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The sun was setting over the golden prairie and gentle wisps of wind caressed the long grasses. Gazlan halted on the brink of a rolling hill, scanning the vista as he waited for his elusive companions to catch up to him.
He knew that Vinetta knew that he knew she was following him… He took a moment to process that thought. He wondered why she would not just travel openly with him. He then realised she probably felt awkward about trying to murder him with marionette beasts. He would feel awful too were their places reversed. But Merigol, he was unsure why Merigol lagged behind with her. Perhaps he was still trying to reconcile that he was now on a quest with a necromancer, when it had been a necromancer who caused the demise of his lover.
It would be harder for them to pretend to sneak in his wake over this terrain, it was only a matter of time before they became proper travel companions, and he wasn’t entirely sure he was comfortable with it. He had been alone this whole time, after all.
These thoughts were pushed from his mind as he sightd a problem on the horizon. Just as the golden disc dipped below the world he caught a shimmering image which faded from view. It reeked of danger, something in his bones made him want to recoil and weep at its presence. But he also felt that another necromancer was close by, not a day’s journey past the direction of the fleeting mirage.
He steeled himself and set out into the darkening prairie. At least he felt safer at night.
And at least he was not really alone.
The dry grass crunched underfoot in the dark, the breeze that stirred it was dry and cold, causing sweat to sting as it slid down his face like ice. He stopped to wipe it from his brow before it seeped into his eyes. This was not normal, his eyes darted from one dark expanse to the next, no hiding places for the source of the dread he could feel.
“Who goes there?” His voice belied the panic that rose in his throat. “What business do you have with Gazlan?”
“Gazlan?” from the night, the hollow darkness echoed his call, gruff and palpable.
Something gripped at his heart, tangible fear. The world of the dead was bread and butter to the necromancer, but a formless voice that seemed to belong to the corporeal? That was something he did not understand.
“Who goes there?” Gazlan repeated.
A blinding flash of white light, like the sun reignited a thousand fold upon this very field. Gazlan hissed and recoiled at the touch of it and crumpled to the ground.
“Paladins!” Gazlan cried, understanding his sense of dread. “I am not your quarry!”
And what’s worse, perhaps dozens of paladins to cast a light so bright.
As he retreated as far under his robe as was possible, cowering like a roach when he heard them. Their limbs creaked as they marched in tandem from the sheer light and encircled him. And then there was one different than the rest, with the lumbering gait of someone huge.
The thundering footsteps halted before his quivering form and growled.
“Not so tough without your ghouls.” The voice reverberated within Gazlan’s bones, deep and powerful. It shook with rage. “Come out into the light. Allow yourself some redemption before the end.”
“My redemption will come with another’s end.” Gazlan whimpered. “I am not your enemy. Please, the light.”
The paladin extended his weapon, the blade of a mighty battle axe slid under Gazlan’s hood and under his chin. Against his will, his head was tilted upright and his skin exposed to the great light which hovered motionlessly above them. The silhouette of his captor towered over him, showing the shape of pointed ears, a wide jaw and… he was an orc, an orc paladin?
Gazlan bit his tongue as he summoned his unholy powers and reached into the soil. The light burned his innards as the two antithetical forces raged against one another.
The orc paladin laughed. “Your shadow cannot blot my fire.”
“No.” Gazlan squirmed. “But the earth can.”
He reached for the dead matter along the topsoil. No dead deep roots and trees to appropriate this time, he found the dust between the grass, the decaying matter of each blade that wilted for another to take its place and breathed the foul life into the barest patch that he could manage. His captor sensed Gazlan’s grip on his inner battle and cried out, pulling back his war axe to strike an executing blow.
But he was too late.
Gazlan flexed his necromancy and the dust and decaying matter pulsed with green and shot into a ball between them. With the holy light nullifying his powers he had to concentrate on each molecule, he could not rely on the defending laws of necromancy to take over and aid him. So he flexed his jaw and the ball of dead, pulsating matter shot up to smother the light, clobbering the paladin on the chin along the way.
Something crystalline cracked, and the light fractured into wavering beams.
The green glow of necromancy writhed and pulsated with hellish reds and warpish violets as the balls of darkness and light fought their own eternal war.
With the light nullified enough and the orc recoiling, Gazlan shot up onto his feet and struck the closest paladin too him with a blow to the face. The bones in his hand cracked upon impact with a hard wooden surface. He recoiled, screaming a confused profanity as his foe tumbled back lifelessly.
Ignoring the pain he rounded on the next paladin to see it standing motionless in the flickering dark.
“What the hell is going on?” Gazlan screamed. “Who are you, Paladin?”
The orc stopped stumbling and roared, spreading his arms. The light above them died, as did Gazlan’s ball of dead matter as what he saw claimed his concentration. The orc shot light beams, weak, pitiful excuses of paladism towards his companions. The light struck them at key, crystalline points, illuminating them briefly before they began to jolt and spasm back to life.
“Machines, they are robotic machines?” Gazlan breathed in disbelief.
“And they will be your end.” The orc said.
“Why do you need them with the army of paladins you would have needed to create that sun?”
“That was another creation of mine, a bulb which trapped and amplified my light.” The orc grunted, “Just for show really.” He shrugged, stepping back.
Gazlan readied himself as the light powered mechanical warriors raised their weapons to attack. He clenched his uninjured fist, struggling to logic his way out of the impossible situation.
“Gazlan down!” The cry came from the darkness.
Galzan hit the ground as Merigol emerged with his modified crossbow and pulled the trigger. The specialised bolt rang as it left the slide, splintering into a fanning flurry of barbs. Gazlan tensed, he was still within the cone of death.
A rumbling from below, a living root – deeper than anything he could sense – erupted from the ground, creating a barrier between him and the errant bolts that impacted into it. Several hit the mechanical warriors. One copped it to the chest plate and it flailed in a shower of splinters and sparking sunlight, another was struck across the leg and it spun to the ground and the third got smacked in a glowing eye piece; it shattered and the light powering the thing flitted out, it went limp but remained upright.
“Who defends the blight bringer?” The orc bellowed.
“I am Vinetta of the Rain Forest Elves.” Vinetta said, emerging from the dark next to Merigol. “And this is Merigol of Frenk. You attack a friend of the living, and as a druid, I must intervene.”
“This necromancer?” The orc pointed his axe at Gazlan on the ground, “A friend of the living?”
“He released the ghouls that killed my husband.” Merigol sputtered. He was fidgeting with his crossbow, trying to pull back the slide as his sweat soaked dark hair was plastered to his forehead. “He hunts the necromancer that conjured them.”
“I keep trying to tell you.” Gazlan cried as the mechanical warriors gathered themselves and formed around the orc and himself. “I am not your enemy!”
“I have heard tales of a Nunnadan born necromancer who can also bewitch the mind.” The orc said. “You may have done the same to these.”
“Only a select few Nunnadan have the ability to perform that magic.” Gazlan growled. “It requires the right bloodline and many decades of training, I am not yet thirty. I am a necromancer of the old ways, I seek to end the plight that my fellow class are enacting on these lands. Please, let me pass.”
“Do you know what the last necromancer who came through these parts did?” The orc roared. “She sputtered and begged for aid, claiming to do battle with the Nunnadan I speak of – in the name of the old ways. We let her into our monastery and she poisoned everyone! I have spent the last weeks seeking and freeing my brothers and sisters from their curse. I only survived because I was so engrossed in my work.”
“Allow me aid you.” Gazlan extended his hand. “I can sense their corpses on the plains. Without your paladism to cloud my necromancy I can feel them. They are surging towards us, towards the source of conflict between your power and mine. Let us put your order to rest, so that their souls may enter the sun and continue to give life to the world.”
The orc growled low within his chest. One of his mechanical men raised its own crossbow at Merigol as he finally loaded his, Vinetta whipped a vine from her belt and it curled around her ready to attack.
“How many of your people remain?” Gazlan asked, “Please, they will be upon us soon, and my quest does not end with their salvation.”
“There are seven more of my order to bury, if they rush us en masse as you claim… my Paladism is not strong enough to fight them off. It was never strong to begin with. I relied on my strength and my wits when paladism failed me. I can’t win, not with my light post destroyed, not with my cogs damaged as they are.”
“You channelled your mediocre power into a formidable force, friend.” Merigol stepped forward, tentatively lowering his crossbow. “You put down Gazlan, who Vinetta tells me is no small foe. You have created these mechanisms to supplement your power and your own warrior prowess. And now you have a necromancer here to aid you, a druid… and me, for what good I’ll do.”
“Please,” Gazlan said, his hand extended and trembling. “Allow me to guard the passage from the world of the living to the afterlife as my kind should.”
The orc grunted and grabbed the hand. He hauled Gazlan to his feet as his Cogs lowered their weapons, Vinetta’s vine slinked back around her waist.
“My name is Wutarl the Meek.” He paused, “My tribe once ousted me for my tinkering, the paladins kept me downtrodden for my dim light. But now I am all that is left of both of those people.”
“Let us do them both what honour you wish to give them.” Gazlan shook the mighty yellow skinned hand, he winced as his cracked bones sent shoots of pain up his arm. But that pain was nothing compared to the presence of more paladism. “You cannot let down your mirage now, we have work to do.”
Wutarl grunted again, turned and waved his axe. The mirage Gazlan had seen earlier wavered before them and abolished, revealing a humble camp with a hastily erected palisade and smouldering fire. There was a chaotic work bench by the tent overflowing with gears and mirrors and chassis of his cogs.
“Using light to create a mirage.” Merigol whistled. “You sure are creative.”
“How long do we have.” Vinetta stepped forward, brushing the dust from Gazlan’s hood before she pulled it over his head again.
She pulled a small jar from her leaf sash and applied the balm in it to his injured hand. It smelled of crushed rose and soothed his shooting pain. He smiled weakly at her and she smiled softly back, before turning away.
“I reckon we have some minutes.” Gazlan said, flexing his hand as the pain dissolved. “Let’s make ready.”
The dry breeze turned foul. Merigol gagged upon his roost behind the palisade. It was nothing measured against the swamp he was found in, but compared to the clear air of the prairie it was a punch in the gut.
He eyed Wutarl, standing across the makeshift gateway. The orc had yellow skin, wore heavy mail with a tattered green and gold tabard and had donned a pair of cracked half frame spectacles – hilarious on his mighty head. He never stopped glaring at the necromancer, not during their scrambled preparation, not while they waited in silence.
Gazlan ignored it; he was used to the instant hatred of the living. He often even felt it towards himself.
“The grass is trodden under foot by blighted feet.” Vinetta whispered. Her brow was furrowed as she focused her druidism on the grass by the gateway, her rosy pink skin had turned bright red. “They are close.”
She was pressed up against the palisade right by Gazlan, the hushed tones of her wispy voice sent tingles down his neck. He was unsure if this was a pleasant sensation or not. Maybe it would have been better had she and Merigol kept their distance from him until he figured things out.
“I sense them.” Gazlan said, tensing.
“Relax Gazlan.” Vinetta said. “You have survived worse… I attacked you with worse.”
Gazlan nodded and relaxed. Her words did not comfort him; he knew that a pack of ghouls was more dangerous than the puppets she attacked him with. He was just glad she thought he was tense because of the danger and not her proximity.
“Now?” Wutarl growled.
Gazlan sighed, “Now.” And he scrunched his eyes shut.
With a roar Wutarl swung his axe towards the heavens and called on his holy power. The axe glowed briefly with sun fire and Gazlan found his innards revolting against him. Beams of light shot from the blade and shone on the translucent, crystalline plates on certain joints of his cogs. The mechanical warriors whirred as the light reacted with chemicals, powering their bodies and they readied to defend the gateway.
The ghouls screamed and writhed at the presence of paladism. Gazlan bit his lip not to scream with them. Despite their pain they swarmed towards the light driven robots, urged on by the enslaving power of necromancy. Rushing into the gap they quickly overwhelmed the Cogs and Gazlan gave the signal to Vinetta.
With a release of tension she let go of the druidism. The blades of grass beneath the gateway un-wove from each other, collapsing into a shallow pit as the thin veil gave way and the combatants collapsed into the hole.
Merigol leaped up from his roost above the gateway and fired down into the pit with his scatter shot. He struck ghouls and cogs both, pinning many in place amidst the mess of limbs and wood and claws.
A straggling ghoul rushed in the gate and avoided the pit, sprinting for Gazlan. He pushed Vinetta back and it tackled him to the ground. It was so fast, so powerful that it knocked the wind from him; he was unable to draw breath to speak his spells. He looked up in horror at the gaping, bloody maw of the poor corpse on top of him. It snarled, revealing rotting flesh intertwined with broken teeth and a mutated tongue lathered in rancid bile which drooped down. The lifeless eyes gazed at him in pain, in fury and despair and it readied to clamp its dislocated jaw around his head.
It snapped back.
Vinetta’s vine whipped it across the face with a violent crack and its jaw fell clean off onto Gazlan’s chest. With a cry of fury it leaped from Gazlan and barrelled after her. She channelled her druidism and shoots of grass sprung up and ensnared the poor thing. It tore from its restraints, tearing flesh and snapping bone as grass shoots were uprooted by its efforts.
Vinetta was backed up against the palisade; it was inching closer through her barrage of vine whips and grass snares. It reached for her with filthy, mutated claws and she screamed.
Gazlan gasped his first breath of air and grabbed the ghoul’s leg, incanting his spell. With a shudder it went limp, finally dead.
He turned to find that a number of ghouls were climbing from the pit. Wutarl stood at the lip, striking down at the creatures as they grasped for purchase to climb. Gazlan was grateful he was not using his paladism, but battling with his raw power as an orc. He realised that his holy power must have been spent. He did mention it was weaker than other paladins.
Merigol had loaded another bolt by now and fired into the writhing pit. A ghoul evaded all shots and leaped out, gripping for Wutarl’s neck. With a roar he hefted the hapless creature through the palisade in an explosion of splinters and collapsing posts and charged after it with his axe raised, hewing it into pieces.
The ghouls were rising behind him in his battle rage. Gazlan rushed to his aid, standing at the lip and freeing the ghouls from their corpses as they freed themselves from the pinning bolts and the pit. Vinetta took up position on the other side. Using her vine whip and grass snares to help slow them as Gazlan did his work.
Within a few minutes, the frightful task was done.
Gazlan stood across from Vinetta, the trio panting in silence as Wutarl wailed just outside the camp.
“You saved me.” Gazlan said.
“You saved me.” She replied.
Gazlan shuffled from the aftermath and out to Wutarl who had degraded into sobs. The orc had his hands on the body, trying to chant amongst his blabbering. Trying to summon light to free the soul from it.
No light came. He was exhausted.
Merigol stood watching as Gazlan approached cautiously. An interaction he had been a part of not nights ago, now looking in from the outside.
Gazlan knelt by Wutarl and released the soul of the masticated corpse. “Are all of your order now accounted for?” He asked softly.
Wutarl nodded. “Her name was Firna.” He choked. “She was the first one to welcome me into the Order of the Radiant Star. She stopped the others from teasing me for being a tinkering orc, for being an orc at all, for being a poor paladin.”
Gazlan placed his hand on Wutarl’s shoulder. “Come, friend. Let us bury her.”
“What am I going to do now? My tribe was slaughtered by a band of trolls, now my order has been killed… twice.”
“You can accompany our strange band?” Galzan said, unsure of himself. He turned back to Vinetta and Merigol who watched on silently. “That is, if you can stomach to travel with me and not behind?”
“I was unsure.” Vinetta said. “I tried to kill you the first time we met.”
Wutarl’s sobs were interrupted by a brief laugh.
“It happens.” Gazlan shrugged.
“You said you sought the necromancer who did this?” Wutarl asked.
“There are five feuding bastards behind this.” Gazlan answered. “I am after one most of all. But make no mistake, I am after them all.”
“Then I will join you.”
The four worked tirelessly into the night to lay the bodies of the paladins within the pit with dignity. They struck camp and set out as the sun rose, the first golden beam lashed out across the prairie to caress the soft earth where the fresh grave now lay. All that signified it was a single, planted rose.
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