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The Saga of Stormblade
Entry VII - Innocence Avenged

By Johnny Tai, (C) 2008



--- WARNING ---

This tale contains a spoiler for one of the game deeds. It also contains offensive language and violence. Please do not read if you are easily offended, or do not wish to get the spoiler.



Prolog: Revelation.



"That's all He is, one more pebble in the gravel, one more rumor in the ravel. How can He be king? He's just a kid."

- KENNY CHESNEY - JUST A KID



Walking into the schoolyard, I immediately spotted him. The young, agitated orc was a sorry site to behold, with his bruised face and skittish eyes. He was dressed in the vest and helm that were common gears for all new students, but he had no weapon, not even a pocketknife. Small for an orc, the youngling looked up at me with fear in his eyes, and, admirably, a trace of defiance. I had no particular love for his race. In fact, I had destroyed enough of them, yet this tiny creature looked so pitiful that I could not help but to smile gently upon the creature reassuringly.

Leaning forward, I greeted the young orc with my gauntleted fist pressed to my breastplate, for I had no desire to extend my hand to such vile race, pity or not.

"Hail, young one," I tried to make my voice less contemptuous, but even I could hear the distaste in my tone. 'Oh well,' I thought, 'He's just going to have to deal with it.' After all, he was quite lucky that I did not strike him down like I had done to so many of his kind. "It is brought to my knowledge that you have been wronged?"

The orcish child looked at me in puzzlement, not comprehending my way of speech. He was, obviously, not instructed in the art of High Speech. According to the rest of my clan, most of them didn't care much for my way of speech either, but I thought they were just being cute. Sighing to myself, I switched to more common tongue, "I've heard that you are having problem with the school?"

This time, the orc's eyes blazed with anger, and in a winy voice, he began to tell me of his trouble. Hopping up and down, he yelled, "I came to learn fight, they took sword!"

"Who took your sword?" I asked, trying not to let the winy sound of his voice get to me.

"Human... Bad human thinks he's tough! 'Oh he orc he must be bad guy nyah nyah'."

"I will get it back for you." I said simply, wondering if that would be such a good idea.

"Oh you human you must be smelly."

Well, my armor did smell a bit, but I got his point. Not all human smelled, and probably not all orcs were evil. In my younger days, I might've debated the point, but I knew enough to recognize the wisdom in the young orc's rant now that I had more winters behind me. That did not quite change my view on orcs as a race. Most of them were dirty, brutal, and only slightly better than beasts, but that might've had something to do with the fact that no civilized society would give them a chance to fit in.

Pointing at himself, the orc said, "Oh he just little he get beat up." Anger took over, and the orc went on shouting with a trace of madness in his eyes. "Oh you old and in mud school you can't get in Mud U haha!" Throwing his head back, the orc cackled with insane glee. Stomping about, the orc looked generally pissed.

He was still shouting as I turned and walked away. "I get it back I get it back and then I'll show him..."



End Prolog.



Chapter I: Redemption.



"Is this wrong of me? I've come so far, so fast, I'm in the dark about a lot of things.

Seems so real - to me! I've consecrated! I wish that I could hate it!

I saw my bloody hands come clean... Before my eyes!"

- STONE SOUR - MONOLITH



I

I gaze hard at the leader of the guards. 'I dare ye not cast such a spell in the name of thy god, for the spell will certainly harm thy own kind!'

'Step away from the human, Sarina!' He shouts, not slowing the weave.

To my horror and surprise, the young djinni holds her spot, protectively before me. 'I shall not allow ye, in my presence, to harm my charge who I have just healed!'

His lips pull back in a faint smile. 'Very well then. For the fate of a traitor is no short of death as far as the temple law declares!' Then, he releases the spell...

I see the spell coming, as clearly as I see the defiance in the young healer's eyes. I see the spell of harm, and place my own shield before the girl's body, knowing all the while that it is not enough... What can I do?! No time to push her aside, no time to move myself before her, for although the spell seems to come at the speed so slow, it is actually traveling at the speed of light.

The scream, oh the scream! It's Sarina, the young healer who has just healed me, and oh how she screams! Then the spell hits me, right through her falling body it passes and hits me with none of its dreadful effect lost. Oh the pain, it's unbearable!

Blood... Blood is everywhere. My blood, and hers! I see her falling to the ground at my feet. Her face, so pale... Her blood's pouring out of her small body... Why is she still smiling up at me? Red, my vision is turning red... The blood fever, it's taking me in, and, I, welcome, its, embrace!!!

****************

Dead, they're all dead now. Bodies everywhere, torn from limb to limb. The smell of blood is so thick. My sword, it's so heavy and slick with the blood of the guards. My hands, they are bloody too. It's what I am used to, what I am made for... Killing. Yes, I am good at such, but can I protect and save as well? No. She's dead. She who has died to defend her belief. She who has died because I, the last son of Stormblade, failed to defend her who healed me... No...No...Nooooooooo!!!!!

II

"Noooooooooo!"

"Arise, Master Stormblade... In the name of Dentin, arise!"

The echo of the scream, my scream, rang in my head, and I felt the gentle hand of the priest shaking me, gently but assertively. Sitting up, I surveyed my surrounding. Traces of sunlight streaked into the room from shaded windows, and I saw that I was in the small chapel waypoint, south of the graveyard of Thalos. I had apparently slept on one of the chapel's many long benches. My bones and muscles were stiff and aching, and my face was wet with sweats and tears - the memory of my nightmare. I was a sorry sight to behold, and not many people would've been able to identify me as the well-known, harden warrior, The Blade Seeker, if they were to walk into the chapel right at that moment.

The priest, a holy man of goodness, gazed down at me with kindness in his wise, old eyes. He looked to be a man of middle age, yet something terrible had turned his hair white and made his eyes looked as though they had witnessed all the pain and suffering in the world. He was just a lad when he first settled in this chapel, and never was there a man more faithful and kind such as he. The horror that changed him forever took place about a decade ago. It was an event so singular and horrifying that it deserves a tale of its own. All that I'd say now is that many priests had gone down to the levels that were hidden below the chapel, and this man who now stood beside me was the only one to return. What had befallen the rest, he would not say for fear of the words themselves would recall the dreadful memory of those long, dark hours of which he knelt in prayer behind an overturned sarcophagus, heard and witnessed the creatures of the night, while these same creatures roared for his blood. "Ye are restless, Master Stormblade." He stated matter-of-factly.

"Aye," I answered as I stood up and stretched. My wounds had healed while I slept, or maybe the good priest had healed me, but that wound upon my heart throbbed like an asp's bite.

Not of a mind for words, I walked stiffly over to the corner where my armors and sword lay and, slowly, I donned my battle gears. With my sword and flute case strapped to my back, I turned and found the priest still watching me with those soothing eyes of his, and was suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to fall upon my knees and beg for forgiveness which he could never grant. "Father," I began doubtfully. "I fear that I have wronged..."

The priest nodded and kept his eyes on mine. "We all have been, and will be, tis the weakness of mortal heart."

"My hands... They are bloody." I said, gazing down at my gauntlets, the mithril gleamed in the thin light. No trace of blood was left upon my gauntlets of course, but I think he knew what I meant.

"And that pains thee?" He asked with something akin to amusement in his eyes. "Ye of the follower of the Goddess of Insanity, a warrior who lives by his fame and skill with arms, ye who laugh death in the face, and ye are pained by the blood thy hands hast spilled?"

"Nay," I looked down, refusing to meet his gaze. "Tis the blood that spilled due to my failed attempt to protect..."

"Ah," understanding dawned in his eyes. "We hast all failed one or more in our past. Even skilled warriors such as ye cannot save all."

"Indeed, but for all thy philosophies dost not quell the pain that eats at my heart like the poison of a serpent."

"To that," the priest said sadly, "My only counsel is for thou to find ways to serve and protect others, and hope that the deeds thou complete in the name of goodness will cleanse thy soul. Go now. I shall pray for ye."

He was still looking at my back as I strode through the chapel's door, into the golden light of the morn.

III

West of the city of Ralnoth, on the edge of the small forest, a watchtower stood idly on the border between civilization and the wilderness of the western plain. From atop the tower, one could see over the west city wall, and observe what was taking place in the city itself. To the south, one could survey the swamp and the abandoned castle of the Mad Alchemist, and to the north, the rusty gate of the city's huge cemetery provided a gloomy view. Further yet to the south, one could behold majestic mountains that seemed to stretch up into the clouds. Many legends surrounded those tall mountains, and they drew fame hunters like honey did ants. The mean purpose of the tower however, was to keep a close watch on the west plain, just encase any unseen threat was to approach Ralnoth from that direction.

The tower itself was a construction of thick tree trunks, bound together by heavy ropes. Four sturdy wooden posts were set firmly into the ground, and there was a long ladder lashed to the eastern side of the tower which provided a long ascent up to an open-air hut, situated at the highest point of the construction. Though simple by design, the watchtower was solidly constructed and well maintained. If an invasion was to come from the west, a score of trained archers could easily hold off the enemy from this high platform.

Two guards were appointed to guard the tower at all hours, and one of the three specially trained highwatch scouts was to remain on duty atop the tower for at least eight hours a day. Due to the great vantage view from the top of the tower, the highwatch scouts seldom missed any news that was going on around the area, making them a great source for information. These watchers could offer one information on things as trivial as which citizen slept with which wife, and earth-shaking events such as the fall of a dragon.

IV

After leaving the chapel, I journeyed north from the Great Southern Road, past the fallen city of Thalos and the famed Monk Tower, and after a full day of travel, I arrived in Ralnoth. The journey was long, but it gave me a great opportunity to think about what the priest had said. The pain of the failure still clawed at my heart, but at least now I knew I had hope. At least, I thought I did... I could probably use the waypoint stone in the chapel to teleport directly to the temple in Ralnoth, but I thought the journey would do me some good. After all, it wasn't like I had to rush back to save the world or something.

The Southern Road was quiet at this time of the year. Not many people would travel in the area for a while now due to the countless rumors surrounding the annihilation of the djinni race. The most believed, and probable, of these rumors was the tale of a great demon invasion upon the sanctuary of the djinnis', but of course, I knew better. Rumor also had it that, after witnessing the gruesome execution of his four champions, the djinni headmaster had gone insane with fear and was attacking anyone and anything that came into his sight. Well, maybe one day I would have to do something about the crazed djinni, but at this moment, he was not my priority.

Night had fallen when I walked through the southern gate of the city of Ralnoth, but the streets were crowded with adventurers, thieves, and merchants of various trades. Some of these adventurers I recognized and hailed, and some appeared to know me, although not all of them greeted me with friendly glances. Guards and sentries patrolled the streets, mostly mercenaries with rough backgrounds and little skills. These guards were useful only in numbers or when facing off with children and inexperienced adventurers, but mostly they tried hard to keep out of the ways of short-tempered rogues and wandering warriors. Despite their efforts to keep peace with the many battle-harden killers whom wandered the city, these guards were, at the best of times, barely civilized. Thus, it was not uncommon for one to come across discarded cityguard's equipments and corpses in dark alleys and back streets.

The huge Unholy Temple of Dentin situated in the center of the city. It brightened the Central Square with its many magical lanterns and torches. There were many activities going around the temple at all times, but my interest lied strictly in the saloon which was located southeast of the Unholy Temple, across from the Clerics Guild. After a whole day of traveling, I was not going to deny myself of at least a mug of ale and a warm meal. With shield and sword strapped to my back, I pushed and shoved my way through the crowd, keeping one hand firmly on my pouch. Some people glanced at me angrily, annoyed, but got out of the way all the same. Not too many folks wanted to vie for space with one in heavy armors.

One young man, stocky with a deep chest, protested however. Putting one hand against my breastplate, he tried to shove me back. Though he wasn't nearly as tall as my self, he definitely had the look of a brawler who did not back down easily. "Eh!" he snapped, "dont ya go pushing me around you tin can..."

Slapping his hand aside, I squeezed past him. My armored elbow must have struck something sensitive by accident though, because when last I looked behind me, the young man was bent over, with a hand pressed to his spewing nose. Damn nasty of me I know, but I was hungry and he was in the way. Shaking my head, I continued towards my destination, marveling at the lack of consideration shown by the younger generation now a day.

A big man greeted me at the entrance of the saloon. He was a hand taller than I, and was built like a golem, but despite of his great size and warlike appearance, Roan was a lamb at heart. The saloon owner had hired him to keep the saloon in good order, and that he did well. Most troublemakers took one look at this man, and decided that they preferred to take their business elsewhere.

"Master Stormblade! Welcome back!" The big man roared and clapped me on my shoulder, nearly knocking me onto my knees.

"It's good to be back." I said, nodding at the hulking bouncer.

"You do be seeking ales and a maiden for the night?" Roan said, and I wished he would keep his voice down.

"Actually," I said, "I just need a quick meal and a mug for the road. I am not staying in town this eve."

"Ah!" Roan said with delight. "More adventures eh? How exciting. Well, in you go now, Master Stormblade, we just got a new shipment of the most tender griffin steaks!"

"Um," I said as I walked past the small giant. "I have had your griffin steaks before. I think I will be quite content with beef."

"By the way," I turned back and addressed Roan. "I assume my people are well?"

"Ah..." The man looked embarrassed as he dusted his hands. "I hate to say it, Master Stormblade, but I did have to toss out one of your boys just two nights ago..."

I raised my eyebrows and said nothing, letting him finish the tale.

"Well," he cleared his throat. "It wasn't nothing big really. Just that um, this here fellow came in, and I knew he was one of yours for I had seen him standing with the rest before... Well, he came in, ordered a beer, and when the maid brought it to the table, he insisted that he did not order one, that he did not drink beer..."

I just nodded, trying to hold back a smile as I listened.

"So the maid thought he was already drunk right enough, so brought him another drink. Twas wine he wanted, so he said, but when the wine was poured, he got angry, said he wanted a beer! Now, why would he gone and do that?"

I tried, but I couldn't hold it in. I doubled over, laughing like a mad man as Roan and other people looked on. After a few seconds, I got my self back under control. "Forgive me Roan," I said, still chuckling, "but Gray is known to do that even to us... You see, he is what you would call, a changeling, only that he doesn't have very good control over that ability yet. Most time he change form, he can't keep track of the old personality."

The bouncer gaped. "Oh? Well that would explain it well then, but as you see sir, without knowing that, I just gone assumin' that he was making trouble for us, so I..." He trailed off, lowering his head.

"And did he go quietly?" I probed, knowing the answer even before he revealed it.

"No sir... Not a bit. You Blackwinders are a mighty tough lot. That young man, Gray as you called him, nearly broke all the chairs resisting... Dentin knows if he did not slip, by god I'd not be able to handle him..."

I really ought to have a talk with Gray one of these days. What was the man thinking, slipping in mid-fight? "I am truly sorry for the trouble he put you through Roan," I said, tossing the big bouncer a few gold pieces. "I hope these be enough to pay for the damage to your person and chairs." Turning, I headed into the establishment.

After a satisfying meal at the saloon, I set out towards the west gate of the city. First, I made a quick stop at the armorer's place and left him my helm to be repaired. Thus, with my sword strapped to my back, along with my flute case and shield, I left the city and entered the western forest. The forest was quiet and dark in the heart of night, but that did not concern me. Walking slowly, I allowed myself to relax in the darkness. My trained ears could hear sounds of small animals moving about in the forest, and there was a light breeze that eased my mind of the pain. Reaching up with one gloved hand, I trace my finger along the long scar on my cheek, remembering all too well, the life and world I had left behind. In that other life, other world, I had walked through a dark forest just like this one, except I was not alone when I did. My friends, practically my only family, were with me then, and twas then that the goblins had lured us into their trap. I could still remember the rage of the battle that followed, and the pain when one of those foul creatures brought its runed blade down upon my face. Oh what I would give to be back in that battle, among my friends, but alas, TORA was no more, and I was alone...

My train of thoughts was cut short when I spotted the watchtower ahead. Two guards were lounging against one of the wooden beams, passing a bottle back and forth between them. They were dressed in the standard leather armors of Ralnoth's cityguards, but they had the look of mercenaries. What made the whole situation worse was the fact that they were obviously quite drunk. As I approached the tower, one of them leapt to his feet.

"Who goes there?!" the guard shouted, his hand dipping towards the sword at his waste.

"Pharel Stormblade of Blackwind. I come in peace." I answered, walking into the circle of light casted by their lantern. "I am here to converse with the highwatch..."

The two guards first looked at one another, and started whispering excitedly in each other's ears. Their next move however, was quite unexpected, for they both stepped forward with drawn blades and barred my path. Both were mean looking, unshaven and scarred, in short, both were typical sword-for-hires. Like the rest of their kind, they were not particularly seasoned, but for the street punks and drunk brawlers, they were more than enough. One of them had no helm, probably threw it aside to make drinking more enjoyable - a mistake for fighting men.

"What's this outrage?" I asked, puzzled by the aggressive behavior.

"Silence!" The guard who first spoke up sneered at me. "You are wanted for the murder of Lenier the ranger-trainer, scum of Blackwind!"

A light began to dawn in my mind. These men had heard of the death of Lenier the Rangers Guild's master and, with their nerves boosted by the liquor and their judgment blinded by the prospect of bounty, they were going to try to take me in. No, maybe they weren't even thinking about taking me in, for I had not heard of any order for such action. It was clear to me that these mercenaries would try to dispose of me and just take my head to the city council and demand payment.

"Lenier fought me in a duel, and died a honorable death. Wouldst low lives such as ye denounce his honor and call this murder?" I said calmly, pointing out the true event.

"Ha!" the same guard spat. "Save your excuse for the executioner to hear!"

Well, at least I did try to reason, and I was not in the mood to let these men trifle with my patience. Taking a step back to give myself room, in case I had to draw my blade, I looked into the speaker's eyes and said softly, "and how do you dogs propose to take me in?"

A flicker of doubt past over their faces, but in the end, the liquor and bounty won out. Raising his blade, the speaker stepped forward, the point of his blade inches away from my throat. "I order you to submit yourself and your blade under my custody! Now hand me your sheathed blade!"

"No," I said simply.

"What?" the guard was taken aback, obviously not expecting someone to refuse when a sword was being pointed at his throat.

"I said, no."

"I will have your blade!" he roared, not liking the fact that he was failing to scare me. "Hand me the blade, or die!"

"As you wish," I said, and with a fluid motion, I ducked beneath his sword and placed my enchanted dagger into his guts. The man screamed in pain as I wrenched my blade free of his body, his sword fell from his hand with a clink. In the corner of my eyes, I saw the other guard hesitate before he too joined the battle. With the first guard holding his guts and groaning in pain, and the second guard's hesitation before attacking, I had ample time to replace my dagger and draw the long elven blade from its sheath. Turning at the waste, I parried the second guard's stroke with the side of my blade and, continuing my own swing, my blade glided along his and scratched his sword-hand. With a yelp, he leapt back, barely holding on to his sword. Stepping forward to press my attack, I did not sense the other guard in time to avoid his trip. Kicking my legs out from under me, the man sent me crashing to the ground. Unfortunate for him was the fact that I did not loosen the grip on my sword as I landed, and the fact that he was already fatally wounded by the stomach wound which I had inflicted with my dagger. Having retrieved his own sword, the guard stabbed madly at the spot where I went down, but I had already rolled away. With my back against the earth, I rolled on one shoulder and lashed out with both legs in a devastating double kick which by chance, struck him in his wounded stomach. With a scream, the man dropped his sword for the second time and staggered back. Sensing the movement in the air to my right, I rolled and avoided the thrust of the second guard's blade. I spun in a half circle, still laying on the ground, and tripped my assailant. 'Have a taste of your own medicine!' I thought as I rolled to my knees. With one fatally wounded guard in front of me, and a tripped one behind, I quickly decided my next move. Grasping the hilt of my sword with both hands, I put all my weight behind the swing. My blade flared with its enchantment as it whooshed through the air in a left to right diagonal course. The long elven blade passed through the body of the guard before me at the waste, cleaving the man in half, and continued downward in a circle and cut into the other guard who was just getting to his feet. I was showered by a jet of blood as the two halves of the dead guard fell to the ground, his guts spilling out in a gruesome display of crimson heap. This was not even a battle. This was a slaughter. The guards were so overmatched that they did not even trigger my blood fever. Wiping the blood off of my face with my cloak, I stood up and turned to face the remaining guard. My last swing did not kill him, but he was mortally wounded and had no fight left in him.

"Have mercy!" he cried.

Walking up to the man, I grabbed him by his hair and forced him to look up at me. "The wind of darkness has none," and I removed his head with a clean sweep of my blade. Letting the decapitated head fall to the ground beside the headless torso, I started to climb the ladder.

The eve cloaked me like a shroud as I ascended slowly up the ladder. My armor and shield made the climb rather tedious and more than just a little dangerous, but I just gritted my teeth and continued on. The wood groaned and creaked beneath my weight, and as I started to get used to the upward motion, the act became a bit easier. Even then, I could clearly imagine the woods snapping beneath my weight, throwing me down to crack open upon the ground like an oyster. A man could get used to being cut, struck, stabbed, and almost anything else, but it was hard to ignore the distance between one's self and the landing below.

Finally reaching the platform, I pulled myself bodily over the guardrail and stood, panting heavily. 'I must be getting old.' I thought gloomily to myself as I leaned my back against the rail. With my head down, I nursed the burning muscles in my forearms, too tired to consider the next step at the moment. The wind blew gently, rocking the platform under my boots. Instinctively, I gripped the rail and looked down, a mistake to be sure. With a gasp, I jerked my gaze forward.

"Have a care!" a voice called out as I observed a tall man come striding out of the hut. "Your armor and steels are heavy, your person's hefty, and the rail has not seen repair for aeons. Have a care!"

He was about my height, with slight build and a spring in his steps. He wore light leather armor and a white tunic with the mark of the highwatch guards, a rising sun, emblazoned upon the breast. A heavy-duty crossbow rested easily beneath his left arm, and I saw the hilt of a short sword protruding from his belt. The smile upon his lean feature was that of amusement, and he came forth with his right hand extended towards me. "Such skills with a blade! Such ferocity! Ye are a true man of the sword! To who do I be having the luck of addressing?"

To which I bowed and replied, "Pharel Stormblade of Blackwind. I have come in the name of peace, alas peace was I denied."

The man, after looking me over for a second or two, burst out into genuine laughter. "Ye may have sought peace," he said, still chuckling, "yet peace hast never been thy design." Getting himself under control, he bowed and said, "I do be called Faerine. Faerine Fleetfoot at thy service."

"Well met Faerine Fleetfoot, Ranger-commander of the Ralnoth Highwatch Guards." I saluted him, addressing him by his proper title. "And now," I continued, my eyes on his, "do I come in and share thy fire, or will thou raise the alarm and place me under arrest for the death of those two down below?"

"Quoth arrest my duty be, then arrest must I venture." he replied, his eyes never dropped their amused gaze. "Quoth murder be done, then an arrest must I risk. However," and here he smiled good-heartedly, "twas the battle had I witnessed, and heard the words exchanged, and the poor lads didst bring themselves the end they deserved. Come, Pharel Stormblade of Blackwind, Seeker of Blades and the Guardian in Silver, I be proud to have thou share my fire!"

"Wouldst thou have coffee?" Fleetfoot offered as we sat down by the small stove in the center of the hut.

"Nay ye have wine?" I asked, feeling the chill of the night draining away.

"Nay," the man laughed and pushed a mug of dark liquid toward me. "Tis not permitted on duty."

"Twas not the case with those two lying below." I said, removing my gauntlets to allow the warmth from the steaming mug to warm my hands. "For I swear if that flask held not drink, they'd not have dared me."

"Some of us," Fleetfoot grinned as he sipped at his mug, "do not follow the proper code."

"And ye doth?" I asked somewhat cheekily.

"Aye," he answered and took another sip.

After a comfortable pause, the scout looked at me and nodded. "Now then," he said, "Tis not that I do not enjoy the company, yet I've a feeling that ye hath not traveled the distance for idle words, so let us get down to business, for the night is long, and I have yet ticks of watch to stand."

V

"So ye seek deeds. Deeds of goodness?" Fleetfoot asked after I revealed my reason for visiting. He was on his third cup of the blackish brew by then, and I had barely downed my first. I liked coffee fine, it was just that I wasn't used to having it in the middle of the night.

"Aye."

"Let us see then," he said, withdrawing a small notebook from the inside of his tunic. "As ye know, we of the scouts hear strange tales and rumors, and many of which might lead to great deeds and adventures."

"Fame and greatness I seek not, just a peace of mind." I replied as he thumbed through his records. His words were well formed, and his understanding of the High Speech showed him to be an educated man. The small book was bound by rough worn leather, and looked well handled and cared for.

"Here we've a few cases which no one hath yet accepted," he grinned, replacing the book.

"And I shall hear of them." I said, leaning forward to listen.

"There are rumors of an orc child who hast raised disturbance near the Ralnoth School for young warriors. The child claims that he hath been wronged by human, yet due to his race, no one hath yet acknowledged the claim."

"An orc child? Seeking teaching in Ralnoth? This is most interesting." I said, my interest roused.

"Also," the scout continued, "a great fire hath taken place far west of here. Rumors tell of a whole village perished in flames. Look here..." He stood up and strode over to the guardrail.

Getting up and following, I saw him pointing westward into the distance.

"Traces of smoke can still be beheld beneath the blanket of night."

Indeed, as I peered into the night, I could see snaking shadows of what looked to be the remains of a fire.

"Tis a remote village that hath no connection to trades or royalty, thus no one hath journey out into the west land to investigate the fire." Fleetfoot said as we reclaimed our seats by the stove.

"I think," I said as I pulled on my gauntlets and stood up. "I'll begin with the young orc's claim."

As I stood up and prepared to leave, Fleetfoot raised a hand. "These are not deeds of venture, and might not be of thy type. A warrior of thy fame should consider investigating the

annihilation of the djinni race."

"Nay," I replied, walking towards the ladder. "I hath just returned from the djinni territory."

"Ah!" Fleetfoot came to his feet excitedly, "Maybe ye can shine some light upon the rumor then?"

"Rumor of?"

"Of a great demonic invasion that wiped out the four djinni trainers and left the headmaster crazed..."

With my hands on the rail, I turned and gazed deeply into Fleetfoot's eyes. "No demon. No invasion. They have been devoured by the wind." Then, I left him, still standing, his mouth agape.



Chapter II: Regression.



"My demon Brave steed
No weakness saves me
I have my rights Please
don't tempt me I don't belong
It don't matter I'm the problem"

- SPOTTING A UNICORN - TODAY IS THE DAY



I

In the silence of dawn, the town of Ralnoth stirred with sluggishness. Recovering from yet another night of murders, bar-fights, trades and crimes, the day seemed to have, if not completely, partially restored some assembly of order. The morn was like a dewy shroud that blanketed the town and the gray stone walls of the Ralnoth's school for newbies. Further to the east, one could see the looming towers of Ralnoth's own University and the faint movements atop the castle walls as sentries milled about, patrolling the outer perimeter of the campus.

The sky was cloudless, and a gentle breeze could be felt by those who were up and out at this early hour. Here and there, one could hear the barking of dogs and the heavy sounds of doors being slammed as some establishments closed down during the day. Yet even at this early hour, the poorly tended lawn of the Ralnoth School for young warriors was already being trampled by the feet of many eager, young ones who were up and practicing their newly developed techniques. Tis was the site I was treated to, as I emerged from the forest and entered the school-ground through the western archway of the campus.

My mind was assaulted by a wave of memory as I walked across the field of unkempt grass and wild flowers. Almost without thinking, I surveyed the ground, and there it was, lying amidst a saggy bunch of daisies, a fuzzy peach of magical property. Left here daily by the acolyte of Dentin who resided on the campus, the peach was known to grant extra strength to the person who could find and hold it. However, the peach's property would be lost if it was eaten instead of held, but that did not stop me. Bending down, I palmed the peach when I was sure that no one was looking, and in two bites, I finished the delicious find and sacrificed the pit to my goddess of insanity. Extra strength might be nice, but breakfast should always come first.

As I proceeded across the field, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of four young students. Their years ranged from eight to probably fourteen, and they all wore the same nervous and excited expression of someone who had just realized that Dentin did exist and was standing right before them. They pointed at me, at my armor and shield, and whispered to one another animatedly. Finally, one of the taller ones, a teenage girl with delicate features and fiery red hair, stepped forward.

"G'good mornin' Sir Knight,' she hailed me, a hint of shakiness in her voice. "Um, we were wondering... That is... Might you be Pharel Stormblade of Blackwind?"

"Good morrow lass," I replied, halting as I looked down at the young girl and her friends. "Stormblade I am, and tis from the Wind that I've come."

The girl's eyes blinked when I spoke, and she turned to her friends and gestured and whispered to them after I had confirmed my identity. Suddenly, they all began to speak at once. I was bombarded with questions such as 'was I really as good as legend has told,' 'was I a follower of the God of Destruction,' 'where did I acquire my skills and spells,' and 'was I for good or for evil'. The questions ceased as abruptly when the children noticed my cold gaze and tight lips.

Turning to her friends, the girl whispered to them sharply before turning back to look up at me. A faint blush tainted her cheeks as she lowered her eyes quickly to the ground before her booted feet.

"I.I'm sorry, Sir Stormblade. It's just that..."

Raising a hand, I stopped her apology and said, "No need to be sorry. Tis just I have no wish of discussing myself just to prove the right or wrong of rumors." And, to put the children at ease, I smiled gently down at them and added, "I am not a knight by right, so you have no need to address me so. You can call me by the name I am known as, and that is all the title I crave."

"Yes Sir...er, Pharel," the girl answered, seemingly even more nervous than before.

"Now," I continued after an uncomfortable pause. "I heard that there's an orc among you?"

"Ha!" one younger student shouted excitedly. "Did I not tell ya, Pharel Stormblade has come to slay the orc?"

"Hush up, you idiot!" the girl turned angrily to the speaker, a boy around the age of eleven. Turning back to me, she quickly said, "Please, he is but a child, I am sure that, um, a great hero like you would not slay a child just because of his race?"

"Easy lass," I said with a smile, "I have no wish to harm the orc child, but if you have no objection, I shall like to have a word with him."

"He doesn't talk right! He's crazy, stupid, and an orc!" the young boy piped up again.

Rounding onto the boy, the girl hissed at him, "Jimmy, if you do not hush up, I will tell the head trainer of the time when I found you with Newbie and Stoner..."

"Okay! Okay!" the boy waved his hand and said in a hurry to stop the girl from saying more. Muttering under his breath, he looked balefully at the girl and quieted down.

However, no further clue was needed. From my earlier days of being a follower of Cygnii, the god of lies, I was familiar with all those who resided within the domain of the Father of Deceptions. Two of those whom I remembered were the pair of drug pushers, Newbie and Stoner, who made the diner of Cygnii's temple their base of operation. If this boy was involved with the two criminals, I could not blame him for not wishing the head trainer to hear of it. Of course, the boy did seem a bit young to be using any hard substance, but the mere knowledge of him talking to the drug pushers would be enough to earn him a good deal of caning from the head trainer.

As the girl turned back to face me, I saw in her eyes the distrust she felt towards my request of audience with the young orc. Thus, I explained to her what I had heard from the scout on the previous night, and expressed my interest in the matter. When she still looked doubtful, I nodded and said, "I shall give you my word that as long as I am here, the orc will not be harmed in any way."

Looking thoughtful, the girl said carefully, "I have heard that the words of Pharel Stormblade are as good as his skills in battle... Very well, I will show you where he is." With that, she turned on her heels and walked slowly towards the northern edge of the field.

As I trailed behind the lively young girl, I heard one of the students say from behind me, "I'll be just like you one day! I will fight dragons, slay demons, and make my name be known!" looking over one shoulder, I saw that the speaker was a boy who appeared to be the youngest of the group. Rounding on my heels, I gazed into the boy's emerald eyes and said softly, "Mayhap you will child, but before you go slay them evil, enjoy the flowers, butterflies and youth as much as you can, for once you've traveled the way of the blade, you will always dream the dream of death." then, I turned away and hurried to keep up with my young guide.

II

The girl had departed quietly as the young orc loaded me down with his tale, a look of embarrassment upon her face. Was she embarrassed at the behavior of this poor, wretched creature who seemed half mad and mostly dumb, or the wrong that her fellow human had done to such a creature? I had no answer, and had not the reason to ponder such a question. The orc child was still hopping and cursing as I walked away, my head lowered in contemplation of my next move. If the rumors were true, than this should've been the matter of the school, yet from what I've seen, no one had even concerned themselves with the trouble of a crazed, young orc. My next step seemed to have been decided as I found myself pacing the front hall of the school. I would bring the matter up with the head trainer himself, and I would have an explanation from him. Thus, I mounted the stairs that led to the training center of the institute, and found my former teacher where I new he could be found.

The training center of Ralnoth's school was but a simple room with no furnishing except a small sign which said, 'Dungeon - east. Shopkeepers - west.' The most important feature of the room, and at the moment of my arrival, it's sole occupant, was the tall man who was pacing back and forth across the floor, a stout ironwood cane under one arm. It had been years since I left the school with his blessing, yet the head trainer had not changed much beyond a few more lines beneath his sharp eyes, and hair that seemed to be a tad grayer than I recalled.

An aging man, full of knowledge and still strong, the man who was known to all his students as Dain, surveyed me as I entered the room. The eagle-like eyes stared into me, through me, as if he could just by looking, discern all my strengths and weaknesses. Beneath the gaze of those eyes, I had to strongly remind myself that I was no longer a child of 15, seeking shelter and knowledge, but a trained man of the way of the battlefield. The eyes seemed to demand me to kneel and beg for forgiveness for things that I had done without the man's permission, but my pride and will forbade such an act of servitude. Thus, I managed to approach the man with my dignity intact, and favored him with a slight bow such as the type one soldier would grant another of his standing. The pacing ceased, and I addressed my former teacher.

"Ye seem well, Dain," I said, looking him in the eyes - a task that would've been impossible during my period of training under his teaching.

"And thou fair no less," the man replied as he took in my attire with one downward sweep of his gaze. Looking up, he continued, a hint of coolness creeping into his voice, "Pharel Stormblade, founder of Blackwind, slayer of many and seeker of blades, to what do we owe thy unforeseen audience?"

Taken aback, I dropped my gaze. "Dain? Tis my thought that ye would not treat the return of one of thy own so..." The man was always harsh and unforgiving, but for the most part, I remembered him to be fair and just. This cold disdain was a surprise as much as if someone had dumped a bucket of cold water over my head in the wake of dawn.

"Think not thou as one of my own!" he shouted, his face livid with rage. "Some of mine become soldiers and guards who defend and serve, some try to pass on the way of goodness and the art of arms, but none of my be child of Lies and slave of Chaos! Ye of fames, blood and faithless, shall not muddy my name with thy own!" Spittle flew from his lips as he raved on about my faults and wrongdoings.

Since a friendly reunion was clearly out of reach, I cut directly to the point. "I am here with regard to the affair of the orcling."

At this, the man shook his fist at me. It was amazing to watch just how angry a person could get at the expense of another - especially when this other person had not done more than walk into his old school at an early hour and addressed the former in a respectable, though not servile, fashion. "Speak not of the affair of this institute, ye corrupted! The orc is a creature of foulness and should've been slain if not for its childhood. Are ye now in league with the orcs? Ah, never had I thought ye, even ye, would sink so low as to associate with orcs!" Saying that, he pointed an accusing finger at me, "Leave now, ye servant of darkness and lies, leave before I send for the guards and acolytes!"

"I'll have ye know that I serve Cygnii no longer," I said, my tone rising a little too.

"Speak not of thy lies to me!" Slamming his cane on the floor, the man glared, "I would not have thy lies in these halls!"

As a plague of human nature, a disease as dark as fear, rising out of a man's heart as a serpent may rise out of a swamp to prey, his unfounded rage had crept into my heart and laid its seeds without me knowing - for I had no design over the event which occurred next, nor would I be able to stop it had I known.

"Ye call me a liar then?" I roared deep in my chest.

"I call ye by what ye be," came the reply.

Pulling off my gauntlets, I threw them at the older man. "Prove me to be a liar over my corpse."

Catching the gloves, Dane tossed them down and held his cane with both of his strong hands. "Gladly, spawn of lies."

The words of magic came to me, as naturally as songs to the lips of a minstrel. My muscles bulged with magical strength beneath my armor, my nerves sharpened and seemed to pick up signals from miles away as my dexterity doubled and redoubled. A force shield slammed into place around me as the air liquefied and took on the form of my shadow by my side. A quick prayer to the Goddess of Chaos brought her blessing down upon me, and I felt powerful and righteous as a white aura surrounded my person. My hands, those killer's hands, seemed to have gained a will of their own, for I had not yet thought of drawing my blade before the long elven weapon was unsheathed and thrumming within my grasp. My shield was similarly readied, without conscious order from my heart.

"And darkness I will show ye!" I roared, or rather, the warrior in me roared, and charged the man who taught me war. Leaping into the air, I brought the elven blade down in a cleaving arc, intending to strike him down where he stood. With a well trained and practiced self defense move, he avoided my attack and we stood three feet apart, gazing at one another.

"Strike me down if ye dare, ye shall be hunted like the dog that ye are," he said coldly, crossing his arms before him, the ironwood cane held sidewise.

"Indeed?" I paused, lifting my pawn towards his face, "then ye shall not live to see it!" As he raised his weapon to block the incoming strike, I reversed my direction and pushed my pawn toward his now open torso, and a large jagged shard of crystal shot out of my hand and struck him squarely in the chest.

Stumbling backward, Dain clutched at his wounded chest with one hand, and waved the other in my direction, the cane clutched firmly in that hand. I was suddenly surrounded by a cloud of stinking, greenish gas. Choking and gagging, I saw through my tearing eyes that the trainer had recovered from the shock of my spell and was swinging his heavy cane toward my jaw. I managed to get my shield up between us, and his club rang off the shield with a loud *bwong*. Charging forward, I tried to bash him with my shield, only to have him avoid the attack with the same move he pulled earlier. However, he did not expect me to suddenly snap my blade up from behind my shield, and the elven steel gashed him deeply across one thigh. Staggering back, he avoided my follow-up slice and cursed under his breath.

"Everyone get out! Invader in the school! Call for guards!" he shouted as he dodged out of the way of my lunge.

"Calling for help? You fight like a man!" I hissed, frustrated by the fact that he had managed to avoid so many of my attacks.

Forcing him back, I brought my blade down hard crosswise in a decapitating blow as he stumbled back away from me. He would've avoided the strike completely, if not for the wounded leg; thus, the would-be fatal slice opened a bleeding gash on his upraised forearm. Although sporting quite a few cuts, I knew the man was not yet finished, thus did not ease up the attack.

Panting harshly, the man spat at me, "Dare ye pick on someone thy own age," and swung his cane at me hard. The ironwood cane whooshed through the air with enough force to bring down a tree.

"Ye started this, now fight instead of whine!" I said and pressed in to attack, parrying the cane with the side of my blade. My hand numbed to the elbow as our weapons struck, but I held on to the hilt of my sword desperately. This old man was strong if nothing else, and it would be a bad mistake to let his talk distract me.

Dodging under one blow, I brought my blade up in a 'Rising Star' and white light burst from the tip of my blade as I cut into the man in a shower of blood. Switching my grip, I swung a reverse blow which missed him by an inch as he staggered back hard against the wall. Slightly off balanced after my last swing, I did not see the man coming in for a counter strike, and suffered gravely as he spun his cane overhead and cracked me soundly across the skull. Stars danced before my eyes as I dropped to one knee, and the older man drove the tip of his weapon into my chest as if he would a lance. However, I was young, enraged, and had spent my time battling the strong rather than in a school teaching children, so the double hit did not do much to me than to flame my rage even more. With a hiss, I kicked to my feet and swung my blade down, aiming low with a 'Sweeping fan.' The crippling blow brought him to his knees. Weakly, he jabbed his cane at my torso. The cane bounced harmlessly off of my breastplate. As he struggled to his feet, I lunged forward and sliced out with my sword. My boots drummed on the floor as I stepped around him, circling him with seven quick steps, each accompanied by a slice pattern.

As I completed the 'Northstar' form, I stood before him, looking at my handiwork. Big and nasty wounds crisscrossed the man's upper body, and blood was gushing out of all of them. Dain did not fare well against the onslaught; in fact, he seemed to shrink into himself as his blood pooled on the hardwood floor. The technique was a nasty one, severing major veins on a person's torso and limbs via seven precise cuts all lined up as one when executed - useless against armored opponent but devastating against one clad in soft garments.

"You are finished," I whispered as I prepared to sheath my blade.

When people speak of 'the second wind,' they often don't really know what it is really like. Before my blade was back in the sheath, the man, who was looking beat and defeated just a second ago, came at me with renewed strength and dealt me a devastating blow that set my head to ring as if a church-clock was built into my skull. Roaring in frustration, I drew the blade and leapt at him, intending to see him to his end. My first stroke was parried by the hard cane, and the dance was on again.

Whatever that brought him back to the fight did not stay long. My backhanded slice opened a deep cut in his side, and a follow-through slice did the same to his cheek. He avoided my next two swings by simply falling down onto his behind, slipped in his own blood. Giving no quarter this time, I stepped in and thrust my blade into his shoulder. New blood flowed from his wound as he took a half-hearted swing at me. He had dropped his cane when he fell, and I kicked it out of his reach. I parried his punch with my shield, and brought my blade down, sending a severed hand flying across the room.

Screaming, the man who was feared by all his students, was now nearing Death's door, to state the obvious. My bloodlust had been triggered, and nothing I could've done would stop me at this point, even if I wanted to. Stepping forward, I sliced down with my blade, opening him up from solar plexus to navel, disemboweling him. More screaming, as the man held his stomach, trying hard to keep his guts in his body. Rolling away, he avoided my deathblow and kicked at me, still holding his guts. Slamming my shield down to block his boot, I released him from his leg, from the knee down.

The trainer was in an awful state. Rolling in his own blood, this was not the same man who I had once respected and feared. But, like some strange snakes that would not die until they've been cut to pieces, he fought on with a determination that was frightening. Amazed, I saw him brought his remaining leg up to kick at me, and stepped back away from the kick. Side-stepping, I swiped my blade down and his leg joined the other on the ground, and I lunged forward and drove my blade through his riving body into the floor.

Impaled and mortally wounded ten times over, the man looked up at me with eyes that were both old and tired. "K'kill me." he whispered brokenly. I obliged him by severing his head cleanly from his torso with a final stroke.

The school trainer was dead. I stood in the center of the room, not able to comprehend the event which had just taken place here. There was blood everywhere, and my old teacher lay in pieces. What had I done? The world was spinning all around me as I took in the scene with my unwilling eyes. Had I really turned into a monster? Was my life a damned journey from the start? Was I to redeem myself, only to end up committing more sins in the name of the blade? The only comfort to me was the fact that death is not forever in this chaotic world of ours, and I new somewhere in the gods' laboratory, a head trainer is getting his new lease for life. Twas with a heavy heart I left the school by the back gate, and faded into the surrounding forest in searching for the kid who had started this whole messy affair.



Chapter III: Retribution.



"And through the ages we hand them their fate
Marionettes on a string
Phased retribution precise and exact
'Til the birth of The One sets us free"

- RETRIBUTION THROUGH THE AGES - ICED EARTH



I

The western forest was a peaceful place beneath the sleepy shadow of morn. Dews fell lazily from leaves and branches, and birds and little creatures ran to and fro, busying themselves in completing the food chain. Somewhere to the east, still faint but noticeable, was the sound of alarm being raised. Someone had finally discovered the body of the fallen head trainer, and guards were called in to search the school for possible invaders. No students would be allowed to leave the school for hours to come, partly for their own safety, and partly for questioning by guards. It was not likely that any guard would search in the forest, for the forest was vast and would conceal the killer easily. These guards, being mostly mercenaries and former street toughs, would not risk their own neck by venturing into the shadows of the forest, risking a similar fate to that of the trainer's. Most likely, they would search the rooms and halls of the school ground, and scare a few students, then write the death off as a demonic kill. There was not much one couldn't blame on demons. Of course, it was perfectly possible that a few of the students would identify the visitor they had earlier as no other than Pharel Stormblade, but the guards had long since learned to stay clear of Blackwind members; if, that was, they knew what was healthy for them.

Darting around a tall oak, I ran among the shadows, trying to outrun the memory of what had taken place only a few hours ago. It was ironic indeed, for I could not discern which bothered me the most; that I had slain the man who taught me the way of the blade, or that I had done so in losing control over my temper. A tiny voice in my mind whispered, 'It's because you are now more of a killing machine than a man,' but I tried to shove that away. I had emotion, maybe too much of it, otherwise I would not be in this situation to begin with. 'You took the side of an orc over your own teacher,' the voice insisted.

'I did not! He was the one who forced me to attack!' I argued with myself.

'You drew first.'

"Silence!" I hissed, and amazingly, it did.

The guards, the search, none of that worried me. In a cold spot of my mind, I secretly hoped that some guards would come after me, maybe then I could once again merge with the blood fever, and all this would seem trivial. Fighting was much easier than thinking and wondering if I was going mad, but again, maybe that was my problem - I let my blade lead me instead of my brain. I felt no guilt. No, that be a lie, I didn't feel overly guilty would be more correct, for I knew that the trainer was a faithful man, and most of the gods and goddesses of this realm would happily grant their followers another life when asked. The toll these holy ones exacted from the reborn was harsh - part of one's very own memory, but to most, the life would be worth it. Of course, there were cases where things did stay dead. One way to be sure that your enemy was not going to come back at you again and again was to destroy their body completely by cremation. The gods and goddesses were powerful, but to dream up a fresh new body that would fit the soul was often too much work for them to want to bother with. Creatures and those people who were without a god could not be reborn, and there were always those who thought little enough of their existence that they did not wish to have another go at it.

'You must fight it. You can't wash away blood with more blood!' The voice piped up again, and this time it spoke with a tone of truth. However, the pull of battle sang loud in me, and I wondered if I could ever win this struggle.

Ahead of me, I saw that the northern edge of the forest was near. I could now see the small painted sign which directed the city people onto the right paths. The forest spread out behind me, with a gigantic tree, towering over its neighbors, standing tall in the center of a small clearing. More importantly, I saw a young man of about 20 years out of his mother's womb standing by the sign, idly tapping one foot while looking around with amused eyes. Around the sign and the lad were scattered corpses of little animal. There were fell rabbits, coons, and even one skinned deer. One look at the tiny stained blade in the lad's hand was enough to complete the story.

The man, kid really, was well built, and probably had no trouble winning his share of fights in school, but from the clumsy way he wielded the blade, one could see that he had yet to see real battle. However, his arrogant demeanor clearly suggested he thought otherwise. Standing up straight, he stared at me as I approached, his hands stopped, for the moment at least, brandishing the tiny sword.

"Hail lad." I hailed him as I neared, holding out my hands, palms up to show that I came in peace.

"Blah," he squinted in my direction. "Who in the bloody world are ya?"

A strange thing happened. When he squinted at me, I had a powerful and evil urge to grab him, and break his neck. 'Easy...' said the voice within me, and i concentrated on relaxing my clenched fists before looking him in the eyes. "No one of any importance, just passing by that's all."

"Well look here," he said, producing an amazingly vicious grin, "No-One-Of-Any-Importance, you are disturbing my hunting ground." He gestured at the corpses around him. "You and your noisy armor are scaring away my prey."

"Ah," I said with a smile, "do you make a sport of killing harmless animal?"

"It's what they are here for," he replied with a sneer.

"Indeed..." I pointed at the sword in his grip, "Isn't that a size too small for such as your self?"

At this, his face lit up in a cocky smile, which surprisingly enough, made me want to smite him more than the sneer and the squinting-look combined. "You don't know anything do ya? This blade is my trophy! I totally kicked the orc's ass and he dropped the blade and fled in fear..."

The voice of the young man suddenly faded out as my mind was invaded by another voice, a hundred times more ancient and deadly then his. 'Release us... We need blood... Take us to battle... We feed...' Somewhere, deep within the magical realm which was the inside of my flutecase, the Sword of the Tyranids had awakened. Probably called by my own dark nature, or maybe the sent of all the blood I've shed of late, the ethereal creatures which formed the essence of the blade tugged and bashed and rived against my mind's defense, trying harder than I could ever remember, to take control of me. The struggle to keep my hands away from the man's throat, all at once, transformed into a struggle to keep myself from drawing the demonic sword and allow it to feed upon the youth.

Sending with all the might behind my will, I commanded the demonic souls to cease their attack upon my sanity. 'I, pharel Stormblade, High Seat of Blackwind and the Seeker of blades, child of Chaos and Bane of the Tyranid Kind, command you, silence and be gone!' Though a trace of fear I sensed from them, they however did not do as I commanded. I was slowly losing this struggle, and if I couldn't come up with an idea soon, the life of this stupidly arrogant youth would be forfeited.

Looking up, I noticed that the young man was studying me with an expression of perplexed wonderment, and I smiled. "Ah, just remembered something I had to do..." I explained.

"Bah," he replied, trying to conceal his uneasiness. "As if I care."

"Well..." I began, "How about a little game?"

"Hmmm?" He was now being careful.

"I was thinking, a fine warrior such as your self wouldn't object to a test of strength."

"Well," he said slowly, "I don't accept challenge just from anyone."

"Oh well," I turned as if to go. "Too bad then, cause I was gonna say that if you win, you could have my Sword of the Tyranids..." Saying so, I began to walk away.

"Wait!" Just as I thought, the youth wouldn't resist a prize such as this. "Fine, if you are so eager to lose... I'll take you up on it. Just don't whine when I take your sword!"

"Nah, tis ok..." I said, taking a few more steps towards the forest while my right hand disappeared into the flutecase. "Probably wouldn't be good sport anyway. After all, you are a bit green."

"What...what did you say, you bastard?!" Fuming, the youth charged my back.

As the young man closed the distance on a dead run, another show of his inexperience to battle, I whipped around without breaking my stride, shield close to my torso, and the huge demonic sword in my fist. Grimacing as the hilt of the blade suddenly grew unseen fangs and fed upon my blood, I lifted the sword and casually held it crosswise before me. Unable to stop his forward motion, the lad slid to a halt with the humming blade of the tyranid sword a mere inch from his face. A pause followed, then the lad's eyes rolled back into his head, and he fainted dead away.

As the young man dropped soundlessly to the ground, the sword in my hand grew heavy, and a bloodthirsty pull from the demons within almost made me drive the blade through the chest of the fallen man. With the strength behind my will and body, I flung the blade spinning through the air. The hum of the sword increased ten folds as it landed point down in the middle of the pile of animal corpses, as if ten thousand giant bees had been stirred into a frenzy. As I watched in distant fascination, the mount of corpses began to rive and twist, as if the slain creatures were about to return to this world as undead. A faint mist spread from the sword and drifted lazily over the corpses, and steam rose out of them as what remained of their blood got slowly sucked out of the already dead fleshes. Thin threads of crimson crawled along the earth like blackish, red worms, and before the earth could soak them up, they disappeared into the humming blade. Vember knows what would've happened if the blade had touched the man's flesh...

Bending down, I scooped up the tiny sword that the lad had dropped, and pocketed inside my cloak. Putting my fingers on the side of his neck, I felt his pulse, slow and strong, and actually felt a bit better. 'Well, at least that's one less death to deal with.' Aside from a bruised ego, the youth did not lose much, except for a stolen sword of course. If all's told, he probably would take this as a lesson of humbleness if he was smarter than he appeared to be.

Standing back up, I slung the shield over my shoulder so it dangled by its leather strap while resting on my back, before glancing over at the tyranid blade. The hum had now ceased, and a dull glow blanketed the sword as the demonic sword settled back to its dormant state. Walking slowly over to the sword, I noticed that the pile of fresh corpses were now no more than mummy-like bags of bones and skins. With one quick motion, I drew the sword from the ground and before the fangs could root, I slammed the thing into the flutecase and shut the lid firmly. An angry buzz rose from the space within the case as the demons briefly awakened to realize that they had missed out on my blood before falling back to their slumber.

II

The schoolyard was a mess of activities as I returned to the scene of my latest crime. Students and guards were running around everywhere, with some being confused and afraid, and some trying to restore a certain form of order. A pair of guards in blue leather armors stood by the west entrance, trying to look serious and not so obviously bored. Without a word, I strode past the sentries, and they both took a look at me before sternly ignoring me. Looking around, I saw the young orc standing idly beneath a tree, trying to keep out of the way of these armed humans. Just as I headed towards the orcling, a slender form in blue armor materialized before me and blocked my path.

"Oy! You there. I don't believe this is the time for visitors!" Blue barked at me, sounding like one who was used to have his commands obeyed.

I blinked and took a closer study of the man. He was a head shorter than me, youngish, and bore a crested badge upon the left breast of his leather armor. A standard sword hung from his belt, and a pair of brown eyes stared down at me from his nose, despite his lack of height. His skull was round, and he wore his hair so short that his head managed to resemble the head of a used match.

"My apology, captain," I addressed him, guessing his rank. "I do be Pharel Stormblade of Blackwind, and I am hear on a quest. Might I have the pleasure of knowing thy proper, and the situation at hand?" At this, I gave a slight bow towards him.

The man's eyes flew wide upon hearing my name, and he returned the bow stiffly. "Hail Pharel, ye are know among the guards. I do be Verin Dubias, commander of the Blue Rover Squad." He paused, waiting for a recognition, and continued on somewhat uncomfortably when none was given. "Uh, well, we have a bad situation here, so ye do forgive me if I was somewhat gruff before learning thy identity... Er see, the head trainer has been brutally murdered."

"Oh?" I nodded.

"Yeah, we just finished cleaning up the training center... What a mess it was, blood and gore everywhere. Eh, mayhap ye can shine some light upon this?"

"I believe I can..." I said levelly.

"Wonderful! Personally I do think it must have been done by a demonspawn of a sort, but we have not found any trace of necromantic energy anywhere..."

"Ah. Twas not a demonspawn." I leaned in close to him, holding his eyes with mine. "Twas I," I whispered.

I could honestly feel the man give a violent shudder, as if someone had suddenly impaled him with a shaft of ice, and he gasped and fought to wrench his eyes away from my gaze. Holding him with my will, I said in a voice so low that only he could hear, "I'd surrender my self to be placed under arrest, Captain Dubias, but pressing matter would not allow me to do so. The trainer chose to fight, and fell in battle. Ye of course can call the squad in right now to take me in, but I promise ye this: indeed thou bring in thy guards, I shall leave none but one alive to bear yer corpses back to yer mothers." Then, I released him and stood back up to my full height, waiting for his next move.

Verin Dubias, Captain Commander of the Blue Rover Squad, a man who resigned from service at a tender age of 30 - soon after the death of the head trainer of Ralnoth's School for Newbies, suddenly developed a short-term hearing problem. As he looked at my face, the cocky man who was the commander of the squad was gone, and so was the fear-stricken man who wished to do his duty, and what was left, was a blank-faced man who had seen too much in too short a time. "As I was saying," he began in a flat tone of voice. "We will be leaving the scene soon, and if ye shall be able to provide us with a clue, do contact Red Rover to report..." And he turned and slouched away, and walked forever out of this tale.

III

"Woot! Good man helped Gorki get sword back!" The young orc was jumping up and down, holding onto his tiny sword as if it was his best friend. Amazingly, the expression of joy looked quite good on him, making his ugly face look almost cute, and one could easily see the child he might've been if born in better times.

Sticking his blade into his belt, he pulled a torn and faded doll from his pocket. I caught the doll instinctively as it was tossed toward me. Looking down at the doll in my hand, I mused at how innocent and frail it looked, lying in my steel-clad palm.

The orcling looked at me with adoration and wonderment, with a trace of something in his eyes I couldn't define. "Good man take doll to sista. Her name Gorgja. Good man tell sista Gorki back soon and save her vrom Gorvak. Gorki learn fight, Gorki remember good man good to Gorki..." And, before I could make head or tail of it, he dashed off and disappeared in the crowd.

"Oi! Uh, wait!"



Chapter IV: Recrimination.



"Everybody in the world will take it once and be unfazed
But that extra little push becomes a common grave
So you can have your fun and murder while you smile
And steal another's heart and split your face in two for style
But there'll come a crawling from the inside, that'll just become an itch
You know the catch, there'll be a scratch
Payback's a bitch"

- PAYBACK'S A BITCH - GREGG LEE HENRY



I

"Buenos Dias!" a young black man said joyfully as I stepped into the store.

The store, or more properly known as a hole in Ralnoth's southern wall, had a few chairs and tables squeezed into it. Two colorful banners adorned the back wall, one of which contained the phrase, 'Welcome to the Arepera virgin of the valley,' and the other in some weird writing I could never discern. A statue of what was known as an Arepaman stood in one corner - a man-sized arepa with arms, legs, nose and a mouth. I could never understand why would someone keep such a statue, not to mention having it in the store. To me, the damnable thing looked rather scary.

After leaving the school, I headed south through the tunnel which ran beneath the Old Ralnoth sections of the town, emerging into daylight just outside the south gate. There I was greeted by an alert cityguard, but I was too focused on some other matters to spare him a hail. It didn't seem to face the lad as he smiled cheerfully and waved me through the gate. Before continuing south to find the orc settlement, I decided to stop for a mid-day meal. Thus, I turned westward and strode along the littered streets just south of the city, letting my guts guide me for a change.

A few settlements lay just south of Ralnoth, most of them dwelled by the poor and the wretched. The one I currently walked in was located between the tall stone wall of the city's southern limit and the impressive crystal building which was the temple of Cygnii, Father of Lies. This settlement was mostly ran by the Max, dark-skinned humans with colorful language, fond of drinks, and very little in the ways of wealth. Smallish, brightly decorated houses lined the streets of this village, houses that were called ranchitos by the locals. Most of these structures had no running water, thus it was a common thing for people to be seen naked, bathing in the waterhole in the middle of the streets - quite a shock for any outsiders who had never been here before.

Entering the settlement, I spotted my destination right away, The Arepa Virgin of the Valley. Here I was greeted by yet another Ralnoth guard, and I nodded to him as I stepped past him and into the dimly lit store. It took my eyes a second or two to adjust to the dim room, but my olfactory sense was immediately assaulted by the smells of frying butter, overused oil and spices of all imaginable kinds. Pausing by the messy tack board which was attached to the west wall of the joint, I drew the sigil of Blackwind upon it before turning to be greeted by Marcos, the owner of this less than charming establishment.

"Buenos dias!' Marcos, a young black man who was the owner, cook, waiter, and the cleaner of the place, greeted me with the usual nonsensical two words. "Fair day Senor Stormeblade. One's happy to see yu again!"

"Thank ye Marcos, but one of these days I be taking that mumble-jumble you greet me with as a curse or a spell. You ought to really put some practices into the common tongue, or even better, the High Speech."

"Spell... Curs'e? Who mee?" laughing with genuine good cheer, Marcos set a tattered menu down on the table before me. "Neva be mee Senor. Le's just happy ta leve magec to yu!"

"How about the normal forms of speech? Good Vember's... I can't even read this thing any more!" I exclaimed as I tried to read the grease-covered pages.

"I e's take practic'es when more peeople e's to come to Virgin... I get yu another menu no?"

"Uh no thanks, I'll just have an arepa and um, a side of string beef and some papaya juice eh." I said, tossing him a few gold coins. "And keep the change."

"Gudi choice Senor, beef, pepeyae juice, and arepera, comin' up!" Pocketing the coins, Marcos turned to the stoves and set to work.

A loud hiss alerted me to what he was about. "Pleas, Marcos, take pity on the oil!"

"Pleese senor." Marcos smiled, turning to look at me while he poured oil and spices into the pan. "Marcos knows hees areperas!"

"Just as I fear..." I muttered and resigned to wait.

A few ticks later, I was faced with a huge platter full of very greasy and tasty string beef, a dripping arepa (fried cornmeal with a lot of butter), and a tall pint of papaya juice. Sighing to my self, I forked a strip of beef, watching fat and grease run down the fork, and saluted Marcos. "Oh well," I said. "Who wants to live forever right?"

II

The meals at The Virgin could never be called healthy, but again, if one was to dine there, he wasn't much concerned about such matters. At this day and age, when one's life could be so casually snuffed out by either a sword or a knife in the back, I definitely wasn't too worried about dying of eating. After all, the food was quite good, even though I might've preferred it to be less spicy. While I ate, the young man stood by the stove, happily chattering away about his business, local gossips, and inquiring about news from afar.

Finishing my last bites, I put down the fork and reached for my sheathed blade and heavy shield. Just then, the door opened, and a guard stepped into the restaurant, his face set into a stoney expression. He was average in height, slim, and wore leather armors with a blue cape over one shoulder and the standard dagger and sword at his leather belt. His eyes darted about the dim room, trying to adjust to the lighting - or rather, the lack of it.

"Buenos Dias!" Marcos greeted happily, reaching for a menu.

Ignoring the owner coldly, the guard looked around, his eyes settled on me at last. "You!" he barked, "Come whith me!"

Standing up, I buckled on my blade and strapped the shield onto my back before turning. "Greeting guardsman, to what do I..."

"You touch yer sword senor and I kill you ere!" the guard warned, drawing his sword - a simple single-edged affair without marking of any kind.

Maybe it was because of what happened earlier, or maybe I just didn't feel like fighting after a good meal, but I felt no urge to kill the man. Keeping my hands away from the hilt of my blade, I casually walked towards him. "On what charge am I being arrested for?"

"Murder." The man said softly, looking up into my face. "I bring you in for tha murder o'Newbie and Stoner."

"Now-now," Marcos said quickly, "No bad business in Virgins... I's sure Senor Stormblade is good man, he no murder..."

"No Marcos," I said, turning to the shop owner, "One do be afraid that you are wrong. I have killed many, and indeed those two were among them."

"But you had goood reaso'n no?" Marcos wasn't a quitter.

Turning back to the guard, I looked into the man's eyes. "Tell me guardsman, did you know that Newbie and Stoner made corrupting young children their game? Did you happen to know that those two worthless wastes of humanity were selling weeds to the young? Or perhaps they bought you and your sword even though you promised to serve and protect?"

"I have heard, but murder es'till murder, and I see no reason to explain meself to one like you."

"Then I must regretfully say that I do not wish to go with you, nor have I the mind to banter words with he who is blinded by laws and rules, or even worse, by gifts in gold. If you'll excuse me..." Slapping aside his blade, I pushed past him and started out the door.

"Look out senor!" Marcos called.

Looking over my shoulder, I saw the guard lunging at me, his blade leading the way. Putting a hand to my chest, I grasped the strap of my shield and sidestepped, feeling the impact as the guard's sword struck the armor. As soon as I felt the blow, I whirled around, my gloved right hand striking the flat of the sword, knocking it aside. Stepping in, I drove my left fist into the guard's chest, throwing him back with a gasp. "I about had enough of your foolishness!" I hissed, going after him.

Stumbling backward, the man tried to get his sword up between himself and I while regaining his balance. I however, had a different idea in mind. Due to my taller stature, and the cramp interior of the place, there was very little he could do to give himself enough distance to swing at me. In two strides I was close to him, my left hand closed upon his sword-wrist and squeezed. I could feel the small bones grinding in my grasp as his sword fell to the ground. Grunting in pain, his other hand darted to the sheathed knife at his belt.

I had noticed a pattern with cityguards through the years. Unless it was a uniquely talented individual, the guards almost always, without doubt, fell back on their training in times of distress, ignoring logic or creative thinking. When they went after a person who was known to use spells, they would always try to take them from behind. If the person was known as a swordsman, they would always expect him to use a sword. This of course, was the biggest mistake one could make. A swordsman might be good with a dagger, and a mage might be good with a blade. This one however, couldn't seem to make sense of me using my fists on him.

Methodically, I drove my left fist into the man's middle, bending him over before following through with a punch to the ribs with my right, then again in the belly with my left. His hand left the knife and came up to protect his torso, and I hit him on the side of the head with my right fist, dazing him. Marcos was shouting something that I couldn't make out as I took the guard by his breastplate and lifted him up. With a great heave, I sent the man sailing across the room, his body missing the grill by less than a foot.

Maybe it was fate that the man landed hard against the statue of the Arepaman, and something quite unexpected happened.

"Oh noooo!" Marcos cried, running towards the corner. "He's hit th'e Arepaman!"

Just then the statue suddenly, and I fool you not, came alive and proceeded to beat the guard senseless.

There was a lot of noise with the statue pounding on the guard, breaking tables and stools, and both the guard and Marcos yelling. A good size crowd had appeared outside the shop, all trying to look in on what was happening. Adjusting my shield, I put a few gold pieces by the stove, stepped over a shattered stool, and pushed my way past the few that managed to get into the little restaurant. "Sorry for the mess my friend," I shouted at Marcos, "Hope those are enough to repair the shop." And I left the establishment, shouldering my way through the crowd and headed out of the village.

III

A wide road extended to the south towards the great mountain range in the distance. The strange gray material beneath foot seemed as solid as a sheet of stone, but no natural thing known to men could build anything so regular as this road. It seemed to be composed of thousands upon thousands of small, thumbnail sized rocks. At the edges of the road these small rocks became loose and plants grew up in rock covered soil. To the west, a small trail led to a rather peaceful woodland area frequently visited by the townsfolk of Ralnoth.

I too, had once hunted and trained in those woods to the east. Had slain my first elk there, before I found the temple of Cygnii just south of the forest. Though it had been decades since I was a follower of The Father of Lies, this area still felt vaguely like home. With my lunch sitting heavy in my guts, and the sun beating down upon my steel-clad shoulders, I moved further south past the great temple till I found my self standing at yet another intersection.

North of where I stood was the fortified town of Ralnoth in all its glory. Looking up, I could occasionally see a student or farmer, passing over the arch. To the south, the Great Southern Road stretched out of sight, twisting around green hills, disappearing quickly into the green canopy. The stone walls that bordered the road had diminished into small curbs, and not too far to the south they disappeared entirely. The road was well traveled and dusty from the hooves of many horses and marching of many warriors, vagabonds, and priests.

A small path led west into yet another district of the town where the mayor ruled his people with an iron fist. The people who lived in this area were mostly farmers, with the occasional street thugs and beggars wandering the streets. Despite the fact that most people here were poor and lived in bad conditions, this little community was not without its share of fame. It was known to most adventurers that the little church in the district stored great wealth within its walls, and many a bandits tried their hands at stealing the famous donation box, while wandering heroes-to-be tried to defend the church.

Another mile south, a small path led away from the road to the east into dark woods. The road continued south into snow-capped mountains and thick forested lands, but this was as far south as I had to go. Turning off the road, I found my self on an overgrown path surrounded by mutilated bushes. The path looked as if many creatures had hacked their ways through the woods, creating a crude trail. A nasty odor assaulted me, and I knew I was near my destination. Though I had nothing to fear from these lowly creatures, I found my self adjusting the straps of the shield on my back and loosening my sword in its sheath.

Further into the woods, the trail turned north. The area was choked with thorned bushes and underbrush, making the walk rather annoying as sharp thorns ripped at my cloak and hair. Sighing with frustration, I whipped my blade from the sheath at my waist and, spinning about and wielding my sword as if it was a common hatchet, I cleared my self a little space before sheathing the sword. An angry buzz rose from the flute case on my back as the magical weapons within protested my action. Sometimes weapons could be so sensitive...

Two miles north, the path turned east before opening into a clearing to the north. The air was thick with the stink of rotting meat and rancid sweat, and I could now hear rough voices talking up ahead in the rough tongue of Orcish. In the center of the clearing was a stone well which was the main water source of the village. Situated north of the clearing, the village was an encampment of crude huts and tents. Several spears were driven into the earth around the clearing, and on one of them was placed a dog skull. I had found the place at last.

IV

"Man no hurt Yajka!' The orc woman shrieked, backing away behind the well, obviously distressed by seeing me stepping into the clearing. The bucket in her hand bounced to the ground once, twice, and into the well, landing far down in the darkness with a wet plop.

"Curse me... I'm dreadfully sorry Yajka, I mean ye no harm." I explained, holding out my empty hands in a gesture of peace, though my gesture was somewhat marred by my gauntlets. This orc maiden was petite, for an orc, and quite pretty, for an orc, and may it be orc, human or troll, I tried to be kinder when the party was of my opposite gender. Please, no comment here...

Looking at me distrustfully, the orc sniffed, "Man come with steels, scare Yajka, Yajka no water now..." Her tone wasn't as much accusing than it was a note of resignation. "Many man come, say bad orcs, kill orcs fer sport, orcs know orcs not wanted..."

"I can assure ye that such was never my intention... I came here with one purpose in mind and one only..." And I stopped and glared at the orc maiden, for she was giggling at me!

"Man talk funny... Not like other man, big man talk like Yajka never hear befer..."

Grinding my teeth, I huffed a sigh and mentally forced myself to tap into more orc-friendly tongue. "Me," I pointed at my self, "Help Yajka get bucket back, then Yajka good orc show me, Pharel, where Gorvak and Gorgja live." That almost made me bite my tongue...

Shaking her head, Yajka pointed at the well. "Water deep, no bucket, monster get Arel when Arel go in water." She obviously had trouble with my name.

Striking a heroic pose, I smiled down at the orc with confident. "Me," I pointed at my chest, "Me big, monster big as me?"

Looking me up and down, Yajka tried to puzzle out the question. "Yajka not know, Yajka no see monster befer, but Arel no tusk, no-tusk orc no-good orc warrior."

"I am not an orc... Oh nevermind..." I sighed and shrugged off my heavy cloak and hung it on a nearby spear. Taking off my breastplate and shield, I left them in a pile by my flapping cloak. "No touch," I pointed at my belongings, "Man armor and weapon cursed, touch and orc die."

The orc maiden looked at my naked chest and shoulders. "Man many scars, many fights, many hurt..."

"Yeah, but my enemies got hurt thrice as bad..." I said and stepped over the low wall of the well. Letting my legs and lower half dangle over the edge, with my hands pressing against the top of the wall, I winked at the orc. "Hear me scream, Yajka run." Then I let go and drifted slowly down into the darkness, my spell controlling my fall as if I had feathers, and heard Yajka giggling overhead.

V

"Good Vembers..." I cursed and halted my fall before I even touch the water. Water, in this instance, was used loosely to describe this pool of rust-colored liquid. The smell here was so strong that one could literally faint from it. Vember knew I felt like fainting myself. There were dead things in the well, dogs, rats, and other things that had decayed to the point where one could not make out what they were. Grimacing, I prepared my self to get down into that awful pool, but no matter how I tried, I couldn't dig up enough courage to do so. I had walked over bones, corpses, blood, and I had seen men disemboweled, hacked to pieces, and worse, but... 'Oh my goddess... I can't...'

How could the orcs drink out of this well without getting sick? That was a question for another time, maybe they were just naturally used to this sort of condition. Just as I was trying again to prepare my mind, I felt a faint tingling... Someone was trying to contact me by magic...

*Hey Pharel.* A musical voice chimed in my mind. *Where in the world did you wander off to this time, I've been trying to mindtell for a hour now...*

Tapping into the link, I sent. *Hail Jalin oh powerful enchantress of the Wind...*

*Oh you know the right thing to say... But nevermind that, I want to know how many of those damn sacks of grain you want for the tower? I been sitting here with Bellamor the mage for hours and really, I just about had enough of it... Can I come home now?*

*Well, how many you got so far?* I replied.

Every month or so, someone from Blackwind would travel into the hidden cavern of the arcane guardian Bellamor to pick up the sacks of grain he promised to donate to us. The sacks of grain were valuable to brewers, and they were much needed food supply during off seasons. The journey was long, and the mage was never too eager to give us more than he had to, so Jalin the Temptress, more often than not, got selected for the duty. If there was one thing that Bellamor did well, it was that he understood beauty.

*Eh lets see... Five.*

*We can do with seven for now I guess.*

*But Pharel! That'd mean another hour or so at least before the supply wagon gets here!*

*Do not let a little boredom distress ye my lovely, comparing to where I am, ye are in heaven at the moment... And, after all, the sacks of grain are for a good cause...*

*Good cause my behind, they are for you to make your moonshines... Where are you anyway? You know I'd never be allowed in Heaven thanks to my deeds.*

Glancing down at the pool beneath me, I quickly looked away. *I am in the well outside of the orc village.*

*Um.* There was a pause. *Why in Talos' name would you be in there? That's hardly the place for a swim...or a bath*

*Well...* I tried to think of an answer. *I came here on business, and there was this orc maiden...*

*Say no more...*

*It's not like that... Well, I scared her when I came near the well while she was fetching water...*

*You are rather scary at times...*

*And she dropped her bucket into the well...*

*So you struck a heroic pose and said like this...* And she lowered her voice into a croak. *Fear not fair maiden, I, Pharel Stormblade, Highlord and Bladeseeker of Blackwind, will be happy to assist ye in thou retrieval of the bucket...*

*I said no such thing!* I protested, but she was laughing too hard for me to get a word in. Having someone laughing in your mind is rather annoying, don't you think?

*Pha.Pha...haha...Pharel* she struggled, *Why didn't you just try to hook the damn thing with one of your weapons?*

*Eh?*

*I'm sure hehe you have something, a hooked spear or something, in your collection that can easily hook the bucket and get it out without you having to go into the water...*

*Um, I frankly didn't think of it... And there's this monster in here I promised to rid...*

*Men.* That was sent with a tone I didn't care for. *If you want to rid them the creature, just fish the bucket out and then cast a bolt of lightning down into the well... My goodness Pharel, I can't believe you actually went down into the well to accomplish something so simple!* And she went off with another gale of laughter.

*Hush girl, then let me go back to my task...* I huffed, and, not sure if she heard me since she laughed all the harder. *Oh and Jalin.*

*Ye.ye..ye...yeah?*

*About those sacks, make it 20!* I listened as her laughter turned into a wail of anguish before I severed the mindlink.

Muttering darkly to myself, I thrust my hand behind me and tapped the runes on the flute case. "Gaff!" I commanded sharply, and I felt the weapon coming into my grasp. It was known as The Royal Gaff of the King, an artifact I picked up when I defeated the king of the trogdolytes some years back. A long, black iron pole with a humongous hook attached to the end, the gaff was a cruel weapon in battle, but now I called upon it to perform an all together different kind of duty.

Spotting the bucket floating some three feet away from where I was hovering, I reached out with the hooked weapon and dragged the catch to me. Taking the bucket off the hook, I bounced it in my hands a few times and, like a child at a ball game, I tossed the bucket up over my head at an angle. A loud scream could be heard coming from above following by a clatter and I knew the bucket had landed safely, and that the orc did see it.

Now about the monster. I surveyed the pool of water and filth, but aside from the decaying remains drifting and bobbing on the surface, I saw no monster. Reversing my grip on the gaff, I probed the water. Bubbles of gas rose to the surface, making the stench worse, but still no sign of anything alive. Whatever the thing was, it couldn't be all that big since this well was barely big enough for me to move my limbs about, and from the feel of the gaff probing the water, it wasn't all that deep either. Taking the gaff out of the dirty water, I touched it to the case on my back. Uttering the chant that would activate the runes, I felt the gaff vanishing into the magical flute case.

Turning about slowly, I began searching the stone and mud wall around me. The circular wall was stained and just as filthy as the water below, and tiny cracks appear randomly along the face of the wall as time and water slowly ate away at it. Looking to my left, I spotted a larger crack in the stone wall just below my left shoulder in height. Pressing closer for a better look, I noticed that the edge of the crack was uneven and lined with what looked like... Claw marks... Just then, I caught a quick movement behind the crack I was staring at, and heard a sharp click as a toothy snout snapped at me, inches from my nose.

Pulling back with an startled oath, I nearly lost my hold on my magic and would've plunge down into the filth if not for years of training which allowed my instinct to keep a death-grip on the spell. Heart thumping violently, I looked at my gauntleted fists and then back at the crack which seemed to have snapped at my nose seconds ago. Drawing my right arm back till my elbow touched the wall behind me, I took a deep breath. 'This would either work or break my knuckles...' I thought as I blasted forth with my gloved right fist.

The wall around the crack exploded in a shower of dirt and loose rocks and pebbles as my gauntlet smashed into the wall, followed by my shoulder and weight. My right arm disappeared into the enlarged hole up to the elbow. Instead of packed dirt, there appeared to be a recess of sort behind this part of the wall. Something struck my gauntlet hard, and I instinctively turned my wrist, trying to grab it in a counter-hold. Groping about in the space behind the crack without being able to see what I was up against, my hand settled around something that was thrashing and snapping about viciously. Drawing my arm out of the hole, I looked at what I caught. And I began to laugh...

I couldn't help it! All these troubles I've went through to get to this point just became all the more ridiculous as two emotionless eyes stared up at me. The monster, as the orc maiden put it, was actually a baby crocodile no bigger than a large lizard. The thing was about as long as my arm, and its hide had not yet hardened into the rigid plates of armored scales an adult croc had. With my fist around its middle, the thing was struggling frantically, its tail whipping at my chest while it attempted to snap at the hand holding it.

My first thought was to snap the spine of this thrashing thing and be done with it. After all, I had to get on with my quest before I wasted anymore time being sidetracked. Slaying an enemy in battle was practically second nature to me, but killing this young croc would not be glorious at all. The thing after all, did not mean anyone any harm, and its only reason for being here was that there was a constant source of food in this well.

Looking at the hole I dragged the croc out of, I noticed that it was actually a small tunnel which snaked off into darkness. My thought was that it had to come out somewhere in a stream or a river, otherwise how did this young snapper get into the well in the first place? I couldn't leave the croc in the well, for once it grew big enough, it would become a real threat to the ones whom depended on this water source. The crocodile kept gnawing at my gauntlet while I pondered the situation, and one of its fangs snagged on the chainmail and broke off.

"Ouch...quit that..." I swore under my breath and stuffed the thing head-first back into the hole and released my grip. Faster than I thought it could move, the thing zoomed away into the tunnel and disappeared from view. An idea came to me then. Twas a long shot but twas also the only idea I could come up with. Muttering the spell, I gathered in my will and released it into the pool below. A thick chilling fog rose from the water, trailing tiny flakes of ice, the temperature in the well dropped alarmingly as the ice fog crept up all around me and into the croc's tunnel. My chest and back broke out in Goosebumps as the fog touched me. Being cold of blood, crocs did not much care for cold temperature, thus, with the fog hurrying it along, the baby croc would flee back into wherever it came from and hopefully by the time it found the entrance into this well again, it'd be too big to get into the tunnel. Mission accomplished, I started up out of the well, back into the light of the afternoon sun.

VI

"Oi! What have we ere?"

Pausing near the rim of the well, I stopped my ascend at the gruff voice. Carefully raising my head over the edge, I saw a thick-necked orc coming towards the orc maiden. Like most of his kind, he had sloping brow and a heavy build. He wore a dirty loincloth and nothing else on his filthy body, and his nose looked to have been broken many times. Not seeing me, the brute approached my armors and shield

"Oi... These are right pretty. Ai shay they just fer me!" Saying so, the orc reached for my belongings.

Rushing over, the smaller female pushed at him. "Yurk no touch, man things no Yurk's things!"

Snarling, the newcomer shoved Yajka aside roughly. "Sho u shay... Ai shay they mine!"

To her credit, Yajka did not shrink back before this larger orc. Grabbing hold of his ears, she yanked him, cursing, away from the pile of armors. Swinging around, the orc dealt the female a blow that failed to loosen her hold on his pointed ears. Stumbling like a pair of drunks, they struggled closer to the well, near me.

"Frag off bitch!" spat the male, swinging wildly at the younger orc. "Ai...ow...u biiach!" Yajka must have bitten one of the male's flailing arms. Although I could not see it clearly from my angle, the orc jerked his left arm back and blood was dripping off of it. "Ai es gon kewl u!" Roared the male orc.

Ducking my head low so my voice would echo off the wall of the well, I let out as loud a roar as I could without entering blood fever state. The result was better than I could've hoped, the sound I made bounced off the wall and dirty water, rising up out of the well in a distortion which sounded like murder it self. With a horrified cry of, 'MONSER!!!' the male orc tore away from Yajka and vanished into the woods.

"Man alive!" Yajka greeted me as I swung my legs over the side of the well. She has retrieved her dropped bucket, and was hugging it to her chest as she looked at me with expectation in her brown eyes.

"Aye...er I mean, yes, I'm just fine." I nodded at her as I retrieved my armor and cloak and began to dress. No matter what people may think, dressing up in full armor by one self wasn't an easy task - nor was it particularly graceful. After a goodly amount of grunting and squirming, I finally got my breastplate strapped on straight and my shield secured.

"Monster gone?"

"Yes, monster gone, no coming back."

"Monster big monster?"

"Not really... Here..." I handed her the tiny fang I pulled from the back of my gauntlet. "Monster not big, monster baby water-lizard thing..."

"Yajka keep tooth, show friends, tell friends man hero, man kill monster, not orcs."

Oh if she only knew half of how much of a lie that would be... "Keep it if you wish." I said, avoided commenting on her remark. Somewhere in the shadows of a man's soul, a voice screamed at me, and it was screaming: *KILLER!*

"Man come now, Yajka make good food for man, man hungry?"

Remembering what kind of water these orcs use for cooking, drinking and bathing, I shook my head. "Man on quest, Yajka help man find Gorvak's home, man thanks Yajka good orc." I knew that later on, I would have to make sure I wash my mouth with the strongest soap to rid me the taste of this language.

Looking a bit crest-fallen, Yajka shook her head. "Gorvak mad orc, man no safe meeting Gorvak. Gorvak find out, Yajka gets hurt."

This Gorvak must be quite an orc. "Gorvak badder than monster?" I asked to remind her that I was no third-rate wanderer myself.

"Yajka not know, but Gorvak maaad... Gorvak bad to orcs, kill man." She answered, suppressing a giggle at the comparison I made of Gorvak and the monster.

"Gorvak warrior orc?"

"Yajka not know, Gorvak likes fight, likes giving pain."

"Well Yajka," I said, looking her in the eyes. "I warrior of man, I fight good." When she still looked doubtful, I tapped on my armored chest with one fist. "Yajka said she tell friends Pharel's hero, so she must believe before she tell."

"But man no like giving pain, man no kill monster even."

"How does Yajka know monster not dead?" I asked, a bit puzzled at that.

"No blood," she replied matter-of-factly, pointing at my hands. "Yajka knows monster gone, not know how, but knows man not killed monster."

Leaning towards her, I lowered my voice into a growl which I thought was a great imitation of an orc. "I ate it..." After her laughter died down, I continued seriously. "Come Yajka, Pharel show Yajka something..." Together, we walked a few paces into the woods I came out of, and I stopped before a large tree. Drawing back my fist, I smashed my gauntleted right-hand into the un-offending trunk, muttering a simple Burning Hand spell. Yajka gasped as flames burst forth from where I struck, dancing along the trunk and limbs before the moisture in the living tree turned them into harmless light smoke. About chest-high on the tree now was a blackened hole about a foot wide, and the clear shape of my gauntlet was pressed into the center of the depression. "Can Gorvak do that?" I asked pointedly.

The orc's eyes were wide as she answered, "Yajka no think so, Yajka thinks man wizard." Hugging her bucket tighter, she backed away from me. "Yajka thinks man dangerous..."

"Only to enemies, not to Yajka." I tried to calm the frightened orc, but my casual demonstration had obviously shaken her badly. Sighing to my self, I looked at Yajka, "Show Pharel where Gorvak, Pharel go."

Walking back into the clearing, Yajka pointed north into the village. "Gorvak east end, old tent, small girl Gorgja with him. Gorgja good orc, man no hurt Gorgja." Turning to look up at me, she continued quickly. "Man make Gorvak no hurt Gorgja too."

"Thank you Yajka, man is grateful." I bowed deeply and turned to go. "Pharel thanks Yajka for watching over armors."

A few steps away from the clearing, I looked back. Yajka was still hugging her bucket to her chest, looking at my retreating back with an almost human expression on her brutish face. Time stood still for a brief second as our eyes met, and the image of that afternoon, in that clearing, with the sun barely dropping towards the western sea, and at that crossroad where two complete different beings' destinies somehow brushed against one-another, light as the feather of a goose, but significant all the same, was engraved upon my heart forever.

VII

Heading into the village, I was assaulted by the scents of unwashed bodies and rotting food. Flocks of young orcs played in the dirt road, simulating battles that some of them would undoubtedly grow up to fight and die in. Tents and shacks lined both sides of the path, there was no order, just randomly squeezed into whatever space was found first. I did not see the brute who, when last I saw, was running blindly into the woods. It was quite possible that he would keep on running till he reached Ralnoth, and even then, I did not think he'd return here soon.

Some orcs stopped whatever they were doing and stared at me in fear and disgust, but this close to Ralnoth, orcs did not openly assault travelers no matter how unwelcome they might've been. There was also the fact that I was dressed in full armor, so even if common sense failed to register, the fear of being slaughtered would keep them off of me. Some of the smaller younglings scattered and disappeared back into tents, while the older teens stood and whispered to one another in hushed orcish.

Suddenly, a young male orc in dirty blue uniform of some sort stepped into my path. Shorter than I by almost a head, he had the thick body that was common to his kind. His tusks were polished to a shine, and he carried himself proudly like an officer in an army. His awful breath and dirty clothes however, detracted slightly from his self-important look.

"You here in peace?" He demanded in accented Common, putting his hand on the short club hanging from his belt.

I waited, and after a pause he added gruffly. 'Sir knight?"

Not born a knight, and never gotten actually knighted, I nonetheless had been mistaken as one often enough that I could actually act the part. My armors and weapons added to the image, and the marks upon my shield definitely spoke volumes of the battles I've taken parts in. In many instances, I would smile and explain to people that I was not a true knight, but I did find a certain advantage in playing the part under some circumstances. No matter if they deserved it or not, knights had a reputation of being the symbol of justice, the good guys, and they were generally feared for their skills in combat. They were also known to punish without mercy, and bring harsh retributions upon those who got in the way of their missions. Quite often, when a knight was in the company, the group could avoid many battles just due to his reputation alone.

Adjusting my cloak slowly, I stared down at the orc. "And who wants to know?" I asked in a cool tone.

"I'm called Grodo, I's constable of village." The orc answered, puffing up his chest proudly. "You come causing trouble, Grodo arrests you, put you in jail, Send for trial."

"I am here for one Gorvak of Orc Village. I talk to Gorvak, no trouble if Gorvak talk sense..."

"Bah!" The orc spat to one side. "Gorvak no see you, Gorvak maaad orc, he kill you first..."

Shrugging my armored shoulders, I shook my head. "Then that would be Gorvak's choice wouldn't it..."

"You cause trouble, Grodo arrests you..."

"What if Gorvak starts trouble?" I said casually, crossing my arms before my chest.

The orc looked at me with stupid, piggish eyes. "Go away," he said, "Go away and no trouble..."

"I am on a quest, a quest of importance," I said, gazing at him. "Those who get in the way would pay the price. Now either get out of my way, Grodo, or show me where's Gorvak... Or face me in combat..." I rested my hand on the hilt of the sword at my waist to reinforce the statement. I could really act like a knight if I wanted to...

Looking around himself, seeing that no other orcs would be likely to fight for him, Grodo grudgingly backed up a step. "Gorvak third house on eastside..."

"Thank ye, Grodo, I shall remember thy assistance with all, my, heart..." I said, driving the words home and scaring him back another step.

"You tell Gorvak I tell you his home, I kill you," Grodo warned me, though his expression didn't look all that threatening.

"Wouldn't dream of it..." I said as I wheeled on my heels and walked with long strides towards the 'house' he had indicated.

VIII

Yajka had called it, 'a tent' while Grodo said it was 'a house,' but what I saw before me was no more than a disgusting hovel, built with shoddy workmanship. Sticks haphazardly lashed together to form a sort of teepee. It was even worse than the rest of the homes in the village. A fact that I found hard to believe.

Stepping through the entrance, I had to duck my head slightly to prevent knocking my forehead into the edge of what passed as the roof of the structure. The floor was covered with dirty straw, while a pile of the same material lay beneath an uncured animal skin in one corner, serving as a bed. Flies buzzed about in the hut, though I saw no food around. The smell of alcohol was strong in here, and I heard some weird noises that I could neither identify nor locate at first.

A soft whimper drew my attention to the tiny form of an orc child who was huddling in a corner. Reaching into my belt, I drew out the tiny doll and approached the child.

"Hail Gorgja... Your brother sent me."

Shrinking back against the wall, she gazed at me with fearful eyes and looked at the doll in my hand. "Gorki? Gorki come home?"

"Yes, Gorki," I smiled, trying to put her at ease, and failing. "Gorki learning in town, Gorki says Gorgja good orc..."

Reaching out, I handed her the doll. She hugged it to her tiny frame and, as she looked up at me, I caught a full view of her little face at last... I gasped... The child had been starved and beaten badly. Her tiny tusks were jagged from being broken, her nose was flat and skinned some, and her skin was scratched in many places from what I could see. Both eyes were swollen and puffy, with one slightly worse than the other. Huge bruises stood out on her cheeks despite her natural coloration, and in this dim light they seemed almost completely black.

"Gorvak did this to Gorgja?" I grated through clenched teeth. I had a real reason to hurt someone now, and I was looking forward to it...

"N...n...noo..." She covered her mouth and tears ran down her cheeks. "Gorgja bad orc, Gorvak teach Gorgja, Gorgja learn, no good, Gorgja know now to be good..."

"Where is Gorvak?" I asked and saw her eyes darted to one flap-covered wall.

"Gorgja no tell, Gorvak say no tell..."

Nodding to my self, I said. "Okay, Gorgja good orc, Gorgja did not tell," and headed towards the flap, ignoring the weak protest of the youngling.

Grasping the dirty flap, I tore it from the rod it hung from and threw it aside. Behind it was what was probably a garden once. Ringed by leafless trees, this patch of dirt was littered with bottles of spirit and broken glass. An orc was asleep in a heap on the ground, producing the weird grunts and groans I heard from inside the hut.

I stood still, framed by the space where the flap had once been, and studied this sorry excuse for even an orc. Tongue hanging from his mouth, Gorvak drooled in his sleep. His face was fixed in a sneer even now, and his tusks looked sharp and filthy. I could not tell how big he really was since he was down on the ground, laying on his side, but he did not look that powerful to me. Wrapped in a torn black cape, with a bottle in his hand, Gorvak did not notice me standing there.

"Gorvak!" I roared. "Rise, Gorvak!"

The orc snorted and tried to sit up but got tangled up in his dirty cloak and fell back down again. Expressionless, I looked on from the only exit of the small lot, my arms crossed before me. With a grunt, Gorvak rolled over and lay quite still, seemingly to drift back to sleep. With two quick strides I was beside him. I booted him in the side hard with my armored foot and heard him snort again.

"I bid ye rise!" I growled, "Do not presume for I to wait upon thee..."

This time, Gorvak sat up fast and got to his feet. Standing, he was just a finger shorter than I, and quite a bit bigger around than I first thought. Though he did not have the lean and toned look of a trained warrior, his dented knuckles and jagged nails gave him the image of a brawler. Holding a bottle in one big, paw-like hand, he squinted at me with red-rimmed eyes.

"Who tha bat droppin' are u?" Gorvak demanded in a thick voice.

"I am called Pharel, Pharel Stormblade of Blackwind, I am here to..."

"I don't care wat ya ere fer..." he cut in. "Ner mon or orc kick Gorvak, ya ear? No'on..."

Shrugging my shoulders to loosen the muscles there, I looked into his gummy eyes. "Gorki told me of you, I am here to take the girl to town."

The orc's ears twitched once. "Nah..." he growled and I saw his hand tighten on the bottle. I knew what was coming. "Nah....ya ain't taken Gorgja nowere," he took one step forward. "Cause ya'll be de'ad!" With that, Gorvak rushed me, the bottle smashing down.

Instinctively, I raised my left arm with the armguard forward to deflect the blow. With a loud crunch, the bottle shattered against my armor and shards flew everywhere. Gorvak was left holding a long, jagged piece of glass, which was actually more dangerous than what he had a second ago. I had no time to speculate on that however as the orc's weight drove me back partly into the hut. Staggering, I lost my balance and went down on my back with Gorvak on top of me. This was not good...

"I'm gon tear yer'ead off!" Gorvak shouted with glee and swiped at my head with the remainder of the bottle.

Being in full armor, it would be hard to get up off the ground as it was, and now with the added weight of the flailing orc atop me, it was a losing fight on my end. Turning my head, I caught the swipe on the visor of my helm and broke off another chunk of glass. Faintly, I heard the orc child screaming, but I was too busy to tend to her. Reaching up, I drove both gauntleted fists repeatedly into the orc's back, hammering him hard. Grunting, Gorvak scooted forward towards my head, away from the punishing fists, and this was what I was waiting for.

Reaching behind me blindly, I tapped on the flutecase and thought, *dagger*. Something cold chilled my hand even through the glove, and I drew the weapon out. Barely six inches in length, Slamin's Mighty Bs was very cold to the touch and appeared unwieldy to those not experienced with the artifact. However, those who could master such weapon would find it extremely handy in a close-quarter fight. Forged by the hands of some unknown being, one could not rightfully say where the blade ended and the hilt began on the weapon, but one glance would be enough to tell the amount of damage this blade could inflict on its victims.

The orc was now swearing and trying to throttle me with one hand while clumsily trying to jab me in the eye with the jagged piece of glass with the other. My helm however, made the task difficult, and he finally realized that and attempted to pull my helmet off. His fierce expression turned to one of extreme pain, and he actually squeaked, his body stiffening as I prodded him in the kidney with my weapon. The thrust wasn't hard, but the weapon slid in deep. As the orc threw his head back in a silent scream of agony, I pushed my left shoulder against the ground and heaved over into a roll, throwing my opponent off of me.

I struggled to my feet in a jangling of armors and looked at my weapon. Tiny beads of blood already formed into dots of ice along the blade as the cold magic within the weapon took in the offered sacrifice. Looking down, I saw the orc a few feet from me, still laying on the ground, his hands pressing hard against his lower back, the jagged shard of glass protruding from his chest, unnoticed.

Soldiers often describe being stabbed in the kidney as the most excruciating pain one can experience, but that doesn't even come close to it. It is in fact, so painful that the person cannot even get the breath to scream. Obviously, the orc was in such pain that he failed to notice that he had fallen onto his own weapon when he fell off of me.

Casually, I reached back and sent the artifact back into the flutecase and dusted off my cloak. Roses of crimson were now blooming on the orc's lips, staining his tusks as he slowly drowned in his own blood. I might've just left him there to suffer for what he had done to his child, but I did not wish for the child to watch as her own father die in agony. Stepping over to him, I took hold of his cape and dragged him out into the clearing - out of the sight of the youngling. I propped him up against one tree in a kneeling posture and drew my sword. His eyes weren't focused on me as I gripped the hilt with both hands.

"Pray, for forgiveness..." I whispered.

"Yo...Ya stab meh in'tha bak..." He moaned right before I swung my sword in a broad arc and his head flew off his shoulders and came to rest on the other side of the lot. The body slowly fell forward into the dirt, blood fountaining out from the clean wound.

Working my blade free of the trunk, I wiped it clean on the orc's cape before sheathing it. Turning about, I saw the child had come to stand near the entrance of the lot, and she had witnessed her father's execution. What do you say to a child who just saw you cut off her father's head anyway? There was no need for word, for the child simply looked at the headless corpse with stoney eyes before turning away. "Gorvak, ded?" She inquired in a tone that was surprisingly hopeful.

"Aye young one, I am sorry... But..." I tried to find something to say, but words failed me. Finally I said to her, "Come, I take you to Gorki, in town."

She nodded, "Gorgja go see Gorki."

Bending slightly, I caught the child around the waist and picked her up. She was not clean, and she smelled quite awful, but that was beyond my care at the moment. With long strides I took us out of the hut, right into a hoard of orcs who were waiting outside.

"Arrest tha uman!" An orc in blue charged to the front of the crowd, waving a spiked club in his hand and shouting. "Hes killed Gorvak, take im!"

I felt the youngling's grip on my cloak tightening as I gazed at this orc, and realized that I saw him before. "I do believe," I said in a low voice, "I hath commanded ye to give way to my quest, Grodo of Orc Village, hath ye decided to try my swordarm instead?"

Hastily, Grodo stepped back to the crowd, still waving his club. "Man come to village, man is trouble! Take im! Do not let im take our youngs!"

The crowd shifted uneasily, I heard angry growls and words shared in orcish. My focus however was on the blue one who obviously was trying to whip the villagers into action against me. With practiced ease, I drew my blade with a steely rasp of metal on leather, still holding the child in my left arm. Raising the sword, I gave the crowd a knight's salute and boomed in my loudest voice. "Come one, come all, this child stays with I, but if that doth not sit well with ye, folks of Orc village, then let us dance to the melody of death and blood, but hear me now, for I speak with the honor of my name, if thou shall choose to dance the dance this day, none of ye shall live to see another moonrise, and the child shall still come with me."

The villagers whispered and shifted their feet, but none came forth as I started forward, my sword in one hand and the child close to me in the other arm. In their faces I saw confusion, fear, and brutish anger of cornered animals. This wasn't suppose to happen, there were so many of them and only one of me, I was supposed to be backing down, not challenging them... For my part, I held my breath. I had no doubt that if they came for me, I could slay them all easily. These were untrained farmers and hunters, and none of them had a proper weapon to fight with, so I had confidence in my skill and magic. However, a massacre of this scale would cause such an uproar that it was best avoided if possible.

"Get'im! Get tha uman!" Grodo shouted again, brandishing his club. And then, there was a loud *CLUNG* and a "Errgh!" I turned, and saw the blue orc sagging to the ground, his lips slacked and his eyes rolled back. Behind him stood a petite female with a dented iron skillet in her hand.

"Orcs gon maad?" Yajka demanded in a loud voice. "Arel good uman, killed monster, free water for orcs, orcs no thank Arel, orcs fight?" Restlessly, the orcs looked at one another. Waving her skillet about, Yajka continued. "Arel brave man, Arel strong wizard, orcs fight Arel, orcs die..." Turning to me, she came a few steps closer. "Go Arel, Yajka think orcs no fight now, Grodo no fight, orcs no fight."

"Thank you Yajka, Yajka good orc, Pharel thanks Yajka from the bottom of his heart." I bowed and sheathed my sword.

Bending towards the little orc girl in my arm, Yajka whispered, "Gorgja brave younin', Gorgja grow up, strong orc, learn city ways, come back home, bring Gorki, Yajka talk to gods always for Gorgja ta be safe..." And with those last words, she gave me a soft push and sent me on my way.



Epilogue



The alley was filthy and smelly even for the beggars' standard. Garbage piled three or four feet deep along the outside walls of the buildings, and unlucky souls had carved out spaces for their homes among the masses of trash. A small inn stood on the south side of the alley, its door opened, swinging and squeaking in the soft breeze. The entrance to the inn threw a square of light against the opposite wall, creating dancing shadows on the filthy ground.

Occasionally, large, hungry rats ran across the alley floor, some as big as the beastly dogs so commonly seen in this town. This alley was known as Poor Alley, and the nice citizens of Ralnoth would not come here even during the day. Actually, most folks wouldn't even admit that such a place existed in their beloved town, but it did, and the poor and the desperate could all be found here. If one was to venture into the Poor Alley, one must keep one hand firmly on his coins and the other on the hilt of his weapon.

In a tiny space framed by abandoned trunks and other furniture, a young orc girl sat. In front of her was a badly beaten table, holding a handful of cheaply made necklaces. She was not pretty, and had the half starved and half desperate look so commonly seen on the faces of those in this area. Small for an orc, she somehow lacked the brutish traits so marked her kind. Instead, this young girl, who appeared to be in her middle teenage years, looked almost delicate. Her eyes however, were those that had seen too much, and her lips were set in such a way that would have you know that she would not break under the hand fate had dealt her in life. Her tusks were short and dull. They looked as though they were broken once, but it was hard to say for sure.

A shadow fell over the orc as a leather-clad mercenary stepped out of the inn and walked drunkenly over to her table. Wearing the leather armors issued to all cityguards, the man wore a sword and a dagger at his belt. His face was unshaven, his breath smelled of cheap wine, and he had the look of someone who was looking for the wrong type of fun. Looking down at the orc, he sneered. "What ya say we have us some fun huh sweety? Ain't no one gon buy them junks ya sellin'..."

The orc girl didn't even look up, but she sat quite still, knowing what was to come of this. After a few seconds, the guard reached down, took a necklace and threw it onto the ground. A hard boot came down on the necklace, grinding it to shards. Laughing, the man rested his knuckles against the table. "Told ya they junks, now if yer to sell something else... I's sure we've got some brothas that ain't nev'r done an orc ya know..."

"You are paying for that." The girl looked up and said in almost perfect Common, her eyes not leaving the man's sneering face.

"Aw sure!" The man laughed out loud and reached down. Grabbing the front of the orc's dirty tunic, he pulled her half over the top of the table. "I'l pay ya alright... By tha time I done with ya ya'll ask ta pay meh!" Necklaces fell off the table onto the ground as he dragged the girl to him, but instead of screaming, the orc coolly reached up and sunk her nails into the man's red-veined cheek.

Cursing, the man threw the girl over the table and kicked the furniture over. Landing in a heap against a pile of trash, the orc did not have time to get up before the man loomed over her, his booted foot poised to kick. "Ya whore..." The man growled, his face bleeding. "I'm so gonna cut yer throat and have me way with ya... Ain't no one gon be missin' one stinking orc...erg..." His words choked off suddenly, and he slid to the trash littered ground at the girl's side.

Climbing to her feet, the orc girl looked down at the man. A neat hole could be seen just behind his left hip, with beads of blood frozen around the wound. Bending down to right the table and pick up her necklaces, the girl noticed a pile of gold coins beside the pile of trash she had previously fallen against. Pocketing the gold coins, she looked up just as a gust of wind howled through the alley, and in its center, like a hungry maw, was a black void...



THE END



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