Twilight of the Cockroaches
by Klaudaryn in Dark Ages
It was raining ceaselessly outside, the spawn of the great thunderheads that heralded the beginning of autumn. Huddled in the small wooden shack on the outskirts of Piet, six figures sat in a semicircle around an seventh as they finished their ritual chant. Erghart's fingers twitched slightly as he cautiously unrolled the parchment that the messenger from Loures had given him. The parchment, damp from the long journey was thankfully waxed; thus the words so carefully inked on it had not yet begun to run.
'By the grand order of High Priest Damarr,
Upon Erghart Odelian, Lieutenant,
Cell Commander of Piet, of the Black Spring Brotherhood.
We are at war. All 'Order of Tallow Hand' disciples are to be targeted. Their blood shall pave the way for the glory of our House. You have your orders. Obey.
Deepest Council Jade.'
Erghart read the note aloud to the rest of his Cell and then rolled it up again, placing it in his jacket. Around him, his fellow Black Spring members looked at each other and then at Erghart expectantly. It was at times like this that he hated the responsibilities of leadership. Sighing inside, he silently cursed, wishing that it had not come to this. He wondered what the Tallow Hand had done to incur the wrath of the Deepest Council so much so as to order the commencement of war, but he knew he had no choice but to obey his orders. The secret war had begun, and he was already caught up in its flow. Without doubt, the Tallow Hand in Piet would already be making similar preparations to that which he was about to begin with.
Quietly, he nodded and then signaled everyone closer around a crude map of the town. Circling the Tallow Hand Guildhall with a block of coal, he began to weave his assault plan in his mind. First blood would be drawn by the Black Spring Brotherhood.
Hushed whispers could be heard in the dark room. It seemed as if the whispers came from scores of mouths, but in that underground room, there were only five men. The Deepest Council Jade had convened. Never seen by other members of the Black Spring except on highly ceremonious occasions, these five governed the very heart of the Organization - a massive organization which had its tendrils in all the major towns and cities of the known world. High Priest Damarr, a tall imposing figure with long flowing silver hair and a cruelly hooked nose, was the first to speak aloud.
"Have all our cells been notified of our decision?"
"Indeed, Damarr. I have seen to that," came the muted reply from the cloaked figure to the right of the High Priest. Nodding approvingly, Damarr's eyes flashed a bright crimson as the thought of blood being spilled in His name filled him with delight.
"Not long now, Brothers, Our Lord, the Unseen One who slumbers beneath the blackest seas in his sunken city, He will rise again. And when He does, We, of the Deepest Council Jade, will reign at His right hand. Already, his Deep Ones begin to venture on dry land, seeking sacrifices in His name. The time of the ritual draws near."
"Indeed, Damarr. Ka Na'ama Fthan! Uglk Sa'arh Fiillzkh!" began the inhuman chants of the Council as they adjourned to the stone slab at the rear of the room. On it lay a little child, petrified with fright unable to even scream. Fearful as she was, eventually she did scream, for sacrifices to Him were rarely quick and painless. Far above the hidden headquarters, the noonday crowd gathered as usual to peruse the lunchtime fayre. Loures, the Greatest City in the Known World, was in the middle of another grand day.
The Order of the Tallow Hand's GuildHall in Piet was a proud looking stone building just at the fringe of the small town. Possibly one of the few stone buildings in this rustic settlement, it was nonetheless important to the Guild, for it provided a safe haven for members travelling to and from the Capital city. Garish pennants adorned the tall stone tower which overlooked the town, but today, the normally open gates of the compound were strangely shut tight. Village folk regarded the scene with curious eyes, but did nothing more than pass casual comments. The Tallow Hand were a reclusive order of scholars and researchers mostly, but if the curious onlooker were a little more observant, he would notice the presence of a second group today - mercenaries from House Radiant Hawk - tough looking men in heavy armor and armed with dangerous looking swords. One such onlooker was Tara Dubuque. A feisty young lass of sixteen with flowing blonde hair and a developing figure, Tara was the village seamstress's daughter who to her mother's dismay showed little promise in the art.
"Ooh.. the Tallow Hand temple finally has some real men!" she giggled to her companion, Selona Strangeways. Selona was a year younger than Tara was but if one were to talk to the pair, Selona would have seemed the more matured and more serious of the two.
"Oh, behave!" she smiled, as she put on a mock frown, but she too could not help notice the burly men who had arrived at the Guild Hall yesterday evening from Loures. The only difference was that she saw them for the hired swords that they were, not as hunks of meat as her companion perceived. Something is happening soon, she thought, something big.
Erghart walked around the corner and quickly stepped into the shadows of an alley where Jaro, his observer was watching. Dusk was approaching, and soon it would be time. The first blows of the secret war were about to be struck, he contemplated. They would have to be in and out in less than ten minutes though, for they could not afford to be caught by the Guard. It was an unwritten rule amongst the guilds that only agents in the employ of the guilds themselves would be part of any action. Any other interventions were frowned upon.
As dusk fell, dark figures flitted from shadow to shadow as the strike team swiftly made its way to the southern wall of the Tallow Hand compound. Effortlessly scaling the low wall, they dropped into the courtyard soundlessly and infiltrated the building. Careful to avoid the frequent patrols of the Radiant Hawks, Erghart led his team into the Hall and they spread out, searching for their prey.
Kneeling quietly outside a large and brightly-lit chamber, Erghart drew his twin soori and sneaked a peek into the room careful to keep his head at ground level to reduce the chances of being detected. Inside were two old men, deep in discussion as they stood poring over a huge leather-bound book. Curious, Erghart decided he did have a minute to spare to listen to Seer Eldritch before he took his life. The hushed tones that carried their whispers filled him with disbelief.
"I received the official word from Suomi today, Seer. Fourteen dead and three injured. We managed to get three of their raiders though. The murderous dogs..."
"And Seer Proval?" A brief silence followed the question as the other scholar shook his head, sighing.
"This is bad... Dark days are here indeed. May Danaan have mercy on our souls if what those Black Spring fools believe in turns out to be true. Theirs is a deity from forgotten legend. I personally doubt that their Unseen One even exists, but as a Seer in the Tallow Hand, it is my duty to seek the truth. And to fight the encroaching dark. Those fools actually want to raise a.. a... Demon..." his tone was visibly shaken as the Seer flipped through the pages of his tome.
"And this book... this is the cause of all this new bloodshed?"
"In a way yes. But if this book had not come into our possession when it did, the designs of the Black Spring Council would never have been brought to light. Now that we know what their black hearts seek, we at least have the chance to attempt to thwart them. Believe me, this 'declaration of war' is only the beginning. Bloodshed is essential to the resurrection of their Lord, apparently. Much more will follow if we do not manage to act quickly. Tomorrow, I seek my audience in the Court of Loures. The King has to know of the Black Spring's treachery. I would seek the Guard for protection, but I know not how deep the claws of Black Spring have dug."
An alarmed shout startled Erghart as he looked up in horror. A Radiant Hawk mercenary coming down the corridor had spotted him! Bracing himself for the man's charge, Erghart nimbly avoided the larger man and then followed up with two quick stabs of his enchanted knives. The mercenary gurgled loudly and tumbled to the floor, bright red blood spurting from wounds in his throat and groin. Hearing a low mumbling, Erghart began to turn back to the open doorway but was suddenly seized by intense pain as he found himself caught in a lightning storm. Forced to his knees as the pain wracked his body, Erghart could see the two seers preparing to cast another spell, which would without a doubt kill him if this one did not. Suddenly two black shapes stormed the room, cutting down the pair of wizards who had nearly completed their Srad spells. As the energies around him dissipated, Erghart got to his feet painfully and muttered thanks to Rumi and Sigurd, who nodded before taking up positions around the door.
Erghart glanced at the two corpses on the floor, wondering inside if what they had said was true. Wondering if he unwittingly served a Council that would want to resurrect such a power. Keeping his thoughts to himself, he bundled the heavy tome in a sash and signaled his men to move out. The alarm had been raised, and the element of surprise was gone. The rogues would be torn apart in a full confrontation with the wizards and warriors who severely outnumbered them here.
An hour later, in a quiet glade outside town, they made the rendezvous. Erghart looked around at his companions. Of the seven who set out, only five returned. Rumi and Jaro had fallen in their flight from the temple. Sierth's right hand was a bloody stump, wrapped in his ragged cloak. If not for the knowledge he had obtained, thought Erghart, this would truly have been a waste of good men. Waiting for another hour until they were sure that the others were not going to make it, the Black Spring strike force went their separate ways, with orders to lay low until the next meeting in three days time. Meanwhile, Erghart would have some time to himself to see what the heavy tome he lugged on his back really contained.
For three days and two nights, Erghart labored over the ancient text. The script was totally alien to him, but with the help of the notes that the Seers of the Tallow Hand had made, and the horrifyingly graphic illustrations that accompanied the texts, he came to the stark realization that he was truly treading a damned path. The book, which he had taken to be leather-bound, was really bound in human skin, and in it he read of Dark Elder Gods and their enigmatic servants who were ancient when Hy-brasyl was young. In some sections, he saw scribbled notes which said 'Ludicrous!' or 'Pure fantasy!", but as the pages wore on, the notes became more subdued and careful. Unfortunately, the Seer had died too soon, and the major parts of the book still lay untranslated and in its original cryptic scrawls.
That evening, they gathered once more in the basement of their Guild Hall, each man quietly contemplating the loss of their comrades. Only four gathered this time. Sierth had been caught by the Guard in connection with the incident. The Tallow Hand had not brought up the subject with the authorities, but the Guard would tolerate no disregard for the law, and when Sierth had sought treatment for his grievous wound, they had lain in waiting. He did not survive the first night of imprisonment.
"I have word from Headquarters," reported Sigurd. "We will be receiving reinforcements soon, to replace our fallen."
"Really? Why would they waste such manpower on such an insignificant town such as this?" snorted Erghart disdainfully. A soft voice from the shadows startled the group as it answered him.
"Because, Lieutenant, the Deepest Council Jade has deemed Piet a strategic point in our war." Erghart turned to the voice as three cloaked figures stepped out of the darkness. The lead figure drew back his cowl revealing fine northern features - long blond hair and large blue eyes, with a build to match a bull. Unraveling a scroll, he presented it to Erghart who stared in anger.
"Yes, Lieutenant. We believe you have something that belongs to us, and we would like it back. I am also here to... relieve you of your command," he signaled to Erghart's cadre. "Bind the Lieutenant in chains. High Priest Damarr wishes a private audience."
The men stood, unmoving as they eyed first their leader, and then the powerful figure who now seemed to command them.
"They will not listen to you, Knight-Sergeant. As it is you who wishes to usurp my command here, I demand my right to a duel. My men bear witness that your bodyguards remain at a respectful distance. You cannot deny me," growled Erghart as he slowly reached for his twin soori.
The Knight-Sergeant threw his cloak aside and laughed, "You are wrong, sir. I have every right to deny you yours, for you are no longer part of the Black Spring. But I will grant you your wish... Your blood be on my hands tonight."
Drawing his black sword, the Knight-Sergeant dropped to a combat stance, poised to strike. Erghart did likewise, and the pair circled each other dangerously, oblivious to the nervous men watching them. The bigger man was the first to attack, slashing forward with inhuman ferocity. Erghart desperately whirled out of the way, parrying the follow up strikes with the long blades of his soori knives. Electric blue sparks broke out amongst black flames as the enchanted blades clashed, spending some of their energy against each other. As fast as he could recover, Erghart found himself under attack again, the Knight-Sergeant pressing the assault tirelessly. Summoning up a force of inner strength, bolstered by the hatred he felt for being so deceived, Erghart let out a loud snarl and spun around in a whirlwind attack. The knight, taken aback by the sudden spiritedness of his foe, stumbled slightly but held his stance. In a battle of attrition, he knew he would prove to be the stronger one. Erghart realized that too, knowing that his energy would fail him sooner that the knight's. His only hope would be to end the bout quickly, now that he was attacking. Slipping inside the reach of the knight's longsword, Erghart slashed his knives upward on either side. His strike was rewarded by a loud cry of pain as he felt both his knives bite into the unarmored biceps of his enemy. He heard the black longsword clatter to the floor harmlessly as the knight stumbled back in agony, his arms hanging useless and limp by his side. Erghart was immediately upon his disabled foe, his knives crossed in a deadly shear-like form around the Knight-Sergeant's neck.
"I... yield...," the defeated knight managed to croak.
"Yield this, demon..." hissed Erghart as he closed the shears, not averting his face as bright arterial blood spurted out from the stump of the knight's neck.
There was a shocked silence in the Hall, as the onlookers began to realize what had taken place. Before the Knight-Sergeant's henchmen could react, Erghart dashed out the door, stopping only to retrieve the tome from his private stash. He climbed the endless flight of stairs and dashed out into the cold night, blood drenched and weary. Not looking behind, he ran and ran. South, he thought, to the Court of Loures!