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 Tales from the Age of Heroes: Payback

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Pat
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PostSubject: Tales from the Age of Heroes: Payback   Mon Apr 18, 2016 7:50 am

Olden has a very long history. From when it began in September, 2008, to the current date of April 2016, innumerable stories have been told within the Olden setting. The lore has not always been the same, and things have changed greatly in these 8 years, but the fact remains that Olden has provided a great deal of joy, entertainment, and even meaning for those who have involved themselves.

Most of these stories and events have been lost, with the only remnant being memory. But thanks to Munroe, some of these have been preserved in the form of detailed logs. For whatever it means, I have taken it upon myself to rewrite these logs into a cohesive story. Hopefully you find them enjoyable.

These stories will be updated according to my interest (which can be haphazard) and focus (which can be even more so). I've chosen to start with 'Payback', the quest that ended the Black Tower / Sharic plotline, which still remains one of my favorite and most memorable plotlines in Olden's history.

Thanks again to Munroe for being my brutal, authoritarian editor without whom I could do nothing.


So - Enjoy.


Last edited by Pat on Mon Apr 18, 2016 8:39 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Part 1   Mon Apr 18, 2016 7:53 am

Zayl never thought the end of the world would be this quiet. This dark, perhaps... But not so quiet.

The streets of Surna, one of the larger cities of the Empire, were usually full of people and life. People moving about, caught up in their daily lives, with little thought to the affairs of the world beyond the town walls. Some might give a certain consideration to their own mortality - but most of it was drowned out, set aside in the course of daily life. Anything could happen and it wasn’t worth worrying about... At least, not at the moment.

But not today. On this cold November morning, the streets are empty of common life. Instead, the streets were roamed by guards, clad in weapons and armor as much as paranoia. Conscripted peasants, guided by sallow Vitamancers, collect the fresh dead for mass cremation. The causes of death are as numerous as the dead - from murder, an all too common occurrence, to the accursed plague, a deadlier and more sinister killer than any man. These days, one had to take great care to avoid being lost, lest they turn up days later, ghost-white with a torn-out throat. People have taken to arming themselves and barring their doors with locks and holy symbols, anything to give them a better chance at survival. And yet, day and night, the pyres rage on, fattened by bounties of fresh dead.

Even the countryside, the normal refuge for urbanites in the midst of a plague, had been rendered completely unsafe and in many ways, worse. One by one, the surrounding villages, plantations, and common farms upon which Surna relies for food have vanished. Most times this meant the villages simply ceased contact, regular shipments waning or stopping outright. Those rare times when the fate of a village is discovered are enough to discourage curiosity about the rest. The Legionnaires and Guards who went out come back with their numbers halved and their faces pale. Nobody asks them what they found. The story is well-known by now.

The story was much the same everywhere. But around Surna, it was the worst. Nobody knew quite what was happening - there were guesses, theories - but the earth itself had fallen under the sway of the enemy. The trees, withered and pale, played host to unknown and unspeakable growths. The ground was reduced to a mire of mud and filth. The skies were darkened. The sun no longer rose, its light concealed by thick, ominous clouds. Clouds play host to unknown horrors, their silhouettes writhing about in the deep.

The city, Zayl thought, was resigned to it’s fate. Too much had happened and the cost of fighting back proved too steep. In other regions, cities were completely abandoned, their occupants having fled. Those best off had simply closed their doors to outsiders - abandoning everyone outside the walls for hope of containing the spread of plague. The might of the Empire had long failed. The Emperor was dead, the Legions were dead, the cities were dead. The nation was dead. All the Gods, even Tyr, had abandoned them. All save for one. The one whose shadow now consumed, enthralled, enraptured. The one who had the world by the throat.

Shar. The Enemy.

Zayl is brought out of his musing by the sound of a grindstone being drawn along the edge of a blade. That was Zack - short for Zacharia - Flame. He was a Knight, of sorts, but a monster hunter by trade. Though he'd been trained in numerous weapons, he favored a particular bladed staff whose edge he now honed. The simple, unadorned oak handle had at each end a blade - each fashioned from the finest steel, and one plated in blessed silver. At his sides were a pair of silver-lined dirks, on his back a quiver full to the brim with custom silver crossbow bolts, meant to be fed into his specially made, tightly wound hand crossbow. He didn’t quite look the part of a Knight, eschewing much of the ubiquitous armor in favor of a Jack of Plates around his torso. This was simple, padded leather woven around segmented, Brigandine-style plates. He wore thickly padded wool Gambeson around his legs and a stylish wide-brimmed hat - secretly reinforced with padding and plate.His arms he left uncovered - a full range of motion was necessary in using his staff. Yet despite his apparel, he was a Knight - not by the authority of any King or Emperor, but by the grace of Tyr Himself. He was the purest example of the Knight-Errant, charged with a greater purpose. Hidden within, Zack possessed the fires of Tyr - Silver Fire.  Zack himself may not have been the purest of souls in Zayl’s eyes, but a manwith such a clear and unwavering purpose was needed in these times. All of his 45 years showed on his face, brow furrowed in grim concentration as he went about preparing his weapon.

Zayl and Zacharia weren't the only ones waiting in the great hall of Surna's Keep. There were others, among them two of Zack's most trusted companions.The first was his loyal, if simple, bloodhound, Claw. Claw had been trained from birth to do one thing: hunt the undead. His powerful sense of smell could track necrotic flesh, blood, and the distinctive scent of Vampires for miles. His body itself served the cause of purification: his fangs and claws had been dipped in molten silver. At the moment, Claw lay at the feet of Zack’s second, and strangest, companion: the living doll Natalia. Unlike most dolls, however, Natalia was not made of porcelain and fabric, but solid steel. Her exterior had been painted and clothed, appearing for all the world like an unearthly noblewoman. But Natalia was not alive. The clockwork machinations of her inner body were powered by the will of an undead woman.

Natalia had been constructed at the behest of an Arushykan noble. Capable of astounding articulate motion, she was guided by the soul of the Arushykan’s dead wife. Designed to look as close to the original Natalia as possible, the noble grew more obsessed with the doll every day, treating her as his slave. That is, until Zack executed the noble for Necromancy and found and freed Natalia. By all rights, Natalia should have been destroyed by Zack for what she was. But perhaps in a moment of weakness, he spared her and instead, gave her a new purpose: the destruction of all those who dwelt in the darkness. To this end, Natalia had been retrofitted with a number of weapons, such as spring-loaded blades in her arms. Even without her weapons, however, facing Natalia was a dangerous proposition. Entirely incapable of feeling pain, and composed of wood, steel, and clockwork, Natalia could take far more punishment than her human counterpart. The only way to stop her was to dismantle her completely. In spite of this, she was heavy and slow, and clockwork only gave her a certain range of motion compared to a human being. Still, she would be necessary in the hours ahead.

The others in the room were a bit more varied. There was Calneche Veremoth, a 34 year old ex-Legionnaire turned questing adventurer. By Zayl’s recollection, Calneche had served in the Legions for years as a professional soldier until, disgusted by all the death he saw and the inability to stop it, he left the Legions and fell into a cult of Bane. The cult served his need for answers, for harsh and swift justice. The absolutism at the core of Bane’s ideology and the power he was granted allowed him to enact the punishments he thought the wicked deserved. But in the end, he realized that the cult persecuted the weak just as much as the people he had fought against. He abandoned the cult and sought his own path, protecting the weak from those that would most exploit them. A towering, strongly built man, Calneche was heavily armored to match, making him appear even larger. He was clad in a layer of plate protecting his arms, legs, and shoulders, matched by a Hauberk of mail draped over and under the plate. Underneath, a Gambeson acted to cushion the armor above. A pig-headed bascinet sat on a table at his side, ready to be put on at a moment’s notice, set over a coif of yet more mail and cloth. Hidden away beneath his armor were the Warlock’s tattoos granted him by the cult. Capable of conjuring up dark, demonic powers to this day, Calneche had sworn never to indulge such dark spirits again. In lieu of these powers, Calneche wielded a long steel halberd, along with with a hand-and-half sword stuck into his belt.

Next to Zayl himself sat Seymour Mika, an old friend and pupil. Seymour was young but he was talented, and Surna needed every willing body. That was why Zayl had called him back here, into danger. Seymour had learned the basics of magic under Zayl years ago. Eager to make something of himself, he left to seek out a magical education in the capital.With further study, Seymour had become adept in Evocation and Abjuration. By Zayl’s understanding, Seymour had sought admittance into the Battlemage College in Imperia; he had just barely avoided the Sack of Imperia.  The dream was now dead - just like all of the Battlemages.

The last of the motley assemblage sat alone, away from the group. John Udgrad, once a shadow mage and acolyte of Shar, had abandoned Her worship as a matter of self-preservation. He had followed Shar for personal power but discovered that when She won, he’d shortly be discarded. He turned himself over to the Surna guard, imparting valuable information about the capabilities of the enemy. Zayl didn’t trust him, and he knew most of the others didn’t either. Udgrad had acted to save himself, and that was all he could be relied upon to do. Outfitted with a Jack of Plates and a side-sword to supplement his considerable magical prowess, Udgrad was nonetheless ready to join the others in the fight. Zayl could only hope he was reliable.

Last of all, there was Zayl himself. Even in his own eyes, he was an unlikely candidate for what they intended to do. Zayl wore little armor and carried only a single weapon, a silver-plated Kris-style dagger. He was thin and tall, with pale, narrow features. Clad in well-worn black robes, Zayl relied almost entirely on his command of the arcane to defend himself; a skill with which he knew exceeded all others in the room. But Zayl didn’t feel particularly heroic. Having grown up in a special militarized sect of the clergy, his sense of heroism and justice had early on been replaced by an all-consuming obsession with power over death. He had sought to resurrect the one person who had shown him kindness, even to the point of death; a priestess named Holly Ross. In doing so, he abandoned his vows and sought out the secrets of Necromancy. But that was an old story, one Zayl had long tried to forget.Though he had abandoned that goal, the skills he learned in its pursuit stuck with him as a grim reminder. Now, he had a different task - one left yet again by a dying friend. Marius Shire had left in his hands the future of the Vindicators, an order which sought to preserve mortal freedom, autonomy, and happiness. Zayl’s tenure as Grandmaster of the Vindicators was only a few hours old, yet he may already have failed. His task may have been doomed from the start, as the world was now on the cusp of a generation-long darkness from which mortalkind may never emerge. Zayl tried not to think about it too much.

For all the strength and skill of its members, Zayl knew this band was not enough. Gone was the golden-haired Vindicator, the half-celestial with a sword of divine make and the will to wield it. Her very presence was anathema to Shar’s aberrations, her lifetime of training had forged her into a living weapon of Tyr. She had fought alongside Zayl, alongside Marius. She had called them friends, and only by her courage did they make it even this far. Yet now she was gone. As they slept she had set off to challenge Shar alone. Zayl awoke to, of all things, a kiss goodbye, believing himself in a dream. He had never let himself think that she might-… but it did not matter now. He would never see her alive again.

Finally, the door opened, marking the arrival of the last two members of their group: Commander of the Guard Thorn Razel and ‘Knight’ Jacob Antonis. Their arrival was matched by a small parade of heavily armored Guards with tired faces and bloodshot eyes, who quickly moved to secure the room, standing in front of every door and window. Immediately, every eye fell on Thorn, who waited until the door behind him was latched and barred before addressing the whole group.

Thorn was perhaps the most physically imposing member of the group. He was clad from head to toe in thick, solid platemail the color of dried blood. This was the infamous armor of Hell’s most feared warriors - the Banespawn. Forged from demonflesh and imbued with the blood and indomitable will of the Dreadlord Sylornath, Stygian, as it was called, was extremely heavy and practically invulnerable. It only resembled mortal plate in basic function. Each plate of Stygian was unique, with an organic texture similar to that of a clam shell - intricate patterns and swirls, jagged and harshly formed spikes crisscrossing the armor.

Stygian was feared not only for its strength but also for the corruption that it inflicts on the wearer. The armor, like a terrible tomb, was home to the soul of its first occupant, and by wearing the armor Thorn had subjected himself to tremendous mental hardship. Thorn would never quite be the same afterwards. Though he escaped total destruction at the hands of the demon - known as ‘Harbavul’ - he was permanently changed, becoming one with the demon within. As a result, he was brash and crude, with a tendency towards violence and anger. But he could also be caring in a way that no pure demon could. When the lines were drawn, he was the fiercest foe to face and the greatest ally one could have. He was also one of Zayl’s longest friends, and he trusted him with his life. He would have to.

What a strange bunch, Zayl thought. Not your typical heroes; Heretics and apostates. In another time, they’d have all been burned at the stake. But now they represented what might be the best and last chance at salvation.

“Right, so, this is all?” Thorn asked the room, only briefly pausing for an answer. “Right then. The room’s been enchanted n’ fortified against intrusion, an’ everyone here’s been vouched for by yours truly. Yeh can talk freely, without fear of bein’... overheard. First, though, Sir Antonis ‘s got somethin’ to say. I’ll leave it t’ him.”

Thorn stepped away, allowing Jacob Antonis to take his place. Though a great deal shorter than Thorn, he was no less imposing. His formidable gaze spoke of experience, of knowledge grim and empyrean. His face was deeply scarred, leathery with age, obscured by a forest of dark hair. He was clad in full plate mail, worn over a sturdy chain hauberk, and draped in a tabard bearing heraldry of Tyr’s sworn warriors. Despite his aged appearance and the weight of his equipment, he moved unhindered. Most knew him as Sir Jacob Antonis, a Knight of Tyr and a renowned war hero in Kerodil; but Zayl knew him as Zerachiel, the Archangel of Order. Alyssa had told him, in a moment of confidence, that the Archangel had guided her throughout her life, even going so far as to bring her back from the dead, infused with a measure of divine power. Zayl wasn’t sure what to think of him. Here he stood, ready to help defend mortalkind in their hour of need; yet, whether he intended it or not, he was the source of all the hardship in Alyssa’s life. He kept the truth of his nature secret from the others. Why he did this, Zayl was unsure - surely the men could do with some added confidence - but the ways of the celestials were beyond his ability, and even desire, to understand. With cold, blue eyes, he surveyed the room and everyone in it before finally speaking, his voice clear and resolute.

“You have been gathered here, each of you, because you know the threat we face. You know what we stand to lose if the Enemy wins.”

“Our goal is simple, but the undertaking could not be more difficult. Some of you may have an inkling of the truth of our task. But I will state it again, to be sure that everyone understands.”

“Mere miles from here stands a dark spire, a nexus of foul evil. It is the centerpiece of the Enemy’s plan, Shar’s greatest foothold on this world. Though it is made of stone and steel, it is also intimately connected to Her nature. Its walls are as much a part of Her as Her own corrupted flesh. It is the center of the cancer which now ails us. The Black Tower.”

“Within these walls, a monster is incubating. A divine abomination, a creature of immense power and focused rage. Under special care, it has engorged itself upon the souls of thousands. It feasts on death and has grown corpulent; Indeed, the greater purpose of this war has been to feed this beast. It is an Avatar, and I fear it nears completion. The hour is soon approaching where Shar will emerge from the Void and unite her prime soul with this Destroyer. This will spell the end of mortalkind.”

The group remained silent as the Archangel-turned-Knight spoke. Zack’s preparation continued unabated - a vibrant, silver flame erupting from his hands, coating the silver edge of his staff. Natalia stood frozen as she always did, clicking and whirring as her internal components maintained her balance. In the corner, Udgrad turned away - tense, on guard. Perhaps he had seen enough to know that what Antonis was saying was true. Zayl himself merely leaned forward, his idle hands finding the necklace around his neck, and the wafer-thin blue coin it holds. As he listened, he slowly turned the coin around in his fingers.

After the briefest of pauses, Antonis continued. “Though the situation is dire, there is yet hope - in anticipation of this abhorrent birth, two blades were forged, within them power long and carefully gathered - enough to end this threat. Alyssa and her brother, Alexander, were chosen to wield these blades, and their sacrifices have been great: most recently, Alexander himself was consumed by the Destroyer. However, this may prove the Enemy’s undoing. The second blade now rests within the creature. This is our hope; that Alyssa can reach the Destroyer, and in doing so, unite the two blades. No matter the power of this fiend, a strike from within and without will rend it to pieces. Nothing else matters but that Alyssa must survive to complete this task.”

“Unfortunately, she departed the night before without our knowledge. She means to go to the Black Tower alone, hoping perhaps to spare our lives. However noble her intentions, there is too much at stake. Thus it falls to us to find Alyssa and see her to the end. There is no other way.”

“We will be entering the Enemy’s domain. Never underestimate them; they possess brute strength and low cunning in equal measure. They fight without honor, striking from the shadows with speed and skill beyond most mortals, attacking only when confident of victory. Do not expect mercy.”

Jacob paused, glancing around the room again. “Now that you all know what is required of us, I offer the chance to turn back, to escape with your life on the chance the rest of us can succeed. This will be your last chance, and should we fall, the last free decision you will make. Your lives are your own, to risk as you choose. Leave now, and nobody will stop you.”

One, long moment of silence passes. Zack continued in his preparations; there was no doubt in his mind. His life had led up to this. The others were not so certain. Even if the end was coming, there was still time to be with loved ones… To live out your last moments in comfort rather than dying in combat, gasping for life in the muck. Even Zayl felt some hesitation. But he felt the coin beneath his fingers and knew it was simply not an option. It was about more than just himself.

Nobody left.

Jacob surveyed the room, nodding slowly, appreciatively. If this was mortalkind’s final hours, he thought, then at least they would end with nobility; a defiant cry against the darkness, no matter how small.

“Good,” Jacob said, sighing a bit. “Let us continue, then.”

Without any further words, Jacob walked into the center of the room. With a simple gesture, a brilliant light erupted from his palm, coalescing into a startlingly precise representation of Surna and the surrounding countryside, a glimmering map projected upon the open air. Seymour leaned forward, impressed by the display; in many ways, he continued to have a child-like fascination with magic, despite all that had happened.

The map readily depicted the many, winding streets of Surna and the rolling hills and forests beyond. With a gesture of his hand, the city disappeared, replaced by endless tracts of forest. Soft lines of light projected 4 different paths through the forest; at the end of one, the mark of Shar. “We will be leaving within the hour. As the Enemy greatly outnumbers us, there will be three diversionary assaults on the outskirts of the Tower’s defenses.” Jacob paused for a moment, glancing around the room. “A mixture of volunteers from local Guardsmen and Legionaries, led by Sentinels, will screen our approach and attempt to draw as much attention as possible. They will attempt a retreat, but it is likely that many will die. The Sentinels in particular have come from Kerodil, to a land that is not their own - to die defending it. Honor their sacrifice.”

Calneche nodded in grim appreciation. John Udgrad, on the other hand, suddenly spoke up. “And what about us? Will we be able to retreat if necessary?”

Before Jacob could answer, Zack glanced over, a look of disgust on his face. “You mean to run? There ain’t no runnin’ for you, Sharite. You turn around, you’ll find a bolt in your spine. That’s a promise.”

Udgrad, rising to the challenge, opened his mouth to retort only to be cut off by Jacob. “Enough. Bickering and mistrust will get us nowhere. As to your question, John; we will be going deep behind enemy lines. We will be unable to send anyone back with you. The only way out may be forward.”

“So it’s suicide, then?” John asked, a bit of indignation creeping into his voice.

“Yeh can walk, if yeh like,” Thorn says, suddenly speaking up from the back. “But I’m inclined t’agree with Zack. You walk, it’s into a short grave.”

John glanced around the room, looking for defenders and finding none. Sufficiently cowed, he sat back, a foul look on his face.

Jacob frowned, unhappy with the threats being passed around. But he pressed forward regardless.

“If that is all… Then we have very little time to waste. Follow my lead, and do so closely, and without hesitation. Remember; the eyes of the Enemy are everywhere.”

At his word, the group collected their items. Calneche donned his helmet and took up his halberd; with a gesture from Zack, Natalia and Claw followed along, Claw at Zack’s heels and Natalia shortly behind, clanking as she walked. Casting a glance to Seymour, Zayl followed along, quickly finding himself at Thorn’s side.

Together, they made their way out of the city, past the bonfires of corpses and pervasive death. Checkpoints yielded before them without hesitation, but this was no heroic departure. The streets were as silent as they had been, with little to mark their passing.

And so they went forth, into the darkness, into the grasp of the Enemy. They would not see light again for quite some time.
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