After the Fall

Interlude: Winter's Bite

Bastian Dalemont pulled his cloak closer as he stepped out onto the parapet. His breath fogged as he rubbed his hands together, taking in the view from atop the northern keep. There, somewhere across the Cappahellan and far afield, a small band of Borderlanders was fighting an entire army of orcs hell-bent on ravaging his homeland. Dalemont stood lost in thought for a moment, before a tall, broad-shouldered man limped out onto the windy wall beside him. Baloc Nightspear took a moment to catch his breath, leaning his walking stick against the wall before speaking. “They’ve finished tallying the harvest. We gathered all we could before the frost hit, but it’s not good. We’ll be lucky if last year’s stores get us through the winter.” Baloc gazed out, letting his words drift away in the wind as the pair stood in silence for a moment.

“It will have to do,” Bastian said. “Without that forewarning, we wouldn’t have reaped what little we have. Besides, I imagine the orc army is feeling this early chill quite a bit more than us.” Baloc smiled a bit at the thought. “Let the bastards freeze. They’ll be eating their own dead before long.”

Bastian nodded in agreement. “Orcs are tough. We can’t count on this cold stopping them. What of the messengers?”

Baloc shrugged. “Time will tell. We’ve sent them east to Orinth and Tarsell, and south to Antegar. We’ll see if the archmage or Hammerhand hear our call for help. And gods only know what this Iron Fist of Bane will want in return for his aid.” He traded a glance with Bastian, who grimaced. “Based on what I’ve heard, his price will be complete fealty. I don’t want to trade the headsman’s axe for the plowman’s yoke. Still, we may not have a choice.”

Baloc shook his head. “Nothing is certain yet. Only time will tell … and more waiting,” he scoffed, kicking the wall idly. Bastian grinned. “For a hunter, you aren’t very patient. Ninety percent of a soldier’s job is waiting, and your types are supposed to remind us that ten percent isn’t so bad.” Baloc smirked, then gestured to his leg, growing somber. “Things are different now.” Bastian nodded in agreement. “I agree, waiting is hell. Gods willing, we’ll be waiting forever for a storm that never comes. Let’s see what those adventuresome folks out west can do with a little land magic.”

The orc chieftain stabbed his crude dagger down onto the table. “Fuck these mewling cunt-eared scum and their damned bitch horse-humpers! They hit us again!” He spat the words with barely restrained anger, drawing growls of agreement from the other orcs in the room. The chieftain turned to Zoroxes, fuming. “They came after the storm, and hit us from downwind, just as you said they would. We had spears in hand, but they still ass-fucked us like a bunch of whimpering goblin whores! We’re fighting blind in this snow, and my warriors are so cold they can barely lift axe! Are we just going to stand here and freeze our nuts off while these half-wit forest fairies pick our teeth for us?!” The chieftain paused momentarily in his tirade, drawing in a breath as he fought off a hacking wintry cough.

All eyes in the room turned towards Zoroxes, who stood regarding the ranting chieftain with calm serenity. The blue tattoos and glowing white-blue eye made Zoroxes a strangely alien figure as he gazed levelly at the chieftain. The chieftain, seeming to sense the room’s attention, blinked and grimaced, realizing his error but too impassioned and prideful to lose face by backing down. Zoroxes let the chieftain stew uncomfortably for a moment, then spoke:

“How many did you lose?”

The chieftain fumbled for a moment with his fingers. “Nine fists and three, nearly a half band. Many died like scum, too cold-addled to heft their weapons.”

“And their casualties?”

“We count three dead horse-men and … two cunt-ears.” The orc chieftain averted his gaze shamefully. “Their spear-tip was again the Red Man, on that demon horse. He and the wild one slew many. Arrows from the dark slew many more.”

Zoroxes stepped closer. The chieftain flinched, but Zoroxes smiled benevolently, extending his gaze to the entire room. The expression was terrifying. “Do not fear the forest ilk, my captains. I have beheld their doom written within the bones of the land and decreed by the stars. Our crusade will shatter the heavens and stretch to eternity’s gates. These pests will bother us for precious little longer.” The orc leader’s guttural voice resonated as he spoke, filling the room and imbuing his listeners with equal parts conviction and unease. Zoroxes returned his attention to the offending chieftain and spoke softly. “Dench, if your band is not up to the task of killing frail elves and clumsy horse-men, then I will stock the downwind trench with orcs that can. Send the bodies of the horse-men to the tents of my warriors. Distribute your dead amongst the front ranks – my orcs will not feast on the bodies of weaklings. Then cut your left hand off. If you can fight and kill while maimed, perhaps you can regain your band’s honor back.” All eyes in the room turned to Dench, who looked as though he briefly considered arguing before wisely turning and stalking out of the command tent. But Zoroxes had already turned, seeming to forget the chieftain instantaneously as he began to pore over the map in front of him. A low mutter escaped his lips as he ran his hand over the crude parchment, searching for incomprehensible truths hidden somewhere within the ink and grime. Outside, the blizzard howled.

Interlude: Mission Complete.

The door slammed open. The plain man staggered in, blood dripping from a wound on his temple. His eyes flitted across the simple, well-furnished room before he stumbled toward the small reading desk, mouth locked in grim determination. As he limped his way across the floor, he glanced behind him at the door, which hung open. A figure appeared in the doorway, concealed in a voluminous, tattered cloak and hood. The edges of the cloak undulated, moving unnaturally against the wind. A brief expression of fear crossed the plain man’s face as his pursuer stepped into the room before he turned, laboring to cross the final few feet between himself and the small desk.

Then the plain man tripped. He fell smoothly, his quick reflexes turning the spill into a roll, but the intruder moved faster. Long chains burst out from beneath the cloak, cruel barbs tearing through the already ragged garment as they sought out the plain man as if possessed of a voracious and malign will of their own. The chains scythed through the air, too fast to stop … and then rebounded forcefully against an unseen barrier! Blue-white light flared in a circle around the intruder, its interior a criss-cross of complex lines and shapes. The cloaked figure hissed in surprise and spun, chains lashing out in every direction. All rebounded as they had a moment earlier, halted directly at the perimeter of the softly glowing circle. Fully shredded, the creature’s cloak fell to the floor, revealing a humanoid creature with red skin, hateful yellow eyes and clothed only by the long chains that draped around its body, their ends twitching and writhing with a life of their own.

Across the room, the plain man’s eyes rose to meet the fiend’s. Gone was the fear, replaced by a cold fire. He wiped the blood from his brow and turned toward the desk, wincing as he rose. The intruder watched, chains writhing patiently. The plain man pulled open drawers, pawing through candles, stoppered bottles and papers until he found what he was looking for. The plain man uncorked a small vial and drank its contents thirstily. Then he reached for a small leather-bound book, undoing a band that held the book shut. He straightened, grimacing as the cut on his temple knit itself back together. He flipped through the book, slowly approaching the circle as he did so. The fiend watched the plain man impassively, then hissed in fury as the plain man began to speak, incanting syllables of power in a steady, routine rhythm. Its agitation rose as the ritual continued, the plain man speaking softly and occasionally turning the page of his book. In the plain man’s unremarkable voice, even the ritual sounded boring – at odds with the tension of the situation. Minutes passed. As he continued, moving inexorably toward the conclusion of the ritual, the assassin spoke, its voice coming out as a raspy hiss: “Your efforts are futile in the end, human.” The plain man evidenced no reaction, continuing his incantation calmly. “You have already failed to stop us. Nothing you can do now will make the slightest difference to this realm.” The plain man continued without response, causing the fiend’s eyes to narrow in displeasure.

“Such conviction. Ever the obedient soldier, following orders heedless of the world around you. That’s exactly the narrow thinking that allowed Hadden and Isabelle to perish, defending the precious, misguided plan that you knew was doomed to failure instead of escaping with their lives. Did it even slow you for a second, knowing their sacrifice would be in vain?”

The plain man glanced up, surprise and dismay briefly crossing his face although his voice did not waver. The fiend’s yellow eyes shone fiercely, sensing weakness. “What makes you think that your misdeeds are justified? When you die and your soul is judged, where do you think it will go?” Sweat beaded the plain man’s brow as the devil hissed. “Those who choose obedience over morality have a warm hearth waiting for them in the Hells. How can you live with yourself, knowing that you are exactly what you hate?”

The plain man’s eyes blazed as he spoke the last few words of the ritual. He slammed the book shut and looked the devil square in the eye, voice ringing with conviction. “Vengeance burns hotter than Hell.” Then he slammed his hand down, striking the floor at the circle’s boundary. Brilliant blue light burst up from the circle, and the fiend’s eyes widened in rage as light flared upwards. The devil’s body jerked, as if yanked backwards by a giant’s hand, and burst into cinders a split second later.

Garin watched as the plain man systematically removed all traces of his presence from the house. Walls and floors were scrubbed, bags were packed and a candle was lit to cleanse the room of any smells. The plain man moved precisely and methodically, with the surety of long practice. He paused once, staring out the cracked window where Garin stood for a long moment, as though alerted by some sixth sense. Garin remained motionless, studying the plain man’s eyes as they bored through and past his unseen body. Then the plain man returned to his work, piling his few bags in the middle of the room and pulling a small round stone from his pocket. The plain man gripped the stone, mouthing words silently as he closed his eyes. Garin strained to read the man’s lips: “Mission complete. Dead end, the target knew nothing. There were several complications, will report on return. Leaving now, estimated travel two weeks. New assignment requested.” He then hoisted his backpack and bags, trudging out the door. He left without a backward glance, heading east down the main road toward the city gate. Garin hesitated, knowing that his time on the spell was almost up. He turned and walked back the opposite way, his body melting back into view as he made his way down the darkened street.

Interlude: A Gathering Storm

The stench of death hung in the air. Cecily wrinkled her nose as she picked through the battlefield, picking arrows out of corpses and looking for signs of life. A guttural, hacking cough drew her attention and she approached the sound carefully. It was an orog – the huge orc was lying on its back, blood from many wounds pooled beneath it and its gleaming blue steel armor rent asunder by crossbow bolts. Somehow the brute was still breathing, and its hand twitched as if it wanted to push itself up. Cecily walked forward and brought her blade up. The orog stared balefully at her from beneath jagged blue tattoos. Then it spoke, in guttural Common, face contorting in hatred. “Puny elfling. Those chosen by the storm will sweep over you like a … rain of fire. All your weapons and magic will be futile … against the might … of the chosen. Death will come … to … you all.” The orog trailed off, gurgling as its throat filled with blood. Cecily lowered her blade as the orog’s shallow breathing stopped. A shiver went down her spine, chilled by a westerly wind that blew her hair across her face.

Many leagues away, horns sounded at the edge of a great plain. The marching army stopped, drawing to a halt as the blast of the horns faded away. An eerie silence swept over the plain in the horns’ wake, as rank upon rank of savage warriors waited expectantly for the next signal. Barbaric orcs held the line, the largest among them bearing banners with the sigil of a jagged blue lightning bolt. Brutish ogres waited, sunlight gleaming on plates of crude armor and massive spiked shields. And towering above all of these, lumbering giants cast fitful glances around, watching the smaller creatures for their cue to act. But one by one, the giants’ gaze was drawn to the horde’s implacable foe: a massive forest, stretching east as far as the eye could see.

The giants’ shadows reached out towards the forest in the light of the setting sun, which gleamed against the leaves and branches of the mighty trees. Then, finally, the army spotted a glimpse of movement at the forest’s edge. A lone figure emerged, in a rough cloak of muted greens and browns. It leaned on a gnarled staff as it slowly made its way out towards the waiting host. At the center of the front line, ranks of orcs parted as a figure strode forward to meet the advancing person. This orc was bare-chested with intricate blue tattoos covering its chest, and it carried a bright metal spear that shone with its own light. This orc moved with the surety of utter confidence and advanced, coming to a halt a few hundred feet away from the solitary figure.

The two figures stared at each other for a long moment, shadows lengthening in the pregnant silence. Then the cloaked figure spoke, and its words carried softly on the wind.

“Begone, twisted creature. Turn your armies away. This land is not yours, and it does not desire your rapacious presence. Its protectors will not brook your intrusion, nor show any mercy to those who seek to defile its sacred places. Take your fevered ambitions elsewhere, and trouble us no more.” As the figure spoke, the forest seemed to somehow become quieter, achieving a palpable air of menace. A long moment passed.

The orc laughed. Its voice boomed across the plain as it brandished its spear. “Your empty threats do not frighten me, fool! The Chosen of the Storm do not care about your land or your rules. I have seen the great treasure that awaits us in the lands beyond your precious forests, and our host will not be denied its prize!” A blue-white light awoke in the hole where the orc’s left eye used to be. “We march with the weight of eternity behind us, and our pilgrimage will bathe the earth in blood until my vision is achieved. You have borne witness to the storm of destiny, and you have felt the earth’s pulse. You know what awaits us – so stand aside!”

The figure stood indifferently as the orc’s boastful words washed over the plain, but a slight frown creased its face as it heard the orc’s last statements. The figure pondered a moment, troubled, then spoke again, voice ringing with conviction: “You are touched by madness, creature, and your soul is an affront to the natural order. Your arrogance is born of folly, and you will witness this firsthand. You believe yourself to be chosen by the storm – so see what lies in store for those who stand before nature’s fury!”

The bolt of lightning struck from a clear sky, enveloping the orc leader with a thunderous crash. Orcs flinched, covering their eyes as the yellow-white light of the bolt seared their eyes. The wizened figure stood in judgment as the smoke began to clear, revealing a blackened, smoking crater.

The figure’s eyes barely had time to widen in shock as lightning leaped out of the clearing smoke. An acrid tang filled the air as electric blue light tore the cloaked figure to shreds, flesh instantly blackening as the heat of the massive bolt incinerated the druid’s body. A withered husk fell to the ground, parts of it collapsing into dust and ash. The smoke dissipated to reveal the orc warlord, spear extended and completely unharmed by the lightning blast. A raucous cheer erupted from the assembled orcs and giants as they glimpsed their leader untouched. The orc warlord turned to face his troops with a feral grin, raising his fist in a triumphant gesture, and his voice boomed out again: “No man or beast can stop the Chosen! I have seen our path, and this land will be ground beneath our feet as we march toward our destiny! ONWARD!” At this, the horde surged forward, the forest ahead somehow seeming less formidable and dark. The orc warlord turned toward the east, a feral grin spreading across its face as its troops charged around it. A large, winged shadow passed over the warlord, and an ear-splitting roar echoed the battle cry of the horde as it entered the world’s largest forest.

Interlude: Discreet Conversations

The crowd parted as the troop of men trudged down the street. Smelling of blood, sweat and the road, the iron circles on the mercenaries’ black tabards were smudged with dust and grime. As the small group rounded a corner, one of the men separated from the group, waving them on as he plodded into a nearby alleyway, moving a couple paces into the tiny street. The man loosened some straps on his armor and unhooked his pants. Warm urine splashed the ground as the man looked around the alley, unconcerned.

A furtive movement in the alley betrayed the presence of another person. The skulking figure detached itself from the shadows, hooded and menacing in a black cloak. The figure crept closer and closer as the armored man hummed a soft tune, until only a few short feet separated the sinister figure from the man’s exposed back.


The mercenary started slightly, but didn’t look around. “The job went well. The bandits dropped about a half dozen of our men, but we were able to patch most of them up. Full pay and commendations from Dalemont’s man. Seems like they’re relying on us more and more to get the job done.”

“And the others who fought with you?”

“Unusual bunch, but worth their weight and then some. They had a couple spellcasters, which definitely puts them above most of the sellsword rabble that hangs around here.”

The cloaked figure nodded slightly. “Spellcasters see too much, but they’re good to have in a fight. Any of them strike you as likely recruits?”

The armored man buckled himself up and leaned against the wall. “Well, the Kingsguard and the Borderlands Guide are out. Too law-abiding, although the soldier certainly seemed bloodthirsty enough. But that pirate who gambled Hurst and Coran under the table is a possibility, he’s no stranger to killing. He works with another guy, sort of shifty. There was a witch who played things close to the chest, but she had power – sounds like your type. And there was a fire mage who caused a lot of carnage. A little conspicuous, but effective. Come to think of it, he was a little odd. They had to bandage him up, and Coran swears the guy had red skin. Real strange.”

The cloaked figure’s sudden stillness was palpable. The armored man shifted uncomfortably. After a long pause, the cloaked figure said, “Offer the pirate a job. I’ll look into the others myself.”

The armored man shrugged. “Sure, boss. They’re staying at the Busty Schooner.” He leaned over to grab his shield. When he looked up, the cloaked figure was gone. The man shook his head in uneasy resignation, then hefted his shield and trudged back out into the street. Shouldering his way into the flow of bustling humanity, he left without a backward glance.

If he had glanced back, he might have noticed the disheveled figure leaned against the wall outside the alley, a variety of unpleasant smells wafting from the figure’s tattered grey cloak and rough earthen jug. As the large mercenary’s head bobbed away over the crowd, the drunk straightened himself, tossing the jug to the ground and shrugging off the foul-smelling cloak. Under the cloak was a very plain man. Medium height, medium build, with brown hair and eyes, his features were unremarkable in every way. His clothes were worn, but a careful eye would have noticed their good quality and fit. The man’s eyes searched the alley, peering into the shadows and filth as if expecting something to materialize. When nothing did, the man turned and walked out into the street, shouldering a brown haversack as he went. The crowd closed in around the man, and he vanished into the flow of humanity as surely as if he had been invisible.

Interlude: An Unexpected Flame

Embers flared as the figure breathed in. In the faint light of the burning pipe, the man’s face was only barely visible, red-hued in the dim light as he stared down from beneath his hood, eyes fixed on the pages of his book. Although the brief, faint glow of the pipe was the only light in the dark, musty room, the man didn’t seem to notice or mind. The embers settled, and the room once again plunged into complete darkness. Amidst the utter blackness, a page turned.
Suddenly, the room burst into light. The light wasn’t strong – a single candle – but compared to the total darkness of a moment before, the bright red glare shone like the sun. The glow of the candle bathed the wall of the small room in crimson light, revealing a complex lattice of metal bars and candle holders arranged across the wall. There had to be hundreds of candles, all arranged in an odd, asymmetrical fashion across the wall. The candle that now burned with a bright red light was located on the far left of the wall, one of the farthest candles from the center of the apparatus. And yet it shone balefully, flickering defiantly against the shadow that was so at home in this lightless room.
The man’s surprise was unmistakable in the silence of the moment, though he barely moved. He slowly brought his hand up to the pipe, gnarled fingers curling around the worn wood. His gaze flickered across the wall as if half expecting something else to happen. Then he waited. Several long moments passed as the candle flickered balefully. Then, without warning, the candle snuffed out as quickly as it had flared. After another moment, there was a creak in the darkened room and the sound of scraping wood. The pipe flared again. This time, it was mere inches from the still-smoking candle, and the embers smoldered as if stoked by an unseen flame. The man’s hooded head bent down as his lips moved silently, reading out some sort of inscription in delicate lettering on the candle’s holder. The man exhaled slowly, then turned and shuffled across the room. A shaft of flickering torchlight invaded the room as a door opened. The man glanced back at the wall one more time … even in the yellow torchlight, his skin had a reddish hue. The figure trudged out of the room in his simple brown robe. As he walked down the hallway, his steps became purposeful, and his sense of quiet patience lay abandoned on the table with his still-smoldering pipe and book.


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