Alt: Shattered Stone

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Alt: Shattered Stone

Post by Verence on Tue May 13, 2008 10:22 am

Regine awoke in a groggy, pain-filled daze. She blearily reached for the matted, sticky mass that clung to her face, tearing it free in an effort that brought a searing new wave of agony. She managed only a weak gasp before blacking out once more.

She awoke again she knew not how long after, dimly aware of cool still air against her aching skin. The Elvaan woman sighed gratefully for the small grace and attempted to open her eyes. She uttered a faint cry as her left lid refused to open, instead twitching feebly in pain. Wasting no more effort on what must be crusted shut, she swept her blood-clotted hair from her good eye and scanned the room. A low moan escaped her as she beheld butchery on a level she'd never before contemplated.

Mere hours before, she'd been on her feet and quite free from pain. Royal Guard Regine Toudaillege had been assigned to gate duty in the Ranguemont Pass, along with a small garrison of Royal Knights. 'Slab-watching,' they'd jeeringly called it, as if it were the massive stone gate that secured the subterranean passage they watched, not the dangers it held at bay. A dull task, but a necessary one she'd deemed it. With the orcs largely subdued, even – Goddess forbid – peaceful of late, there was little call for martial prowess.

Regine did not particularly mind. Let the fool yearn for war, for times of strife. Only the young and romantic did not grasp the grim reality that had never truly passed, only hunkered down to wait, twenty long years past. Riven dreams and dashed hopes was all war amounted to in her mind; after all, it was what had torn her sister from her. As children they had intended to open a magic shop, but with Rugiette fallen to cruel Orcish axes, Regine had found the entrepreneurial spark wholly extinguished.

She'd known then that the conflict would never truly end, not until the malevolent will that had brought it to pass lay stilled. Yet the Shadow Lord still sat upon the black throne of Zvahl, doubtless filled with maliceful end, and she wondered how long the lands of Vana'Diel would wait in breathless silence.

She'd resolved not to go silently when the day came; she was no lamb to be slaughtered. She'd put aside her dreams of sorcery and been reborn of steel. And now, dull and boring as her duty may be, she found herself closer to the shadow's doorstep than she cared for. The royal guard wanted little more than for the week's watch to be over, and for the next watch to relieve her team. Unfortunately, they'd never had the opportunity.

Regine did not know quite when it was that she'd been rudely awakened by a hand urgently shaking her shoulder. Only that whenever it was, it was far too early. She'd been about to dole out a few choice words to reward the young man's efforts, but the fear that tightened his voice checked her.

"Hsst! Ma'am!"

"Yes. What." She rolled over with a protesting groan and met his eyes. She sat up almost involuntarily at the mask of nervous terror that greeted her.

"Sounds, ma'am, at the gate. Scratching, muttering, other... sounds," he finished inarticulately.

The lady swordsman yawned without quite meaning to, allowing an edge of irritation to creep into her voice.

"What does the watch report."

"Nothing ma'am. We haven't heard a thing from them."

"Then send a scout around to scale the back way and see what in Altana's name is going on out there," grumbled Regine, one hand rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

"We have, ma'am. Paurege, you know how he's familiar with these c—" he stopped at her impatiently upraised hand, and amended himself. "It's been three hours and he's not yet returned."

"Three hours," demanded Regine. "Three hours and I have not been roused?" She angrily extricated herself from her bedroll and silenced the explanation already forming on the young knight's lips with a glare. "Rouse the others and put them on alert. I will hear these 'other sounds' for myself."

She stood and dressed herself in the mail that was her uniform, paying no mind to the knight who'd scampered off to obey her bidding. Pulling on her iron mufflers, she caught up her helm and strode to the gate. She recognized the man who returned her nod of greeting with approval. If there was any level-headed sort among the unit to keep the rest from losing their, it was Daveille. She was fortunate he'd been the one on watch during all this. She gave him a wordless, questioning look. Daveille only shook his head.

"It has grown faint, milady. Try pressing your ear to the stone."

She did as she was bidden and felt her breath catch in her throat. From the other side came an intermittent chink-chink-chink interspersed by hollow, metallic rumblings. She listened in stunned silence, unable to divine what the sounds may be and uncomfortably aware that it may go ill for her and her men if she did not find out soon.

"Daveille," she snapped, turning from the stone. "Send more men to discover what manner of deviltry is happening out there. Three this time. Tell them they are under strict orders to return and report, even if it is upon bloodied stumps!"

Daveille saluted and departed to do just that, passing on his way out the knights who'd begun to shuffle in, heavy-lidded with sleep yet cautiously wary. They murmured amongst one another as they cast about with their eyes, as if expecting to find the source of the noise in some dusty corner of the room.

"Stow that look," scowled Regine. "I'll give you more cause to fear me than whatever bogey-man hides beneath your beds and beyond this door. At attention!"

Galvanized by her sharp reprimand, they formed rank and straightened their posture. Their captain nodded in grim approval.

"Better. Now then. For all we are aware, this may be a simple bump in the night. But we are not, and have sent men to discern precisely this thing. Until we know the nature of this racket, you are all to remain on..."

The sentence died on her lips half-spoken as three dimly audible strokes sounded behind her. Chink-chink-chink. The knights shifted their weight restlessly, the air suddenly charged with a subtle tension. Regine turned to scowl at the featureless stone slab, but no sooner had she begun than a shuddering blow rocked the cavern, as though some massive fist had stricken the gate.

Dust cascaded from the vaulted stone arches above as the company stood speechless. None dared to move a muscle, and tongues that murmured restlessly only moments before now clung to dried palates. It was one among the ranks who first regained his senses, offering an alarmed "Ma'am?" Regine mentally kicked herself for allowing her mind to seize and turned back to the assembled knights.

"If I didn't know any better, I'd think they've hauled some manner of infernal Gigas siege weaponry down here. The gate's solid stone, it will take more than that love-tap to sunder it." She snorted distastefully.

"We wait for the scouts to return. If we've enemies at the gates, we will leave a few men here to watch then take the hidden ways to attack them from behind. We shall see how well they work their battering-rams with steel sheathed in their backs!"

Chink-chink-chink. The lady knight flinched involuntarily at the noise, louder now. Again came that colossal blow, even more thunderous than the first. Tortured metal screeched as the ground bucked and heaved. A block of masonry fell from above and crashed to the floor, narrowly avoiding braining the Elvaan. At the looks of disbelief upon the faces of her men, Regine turned towards the gate.

The enormous stone slab had sagged ponderously inwards upon its twisted iron runners, a large crack plainly visible down its smooth face. Muttering a passionate oath, she shouted down the tunnel.

"Daveille! Call back the runners! We haven't the time nor the men to spare, we stand here and now!"

No warning presaged the final blow, only a bone-jarring explosion of dust and flying rock followed by a lesser impact as the rent gate gave way and toppled inward. A fragment clipped Regine, sending a bright lancet of pain across her brow. She jammed on her helm, then froze in horror at the sight that greeted her. No Orcish siegemasters these, but Kindred. Black Demons of the North, metal-skinned and terrible to behold.

Through the roiling miasma of dust, she spied one with arms upraised, holding an eldritch staff that hissed and smoked evilly. The upward-facing remnants of the gate bore a tracery of some arcane symbol, its origins unguessable to the Children of Altana. All this she saw before her blood ran cold at the metallic screech of victory. It was a cry no creature of flesh and blood had any right to be making— more the tolling of a vast, shrill subterranean bell than the voice of a living thing.

Her heart quailed, but she cudgeled it sternly into obeisance. No daughter of the Lion would be caught shivering while the enemy fell upon them! She drew her sword and held it aloft, issuing an answering call. Scarcely had she begun to ready her stance than the armored host was upon them with dizzying swiftness.

Steel clashed against fouler metals, filling the cramped confines of the gateroom with the din of battle. Regine struck a furious blow at an onrushing fiend, blade cleaving halfway into a seam in the Demon's armored skull before sticking. Giving her blade up for lost, she dealt a staggering kick to its chest then unsheathed her long knife to continue her work. All about her, Elvaan and Demon fell in a vicious melee as she struggled to retain her footing against their uncanny speed, slashing and striking sparks against black armored hides as her questing blade sought weak points.

Black ichor coated her knife as she grimly battled on, wounds in the corded muscles of her arms, legs, and side screaming at her beneath the tatters of her armor. It was a losing fight, she was beginning to see plainly. She shifted her grip on the knife and lunged at another black form, intent on adding it to the few at her feet. If she was to die, then she wasn't about to go down before seeing how many of these Northland devils she could take with her.

Her lunge was halted suddenly by a blow to the stomach. Her mail turned the worst of it, but she still felt the first tickle of a spreading warmth that announced the Kindred's blade had drawn blood. She wheeled to face the new threat but her feet tangled on the twisted bodies strewn on the flagstone. She fell, and as she sought to regain her feet, she saw one last thing before stars burst into her vision and darkness took her: The humorless visage of a Demon, staff whistling through the air towards her temple.

And now she awoke in the aftermath. The stink of blood and ichor filled the room and she fended off nausea, forcing down the urge to vomit by sheer force of will. Bloodied and dismembered forms lay in careless heaps about the room, awash in black and crimson which pooled in the thick dust. She felt a tiny sense of wonder at how no Kindred bodies remained, their black blood the only evidence they had paid such violent visit. Trails on the floor indicated they had been drug back into the pass. She found herself dazedly wondering if they had retreated.

Regine heaved herself to her feet, but felt one leg give out with a dull throb. Choking down a sob of pain, she scavenged about for a suitable crutch. She found a shivered halberd-shaft and decided it would have to suffice. She had walking to do if she was to tell San d'Oria what had transpired.
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Verence

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