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Old 08-13-2009, 05:30 PM
Rowan Seven Rowan Seven is offline

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Default Dark Champions

The following is the draft of the prologue and first chapter of an original story I've been working on off and on for a while now, and I would really appreciate people taking the time to read it and post their impressions. I have dreams and ambitions of someday turning this into an actual novel and would like to know what – if anything – people like about this opening and what they feel could be handled better, whether in terms of characters, prose, or writing style. I've also spent a significant amount of time "world building" and will post a detailed overview of Alora in the next couple days, but in the meantime I'm interested in how this sample comes across without access to the supplemental backstory. Thank you for your time and hopefully your feedback too.



Title: Champions of Darkness
Teaser: A new age of peace is about to descend upon the world of Alora unless three mismatched mercenaries can stop it. Pity them or pity the world?
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Prologue

"And so...the ages of Alora end not with a bang but a whimper. Funny, considering I always expected the world to be consumed in a blaze of hellfire myself."

"If the Dark Lady you serve ever had her way, that would almost be an act of kindness."

"Ha! Only until the dead discover what my master has waiting for them in the afterlife."

The quiet voices carried far in the ancient underground amphitheatre, and the two speakers looked around warily at the site chosen for their gathering. Instead of torches, fifteen differently colored pillars ringed the stone cavern and illuminated it with the dim magical light they emitted. The monoliths' caliginous effulgence was just enough to reveal the outlines of the fifteen tiers of benches circling the forgotten meeting place and the opaque crystal obelisk that jutted out of the round room's center, but every time a word was spoken the glow of the pillars momentarily intensified as if in anger at their solitude's interruption. Combined with the nearly overwhelming sense of age the long abandoned chamber radiated, neither visitor was particularly happy to be here. But, as they both sadly knew, the stakes were too high for them to be anywhere else.

The second speaker, a figure so short that she didn't even reach the waist of her companion, chuckled lightly to release the tension she felt. The laughter was like dancing leafs in a soft breeze, and it reminded the cloaked and hooded woman of her distant home and her many sisters waiting for her safe return. None of them knew of the sacrilege she was committing by stepping foot here and if she had her way none of them ever would, but those were concerns for another day. "Anyway, how long until our third conspirator arrives? The wheels of fate are already in motion, and every minute we waste leaves us less prepared for the coming Advent."

"Knowing him as well as I do, that arrogant twit probably got here twenty minutes early and is merely waiting somewhere in the shadows in a foolish effort to appear fashionably late," the taller woman answered in a voice that oozed sensuality despite the clearly mocking tone. Like her shorter accomplice she wore a cloak and her face was hidden underneath a hood, but she was garbed in a regal purple instead of forest green. "His kind are creatures of habit, after all."

"Only when it suits us, my dear. Only when it suits us."

If the glowing pillars had been displeased by the purple and green strangers' conversation, they were positively furious at these new words and presence and flared angrily, revealing the intruder. With a self-assured, husky chuckle, a tall male egressed out of one of the ruined passageways that lay between the monoliths and strode forward with confident footsteps until he stood beside the only other two humanoids in the entire room. He wore the same garments as them but his color of choice was charcoal. "And in light of what will befall my race if Lady Pacifica succeeds...well, I might as well indulge myself while I still can in case we fail."

The two females exchanged an annoyed look, though whether at their masculine colleague's idiosyncrasies or the bad pun on the Sun Goddess's name was an open question. Either way, their gray-clothed coconspirator wasn't done speaking. "Can't say I'm terribly pleased by your choice of meeting places either, but I suppose it cannot be helped...considering what we've come to discuss and the need to avoid curious eyes and ears."

The shortest of three nodded her head in agreement. "I'm glad you understand the seriousness of this matter on some level, and I thank you for coming here despite how uncomfortable this place is for you. Had we any other options I would not have asked this of either of you, but our enemy has agents everywhere...including within the Order we all belong to, it seems."

The tall male shifted unhappily at the mention of the council while the other female snorted derisively. "That's no longer mere supposition now, as should be clear to all of us after last fortnight's meeting," she stated matter-of-factly, her hood's shadows doing little to obscure the bitterness of her gaze. "Pacifica's watcher would have never gotten the votes he needed to pass that...obscene motion of his without some backroom dealing, which means the Order of Myz'vrul and all it stands for has been compromised."

The gray cloaked figure tsked disparagingly and took a step closer to his shorter cabalist. "Hardly surprising in retrospect. I always knew our colleagues were hypocrites at heart, and this merely proves it. The Order of Myz'vrul is supposed to protect Alora from ALL of the gods and goddesses of the Three Realms, not just the ones the majority happens to dislike." He smiled nastily within his cowl. "A pity my predecessor didn't share my opinions about the council. Had she felt as I feel, the War of the Scorpion could have ended quite differently for Shaz'rul."

The green lilliputian narrowed her eyes at the mention of the Scorpion Queen and resisted the urge to remind her associate that the Goddess of Destruction's near victory during the last Advent had sunk the western half of Erunda and almost destroyed the rest of the world. The Great Catastrophe that followed as the races and lands of Alora struggled to adapt to the aftermath had figured prominently in the fine-sounding speech Pacifica's watcher used to convince the Order to go along with his proposal. Even someone as old and wise as herself had found his golden words and compelling reasoning persuasive...but not enough to win her over. She had seen and lost too much to be beguiled by sophistry.

"Be that as it may," the small woman began slowly, drawing her companions' attention to herself, "the past is the past and cannot be changed. What is important now is the future and changing the destiny the rest of the Order seems willing to force upon the world. The three of us serve different deities and different causes, but we all share this same goal and that makes us allies in this conspiracy. Our lives and those of all who live are in each other's hands now."

The ashen apparition smirked at this and looked down at his fellow cabalist superiorly, shuffling towards her. "You know, I'd be lying if I said hearing you say those words is worth the peril we face...but they are satisfying to hear nonetheless. Even the King of the Dead might crack a smile at the strange twists of fate that have brought the three of us together...but this rare 'harmony' between us will count as nothing if you aren't prepared to do what needs to be done, oh noble and virtuous follower of Siko the Earthmother."

"You're being rather blunt for a member of a race that prides itself on subtlety and scheming," the third conspirator chimed in with a disgusted sigh, though coming from her the discontented murmur still sounded alluring. She watched her male associate guardedly and with a hint of menace, wondering what he would do and was prepared to do. "Our 'friend' is the one who raised the prospect of cooperation in the first place and summoned us here, in case you forgot. She wouldn't have done either if she hadn't already made up her mind to be totally committed to our mutual objective."

"So you say," the gray-clothed man responded, now standing in front of and looming over his verdant counterpart, "but commitment and action are two entirely different things. The...morally defensible means our colleague is so fond of won't cut it in this situation, and since our lives are 'in each other's hands' as she put it I want to be certain that her principles won't interfere with our quest. After all, there is one guaranteed way for us to succeed...if she's willing to go along."

The sultry woman's posture stiffened and her irritation was almost palpable as she took a step forward to separate her two compatriots. Even before her second foot left the ground, though, the shorter figure's green-sleeved right arm rose up in a sign to let her handle this on her own. More than willing to comply, the purple cabalist quickly returned to her earlier insouciant stance and crossed her arms, eager to see what would happen next. She wouldn't have to wait long.

"Principles? You speak of principles to me, fallen one?" There was no anger in the viridian speaker's words, but her questioner still felt an uncharacteristic nervous lump form in his throat as she inclined her head upwards and pinned him with the force of her hard gaze. "It is because of principles that I am here, and it is because of principles that I decided upon this course of action when the Order of Myz'vrul which I have served faithfully for over one thousand years abandoned theirs. If you want to doubt my resolve, feel free to. But I assure you, I won't be the first to walk away from this dark path when the sacrifices start piling up."

There was a long, pregnant silence as the two unlikely allies regarded each other closely, one's suspicions crashing against the other's resolve like an army against an impregnable fortress. Even the glowing pillars, having oscillated wildly with every utterance, were now dim almost to the point of leaving the cavern entirely in darkness, their light held back as the contest of wills played out. The charcoal shrouded man was the first to give ground.

"...If that's true, then we shouldn't have any problems working together," he said at last, stepping back so he no longer towered over his fellow conspirator as he took a moment to recollect himself. He had forgotten just how unsettling her full scrutiny could be. "And please, don't be offended by my questioning. After the leading role you took during Shaz'rul's unsuccessful Advent, I'm sure you can understand why I would have doubts." He laughed once, almost disbelievingly. "Oh, if only Empress Amasha was still alive to see this. Her Dark Eminence would certainly be pleased by the irony."

The shapely, purple-robed woman released another displeased murmur from where she stood. "Honestly, if you're trying to antagonize both of us by repeatedly mentioning the two most reviled names in Alora's history you're succeeding splendidly." Somehow, despite the blatant condescension, her voice was still sweet as honey and even more beguiling as she spoke. "Now, how about you stop with the insulting comparisons before the thought of seeing you burn before the Sun Goddess's radiant light becomes any more tempting than it already is? The odds are already stacked against us without adding allies who want to see each other dead to the list."

"Of course, of course. Perish the thought that any of us would let the past interfere with our mission." Arrogance quickly returning, the wily cabalist turned about so he faced both of them. "So, barring any objections from the Dark Lady's partisan, shall we get started? I can retrieve the first artifact for my plan as soon as you tell me-"

"No," the viridian lilliputian and, as was becoming increasingly evident, de facto leader of the conspiracy interrupted. Ignoring her recent interrogator's surprise and her purple colleague's derisive chuckling at his expense, she turned to face the dark obelisk that loomed over all of them and, walking towards it, placed her left hand on its opaque surface. She felt the unnatural, soul-numbing chill of the crystal even through the protective layering of her warded glove and shivered. When she spoke next her words sounded almost unearthly, the unholy coldness of the monument seeping into her voice.

"The items you seek will be collected and your dangerous scheme pursued, but we will do things my way. Too much is at stake for us to risk everything by acting openly, especially when certain...'traditional' methods are still available to us, if both of you catch my drift?"

They did, though the charcoal conspirator looked distinctly unhappy about it, and the short figure nodded her head in satisfaction as she whirled to face the two of them again, hiding the relief she felt interally over no longer touching the dark monolith. "Excellent. Now, listen closely. There is much for us to do and little time left to do it in, and if we succeed...heh, we just might damn the entire world."

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Chapter 1 – Games and Pawns

Bronze armor glimmering in the last rays of day, Mirk strode confidently into Riven's notorious gladiator arena and looked around. The sight that greeted him nearly made him snort. He had known that Riven's infamous reputation came more from the unsavory types the seamy port city attracted than the quality of its facilities, but even so the human warrior still found himself disappointed. The arena was essentially a large pit dug into the ground ringed by spikes and barbed chains along the perimeter, probably to make it harder for anyone to climb out Mirk thought caustically. Several mostly upright wooden posts jutted out of the ground and served the purpose of giving combatants some cover so they couldn't boringly rush each other in straight lines. In addition to the metal gate he'd just walked through and which was now closing behind him, there were two more matching entrances nearly equidistant to each other.

All in all, Mirk mused silently, it looked like something done on the cheap by people more interested in seeing blood than anything else. And as someone who'd fought in every arena from the Ragastik Desert to the Narwhale Coast, the armored warrior couldn't help but lament the ring's lack of sophistication. Worthwhile opponents were few and far between these days because of the many flocking to the Twin Sisters' service and abandoning the games, and in the absence of a skilled challenger traps and lethal obstacles at least added an edge of uncertainty to his otherwise largely predictable battles. Here in Riven, though, there was no such subtlety and instead merely an embarrassing forwardness. This match would almost certainly be nasty, brutish, and short.

But if that's what the crowd wants...

Mirk laughed once loudly and drew his honed blade with a flourish, using it to salute the full audience that sat in wooden bleachers around the circle. Business before pleasure, the gladiator reminded himself as he turned and worked up the hundreds of onlookers. He wouldn't continue earning the top-rate pay without fans screaming his name and eagerly forking over their money to see a legend of the games in action. And if he truly wanted a challenge he could always go to Grendel next. The island kingdom was one of the few remaining human lands that hadn't thrown in its lot with Halcyon and still followed the old ways. The arena in its capital was first class, and after tonight he could easily afford the passenger fare to get there by ship even after indulging his tastes for wine, women, and song. Already there was a tavern he planned to visit-

The human gladiator's thoughts trailed off abruptly as the other two gates swung open and he finally saw who his opponents would be. One was, surprisingly enough considering the time of day, a troll, and the thick-skinned, mossy brute looked as unhappy to be here as the shouting audience was excited by the spectacle. Trolls were a rare sight aboveground before nightfall and an even rarer sight for the typical city-dweller since the monstrous creatures preferred the wilds over Erunda's many settlements. Still, Mirk knew that despite their bestial appearances trolls possessed a wily cunning and only a fool would actually try to enslave one, so his inhuman challenger was probably here of its own will. Which, if the warrior knew trolls half as well as he thought he did, likely meant the creature was allowed to snack on the unfortunate men it slew in the arena. Mirk would have no second thoughts about bashing this particular foe's hard head in.

His second enemy, however, was a different story. One glance at the green-skinned orc and her proud, defiant stance was all Mirk needed to discern that, like him, she was a natural warrior who lived and breathed combat. That she wore only a simple leather jerkin and plated skirt for protection further informed him of the supreme confidence she had in her skills as a fighter, while the peculiar ouroboros tattoo around her right eye implied an incredibly high pain threshold. Most telling of all, though, was the harsh intelligence that filled her cold gray orbs. Those were the eyes of a killer who had spilled so much blood as to become completely comfortable with death, and judging by the casual way she held the double-headed axe in her hands she'd have no qualms about adding him to her list of victims. And, put together, it all meant that this match might actually be fun after all!

Truly excited for the first time that day, Mirk grinned winningly and tightened his double-handed grip on his sword. Both the troll and orc certainly outclassed him in strength so he would need to rely on speed and skill to win, and fortunately for him he possessed those two traits in abundance along with the smarts to put them to good use. It was too much to hope for that his two opponents would initially target each other since trolls and orcs both hated humans, but if he could injure the misshapen giant first the brute would likely lash out at anything moving in its rage and prevent this game from becoming a two against one affair. And, tough as the orc looked, with so little armor it would only take one or two good strikes at critical areas to take her down. Challenging, perhaps, but certainly not impossible, and the human warrior had fought and won against worse odds in the past.

The sound of a gong indicated the official start of the battle, and Mirk didn't waste any time. He immediately dashed forward and then swerved to his left, running in an arc to come at his enemies from the side by weaving through the wooden posts rather than meet them head-on. Unencumbered by the heavy armor he'd worn for so long the bronze plates felt like a second skin, the veteran gladiator continued his rapid rush towards fate and cleared his head of all thoughts save those of combat. This fight would require more effort than normal, but that wouldn't change the outcome. Deep in his confident heart, Mirk knew that once the first weapon was swung the match would end quickly.

And indeed, it did.

------

"Corran's beard! You sure ended that quickly, Vira. A little too quickly, maybe. The crowd doesn't like it when their live entertainment 'expires' prematurely."

Vira Bloodmoon snickered at her partner's choice of words and flipped her axe over so she could start wiping the blood off the other sharp edge with the cloth she held. "That's their problem, not mine," the orc answered nonchalantly, releasing a chuckle at the goblin's exasperated sigh. This was an argument they'd had before. "I'm only doing this to land us a job and could care less about 'entertaining' the scum and riffraff that actually comes out to see the slaughter. Anyone with a mission worth our time will be less interested in how well I amuse spectators and more keen about my skill with a weapon."

"And most patrons of mercenaries in these parts are humans, Vira, and no matter how good with an axe you might be they won't hire us if they think you have a grudge against their race," the green imp retorted, shaking her angular head disapprovingly. "Look, you don't want to hold back in battle? That's fine. Killing your opponent within the first minute of a match? Anticlimactic but understandable. Leaving your other, non-human opponent without so much as a scratch afterwards? Petty and stupid. Honestly, why did you leave the troll alive anyway? You know how dangerous they can become when they lose their fear of cities."

Now it was Vira's turn to sigh. Sparing her axe a look to make sure she'd wiped off most of the blood, the orc set the weapon aside and swung around on the coarse-stemmed hay bale she was currently using as a seat and regarded her friend and partner with her serious gray eyes. "Trolls treat others as others treat them, Kemia. They don't become dangerous unless they're treated as dangerous, and then they only respond in kind. You know that as well as I do, and the fact that my surviving opponent was smart enough not to press his luck is good enough reason for me to let him live. That human, though..." The orc smiled crookedly at the memory of her latest victim's surprise as her double-headed axe cleaved straight through his armor and into his meaty side. "He intended the match to be do-or-die. That was clear even without my sixth sense, and I only responded in kind."

Kemia rolled her beady pink eyes in response. "Well, I don't have a mystical perceptiveness that gives me incredible advantages in battle, but my impeccable business sense tells me that it's because of attitudes like that we're stuck renting this old stable for living space. Even if I was willing to spend the extra money for a proper room at an inn – and believe me, after so long putting up with this husbandry stench I am – we'd be lucky to make it a full day without you causing some sort of incident, and then I'd have to pay for damages!" The female goblin agitatedly ran her thin hands through the matted tresses of her ocean blue hair. "C'mon Vira, I know you're unhappy here but if you'd just behave a wee bit more agreeably we'd have a job in no time! As is now, even the interested clients I've spoken to are afraid of you!"

"Feh, you say that as if it were a bad thing," Vira chimed back but, looking around at the warped wooden walls, bales of straw and hay, and occasional barrel that comprised their current residence, found herself silently agreeing with the goblin. Pride was important and a great source of strength, but Riven was pretty much the only city within two weeks' travel time with any good mercenary prospects in these parts. Kemia wasn't about to leave without the promise of earning at least enough money to cover their expenses and preferably more so she could get her curious little fingers on that silly alchemy text she wanted so badly, which meant Vira was stuck here too until then. And even as far from Riven's heart as the stables were the insufferable noise of the city was almost more than she could bear. So, even though Vira detested compromise and viewed it as a sign of weakness, she would give in this time because the goblin was her comrade-in-arms and deserved an occasional exception...sometimes.

"Still, I have to admit that the sooner we leave this city the better, in my mind, so I'll try not to skewer every thug who comes at me with murderous intentions, all right?" The words were said with a clear undertone of sarcasm, but Vira knew that Kemia was familiar enough with her to recognize the concession.

"Well, that's something," the goblin muttered, shaking her head slightly. "And at least we won't need to worry about coming across any angry trolls when we do leave Riven. They can tell when you've killed one of them, you know."

Vira laughed heartily at that. "Yeah, and they have a hidden kingdom in the Blackmist Swamp too, if you believe all the old wives' tales...which we'd be fools not to considering the kernels of truth in them. Remember the time we-"

The sound of the stable's backdoor swinging open and shut brought their conversation to an abrupt halt, and the two mercenaries immediately tensed and turned to see who their visitor was. The heavyset figure merely waved in response to their inquiring faces as he weaved his way through the stable towards them and pulled down the brown hood of his travel-stained cloak with a clawed hand, revealing a familiar furry, lupine face and stocky muzzle. The orc and goblin immediately relaxed again.

"Miss me much?" Chihei remarked sarcastically in his guttural voice, crossing the last of the distance that separated them and nonchalantly lowering himself into a cross-legged position to sit on the ground. He rubbed the leathery pads of his otherwise fur-lined hands together and gazed at his fellow mercenaries scrutinizingly with his golden eyes, snorting loudly when he came to Vira and saw the orc's lack of injuries. "No good competition in the games today again, I take it? Feh, the warriors flocking to the Church don't know the thrill they're missing out on."

"And that's why nobody's every happy to see a lycan. Never anything but violence on their minds," Kemia said dourly albeit with a touch of affection in her voice. "Honestly, what was I thinking when I decided to partner with an orc and a werewolf? With two of Alora's most disagreeable, unsociable races at my side, it's no wonder work's so hard to come by!" She slammed a fist into the palm of her left hand in mock frustration. As with the earlier argument between her and Vira, this was a common routine of hers.

"Heh, don't blame us for your lack of common sense," Chihei retorted in good humor, enjoying the fact that even with him seated the goblin still had to look up to meet his face. He leaned back and stretched his hairy arms above his head in a leisurely manner, smiling a fanged smile that under different circumstances could promise bloodshed.

"Besides, if you feel that strongly about it then there's no need for you to come along on the job I just found for us. I'm sure Vira and I can handle it easily enough without your deliciously intelligent brain, little imp. Right, Vira?" He turned to look at the orc with his crooked grin, chuckling huskily at the pink-eyed goblin's sudden squawks.

For her part, Vira narrowed her eyes pensively and reflexively reached for the back of her neck to scratch it, right hand traveling over the long braid of wiry black hair that hung over her shoulder and under the thicker, massive ponytail that fell down her back. The braid on the right and its twin on the left shifted as the orc tilted her head to the side. "I'd like to hear just what kind of work you found for us first, Chihei. Diplomacy isn't your strong point, and I'm curious what you could find that Kemia couldn't."

For a fraction of a second a dangerous glint crossed the lycan's golden eyes at the implied slight, but it was gone so quickly and replaced with a laugh that Vira wouldn't have been certain she'd seen it had she not known what to look for. Werewolves were beasts at heart despite their human intelligence, and even though Chihei was the picture of joviality again he had been reminded of his true self, which in its own perverse way made all of them safer. The only thing more dangerous than a beast is a beast that doesn't realize its own nature and surrounds itself with those who've also forgotten, the powerful orc thought, and she was determined not to let that happen to them.

"The best hunters know that sometimes to catch the prey you desire, you have to wait," Chihei answered at last, sounding smug and putting the past few seconds behind him. "So while Kemia here has been hitting up all the places of business attempting to find clients and you've been smashing heads so bloodthirsty humans can vicariously share in the carnage, I've been frequenting a particular tavern and reaping the benefits of both your efforts. A potential client wants to meet with us over at Rizzle's by the docks."

"_Rizzle's_?" Kemia repeated with clear distaste, squinting her pointy nose as if she'd just smelled something noxious. "That's about the seamiest bar you can find in this already plentifully seamy port without disregarding _every_ norm of decency. Why in Kargosa's name would anyone worth our time want to meet there?"

Vira shrugged. "Don't know, don't care," she said nonchalantly, rising from her hay bale and exploring the taste of the lycan's words in her mouth. They didn't trigger her sixth sense, but she did feel a great sense of expectancy and filed that away as important for later. "All that really matters is that we might actually have a job that'll get us out of Riven, so unless you happen to have any better prospects I say we meet this unknown patron of ours and see what he wants us to do and is willing to pay to have it done." She spared Chihei an inquiring look. "Speaking of which, who is the person we're supposed to meet? The fact that he's willing to hire a deviously unscrupulous goblin, a murderous lycan, and an out of control ax-swinging orc like myself raises more than ONE question in my mind."

The werewolf released a burly chuckle. He'd clearly been expecting that question. "Other that his pseudonym is Haskar, not a thing. One of the delectable barmaids passed the message on to me over a drink, and if we're interested we need to show up at Rizzle's tonight. Otherwise the offer is off the table. So...still want to go even though it means walking into the unknown?" he inquired, smirking toothily with the knowledge that the decision was already made.

"Sure, why not? It's not like talking to strangers is the most dangerous aspect of our trade," Kemia remarked dourly, glancing at the orc and lycan critically. "Just make sure you two don't forget about me after we get through the front door. I've heard nasty rumors about some of the culinary 'delicacies' being served in that district and don't particularly care to find out if the so-called goblin fingers is more than just a moniker."

Seeing the knowing grin that suddenly flashed across Chihei's features and the opening of his short muzzle to say what would surely be a widely inappropriate remark, the female orc sighed and rested a hand on her head. She had a feeling that this was going to be a long night.

------

A few hours later the female orc was absolutely certain that it was going to be a long night, the sight of the decrepit Rizzle's having dispelled the last of her miniscule optimism. As a general rule she disliked bars and liked the people who frequented them even less, regarding the entire concept of a tavern as perverse. Spirits were supposed to relax the mind and embolden the body, providing an alleviation from the cares of the world that should be shared with friends and community. That was the orcish way, and the fierce warrior could still remember the happily boisterous mead gatherings her clan used to partake of under the full moon. Humans, though, treated alcohol as something to be shunned and locked up, a toxic substance to be indulged in either in lonely privacy or behind closed doors where they could pretend society's norms didn't exist. And even more abhorrent, they often drank to drown their sorrows in stupid inebriation and retreat from reality rather than to celebrate and enjoy the company of others.

Such cowardice made the orc snort each time her thoughts followed this path, and Rizzle's Tavern presented nothing to change her mind. It was a rundown, shady pub close enough to Riven's port that the smell of salt permeated the building like a cloud of smoke. The patrons were hardly better than riffraff and kept the establishment in business less by their affluency and more by their poverty and inability to afford to go elsewhere. Scantily clad waitresses served food and drink as they slinked from table to table, vapid smiles on their faces as they shamelessly flirted with customers to mixed results. Vira didn't need Chihei's rare lack of interest in bared female flesh to tell her that, while a few of the servers could be considered pretty, none of them would be called beautiful without a few drinks clouding the mind first. And then there were the many conversations, some in hushed whispers, others so indiscrete the words might as well have been painted in gaudy colors on the wall, and most of no consequence at all. She heard them all clearly because of her unique talents as she entered the tavern with her two companions...

"Do you know the old story about the high priest who kidnapped the princess? Well, the truth of it is that it was the princess who kidnapped the high priest! Lucky man, ha! Now, if you give me some coin and drink this minstrel will tell you the whole tale..."

"I hear that –hic! – the Bishop summoned Magistrate Cervantes to the Cathedral again, not that there's any chance that guy will clean up his act when he's the worst offender in the city! How many mistresses does he have-"

"Har! That vixen Melanie's coming home with me tonight, for sure! I can feel it in my gut!"

"And what a large gut it-"

...and the idle chatter continued unabated as the nonhuman trio strode through the drunken throng towards an empty table near the back. Rizzle's was used to mixed crowds and orcs and goblins weren't that unusual in Riven. Lycans were a rarer and almost always unwelcome sight, but one bloodthirsty grin from Chihei was all it took to send the few curious gazes he attracted hurriedly back to their own concerns. Nobody was drunk enough – yet – to want to get on the bad side of a werewolf, and Vira raised her low estimation of the crowd a few points from idiots to idiots smart enough to feel fear. That last bit could be important if their discussion with Haskar didn't go well and things went south on them because it meant the rabble were more likely to run away than join in on the action.

"So, this is where you've been spending your free time, eh Chihei?" Kemia remarked distastefully with an unhappy crinkling of her aquiline nose as she mounted the nearest chair. Rather than sit, the short goblin stood on the flat bottom so she could peer over the stained tabletop comfortably. Vira chose the seat nearest her green friend while Chihei plumped down into the next one over, sitting so that he faced Kemia. Seeing the wolfish expression on his lupine face, the orc privately rolled her gray eyes. She could already predict what would happen next.

"Heh, it's got more character than the dusty alchemy tomes you keep looking at...or rather would _like_ to look at if you weren't banned from the Alchemist's Quarter because of that rather spectacular explosion you caused last week."

Despite her desire to appear indifferent and the agitated creasing of Kemia's forehead, Vira couldn't help but snigger at the memory. The sight of the normally composed goblin returning to the stables that night soot-stained and wild-eyed and then listening to her garbled explanations was one of the few highlights of their time in Riven, in the orc's mind. Moreover, it had given Chihei – normally the disadvantaged one in the pair's jibing – an easy target.

"That was an accident!" Kemia repeated tersely, clearly uncomfortable with the topic. "And it's as much the Guildmaster's fault as mine! If he hadn't been so snoopy about my research into the Chryso-Sharcite Equation those reagents would never have gotten mixed up! ...Heh, though I have to admit that seeing him wear that atrocious wig now almost makes up for it."

The goblin laughed once uproariously as her thoughts took some strange course only she could follow before she remembered her own irritation. Kemia's beady pink eyes narrowed as they glared at the lycan across the table. "Besides, it's not like you're much of a judge of character. About the only distinctions you make are predator, prey, and female."

"You say that as if it were a bad thing," Chihei retorted glibly, enjoying this as only one who lived for the thrill of carnage but relied on castigation as a temporary substitute could. "Besides, you're wrong anyway. I also recognize 'victims'."

Kemia could only shake her angular head at that. "Savage," she muttered darkly, crossing her arms over her chest as the werewolf smugly leaned back in his chair...and then promptly fell over backwards as the rickety seat collapsed under his great weight.

This time, Vira and Kemia laughed together as they chuckled at their partner's expense and watched him hurriedly rise back to his feet. His golden eyes filling dangerously with rage, the lycan stalked off to grab a chair from the nearest table. The sailor who was using the said seat wisely didn't protest when the large werewolf unceremoniously lifted both human and chair off the floor and dumped the former aside. The orc noted that a few of the human's apparent friends rushed to the waylaid man's side and for a few seconds looked agitated enough to actually do something about it, but one low growl from Chihei's throat eliminated that idea in short order.

"So, how are we supposed to get this Haskar fellow's attention now that we're here?" Vira questioned matter-of-factly, refocusing Chihei's thoughts elsewhere once he rejoined them so his anger and annoyance didn't have time to smolder. Lycans reveled in violence but had the attention span of the beasts they took after and weren't prone to holding grudges. Then again, most people who got on their bad sides didn't live past the night so it was hard to say whether lycans were simply dismissive or exceptionally prompt when it came to vendettas.

Chihei shrugged unconcernedly and, more carefully this time, leaned back in his chair. "My source didn't really specify what we were supposed to do other than show up and wait. My guess is that Haskar will contact us when he's good and ready. After all, the true hunter springs the trap at the time of his own choosing."

"Very encouraging words," Kemia remarked sarcastically, though she was familiar enough with the business to know this was how clients typically behaved. Vira was less consigned to it, though, and grumbled heavily. Waiting games were not a pastime she enjoyed, and they chafed at her instinctual decisiveness and felt too much like hesitation for the orc's liking. To distract herself from her growing impatience, Vira scanned the tavern with her eyes again, counting heads and planning possible escape routes just in case. As she knew from hard experience, orcs didn't live long if they weren't prepared for battle at a moment's notice...but with only a waitress daring to approach their table the possibility of getting embroiled in a bar fight seemed slim.

"May I take your orders?"

The words were said with a hint of nervousness, the young woman clearly not feeling at ease around them. That knowledge imbued Vira with a degree of both smugness and irritation: smugness that the sense of superiority most humans felt couldn't hide their fear at the mere proximity of her race, and irritation at the woman's poor judgement. She was one of the prettier pieces of poorly clothed eye-candy in the joint and probably had more to be afraid of from the drunken, leering customers than three monsters who couldn't care less about her.

"Water for all three of us," Kemia quickly replied, looking askance at Chihei who had been about to place an order himself. "We have business with a person named Haskar, and I'd rather we all have clear heads during the discussions. Right, lycan?"

The werewolf growled lightly, causing the moderately attractive waitress to shirk back though, to her credit, the woman didn't run away and quickly recollected herself. "W-w-will that be e-everything?"

"Yes." Vira spoke the word coldly and watched as the human woman stiffened and turned to walk away. The waitress's sigh of relief once she was more than a few feet distant and her follow-up curse let the orc know quite clearly what she thought of them, but that wasn't important. They were here for business, not to make friends, and Vira suspected that whoever ran this establishment would pump their server for information and, if possible, speed up their meeting with Haskar just to get them out of the tavern quicker. Tolerating a trio of menacing nonhumans was one thing, but a customer who took up space without buying anything was quite another.

"Flea-infested poodle."

"Wannabe alchemist who can't even make a soap stone let alone a Philosopher's Stone."

"Cute widdle puppy."

"Phlogistonic incompetent-"

"Enough!" Vira interrupted, slamming both hands down on the table as her irritation finally got the better of her. She looked at her two partners darkly as they gazed at her with bemusement. "Would you two call it quits already? Putting up with this is hard enough when we're on the road. Here, surrounded by a crowd of loud, raucous lowlifes in a smelly, rundown bar, my senses are already overloaded without adding your juvenile vituperations to the mix so, if you don't have anything meaningful to say, shut up."

Blessed silence reigned for a few precious seconds as Chihei and Kemia mulled over the orc's words, but unfortunately for Vira both knew just how great her self-control was and that if she could endure a crowded city square she could certainly tolerate a second-class tavern. The only reason for them not to continue their exchange of insults was out of kindness to her overtaxed senses, and magnanimity was not something goblins and werewolves were known for.

"Tome-deprived hack."

"Son of a bi-"

Vira let her face fall into her hands and tried to drown her partners' voices out. Even after so many years together it was still difficult, but then that was the problem with her inborn power. It made ignoring anything a trial that not even the heartless god and judge Hefna would set. Fortunately, it also made her extraordinarily aware of her surroundings, so when she saw the burly, balding man with an eyepatch egress from a backroom and start walking towards them she was quick to notify her at times insufferable companions and finally give them something else to focus on than each other.

"So, you three are the mercenaries Haskar's interested in hiring, eh?" the heavyset man asked casually, sizing them with a caustic gaze from his good eye and not bothering to wait for a response from them. "I don't know whether to pity you or pity him more. Hmph, well, come along now if you're still interested. I'll take you to the room in back where he's waiting." The man turned around dismissively and began to walk back the way he'd come, obviously expecting them to follow immediately if they truly wanted to speak with Haskar. Vira didn't know whether to be grateful or vexed by his alacrity, but in the second she took to rise to her feet the human swiveled his head back to say one more thing to them.

"By the way, I'm the manager of this place and I don't want any trouble from you OR Haskar. If you two have problems with each other – and I fully expect you will – take them outside or, better yet, to a different bar."

Chihei chuckled at the statement and flashed Vira and amused grin as the three of them fell into step behind the self-identified proprietor of Rizzle's. "Everywhere we go it seems people always expect the worst from us. I guess they just know us too well."

"There's more truth to that sentence than I'd like," Kemia muttered forlornly, giving the lycan an aggrieved look that spread to Vira too as the manager led them through a door and into a back hallway. "If both of you could spend more than a day in a city without destroying something and angering somebody-"

"Alchemist's Quarter," Chihei interrupted with relish, chuckling again as the goblin's beady eyes widened even further in frustration.

"If you two are finished with your 'friendly' bantering, your client's inside this room."

The three mercenaries looked at the curtained off chamber the manager was pointing at with an indifferent, gruff hand. Confident that they could figure out the rest on their own and his duty thus discharged, the surly human then brusquely walked back the way they'd come without so much as a backward glance as he strode between and past the trio.

"My, he was certainly in a hurry to leave," Chihei commented snidely, a calculating expression on his gray furred face. "Makes you wonder what's so important back at the bar...or what's so scary about the man behind this curtain. Shall we take a look inside and find out, Vira?

At the lycan's prompt, Vira held up her right hand to the blue drape that covered the private room's entrance and, for perhaps only the half-dozenth time since coming to Riven, fully opened her mind to the world around her. The sudden bombardment of sensations as she reached out and touched the invisible heartbeat of the city was almost painful, but the orc grit her teeth and forced herself to narrow down the range of her perceptions. Within a few seconds Rizzle's in all its notorious glory and seediness filled her mind's eye and Vira almost vomited at its rankness, but she maintained her intense concentration and a few more seconds later was able to "sense" the room in front of them. She could feel the age of the curtain fabric and its slow, silent unraveling as the fibers within incrementally frayed and fell apart. She could see the darkness of the small chamber ahead, lit only by a single candle whose minute flickering made playful shadows against the walls and curtain. She could hear the light thuds as smooth pebbles were set on a wooden table, rearranged, and then picked back up to be placed down again. And most of all, she could feel the dark presence that sat inside waiting, radiating a chill that was equal parts unnatural and subversive and could only belong to a-

"Dark elf," the orc muttered, throwing subtlety to the wind as she pushed the curtain aside and marched into the room. Kemia and Chihei exchanged a surprised look at her news and quickly followed her in. Waiting to greet them and sitting at a round table with three empty chairs was the bent over figure of a man, calmly tracing patterns on the wooden stand by moving a dozen or so plain, minute stones around in inscrutable circular movements with his left hand. He looked up at their noisy approach, and immediately his back straightened as he abandoned his private ritual. Even in the scant illumination provided by the candle, the insidiously clever grin that formed on his face was unmistakable.

"Welcome. You must be the mercenaries I requested," the dark elf stated in the sophisticated but malevolent tone all members of his race seemed to effect naturally, beckoning at them with a polite but condescending invitation to take the proffered seats. "I hope the human management here wasn't too insensitive. The proprietor owed me a...favor from long ago and seemed rather cross that I was finally collecting on his debt when I made the arrangements for this meeting."

Vira let Kemia and Chihei choose their seats first, with the goblin taking the chair directly across from the fallen fey and the werewolf taking the spot on her left. A few seconds later Vira walked over and sat in the one remaining chair, carefully watching their prospective patron all the while. If the man was bothered by this scrutiny as the orc's gray eyes raked over his equally gray, desert-scoured skin and elongated, pointed ears, he didn't show it at all and instead calmly brushed a strand of black hair that had fallen across his forehead during his strange rite back in place as he patiently waited for them to speak.

"The service here wasn't any ruder than we're used to," Kemia said ambivalently, watching the dark elf with a keen business interest. To her this man was merely another possible client, no different from any other person willing to pay them to do a job. To Vira and, if his atypical discomfort was any indication, to Chihei as well, however, the dark elf was an abomination whose corruption was so deep and thorough the room itself cried out in mute horror. Dark elves were Shaz'rul's most favored servants and also the most tainted by the Goddess of Destruction's perverse touch. No living creature attuned to the natural world could be comfortable around them without already being warped in either mind or body themselves. And yet Kemia, driven by both greed and her innate curiosity, was completely unperturbed. There were times Vira envied her goblin partner.

"Good." The dark elf paused a moment to include all of them in the sweeping gaze of his epicanthic, slitted blue eyes and then folded his hands in front of him on the table. "For the purposes of our transaction, you may call me Haskar. It's not my real name but that doesn't matter in this business, and since I already know who you are further introductions are not necessary. Now, I know the three of you might have some...reservations about working for one such as I, and if those doubts are great enough to make an agreement between us impossible feel free to leave immediately. I won't hold a grudge if you save me from a pointless use of words. But...I can assure you that the rewards of my offer will be quite generous if you complete the task I have in mind for you. Will you hear me out...or will you listen to the conceit of conventional wisdom and depart?"

"Feh, if we had anything like common sense we wouldn't be in this business," Chihei commented with his customary snort, eyeing his two partners with what passed for subtlety for him to learn whether they shared his sentiments about this. Kemia obviously did and would be a poor excuse for a goblin if she ever turned down any snippet of new knowledge. Vira inclined her head slightly in a guarded nod, giving her assent too despite her discomfort at being in the dark elf's presence. She didn't know whether it was disappointment or relief that flashed across the lycan's eyes, but whatever it was when he turned in his chair to face their benefactor it was with his typical air of smug confidence in his own abilities. "We'll hear you out, Haskar. We'd be miserable mercenaries if we didn't. And if we don't like what we hear...well, I'm sure you want begrudge us turning you down if the task and terms don't seem sensible to us."

"Quite right," Haskar replied unhurriedly, either unaware or unbothered by the implied threat in the werewolf's words. "But I'm sure it won't come to that. My kind is renowned for not asking of others what they won't do, after all."

There was a threat in those words too, Vira noted as she pieced together the double-meaning. Haskar's statement was technically true, but what a person was not willing to do before speaking with a dark elf and what they were not willing to do afterwards were often two completely different things. Fey, whether light or dark, had a talent for persuasive eloquence, and Haskar's ilk were notorious for using their gifts to deceive good judgement. Then again, it was human folly that had given dark elf oration such an ill reputation, and the human mind was a labyrinth of contradictions and senselessness. As an orc with a more straightforward mindset, Vira doubted she had anything to fear...but it couldn't hurt to be careful, either.

Haskar remained silent for a moment as he steepled his hands together above the table and lowered his head so it rested on them. Once he'd made himself comfortable, he spoke again. "Now that we've dispensed with pleasantries and agreed that we might be able to do business, tell me...how long would it take you to travel to the village of Dreus in the Golden Lowlands? I have time to spare but not nearly as much as I'd like."

"Dreus? That's the human village bordering Neverlight Bog, right?" Kemia ruminated aloud, calculating the distance and travel time in her head even before their patron nodded his head in confirmation. "Hm...normally that journey would take two and a half to three weeks on horseback if one takes the normal roads, maybe a little less if one hurries. The three of us aren't afraid to go off the beaten path so...I'd estimate ten to fourteen days, depending on whether we run into trouble or not."

"...That would be acceptable," Haskar answered in a neutral tone of voice that made it impossible to know his feelings about the time estimate. "And Dreus is a small enough town that once you arrive I doubt you'll have any trouble finding what I'm after. There's a well-known gnome historian residing there who goes by the name Solemarn. The Church of the Twin Sisters-" The dark elf shuddered at the mention of the two deities. "-recently delivered a set of ancient artifacts to this Solemarn for him to identify. Apparently the Church's own experts fell short and were only able to learn that these artifacts were dwarven, dark elfin, and d'izin in origin and predate the Great Cataclysm. I'm something of a historian myself, and there are few enough remnants of Lady Amasha's empire in the world today that I refuse to let the sparse treasures that remain stay in the hands of Lady Pacifica's ignorant followers."

"So you want us to go to Dreus, retrieve this collection of historical treasures, and bring them back to you," Vira summarized leadingly, a skeptical lilt to her voice as Kemia and Chihei mulled over their own thoughts on the matter. "For a mission in which stealth and thievery seem like the most desirable skills, I can't help but express some surprise that you would want to hire the three of us. Subtlety isn't exactly something lycans and orcs are well known for."

Haskar smiled at that statement and turned to look directly at the orc, his blue eyes locking onto her gray orbs. "Sadly for my wallet, you are quite correct in your assessment. If a thief was all that I needed, I could simply hire a single man for the job rather than a trio of mercenaries. As is their wont, though, the Church is making this needlessly difficult. They sent an escort of knights along with the artifacts to guard them against robbery and return them to Halcyon after Solemarn's identified them. So...in addition to a goblin's knack for sneaking around, a lycan's ferocity and an orc's strength are also called for here."

"The Church assigned an entire escort of knights just to guard a set of artifacts they couldn't even recognize?" Kemia ruminated out loud, frowning. "Sounds like the Church believes these items have a fair amount of value if they're going to such lengths to protect and identify them."

"Hence why _I_ want them," the dark elf stated, frowning irritably behind his steepled digits at having to say something so obvious. "Returning antiquities will curry favor amongst the elite of my people and is worth doing for that reason alone, but returning an ancient artifact with worth and perhaps power as well...that could even earn the approbation of the Sable Sisters, They Who are Darker than Shadow."

Chihei chuckled ironically. "So we do the dirty work and you get the glory and maybe some terrible weapon or spell as well, knowing how stories about messing around with the past typically go. What do _we_ get, I wonder, to make disturbing this sleeping dragon worth our time?"

Instead of answering with words, Haskar parted his hands and reached into the right sleeve of his wool overcoat. A moment later he withdrew his left hand, charcoal fingers wrapped around a faintly glowing object. Waiting until he was certain everyone could see the white glow, the dark elf unclenched his fist and, lowering his palm to the tabletop, gently slid the effulgent, multifaceted gem onto the wooden surface. It didn't take long for the three mercenaries to recognize what the jewel appeared to be, and Kemia couldn't bother to hide her excitement as she hurriedly clambered onto the table and grabbed the precious stone to examine it.

"It's a genuine Tear of Hefna!" she exclaimed, totally engrossed in examining the jewel as she turned it over and over again in her hands. "I've never seen one before, but there's no way this could be forgery. My alchemical sense is tingling just looking at it!" A thought occurred to her as her mercantile instinct reared its head again, and she – reluctantly – forced her gaze away from the gem to their client's face. "Not that I or any of us would accuse you of deliberate forgery, Haskar. It's just...where in the Three Realms did you find one of these? They're almost as rare as one of Hefna's genuine tears!"

The dark elf chuckled huskily. "Hardly. The Divine Judge hasn't shed any tears since she removed her own heart, while more and more of these...baubles are found every year, particularly in the wastelands where my people dwell. They have no intrinsic value for us and even less practical use, but human superstitions assign these Tears all sorts of miraculous attributes because of their minor magical utility in their arcane spells. And since mankind is willing to pay an arm and a leg for a shiny stone so follows the rest of civilized Erunda," he spoke, voice dripping disdain.

"To you a Tear of Hefna is a priceless treasure, but to me it's more common than gold and useless except in what it can compel others to do. If even _one_ of the artifacts recently discovered by the Church meets my expectations...that would be far more profitable for me than keeping a powerless gem that glimmers."

Chihei's lips quirked upward in amusement. Apparently he found the fey's atypical candor entertaining. Kemia merely shrugged, having eyes only for the Tear. Vira was not as sanguine as her partners, though, and narrowed her gray eyes instead. If the dark elf was being honest now, it could only mean that there would be a catch later. And while dark elves might not value Tears of Hefna like the rest of the world did, they were still quite valuable. At the moment this deal sounded far too good to be true, which could only mean that the catch would be truly unpleasant.

As if hearing the orc's thoughts, Haskar fixed his cold, pitiless gaze on her again and smiled. The facial gesture was even less reassuring than his previous grin had been. "Of course, this probably sounds too good to be true to you. Dark elves aren't known for being magnanimous, I must admit, and yet here I am offering far more for your services than is necessary. Rest assured, I do it only because it is convenient for me to do so rather than from the goodness of my heart, and I will be more than happy to part with this trinket if you successfully gather the artifacts I want. I trust that one with your _power_ of perception can sense the truth in my words, Vira."

Vira froze in surprise for a moment...and then broke out into raucous laughter a second later. "Heh, I should have known from the stones. You're a geomancer, aren't you Haskar?" she asked, already knowing the answer as she shook her head good-naturedly. There was no point in reticence now if the earth had already told the dark elf everything he wanted to know about them, so she might as well relax. People tended to expect a fist to the gut less when she acted cheerfully anyway.

"That is what we're called in the common tongue, yes." Haskar lifted his head up and slowly moved a hand, palm down, over the small stones he'd arranged earlier and traced an esoteric pattern in the air. "And I believe you are a...spirit speaker, if I've translated the term from orcish properly? I can see why you're of such value to your partners here, since you can discern truth from lies."

Both Kemia and Chihei looked at Vira out of the corner of their eyes, waiting for her confirmation and answer to the dark elf's implied challenge. If he'd been telling lies the orc would have detected them, just as surely as she felt the air circulating throughout the entire room, heard the steady din of noise coming from the tavern's main room, and sensed the intrinsic nature of each and every object in the chamber. Her inborn perceptiveness allowed her to see beneath the masks worn in daily life, and while Haskar was clearly not telling them everything he hadn't told a single falsehood yet either. That still didn't mean he was telling the truth, though.

"Only the gods know what's fact and what's fiction in Alora, and there are times I wonder about even that," Vira replied noncommittally, shrugging. "My gift is only good at giving me splitting headaches when dealing with people, while your geomancy is more helpful in that regard since you're only dealing with a few voices instead of the din of every spirit shouting to be heard, I bet. Still...as far as I can tell, you haven't uttered a blatant lie yet."

"Nor do I intend to," Haskar spoke calmly, deep voice sounding faintly amused. "I've told you what I want and what I'm offering as payment, so as far as I'm concerned the only question left that's worth my time is whether the three of you will accept the job or not. If you say yes, I'll give you further information about Solemarn and what scant details I've acquired about the artifacts, as well as a rendezvous spot to meet back up again. If you say no, I'll find someone else and you can continue your attempts to acquire different clients here in Riven. I doubt you'll find a deal as good as the one I'm proposing, though."

Vira gave Kemia a hand signal to let the goblin know that she could decide for both of them and then retreated into her own thoughts. She knew accepting this job was a bad idea, and anyone with even the slightest knowledge of dark elves could tell that Haskar was manipulating them. Even when telling the truth his kind would twist it into a lie. Still, the orc could also tell that Kemia and Chihei would both take the offer, and she honestly wasn't sure if they were wrong to do so. It wasn't like it was uncommon for their patrons to keep them in the dark about all the details of an assignment, and there was their dwindling wallet and lack of better prospects to consider. Between all of that, Chihei's increasing restlessness in Riven, and Kemia's undoubtable curiosity over the artifacts they'd find, it seemed only sensible to give this a try...at least by the deceptive allure of self-interested reasoning.

Finally, after a few minutes in which Kemia and Chihei consulted with each other in hushed whispers, the goblin turned to face the dark elf and nodded her head. "Okay, Haskar, we'll work for you. Tell us the remaining details and we'll leave tonight. All three of us are eager to put Riven behind us, I think."

Haskar smiled widely at Kemia's words, and with their fates now sealed Vira knew that about all she could reasonably hope for was that she wouldn't regret agreeing to this later.

------

Later that night, Haskar stood and silently watched from the top of the city wall as the three mercenaries he'd hired departed Riven. The blazing bonfire housed in the nearby parapet denied him the stealth he customarily enjoyed under the sunless sky, but tonight the dark elf could care less. He'd already done his fair share of scurrying about in the shadows, and now it was time to let others do his work for him. Whether anyone saw him or not was irrelevant so long as they didn't see him with the nonhumans currently in his employ, and while that meant his old acquaintance, Rizzle's proprietor, would meet an unfortunate end before morning's light that was only a small loss since the man was of no further use to him with his debt paid.

Keeping his eyes locked on the three shrinking figures below, the dark elf inclined his head slightly to the right to call over his shoulder. There was no one behind him except for his shadow, flickering in time with the hungry bonfire, but he still spoke as if there was someone to hear him.

"Vira Bloodmoon the orc spirit speaker, Kemia Flagoon the goblin alchemist, and Chihei the lycan warrior," he said quietly but authoritatively. "According to their own estimates, they will reach Dreus in approximately two weeks. I want you there before then, but until these mercenaries arrive your mission is merely to watch. Remain hidden and do not interfere unless absolutely necessary to ensure that they retrieve the relics. And once the trio is successful and more than a day's journey from Dreus...kill them and bring the scepter to me. Any questions?"

Silence greeted these words, and having nothing more to say Haskar slowly let his head turn to face forward again. Only then, when it was impossible for the dark elf to see behind him, did his shadow change shape and vanish.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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  #2  
Old 08-14-2009, 10:57 AM
Mark_Romaneck Mark_Romaneck is offline

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A dark elf who plans to betray his mercenaries?! PREPOSTEROUS

im guessing he is the charcoal shape in the pilar room aye? it would kind of make sense.

The way I see it this so far is suited (in my personal opinion) for a comic book interpretation because the dialog is short while the descriptions and feelings could be summarized in an image.

So you have gone for Tolkienese Trolls? Im failry familiar with them ever since the third age, but having herd that they got a city in the marshlands make me wonder if they got something in their sleeves.

Nice protagonist bait with the gladiator, just when it seemed like we would get a Varian expy slash, he gets killed (?) by the female orc who I knew would survive the arena somehow, otherwise it would be a he, I dont know something inside my fantasy sense told me that if the orc was a female she wasnt your average "mook" and she would have more to play.

Maybe its the genre´s fault but it was kind of obvious.

The Lycan... what kind of werewolf is that? I mean is he the romantical wolf-faced/fisted human body or does he has a more 80´s werewolf going for him? does he even has thumbs?

Rowan I have always respected you even since the days of WCIII the unofficial forums, if you value(d?) my critics know that while there is time in my hand I will read any of your things and give my insight
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Megatron: You've forgotten something else: I am your prisoner. I've been granted conditional bail while we look for the Knights of Cybertron. Where in my bail terms does it say—where precisely does it say—that I have to risk my life to save a handful of strangers? Where does it say that?

Skids taps Megatron's Autobot badge.

Skids: Right. There. What does that badge even mean to you? How has wearing it forced you to modify your behaviour? I'm serious! How has being an Autobot in any way prevented you from doing exactly what you want? Because if the answer is "it hasn't"—then nothing you've said or done in the last six months counts for anything.
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Old 08-14-2009, 08:30 PM
Inquisitor Inquisitor is offline

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War3 forum will never die so long as we keep the fire burning.

Quote:
"And so...the ages of Alora end not with a bang but a whimper. Funny, considering I always expected the world to be consumed in a blaze of hellfire myself.
"If the Dark Lady you serve ever had her way, that would almost be an act of kindness."

"Ha! Only until the dead discover what my master has waiting for them in the afterlife."[/QUOTE]

This opening exchange really sets the tone for how the remainder of the prologue develops. There is an undertone of humor mixed with megalomania along with the promise of devastation. I like it. Things grow much more serious than these opening lines would lead one to suspect, which is perfectly all right, as the transition from humorous to serious was smoother than silk.

Quote:
The monoliths' caliginous effulgence was just enough to reveal the outlines of the fifteen tiers of benches circling the forgotten meeting place and the opaque crystal obelisk that jutted out of the round room's center, but every time a word was spoken the glow of the pillars momentarily intensified as if in anger at their solitude's interruption.
The words “contiguous effulgence” stuck out to me as typical of your style. You seem to use uncommon words in combination or by themselves to excentuate certain features being described.

Quote:
With a self-assured, husky chuckle, a tall male egressed out of one of the ruined passageways that lay between the monoliths and strode forward with confident footsteps until he stood beside the only other two humanoids in the entire room.
Again, here is some excellent diction, choosing “egressed” instead of a more common word in order to denote the smugness of the character.

Quote:
This match would almost certainly be nasty, brutish, and short.
Hobbes demands a footnote giving him credit for the expression . And I do appreciate the irony of how it was Mirk saying all this.

I’d add more, but I really couldn’t find any flaws. This is one finely polished piece of writing, as far as I can tell.

All I can say is that I look forward to more. Excellent, well done, fantastic, wonderful.

Last edited by Inquisitor; 08-14-2009 at 08:34 PM..
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Old 08-15-2009, 06:53 AM
Rowan Seven Rowan Seven is offline

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Thanks for the kind words, Mark and Inquisitor, and I really appreciate your feedback. It's good to know that this story is off to a good start, and it makes me feel better about shifting my focus to the next chapters even though there's still room for improvement here. And it's funny you should mention a comic book interpretation, Mark, because a lot of the plot for this story grew out of ideas I had for more visual mediums such as video games and anime/manga. Since the odds of me being directly involved in producing any of those in the near future are slim, though, I decided to try weaving it into novel form. Heh, and good point about the female orc too. In retrospect, I suppose it is pretty obvious that she would play a role in the story since female orcs are pretty rare in fantasy and I put a noticeable amount of effort into describing her. As for trolls, yeah, I'm going with a more Tolkien interpretation of them instead of Warcraft's version since I don't want the Blizzard influence to be utterly paramount, and on the matter of the lycan...I don't know if you ever played Secret of Mana 2/Seiken Densetsu 3 for the Super Nintendo, but I'm aiming for a beastmen feel with them. They have thumbs, but I intend to depict them in a more beastial rather than romantic manner.

And thanks for singling out the opening lines for praise, Inquisitor. I'm very pleased that they had the desired effect, and that progression from humor to seriousness will hopefully be a recurring feature of this story. Some of my earlier visions for "Champions of Darkness" called for a more Terry Pratchett style, and while it's developed in a different direction I do want to maintain that undertone of humor. As for giving Hobbes a footnote, heh, surely that quote is part of the public domain by now.
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