Friday, April 11, 2014

A Decaying World - Chapter 10: Calm Before The Storm

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Chapter 10: Calm Before The Storm

They scoured the smoldering crater for about an hour to retrieve Drake's sword. It would have taken much longer if the shadows inside the blade hadn't served as a beacon that engulfed the surrounding area in darkness. The moment Drake laid his hands upon the hilt something deep within him welled to the surface. The shadows wailed in agony as they were forced back into the obsidian blade, which lost its unique form in exchange. Now it was just a normal looking weapon, albeit one filled with immense power.
I hope you didn't accidentally trap Dorr'n Selkesch within. I can do without a rematch.”
Don't worry. All I seem to have captured is raw power. That might be just what we need to take down Modera.”
He raised the sword, which vibrated visibly. Small shadowy tendrils emerged from within and tried to wrap themselves around his hand. He swung the sword just once and carved a scar several meters thick into the crater.
Although I'm not sure if I can contain this much power for long. We should go to Modera's tower as soon as possible!”
Maximilian put a hand onto his companion's shoulder. “I know that you're worried about your girlfriend, but we can't be hasty! We need new supplies and clothes. And confronting Modera all by ourselves would be stupid.”
And who's supposed to help us? I doubt a couple of soldiers will make much of a difference.”
Well, I have to admit that Pagan's military is somewhat lacking, at least when it comes to fighting real monsters. I would never have been able to confront Dorr'n Selkesch without this sword”—he raised the “Heavenly Blade”—“and a vampire of Modera's caliber would certainly defeat our soldiers in the blink of an eye. But there are others in Pagan who might be able to help. It just depends on their availability.”
And with those words they finally moved on. It took longer than expected as the crater got quite steep at the edges and after that came an even steeper descend. Drake offered to jump all the way to the bottom, but Maximilian declined as he had had enough excitement for the day. Therefore they descended at a leisurely pace and arrived at the bottom shortly before noon.

Despite being able to see Pagan in the distance they choose a different route and arrived in the small hamlet of Lox a few hours later. Eerie silence filled the air and most of the doors stood ajar, as if the inhabitants had left in a hurry. All that remained were cows and sheep that didn't seem to have noticed the absence of their owners yet.
They must have evacuated the village when they saw the pillar of darkness.”
That they did, but only after it became apparent that it wouldn't go away anytime soon.”
Drake and Maximilian whirled around and drew their swords. The old woman who had appeared from one of the doorways raised her hands and took a few steps backwards.
Hold your horses! Or do you actually intend to cut down an old lady like me?”
Of course not...” said Maximilian as he put away his blade. “Are you the only one who's left?”
Yes. I'm too old to run from death, but my end seems to have been delayed. I don't suppose you have something to do with this? You look like you've been through a lot.”
We've got everything to do with this, but let's leave it at that,” Drake said with a guilty conscience, still remembering the fact that he himself unleashed the lord of shadows.
Then let me thank you in the name of our village. How about a little shopping tour? I'll make sure to hand the money over when the others return.”
The duo stared at their tattered clothes and accepted the offer.
Lox didn't offer much in terms of armor, but they managed to replace their clothes at least. While trying on a couple of sets Maximilian saw himself in the mirror and stared in disgust at his new hairstyle. On one side it ended just beneath his ear while it went all the way to his shoulders on the other one.
Look what he did to my beautiful hair...if only we had time to visit a barber, but that will have to wait.”
He grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off the surplus of hair. The resulting haircut looked frayed and uneven. Better than nothing, I guess.
Meanwhile Drake stocked up on potion vials, although he did leave half of his empty to fill them with blood later on.
Following that they took a soothing bath in the mayor's house. It didn't take long for the water to turn black and the tub ended up being covered in grime.
I suppose we should have told you sooner,” said Maximilian sheepishly as they stared at the mess they had caused, “But we're sort of broke. We did have money not too long ago, but we lost it together with our supplies. Not to worry, though”—he grabbed a piece of paper, wrote a few sentences on it and signed it with his name—“Send someone to Pagan and present this to one of the guards at the castle. You will be sufficiently compensated for your trouble.”
I suppose I should be suspicious when someone claims to be the royal knight, but I think I've seen your picture before. There are quite a couple of ladies who fancy you, you know?”
The way she looked at him made it appear as if she was one of those ladies, despite her advanced age.
How could I not know? You should see the mountain of letters I've amassed over the years...”
You didn't burn them? Does Jessica know?” Drake asked slyly.
Are you crazy? She'd kill me!”
They talked for a few more hours before they fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

They awoke at the dawn of the day, said goodbye to the lone inhabitant of Lox and began their journey towards the south-east. Pagan was still an entire day's march away, provided they didn't get lost in the Bandit's Forest that loomed ahead.
It was named after a vicious pair of bandits that robbed and killed dozens of people before they were put down by a contingent of soldiers, half of whom died due to cleverly laid traps. The name does raise confusion for travelers and causes them to avoid the area, but no one seems to have thought about renaming the forest. At least no one in a position capable of achieving such a change.
Contrary to its name the forest was a quiet and peaceful place. The twittering of birds filled the air and the butterflies seemed to dance to their tune while they flew from flower to flower. The only ones who disturbed the peace were of course our band of heroes. They could have reached the other side without any problems whatsoever, but Drake decided that he had to stock up on blood before it was too late and took down a small wolf.
He was still in the process of filling his vials when an angry pack, led by the wolf's mother, appeared. They howled when they saw their fallen brethren and lunged at the duo.
Maybe you should have filled your blood somewhere else!” said Maximilian as they fought back to back to take as little damage as possible.
Should I rather have killed a beggar who no one will miss?”
Drake expected two opposite answers, but the voice inside his mind remained silent.
Of course not! But there has to be a better way.”
I doubt we could convince the people to spend blood for a good cause.”
No. They'd rather burn you at the stake. I hope I can convince the king of your good intentions.”
Wouldn't it be better if I stayed behind? You'd certainly have an easier time getting into the city.”
No, we have to convince him together. I might be able to get you off the hook but you'd never receive any help if you stay in the shadows.”
They tried their best not to kill the wolves, but the pack kept on coming till half of them lay dead or dying. The wolf mother touched her dead children with her paws and poked them with her nose. Drake and Maximilian stared at one another in discomfort while the animals howled and whimpered.
We didn't want to figh—” Drake's apology was cut off by a growl.
He took a cautious step backwards.
Let them mourn. They've already accepted their defeat, otherwise they wouldn't have stopped attacking.”
The duo remained on alert till the corpses had been dragged away and the last wolf had vanished into the underbrush.
I never imagined I would regret killing a wolf”—Drake stared at the blood vials and refrained from filling the remaining ones—“Do you think we should bury this one?”
It might seem like a nice gesture, but I'm sure they'd rather do it themselves. Lets just get out of here. We've wasted enough time as it is.”
And so they continued their journey for a few more hours. They could follow the path most of the time, but had to take a detour when they encountered a broken wooden bridge. It must have been in disrepair for quite a while as a sign pointed them towards a cave below a waterfall. Stairs had been carved into the walls and since there was no other way the duo was forced to ascent them all the way to the top of the mountain. It was nothing compared to the mountain range they came from, but that didn't make it any less exhausting.
It wasn't in vain, though, as they were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the forest.
That reminds me of the hill next to Arlin, where I confessed my feelings to Emily”—Drake sighed and tears welled up in his eyes—“I'll rip Modera to shreds if she's done anything to her!”
Don't worry. I'm sure she's all right. You'd never return for a corpse, would you?”
Of course I would, if only to bury her!”
He stared towards the south, but even his improved senses couldn't breach the distance between the forest and his hometown. All he saw was Modera's tower, which seemed to be surrounded by a thick layer of fog.
Or would you leave Jessica's corpse behind if she had been kidnapped and killed?”
I'd never let it get this far!”
Hypothetically speaking!”
That's something I really don't want to think about...but I guess my main priority would be to turn the kidnapper's lives into hell on earth before I kill them. Recovering her body is nice and all, but it depends on who killed her. There's no point in trying to do so if your enemy is far superior. I'd rather train for a few years than die a pointless death.”
They didn't speak another word for a while. The silence would have been absolute, if not for the rushing of the water.
May I ask how you met Jessica?”
What does it matter?”
I just want to hear something uplifting...”
Hm...there's not much to talk about. I started my career a few years ago and she would always run through the castle and hand out chocolate and cookies. And as the days went by she spent more and more time with me than with anyone else. I think she called me her personal knight back then and forced me to do all kinds of stuff for her, even though she had no right to do so. At first I was only amused by her behavior, but she grew into a beautiful woman over the years and...well, everything else just happened.”
I'm surprised that the king doesn't know about your relationship if you actually spend so much time together.”
You're not the only one. Maybe he didn't think anything of it, seeing as I'm quite a few years older than his daughter. That's also one of the reasons that I don't want him to find out.”
Do you think he'd reject you?”
I don't know...”
I hope you're not trying to draw this out till the king dies of old age. I'm sure he'd like to know that his daughter is in good hands.”
Are you actually trying to talk me into revealing our relationship?”
Better now than never. We might not survive a direct confrontation with Modera.”
Maximilian took a few steps forward, grabbed Drake's arms and whirled him around. “Yes, we will survive! Don't think about losing, or you might actually do so!”—he removed his hands and turned on his heels—“Now lets go! We've wasted way too much time. At this rate we will never reach Pagan before nightfall!”

That prediction actually came true as Drake vanished during their descent. It took Maximilian a few minutes to notice his absence and he wasted a quarter of an hour to track him down.
He was standing in a gloomy cave and was investigating a giant ring of steel that filled out the back wall. It was covered in strange glowing symbols, but only on the lower half. The upper one looked as if someone had melted the metal, as that part of the ring was tilted at a 45 degree angle and had smashed into the wall behind it.
Don't disappear without saying a word!”
Sorry, but something drew me to this cave. It feels strangely familiar.”
Maybe your father brought you here as a child.”
Perhaps, but I don't think so. And I don't think that the ring was supposed to look like this.”
That's kinda obvious. I wonder what it is.”
He stepped closer to the object and touched one of the symbols. It glowed a little bit brighter and a faint ringing noise echoed through the caves. Nothing else happened.
I think it was built by the Seraphim. And if I'm not mistaken...”
Drake took in every single detail and his movements became frantic. His head swung back and forth while his eyes rolled wildly in his sockets. The world began to spin and his face contorted with pain.
What is going on?”
Maximilian tried to grab onto him, but Drake dropped to the floor, grabbed onto his head and screamed in agony.
What is...this? There's...there's!”
You don't need to remember.”
I'm no one. Just leave this place and focus all of your attention on Modera. That's all that matters.
Isn't one voice...inside my head...enough?”
There is no voice inside your head, for now. I'm just a remnant—a remnant that you don't need to worry about. Just forget about me and I'll go back to sleep.
No! Get out of my head!”
I cannot do that. Just forget. Forget! Forget! Forget!~
The voice reverberated throughout his mind. His eyelids turned as heavy as lead and he fell into Maximilian's arms as the darkness of oblivion engulfed him.

I awoke in a world plunged into chaos. Rain of fire fell onto snowy mountains, beautiful forests decayed within seconds and the trees came back to life as flesh-eating monsters, nightmarish demons hunted children through their wonderlands, entire cities crashed into each other and transformed into giant monstrosities, and the longer I stared at the madness the faster I got pulled into it.
The surrounding area began to transform into Arlin. The ground was covered in blurry human figures screaming in agony and a giant shadow with Modera's features appeared on the horizon. She cackled maniacally and reached towards me, but not to grab onto me but only to show me Emily's body, which she squashed shortly thereafter.
I screamed in horror and wanted to draw my sword, but there was nothing to draw. The scene flickered and returned to its starting point, rewinding itself over and over again to show me the gory remains of my girlfriend. They never vanished and accumulated quickly, till the entire village looked like the scene of a mass-murder.
I wanted to close my eyes but something forced them open. Trying to cover them with my hands proved impossible as shadowy tendrils were holding onto them. I called for the Alp, told him to get me out of this nightmare, but he never showed up.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard Maximilian calling out to me, but I was unable to resurface. I would have been trapped for all eternity if a book hadn't appeared out of thin air—a book that I had seen somewhere before. It opened all by itself and shifted through the pages, allowing me nothing more than a glimpse of its contents. I did spot a picture of our fight against Dorr'n Selkesch, though, but there seemed to be two different versions of it.
The movement stopped a few pages later and while most of the text was blurry I could see a single sentence as clear as day. It was a sentence I never wanted to read, a sentence that caused something within me to burst. I screamed in denial and unimaginable power surged up from within. The tendrils and my nightmare were obliterated in an instant and I ascended into the sky, destroying everything in my path. I might have been able to save everyone trapped in the Void, but I wasn't thinking straight.

Drake shot upwards, headbutting Maximilian without even noticing it. The royal knight yelled in pain and pressed his hands onto a quickly growing lump on his forehead.
Goddammit! What happened?”
I don't want to talk about it!”
Drake jumped to his feet and hurried towards the cave's exit.
Drake, wait! What is going on?”
I said: I don't want to talk about it! We need to go! Now!”
He ignored everything else and started to sprint as soon as he got outside. Maximilian had a hard time catching up to him as he increased his speed with his powers. Drake only seemed to tire after the forest had long since vanished on the horizon.
Would you please stop already?”—Maximilian crouched down, pressed his hands onto his knees and breathed heavily—“I don't intend to run all the way to Pagan. We'll never reach it before nightfall anyway!”
Why do humans have to be so frail?”
Maximilian answered him with a punch to the face that sent him flying.
Ouch! What was that for?”
Do you actually need to ask? Just tell me what is going on!”
Sorry, I can't...I don't want to!”
But he thought about it all throughout the night and barely slept a wink. He would have liked to deny Maximilian's request to set up camp, but deep down he knew that he was acting like an idiot. He just couldn't help himself.

They continued their journey in silence and arrived at the gates of Pagan in the early afternoon. Drake was surrounded in less than a minute and a cacophony of voices demanded of him to drop his sword.
Stand down!” Maximilian bellowed, which earned him a lot of confused glances.
Are you deaf? I told you to stand down!”
But sir...”
Stand down!”
Maximilian leaped towards the last soldier to defy him, grabbed him by the armor and stared deep into his eyes as he moved his face so close that their noses touched.
I told you to stand down! Anyone who disobeys me once more will be sent on an unpaid vacation for a month! Are we clear?”
The soldier's eyes moved hastily, but they couldn't escape Maximilian's adamant gaze.
Un...understood sir! Stand down!”
Maximilian let him go and the circle of soldiers disbanded. They didn't think about going away, though, and followed the pair all the way to the castle. Even more soldiers joined them on the way, and so did a couple of higher ranking officials.
Don't you have anything else to do?”
Not according to the king, sir.”
Maximilian rolled his eyes whereas Drake didn't even flinch. He also refrained from talking, despite hearing all the chatter about him in the background.
By the time they arrived at the castle gates a huge procession had formed around them, but half of them remained behind, apparently blocking every possible escape route should Drake decide to flee. The same thing happened throughout the castle, till only a handful of soldiers upon arriving at the entrance to the throne room.
Maximilian breathed in deeply and stood upright before he pushed the doors open all by himself. It should have been a majestic entrance, but the moment the doors hit the walls he was tackled to the ground by a blonde whirlwind.
You're finally back!” Jessica yelled at him and covered his face in kisses and tears of happiness.
Maximilian kissed her back after his initial confusion had passed, but only till the corpulent figure of the king appeared in the doorway.
Your majesty, this isn't what it looks like!”
Then what else would it be?”
The king's facial features lacked any sort of emotion and his gaze seemed to cut into Maximilian's very soul. know...”
The awkwardness of the situation was shattered as the king's jovial laughter echoed through the hallways.
Drake finally broke his silence and asked: “You knew?”
The laughter was cut off in an instant and the king stared at the vampire with distrust.
Of course I knew”—he shifted his gaze back to Maximilian, who was still being covered in kisses—“I don't need to see you acting like a couple. The tension between you two could have been cut with a knife. And it's not like my daughter becomes a different person just because she puts on a maid's costume. Not to mention that she wasn't very subtle when she talked to her servants.”
I'm sorry!” yelled Jessica as she finally stopped kissing him, only to cling onto his body instead.
And what happens now?”
You'll get executed for seducing a minor, of course!”
Maximilian stared at the king in disbelief and his mouth opened and closed multiple times without uttering a single word. Jessica seemed to be fine with his sentence as she didn't offer a single word of protest.
A smile crept onto the king's face as he said :“I would prefer not to kill you, though, but only if you agree to one condition.”
Which would be?”
That you begin to take responsibility! You want to sleep with my daughter—”
Hey, that's not everything we do!” yelled Jessica in protest, eliciting burst of laughter from the surrounding soldiers.
“—then you'll have to go all the way and marry her, which would entail becoming my successor.”
Maximilian's mouth continued to move, but he seemed to have lost his tongue.
No answer? I didn't think anyone would prefer to executed, but if that's what you—”
I'll humbly accept!”
A radiant smile appeared on the king's face and he laughed for a full minute, during which Maximilian finally managed to get to his feet again. Jessica was still clinging onto him and they shared a passionate kiss at last.
That's settled then. Please follow me when you're done, without any detours!”
Forgive me, but you don't know how good it feels to finally let it all out. Anyway, we need to talk. Your execution might be rescinded, but the vampire is an entirely different matter.”
He turned on his heels and entered the throne room.
What happened to your hair?”
The king nearly stumbled upon hearing such an unfitting remark.

Hours later Drake found himself sitting in the castle's dungeon. He wasn't a lost cause yet, but neither he nor Maximilian had been able to elicit a pardon from the king. Their story alone might have been able to change his mind, if not for the court mage Gideon, who believed that Maximilian had been brainwashed. It didn't help that the soldier who was supposed to disarm Drake had been blown all the way across the room due to the power contained in the shadow sword. He wasn't allowed to keep it, of course. Gideon removed it by force and locked it away in an energy bubble.
Drake could have broken out whenever he pleased and he certainly would have liked to do so, because every time he closed his eyes he saw the same sentence over and over again. There was no time to waste, but he decided to trust his companion.
Half an hour after eating their meals the guards collapsed and a shadow descended the stairs—a shadow that turned out to be the princess dressed in a black blanket.
Is this supposed to be a prison break?”
Well, I could free you.”
She picked up the keys and dangled them in front of his cell. A single swift movement would have been enough to appropriate them.
But daddy would be really mad at me.”
Why else would you put the guards to sleep?”
She didn't answer him at first. Instead she grabbed a footstool, placed it in front of his cell and sat down.'re a vampire?”
Her amethyst-colored eyes seemed to sparkle with excitement.
Drake could already guess what was about to happen and admired the audacity of this human girl.
That means you have superpowers? Like running as fast as a horse, turning into a swarm of bats or conjuring fire?”
I'm not so sure about the bats, but yeah...”
Their conversation, if you can even call it that when Jessica did most of the talking, continued till the early morning hours. Only when the twittering of birds reached their ears did she finally depart.
Sunlight radiated onto the bodies of the soldiers who finally awoke from their slumber. They were groggy at first, but as soon as they realized what had happened they screamed in panic, which died down the instant they saw Drake lying on his hard cot.
What happened?”
Perhaps the food was spoiled.”
That doesn't explain why we fell asleep at the same time!”
But the other possibility makes no sense either, seeing as that guy is still in his cell...”
Lets just forget about it...we're lucky that no one saw us like that.”
They stared at Drake in confusion for a little while longer before their shift was up.

The rest of the day passed by mostly uneventfully. The guards changed a couple of times, curious servants were chased away and Drake even received a meal—a bloody steak.
The sun was setting once more when familiar footsteps descended the stairs. Maximilian appeared shortly afterwards. He wore a cape similar to his old one, but his armor had been replaced with a lighter model, which allowed him the most amount of flexibility without sacrificing too much protection. Someone had also tried to get his hair in order, but only succeeded in cutting it even shorter.
So, what's the verdict?”
Turns out I haven't been brainwashed.”
No way!”
Oh yes! Unbelievable, isn't it? Anyway, you're free to go.”
He unlocked the cell door and pressed a small pouch into Drake's right hand—its contents were heavy and clinked with every movement—and a slip of paper into his left hand.
Go to the armor shop and hand them the note. You'll get a special discount on whatever you choose. But give me your armor first. Gideon will try to repair it before tomorrow. Return to the castle when you're done. The king has arranged a small banquet for our ragtag band, this time with 100 percent less fainting.”
Drake couldn't help but chuckle before asking: “Our what?”
A couple of soldiers, two of our generals and a handful members of the adventurer's guild. Whatever Modera has prepared, she certainly won't expect an entire group to show up on her doorstep.”
Do you think it's wise to drag other people into this?”
Do you think it's wise to confront her all by ourselves?”
A reply was unnecessary.

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