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Of Ashes and Empire
Posted on Mon, October 24, 2011 by LordCeb
LeahcimTheLearned writes "The Kingdom of Aerdy, once the jewel of Oerth, spanned the continent, then fell into decadence and finally into memory.  But as one wise learned man once said; 'Sometimes ashes hide an ember to start a fire anew . . .'

. . . this is one such story.

Of Ashes and Empire

     It is the ending of things that is indelible in the narrative of the collective memory.  The death of an infamous bandit is told over and over again while his beginnings as a young man that only wanted to keep his village from starving is forgotten.  It is the tales of the decadent tyrant on the throne of a decaying nation that rings loudest while the good deeds of the kings before him remain unheralded.  These beginnings are occasionally remembered in the dusty tomes of libraries but more the case not at all.  The curious thing about Endings however, they are always followed by a new beginning.

     Arian peered over the ridge into the valley below.  Scores of mountain orcs filled it all working to bring down the walls of the nigh-ruined stronghold at the valley’s far side.  Crude siege engines battered at the stone walls with telling success.  Through the eyes of his ravens he could see the wards Earnan set up two days ago still held if only just.

     “Can’t believe Graybeard’s spells’re still hold’n.” Stigir muttered.  The Dwarf ran his fingers through his short beard.

     “A wizard doesn’t boast about what he can do.”  Grim muttered.

     “We can’t use the gully to get back to the stronghold, they’ve collapsed it.” Arian said with a sigh.  He looked at the others  “There’s nothing for it now but an assault on the main force.”

     “Do you plan to just ride in with banners raised?”  Stigir asked then snorted  “You’d get cut down before you took two strides.  These aren’t yer flatland orcs, lad. These are Fjal’Ruhk, Mountain Orcs. Their blades are sharp and their hide, thick.  You and your twenty rattleskites are going to have to hit them hard and fast and by surprise no less.”

     “Stigir, how fast can you fire those bombs of yours?” Arian asked.  The dwarf eyed him for a moment before speaking

     “Fast enough if the occasion calls, what’ve you in mind lad?”  He asked.

     “You’re right.  We have to hit them by surprise or they’ll form up ranks and those spears of theirs will end us.”  Arian said as he moved closer to the edge again.  “If you can lay a few of those exploding quarrels of yours on the east side of their lines, where they have those catapults.”  He pointed it out  “I and my fellow knights can ride down this cut to drive a wedge into the side of their forces and hopefully ride through their numbers to the stronghold.  They’ll be so focused on us that you and Grim can pick off their leaders if you can spot them.  Mountain orcs or no they are still orcs and if we can make enough problems they’ll fall back on their basic instinct to attack the closest enemy.”

     “That could mean the end of many of your kinsman.” Grim commented.  Arian nodded.
     “We are knights, we knew this would be our end when we stood for our oaths.” Arian said with a determination that made even Stigir nod in appreciation.  “We will reach the Stronghold.”  He looked at the structure again.  “This I swear.” He looked to Grim  “Find a high spot and start shooting the minute we hit their lines.”  The ranger nodded and vanished into the underbrush.  “Stigir, when you’re ready wind that horn you found.  When we hear it we’ll set off at a charge. It should take us maybe two minutes no more than three to circle the hill and be at the lines.”

     “I’ll soften em up for you lad,” Stigir said patting Arian on the shoulder.  “Just keep your head down behind that shield and no damned heroics. It would irk me to no end to have to dig your grave with that weeping slip of a priestess hanging over me.”

     “Well we can’t have that now can we?” Arian said with a lopsided grin that endeared him to so many.  He sobered quickly enough.  “Heironeous guide your hand.”  He said to the dwarf, clasping his right hand against his chest in salute before heading back down the ridge.

     Arian took a moment, walked to a gnarled mountain ash and took a knee.  He drew the long-hafted axe he favored in battle from its back-sheath, put the butt of it to the ground and rested his head against the flat of the axe-blade.  Even before he spoke the limbs of the tree became dark with ravens, the flock that followed him, drawn by the ancient Oerdian mage-blood for which his family was once known.

     “Invincible Heironeous,” He intoned, “The battle before me is dire, innocent lives hang in the balance.  Please make my arm swift and my aim, true.  For those that must perish let their deaths be as painless as possible.  I have tried to live my life by your example and hope that my conduct has been both honorable and righteous in your eyes.” He ran his gauntlet-clad hand over the symbol of the arch-paladin on the face of his axe.

     He rose from the tree the axe sliding back into its sheath, the flock of ravens looked on waiting for his silent command. They would be his eyes, the ultimate high ground of the battle.  Twenty knights stood beside their armored steeds, they were young men, younger than Arian though he was but twenty-five winters.  Arian knew there should have been two hundred here, not twenty.  He let go of the rising anger he felt towards the politician who had somehow been made commander of the Knights of Ahlissa.  It would serve no purpose now.  He had a siege to break and people to save.

     “Why are my troops not feasting on human flesh woman!?” The giant-blooded Orc Chief demanded of the skinny female Orc who barely topped his elbow.  “You said no Human magic could stop His power days ago and yet it still stands! You’re making me regret killing the One-eye’s priests in favor of your Lord, I don’t like regretting things.”  He growled

     “The wizard must be trained in the old ways, yes he must.”  She hissed from her gap-toothed maw.   “There is iron in his spells no manling fool could possibly know save one taught by the hated ones.  Destroy the walls you must, more stone and hammer yes yes you must use, My chieftain down the dwarf walls must fall and his spells will fail.”

     “Those are not dwarven walls you filthy wretch!”  The chieftain thundered causing his bodyguards to step back in fear though the old woman did not even blink  “I have torn down greater strongholds than this in less time with less men!”  He glared at the dove gray walls that mocked him in their impregnability.  “This is something else, something more.”  He mumbled.  Before he could rail at the shamaness again the explosions started.

     Explosions hurled orcs high along their left flank. The new siege engines were decimated and left burning.  The pure tone of a Dwarven war horn rang out loud and clear even before the last echo of the explosions faded from the valley walls. One of Chiefs lieutenants turned about to shout something to him but an arrow erupted from his open mouth sending the now-dead body tumbling to the ground. The Orc Chief blinked unable to for that instant fathom that anyone could have made that shot but his incredulity ended as a pair of arrows thudded into his armor-plated chest.  Only the thickness of his hide and armor prevented them from being lethal.

     “We’re under fire!”  The orc chieftain thundered somewhat belatedly “Locate that archer, Kill him!”

     “Chieftain!”  A bodyguard yelled as he pointed  “Mounted Knights!”  The chief turned and saw the wedge of a score of knights slicing into the already burned left flank.  The gleam of shields and swords told him enough, Heironeans.

     “Kill them!” He roared striding in that direction. Chaos filled the ranks.  The wrinkled old Shamaness, now forgotten by the Chieftain glared at the knights.  

     “There is a paladin, I smell it sister.”  She hissed to no one even as her long bony hands caressed the shrunken head that hung around her neck.

     “Yes, yes and he is not beyond our reach, not yet, no, no, no.”  She hissed back to herself.  “Crush him and crunch him and chew him we will.”

     “Now, now sister” She said admonishing herself it seemed  “He could be of more use to us than filling our empty belly, he could get us inside so we could strike the hated one.”
     “Oooooo,” She trilled, a smile forming.  “And eat him as well we can but slowly, making him tell us his secrets and perhaps give over where he learned his magicks then our Master would be ever so pleased with us won’t he Sister?”

     “Yes he will, Dear one.”  She said cooingly “First we must make ourselves pretty for him, a damsel for the knight to save…”

     The crude ragged edge of an Orcish spear cut through Arian’s tabard yet only grazed his breastplate.  He brought his battered shield down on the wooden haft of the weapon breaking it easily.  His momentum swept the orc under the iron-shot hooves of his battle-steed.  

     “To the Watchtower!”   He yelled over the din of battle.  With precision born more of luck than experience the knights wheeled their charge in nigh perfect unison throwing the orcs off their reactive attack.  The armor of the knights turned most of the attacks and the speed of the horses though slowed due to impact kept most orcs from setting their feet for a solid strike.

     A high-pitched scream cut through the cacophony drawing Arian’s attention, a brief instant of focus and from the eyes of his ravens he saw a woman, no more than a girl really, on the ground before a behemoth of an orc.  Without a thought Arian wheeled his mount to the side, its hooves coming down on an orc crushing him under the animal’s weight.  Putting heels to flanks Arian sent the horse into a gallop bowling orcs over or trampling them under hoof.  The massive orc turned his spiked mace whistling in an arc to clear Arian from his saddle. The paladin’s shield managed to intercept the mace but the spikes tore rents through it scoring his arm and making his bones rattle in his skin.  Directing his mount with his knees Arian brought the animal rearing up again lashing out with its steel-shod hooves bringing a rain of sparks from the large humanoid’s armor staggering him back.  Bringing the mount down with his right side to the beast-man Arian swung his war-axe in a wide swath.  The keen edge tore through the battered breastplate just at the armpit.  While most weapons would have been stopped by the strength of the metal Arian’s axe continued to tear a gash through it and the orc’s ribs.  With a mighty war cry Arian twisted and wrenched upwards bringing the up out of the ribcage and across the behemoth’s chest.  

     The moment for Arian felt drawn out like the edge of a blade.  Would it be enough to be a mortal wound? Was the spear of another orc whistling towards his back?  So many questions rattled through the back of his mind like some long-winded bard trying to write the perfect epic.  That instant however passed by as they all do.  The next found the chieftain reeling backwards as his life’s blood sprang from the deadly strike.  Before he’d even crashed into the ground Arian held out his shield-hand to the young girl and thankfully fear did not hold her rooted to the spot.
     “Hold on tight!”  He yelled to her, he could feel her trembling against his chest as he brought his shield down to protect her.  Looking around Arian was surprised to see his fellow knights thundering up behind him. Without orders they’d followed him as if he were a captain.  He wheeled his steed around and made for the watchtower.

     Within the battered stone edifice Sari, the young priestess of Pelor crouched on the battlements keeping watch from the narrow crenels.  When she saw the wedge of knights turn towards the tower she looked back towards the small courtyard.  

     “They’re coming!” She yelled,  “Open the gates when I give you the signal!”  Below the last two able guardsmen Merchant Kleiner brought with him stood at the ready.  
Earnan sat cross-legged under the crude shed roof, his staff lying across his knees.  He’d been in deep meditation focusing on the shell of force that protected the tower.  He’d not slept nor eaten in days, what water he drank came from the morning fog.  Few wizards knew it was possible to sustain spells at the cost of their bodies, fewer still knew how.  The only sign he still lived was the constant movement of his hands; his fingers worrying the gray metal talisman he normally wore as a necklace.  The seven-sided relic of the lost Flannae past was his oldest memory, the first dream he ever had. It and it alone turned aside the demons in his nightmares as a child and now served as the touchstone for the Old Ways.

     “Open the Gates!” Sari yelled.  The guardsmen lifted the timber crossbar and pulled at the gates. Earnan’s eyes snapped open as he parted the shell for the knights he sensed.

     Arian rode through the parting gates while the rest of his knights wheeled and held position before the entrance keeping the orcs from rushing the breach in Earnan’s shield.   He brought his steed to a halt intent on seeing the girl safely into Sari’s care but the girl had other ideas.  She slipped free of his grasp even before he came to a full stop.   Her eyes were focused on Earnan.  She ran towards him, her hands outstretched.  Arian’s eyes went wide, he spurred his mount but he knew he was too late.

     “Die Wizard!”  The girl shrieked, malevolence filling her words.  A translucent green claw formed in front of the wizard and struck at him violently.  Earnan screamed.  The spell-wards he held faltered.

     Arian charged the girl, his shield drawn back to deliver a blow.  The girl whirled and where a slender alabaster arm once was a massive gangrenous green limb now depended.  The claws on that twisted hand struck with the force of a battering ram nearly decapitating the horse.  The noble steed died instantly collapsing like a puppet bereft of its strings.  Arian managed to throw himself clear of the dead animal as it fell but landed poorly.  He scrambled to his feet gripping his axe, which he’d luckily retained.  He dared not spend the time to spot his shield because the girl-child had vanished, replaced by a hideous thing.   Towering over him the bony hag smirked from two faces, each head being on a comically long neck.  She clutched a rust-red morningstar in one hand as her other glowed a sickening green.

     “Manling Fool!” The right head sneered  “We could have cut you down outside but thanks to you we now have much more flesh on which to feast haven’t we sister?”  It looked to the other head that nodded vigorously in agreement.

     “Indeed we do Sister.”  The other head purred as it smiled at Arian with undisguised lust.

     Before Arian could respond she gestured with her glowing hand, another ghostly green claw materialized and lashed at him.  He felt the sickening flow of fell energies seeking to leech his endurance.  He staggered back but did not fall.  He glared at the abomination.

     “It will take more than magic to best me hellish fiend!”  He growled out and charged her, out of the corner of his eye he saw Sari moving across the battlements headed for Earnan.  He hoped she would reach him in time.

     The Hag swung her spiked weapon at the charging paladin but he got inside her guard too quickly.  Arian’s axe moved quickly in his hands, the blow taking the hag in the ribs under her upraised arm as he tumbled past her rolling to his feet.  The sting of the impact tingled in his fingers.  It felt like hitting an anvil or so Arian surmised and worse the hag showed only minimal effect.  Both heads chuckled as she turned to face him again.

     “The Paladin’s pretty axe not biting as deeply?”  The right one asked, sarcasm dripping from her words.

     “Our Lord’s power is too great for his puny god I think.”  The left one observed.  It took the hag but a single step to bring her morningstar into range.  The rusty weapon whistled through the air as she brought it down towards Arian.  Vaulting back he avoided the blow but before he could set himself to attack the hag stepped forward her clawed hand blur as she attacked again forcing him to give ground once more.  She pressed him back keeping him from setting his feet for a proper attack, keeping him on the defensive.

     Arian felt the thud of stone against his back.  He’d reached the wall.  The hag doubly grinned in triumph as she raised her morningstar taking a two-handed grip on it.

     “No where to hop to now rabbit.”  Both heads snarled.  A virulent red glow formed around the weapon as she swung horizontally.  Arian in desperation hurled himself to the left through the archway that lead into a small stone outbuilding built into the wall.   The hag’s swing sundered the front of the building raining stone down on the prone Arian.  Her gleeful laughter echoed though the courtyard as she swung again and again burying him under the rubble.

     “I’ve worked up a mighty hunger Sister.”  The right head said as the hag whirled around.  She stalked towards Earnan and Sari who tended the wizard.

     “As have I sister. Let’s eat the pretty girl first.” The left head said.

     Beneath the rubble Arian struggled both to breathe and win free.  He knew he had seconds at most before the hag reached the others.  The blood roared in his ears, his chest ached feeling clenched making it hard to breathe but still he fought to push himself out of the rubble.

     ~Here.~  A woman’s voice whisper to Arian.  He felt something slide onto his left arm.  ~All good Aerdian knights need a proper shield.~  With a surge of strength Arian burst free of the rubble, the hag only a few steps from his comrades.

     “Where do you think you’re going, wench?”  He shouted, his voice loud in the courtyard.   “You haven’t finished with me yet.”   Arian glanced down at the heater shield he held.  Gray stone plaster fell from the metal surface.  He could see a rampant griffon on the surface rising over a parapet topped with a shield. Looking up at the Hag he grinned  “Let’s try that again.”  He charged the Hag once more.

     The Hag snarled in abyssal as she turned stretching out her free hand.  A black bolt of lightning erupted from her claw streaking across the short distance.  The shield took the bolt grounding it as Arian picked up speed.

     More foul words left the lips of the hag; she doubled her height the weapon growing as well.  Once more red energies coalesced around the morningstar as she lumbered forward.  She raised up the weapon and swung it down at the charging paladin.  Arian raised his shield readying himself to take the blow.  The tree-sized weapon slammed into the shield and stopped dead as if hitting the ground.  Arian felt no transition of force; instead he thrust the weapon to the side.  It struck the ground with the impact it should have had on the shield half burying the head in the hard courtyard turf.  Arian leapt onto the haft of the hag’s weapon and vaulted upwards.  He had both hands on his axe as he invoked the wrath of Heironeous.  Silver flame wreathed the edges of his weapon as he delivered a scything chop to one of the necks.  The head flew into the air as Arian slammed into the ground awkwardly.

     “Sister!”  The remaining head shrieked, black ichor fountained from the stump.  She spun towards Arian, pure hatred filled her red gaze.  “Master Demogorgon,” She hissed  “Feast on his soul.”  Black flame leapt from her hands and engulfed Arian.  Some small part of Arian’s mind registered surprise at just how painful the flames were.  The rest however reeled in the agony the Demon Prince’s flame caused.

     “Arian!”  Sari yelled and took a step towards the hag, her mace flaring but a firm yet trembling hand grabbed her arm. Earnan sat up, trails of blood staining his beard and face as it flowed from his nostrils and ears.

     “No,” He croaked  “This is a wizard’s task.”  He rose to a sitting position and stretched out his hand, the iron talisman clenched in the other.  He spoke in Flannish, the words as old as Man, slowly he closed his hand and the Hag shrieked as her body crumpled and sizzled.

     “Iron!”  She keened twisting her head around to look at Earnan, eyes wide in fear.

     “Tell your master…” Earnan said breathing heavily   “He missed one.” And clenched his hand into a fist. The sound of crunching bone and sizzling flesh silenced every other noise in the courtyard. Dwarven horns echoed in the distance.

     Later Arian stood in front of the battered watchtower. Sari had spent her prayers to heal him and Earnan but the ache of the wounds still throbbed in his body.  Across his back the shining shield rode over his axe.  Stigir stood in animated conversation with three of his dour kinsmen some distance away.  The dwarven army still pursued the knots of orcs that fled the battle at their arrival.  The Paladin’s eyes were on the nine wrapped bodies draped over their saddles.  Nine knights who fell under his first command.  The knot in his stomach tightened as he mulled over his actions.

     “You did not fail Aerdian.”  Grim said as he walked up beside Arian.

     “Well I wouldn’t call it a victory.”  Arian said bitterly.

     “You live, your comrades live and the people you meant to save live.  That is what you achieved.” The ranger said,  “Victory is something bards sing about when they are paid to.  Your kinsmen fell in battle and fought bravely sending a proper vanguard ahead of them. No man can ask for more than that.  You Aerdians brood too much.”  A slight grin formed on the northman’s face which even made Arian’s heart lighten if only for a moment.  “Come, time to go.”

     “Commander Karsk will have to face my charges when we return to Balemar.” Arian said sternly.  “I’ll not let his cowardice pass.”  He added as he followed the Ranger.

     The Keep of the Ahlissan Knights in Balemar was a nest of activity.  New recruits practiced at the bellowing command of the trainers who delivered stout cuffs to the back of heads of the thickheaded young men.  Commander Karsk stood at the window watching them with a certain amount of pride.  Thoughts of that young upstart Arian long ago vanished from the nobleman’s mind.  Unfortunately not everyone forgot so easily.

     “You failed me Karsk.”  A woman’s voice like ice down the commander’s spine pierced the silence.

     “You should announce yourself.”  Karsk said turning to cover the fact she startled him.  In truth she frightened him but he would never admit that not even to himself.  “What are you talking about failing you?  I’ve gathered nearly one hundred new recruits; I’ll soon have the men needed to make my move against that fool Xavener and take the throne for myself as is my due as a scion of house Naelax.”  He puffed up his chest as he mentioned his royal bloodline.  The woman however ignored his words.  A hiss of leather escaped the shadow as a whip wrapped around the commander’s neck jerking him to his knees.

     “You are a blustering fool, Karsk.”  She said in a cold even tone.  “A fool that has come to the end of his usefulness to me.”

     “M-my apologizes Lady Saranthor,” Karsk simpered out.  “I did not mean to- I mean I do not know how I failed you.” She jerked on the whip dragging Karsk to his hands and knees.  At this level the commander could see the red eyes of the large mastiffs behind the woman.

     “You let that paladin take men into the mountains.”  She whispered.  The whip felt like it tightened around his throat as she spoke  “I told you he was to get no aid. Twenty of your knights joined him. Twenty!  That is a score more than none, Karsk.  That is how you failed me for the last time.”

     “No! Milady Saranthor Please!” Karsk whimpered  “You need me, my men, you- you need me to lead the men… your men I mean Milady.”  The tightening of the whip paused. Hope rose in Karsk’s heart. It lasted for all of a second.

     The whip seemed to have a life of its own as it lifted Karsk from the floor holding him in mid air in front of the woman as she walked out of the shadows.  Her wolf-hooded cape, which normally disturbed him, now made him tremble with fear.  Her finely made breastplate always put him at ease.  She couldn’t be a caster with armor like that unless she was a cleric and he never saw any symbol on her.  His fearful eyes drifted to the sword she carried. It remained sheathed.  He pulled his eyes back to her face as he felt more whips wrap around his arms and legs.

     “No Karsk, I don’t need you, I only need your skin.”  She whispered to him  “My Dark Prince will enjoy your pitiful soul, you gave it away so easy but he’ll find use for it.”  She drew a dagger from her belt.

     Karsk tried to beg but the whip tightened around his throat.   She plunged the dagger though his chest but instead of pain cold suffused his body.  He felt his life pouring out through that blade.

     Lady Saranthor watched as Karsk’s body slowly emptied like a torn waterskin. No blood flowed; Sakris never drew blood.  She smiled and dropped the empty husk and clothing to the floor.

     “Blight.”  She called… the mastiff on her left trotted forward.

     “As you will My Mistress.”  The dog said returning to its Quasit form.  The imp-like demon fluttered over to the amalgam of empty skin and clothing and with practiced skill wiggled through the gaping mouth.  Slowly the skin seemed to refill itself and a demon-filled Karsk got back to his feet.  He bowed to Lady Saranthor  “I do your bidding My Mistress.”

     “By Graz’zt’s will so too shall you continue gathering men and lead them to their death against the forces of the Overking.”  She said as she stepped passed her servant to look out the window   “You will bring chaos and discord to this land and ready it for the coming of the prophesied one.”  She smiled   “Me.”

     “I will do so Mistress but I am not so eloquent as to gather men as this fool was.”  Blight said with Karsk’s voice.  Lady Saranthor smiled.

     “You will have aid in that my minion, Xaerae will take your place on those occasions.”  She said and did not even bother to turn knowing the Quasit was shivering in delight.  She knew he favored the Succubus.   “Soon our Dark Prince Graz’zt will have a new land on Oerth… the Great Kingdom.”

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Re: Of Ashes and Empire (Score: 1)
by SirXaris on Mon, October 24, 2011
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That is an excellent story LeahcimTheLearned.  :)

I will say that you need to find a skilled editor for your stories as I found several spelling/syntax/grammatical errors in the work.  But, they didn't detract too much from the reading experience. :)

I was impressed with the way you introduced the "sisters" to us.  It began as a mystery that ended with a satisfying explanation.  The story also leaves the reader with many unanswered questions, which I hope you will answer in later additions to the tale. :)


Re: Of Ashes and Empire (Score: 1)
by Argon on Tue, October 25, 2011
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Nice story!

A lot of factions in play here as well. I look forward to more.



Re: Of Ashes and Empire (Score: 1)
by Mystic-Scholar on Fri, December 09, 2011
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Sounds as though your campaign is well under way -- in your thought processes anyway.

Sorry I didn't get to this before it was published to the Front Page, I could have taken care of some of those "editing" problems mentioned by Sri Xaris.

Keep it coming, Leahcim, looking forward to reading more.

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