|The End Game Prologue: Freedom Fighters |
“Come,” he murmured to her in tones of quiet steel. The Templar’s cold blue eyes flickered absently over his shoulder, descending upon the woman approaching him from behind. “It is your responsibility to be here, but I doubt they will be waiting for us.” She nodded silently.
Nicholas Tarrant descended the wide staircase down into the basement beneath Vesper’s Tannery, his heavy leather boots landing upon each creaking floorboard with a soft thud. The man moved like a large predator, Magdalena thought absently, his chilling eyes scanning the dimly lit room like a beast stalking its prey. That face was made from stony planes and angles, weathered but unlined despite the grey in his hair. He made Blackthorn’s palace guards look like cur dogs, the way he wore his sword, as though it were a part of him.
She followed close behind, blinking, wide brown eyes unaccustomed to the heavy darkness that now enveloped them. It had only been a couple nights since their confrontation with the Necromancer, Lord Asimov. Only a couple nights since Nicholas’ revelation, revealing just who he truly was. The Queen Heiress knew that there were dangers, even here amongst her friends, unassociated with the false king and his shadowy masters. Another evil that loomed upon the horizon, biding its time, waiting until the appropriate moment to reveal its true nature. She absently touched the hilt of her axe, fingers caressing the smooth, familiar handle. The man thought of himself as her Protector, her Warder in a sense, but he fought recklessly with no regard for his own safety. Only the safety of his friends, those he loved. And that, she thought, would be his downfall. He had the Dark Ones own luck, but someday that wouldn’t be enough.
One day, she thought bitterly, she would be the one protecting him.
She felt the cold, familiar touch of the Templar’s fingers in the darkness, as though he had sensed her thoughts. There was an old saying in Valderia, he thought to himself. [I]Better to have one woman at your side than ten men.[/I] Better still, he mused, a woman with an axe that could swipe a Dark Elf's head clean off.
“Sir Tarrant?” a voice called out in the darkness. Zackarias stood up, lifting the vein of his lantern, rays of golden light filling the small antechamber as the pair descended the last step. “And Lady Canzione? You’re just on time.”
“Carai an Rahien,” Nicholas said dryly, catching the Blue Knight’s free hand in his.
“Carai an Valderia, Gaidin,” Zackarias smiled, shaking the older man’s hand. “Kullervo hasn’t arrived yet.
“Kullervo?” Magdalena asked.
“Yes,” Zackarias replied as he turned from Nicholas. The Knight of Dawn crossed his arm over his chest, offering a formal bow to the Queen Heiress. “Sir Nystad was the one who called the meeting.” He rose, looking to Nicholas. “But no one seems to know why.”
Nicholas nodded, his eyes flickering absently to the door. “And our friend?”
Zackarias smiled. “Not here fortunately,” the Knight of the Blue Rose replied. It was the sort of smile that hid a dark secret, one shared between the two Knights. “But some of his cohorts are. You know who I’m talking about. Oh, and don’t worry. I doubt even they would start trouble in front of everyone.”
“They have before.” Nicholas looked back to Magdalena, who eyed the grey-haired man questioningly. “I will explain later.” She didn’t look convinced, glaring at his back as he turned away. [I]Men![/I]
Magdalena finally nodded, shifting her gaze to the Blue-cloaked soldier. “Thank you, Sir Pendragon.”
“Anytime, beautiful.” Zackarias beamed, stepping aside, swinging the heavy wooden door open for them with a loud groan. The familiar voices of several individuals rushed out to greet their ears. Talk of dissent and rebellion, war against a much hated tyrant emitting from the brightly lit common room. Nicholas nodded politely to Zackarias as he entered through the portal. Magdalena followed close behind.
“Lady Magdalena?” Zackarias asked.
She stopped in the doorframe. “Yes, Sir Knight?”
“Where is Ceno?”
“I…” She breathed. “I don’t know.” The Queen Heiress shifted her eyes to Nicholas’ back, the Templar’s broad shoulders outlined by the light pouring into the room. “Nicholas tells me he is safe.”
Zackarias nodded silently as he looked to Nicholas, worry written across the young man’s face.
Nicholas strode into the common room, his eyes scanning the faces of the familiar and the unfamiliar. They had gathered there, all for the same purpose, although none of them knew what that purpose was. They were rebels, partisans united against the Tyrant King. Knights of the Royal Flush and Diplomats from Vasco’s Scythian Delegation. Brigands and Peers of Foreign Realms. All had received the same mysterious note.
The Templar searched their faces warily as he strode across the room, his broadsword bouncing against his hip as he moved across the floor. The Duchess of Dawn was there, sitting on the stool beside Lady Cymidei Fier of the Dark Tower. An odd combination, he mused silently, but not nearly as strange as the thought of fighting alongside his clan’s ancient adversary. But it was the sidelong glances traded back and fourth between the two women that suggested nothing had changed between them. Those antagonistic feelings were as strong as ever, and it didn’t look like they would change anytime soon.
“Soon,” Formotiis murmured to those near him, adjusting the collar of his heavy blue overcoat. “It shall be time for the blood flow to commence.” Wildstar shifted her gaze to the Dawnite questioningly, who smiled in return as he picked his nails with a kryss. “What I mean, is that the blood of a draconian is a marvel when properly siphoned from the enamel of its host.” The man’s manner was methodical, almost scientific. She nodded in response.
The two women were flanked on either side by Formotiis and Oriana. Formotiis, the Templar had been told, was an old citizen of the Kingdom of Dawn, returned from a long expedition to far away lands. The man had hair as grey as his, dressed in a heavy blue coat and matching cape. The color, the stitching, everything about his wardrobe looked familiar. The traditional garb of some foreign culture, but Nicholas could not say where he recognized it.
Oriana sat on the opposite end of the small row of stools, leaning across the table to Sluggy Freelance. “I talk to myself because, well, there is no one to talk to,” She laughed.
“A Duchess without pie?” a womans voice breathed in mock horror. Nicholas thought he recognized the melodic voice of Lady Sara, but he did not turn around to look as he cut through the crowd, guiding Magdalena by hand.
The Templar looked left. Mashira Anya drummed her fingers impatiently upon the oaken table, frustration filling her fiery eyes. Ayassa, Greyheart, and Chemick talked amongst themselves quietly. The Gypsy simply ignored them, her eyes searching for something.
Nicholas reached beneath one of the tables against the wall, pulling a bar stool out from under it. “Princess,” he murmured. Almost teasingly, Magdalena thought to herself. She mouthed a word of thanks, seating herself upon the firm wooden seat. The Queen Heiress looked up as the Templar Knight leaned over her, murmuring something in her ear. That is when he arrived.
A muffled shout rang out on the other side of the heavy oaken door, followed by a loud crash. Nicholas spun about on the ball of his foot, his sword leaping into his hands with a loud swoosh. The man's ebon shirt clung to his broad shoulders. The eyes of a trained killer, a wolf. The sound of steel scraping against leather and the thudding of bar stools toppling to the floor quickly followed as the door burst open.
Kullervo dug his heels in, his riding boots coming to a screeching halt on the recently polished floor. The Ranger’s eyes went wide at the sight of all the swords pointed in his direction. “Oh,” he breathed, raising his hands into the air. “I’m sorry I’m late!”
Nicholas lowered his broadsword, sliding the weapon back into its sheath at his hip. "Figures," he murmured.
Kullervo lowered his hands, breathing a sigh of relief. “I must apologize for not being here on the said time,” he shouted between breaths. “But I am glad that most of you made it.”
“Oh, it’s alright,” Oriana smiled sweetly. “We were just entertaining ourselves.”
One by one, the gathered began sheathing their weapons, setting the bar stools aright. If looks could kill, Nicholas thought to himself, the Gypsy’s eyes could have bored a whole clean through the ranger’s thick skull.
Kullervo approached the middle of the room, absently rubbing the hilt of his family’s ancient broadsword, Ukko. “I have information from Lady Dawn and Aino that needs to be passed on to you.” It didn’t take Nicholas’ trained eye to tell that the woodsman didn’t feel comfortable indoors, especially crowded amongst so many people. He didn’t belong here. The boy belonged in the wilderness, amongst all the untamed things of the world.
“The Thiefmaster has been able to find some very useful information regarding what the Shadowlords and their servants are planning next,” he continued. “We suspect that they will launch an attack on the other factions with the aid of the Crimson Dragons.”
“The Crimsons?” Yalp spat with contempt.
“Yes. We have reason to believe a massive attack will be launched on the True Britannians tomorrow,” Kullervo shook his head. “To take over the City of Britain in Felucca.”
They began to whisper amongst themselves, whispers of concern. Crimson Dragons? Magdalena looked up to Nicholas. The man’s icy blue eyes seemed to darken.
“The other reason for bringing you here,” Kullervo’s eyes scanned the room. “Is that we expect Lady Dawn to return from her quest in a few days. If not sooner.” He cleared his throat. “I will not say much here, but she will need your assistance at that point.”
Kullervo’s eyes looked grim, matching Nicholas’ own. “If is my hope that Fayaxion and her brood will be able to assist us.” But the man’s voice signaled to the gathering not to expect any such aid.
“So before we get drunk,” Kullervo looked up, brightening somewhat. “We need to talk a little more about the battle that might take place tomorrow. Are there any representatives of the True Britannian Faction here?”
Nicholas looked to his left as Sir Yalp stood, crossing an arm over his chest, a respectful salute directed towards the younger man. “There are True Britannians within my household.”
Kullervo nodded. “I believe that an alliance was made the last time the Shadowlords made a move under Lady Melissa. Does that alliance still stand?”
Yalp’s voice was cold, almost distant. “I believe there are others who might speak better of it.” Kullervo nodded.
“The Avatar of Blood shall soon have his offering,” Formotiis mumbled to himself absently, eliciting a sideways look from his Duchess. There was something strange about the returning Dawnite.
Kullervo eyed the two Dawnites, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “If the Crimson Dragon’s are assisting them,” he continued. “We need to be united. Are there any questions regarding this?”
Handalf cleared his throat. “We shall fight them on the beaches,” he uttered in a deep, monotone voice. “We shall fight them in the streets.” He puffed out his chest proudly. "Beneath the Chicken Banner we shall ride to battle."
With a loud and impetuous groan, the wooden door opened again, this time to admit Lady Fahnzjell. The Queen-Consorts ebon skirts raked the floor as she moved quietly through the crowd towards Nicholas and Magdalena. “Greetings, my children,” she murmured gently to the pair.
“Your Majesty,” The Knight replied softly, crossing his arm over his chest, offering her a ceremonious bow. “We have been expecting you, Lady Fahnzjell.” He rose. “I need to talk…” Nicholas trailed off as a sharp voice cut through the common room. A familiar voice to his ears, one that he knew all too well, but one unfamiliar to him at the same time. Magdalena looked up, watching in surprise as those wolf-like eyes shot to the voices source, hate filling those icy pools.
“The Dark Tower will fight for the Crimson Dragons,” Cymidei rose from her chair, her voice calm and fluid. “We have no use for Fayaxion and her brood of weak drakes.” Silence fell over the room like a heavy blanket as the gathered many turned their attention to the Lady of the Dark Tower. Weak drakes? Had she forgotten that the Crimsons ran away in fear at the sight of Fayaxion.
“Bold,” Nicholas mouthed dryly. “But not entirely unexpected. She is responsible for what happened to Ceno.” Magdalena's brown eyes shot up to the Knight as he stepped past her and the Queen-Consort. A wall of muscle and bone, positioning himself between the Lady Necromancer, the Queen, and the woman he would die to protect from harm.
Kullervo turned his attention towards the raven-haired noblewoman, a fire forming in his liquid green eyes. “Well,” he murmured in contempt. “Perhaps we should throw you back into a cell?”
“Try,” she smiled coyly.
“Woman, you honestly believe they will accept your help?” he spat. “The Crimson Dragons aid Chaos.”
“As do I,” Cymidei mouthed back, raising her voice so that all in the room could hear. “The Platinum Dragons are our enemies. Or are you so quick to overlook? I seem to recall Fayaxion abandoning your City of Paladins, Luna.” She took a step forward, dark liquid eyes meeting the young man’s emerald greens. “Dragons and the Wise look to higher ambitions than this.”
“Mayhaps you are not seeing the whole picture,” Formotiis interjected politely. “O' Lady of the Dark Tower?”
“Fayaxion did not abandon Luna,” Kullervo hissed defiantly. “Fayaxion and her brood will only offer their assistance against the Crimson Dragons. There were none in Luna. She, if she even is a she, will not suffer our petty human squabbles.”
“Such as the conflict with the Shadowlords?” Cymidei stifled a bitter laugh, seriousness returning to her dark eyes. “Come now, little boy.”
“The Dark Tower has always done what they perceive to be in their best interests,” the Duchess mouthed sourly as she rose from her chair, her eyes flickering to Kullervo’s. “In their best interests alone. Nothing has changed.”
“She is correct,” Cymidei stepped towards the Ranger, brushing her hand gently against his cheek. “Goodbye, Kullervo. When next you and I meet, you shall find yourself thrust upon the unfortunate end of the Blade of Khal Ankur.”
The Necromancer stepped back, a smile forming upon her supple red lips. She turned, walking hypnotically towards the door, a distraction even to her most bitter of enemies. The heavy door opened with a loud groan, and in stepped her favorite servant. In stepped Lord Asimov.
The Cabal of Death was a strange creature, with blackened skin that resembled that of a Dark Elf. But he was not. Asimov was something else entirely. Thin lips, curled into an evil sneer. Skin stretched tight over his skull like a death mask, revealing gaunt cheekbones and a narrow nose. The figure was draped in ebon robes that raked the floor, the hems stitched with strange symbols and ancient runes. A breastplate of thick suede adorned his chest, buckles holding the plated epaulets tight upon his square shoulders. Wisps of green hair, bright and fluorescent, stuck out in ungainly strands upon the high ridges of his skull. All together, the figure could have posed as Death itself. A memento mori. Fitting considering he was the Master Necromancer within the ranks of the Dark Tower.
Magdalena bit her lower lip bitterly, fingers gently caressing the handle of her axe, an instinctive flick of her wrists freeing it of the ceremonial peace knot. Asimov had tried to kill Nicholas only a couple nights before. The Necromancer had accused what had once been a withered old man of being an evil creature, whose sudden youth was proof of his black magic. As though Asimov were somehow a Saint. The Cabal was a murderer, a zealous servant of his Dark Mistress, and he had done everything in his power to keep her away from the Paladin. But why?
The Queen Heiress' eyes flickered again to Nicholas, and then to Asimov. Their eyes had met, icy blue and liquid green. They hated each other, that much was certain. It was Asimov that Nicholas was fighting to protect her from. Had nearly been killed to protect her from. Before that, he had fought Sleath.
It had been a broken table leg, thrust clean through the Knights chest, that had revealed to her his true nature. It should have killed him. It didn't.
Magdalena's attention returned to the present, her eyes flickering to Kullervo. "Well," the Ranger murmured sourly, shaking his head. "You will all have to decide whether your interest lay with the Shadowlords, or with us."
Asimov nodded to Nicholas and turned, leaving the room.
“I will lead an expeditionary force to Britain tomorrow,” Kullervo spoke, his emerald eyes scanning the gathered rebels. “I intend to leave at mid-day.”
The meeting ended without further incident. Some began to speak privately amongst themselves, whispering in hushed tones. Others crowded around Sir Kullervo to inquire about his plans for the following day. The majority made for the door. There was no shame to be had in their actions. There was a great deal for them to consider. The Knights of the Royal Flush had been decimated by this long and costly revolt. They had defeated the tyrant’s mercenary armada twice, snatching victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat, but the toll had been high and betrayal had managed to rip the rebellion in two. The Dark Tower’s own sedition had been anticipated for quite some time, but many still clung to the vain hope that, perhaps, the Necromancers might stay their hand for a little longer.
And now, worst of all, those crimson reptiles were to return in force. They, each and every one of them, now had to consider whether this costly war was truly worth it. Whether trading one tyrant for another was worth almost certain death. Whether or not they could even win.
Nicholas’ chilling blue eyes flickered to Fahnzjell. He held no illusions about the Dark Tower and its fearsome Mistress. They had already betrayed the rebellion, he thought to himself scornfully, but the kidnapping and torture of an innocent man was easily overlooked when the Dark Tower offered such power. “Your Majesty,” he murmured politely.
“My Son?” Fahnzjell turned towards the Knight.
“I assume you foresaw this betrayal,” Nicholas expressed dryly. Magdalena looked up to the Knight. If the Queen had foreseen this betrayal, then why had she kept silent?
“These things I saw long ago,” Fahnzjell sighed. “They were in the cards.”
Nicholas eyed the Queen-Consort, amusement flashing across his usually cold eyes. “You still haven’t read my cards.”
“Ah.” Darkness fell over Fahnzjells eyes. “Perhaps, my son, that is because there isn’t much more to tell.”
Magdalena shot a look to Nicholas, worry filling her brown eyes. Nicholas didn’t look surprised. The Knight nodded in grim acceptance. What did she mean? Was something wrong with Nicholas?
“An army standing to the side,” Yalp growled as he approached, the Town Guard peeling back his hood at he came to the Knight’s side. “Is far more deadly than the enemy before us.”
“Oh, no.” The Queen-Consort smiled, seating herself upon one of the wooden stools. “The Tower is fighting on a side. It’s own.”
“So it has always been,” Nicholas said. The two men clasped hands, offering a polite shake.
“It just so happeneth,” she continued. “That its own side, at least for now, pointeth in the same direction as thine.”
“Your Majesty,” Yalp turned towards the Queen-Consort. “I respect your wisdom, but in this matter with the Dark Tower, I shall not drop my guard. Nor count on their blades.”
“Oh, my son,” she breathed with amusement, shaking her head. “I never said to drop thy guard.” Lady Fahnzjell’s eyes traveled to Nicholas, and then to Magdalena, who had moved away from the three and sat alone in the corner, deep in thought. “Remember, I said sides happen to point in the same direction for now. As soon as the false king is vanquished, it shall not be so.” Her gaze returned to Yalp. “Be alert, my son. But do not fear.”
“I will take what you have said to heart, m’lady.” Yalp bowed politely.
“Ah,” she smiled. “And never underestimate the lengths to which selfishness will go. I daresay, I believe the Dark Tower would vanquish the False King and the Red Reptiles on their own if given cause. But alas.”
Yalp looked to Nicholas, who watched the elf out of the corner of his eye. “Perhaps we should let them?”
Lady Fahnzjell smiled. “Perhaps, my children, you may have to let them.”