Xian

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Chapter 1.4: Mustering Fields

Do you know what confuses me? Racism. Or is it Species-ism? Regardless, you mortal creatures hating each other based on appearance is quite perplexing. Skin-tone, eye-color, whatever worthless place you were born on this worthless earth…what does it matter? Why would you ever want to scheme, fight, and kill for such a petty reason? Especially when you are all equally inferior to me and mine…

Let me be clear, it is not your compulsion to hate that confounds me. Even the brightest of children will invent all manner of things to despise. What perplexes me is your lack of imagination. Hatred is such an integral emotion, so why waste it on such shallow concepts? The loss of loved ones, the denial of lifelong dreams: these are far more worthy of hatred. And far more entertaining to watch…

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Surrounded by marsh and swamp, Adder’s Fall was hardly the most appealing of locales. Were it not for the magic holding its walls together, the whole edifice would collapse into the mud. Still though, there was one patch of earth that was almost beautiful. To the swamps’ western edge, beneath vines, and past the mud, was solid ground. And on that patch of shaded soil was a large oak tree with a hollowed opening at the base of its trunk.

Today, as he had done on many days, Abram Xian knelt by that opening and genuflected, his face still concealed beneath an archaic silver helm. Before him was a small bowl of incense and a child’s drawing of an angelic woman with golden wings. Abram’s cat’s eyes looked at the drawing with a strange apprehension. Far more than what ought to be expended on a simple child’s drawing. Yet there his attention stayed until his white steed whinnied.

The Silvered Fiend let out a beleaguered sigh before he turned to see Evangeline riding atop a black horse with eyes of ruby red that glinted in the faint rays of the sun. Rising from his genuflection, Abram walked to his companion and raised an outstretched hand to her. Evangeline accepted the hand with a smile and was gently (though not quite gracefully) lead down from her horse.

The young warlock let out a chuckle. “You’re definitely better at breaking people than courting them.”

“Courting?”

Evangeline blushed a bit, though hid the color with an uplifted hand and an overstated roll of the eyes. “Whatever you’d call an expression of “courtly manners.”

She stole a glance at the child’s drawing of the angel and was surprised when the mighty Abram stumbled to block her view. She guessed at the reason though and smiled faintly. “That’s one of Atma’s isn’t it?”

Abram paused a moment, considering something. Then he went about his collection. “Indeed.”

“She had an eye for that kind of thing...even if she was just a kid.”

“Yes, which only makes our job that much more difficult.”

Evangeline became quite again, looking as if she were debating some hidden issue. Before Abram could ask its nature, she left her hands on her hips and told gave the reason for her visit. “Kiernan’s called a meeting of the captains...and we’re getting cut off from official order support.”

Abram stood and turned, his armor glinting a strange green from the reflection of the wood. “What incomprehensibly stupid reason has he come up with now?”

“Misuse of order resources, which I guess is more on me since-”

“The Warlocks!? They don’t want other Warlocks to accompany us?”

Evangeline confirmed this, more annoyed than anything, bottomless intrigues were not her among her interests. That didn’t bother Abram though, he had always been taken aback by her more casual nature. She was even friendly, almost kind at times.

But the same could not be said of the rest of the order, and Abram did so enjoy stomping on their petty ambitions. So he straightened out his cloak, dusted off his armor, and made ready to mount his horse. “Let’s see them off then.”

“See them off? Interesting choice of words...”

They mounted up and left the wooded clearing, entering the muddy swamp. Many horses might have been ensnared or discomforted by the terrain, but not these beasts. Abram’s white steed practically tore through bush and trail, leaving a nicely polished route for Evangeline to follow. Her horse didn’t leave so much as an impression in the mud and seemed to enjoy the ride with a strange glee. Eventually, the two riders trotted up to the main gate of Adder’s Fall and found the assembled captains, led by Kiernan, blocking their way. The elf waited expectantly, calmly meeting Abram’s elevated gaze.

“He expects me to dismount?”

Such a move would show Abram’s respect and deference to the Marshal, but Abram had no such feeling towards this little man. So his foot remained in the stirrup. The other captains looked at each other, shifting in their steel or blackened armor. It was clear that none of them wanted to be here, but felt pressured. Their uneasy gazes turned from Kiernan to Abram and back, wondering who would win this silent duel.

One captain though, Dame Ylena Zhukov, a stout dwarf woman with knife-like eyes and brazen red hair, stepped forward. “Just kiss each other and be done with it! You prancing loons!”

Nominally the captains were all of equal rank and battle acumen, but there were separate camps. Most of the old guard, elves and half-blooded humans, were for Kiernan. The newer inductees, humans, lizardfolk, and even a few orcs; were in Abram’s corner. Ylena was the only dwarf among them, and the most junior captain. This meant she wasn’t as familiar with the tension in ranks as the others were. Abram personally found her refreshing and chuckled beneath his helm.

Kiernan on the other hand turned with his hand on his sword. “You stunted blowhard! This is the last outburst from-”

Abram rode between the two and addressed his would-be commander. “Now-now Marshal, she is one of our sacred peers. And she has expressed her opinion on a rather disheartening silence. I for one am grateful for her candor.”

Abram nodded to Ylena, and she to him. Though her eyes were cautious, sizing him up and wondering at his intent. Ignoring this, and still not descending from his mount, The Silvered Fiend addressed his peers. “And in appreciation of that candor, I shall return it.”

Kiernan was about to say something, but Abram merely swung his horse around and blocked him. “To start, yes. I am going on a personal quest. But it is only so personal because of the effect it has on you: my comrades in arms. It is not merely a traitor I hunt, but an initiated traitor. One who has been privy to our deepest magics and strategies. I will not stand by and let this turncoat upset all that we have worked and for all that we shall achieve. To that end, it is my duty as a Knight of the Imperial Flame to hunt her down. I don’t ask for a crusade, or even your direct support, only that you let me exterminate this speck before it becomes a thorn in our collective sides. So, what will you say to this?”

They all looked at him for a moment, even Kiernan remained silent and gauged the captains to see what words might secure his deliverance from total embarrassment. Finally one of the other captains, an old guard member, stepped forward. “He’s right, we should nip this in the bud before it grows into a nuisance. It may distract the world from our other projects.” There was a murmur of agreement from the others, except for Ylena, who remained stoic.

Kiernan tried one final jab though. “I agree. But this is a sensitive mission, one requiring speed and efficiency. To that end, I see no reason that Sir Abram should take any significant numbers. Surely a team of two or three will suffice?”

Evangeline’s eye twitched before she calmed herself and wore her most polite expression “What if he needs more than two people, Sir?”

“I’m sure there are plenty of road toughs who might want to ride with the Silvered Fiend.”

Abram gritted his teeth, wondering if this fool had heard his own words. ”So no warlocks, and no entourage...Well, this isn’t unexpected.”

So he cracked his neck and straightened out his back. “I am content with these conditions. But I would request Ylena Zhukov’s company on this mission. As a junior captain, it would benefit her to make contacts around the greater world.”

Before Kiernan could protest, Ylena’s voice rang out. “Alright, I’ll go.”

Kiernan could only manage a few hasty “buts” before they were drowned out by the pats on the back and “good shows” that Ylena received from her peers. All while Abram and Evangeline starred at Kiernan with mocking eyes. The Marshal muttered some half-hearted approvals to the mission, then retreated into the castle. The other captains followed after him until Abram was left alone with Evangeline and Ylena. The dwarf woman didn’t even say a word to them before whistling out. Another horse, smaller but stronger looking than the others, trotted over to her.

The dwarven captain mounted up, and rode towards the other two, earning a curious look from Evangeline. “Were you planning on joining us from the start?”

Ylena smiled proudly. “I was testing the waters so to speak, Abram stepping up for me clinched it. Mighty thanks by the way.”

Abram took this all in stride. “Of course. This may get you in trouble with Kiernan, if only for a while.”

Ylena laughed at this. “With all due respect to our Marshal, I don’t rightly care.”

“Fair enough. But why do you want to come along?”

Ylena indicated towards the large spear on her back. The shaft was steel with inlaid leather grips but the point and blade were stone, red stone. Across it was runic script that had been colored in with various inks. It was a strange fusion of archaic and modern forge work, which won a loving look from the young captain. “This has been in my family for a while now, my pa gave it to me when I won my captaincy. And I’ve yet to bloody it.”

Abram was unconvinced, more than accustomed to ever-present treachery. “That’s all?”

“Yep, simple as that. It’s a matter of honor.”

There was something in her simple tone that rang true. So Abram was contented for now, except for one thing. “I have a passing interest in such things. Though that still doesn’t answer why you’d follow me for your inaugural blooding.”

Ylena looked around to see if anyone was listening, while Evangeline used her magic to open a viewing point, and talked to the members of Abram’s entourage, giving them instructions on how to behave in their master’s absence.

This seemed to satisfy Ylena, who walked closer up to Abram’s mounted self. “Is it true that you don’t need the dragon’s blood? That you’ve got power of your own?”

Abram’s voice remained perfectly casual. “Yes.”

“I wanna see that in action. If you’ll let me tag along of course.”

“You’ve already risked much to join my little quest, the least I can do is indulge you.”

“Perfect, I’ll go get the rest of my gear and-”

Abram’s entourage was just walking up all the necessary supplies along with Ylena’s kit and then lined up to await their Master’s command. Abram delivered it. “You remember what Evangeline told you?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then get to it, and thank you for your service.”

The trio went back inside the castle, and after a parting look at Adder’s Fall, Abram tightened his grip on the horse’s reins. “Now, let’s get to Ulq.”

“It’s the largest city in the eastern territories and the nearest chapter house for the Magis Eques. And it’s an excellent veil for my true destination...”

So off they went, Abram’s horse blazing ahead, Evangeline’s gracefully following behind, and Ylena’s horse accompanying them at a disciplined gallop.

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