|ESC: New Steel
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|Author:||Haagrum [ Sun Jan 04, 2015 1:54 am ]|
|Post subject:||ESC: New Steel|
I. Raw Materials
As the first fingers of morning spread over Avelorn, a lone figure trudged mechanically on into the shadows of its forests. Gaunt, blood-spattered and barely clothed, the traveller’s golden mask seemed wholly out of place. Behind the grinning daemon’s visage lay an expressionless face and dulled eyes. Scarcely a year ago, she had known power, wealth and fame, and revelled in every vice that they could bring. Now, Malendris was barely a shell of the gladiatrix whose arena performances against traitors, beasts and monsters had thrilled the baying crowds for decades. She had not slept for days, and her movements betrayed the weight of an empty soul, one that had lost all purpose.
It should not have been this way, she thought. The final glorious invasion of Ulthuan had broken through the Eagle Gate, fought through to the Blighted Isle, and the Phoenix King Finubar was dead. This should have been a time of celebration for all druchii, marked by the restoration of the Witch King’s rulership over Elvenkind and the turning of the hated Prince Tyrion to the service of Khaine.
Malendris had only vague memories of what had happened after the battle of the Blighted Isle. She had left the battlefield in Morathi’s host, joined her fellow Sisters of Slaughter as they journeyed to Cothique in triumph. She had fought in the arenas for the amusement of Tyrion’s court, delivering artistic and captivating deaths to traitors and Asur captives alike. As the weeks passed, though, Malendris began to realise that something was amiss. Word filtered back that Lord Malekith had been crowned as the new Phoenix King, that he now opposed the chosen of Khaine as they fought to drown Ulthuan in righteous slaughter. Far worse, though, was the change that Malendris began to see in the elves around her. Where they had once gloried in the manner and grace of delivering defeat and death, they now seem consumed with an insatiable blood-lust more becoming of the Witch Elves on Death Night. In the stands, they howled with barely-concealed hunger as her weapons reaped more victims in the arenas. On the battlefield, their finely-honed skills fell away as Elven speed and brute force impelled them to acts of sickening carnage.
Her fellow Sisters were not immune, despite their dedication to Eldrazor, Lord of Blades. Malendris had been forced to slay several of them during one performance. Presiding over the arena, Prince Dalroth had decreed that only the strongest warrior would leave alive, with the blood of the fallen to be a glorious sacrifice in honour of Khaine. It was not long after that Malendris had slipped away from the army’s encampments, joining Tyrion’s bodyguard and a small group of White Lions who had stolen north with Khaine’s blade. Malendris had not known their purpose – indeed, she had not even asked it – but had left to avoid becoming one of the aeskhaine, the degenerate killers that her fellow druchii were becoming in Tyrion’s presence.
When Morathi’s hunters had found them in the woods near Analdar’s Shrine, Malendris used the terrain to her advantage. Springing from tree branches, she slew three of the pursuing dark riders before they could alert the main host of her presence. When the battle was joined, however, Malendris saw that the White Lions’ captain had thrown in his lot with Hellebron, the Crone of Har Ganeth. Having fought the Bloodied Horde in that city’s ruins, Malendris knew that joining Hellebron would only lead to the same fate she had meant to escape. Faced with rejoining the aeskhaine or the Crone, and knowing that only madness awaited at the end of either path, Malendris fled the field.
All of this felt as though it had happened years ago. Malendris had brooded on the matter as she wandered south towards Avelorn. She had been caught up in the tide, and was now flotsam being washed ashore by the sea of madness drowning her people. Perhaps there would be others who fought against the bloodlust, who would take her in. Just as likely, they would kill her out of hand for having fought alongside the Aestyrion. Between those two options, Malendris had no preference. As the shadow of Khaine had receded from her, she became aware of a growing emptiness, a lack of purpose swelling into a gnawing void. She was so preoccupied that only a shout alerted her to the figures around her.
“That’s close enough, dark one!”
Malendris snapped out of her reverie to see a cloaked figure aiming a blazing bow at her heart. One of the Everqueen’s watchers, Malendris thought. Her whip and her shield were by her sides – she would never survive long enough to fight. There would be others, too, although Malendris could not see them. The Sisters of Avelorn did not travel alone. Neither did my sisters, she thought bitterly. Malendris stopped, hands moving slowly to the daemon’s face covering her own. Pulling her mask free with both hands, she called out her reply.
“Kill me and be done with it, Ulthuani! I have survived the madness of Tyrion’s court and borne witness to the death of all I cared for. Knowing that I overcame the shadow that claimed your precious princeling is the only satisfaction I have left.”
Malendris let her hands fall by her sides, but the shot she expected never came. Another figure, garlanded with vines and flowers, emerged next to the archer. The newcomer whispered something Malendris did not understand, and a flash of light arced from her hands. Malendris was suddenly overcome by a host of images – memories from the war in Har Ganeth, the flight from Naggaroth, the nightmarish events in the host of the Aestyrion. Surging through all of those, though, was the rune symbolising Eldrazor, and the creed of the Sisters of Slaughter. These burned like a blazing torch in the torrent of death and madness surrounding them, until they had banished the others into darkness.
With an exhausted moan, Malendris fell forward onto her hands and knees. She heard voices whispering above her.
“...of them, Alandra! I saw it in her stance, her expression!” A hopeful, insistent tone, Malendris noted. Another cut in, bitter and vengeful: “Her kind have none! She asked to die – why debate the matter?” It carried no accent Malendris recognised. It was probably one of the survivors of the battle of Withelan, she mused. Over both of them, a calmer voice spoke, and Malendris heard it clearly despite the growing cloudiness overtaking her mind.
“Take her to the healers. She is not one of Khaine’s. She seeks honour through battle, and renewed purpose to fill the void within. She will have more than enough of both under the Phoenix King’s command.”
Hands caught her before she could slump to the ground, gentle but firm. As she surrendered to sleep, Malendris allowed herself a smile. Whether or not she ever opened her eyes again, she was with her people once more.
II. Heat, Fold, Hammer, Repeat
In the fighting pit, the tattooed elf whirled in a dizzying spiral, blades angled precisely, his every movement both entrancing and lethal. At the apex of his pirouette, his right-hand longsword slashed down viciously, the momentum of this strike driving a vicious horizontal backhand swing with the shorter weapon in his left hand. It was a beautiful manoeuvre, until its fluid grace was suddenly thwarted by a precisely-placed shield catching both strikes. As his feet touched the earth, the elf was knocked sprawling as his opponent drove her foot hard into his chest. Disarmed, the wardancer vaulted swiftly to his feet, but there was no follow-up from his opponent. Her face was unreadable behind a metal daemon’s mask, but her voice carried her satisfaction with victory.
“Again. Try harder, this time.”
During her recovery, Malendris had spent every available moment in training. There were few in the Phoenix King’s host who could give her a proper test, so she had begun sparring with multiple opponents. At first, it was only warriors from the Dreadspear legions who would agree to face her in groups of two or three. Eventually, as Malendris won victory after victory, even the arrogant swordsmen of both Ulthuan and Naggaroth decided to test themselves against her. Those Naggarothi who had frequented the arenas in years gone by had started watching Malendris train, with a few even starting a betting pool. She suspected that any distraction was welcome to them, given the dire times. Malendris had been defeated twice in these combats – once by a group of four Chracian hunters, and the second time by a leader of the Asrai wardancers.
She had faced them both again within a week of each defeat. The Chracians had been swiftly humbled on their second meeting, while the return bout against the Shadowdancer had lasted close to an hour. Dozens of elves had crowded around to see that duel, with more arriving as the contest continued. It was as close a feeling to being back in the arenas of Hag Graef as Malendris had felt since the invasion of Naggaroth began. Despite that, she could not quite shake the belief that the Shadowdancer had been performing as much as fighting. It had ended with the combatants locked in an embrace of sorts, the bladed hilt of her whip at the Asrai’s exposed throat and the tip of his dagger resting on the skin between two of her ribs. She remembered the wardancer smiling at her as the assembled elves held their breath, and a few began to cheer.
Back in the fighting pit, her current opponent retrieved his weapons, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. With a serpent’s grace, he blurred into action, humming an arrhythmic tune in time with his movements. The thrill of combat surging within her, Malendris moved to meet him.
The orders for all able-bodied servants of the Phoenix King to assemble at the White Tower of Hoeth came the next day.
Malendris was given command of a small contingent of Naggarond spears. Her efforts in the arena had earned her the grudging respect of the other Naggarothi – that, or sufficient wariness of her skills to give her orders a measure of weight. The Asur had wanted little to do with her, except perhaps to vent their grief and anger in the arena, and preparing to face the Aestyrion did nothing to warm their feelings. The Asrai kept a similar distance, although the devotees of Loec were a notable exception. For her own part, Malendris no longer cared what the other elves thought of her. She had no command experience, and no desire to lead any troops other than her lost sisters. She knew that this would spare her the unwelcome attentions of the higher ranks, but passing beneath the notice of the nobles was not her motivation.
By the time the Phoenix King’s host had arrived at the White Tower, the order to withdraw had already been given. Malendris felt her heart sink at the prospect of further delay, but the direction of retreat surprised her. The army was heading west, but would not be travelling through the worldroots – a prospect which excluded all but one destination in Ulthuan. Still, it did not matter to Malendris where the battle lines were drawn. Her frustration only increased as the vanguards of the Aestyrion clashed with the Phoenix King’s rearguards, while her warriors were ordered to continue west. After what seemed like an endless wait, the fleet of Admiral Aislinn arrived to ferry the host to the Isle of the Dead. The aeskhaine arrived as the Phoenix King’s host boarded the Sea Lord’s vessels. As the shieldwalls repulsed the wild charges of the aeskhaine, Malendris whispered a prayer to Eldrazor and led her charges into the fray.
What followed was less of a battle than a slaughter. The aeskhaine fought like wild animals, screaming, grasping, slashing at anything within reach. They died in droves as they struck the shieldwalls, but their sheer numbers and unthinking violence reaped a fearful toll. Malendris fought with clinical precision, directing her bladed shield and barbed whip precisely at hands, weapons, throats, eyes, anything that would give the spearwall a chance for a clean strike. There was no battle-fury, no rage or hatred driving her attacks... until she saw a collection of golden daemon-masks within the seething horde of the aeskhaine, mere metres from where she fought.
Abandoning her own warriors, vaulting over the press of bodies, Malendris descended on the fallen Sisters like the wrath of Eldrazor. The shadow of Khaine had stolen much of their former precision and grace, replacing it with a bestial ferocity. Their skills were more than a match for the spears of Naggaroth, Ulthuan or Athel Loren, but against Malendris, they were as chaff before a vengeful hurricane. Blood sprayed and bodies fell around Malendris, but in her righteous fury, she was given over entirely to wiping the shadow of Khaine from her sisters. It was not until the Caledorian dragon-riders began to scour the beaches with flame that reason returned. As the ache of battle and a dozen minor wounds set in, Malendris realised that this battle could not be won. Reluctantly, she heeded the order to retreat.
From the heaving deck of a Hawkship, Malendris watched as black, red, blue and gold dragons purged the aeskhaine with acid and fire. She knew this would not be her last dance with her fallen kin.
“White Lions, form up on me!”
Torhan of Chrace bellowed the order to his soldiers as the line of maddened beasts hurled themselves forward through the trees. In the weeks since Ulthuan had fallen, so many of his fellow Asur had succumbed to despair. In contrast, Torhan had thrown himself into slaughtering the beastmen infesting Athel Loren. With grim satisfaction, Torhan noted that his pride of Lions had followed him back into the fires of battle without a moment’s hesitation.
We have no Phoenix King to defend, he thought, but we still have eternity.
To Torhan’s right, a clutch of Swordmasters assumed a defensive stance, prepared to wait until the last moment to unleash precise counter-strikes against the oncoming hordes. Though the density of the twisted trees in this part of Anmyr prevented them from joining ranks, Torhan knew that Swordmasters would have no trouble maintaining their formation. It was the Naggarothi to his left that worried Torhan more. Judging by their demeanour and the unblemished steel of their spears and shields, they had spent too long fighting prey rather than worthy opponents. Only their leader, a masked warrior named Malendris who bore only a shield and whip as her armaments, seemed to be a seasoned fighter. She had been found starving and aimless in Avelorn, a wandering deserter from Tyrion’s forces.
Torhan had heard tales of the Sisters of Slaughter before encountering Malendris, but had dismissed them as stories spread by lesser warriors who had simply been outclassed. Seeing Malendris in action had erased his doubts. During her recovery in Lothern, she had trained relentlessly, becoming a spectacle of sorts for the mustering soldiers. Torhan and his unit had arrived after the razing of Chrace and Avelorn, and the chance to show the dark elves that greater strength remained in the sons of Asuryan was too tempting for Torhan’s Lions to turn down. Twice, four of his fighers had faced her in the practice ring. They had been the first to defeat her, and Torhan had felt justifiably proud of his men. In a return bout demanded by the gladiatrix only a week later, they had been defeated in a display of martial prowess that Torhan had found unnerving.
As the wild beasts closed to within striking distance, Torhan prayed that Malendris would not need a practice attempt against these foes as well.
In the chaos of the beastmen’s charge, all sense of order in the battle lines evaporated. Precise blows would count for more than power or ferocity, but with the warherd mustering such numbers, their frenzied madness was dangerous enough. As the swirling melee ebbed and flowed, the White Lion to Torhan’s left, Charan, was replying in kind. Blood flowed freely from wounds on his left arm and forehead, but his every movement was a study in elven grace married to brute power. As Torhan took a heartbeat to glance sideways, a large gor attempted to block Charan’s axe with his two-handed mace. The brute’s arms held against the force of the blow, but the descending blade cleaved through haft, horn and skull before settling part-way through the beastman’s warped sternum. Torhan felt a surge of satisfaction at Charan’s victory, but the cheer died in his throat as a bull’s roar echoed nearby.
Blood-mad and braying, the minotaurs charged in the wake of the gors and ungors. Caught off-guard by their speed and ferocity, Charan was too slow to pull his axe from the body of his downed opponent. Scrambling back from a wild blow from the chunk of masonry the minotaur hefted as a club, the elf was bludgeoned to the dirt by an unexpectedly quick backhand as he grabbed for his own axe. Next to Charan, the druchii warriors formed a tight circle around the next bull-headed monster, removing the immediate danger to the Lions’ flanks. Dispatching the hornless runt before him with a decapitating swing, Torhan sprung to the aid of his comrade.
Some predator’s instinct must have warned Torhan’s new foe of the lethal strike approaching him. The minotaur howled as the tailing edge of Torhan’s axe gouged a bloody furrow in its forearm, but the blow had not taken the beast’s arm as Torhan had intended. Roaring in pain and rage, the beast swatted Torhan away with its bloodied forearm. Staggering back, Torhan prepared to block the next attack, but the horned monster had its eyes set on its original prey. Charan had crawled to retrieve his axe, but the beast brought its mace down in a vicious overhead swing as his hand touched the haft. As Torhan watched, the minotaur’s blow drove Charan’s head and upper body into the hard ground with a sickening crunch.
With a howl of grief, Torhan lunged at Charan’s killer. The minotaur brushed the strike to one side with its own weapon, still dripping blood. The hulking brute roared fiercely and bore down on Torhan, who stepped back and assumed a defensive stance. He felt a flutter of fear, and knew that this foe was beyond his skills alone. The other White Lions were holding the gors pushed aside by the minotaurs’ charge, but none were close enough to come to his aid. He could hold the monster’s attention for a while, at least, and prayed that his strength would hold long enough. The trees were slightly sparser behind him, and he could exploit his swiftness more easily with greater room to move. He hoped that it would be enough. Gors tried to press forward in the minotaur’s wake, but Naggarond spears swooped from Torhan’s right to stall their advance.
His deliverance came more immediately than Torhan had expected.
At the corner of Torhan’s vision, two hooked strands flashed into view, curling around the advancing minotaur’s face before snapping back with an echoing crack. The leading barb on the two-tailed whip took the minotaur in the nose, but the second snaked around to lodge itself in the beast’s left eye. A moment later, both hooks pulled free and the beast screamed in pain. Flailing around blindly to its right, the minotaur’s blow was a moment too late to catch Malendris. The gladiatrix had jumped backwards, planting one foot on a low branch and laughing at the beast. Taking advantage of the distraction, Torhan brought his weapon down in an arcing slash that sheared the minotaur’s left arm off at the elbow. Disarmed and mad with pain, the minotaur swung its head around at Torhan, aiming to gut him on its horns. It missed Torhan by inches, but the leading horn swept his axe from his hands.
Torhan ducked under the beast’s wild trailing strike and rolled to his right, hand seizing upon his weapon as he rose to a crouch. Despite his speed, the monster was quicker. With its remaining hand, the minotaur grabbed the axe just below the blade and smacked Torhan in the face with its callused fist. As Torhan stumbled back, letting go of his weapon, the whip snapped again, and both tails wrapped around the beast’s right horn. Torhan’s movements had exposed the minotaur’s back to Malendris, and the Sister of Slaughter took full advantage. Yanking the whip hard across her body, Malendris leaped from her position in a spiralling arc, jerking the monster’s head up and back. Her shield, its edge honed to razor sharpness, took the minotaur in the side of the neck. A gout of corrupt ichor sprayed out from the wound, and the minotaur instinctively reached up to stem the bleeding, releasing its grip on Torhan’s axe as it did so. As the beast turned to face Malendris, Torhan caught his axe and brought it around with all the strength his pain and grief could lend him. The beast’s gurgling roar ended in a whimper as Torhan’s axe passed through skin, muscle and bone, its blade emerging from the cut that Malendris had opened with her shield.
With the fall of the minotaurs, the beastmen’s nerve cracked. The last of the beasts was on its knees to Torhan’s left, a handful of dead druchii at its feet and a dozen more driving their spears into it from every direction. For a heartbeat, Torhan was glad for the dark elves’ sadism – they were drawing out the kill, letting the monster howl, and breaking the spirits of the lesser beasts around it. For once, their brutality serves some good purpose, mused Torhan, though he was glad to see that the monster had reaped its own tally. Allies or not, he would never shed a tear for the death of a druchii.
Momentarily lost in his thoughts, Torhan failed to hear Malendris approach. She saved him the trouble of a greeting.
“Your friend fought well, Lion.”
Her voice was level, Torhan noted, but he was in no mood for insincere platitudes.
“Spare me your false pity, dark elf. You do not know me, and you did not know him. Were it not for the direness of present times, you would gladly have killed him yourself.”
Behind the mask, her expression was unreadable. Torhan’s White Lions were returning to his side now, each one looking battered and bloodied. Three were missing, he noted. Malendris stood alone, her fighters still enjoying the speared minotaur’s death throes.
“Had he faced me, yes. I am not sorry for his death, Lion. He died as a warrior should. I am grateful for his skills in battle, and for having had the chance to slay his killer.” Her voice was calm, but there was a wavering trace of joy in it, as though the battle was its own prize.
“And that is why we are different, druchii. He was not merely a warrior. His name was Charan. He served at Finuval Plain, at the Moonspire, at Reaver’s Mark and at the Isle of the Dead.” Gesturing to the injured White Lions behind him, Torhan continued, his anger mounting. “He was our brother. We are grateful for having known and served with him, not for being able to avenge him. Leave us be, and enjoy whatever your kind have planned as celebrations. We have comrades to mourn.”
Unexpectedly, Malendris bowed slightly, taking in the assembled White Lions.
“Eldrazor’s blessings upon you, brothers of Charan.”
The gladiatrix turned sharply and left to restore order to her own charges.
With the beastmen routed, the druchii survivors had taken prisoners for their amusement. For the sake of unity within the elven forces, the festivities would taken place at sufficient distance from the asur and asrai. As the captured gors and ungors were bound and the ceremonies began, Malendris slipped away from her comrades. She had no desire to see more torture or blood-letting that day – she had seen enough for even an elf’s lifetime. She wondered how she had changed so greatly when so many others had not.
The pain was still there, as it had been since the battle on the Isle of the Dead. That last spark of merciless hatred within her soul had been snuffed out in the same instant that Tyrion had fallen dead. In its wake, the only replacement was a sense of emptiness. The constant battles against the beastmen hordes in Anmyr and the feral tree spirits wandering that blighted realm were welcome distractions. Still, they were mere bandages over deep wounds, and the thrill of combat could not numb that ache in the small hours of the night. She had watched her Sisters fall under the shadow of Khaine, and had sent many of them to their rest thereafter. More than ever, Malendris felt alone.
Not far away, Torhan was privately fuming as he marched through the woods. One of the Naggarothi lords had been placed in command of this army, but the scouts’ reports had been directed to the Asur mage leading his contingent on the gusting winds of magic. As the least-injured woodsman among the High Elves, Torhan had been nominated to bring word to the druchii fighters of the large force of beastmen massing to the north-west. The elves would march in the morning, and could not afford for their darker cousins to be so affected by their celebrations as to present any risk of defeat.
They came upon each other almost by accident. The conversation was brief. Torhan spoke stiffly, delivering his message. Malendris nodded, a glitter of happiness lighting in her eyes at the prospect of another battle. Torhan had turned to leave, and had started back to the Asur camp, when Malendris called out for him to stop. His right hand reflexively tightening on his axe, Torhan turned to face the dark elf.
Malendris considered her words carefully. The uncertainty of recent times weighed heavily on her. She did not know why this woodsman’s opinion should matter to her at all, but she needed to have it. Perhaps he would understand what she had lost.
“If I told you that finally seeing your people scattered and Ulthuan destroyed has brought me no satisfaction, would you believe me?”
The Chracian eyed Malendris warily. After a moment’s consideration of her words and her posture, Torhan realised that there was no artifice or deception buried in the Naggarothi’s question. Her kind had finally vanquished Ulthuan and ended the line of the Phoenix Kings, but this one had weighed the cost and found it not to her liking. She had saved his life that day, and probably many others. His reply would have weight beyond mere words, and they both knew it.
“No”, answered Torhan.
At his reply, the gladiatrix slumped briefly, almost imperceptibly, as though suppressing an injury. Malendris corrected her movement in an instant. The moment had passed, and her pride would not allow her to show any further weakness. She nodded, and turned sharply to deliver the host’s orders to her fellow druchii.
Torhan waited a moment before he called out after her.
“Ask me again tomorrow.”
|Author:||Aicanor [ Sun Jan 04, 2015 8:07 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: ESC: New Steel|
Not bad for a first post. Not bad at all. In fact, I enjoyed the story very much with all the awkwardness of the High and Dark alliance. Well done and welcome to the forum!
|Author:||Makiwara [ Sun Jan 04, 2015 9:59 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: ESC: New Steel|
This story was so nice, I read it twice! Once on Ulthuan, once on Druchii that is. Love the fact that you are giving depth to the continued personal struggles of reunification and look forward to reading more. Much respect.
|Author:||Haagrum [ Thu Jan 08, 2015 8:19 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: ESC: New Steel|
Thanks, Aicanor and Makiwara. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
It has been interesting to see the proliferation of Eternity King lists on some of the forums, and to see the old hatreds falling away in the pursuit of a better WAAC list. In the fluff, though, there are still deep wounds to be healed before there can be anything resembling trust between all members of the unified elves. Their cultures are so different that even a simple conversation could start a fight. Malendris might be unusual for a druchii, but none of that would mean that she was accepted immediately by the Asur or Asrai.
The last line is meant to be an olive branch, a sliver of hope for the future. Torhan has exceptionally good reasons to hate the druchii, but he might be able to look past that anger, at least in one case. Malendris has lost everything except her warrior's creed and has deliberately cut herself off emotionally, but perhaps she is not doomed to be alone forever.
|Author:||Davariel [ Sat Jan 17, 2015 8:36 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: ESC: New Steel|
Hmm, it's interesting to see something from a Druchii perspective. So glad to see such depth and attention being given to the Asur/Druchii interactions (naturally, the Asrai aren't nearly as important ).
Just excellent, especially the way you developed Malendris.
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