Xian

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Chapter 1.2: Masters and Chains.

Where were we? Oh yes, the Knights of Leo. Despite my contempt towards their entire reason for being, I have to acknowledge their skill for war. Years of conflict with each other, and with other nations, has educated them in every conceivable killing method. Whether it is the latest of quality firearms or a deep knowledge of alien magic, you can bet that at least one order will employ it.

Like any mortal enterprise, these innovations seem to be in the service of obtaining power. Yet every order has its own banal road towards this equally banal goal. These methods are then hidden beneath a veneer of ritual and mystique to con hapless fools into feeling special. This is most often the case for the ethically deprived orders, who consort with all manner of existential cancers…

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The mists parted before him. No, they ran from him. Even in this marsh, the Silvered Knight walked on, fearing nothing. His four compatriots, on the other hand, struggled through the vines and muck. One was an elven woman, who wore a lorica segmented cuirass. Made in the fashion of the Old Elven Empire that had once rivaled even mighty Taiyang. Despite her confidence and poise, she struggled with her heavy boots, and routinely cut down vines and branches, even if they weren’t in her way.

The second was a dwarf, beardless, short of hair, garbed in common wool clothes, and with barely a callus on his hands. He walked between the elf woman and the third companion. He was a human man with delicate features, dressed in fine clothes that were ill-suited for the mucky terrain. He spent much of his time hopping between rocks while coercing a large white horse into following him at an erratic pace.

Last, and save for the Knight most dangerous, was a woman in black robes, with violet trim and an emblem of a royal purple flame across its chest. The muck didn’t seem to bother her. She paid no attention to the mud on her robes, and gently brushed aside any obstacles with a clean and gentle hand.

The Knight turned his head to the side, looking back at his company, and smiling behind his archaic helm. “Misfits, prodigies, and hellspawn...There’s no finer company in the world.”

The elf woman behind him cut through the mess of the marsh with increasing enthusiasm. Compelled by a goal just out of her reach. “How much further do we have to walk?”

The Knight waved his hand for her to go ahead. “See for yourself, Aurora.”

She ran forward expectantly, and a smile spread across her face. “Echo! Laurence! We’re home!”

Echo, the Dwarf, and Laurence, the boy, ran up to her. Such was their hurry that Laurence let go of the horse, who trotted off to its true master’s hand. The Knight brushed his faithful steed’s side, and the horse whinnied in approval.

As he did so, the woman in the dark cloak, Evangeline, floated to him. “I’d call them crazy kids...but I’m not that old yet.”

The pair looked at their three subordinates, as they scurried on a stone bridge and to the destination beyond. A great fortress, with walls of dark stone and towers of some gem-like material, rose from the swamp and dominated the landscape. “Adder’s Fall” was the castle’s name, in memoriam of the great dragon slain by the first Knight of the Imperial Flame: Jacob the Valorous.

But the old days of dragon-slaying were gone, and the knights were themselves rumored to be dragons disguised as mortal creatures. Such rumors had never been publicly confirmed or denied by the Imperial Flame. Yet despite all their claims to knightly virtue, the reputation of valor set down by old Jacob had been replaced by one of “efficiency”.

As the Silvered Fiend and his companions walked the bridge and the gates opened for them, trappings of wealth and the banners of fallen foes overshadowed them in a grand vision of power, The Imperial Flame’s power.

The Silvered Fiend knew the use of such window dressing. “Mercenary Knights the people call us. If they only knew.”

The group separated after their entrance. Laurence and Aurora immediately went to the officer’s lounge, while Echo went to the stable to take care of the horse. Evangeline followed her commander into the depths of the castle. First into the Great Hall, where thousands of Knights and squires sat and dined with their servants and foot soldiers summing up at three thousand souls contained within roaring fireplaces and huddled beneath exquisite chandeliers.

Then to the lower halls, where the armory and initiates’ quarters were kept. Machines of war were engineered and eager souls were trained in these halls. This was the Silvered Fiend’s least favorite section of Adder’s Fall, for it contained memories of a harsh youth and the suffering of friends.

Memories...and sentiments which he had no use for at this time. “I will not be provoked.”

Passions were encouraged and fueled within The Imperial Flame. They were reasons to fight on, and accomplish great deeds. Yes, such primal things could very useful...But only when they came of the warrior’s own volition, not of unconscious prompting. Such mantras had been repeated over and over again, in the younger days of his youth.

Yet he had happily discarded them when he learned better. “Chains. Perfumed tethers concealed with pseudo-philosophical ramblings.”

Deeper and deeper did the pair travel. Until they reached the core of this vicious space. Knights were consecrated to the Imperial Flame, and magicians set pacts with spectators from beyond time and space. The walls resounded with the sound of a beating heart, and the trickle of what one might hope to be rain coated the walls and seeped between the cracks in the stone floor.

Evangeline called from behind him. “Abram?”

He turned to her and saw the flickering of emerald flames within her black eyes. Her face though had lowered into an apologetic expression, and she gestured in direction of the many chanting figures. “I think this is my stop.”

“Very well, talk with the other magicians. See if you can learn a new spell or two.”

She gave a mock salute and spoke with a sarcastic edge. “Will do, say hi to Kiernan for me.”

Evangeline went into the chambers reserved for her brothers and sisters in the dark arts, while Abram’s ensured she made it out of the corner of her eye. A few of the lesser warlocks scowled at her, though whatever intention they fostered faded into trembling fear when they saw Abram looking at them.

Still worrying for Evangeline, but reminding himself that she was a grown woman, The Silvered Fiend deigned to regarded a few of his lesser peers. They were in a trance, both veteran and neophyte alike. They had drunk of the Imperial Flame’s true power, but they were still mortal men and women, even the elves. They required this time to refocus themselves, to purify them of doubt, and renew their purpose.

Needing no such reprieve, Abram marched past the other knights and opened the double doors into the heart of Adder’s Fall with shaking hands. Though they did not shake for the reasons one might think, as could be deduced from the persistent and low growl that had accompanied Abram on the entire walk to this point. “I ought to be used to the fool by this point, yet it’s become so difficult...just being in the same room as him...”

As the doors opened, the air they kept blew into Abram’s senses. He knew the scent of death, of refuse, and all other foulness well, but this was different. An alien and twisted absence permeated this room. Had he been, by even some slim measure, weaker than himself, he might have collapsed. For the very air in this room seemed to take something from all who wandered through its doors...unless of course, all had been taken from them already. The beating rose to a crescendo here, but then subsided as the doors closed behind Abram.

A simple stone bridge led to the center of the room. Where four guards, two magicians, and two knights, circled an enormous mound of pulsating flesh and blood. Abram knew it to be a heart of some kind, but certainly not any heart resembling a mortal creature’s. At the base of the heart was a young human woman, kneeling reverently.

Standing over her was an elven gentleman. He wore chain armor and the tabard of the Imperial Flame. “Dost thou swear thine sword and soul to the cause of the Imperial Flame?”

The young woman kept a veneer of deference, but her body was tense with excitement. “I do.”

“And the upholding of that cause?”

“I do.”

“And to die in the service of its most glorious Matron?”

“I do.”

The elven knight held his hands beneath the heart. Blood dripped into his palms, and then built up into a puddle within his gauntlets. Then viscous material rose, wrapping around the air until it took solid shape. As the stream from the heart ceased its march into the waiting hands, a goblet of blood formed in the Elven Knight’s somehow dried fingers. He lifted it above his head, as consecrating it in the rooms faint light.

At this gesture, the woman rose from her knees yet maintained a respectful bow. “I accept this gift from Varschina, and become as her child.”

The Elven Knight lowered the goblet into the woman’s eager lips, and she drank it in. The cup itself faded into the woman’s throat as she drank. When she was done, she coughed heavily. But not one drop escaped as she coughed once, twice, thrice...and then no more.

Her muscles surged, her knees buckled, and in the midst of her crouched agony, she let out a noiseless cry, suppressed by the monstrous choking noises that spilled from her. Abram looked at this with indifferent eyes, for he had seen this magic trick many times. He knew how this would end. “She’ll live.”

The woman’s coughing ceased, and she sat frozen upon her knee, not a breath passing from her lungs. Then, in an instant, her air returned and she gradually rose with a returning strength.

The Elven Knight placed a familial hand on her shoulder and lifted her chin. “Welcome, Dame Julia. Thou art now a knight of the Imperial Flame. Go forth in thine enterprise, and we shall summon thee when thou art needed again.”

Julia walked towards the exit, beaming with renewed purpose, and joy in that purpose. But upon walking next to Abram, she stopped. Curiosity formed at the corners of her eyes, as she stared into Abram’s. Those catlike pupils that snatched what little light there was in the room, stared back at her with some strange understanding...and pity. This unnerved her, and she looked ready to grab her sword in defense.

Until the Elven Knight stopped her with not but words in his melodious tone. “Dame Julia, away to thine fellows now. They await moments of praise and splendor with their new sister.”

Julia’s fearful look just barely tore itself away from Abram, and she left the room.

The Elven Knight released an annoyed sigh, before resuming his regal and increasingly condescending persona. “Truly brother Abram, thy demeanor doth need some amending.”

Abram said nothing and only stared at the beating heart in the center of the chamber. He’d known this thing’s beating sound and shell-like exterior since he was a child, and the same reaction had always escaped his lips. “It’s a child’s toy.”

The elf frowned, but then resumed its customary elegance, even as his eyes started to bulge out of their sockets and a vein began throbbing in his forehead. “Thine pride is warranted on thine own account. But for us of red running blood, the dragon’s heart is the most capable-”

“Kiernan, you can play the gilded fop with the initiates, but not me.”

“I’ll sound like whatever I want you bastard!”

The words tore themselves from Kiernan. How accustomed he was to his usual role of power, as he descended from his perch near the heart and wagged his finger at Abram as if he were a teacher chastising a rowdy student. “The Dragon’s Blood is life to the order! It is a noble sustenance! And your scorn of it is an insult to not only the sacrifice of your comrades but of the very-”

“There are more interesting things then dragons in this world.”

Kiernan lowered his hand and voice, staring daggers at Abram. “And I suppose you’re one of them?”

“By the blood in my veins, I’d say yes.”

Kiernan rushed over at Abram, doing his best to bring himself eye to eye with the taller man.

“One day I will strip you of that arrogance, and everything else you hold dear!”

“I believe a candlelit dinner ought to precede such things, but to each his own.”

Kiernan cried in such anger and frustration that the sentries behind him twitched in surprise, and even their charge seemed to quiver in fear. Abram on the other hand remained relaxed. His hands were behind his back...and close to the dagger hidden in the sheath within his cloak.

Kiernan’s whole body continued to shake with rage, and then stilled. “You think to provoke me into challenging you? You think that if I were to call you out, it would look better in front of the others eh? Well if you want my post so badly, you’ll have to call me out yourself.”

“I don’t see what the fuss is. As far as I’m concerned, you owe me for this breach of contract.”

“Excuse me?”

Abram walked past the raging elf. The sentries made ready to bar his way until a screeching sound rang out from their charge. The massive heart of the Imperial Flame was trembling. Not just trembling, but was in- fact edging away from Abram, pulling futilely against its own arteries to achieve even some small distance away from the encroaching Silvered Fiend. Confident that he had made his point, Abram turned back to Kiernan, patiently waiting for him to speak.

The elf was now trembling in fear, and the arrogance in his voice only just remained. “What is it you want Abram?”

“I was told that my hunt for the girl would be free of interference.”

“She is a small concern.”

“She was my responsibility, and her defection my fault. One which I intend to resolve.”

Kiernan failed to hide a nervous gulp, and brushed his foppish hair aside. “Your responsibility is to the Imperial Flame. And we have other plans aside from the girl. Plans which will shatter kingdoms, and topple empires. One stray sheep is of little concern.”

“That stray sheep is trained in our magics, our battle tactics, and knows of the greater ambitions you hold so dear.”

“You mock them?”

“In my experience, despotism is the basest of ambitions.”

Kiernan snarled. “Then go! Go on your hunt, but expect no help from the other Knights.”

“They may do as they wish, as is set in our laws.”

“They will do as their Marshall commands! Like proper knights...”

“And those who don’t?”

Kiernan’s eyes flared with indignation, only to still a few moments later. In their quiet, Abram noticed a contemplative light take hold. But it quickly disappeared and was replaced with the elf’s customary arrogance. “They can do as they like.”

Abram gave a bow and smiled beneath his helmet. “Thank you, sir.”

He walked past Kiernan without another word. Though before the doors closed behind him, Abram heard Kiernan’s enraged screams and ceaseless cussing echo throughout the halls. To that: Abram couldn’t help but laugh. Once his amusement fizzled out, he raised his chin to see Evangeline waiting for him.

The yawning woman was flanked by ten other warlocks in the Imperial Flames colors. “We’ve been waiting for you. You get what you need?”

Abram folded his arms and spoke. “Well, we have as close to a blessing as we’re going to get.” For a moment, Abram was surprised by how casual his tone became when he was with Evangeline. He wondered at the cause but chalked such things up to them being friends.

Evangeline showed no signs of being immersed in such deep thought and waved for him to continue. “Meaning?”

“We can do what we want, and take along whoever wishes to march with us.”

Evangeline lazily gestured at the other warlocks behind her. “Well, these guys said they wanted to come along. And the bully boys upstairs probably heard about our work on Stonehause.”

Abram walked forward, aiming for the stairs. “Then let’s open the polls.”

This confidence earned a raised eyebrow from Evangeline. “You really think it’s going to be that easy?”

“Of course. What self-respecting rogue wouldn’t ride with the Silvered Fiend?”

And with that, Abram climbed the steps of the inner circle, with Evangeline and her cohorts following behind.

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