The Snowfly Forest was more like a forest made of crystal than a natural one. There was an eerie silence that made the forest seem dead. Plants still flourished, and there was wildlife of sorts, but the darkly beautiful forest was more of a twisted maze than anything natural. Though Dark's influence wasn't as strong here as in Leá Monde, its hold was strong enough to keep it in the boundaries of the God-forsaken city. The forest shared the same curse. There wasn't a bit of life within the city walls that wasn't twisted by the Dark. The dead and living alike were held by it. Any animals still living here were twisted to vicious bloodthirsty monsters. Leá Monde had the same effect on humans. It was just slightly more subtle. The Dark could easily twist the living to it's desires.
Death was no escape from the evil that stained every stone of the city and every tree of the forest like filth and blood that refused to wash off. Souls that died in this forest shared the same fate as those who died in the city. Incomplete Death. Living Death. A fate worse than death.
The wind calmed in the clearing at the very edge of the Snowfly Forest. Snowflies drifted around the Woodcutter's Run like tiny faeries in a faerie ring. The Run was bordered by a mixed fence of trees, rocks, and raised mounds of dirt. The snowflies were slowly spreading into the clearing. The stench of summoned evil was still strong here, and it perturbed the tiny flies. They retreated from the presence of evil. The physical presence was gone now, however. Only the residue of a summoning was left like invisible smog in the air.
The presence of a summoning wasn't the only thing in the clearing. It was covered with the scars of battle. There were footprints all over, and the occasional smeared imprint of hands and kicked up dirt where someone had been knocked down. Trees showed the fresh slashes of blades from when the battle wandered to the edge of the clearing. Several trees were charred black with the burns of lightning strikes that no storm had caused.
Only one living person remained in the forest clearing, crouched on the ground amid the leaves and moss. His sword acted as a support for him to lean on. He was reeling from psychological blows that cut all the way to his very soul. His tormentor was gone now, but the conversation haunted him still. This place was hell-bent on twisting and confusing him every step of the way.
It was a long time before he stood up. Longer still before he put his sword away. There was only so long he could sit here nursing a hurting soul. All of Leá Monde was out for his blood. It was like standing in thick mud. If he didn't keep moving, it would drag him down.
He slid his sword out an inch. The red of blood stains was smeared the length of the blade. It scraped a little as he drew it from the sheath again and casually wiped it on the clothes of a freshly dead man beside him, careful to stay away from the blood-stained cloth around the man's wounds. The blood on his sword came off easily. Damned Crimson Blades... They were all so eager to kill him. Even after killing some of their commanders, they still would not leave him be. What a stupid lot.
He finished cleaning his blade and slammed it back into the sheathe, not sparing a glance or a prayer for the man he'd killed. One less corrupt zealot in the world.
He left the clearing then, pushing his way through the thick trees and onward through the Snowfly Forest.
It was amazing timing.
Ten seconds longer in the clearing and he could have seen the corpse's face twitch.
In all his thirty-four years, Commander Grissom of the Knights of the Cross had never felt as strange as he did now.
Grissom was crouched at the edge of the clearing, next to one of the burn marks that marred the ground in the Woodcutter's Run. Crouched. It was too hard for him to stand just yet. He'd tried and found his body stiff and uncooperative. His mind had started out as uncooperative as his body, but the fog had cleared a little. Movement was coming back little by little, frustratingly slow. A little recovery here, a little there... The cleric was growing impatient.
The scent of burned grass that permeated the clearing seemed to burn a hole through Grissom's sense of smell. It was an overpowering stench. Too much so. Everything was like that right now. The smell of burning was too strong. The sun was too bright. The wind was too cold. And he felt far, far too tired.
'Tired' was a joke. Nothing felt right. Everything from weariness to pain to discomfort was fighting for his attention, but none of it could quite reach him as much as it should have. It was like feeling everything through a cloud that softened the impact five times over.
His strength was slowly but surely returning to him, but for now he felt like absolute hell. And he burned to know how long he'd been out.
The signs of battle were still very fresh in the clearing, so he couldn't have been out of it for long. It was hard to know how much time had passed since that battle. It could be narrowed down to the span of a few hours, but even that wasn't precise enough. Every hour counted now. Every MINUTE counted. The Knights were to regroup at sundown, to stand their ground in the city or retreat until dawn. Grissom couldn't leave this accursed city fast enough. When the time came, that is. There were still things he needed to do here. Things he'd failed to accomplish in the battle.
The scars around the Run allowed him to trace back the fight. That burn was where one of his lightning spells had barely missed Sydney. That massive gouge in the grass and soil was where Ashley and Grissom's summoned ally Dark Crusader had tangled blades. He could see where he and Sydney had stood their ground against each other. Sydney had been tracing a magical circle in the dirt when Grissom came, preparing to summon another of his Dark creatures. He never had managed to complete the summoning. Grissom's attempt at a quick and brutal attack against the hated cultist ended with Sydney's sword shoved halfway into his chest. Sydney came away from the attack without so much as a scratch, and had the nerve to tell Grissom not to attempt a summoning of his own. There was no stopping the cleric after that. The attempt almost killed him. In the end, Ashley and Sydney provided a sword in his chest instead.
Yes, the details of that battle were still VERY clear to him.
It was nothing he could remember fondly. It had been satisfying to sear Sydney and the Riskbreaker with lightning and Dark magick, but a lost battle was a lost battle. One he shouldn't be walking away from.
Grissom tried for the third time to stand, but lost the strength to do so before he rose more than a foot. A soft grunt escaped him as he fell back on the carpet of leaves, moss, and dirt. He wasn't walking away from anything yet.
The gash on his chest took his attention. It wasn't something he wanted to examine closely, but seeing where Sydney and Ashley stabbed him was a little unsettling. Thankfully, it did not pain him any more. There was a lot of blood, but it no longer hurt as much as it had before he blacked out. Not fatal after all, he supposed, but it had knocked him out of the battle for good.
A quiet, tired sigh escaped him as he leaned back on the heels of his hard leather boots. That made him notice the blood trailing from his mouth. He'd coughed up a gallon of the stuff after Riot's sword went into him, and it was still coming.
Grissom absently wiped the blood from his mouth, then brushed some dirt off the crest on his ruined uniform. A tired but very hateful sneer curled his lips back. The Riskbreaker should know to check corpses before they were buried premature. If he'd had a burial, that is. It was just as well he hadn't. Digging himself out from under a pile of stones or a foot of dirt because of a Riskbreaker who failed to notice he wasn't dead would not have made the last hour any more pleasant.
There wasn't so much as a bird's chirp to bring the forest to life. There was a far-off squawk from one of the unnatural hybrid creatures the Dark had created, but that was it. The light breeze that drifted through the Run brought very few snowflies with it. One thing that was VERY clear in Grissom's mind was how many flies were floating around this cursed forest. He'd spent long enough wandering here to know it. He couldn't remember how many times he'd passed the exact same trail while trying to follow Rosencrantz's directions. "Follow the snowflies, they gather where evil is strongest."
Grissom's angry sneer didn't fade any. Rosencrantz. VKP filth. FORMER VKP filth, anyway. Once Grissom lost both Ashley and his Knights to the thick foliage and the maze of trees, it hadn't taken him long to decide two things.
It was going to take a while to find his way out of this forest.
And Rosencrantz was full of shit.
Thoughts of Ashley and Rosencrantz stabbed at him until he couldn't sit still any longer. Weariness hadn't left him, but his strength was coming back. Confusion still lingered as well, like a fog around his mind that refused to break. At least he was getting better with that. He couldn't remember his name when he first woke up. Ashley or that cultist dog Sydney must had bashed him on the head pretty hard to make him wake up so confused. Everything seemed slightly off centre in his mind. It had taken him long enough to actually come to. The half-aware state he'd awakened to only lasted as long as it had taken him to realize his eyes WERE indeed open, and that WAS the slightly cloudy sky he was staring up at rather than the bright lights that had stolen his vision with Ashley Riot plunged a sword into him.
Setbacks only made Grissom more determined to get what he wanted. He'd come here to kill Ashley. Failed miserably. Intended to kill Sydney too. Failed more miserably. This time he'd add Rosencrantz to his list. Grissom had learned a few things from dealing with the less-than-loyal former Riskbreaker, among them to take everything said with a grain of salt. Why he'd actually listened to the man's directions was beyond him.
Being at the edge of the clearing was a help to him then. His hand felt around behind him until it touched a sturdy low branch from a pine tree. The branch had a few twigs sheared off due to a stray sword swipe earlier. With a quick prayer for strength, Grissom wrapped his hand securely around the branch. Ignoring the sticky sap that smeared on his gloves, he pulled himself up.
It took more effort than he could have imagined. He had to lean against the branch to stay on his feet. Someone as simple as standing up had never been so difficult before. His joints were sore and stiff, and he was inexplicably exhausted. There wasn't a doubt in his mind that Ashley and Sydney had foolishly left him for dead, but he doubted he'd feel any worse if he was.
The tree was his support for a while. Another moment and he'd be fine to walk back through the forest. It could go on ahead for another five miles for all he knew. At least if he backtracked he'd have some idea of where he was going. If he made it back to the Undercity West, he could get to the town center and meet up with Guildenstern's or Tieger's men.
That would come when he could walk. For now, clearing the cloud around his mind was crucial. He felt half asleep even though he was sure he was awake. As a cleric and, unofficially, as a sorcerer, Grissom needed a clear mind and could not afford lapses in concentration. A miscast spell could easily kill him. He'd seen it happen to others. The easiest mental exercise he could think of right now was to smooth out the wrinkles that had appeared in his memory. Every time he tried to recall something it took him a moment to process it. That wouldn't do.
The events of the last few hours were the clearest in his memory, so he started there and worked his way up, recalling every detail with as much clarity as he could manage. The arrival in Leá Monde. The unholy creatures the Knights of the Cross had found lurking here. The slow realization that there was something much more complex going on here than a mission to push the Müllenkamp cult and their leader Sydney Losstarot out of the cursed city. The murder of his brother Duane. The chase through the forest. And the climax of an ill-fated meeting between Sydney and Grissom, a two-on-two battle with Sydney and Ashley Riot (another VKP Riskbreaker with God-only-knows what intentions here) versus Grissom and a summoned monster in the form of a possessed suit of armour. It ended with Ashley slicing through Grissom's thin but strong armour with a wickedly sharp hagane sword that looks suspiciously like the stolen rapier of a Crimson Blade. Grissom was semi-conscious for some time after, and what his half-alert mind caught only furthered his solid belief that Sydney Losstarot was a manipulative dog who needed to be silenced immediately.
Grissom tried to move his dwelling memory away from that. It wasn't clearing his mind any, just clouding it with rage.
Another memory came to him, one that was far beyond Leá Monde's walls. It came far too easily and altogether unexpected.
The screaming voice. Someone yelling in his face.
A spray of blood. Warm metal cupped in his hands.
Triggering that made him instinctively reach for the amulet he kept tucked under the collar of his Knight uniform. An...an old trinket to remind him of home and family. It wasn't actually an amulet, but a small brooch set and threaded on a silver chain. The finest thing his father had ever made. The Swan Song. Grissom's mother had worn it every day without fail, and it had fallen into his hands when she died. It was always safely out of sight, either around his neck under his collar or in his pocket. He doubted that even Duane knew he had it.
Knew. Had known. That was the first time he'd forgotten his brother was dead.
He reached for the amulet to reassure himself, and found nothing.
His hand grasped at his neck. The comforting weight of the necklace wasn't there, and he couldn't feel the chain. That sent him into a panic.
Miraculously, he didn't fall when he let go of the branch to search his pockets. Preoccupation with the missing amulet made him ignore the fact that he could stand again. There was no reason to check his pockets, he clearly remembered wearing the thing through Leá Monde out of an old superstition that silver repelled evil. Little good it had done him against the powers of this wretched city. Even the powers of God himself couldn't stand up to the evil that festered here.
After proving to himself that it was not anywhere on his person, he found himself kneeling next to the bloodstained spot of ground where he'd come to, and tearing through the grass and moss and leaves looking for a flash of silver somewhere. A few minutes of tearing through the bloody grass yielded nothing but dirt.
It made him feel slightly foolish when he realized what he was doing. Here he was, kneeling on the ground searching for a trinket when there were so many more things he should be worrying about. Getting out of the city before sunset. Getting out of this FOREST before getting out of this city before sunset. Finding whatever remained of the Blades. Fending off the unholy demons and undead that stalked every inch of this God-forsaken city. Finding Sydney. Rosencrantz.
It occurred to Grissom that his Shillelagh staff was missing, along with anything else he'd had with him. The grave robbing Riskbreaker had helped himself to anything his victims left behind, and Grissom had been no exception.
Thieving Riskbreaker scum. Thief thief THIEF.
'For God's sake, calm down.' Grissom could feel his mind getting more clouded with every drop of rage that seeped in. That was what he was working to PREVENT. Getting so upset over a sentimental trinket wasn't going to help.
Still, the loss of the amulet burned more than he ever would have expected, and no amount of rationalizing would take that away. Ashley Riot seemed to have a mission to take away everything that was important to him. Duane, his only living family, died on Riot's sword. The Blades, his second family, were being murdered one by one by Riot and this whole accursed city. And the amulet. Riot hadn't thought it enough to kill him, he had to take a trophy too.
It was hard to maintain much calm after that.
He had less trouble standing this time, but his body still felt very stiff and uncooperative, like every movement was a delayed reaction. The fact that he still felt strange did nothing to help, but that was another thing he was going to have to deal with as best he could.
He looked calmer than he felt as he brushed the grass from his clothes and gloves. Grissom shuddered. It was so bloody cold in this forest. It hadn't been this cold earlier.
With a small shiver, Grissom headed for the trail leading back the way he came. Being alone in Leá Monde, day or night, was not appealing. If he went back to the Town Center he was sure to meet up with Guildenstern's men. If God was with him, he would meet Riot first. Let the thieving dog stand up to him then. Grissom swore Riot would not live to fulfill whatever little role Sydney was manipulating him into. The Knights of the Cross were here to smash those unholy Müllenkamp dogs and their leader Sydney, and that was exactly what Grissom intended to do. Once this horrible confusion and weakness went away.
He headed back into the forest, trying to remember all the landmarks on the way and wondering why it was so cold. And why the wind sounded so much like distant screams.
The babbling waters of the river were strangely soothing. For all the horror and darkness that had swallowed the city, running water was a relaxing sound. The bridge crossing the river had given out during the great quake, further dividing the city. The river that had flowed as a channel through Leá Monde was a fast-flowing, deadly current that had claimed many lives both before and after the quake. Listening to the soft gurgling water was enough to lull some into a false sense of security,
Neesa heard the river a full five minutes before she arrived at the former site of the Kesch Bridge. Tieger was already there waiting for her. He sat on the step of some long-abandoned building with his axe resting across one knee.
"Town Center East is secured," she said as she approached him.
The massive silver-haired man looked up from sharpening his double-edged axe. "Any resistance?"
"Who would be here to resist?" Neesa stopped a few feet from the steep drop into the river and leaned on her war hammer. The long, thin weapon had a wickedly sharp point on the end that had been stained with blood of the living and the dead since they arrived here. Neesa was usually one to keep her weapon in good shape, but they were simply fighting too much to worry about cleaning off blood too often. The same went for wounds. Untreated injuries could ruin the body as much as poor maintenance ruined a weapon. Injuries were not a grave concern for her yet. She had a few scratches from the occasional quick monster, but she lived and they all lay dead. Her black uniform was soaked with blood (most not her own) and sweat, but she seemed not to notice.
"The cold ones," Tieger said simply. "Tis their city."
"Do not make us the invaders, Tieger," Neesa told him. "The Dark holds this city. The cold ones are its pawns. They own nothing."
Tieger nodded and continued sharpening his axe. The city was quiet around them, held in an unnatural stillness that kept the Crimson Blades constantly on guard. Anyone who wasn't on guard was dead. The Dark had taken half their soldiers by now. A staggering and unacceptable loss for which Guildenstern would have his head handed to him by the Cardinal. If they got out alive. It was afternoon already, and he showed no signs of preparing to pull out. Surely he knew the cold ones would walk the streets at night, and no place would be safe. The Dark had been picking at them, taking them one by one, but at nightfall it would close its jaws and swallow them all. Even hardened warriors like Tieger and Neesa had no desire to test their skills against whatever creatures would stalk Leá Monde's streets under the stars.
Above ground in daylight, this city looked the ghost town. It looked...asleep. Abandoned.
At night, it would prove its title of a wellspring for the Dark.
Leá Monde's former beauty had not been destroyed by the quake as its inhabitants had. A quake that left every soul in the city dead left much of the actual city ridiculously well preserved. The streets were slightly twisted in places, and many streets ended in pits that fell into darkness, but most of the buildings were intact. The underground, from what Neesa had seen of it, was much the same. There seemed to be more damage from time than from a quake. Twenty-five years... A long time for the Dark to fester here.
She glanced across the river and considered finding a place to cross. The remains of the bridge could be crossed with a little effort. The waters did not look particularly inviting, with its murky brown-green water and clumps of weeds and debris sticking out everywhere. That had been proven when one of Guildenstern's Knights fell in. The waters were murky, but it was the tangle of weeds that had dragged the man to his death. At least they assumed it was weeds. There were other things capable of dragging men to their death in this city.
At the moment, the city was split between the Blades. Neesa's Knights held the other side of the river, Tieger's this side, and Guildenstern's the north and south parts of town. She meant to ask him how many men he'd lost if she saw him again, but Guildenstern was nowhere to be found. He'd only left a vague message that he was going to the cathedral.
Neesa looked between the buildings, at the soaring cathedral in the distance that marked the center of the city. Sun glinted off its spire and made the stone landmark appear grand even from a distance. She didn't know what Guildenstern intended to find there. Müllenkamp cultists? Perhaps. Most of the cultists had been flushed out already, and any remaining pockets were being driven out. A surprisingly small number. Neesa couldn't shake the feeling that they were tokens to make Müllenkamp's presence here seem authentic. Guildenstern had to have seen that, yet he persisted on going to the cathedral. Unless Sydney himself was there, it was not worth the delay they would suffer.
Ah well. 'War is change,' as she said, 'We must follow suit.' If Guildenstern did not return, she and Tieger would regroup the Knights and retreat until daybreak. Their leader was too absorbed with his hunt for the Gran Grimoire and Sydney to give commands beyond "crush Müllenkamp!" and "take the city!".
Tieger finished sharpening his weapon, and gave it a practice swing that cleaved a stone in half. "How many did you lose?" he asked as he lifted his axe again. It wasn't even chipped. Damascus was an amazing metal.
"One missing. He hasn't been found, but I'd guess his fate."
"One. Ten. A score. Four score. I lost eight on the way here alone. Ach, we're dropping like flies, Neesa."
"Little Guildenstern cares. 'Crush Müllenkamp', he says, while he rushes off after Sydney and his precious Grimoire. He hunts the King Lion when the pack surrounds him."
"Aye, Sydney is certainly as elusive as one. But tis the pack I worry about more. We take the city now, but he must know we canna' hold it when night comes."
"We fly before nightfall, Guildenstern or no."
Tieger scanned the area thoughtfully. His armour shifted as he hefted his axe and secured it behind his back. "And what of the rest? Samantha?"
"With her dear Romeo. Love has struck her blind to the dangers of this city."
"Slain by the VKP's Riskbreaker."
"I don't know. Last I heard he was headed for the Snowfly Forest to catch up with the Riskbreaker and Sydney. The stubborn fool likely sent himself to his death in those woods."
"And you do not care?"
Neesa glanced at Tieger, but lifted her hammer experimentally rather than reply. Like many of the Blades, she had a close kinship with her fellow knights. Tieger was like a brother to her, something she hadn't known since her village was raided and her family killed. Grissom she hadn't known quite as long as Tieger, but he was her Brother as well. Comrades. The cleric could be irritating sometimes, but she would hate for anything to happen to him.
Yet she was a warrior. Warriors lost comrades all the time. She had lost three close acquaintances in the last two years. With the way things were going in Leá Monde, she was likely to lose more.
"Grissom can hold his own," she told Tieger firmly. "He dabbles in the...'Arts'...like so many of the Blades. If magick helps him, so be it." Knights of the Cross using the Black Arts was less unthinkable than most people believed. Neesa never had any desire to learn magick beyond a shamanistic healing spell or two and some limited teleportation magick. Her warrior skills were enough to see her through the toughest scrape. The Black Arts held no interest for her.
"The Knights reported," she said. "They claim the Riskbreaker is nearby."
"We give chase?"
"We hunt," she corrected. "He's a dangerous one, and better we see him dead. The VKP has no business here."
Tieger rose from the steps and shifted his armoured shoulder plate a little. He had no arguments with killing the Riskbreaker. Enough of the Knights had been cut down by him already. He was marked as an enemy of the Cardinal now, and a danger to their mission in Leá Monde.
Tieger looked across the river that sliced the city in two. Another maze of streets picked up on the other side. "Will this never end?"
Neesa glanced up through the gauntlet of buildings. The sun was crawling across the sky entirely too quickly. It would end, all right. When all of the living in this city were dead.
"Pray it does not."
If there was one part of Leá Monde that was especially unnerving, it was the Undercity. The maze of plazas and tunnels ran under most of the city. They connected the city with the abandoned limestone quarry, escape tunnels (which had suffered terrible damage in the quake and become just another set of blocked tunnels), the forest, and opposite sides of the town center. Leá Monde as a whole was a marvel of architecture, and below the surface was no exception. At its peak, the passages teemed with crowds of people swarming the market to buy their food, clothes, and exotic items of every kind from one of the sweet-talking merchants. 'Aye, we've the finest spices this side o' Valendia!' 'Tis a bargain for such a finely crafted jewel!' 'Fine cloth, straight from the weavers of the southlands!' Beggars, buskerers, and cutpurses made their living in the underground tunnels alongside merchants. A thriving market for a thriving city.
The little details of the Undercity were amazing in themselves. The magick lamps were the best example. The lamps were ancient magick even by Leá Monde's standards. They lit up the plazas by day, faded to ember-dim glow at night, and never flickered out. The magick lamps had once given the underground a cheery glow, and were counted among the many wonders of Leá Monde.
That was all past now. The tunnels and plazas were abandoned and crumbling to ruins. The bright glow of the magick lamps was replaced with a permanent ghostly blue that flickered like will 'o wisps. Maybe they were. The stories said that will 'o wisps were the souls of dead children, and there certainly had to have been a lot of them among the five thousand dead in the quake. But more likely, it was simply the power of the Dark twisting the magick. Leá Monde had other places for the dead.
The blue-tinted halls of the Undercity sang their own sweet song, once laced with the howls of souls and strangely, with the distant windchime laughter of children. Every part of the city was different for that. The souls echoed differently everywhere. They all screamed, but the song was slightly different.
This place hadn't been quite so unnerving when Grissom had passed through here with a pack of Knights. He felt very vulnerable, and being weaponless didn't lift his confidence any. God help him if something decided to attack. All he had to defend himself was his spells, and he didn't know how effective that would be with his constant lapses in concentration. The fog still hadn't left his mind. It was a strange predicament. He was praying to God with one hand and wielding spells with the other.
Grissom stopped suddenly in one of the many identical doorways of the Undercity. He looked around slowly, and listened as much as his sense would allow.
Where had that come from?
Strange voices were nothing new. So many of the Knights swore they heard voices at one time or another since arriving here. Maybe it was getting to him at last.
But they were so real, so unlike figments of his imagination. Every now and then he'd hear distant voices, but they faded when he shouted out to them. He had yet to tell if they were his imagination, dark tricks of Leá Monde, or Knights just barely close enough to hear, but that last one was probably from his own mind. He'd been called it enough times, usually by screaming people being dragged away for trying to ignite revolutions or acting against the Cardinal.
'Hypocrites, you and your whole bloody organization! Destroy the Cardinal! You'll all burn in hell and I'll dance on yer bloody Cardinal's grave!'
Satisfied that it was just another auditory illusion, he resumed his journey through the Undercity. It didn't help that Grissom had no idea of where he was going. Being lost was something he was rapidly growing to hate above all else.
This place could scare the hell out of a lot of people, but he far preferred it to the Snowfly Forest. That blasted forest held nothing but bad memories for him now, climaxing with a long and frustrating trip back. It hadn't taken him more than ten minutes to get completely lost in the dense foliage. He'd spent a hellishly long time stumbling through a wood where one path looked exactly the same as the last. God, how he was going to hate that place most if he ever got out alive. If there was one part of this nightmare he would curse until the day he died, it would be that bloody forest.
When he'd found himself at a collection of stone ruins at the end of the woods, it was by a stroke of pure luck. The ruins marked the passage back down to the Undercity He could still see the footprints left by Riot, Rosencrantz, himself, and his two Knights. Faemdos and Lamkin had disappeared shortly after they entered the forest. There was nothing in the world that would make him go back into that forest to look for them. If they were lost, they were dead. That had become the unwritten rule of Leá Monde.
Grissom tried to push the Snowfly Forest far behind him as he plunged deeper into the Undercity. It would be a relief to put this whole city behind him. Infested with the walking dead, unholy cultists, Dark magick that surpassed anything human hands could summon... The Cardinal had been right to send the Knights here. Nothing short of destroying the city would be enough to drive out the evil, but culling it back was a task in itself. All the orders from Guildenstern so far had been to destroy Müllenkamp. Grissom had abandoned that for the moment. Ashley Riot needed to be dealt with, and he wanted that pleasure for himself. It seemed that everyone had converged on Leá Monde at once. Taking the Riskbreakers out of the race for the city would hasten the extermination of Müllenkamp.
That, and he WAS going to avenge his brother's death.
And get his amulet back from that Riskbreaker scum.
The pale blue glow of the lamps illuminated yet another of the plazas of the Undercity. This one wasn't empty. If the light hadn't have given the presence of the undead away, the pained moaning would have. Grissom heard them long before he entered the plaza. He'd heard the brainless, shambling creatures moan on the way through the Undercity with the Knights. But he'd never noticed the pain in their dead voices before. Mindless, hopeless pain, yearning for more than the half-life they suffered... They screamed for life when they needed release....
Grissom frowned slightly. Why he noticed or cared now was beyond him. They were beyond God's power to save, and could only be struck down with steel and spells. But the pain was registering to him ever since he'd come back down here.
It unnerved him almost as much as the creatures themselves. The zombies, the 'cold ones', were mindless things of pain and rotting flesh. They noticed nothing but the urge to drag others down to death. Grissom had seen Knights sever their limbs, and they kept coming as if a missing arm were but a scratch. They'd attacked in packs as often as alone, and sent scores of Knights to their deaths today. They were monsters, demons, unholy creatures with nothing but blood lust.
Now they didn't give Grissom so much as a casual glance.
He'd noticed that in the first zombie-infested room he came across. He'd skirted the room hoping not to attract attention, and bumped into an exceptionally motionless zombie when he was backing up. It had startled him enough to get him three-quarters of the way to casting the strongest thunder spell he knew before he noticed the thing wasn't attacking him. It regained its balance from being bumped into, but didn't move from its spot. In a moment of daring experimentation he'd stood right in front of a half-rotted zombie, the thunder spell still on the tip of his tongue in case the thing decided to notice him after all. Nothing. He'd gone so far as to prod its chest and it didn't so much as twitch at him. That was a good thing, he supposed, better than fighting the undead every step of the way. But it disturbed him far more than being attacked.
The zombies in this room were no different than those scattered throughout the rest of the city. A few wandered the plaza in an eternal aimless search for things they'd lost in life. Most either stood completely still or lay crumpled on the ground, waiting for the living to wander by.
Grissom let a wandering zombie walk past him. The thing was wrapped in the remains of a Leá Monde city guard uniform and carried a light axe in the three remaining fingers of its right hand. Its one remaining eye was rolled back in its half rotted skull, and didn't stray in Grissom's direction. The thing was set on an aimless course to a tunnel branching off to God-knows-where. Grissom waited until it shambled out of the room before he entered. He wanted no dealings with the undead, even if they DIDN'T attack him.
One of the living corpses caught his attention rather than the other way around. There was faint magick emanating from it, different from the simple Dark magick that possessed the souls and the animated corpses. This one was a wizard. Had been a wizard. There was a crest on his decayed shirt that could have belonged to the Leá Monde guards. Perhaps they made regular use of wizards in their city's defences.
The corpse of the man (possibly woman, the face was too decayed to tell) swayed back and forth where it stood, slumped slightly to one side. A staff was clutched in one hand, and a rather nice one at that. The staff interested him. Grissom had lost his to Riot along with his amulet. The staffs were weapons in themselves (albeit rather weak ones) but their purpose was to amplify the power of the user's magick. Grissom needed all the extra power he could get if he was going to face off against Riot again. Being weaponless made him edgy.
The corpse was predictably unresponsive as he pried its hand open. A finger fell off the rotting hand in the process, but neither it or Grissom took notice. If his test earlier hadn't been convincing enough, this proved it. The creatures took no note of his presence. Whatever it meant, it couldn't be all bad.
The staff slid easily out of the corpse's grip and into Grissom's. It was heavier than his old one, and made of iron rather than hagane. That made it disappointingly uncomfortable for him to hold, but better than nothing. It was interesting in its own way. There were ornate, snaking designs going down the hilt, and tiny symbols carved at intervals around it. Possibly something written in a language he didn't know. It wasn't any common language he knew, or even Kildean for that matter.
"Mithter, that ain't yours."
The high little voice spoke so suddenly Grissom almost dropped the staff.
There was no way to know what he'd encounter down here, and something had just sneaked up on him. He could die if he let himself be so off guard.
He turned sharply, scanning the room for the owner of the little voice. What he saw made him blink. Repeatedly.
A little girl stood there looking up with big, childish eyes.
He blinked again. A child. A girl in a little blue dress. There was a doll cradled in her arms. Platinum blonde pigtails bounced around her when she cocked her head to the side and looked at him intently. A CHILD? What was a child doing here? KNIGHTS were being slaughtered by the scores, how was it possible for a child to survive?
A second glance showed him. Her big, curious childish eyes held the dull yellow glow of the undead, her skin the grey tint of death. The blue and white dress she wore had an ugly blood stain across the front, uncomfortably resembling a sword slash.
The undead. An undead CHILD! And she was talking to him.
Grissom took a wary step back, gripping the staff tight. It was tempting to let loose with a spell and be done with her. Child or no child, she was undead. She was cursed to stay here, never to die... Perhaps he should release her from the bonds of Leá Monde and send her young soul to God. If he knew how. He wasn't sure that destroying the possessed bodies did any more than send the souls wandering again.
The girl laughed at his defensive stance and hugged her doll tighter. No, not a doll. A knife. A long, wickedly sharp little serrated dagger with rust from one end of the blade to the other. She treated it as if it were a beloved toy.
"Mithter, dun be so weird," she said through a childish lisp. "Ya took sumthin'. Is not nice ta steal, ya know. Mommy told me."
Despite her obvious state of undeath, she was acting just like any child he'd ever seen. Grissom relaxed a little. But not much. Undead children with knives were no less dangerous than anything else wandering down here.
"It's alright...dear..." he forced out. Calling the undead by terms of endearment didn't come naturally. "He will not mind."
"Yeah she would." She. Was the corpse female after all?
The little girl stuck out her tongue at him.
That made the confrontation seem that much more ludicrous. Disrespectful little brat.
"I am here to cleanse evil...child...so do not disrespect the prelates of the Lord." As if the demon child would listen to him.
Surprisingly, she did. Whether she cared or not was another matter.
"Lord? Like the Duke?" she asked with childish naivete, ignoring the rest of what he'd said.
She wrinkled her small brow for a moment, trying to wrap her mind around that. "God...? Gods. There's lots, ya know."
"There is only one." It somehow didn't occur to him that he was getting into a theological debate not only at the worst possible time, but with an undead child who wouldn't know a thing about religion in the first place.
"Nuh-uh. Mommy says there's lots, an' they're like..." She fumbled for words and found none. Instead, she flung her arms out and spun around in a circle a few times. Grissom was wary of the knife in her outflung hand, but she seemed to have no intent of using it on him.
When she was finished spinning, she staggered to a stop and clutched the knife close again. Grissom got an expectant look from her, like he was supposed to understand now.
He sighed to himself. Why was he talking to a dead child?
"You're dead, girl."
Her big childish eyes blinked.
She laughed at him. The blade of her knife was laid across her mouth to stifle her giggles.
Grissom should have expected as much. Undead or not, she was a child and acted like one. It was a disgrace to have the Blades being killed off by things like this. Grissom transferred the staff to his other hand and turned away from the child. It was a waste of time to converse with the undead.
He hadn't gone more than a step before there was a tug on his shirt. That made him tense slightly with the fear that she was going to play her part as the undead and attack him after all.
When he glanced back, she was doing nothing more than he'd felt. Tugging his shirt. A fistful of finely woven material was clenched in her death-white hand. The wicked knife still rested in her other hand, being swung idly back and forth at her side.
"Play?" she asked hopefully.
It was so similar to the voice of a real child it made him mentally shiver.
"I've no time to play with little girls," he told her coldly. Keeping patience with children had never been his strong point.
Another tug at his shirt.
"Please please PLEASE?"
She stamped her foot in a childish huff and released his shirt. "You HAVE ta play with me, I...I... Mommy SAID so!" She sat down as hard and exaggerated as she could next to a blue-tinted lamp pole, her arms crossed irritably. Sulking. About ten seconds later she unfolded them and began to scrape her knife across the floor.
"Your mother isn't here, child," Grissom told her as she pretended to ignore him. "You are dead. Your mother is dead."
The scraping didn't slow in the slightest. Demented little stick figures were being traced on the stone in thin, jagged white lines. "Mommy's right there," she said without looking up from her drawing.
"There is no one here but ghosts."
"Toopid, mommy's right THERE!" She finally looked up from her drawing and pointed her knife square at one of the motionless zombies.
"Girl, she is DEAD." Grissom didn't know why he was still trying to talk sense into the child. Whether she realized her state or not, she was undead and beyond help.
The girl jumped up from her place in the blue glow of the lamp and ran over to the zombie. She ducked behind its rotting form and poked her head out from behind. "Toopid." She ducked back behind.
A few second later her face reappeared. Grinning again. "Oh, mommy says you're not toopid... You're just being silly!" She laughed a child's high-pitched, bubbling laugh. "Silly! Isn't he silly, mommy?"
Grissom's nervousness was coming back in full force. The girl continued to laugh as he backed towards the nearest door. God, it had been a mistake to waste time trying to save the undead. They were a lost cause no matter what their form.
"Wait, ya still have ta PLAY!" she called to him when he reached the arching doorway. He couldn't see what was in the next blue-tinted room, but it didn't matter.
"I'll...play with you later," he muttered to humour her. Underestimating the undead had proved fatal to far too many Knights today.
She giggled again and skipped out from behind the zombie, playing hopscotch with the cracked tiles of the Undercity floor. When she was directly under the glowing lamp pole, her big eyes stared at him again. She grinned. "Ya don't have ta play with ME!" She pointed her knife again. For the first time, the light was bright enough for Grissom to notice it was stained with dark dried liquid rather than rust.
The bloodstained knife was held slightly to the left. It seemed she was pointing at nothing. Just empty air and the cold, indifferent blue-tinted walls of the Undercity.
"THEY wanna play with ya," she whispered, as if it were an important secret. "Silly, they're gonna play with ya!"
Grissom backed into the next room. The girl's giggling followed him.
The invisible world of Leá Monde is a dark wonder to any who can see it. Amidst the corridors and plazas of the city, and even among the trees of the forest, wandering souls drift in the endless existence of incomplete death. Every crevice of every house, every stone of every street... All teem with the unseen phantoms. Flesh long gone, but souls trapped within Leá Monde's walls until their death is somehow completed.
The souls of Leá Monde are not as one would think. There are no ghosts with human shape pacing their death sites, not knowing they were dead and gone. As souls alone, they are felt only as a presence.
For those few who can see them, they are little more than faded mists of light and shadow. But they can speak. Perhaps they might tell their tales to those who ask. But the only language they speak in undeath is the noise of soul-searing agony, hopelessness, and yearning for life they can never have. Those few people who have wandered near Leá Monde since its collapse and lived to tell... They say that the chilling wind was the screams of lost souls, searching for bodies to complete the circle of incomplete death. Those souls wander endlessly until they find flesh. When they are exorcised from their new home, they move on to the next. A vicious, never-ending cycle that continues until the flesh rots away or the soul itself is destroyed. There is no thought, nothing but the pain and loneliness and longing.
There are, however, exceptions to every rule.
The streets of Leá Monde were a light in the darkness of the city. They were far from a safe haven, but anyone who emerged from the underground was immensely relieved to see daylight again, even if it came in the form of a ghost town.
Sunlight had never been so uninviting before. Grissom lingered in the shade of the doorway that led from the Undercity, preferring to be out of the glaring light of the early afternoon sun. The brief moment he'd stepped out into the light had been uncomfortable at best, and he'd retreated back to the shadows of the buildings. Being in the Undercity so long must have gotten to him. Just looking at the bright sunlight made him blink repeatedly. It made his skin crawl too. Most unpleasant.
The shady haven of the doorway gave him a place to rest a moment. For the latter part of his trip through the Undercity, nagging discomforts were getting too strong to be ignored. He was shivering. Hard. It had started back in the forest, but he hadn't truly taken note of it until after the incident with the little girl. Then he'd attributed it to nervousness and possibly fear. But the shivering didn't stop when the undead child was far behind. It had grown worse.
Now he was huddled in the doorway, shaking and rubbing his arms as if it would restore some heat. The sun shone indifferently overhead, and he was shivering like he was caught in the middle of a blizzard. It couldn't possibly be that cold in Leá Monde. He couldn't still be disturbed over that dead child. Even if he was, this was far more than a mental chill. He FELT the cold. He was visibly shivering for no reason. Perhaps he'd picked up some sickness that festered in the city along with the demons. In his mind, that was a worse fate than being killed by the monsters themselves. At least he could fight them. He had some knowledge of healing arts, but not the experience or ingredients to make something to fight a deadly illness.
Several minutes of sitting in the doorway shivering made him want to forget about everything and stay here. The persistent cloud of slight confusion remained, further attesting to some kind of illness. It made him want to forget about Riot, Sydney, and escaping the city, and just sit here waiting for the weariness and shivering to go away. It whispered to him to rest a little. He hadn't really rested since...hours ago. Just rest a minute. Just under the shivering stopped. He'd be fine in a minute if he rested...
The soothing, wordless suggestions were tempting, certainly. Grissom wanted very badly to rest. His eyes were closed already, as if he'd fall asleep any second. The only thing that kept him from doing just that was the loud crack of a door opening further down the street.
Grissom opened his eyes in time to see Riot slip into the door and close it behind him.
That made him stand immediately, shivering or no. It was as hard to stand as it had been in the forest clearing, but the doorway lent him support until he was steadier on his feet. Riot. He was right THERE. God must have been with him after all. He could have searched this city for hours or days without every seeing a trace or Riot, and the man had walked right in front of him. This was too good. Too perfect.
Grissom made his way to the heavy wood door the man had disappeared into. It involved crossing a good deal of the street in the sunlight, but that didn't make him hesitate. It was odd. The light didn't physically hurt him, but it made him uncomfortable. Too warm. Too bright. Too glaring. It stung his eyes.
Even that discomfort couldn't knock back his eagerness. He could almost feel the weight of his amulet around his neck again, and see the look on Riot's hateful face when he avenged his brother's death. It was so CLOSE. Once he'd done his duty to his brother and himself, he could finally find some of the Knights and deliver the final blows to Müllenkamp before getting out of this wretched city.
It took Grissom a few tries to get the door open due to rust on the hinges, but it finally popped open. The storage rooms of the city walls lay beyond. He stepped in. God, he could practically FEEL Riot's presence. It almost let him ignore the shivering.
That didn't last long. Before he got through more than two rooms he was shivering harder than ever. The very air of the city seemed to sap his strength and turn his blood to ice in his veins. Fighting Riot in this condition was sure to send him to his death. For real this time. The Riskbreaker wouldn't leave him for dead twice.
If that occurred to Grissom, he didn't care.
The next few rooms were a blur of featureless stone. His vision was swimming, and his mind refused to focus on anything. In fact, he knew nothing else until he lost his balance and fell to his hands and knees on the cold stone floor.
Grissom blinked a few times and looked as far up as he could raise his head. The surroundings had faded to the icy blue glow of the Undercity and he hadn't even realized it. Back down here, in the haunting, unearthly glow of those magick lamps, with the wailing of souls that got louder with each second... Returning to the place would have made him shiver if he weren't practically convulsing as it was.
The intense shaking wouldn't allow him to stand again. Perhaps it really was convulsing rather than mere shivering. The cold that enveloped him was painful, crippling, and getting worse.
Grissom couldn't stand it any longer. He struggle with his gloves a moment before he was able to tear them off. He rubbed his hands together vigorously in an attempt to warm them. He blew on them a little, but even his breath felt cold as the ice. Logically, if it was an illness, the attempt at warming would do nothing to help.
Logically. If he were thinking logically it might have mattered.
Grissom was still shivering when he collapsed, but it had reached its peak already. A few minutes later and he wasn't moving at all.
"A pulse, Tieger. Is there a bloody PULSE?"
"Neesa, be calm."
"I am calm. Just find a pulse."
"If there's one to be found."
Neesa leaned one arm on her hammer as she kneeled slightly. She ignored her warrior's sense and common sense for once and kept searching for a pulse that wasn't there. Tieger was doing the same. The man's fingers were searching Grissom's neck for the faintest hint of life.
She traced the veins on Grissom's left wrist, feeling nothing. His dead-cold flesh killed hope immediately. It was the chill of someone who had been dead for hours. Even the fatal wound was staring her in the face. A sword slash through the chest. The entry couldn't be seen without turning him over, but it had torn out through his back. The bleeding had long since stopped. A very bloody injury, yet there was none on the ground around him. Had he been attacked elsewhere and somehow made it here?
This discovery was another horribly ironic surprise for Leá Monde to throw at their feet on top of everything else. Corpses that walked, Dark magick coming out of the stonework, monsters --ones that existed only in FAERIE TALES!-- crawling out of every shadow... And now a comrade's bloody corpse sprawled on the floor like it was deliberately left for them to find.
Neesa had almost put her worries about Grissom from her mind when she and Tieger came here hunting the Riskbreaker. They had hoped to find him once they dealt with Riot. Three Crimson Blade commanders would be a formidable force for anything they'd encountered in the city. Whether she respected it or not, Grissom was well versed in the Dark Arts. That alone made him a match for most enemies, human or otherwise. 'Bending evil to serve God', one of the hypocritical clerics had called the use of the Dark Arts by the Knights. 'Fire with fire.' Nice logical arguments that meant little. But if it helped him stay alive, good for the bloody Dark.
It hadn't helped. Grissom had thrown himself against something far beyond his abilities.
"Cold as the grave..." Neesa observed grimly. She leaned down further, stray strands of short white hair dangling in her face. She listened near his chest for a moment. No breathing to be felt or heard.
Tieger gave up on looking for a pulse a moment later. No pulse. No nothing. He'd been dead, and dead for a while at that.
"Ach, he's gone..."
Neesa nodded slowly. They'd already known he was stone cold dead. The chill of the corpse and the unusual greyish tint of the skin had been more than obvious. Another one of their Brothers dead.
The echoing blue stairway to the depths of the Undercity was strangely quiet. Tieger's fingers traced the Rood cross in the air, an old sign to ward off evil. If the city had a voice, it would have laughed at the pitiful superstitious gesture.
Neesa stared at his still corpse a moment, unmoved. She had no tears for him. He'd brought it on his own bloody self with plunging into the Dark Arts. Hypocritical cleric. 'Fire with fire' indeed. More like 'play with fire and get burned'. She couldn't properly pity him when, knowing Grissom, he'd brought an easily avoided fight on himself. Fools perished in Leá Monde. It was as simple as that.
Her hardened warrior persona shifted from the rationale and skepticism. It loosened its tight control enough for her to feel the hollow ache in her heart, for Grissom and Duane both. Fools or not, they were dead. They had no kin left to mourn for them. A moment's silence was all they could afford to give, and barely that. There was no time to worry about the dead when the fate of those still living was uncertain enough.
Yet that silence was painful. It hurt to know they were condemned to a fate worse than death, the incomplete death and eternal wandering for the souls of Leá Monde. Such a fate Neesa wouldn't wish on any but her most hated enemies. To know a comrade suffered it was disturbing. Death was supposed to be a release for friend and foe alike, not eternal damnation to hopeless wandering.
The sharp bang of the door at the bottom of the stairs flying open shattered the respectful silence that had established itself.
Neesa looked up from staring at the blood on Grissom's back. The door had been roughly pushed open, the man not bothering to mask his presence. He was glancing back into the room beyond the door, and didn't notice them at first. Neesa knew him immediately. Riskbreaker. Ashley Riot to be precise. The Riskbreaker that killed and injured an untold number of the Knights, raised hell everywhere he went in this city, possibly in league with Sydney...
The VKP scum that killed Duane and Grissom.
Riot noticed them only after he'd entered the room. He stopped, his hand still on the door, but he pushed it no further. His eyes met with Tieger's.
In that brief second where everyone was frozen, Neesa's quick warrior mind analysed every detail of his body looking for potential weaknesses. A slightly dented circular shield hung by a worn leather strap from his left arm. His sword arm had what appeared to be a hagane rapier, suspiciously like those used by the Crimson Blades. Stolen most likely. There was enough flesh exposed to see numerous half-healed cuts and bruises lacing his skin from legs to head. A gash on his shoulder. Potential weak point. Blood on his shorts from some injury, perhaps new perhaps old. Another potential weak point. His unusual hair and clothes were was matted with sweat, dirt, and blood of every place he'd been and every creature he'd encountered. He certainly had the look of a man who'd been fighting for his life every second for half a day now. Unfortunately, he didn't seem tired or weakened by the exertion. He was as dangerous as if he'd just stepped into the city from VKP headquarters.
"You..." Tieger growled. His axe whipped into his hands in a second, like it were a hand axe rather than a massive double-sided sabre. "You did this!" His booming voice was painfully loud in the closed space of the Undercity stairwell. It actually made Riot tighten his grip on his sword and take a step back out the door.
"You killed him." Neesa rose as she spoke, easily hoisting her pick-pointed hammer in her hands. There would be new blood on it soon.
Riot took a step back. The man looked slightly confused. Of course, he didn't know them. They'd never had the pleasure of crossing weapons before. Most who met Neesa and Tieger for the first time in battle lived very short lives after the 'introduction'. Lives measured in seconds.
This Riskbreaker looked good. He might last as long as a few minutes.
Tieger slammed his axe into the wall hard enough to send a small tremor through the room. A large chunk of brick fell out and shattered on the floor. "You will pay in BLOOD."
The sight of two Crimson Blades advancing on him must have been intimidating, even for the Riskbreaker. He took another hesitant step back, mentally debating whether to fight or flee. Surely the man was a warrior. Warriors knew when to retreat. Perhaps he was smarter than Neesa gave him credit for. Fight or flee.
He chose the latter. The wooden door crashed closed as he fled.
Neesa and Tieger were faster. In the time it took him to slam the door, they were at the bottom of the stairs. The Riskbreaker would not escape. His blood would adorn Neesa's hammer this day.
Riot was fast, both in and out of battle. But his retreat into the Undercity wasn't swift enough. Before he'd crossed the great plaza in the room beyond, the Blades had the door open. Even with the slight delay opening the heavy wooden door, Tieger quickly caught up with him. One-handed, he slammed his axe down on the stone floor. Riot had to duck and roll to the side to avoid it. Neesa rounded the other side and swung her hammer in a loose arc to drive him back another few feet. He was trapped between them now.
The plaza was larger than most in the Undercity, but still no different than the rest of the eerie section of Leá Monde. There was a faint 'drip-drip' somewhere in the distance that stopped every now and then for long periods of time. The wind whistled through cracks in the stone, creating a strange background commotion. When the city still lived, it had been one of the busiest plazas. There was sometimes entertainment here, musicians or actors or parlour-trick magicians playing the crowd as much as their trade to make a few coppers. If there were anyone left to watch, the three standing in the plaza now would have been as interesting as anything ever seen here.
"Riskbreaker..." Neesa said with a glance at Tieger. From the descriptions the Knights gave, she'd half expected a real live titan. Riot was a far cry from that. She looked him over for a second time as he got up again with his thin sword held expertly in his right hand. She was sure to meet his eyes. Warrior's eyes. They held no fear, just slight confusion that was rapidly being extinguished. Whatever he was confused about, he knew not to dwell on it when he was very likely going to plunge into a battle.
"You killed our Brother," Neesa said calmly. Stating a simple fact rather than throwing an accusation.
Riot stared back at her, considering, and eventually decided to respond. "Grissom..."
"Yes. Grissom. And Duane. And more of our Knights than I can count."
The Riskbreaker glared back defiantly, as expected. "I survive, Blade. If your...people...attack me, I will carve them. The same applies to you and anything in this city. Step aside and leave me be if you value your life."
The threat slid past unnoticed, but Neesa saw a lot in that glare. He had every intention of carrying out his threats if they attacked him. Confident, to say the least. He had the look of a warrior without a doubt. There was a weariness and distant pain there too, like there was something he couldn't quite push from his mind entirely. He'd seen something that stuck with him. That was hardly surprising. Everyone in the city who survived was sure to come away with a memory that seared their very soul to the core, and would haunt them the rest of their lives. Riot had seen his and more. At least the rest of his life would not be very long to endure it.
"Worry about your own life," Tieger warned him. "You have damned souls today."
"Nothing less than they deserved."
Both Blades shifted slightly when Riot moved his sword. He merely used the tip of the rapier to pull back the white cloth that covered his chest. A ugly, half-healed magical burn stood out just below his ribs.
"Fine clerics who sell themselves to the Dark Arts."
"Hush, Riskbreaker," Neesa said, still relatively calm. "Listen carefully..."
Riot looked at her skeptically. The Undercity was silent around them. Every now and then in the distance there was a faint rush of wind, dripping water, shuffling movement, and a few noises that were impossible to guess at.
"The wand'ring ones scream for your blood," she told him, taking another step toward him across the damp stone.
Riot backed into a defensive stance. "One more step and you will converse with your...your 'wand'ring ones'...personally. I'll see to it myself if you--"
Tieger lunged forward without warning. His massive axe hung overhead, then slammed down to cleave Riot in two.
The Riskbreaker dodged by inches and backed up a few more steps before Tieger completed the swing. The echo of the axe hitting the floor echoed in the room. A massive crack appeared in the stone where Riot had been standing.
Tieger hefted the axe back into his hands and brought it up again without hesitation. "You'd best listen to them, boy. You'll scream with them!"
The axe swung again. The Riskbreaker easily dodged that one, but fell into Neesa's range at the same time. She swung, he dodged. Almost. The very tip of her pointed hammer scraped across his side lightly. First blood was hers.
Voices. Whirling, swirling, writhing, shouting all around in every voice imaginable. They spoke no understandable words, yet their emotions could be felt with devastating clarity. The raw pain of open, ever-bleeding wounds on the souls that would never heal. They made their pain known. They spoke and there was no choice but to hear. It couldn't be understood, but it could be heard.
They were all around. In the walls, in the air, whispering in his ears, screaming inside his head. They shouted with the voice of an avalanche, cried with tears of unspeakable agony, mumbled soft as a babbling brook, and laughed with voices that cut through him like daggers.
The laughter was the worst. It was mocking. Cruel. It knew something he didn't.
It was frightening.
Even when he blindly stumbled to his feet they didn't turn off immediately. They didn't leave but, reluctantly, they did back off. They faded to a muted whisper that could have been mistaken for the wind. When he was at last standing, swaying from side to side slightly, they were all but ignored. Regaining consciousness had banished them to the very edge of his perception, but a great deal of coherent thought went with them.
It was cold. He'd never felt so cold in his life, yet the chill was so...distant. He could sense how deeply cold he was, but it seemed to be a mental sensation rather than physical. His body wasn't shivering in the slightest. Just...twitching.
Physical perception of cold wasn't the only thing lost to him. Through a distorted mind, he could sense the lack of sensation in his body. Everything was there, but it all seemed far away. Movement was no reassurance. Oh, he could move. Barely. His body was very limp and unresponsive, like every limb was asleep.
As soon as he tried to descend the stairs he lost control. His legs gave out and he fell. Fortunately, there was a platform of a step three stairs below. He landed on his hands and knees on the rough stone step. It hurt much less than he should have considering he struck his head on the stone platform when he landed. He didn't try to get up immediately. The only thoughts getting through were of how cold he was, and a distant voice wondering why he was having so much trouble moving.
The muted whispering rose. Voices blended together in his head. They taunted and prodded and begged at him, and he didn't truly 'hear' any of it.
A jolt of magic in the air slapped his mind back into place as harshly as a slap across the face.
The voices retreated again. The cold and numbness did not, and he was left to wonder.
A real voice this time, clear as a church bell in the morning.
"I know. We teleport again if he catches up."
"And if we fight him again?"
"We cannae' do it. You felt his strength. It won't be worth the scars we'd come out with. I say leave him for the bloody city. It'll take him, right enough."
"Aye... But leaving him be does not set well with--"
The room was in a dead silence all of a sudden.
Tieger. Neesa. Grissom knew the voices and recognized them like a godsend.
His body was too numb to let him stand, but he fought his way to one knee and looked up to the top of the stairs. Tieger. Neesa. He mentally repeated the names. If they helped him escape this wretched place, he'd pray for them until the day he died.
It was only now occurring to him how much he needed help. If he hadn't believed there was some sickness attacking him, he did now. It was all he could think to explain his body turning on him like this.
No words came to his tongue as he looked at them. His mouth moved clumsily, but the words refused to form. Illness... The numbness and disorientation and the horrible, insane chill... Yes, he was sick. They could help him. They WOULD. A godsend. They would help.
His comrades looked... 'Shocked' was the best word for it. Both had blood-stained weapons clenched in their hands, and they held them in defensive positions. Neesa had a horrible scowl on her face, but it flickered with surprise and a little uncertainty. Tieger wore the fierce look Grissom had seen on him countless times when he waited for a foe to make the first move.
His mouth moved more easily now. Words came. They didn't come easy or clear, but they came. "Thank G-God..." he breathed. "P-pleassse....tis a...sccchikneth..." 'Sickness' slurred horribly when it came out. "...sccchiknesss..." he tried again, cursing his clumsy speech. "...sickneth...sickness..."
They stood there staring at him, but didn't respond or make any move to help him. If anything they backed away.
"Wait, I..." He put all his effort into standing up, but his body didn't want to do what it was told. It wouldn't stay standing. Any time he half-managed it, it sagged like a marionette with no strings holding it up. "W-wait..." he repeated. "I...I n-need yeeuu--...your help, B-Brother... Sister...."
They looked at each other. Grissom didn't understand the strange looks passing between them. They looked almost afraid.
Tieger made the sign of the Rood cross and mouthed something Grissom knew all too well.
God have mercy.
Grissom didn't understand, but it wasn't a new feeling. Nothing of the last few hours made sense, and it all came very dream-like to him. It still did. It was starting to seem like some cruel joke that everyone but him was in on. Was it now his turn to be toyed with by Leá Monde?
"A m-moment, I am...." He tried again to stand, and fell back to his knees with a dull thud on the stone floor. "I... My body...does not cooperate. A moment, it...it will p-pass.... Surely it will p-pass..." The last was almost a question.
There was a loud creak of rusty hinges. Neesa and Tieger's attention flickered to something behind him, and their uneasy battle stances shifted.
Grissom's next attempt to stand was successful. More so. He was still unsteady on his feet. His shoulders wanted to slouch over, so he held his arms out at his sides a little. That aided his balance, so it was just as well. He turned.
Ashley Riot stared back at him.
Grissom took a step back, almost tripping on a crack in the stone.
A surge of intense hate and rage made him ignore how slurred the word came out. Riot. Riot was right there! That made him realize he was weaponless. The iron staff from the Undercity was up on the top step with Tieger and Neesa, exactly where it had clattered when he collapsed. No matter. With Riot so close, he could sear his flesh with a spell before the man knew what was happening. He would see the Riskbreaker DEAD, his brother avenged, and his amulet returned from the thief's hands.
Riot looked between the three of them, but his attention focussed most on Grissom. Strangely, he seemed more surprised than battle-ready. Another strange look to rival Neesa and Tieger's. Were those looks all directed at him? Illness must have done hell to his appearance already. That or his wounds were outstanding. Strange, he couldn't feel them very much. No matter. Riot would die and nothing would--
Neesa's voice. Grissom feared to take his eyes off Riot, but he glanced back to his comrades. Her expression was the grimmest he'd ever seen. Why was she distracting him when Riot was standing right there?
Repeating his name. She closed her eyes a second, but didn't continue right away. It all seemed very...disbelieving. Amazed.
It was Tieger who picked up when she didn't continued immediately. He shook his head sadly, the way he did when finding a Knight dead after all attempts at reviving him failed. "Brother, I am sorry.... We cannot help you now."
"Then s-stand back! I'll kill this dog myschelffff--...myself!" Grissom's voice was stronger now. His body was easier to move, though still very uncooperative. "I needn't have your weapons to d-deal with him... If you shall not help, do not interfere."
Riot tensed slightly, but only watched. It was all very unsettling.
"You do not understand, lad..." Tieger began slowly.
"W-what is there to understand?"
Strange sensations were creeping over him again. Pins-and-needles pricking on his numb flesh.
"Brother, look at yourself."
Uneasiness rose in Grissom's mind. "Look...?"
He looked at his hands and for the first time, saw that the gloveless flesh was deathly pale.
"W-what is this? What is h-happening...?" He looked around at the blue tinted walls as if they'd tell him his answers, then back to his hands again. Illness. How bad WAS this wretched sickness?
Neesa said his name a third time. This time she found the right words to continue.
"You are dead. The Dark has taken you. You are one of the cold ones. You are killed, dead as the stones."
When the situation was grave, she never softened it with kind words. She got straight to the heart of it, devastatingly so. This was no exception.
No one spoke for a moment after. Even Riot was just standing at the bottom of the stairs, watching the situation play itself out.
Every word sliced like glass shards, but Grissom only stared at his death-pale hands. Confusion. Horror. Fear. Everything was taking its turn. His hands twitched, but it quickly fell into a steady, quivering rhythm. Trembling.
She couldn't mean... It couldn't be...
It was just an...an illness, not...
His entire body was shaking now.
When Neesa saw her words had indeed gotten through to some degree, she sighed slightly.
"An ironic fate..."
The cold. The stiffness and uncooperativeness of his body. His body... The confusion of the last few hours had blinded him to his body. It had a lot to show him, and not just in the death tone of his skin. Had he felt his heart beat at all since he awoke? Had he been breathing when he wasn't speaking? He hadn't noticed a bit of it. Dear God, why hadn't he noticed...?
It couldn't be. Couldn't be. He waited to feel his heartbeat and prove them all wrong. He was as still as he could be when he was trembling so hard, waiting for a little thump to send warm blood through his body.
"Better than the endless wand'ring, I suppose..."
It didn't come. It never would. He wanted to beat his chest over his heart and force it to pulse with blood. It wasn't beating. His heart wasn't BEATING! It sent a scary jolt through him that was mental rather than physical. Tiny, individual horrors were building up. He hadn't yet accepted the worst of all.
He was cold. His skin was death-pale. His heart wasn't beating.
The realizations were building up entirely too fast.
But his soul was HERE. His flesh was HERE. He was not one of the cold ones! He'd seen them all over this place in every form imaginable. They couldn't think, couldn't FEEL, and he still suffered both very keenly. Why?! If he was dead, why was he still in his own body?! Why was his soul anchored down to this wretched place?! The soul was supposed to die and pass from this world, reach the next life, and continue forever and ever, amen, so help you God. Not linger in this cursed city trapped in dead flesh.
'The Dark has filled you...'
'You have joined the cold ones.'
Banish your denial and see the truth.
"...but to happen upon your own corpse!"
That hit Grissom as hard as a physical blow.
This time he fell to his knees by his own will. The cleric covered his head with both hands and squeezed his eyes shut, wanting to shut out everything. Tieger's sad look. Neesa's level one, and her strong, accented voice telling him something he didn't want to know. The faint voices at the back of his mind whispering so many things he couldn't pick them. Riot standing there, a gawking onlooker watching the horror unfold. His own hands. God, he wanted to see nothing... Hear nothing, see nothing. 'Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil...'
The horrible truth wouldn't be silenced. It cut into his unbeating heart, and the faint voices laughed wickedly at the pain.
Grissom shuddering drew a breath he no longer needed.
He screamed as loud and long as his body would allow. A tormented wail that would rival anything the wandering ones could manage. It cut into the very souls of those who heard, even Riot.
For everyone who survived Leá Monde, each would take a memory of this place seared into their soul forever. For some, their first sight of the cold ones would haunt them. Perhaps the sight of the cathedral or the haunting glow of the Undercity would be the brand of Leá Monde. Tieger and Neesa had been in Leá Monde all day. They saw the cold ones, knew enough of the city's story. They felt the oppressive atmosphere of disaster and faintly sensed a sliver of the presence and pain of the wandering souls. What little they knew, Grissom's scream made up for. This moment would stay with them
The anguished scream finally cracked and died away. Grissom remained hunched over, hands on his head and fingers tangled in his blonde hair. He did his best to obscure his face from those watching him, but he could feel them watching. The slight shift in his trembling and the tiny sounds that escaped made it seem like he was sobbing. It would have been an immense relief to do so, but he couldn't seem to bring forward any tears. Horror and fear were stronger.
There was movement on the top steps. Tieger took a half-step toward him, very cautiously, as if approaching a wounded dog that might decide to bite. Grissom silently screamed for him to stay away. Being gawked at by three people was making him tense enough. The absolute last thing he wanted was for them to so much as approach him.
Neesa stopped him with a firm hand on the shoulder-plate of his armour. "Halt..." she said quietly. "You said it yourself, we can not help him."
"Then we leave him? Do we abandon him and let the city claim his soul?"
"It owns it already. He is dead, he--"
"Dina' even know he was dead. Part of him still lives."
"For the good it does. How long until he becomes like the...the others?"
"Ach, how would I know that? Perhaps his death might be completed before--..."
"Leá Monde already holds his soul fast to its stones... And the cold ones may not leave. The Paling seals them."
Grissom stopped listening after that. It was irritating that Neesa and Tieger spoke as if he could no longer hear or understand them. But he didn't care enough to do so anyway.
Ignoring reality made him turn inward. It was no relief.
The distant voices in his mind were not so distant any more. The only grew louder, and refused to be silent for even a moment. Either madness had claimed him as well as death, or there was some truth to Sydney's talk of the nature of Leá Monde. There really were screaming souls everywhere, and he was hearing them. He hadn't heard to much as a whisper before, and now half the city was yelling for his attention. He almost screamed at all of them to be silent, the damned souls and his former comrades both. He wanted silence so badly, and none of them would let him have it.
The jabbering voices scattered.
That startled Grissom. His clenched hands released his hair and dropped to his sides as he looked around the room. Riot still standing there stupidly. Neesa and Tieger still at the top of the stairs. Stones and dust bathed in pale blue light. Nothing changed. Nothing out of the ordinary for Leá Monde.
It came again. A presence as much as a voice. It spoke in single, solid ideas and images more than words, but he 'heard' it loud and clear.
Grissom looked around again. Neesa and Tieger no longer spoke, and Riot was still wisely keeping his distance. All eyes were on Grissom, and he paid them no attention whatsoever as he searched for the source of the voice.
'Hearing' his name did nothing to reassure him.
"...who speaks? S-show yourself..."
...you feel fear...
"I say 'show yourself'! I do not speak to faceless voices!"
"WHO SPEAKS?!" He looked around wildly, but there was nothing to see. Such a 'voice' was impossible to imagine coming from a person. It was like it came from...from the very floors and walls and every dead stone around.
"The walls...?" he mumbled, a contrast to the piercing yell a second ago. "The walls...they speak...?"
...you fear your fate... You fear for your soul... The Dark smothers it. It chokes your soul...wraps itself around your memories...clouds your mind... It would have you forget... and you fear it...
That hit Grissom harder than he would have expected. It was close enough to the truth to be frightening in itself.
"Cease..." he said quietly, almost a whisper.
...you fear. You are...bitter... ...you know your fate...you are right to fear it. The loneliness...the pain...it will eat you alive...
"Who does he talk to...?"
He wasn't sure if it was Neesa or Tieger who said that. The voice in his mind didn't stop.
Would you suffer this alone? Would you be alone, Grissom?
You will be alone among thousands of souls... Alone... Your 'friends' see your pain and abandon you to it...
"He talks to no one..."
"Is he mad?"
...kill them... Why must they enjoy life when you are damned? ...are they better than you? More deserving? They should join you... Join US... Kill them. The pain...your pain...it will lessen when they are silenced.
Grissom laughed out loud at the voice. A very weak and forced laugh. "HA! Blood cannot soothe this... I'd drown in it first."
...you would be hurt more... You friends will kill you. They see naught but the cold ones... ...they will kill you and butcher your flesh, Grissom. They will rip your soul from your body...carve you with their weapons...leave your dead husk for the nearest soul to steal... Even now they crowd around, waiting for your flesh.... See them, feel them.... They smother you even now....
Grissom looked down at his bare hands, tensed and trying to grip the stone floor. His flesh... His body... It was dead. His heart no longer beat, there was no warmth... But he possessed it yet. His soul lived even if his body did not. His life was gone, but his flesh remained. His body was all he had. It was all that kept him from crossing over completely into the sea of homeless spirits that flowed through the city in a flooded ghostly river. His soul would be drowned in that if he left his dead body. A body...THIS body...was the only safe haven from it.
Grissom's hands twitched a little. God help him, he was NOT giving up his body. If he was to be damned in Leá Monde, he'd keep his OWN skin. Any who tried to take it from him could have the wandering fate that, in his mind, he'd narrowly avoided.
Grissom looked from the corner of his eye and saw Neesa and Tieger, weapons ready, advancing on him. Battle ready. They were going to use those weapons, or were expecting to at the least.
You see? You SEE?! They will cleave your soul from your flesh and leave it for the scavenging souls. They will steal your life once again! Your friends DAMN you! They despise you, they would kill you! Save your soul and KILL them! KILL THEM ALL!!!
The 'voice' was screaming at him now. Beyond the semblance of words, its blood lust and anger practically vibrated in his mind.
Those feelings was becoming Grissom's without him realizing it. All he could think when he looked at Tieger and Neesa was that they were going to kill him. Their weapons were ready. They were coming closer. They abandoned him to his fate, and now they would steal his body from him! He'd kill them. Riot too, even though thoughts of revenge and his amulet had been overpowered.
Undeath was kinder to Grissom than it was to most. In contrast to the moaning, shuffling zombies who were slow and painfully unintelligent, he was neither. His mind, as muddled as it was, was still capable of thought. He'd certainly been as slow and clumsy as one of the undead a moment ago, but there was new strength as he approached the bare edge of madness.
In the time it took for Tieger and Neesa to take one step towards him, he was on his feet and rushing at them.
Neesa's hammer was taking a swing at him long before he reached them, but it didn't matter. Minor injuries were of no concern to him. Grissom took the hammer full in the side and kept coming. It hurt distantly, and knocked him off balance a moment, but neither mattered. Undeath also gave him amazing pain tolerance. He rammed into Neesa and shoved them both against the nearest wall, almost falling over the wide flight of stairs in the process. Her hammer fell to the ground at her feet and clattered down a few steps.
One of Grissom's hands was already holding her by the shoulder of her uniform, clenching the thin fabric tight. His other pale hand shot forward and caught her thin throat. A second later he had both hands wrapped around.
Her skin... It was so soft. So warm. So goddamn WARM. She still had a heart that pumped lifeblood. Her body hadn't given out on her. She didn't hear the...the damned WALLS demanding blood. She hadn't been betrayed by everything important to her. She wasn't a bloody CORPSE.
That last thought made Grissom tighten his hands around her throat.
Neesa immediately grabbed his arms and tried to tear them from her throat. It was a shock to find how strong he was. She pulled at his arms, gouged at his face, and even tried to apply pressure enough to fracture his wrist. Nothing had any effect. He either moved to dodge it or ignored it altogether. He sneered at her and her pitiful attempts to break free that would have succeeded with anyone else.
"My body...is MINE," he snarled. His hands tightened more.
Half a second later, Tieger's axe was racing toward him.
It would have been easy enough to swing Neesa out to take the blow for him, but Grissom shoved her instead. They both crashed to the ground and the axe took a chunk out of the wall. The two Blades were sprawled on the steps now. Grissom's hands hadn't loosened a bit. Neesa was trying to gouge at his face, and having no success. Her dark skin was turning an unhealthy shade from lack of air. The Walls still roared at him to kill, and screamed for him to just break her neck and be done with it. Kill her, move on the Tieger and Riot. Just break her neck and--
Movement behind. Grissom looked back in time to see Riot jump the last few steps in twos, and cleave his sword down. The blade hit its mark before he could think of dodging. It sliced into Grissom's back near his shoulder blade.
That startled him more than hurt him, but he did release Neesa.
When he stumbled away from her and tried to back off, Tieger's axe swung again. It sliced through his elbow. THAT he felt. Undeath didn't make him immune to pain by any stretch of the imagination. A blow that cleaved all the way to the bone wasn't going to be ignored. The new agony mand him screamed and dart his other hand over to cradle his elbow. He backed off and retreated to the top of the stairs. The voice raged at him louder when he retreated. They screamed at him over and over to kill, kill, KILL THEM ALL NOW!!!
Below, the three were recovering from the brief attack. Riot eyed Grissom and hefted his sword again. Tieger stuck his arm out to block the Riskbreaker, and gave him a glare that said 'this is not your affair, stay out of it.' Riot backed off, slowly. From the new small wounds that covered both of them, it seemed they'd done battle and had a mutual wish not to repeat it. So long as Riot stayed out of the way, Tieger wouldn't care less about him.
A few feet away, Neesa was already snatching up her hammer again. The attack seemed to have done no real damage to her, but she rubbed her neck uncomfortably as she glance from Tieger to Grissom. She removed her hand. There were bruises on her neck.
Grissom, still the center of attention, slowly released his wounded arm. There wasn't much bleeding, but enough to make his hand stick to his shirt a little. Those bruises were his doing. He'd just tried to kill Neesa.
The Walls screamed for him to finish the job. His comrades would kill him. They wanted him dead. They had to die.
"Thieves..." he muttered deliriously. "My flesh, my soul...is mine... You shall not steal it..."
"Mad..." Neesa breathed.
Tieger shook his head slightly. "We steal nothing from you, Brother."
"Lies! You would kill me!"
"No. We would not kill you, it is already done."
"Grissom, look at yourself," Neesa ordered, an edge in her voice just short of yelling. "You are dead. We would only grant you mercy. Battlefield mercy, Father Grissom. You are beyond help."
"Keep your mercy," he spat.
KILL THEM KILL THEM KILL THEM KILL THEM!!!
The crushing command roared orders in his head and demanded he follow.
He seized his head in both hands, shaking it from side to side. That 'voice' wouldn't leave. It was getting stronger. The subtlety and silky words from earlier were gone. Now it ordered and he was to listen and obey.
More realizations were creeping up on him. It wasn't just the voice of walls or souls. Leá Monde itself was screaming at him. His body was his own, but his soul.... His soul belonged to the city, and it was eager for more blood, more souls...
Too much. Too many things pounding him at once. If it kept up he really would go mad.
Neesa, Tieger, and Riot below. They wanted him dead. The Walls all around. They wanted him to kill and submit to... Oh God, they wanted him to truly be one of the cold ones. They wanted another mindless undead to claim more souls for them.
Death on one side, damnation on the other. Grissom did all he could do with them pressing from both sides.
The door behind him was already opened a crack. He darted through and was fleeing back through the tunnels before the shouts raised behind him.
Neesa. Tieger. Leá Monde. They were all screaming his name.
Already he could hear his comrades pursuing him. He was faster, but he wouldn't lose them easily. He had no idea where he was running to, except away.