. Syuven allowed the murmur of glee that hummed amongst the Mhaldorians for a moment, before snapping them back into order. "Necromancers, take the corpses and harvest their hearts. Use them to create soulspears, they will be needed." Silently, the black-robed figures crowded around the corpses strewn across the room, a low chanting reverberating around the room as they methodically transformed the useless husks into weapons of death.
  204.  
  205. Without warning, Ilaje choked and stumbled forward as her knees buckled, dropping her bow with a clatter as her fingers scrabbled uselessly at her throat, some invisible force seeming to strangle her. The pressure seemed to ease, and she took a deep breath; once more brutally cut off as the unseen attacker redoubled its efforts. Beside her, Visro coughed and gasped as an identical pressure clenched around his windpipe, though he had the presence of mind to take a deep breath and hold it just before the next crush.
  206.  
  207. Momentarily distracted by their plight, the Mhaldorians failed to react fast enough when the door next opened. A few alert snipers fired arrows into the throng, but could not stop the rush of defenders who barrelled into the room, swords and staves swinging wildly. In the ensuing confusion, the more keen-eyed among the Mhaldorians noticed a female Tsol'aa Druid move through the battle, heading straight for the shrine of Suffering. Before they could reach her, she was already in front of the shrine. The golden-haired woman set her jaw, blue eyes flashing as she hefted the mud-spattered corpse of a Qurnok guard in her arms, raising it towards the shrine...
  208.  
  209. ...and the corpse vanished in a flurry of golden sparkles as she offered it to the Lord Apollyon, strengthening His essence.
  210.  
  211. The pursuing Mhaldorians paused, momentarily confused. Surely she had meant to defile the shrine? As she took another corpse out of the lumpy sack at her side and repeated the offering, they glanced at each other, shrugged imperceptibly, and turned back to join the bloody fray. Who were they to question, after all, those who wished to showcase their dedication to the Suffering Lord - even a Cyrenian?
  212.  
  213. Eventually, the uncoordinated but repetitive efforts of the Shallamese/Cyrenian joint venture succeeded in felling General Syuven, a few archers and some Apostates. The victory was short-lived, however, once their own leader collapsed from a Naga dirk plunged viciously into his back, and the Mhaldorians quickly rallied and drove the defenders out once more.
  214.  
  215. Lashing vines and pointed thorns receded from the hulking form of a Viridian, revealing a petite Dwarven Sylvan as she picked up the bodies of the slain soldiers. She turned to the ethereal light that was Syuven's soul, her expression inquiring. "Should I resurrect these, General?"
  216.  
  217. "Yes," he whispered, his voice seeming to come from far away. "Have a Naga return you to the isle and resurrect us so that we may faster return."
  218.  
  219. She nodded, and made to follow one of the waiting cloaked figures, before she stopped mid-stride. Abruptly, she turned stiffly back towards the rhythmically thrumming shrine, shuffling jerkily, almost unwillingly towards it. A pained expression was visible on her face as she raised a corpse towards the stony visage of the Suffering Lord, her eyes widening in horror as the body vanished in a haze of glittering gold.
  220.  
  221. "What are you doing, Dynamis?" inquired a knight disapprovingly. "The General said to resurrect them!"
  222.  
  223. "It's not me!" she said, turning her head with difficulty to look up at him, fighting for control even as body after body was offered to the Lord Apollyon. "A monk is commanding me to offer the bodies!"
  224.  
  225. He moved quickly, then, to stop her; but the last corpse had just faded from existence. The unnatural tension in the Sylvan's body eased and she straightened, this time seemingly of her own volition as she frowned deeply. "Apologies, I could not stop it...though I'm not sure why they made me offer the corpses."
  226.  
  227. A faint ethereal sigh, carrying hints of irritation and mild amusement, echoed around the room. "They intended to have you destroy the shrine with our corpses, but as usual, failed miserably," whispered the soul of Syuven.
  228.  
  229. "No matter. Regroup at the isle, for Leandran fell as well. We will return shortly." With that, a brief murmur surrounded his form as he began the prayer for salvation, and he was gone in the next blink. The other souls that lingered followed suit, vanishing one after the other as they began the long journey back towards life.
  230.  
  231. The remaining forces fell into step behind Visro. "Be ready. We're leaving." He waited a heartbeat, then turned and began to sprint towards the invisible vortex, launching himself once more into the air.
  232.  
  233. A rush of colour and sound greeted them; and then the fog-blanketed Northern Vashnars came into view as they returned to more familiar surroundings. They said nothing to each other, merely waited patiently for the rest of their army to return to them.
  234.  
  235. Momentarily bored, Visro turned his attention to the invisible portal that he knew pulsated in front of them. Looking back to see if any of the Mhaldorians were paying attention, he turned back to the portal and furrowed his brow slightly, trying to force the wormhole open a little wider. Wormholes were designed primarily for speedy passage, but one could also hear words spoken nearby if it was large enough.
  236.  
  237. Eventually, he succeeded in forcing the wormhole open a fraction wider, listening carefully as noises reverberated through the ether. For a moment, it was just the sound of footwear scuffing across broken marble; then a high, clear voice floated through to reach his ears.
  238.  
  239. "Foolish Mhaldorians, thinking they could easily penetrate a Cyrenian House and not suffer the consequences."
  240.  
  241. Visro's thin lips curled up into a smirk.
  242.  
  243. "Foolish, are we.."
  244.  
  245. He concentrated hard, knotting his brow together as he extended the reach of his mind, searching for that of the speaker. A few seconds later, he found who he was looking for and quickly forged a mindlink; then, by sheer force of will alone, he forced the wormhole to surge forth and pull her through the ether, depositing her unceremoniously at his feet.
  246.  
  247. Familiar blue eyes blinked with startled surprise under a curtain of disheveled blonde locks, and his smirk widened as he realised it was the Tsol'aa who had tried to defile his Master's shrine. Quickly baring his fangs, he brought his dirk to them, allowing two drops to fall upon the tip and trickle down upon the metal. In the next breath, he swept his weapon down swiftly to prick her sprawled form with the twice-poisoned edge, causing her limbs to stiffen with paralysis.
  248.  
  249. Noticing the sudden presence of the intruder, the rest of the army descended quickly upon her even as she tried to escape. Swords flashed in complex patterns, steeds reared and trampled in battle rage, muttered curses flew from between parted lips, and it was over in a matter of seconds as her limp body slumped to the ground. Triumphantly, Visro curled his whip around the neck and pulled viciously, the force causing the head to come apart from the torso with an unnerving 'pop'.
  250.  
  251. "Damnation and curses upon you all, foul slaves of Evil!" her ethereal voice cried with ineffectual rage.
  252.  
  253. Visro only laughed softly, his grey eyes glittering with contempt. "There is little you could wish upon me with that I would fear, -Cyrenian-." He drew out the last word, as if a curse in itself. "Go, pray for salvation from the almighty Creatrix, and return to your little haven. But remember this day, for the servants of Suffering and Oppression have marked you and your city, and it will be as the General says - you will recognise their truths, or perish in your ignorance."
  254.  
  255. He turned his back on her as a dark figure cantered into view atop an unmistakable black stallion, all the soldiers turning towards it expectantly.
  256.  
  257. Ilaje stepped forward. "Do we return, General Syuven?"
  258.  
  259. His eyes surveyed the assembled warriors around him, and he inclined his head just slightly in assent. "Yes."
  260.  
  261. Excitement and anticipation rippled over the ranks as they readjusted their grips on their weapons, mending the last of their wounds as they stood tense and ready behind the general, eager to return to the battlefield.
  262.  
  263. Syuven glanced behind him as he swung his stallion around behind Ilaje, quickly assessing his troops.
  264.  
  265. "Ready?" he asked.
  266.  
  267. A low murmur of assent, a few nods.
  268.  
  269. "Then let's go."
  270.  
  271. Again Ilaje ran; again the forces of Evil charged as the swirling vortex swallowed them whole, shattering the fragile illusion of returning normalcy in the manor as they thundered back in. Caught off guard, the Cyrenians and Shallamese tried to muster something resembling a defense, but all were torn apart as the Mhaldorians wrought havoc with a terrible vengeance.
  272.  
  273. Once the Mhaldorians were entrenched again amidst new piles of fresh, bloody corpses, the battle picked up where it left off. Whenever the enchanted door would open, volleys of arrows, glowing spears, and potent dragon breathweapons would decimate any unlucky enough to stand in their way. Eventually, the defenders quickly realised that the enemy's ranged weapons outclassed their own and stopped trying to force entry.
  274.  
  275. In turn, the defending Monks concentrated on locking the minds of the enemies with their own, using their superior mind control to inflict mental diseases and choke their victims to death with the power of their kai. However, when the alert Naga noticed a citymate in distress, a brief sojourn via the wormhole would lead them back to the island of the Northern Vashnars for a moment's respite, allowing the victim to recover before rejoining the fray.
  276.  
  277. For two days the battle raged on, the advantageous defensive position of the raiders severely limiting the options of the defenders. Yet the raiders themselves also could not move, having to protect the furiously refining Magi as he depleted the Master Crystal slowly, facet by facet. At one point, Syuven unleashed the fury of Suffering once more upon the fighters, the shrine radiating waves of pain agonising beyond imagination. It brought all but the most battle-hardened defenders to their knees, almost welcoming the sweet oblivion that death would bring.
  278.  
  279. As nightfall arrived on the second day of the skirmish, it was apparent to all that they had achieved a stalemate. The Magi's eyes were glazed over from sheer fatigue, his fingers trembling slightly as they struggled to pull yet another crystal from the Master Crystal's undiminishing bulk. Already packs upon packs were stacked in a neat pile beside him, each full to bursting with colourful, glittering crystals. The Mhaldorians had inflicted significant losses upon the defending group with their vastly superior battle experience, but more and more fighters from both cities were joining their cause, and what they lacked in skill they made up for in numbers.
  280.  
  281. "Mhaldorians."
  282.  
  283. The single word had an immediate effect on the gathered soldiers. Instantly, every man and woman dropped anything they were doing and snapped to attention, focused on the stallion-mounted figure in the centre of the room.
  284.  
  285. "Two days have passed, with heavy losses on their end and a significant number of crystals obtained I believe we have sufficient cause to declare this a victory for us. Leandran, stop now. Prepare to leave."
  286.  
  287. The red-robed Tsol'aa sagged slightly with relief, before quickly straightening again, glancing worriedly at the general for his momentary display of weakness. However, Syuven had not noticed, keeping a careful watch on the defending group through his scrying bowl as the Mhaldorians collected their belongings and arranged themselves into a neat order, Ilaje and Visro once more in the lead. The defenders appeared to be deep in discussion, various scrolls and maps strewn out on the table in front of them as they argued - no doubt over some strategy or other.
  288.  
  289. Well, it would have to wait for another time, he thought, withdrawing his fingers from the water and shaking off the excess droplets as he guided his stallion to stand behind Visro.
  290.  
  291. The Mhun turned back to look up at him, a question in his grey eyes, and Syuven nodded. "Lead on, Naga."
  292.  
  293. For the last time, Visro put on a short burst of speed, and soon the riotous colours enveloped them once more. When they receded, the charred, sulphuric smell of the swirling red fog suffused their senses again, welcoming the victorious troops home to the City of Evil.
  294.  
  295. As they filed through the gates to gather at the stygian crossroads, Syuven swung his steed around with a clatter of hooves to face the assembled crowd.
  296.  
  297. "Well fought, Mhaldorians," he said, his voice ringing out over the crossroads. "An excellent demonstration of how Suffering punishes the weak and favours the strong."
  298.  
  299. Soft, appreciative murmurs filled the crowd, one knight raising his baritone voice above the others. "Thank you, General. It was a well-led offense."
  300.  
  301. Syuven inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Now, disperse. A job well done."
  302.  
  303. Soldiers began to stream away from the crossroads, heading back to their respective duties. As Ilaje walked past the Magi, she gazed inquisitively at the heavy packs of crystals that he was trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to drag to his House estate, no doubt to store away.
  304.  
  305. "How many crystals did you retrieve, Leandran?" she inquired.
  306.  
  307. The Tsol'aa turned weary eyes to her, bowing his head in deference. "Some 2000 crystals, I believe, Dynamis."
  308.  
  309. Ilaje's eyebrows rose slightly, the only outward sign of her surprise. "Considerable. Be sure you share."
  310.  
  311. And with that, the Mhun drew up her hood once more and strode away, leaving Leandran and his crystal-filled packs to stare forlornly after her. Not far ahead, the familiar whitewashed walls of the Worm and Grub tavern loomed into view, pleasurable dreams of carnage and destruction filling her thoughts as she began to plot the downfall of her next unlucky target.
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