“X’s, gentlemen, X’s,” the instructor called out, his smooth, long strides carrying him down the line of combatants.
The clang of steel reverberated through the courtyard as the students traded blows. Though it was only training, their blades were real, and razor sharp, as were their strikes; failed parries became permanent scars . . . or worse. There was a good reason the sandy ground had a red tinge.
In front of the instructor the students spread out in pairs – alternating their exchanges equally between attack and defense. Behind them, a semicircular wall constructed of stone-arch supports surrounded the courtyard. Many of the arches were cracked at the keystone, others were collapsed altogether; as was the roof structure above them. Within the ruined archways lay their barracks, and beyond them – a solid granite wall. The only escape to the outside world was a massive iron gate at the end of the barracks. But other than supplies, none of the residents had need of it. All they desired was within the granite wall . . . they had all swore an oath to stay, to train, and to become humanity’s next generation of champion defenders.
Besides, there was nowhere else for them to go . . . .
Beyond the granite wall the residents had nothing; no home, no family . . . no purpose. Outside the walls they were homeless, vagrants; abandoned and unloved. At the Warphanage they had a grand destiny, their path was clear . . . they were training to be the greatest army of their time, the Cipher Squadron.
Wherever they had been before, the Warphanage was now their home. Those who lived there were their family. And their sole purpose in life was to train.
No, they had no desire to leave . . . death itself would have to drag them away.
“Keep your blades perpendicular to the swing of the attacker, redirect at a forty-five degree angle, shifting your weight, and momentum, in the direction of the passing blade,” the instructor continued, his voice firm, yet sophisticated, and filled with an air of superiority that his students knew was well earned.
At his back, the training grounds abruptly ended in a hundred-foot cliff; the edge of a blackened crater that stretched over a mile in diameter, forming a perfect circle that devoured the northern section of the Great Red Wall as well as half the city’s northern district. It would have been easy to relocate their training grounds away from such an obvious danger, but by staying, and training in clear sight of the city’s cavernous wound, the crater served many purposes. Foremost, it was a constant reminder to the students that death was always and forever only a single misplaced step away. Secondly, it represented the cost of victory; and that against the forces of the Plague, it could only be achieved with great sacrifice and personal loss. But lastly, and most importantly, the crater was a symbol of their order; they took great pride in the fact it was created by one of their own, and that a lowly orphan had risen to greatness, sending the undead army scrambling back into the Rift.
The solitude, the constant threat of death, and their proximity to the unguarded Rift made the ruins of the Warphanage the ideal location to train, and to grow strong . . .
Of the areas’ original residents, the occupants of Drex'elder's School of Warfare for the Wayward Young (more commonly known as the Warphanage) were one of a handful that chose to remain. Other than the builders working to restore the crumbled section of wall, the northern quarter was virtually vacant.
The instructor continued down the line, barking out corrections to his students; his feet always dancing at the brink of the chasm.
Desperate to keep up with his brother’s flurry of attacks, Rian could only see the instructor in occasional glimpses, but his stern commands resounded throughout the training grounds, echoing into the chasm below. It took all of his focus to keep up with his older brother, but the threat of falling under his master’s white-eyed gazed often proved distracting. Just like the view of the crater, Rian knew everything in his environment was intentional -- part of the lesson. Discipline through fear, diversion, and physical exertion . . . the attainment of perfection. To fight with a mental focus that was unbreakable. It was all part of learning to fight the elven way . . . and they were but a few of the many lessons Rian had yet to master.
He feared the instructor, and rightly so – he was a living legend, after all. To garner his unwanted attention was a distraction he could not ignore. Even as he fervently fought to keep his brother’s weapons at bay, Rian couldn’t help but track him out of the corner of his eye; all the while praying that his own lack of perfection went unnoticed.
The instructor made his way among the combatants – eyeing them as if they were prey. His flowing gait was that of a leopard; elegant yet inherently deadly. His left eye was pure white – like that of a shark’s, rolling into its head in preparation of a killing bite. There was white in his other eye as well; a small dot in the otherwise grey orb. Though small, the pinpoint of white was brimming with ages of wisdom only attained in an immortal life. Strapped to his waist, his left arm was bundled in a sling; the leather belt held the appendage to his body, keeping it from flopping lifelessly at his side. His shirt was laced up the middle with leather cord, and had loose-fitted sleeves for ease of movement. The sleeves, and sling, hid the length of his injured arm, yet his hand was fully visible; a clenched fist of blackened digits, frozen in a death grip. Against all advice, he refused to have the deadened limb amputated, fearing its loss would adversely affect his balance, and thus his fighting skills. Half of his head glowed beneath the summer sun; waves of golden locks. The other half was ripples of grey scars; as was his face – except for his eye of pure white. One ear was long and pointy, the other was absent his head; only a hole remained where his ear should have been.
Thankfully, the damage that wracked his body had spared his legs, leaving his smooth strides and nimble steps – a warrior’s most precious tools. One of Rian’s earliest lessons was that, lacking the proper footwork, even the best placed strike was easily deflected. The ability to move one’s feet in tune with one’s arms was what separated the great fighters from the dead ones. To find harmony in every motion was the ultimate achievement of an elven master.
It was obvious by their instructor’s stride he was one such master – his body poised, every step taken with a calm precision. He flowed amongst the combatants and chaos of clanging weapons as they erupted around him -- often coming within inches of being a victim to a wild swing, or vicious strike. But every time the blade was on the verge of slicing into his flesh, he slipped by – activating just the right muscles at just the right time, subtly shifting his body out of harm’s way as if it required no thought or effort on his part.
He halted his tour of the grounds at a pair of shirtless combatants, their bodies covered in sweat and dust – a constant cloud of which hung over the training grounds as the fighters kicked up the sandy earth. Grim-faced, the elven trainer looked down upon the students, who were no taller than his shoulders.
“I want crisp, clean parries,” he said. “Block with the flat of your blades . . .” he took hold of one of the fighter’s wrists, letting the chipped and jagged edge of his blade flash in in the sun. “. . . lest you plan on sawing your opponent to death.”
The swordmaster punished the boy by ordering him to spend the evening at the smithy, honing his weapon until the edge was flawless. The boy’s eyes sank at the command, knowing such a task -- perfection in the eyes of an ancient weaponmaster – was impossible to achieve. Perhaps the dwarves of old could attain such a feat, but for a human boy it meant a full night of hammering at the forge, and grinding at the sharpening wheel. An effort of futility that would likely end with yet another punishment as he displayed his work to the Master in the morning.
The instructor moved on, picking apart the other fighters, “High guard, Mr. Hibbing, high guard. . . . Keep that blade parallel to the earth. No, no, no. Cross your feet and die,” he said, proving his point by toppling the boy with a single, swift kick and then continuing, “Are you dead already?
The boy was laying with his back on the sand as if tanning on some beach. Hesitantly, he shook his head, no.
“Then roll, damn you, roll!” he screamed down at the boy.
His white-eyed gaze swept over all the combatants.
“Keep moving! No matter what, keep moving. The only time I want to see you motionless is when you’re dead. Especially when you’re dead! Otherwise, if you’re going to just lay there, you may as well serve yourself to the undead on a dinner plate.”
“Come on, little brother,” Devan encouraged, still fighting as the instructor continued to scold the other pair of fighters. Rian fought harder as the instructor drew nearer, hoping to be spared one of the master’s harsh lessons. His brother must have felt the same, as his blades came faster against Rian’s defenses. He led with the dirk – a distracting series of quick thrusts, none of which were aimed at vitals but more to steal his focus from the real threat – his three-foot longsword. “Pay attention to my stance, my feet, forget about my blade. Find it . . . find the rhythm. If you do, then you’ll find my blade every time.”
Rian’s smallsword trembled as it intercepted the larger blade. His muscles burned as he sought to keep the sword from cleaving him in half. He had to bring his other smallsword into the parry to keep Devan’s blade from completing its descent towards his head. Predictably, as he did so, in came the dirk – this time towards his heart. Rian managed to manipulate his body a split-second before it plunged in, leaving a bloody trail along his ribcage instead.
Devan held nothing back . . . the attack was a real one, as was the threat of death. It was one of the reasons Rian had made it to the advanced class at such a young age.
He never would have made it this far without his brother, not in life, certainly not in his training. Most of the students in the advanced class were orphans of the War; in their early twenties and far more experienced with fighting than either Rian or his brother.
They lost their parents after the war. Devan was ten at the time; Rian only five. Even though the Battle of Lock Core was long over, they were still considered casualties of that war. Some who survived never recovered from the horrors of those three days. Their mother and father being prime examples; the former, forever sad because of what she lost, and the latter, driven mad by the hopelessness of it all.
Since the death of their parents, the Midnight Sun passed the sky eight times; eight cycles spent training at the Warphanage. Devan had always been tall and strong for his age; at only eighteen, he stood an impressive six-feet in height, and with his constant rigorous training, his body was nothing but rippling muscles. Devan was also athletically gifted; swift reflexes combined with excellent hand-eye coordination – both of which made him perfectly suited for sword fighting.
Some said Rian was a smaller clone of him; similar sandy brown hair, lean features and even their father’s bold chin. Not only were they physically similar, like his brother, Rian was a quick learner – if not quicker. At only thirteen suns, Rian was the youngest of the advanced students by a full two-cycles.
“Now you, Rian. Come at me. Throw your shoulder into it your attack, let the power flow down the length of your arm and into the tip of your blade -- just like Montrose taught us,” his brother said, easily blocking Rian’s attempt at a strike then shaking his head in disapproval before throwing one of his own. Though he managed to block it, his brother’s far more powerful strike unbalanced Rian, sending him stumbling backwards. Insuring the lesson sunk in, Devon thumped him on the forehead with the hilt of his dirk, knocking him to the earth.
“I’m not as strong as you,” Rian replied, rubbing the growing lump on his head and wiping the trickle of blood from his eyes. No matter how battered he was at the end of the day, he was always thankful for his brother’s help. Every day, the bruises hurt less, happened less frequently. He was getting stronger, faster . . . becoming a better fighter with every lump and cut he took, and he had his brother to thank for that – and of course their instructor, the legendary swordmaster, Montrose.
“One’s strength doesn’t matter, young Rian.”
He looked up to find Montrose looming over him, his face half melted from the flames of the Destroyer, his pure white eye glaring down at the pair of them.
After the war, the Cipher Squadron was decimated – as was the rest of Lock Core’s population. But at the same time, because of the devastation, orphans suddenly abounded. The Warphanage had a massive influx of residents. In a world desperate for a skilled army, the orphans were a much welcomed force; one that could be molded into humanity’s next generation of champion defenders, as their forefathers of the Exodus originally intended. However, with the Cipher Squadron all but annihilated in the battle for the Red Wall, they lacked a skilled instructor to train them. Thankfully, a highly respected fighter and survivor of the war stepped up to take on the task. And not only did he wish to train them, but to train them in the elven style, a challenge that many thought would prove impossible.
Thus far, he had yet to succeed. And lately, it was growing evident that even his immortal patience was wearing thin.
“None of us are as strong as the Dark Ones. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stand against them, toe to toe, and even send them to their doom.”
It was well known Montrose had sent more than his share to their doom.
“Your enemy will be faster . . . stronger . . . perhaps even smarter,” he said, looking to the boy who he had chastised for laying on the ground. “But they lack one thing . . . and that gives them a major weakness. Free will. They are slaves, slaves to the Hunger. Remember that when you face them, and remember they will abandon everything because of that; all their strength, speed, and intellect. The Virus may give them power, but hopefully, by the time I’m done with you, you will have skill, and I promise that if you do, your skill will triumph against their hunger.”
A hush went over the training grounds.
At first, Montrose thought they paused in silent contemplation of his words . . .
“Did I tell you to stop mov . . .” he began to fume, realizing all of the students had lowered their weapons.
His brow furrowed as he heard the entry gate groan open. Caressing his silver, rose-shaped pommel with his good hand, he slowly turned.
A line of Wolf-helmed soldiers marched into the training grounds, surprisingly silent beneath their glistening skeletal-shaped mail. They formed a U formation, pushing their way forward into the courtyard, and forcing the students to step back. The students held their blades before them, retreating in a defensive stance. The soldiers continued pushing them toward the cliff, stopping only when the children’s heels were at the edge of the gorge. As they balanced at the edge, their eyes darted from their master, Montrose, to the black-clad soldiers; all of them secretly praying Montrose would unsheathe his blade – preferably before the intruders sent them tumbling to their deaths in the pit below. Though they were all ready and eager to attack the intruders, none of them dared to act until Montrose went into motion.
Montrose’s blade never stirred. But judging by the way he stared down the new-comers, Rian knew he was on the verge, and that in a blink of the eye, the curved blade could come slashing through the air with deadly precision.
“What is this?” Rian asked in a hushed breath.
“Nothing good,” Devan replied, his eyes scanning the intruders as if seeking weaknesses in their suits of full mail. Rian had already done as much, and could think of several loose fitting plates his smallswords could slip into.
Before the standoff became a free-for-all fight to the death, a new-comer approached; a tall man covered in a pristine robe of white silk. As if he owned the sand upon which he stood, the mage sauntered into the training grounds, pausing a safe distance behind his line of soldiers.
Monstrose visibly tensed at the sight of him, his knuckles as white as his dead eye as they clenched his hilt.
Though little of the mage’s face was visible, as it was hidden by his hood, it was obvious who the new-comer was. Rian had seen him once before – in attendance at his mother’s funeral. Then, like now, he felt a clenching in his gut in the man’s presence.
It was well known only a few white mages remained in existence, and only one of them traveled in the company of such a fearsome personal guard. The man could be none other than LeCynic, the greatest of the White-mages, and the Keeper of the Wall.
The first time Rian had seen him his face was exposed; a handsome dark-haired man, cool and confident to an almost frightening degree. He still carried himself with that same air of invincibility – perhaps even more so. Yet his handsome features now had a foulness to them. The circles around his eyes were too dark and gloomy to be the result of a simple lack of sleep. Something far more sinister surrounded them in shadows. Even more disturbing, his lips were covered in purple splotches and puss-filled cracks while a blackened, visibly pulsating, vein ran up his neck.
“An honor, Great Keeper,” Montrose said, though his grip on the rose-shaped pummel said differently, as did the fact he was perfectly positioned into a deadly fighting stance.
“Humph,” the Keeper scoffed, disregarding Montrose’s half-hearted greeting. “If only the honor were mutual.”
A final guard entered the grounds, his helm that of a bull; a pair of two-foot blood-red horns protruding from the sides and elongated face ending in a snarling snout. The horns made him looked impossibly tall, but even without them, he was easily as tall as Montrose – and whereas the elf was whip-thin, the guard was thick-built, his shoulders twice as broad as any of the young human fighters present. The sword strapped to his back was a two-handed monstrosity, nearly as tall as the man himself. The thick blade of steel would be impossible to lift, let alone wield in battle.
Rian had the sickening feeling the giant guard could handle it just fine.
“Twenty years . . . and all you have to show is a motley crew of undisciplined urchins,” LeCynic said, shaking his head in mock sadness at the gathering of students. “I had expected more from the ‘Rose Elf’. It would seem your glory, like your race, ended at the Wall.”
To the casual observer, Montrose appeared emotionless, calmly letting the snide remarks pass over him. But to Rian, the elf master was engaged in perfect, lethal focus . . . A quick glance at the rest of his companions ensured him they were similarly focused, and more than ready to prove just how far Montrose had taken them in their training.
“To be sure,” Montrose replied, his elegant tongue icy calm. “Elven warriors they are not. But for humans, they are some of the finest fighters I have seen.”
His dead eye focused directly on LeCynic’s guards.
“. . . and I have seen so very many.”
LeCynic grinned at the insult, his purple lips cracking further as he smirked.
“And that is precisely where you failed . . . I need them to be more than human. You promised to train them to fight in your ways, but even you must agree, they would never stand against your kin.”
His white-eyes still trained on the Mage, Montrose slowly nodded his head.
“I cannot disagree. But they have progressed farther than even I had hoped. Twenty years may seem a great deal of time to some, but for an elf . . .”
“Please, Montrose. Spare me the excuses,” LeCynic interrupted. “I have heard them all before and am well aware of what you would call our ‘human limitations’. But have no fear, you no longer need to waste your time training them. I have other ways to take them beyond their limited human skills.”
Again he grinned, broader than before, exposing his blackened gums and his teeth -- a mixture of white and yellow, like rotting kernels of corn.
“As for you . . .” he continued, relishing the moment. “I’m relieving you of your duty, or perhaps I should say ‘your burden’. But please, illustrious Rose Elf, understand that I harbor you no ill will. After all, no one actually expected you to succeed.”
He focused on the gathering of shocked students, ignoring Montrose who seemed frozen in place; most likely still trying to decide if he should unsheathe his sword.
Amplifying his voice, LeCynic spoke to the students, “Children, meet your new instructor, commander of my personal guard, whom you shall know as Blood Horn, but name only as Master.”
The behemoth of a man step forward, unrolling a leather whip, tightly coiled and barbed with rusted spikes. The whip seemed to stretch forever, rolling across the sand for nearly twenty-standard-feet.
“I guarantee he will take your abilities to a whole new level.”
Like a clap of thunder, the whip shot into the air, snapping inches from Montrose’s nose.
Montrose didn’t even blink. A basic combat skill was the ability to determine a weapon’s range, something Montrose likely did without thinking. Almost instinctually, he had estimated the length of the weapon, and was proven correct as it cracked harmlessly against the air. Though Montrose hadn’t moved a muscle, Rian could see that his body was rigid; bound like a steel spring, and ready to pounce at any moment.
“Well, Montrose?” LeCynic said, as if the crack of the whip was a cue to leave. “Your Brentwoods await . . . Your services are no longer required.”
With a final, apologetic, look at his students, Montrose summoned as much dignity as he could and began walking the length of the training grounds, through the line of students and past the guards. Lastly, he strode past LeCynic and his massive soldier, who was winding up his wicked whip.
He paused there . . .
It’s time . . . Rian thought, ready to put his every last lesson to the test in defense of his Master’s honor.
He was certain Montrose’s blade would come sailing free, wiping that arrogant smirk off of LeCynic’s face in a spray of crimson . . . but it never happened. Montrose was a living legend, one of the greatest swordsmen in the Seventh World. He was a survivor and renowned hero of Lock Core . . . but LeCynic was all that and more. Much more . . .
He was the most powerful mage the Seventh World had seen since the Age of the Exodus. It was said he killed legions . . . LEGIONS . . . of undead at the battle of Lock Core.
In reality, what could Montrose do?
He left them . . .
With a howl, Red Horn cracked his barbed whip, and their new training began . . .
In his days at the Warphanage, Rian had thought he knew pain, and that he had even grown accustomed to it. Physical exertion . . . bumps, bruises, even the occasional broken bones.
All the rigors they suffered through before paled in comparison to the suffering their new “Master” unleashed upon them.
Whereas Montrose taught discipline through physical exertion, Red Horn simply beat it out of them. Their exercises weren’t geared towards conditioning, only pure torture. Rian realized why he feared Montrose – why he avoided his attention. He knew Montrose would never intentionally harm him, his primary goal was always to enhance his students’ skills. What Rian feared, was that when he looked upon him in his white-eyed gaze, he would see an inept human, a disappointment, and that he would never live up to Montrose’s ideal of perfection.
He had failed Montrose . . .
Now he had a new Master . . .
Rian had avoided Montrose out of disappointment, but he avoided Red Horn out of shear horror. He still strove for perfection, but purely for survival; anything less than perfection resulted in immediate and excruciating punishment. No matter where he stood in the training grounds, Red Horn’s whip was always within striking distance. Many of their companions who were struck down by it . . . never stood back up. The fallen, and those who couldn’t keep up, were taken . . . and never seen from again. Rian didn’t know where they ended up, but he very much doubted it was a better place than where they were at.
Despite the circumstances . . . or because of it, Rian was growing stronger. In the few weeks he had been under Red Horn’s ‘instruction’ he had advanced far more than he ever dreamed. The crack of Red Horn’s whip pushed him beyond his limits. But he was never thankful for a moment. No matter how close he came to perfection, it was never good enough, the beatings continued all the same . . . the whip continued to flay the flesh from his back, every scar a permanent reminder of his failures.
When their training began, he was separated from his brother. They saw each other only rarely in the barracks at night, but during those times silence was maintained by a constant patrol of the ‘wolf’ guards. Even their agonized whimpers were punished by further beatings, or worse, a night spent in a narrow, abandoned well – the foul smelling water up to their chins.
During the day, they no longer practiced amongst themselves, but went against LeCynic’s personal guards. There was thirty of them, one for every ten students of the Warphanage. Every morning the students awoke and formed a line, then one after another, they were chosen to face off against the guards. Despite everything Montrose taught them, they were throttled. Rian always considered many of the older students to be skilled swordsmen, but the guards were impossibly fast and powerful, even in a full suit of armor.
Once a student was too battered to rise, they were left on the sands, and the next one took their place. If they failed to arise by nightfall, they were never seen from again.
The days passed in a painful blur . . . every morning their line grew smaller.
Damn them . . . Rian cursed to himself.
He was next in line to take on one of the guards, or what they had begun to call ‘the wolves’. He wasn’t concerned about taking his turn – or the inevitable beating that was to come, but feared for the student currently fighting; one of the new additions to their camp, Victoria, a young fair-haired haired girl who had a natural ability, but none of their training.
She never stood a chance against the ‘wolf’.
A riveted iron boot landed on her chest, collapsing her onto her back. Her weapons flew from her hands as she landed hard upon the ground.
On instinct, Rian stepped forward . . . the cracking whip was instantly there to greet him, taking a chunk of flesh from his chest and knocking him back in line.
The wolf walked over to Victoria, who was motionless on the sand. Rian imagined him grinning as he raised that steel boot again, right above her chest . . . down it came, slamming into the sand. Victoria rolled to her left, avoiding his boot and quickly snatching one of her weapons. She rolled back, burying the tip of the blade into the wolf’s foot, piercing his plated boot. The wolf howled in rage, smashing Victoria in the face with his hilt. Even as her lip split open, spraying blood all over her face, Victoria was smiling . . .
. . . and oh what a beautiful smile. The first joyful sight Rian had seen in a long time.
Still smiling, Victoria lost consciousness and crumpled to the ground.
This time the wolf left her where she lay.
Casually pulling the short-sword from his foot and flinging it aside, the wolf turned to face Rian, ushering him over with a wave of his large, jagged blade.
Blood pouring from the fresh wound in his chest, Rian stepped forward. The wound was non-existent – as were the many other injuries covering his body. His only thoughts were of that wonderful smile . . . and hope.
If the wolves could be hurt, they could be killed.
He unsheathed his blades; the smallswords more light and nimble in his hands than ever before.
Red Horn hovered nearby, stroking the corded leather of his whip as if it were a pet. The wolf charged forward, enraged, eager to spill blood after having lost some of his own. Rian met him head on, his pair of smallswords a symphony of clanging steel as they fell against the man’s jagged blade – and occasionally armor. He longed to test the weak points in the guard’s armor, but the man’s sword spun nearly as fast as the pair of his smaller weapons. Initially, when he began training with the wolves, Rian was lucky just to keep up with their weapons, but lately he found ways to sneak past them. It wasn’t that he was quicker – certainly not stronger – the wolves were just predictable – less skilled. Their attacks were limited, and lent themselves to a pattern. A pattern that Rian had studied during every fight. Not just his own, but no matter how battered or beaten he was, he always kept an eye on the combatant that followed. Watching not only their mistakes, but those of the wolves as they revealed them even in the most resounding victory.
As he fought, the words of his true master, Montrose guided his actions, “hopefully, I will have given you skill”.
Yes, skill. He was closing in on perfection, something his opponents would never obtain.
His swords hammered a rhythm against his opponent’s body as if it were a set of drums; from his helm to his greaves, he created a different tone from every part of his body. The wolf trainer couldn’t keep up with the barrage, though his blade came fast, Rian’s brain worked faster, keeping his feet and body safely away. He covered the wolf in dents, waiting for the right moment, knowing he may only get one shot, one chance to test the armor’s weakness. He also knew that if he did find it, unimaginable torment – perhaps even death – awaited him.
He maneuvered alongside the wolf, squaring his feet to his flank. Predictably the jagged blade swung back . . . Rian utilized his size, ducking low while thrusting upwards with a smallsword – the tip plunging directly into the exposed ringmail beneath the wolf’s arm and burying the entire length of the blade in his armpit, hopefully heart, and up to his neck.
Oh how the fiend howled . . . He imagined how Victoria might have smiled, had she not been as limp and lifeless as a ragdoll.
Rian stepped back, expecting the whip to take him at any moment but before it did he relished his victory and the agonizing death of the wolf.
The whip never came . . . only a cackling laugh from beneath the bull helm. He half expected the giant to pat him on the back. Instead, one-handed, Red Horn hauled his injured and wailing companion away.
Nothing else happened . . . no torture, no beatings. Rian was victorious against the wolf and simply stepped back into the line – the next student stepped forward . . .
It wasn’t until later that he learned there would never be victory or hope, not so long as he remained in the Warphanage.
It couldn’t have been him . . .?
The dented armor was the first indication, the second was the eyes deep within the wolf helm -- such unbridled rage . . . such hate. This wasn’t a training session but a battle to the death. Those eyes focused now on his brother, but every so often they locked onto Rian’s gaze, a gleeful glint to them with the knowledge that Rian would be next, but before then he would have to watch his brother die.
They must have taken him to the Healers . . . Rian thought. But even so . . .
He knew such a mortal wound could not easily be undone – as he intended it to be. The wolf he struck should have died in minutes . . . surely not enough time to reach a Healer.
LeCynic . . . he pondered, wondering how far his power extended . . . he was the most powerful mage since the Exodus, perhaps in all time. Could he stop death?
Another thought crossed Rian’s mind . . .
Or was the man death itself?
The only hope he had, and it was a small one, was the fact that Devon was obviously aware of the gravity of the situation and fighting at his best . . . even to the wolf, it must have been clear his brother was the superior fighter. His dirk was a blur the guard could no longer track – not that he really bothered. The small, pointed blade shot out like a viper, probing the plated mail for any hint of exposed flesh. For the most part landing harmlessly against his armor. Occasionally Devon’s small blade shot out, nearly too fast to see, and managed to sink beneath the wolf’s plates. Though even if it did, other than further enraging the man, it had little effect.
Devon’s other weapon, his longsword, was no match for the wolf’s larger, jagged blade. Because of the man’s strength and heavier weapon, any direct parry was impossible, forcing Devon to use his entire body to escape the blade. Spinning, leaping and rolling, Devon danced away from the lethal sweeps of the wolf’s jagged blade, all the while lashing out with his seemingly useless dirk.
Infuriated by his elusive opponent, the wolf thought to end the fight with a vicious downward arc of his weapon. Barely avoiding being cleaved in half, Devon dodged it, twisting his torso and repositioning his feet so he stood at the wolf’s left side. But this time the wolf was one step ahead of him. Instead of following up with a backhand swing of his weapon (the predictable attack) he stepped into Devon – accepting the dirk, which was immediately there to greet him, in order to launch a fist at Devon’s face. This time, the dirk clearly sunk in, burying beneath his breastplate, but in a geyser of blood, the steel gauntlet slammed into Devon’s face, breaking his nose, cheek bone, and sending him flying through the air.
Devon collapsed more than five feet away, blood pouring from his crushed face.
Rian bolted from the line – not a single thought on whether Red Horn’s whip would be there to stop him.
Devon covered his bloodied face as the wolf stood over him; a hollow laugh emanating from beneath his helm.
Rian leapt . . . Red Horn’s whip cracked behind him. He felt a brush of air against his back, but no pain. The whip had been close. In little time it would come for him again . . . and it wouldn’t miss. Neither would he . . .
He landed a perfect double-footed kick against the guard’s low-back. Rian rebounded off him, tucking his body into a ball.
Even with his armor, he should have folded the being with such a well-placed kick – possibly even broken his spine. But the wolf only grunted, and stumbled forward. The man was stunned, and only for enough time for Rian to reach Devon and help him to his feet. As soon as he did so, the jagged blade came slicing down again in an even more powerful arc. Rian’s blades shot up simultaneously, a perfect X, freezing the blade mid-air. The wolf continued to press down, with all his might, a murderous look in his eyes. Matching his hate-filled gaze with one of his own, Rian held him back, refusing to let the blade descend upon him and his helpless brother, even as his knees began buckling beneath him . . .
The command shook the grounds.
Red Horn typically said little, but any command he gave was always instantly obeyed.
His eyes enraged as ever, the wolf lowered his blade.
Rian however, ignored the command. He was done with obedience. To the dead with Red Horn and his bloody whip . . . this time he was going to put a permanent end to the wolf.
He never got the chance . . . by the time the crack of the whip reached his ears, the barbed end was wrapped around his neck.
The next thing he knew his feet flew out from beneath him and he was being pulled across the sand to the towering Red Horn. There was no amused chortle from the being this time around . . . only callous torment.
As he was strapped to the poles of anguish, Rian learned a lesson that day – the most valuable one since he set foot into the Warphanage. When at last Red Horn’s whip ceased cracking, he realized they were no longer in training, but in hell. His instructors were demons, and they taught only one thing . . . pain.
That night he was separated from his brother – Devon and all of the older students were moved to separate quarters and the younger, novice students were left in the training barracks.
He saw Victoria that night, watching him from the arched columns; her blue eyes shimmering in the half-light of the moon Harbos.
Rian fell in and out of consciousness, but every time he awoke, those blue eyes were still on him. The sight of them gave him strength . . . enough strength to make it through the night.
He remembered the sand; a mouthful of it. The grit filled his nostrils and his ears. He rubbed it from his bloodshot eyes. Red Horn’s whip dangled in front of his face. The demon patted it, then pointed to the line of glum students waiting for the horror of the new day to begin.
His back awash in pain, Rian pushed himself to his knees, and then slowly to his feet. He did his best to ignore the pain, refusing to give Red Horn the slightest satisfaction in his misery. Lurching across the sand, he joined his companions – their line smaller than ever. Including himself and Victoria, little more than a dozen of the younger students remained.
He stood up, straight and tall, staring down Red Horn as he caressed his wicked whip. Victoria followed his example, her body and her stance steady and strong. Her blue eyes bored into their master’s bull helm, as if daring him to uncoil his whip. The rest of the students joined them, stoic and standing in perfect formation. They shared an unspoken thought – that the day would be different. And no matter what occurred, they would take the challenge head-on – together.
As usual, the wolves marched out and stood before them, their mail so black it swallowed the light of dawn without so much as a glimmer.
Then the older students followed . . . Their eyes were dark and locked in a vacant stare, completely ignoring their younger companions. They walked with a spring in their steps that none of them possessed since the harsh reign of the wolves began. He saw Devon, and to his relief – and disbelief – he was healed. Not only were the many deep lashes in his back pinkish scars, but his shattered nose and cheek were back to their original form. Rian was certain that if he survived, his face would be eternally deformed. Instead, at the worst it was only slightly puffy and red. Initially, Rian was ecstatic to see him, even more so seeing that he was healed . . . but then he contemplated the price he must have paid. His fears were compounded as he sought to make eye contact with him, but Devon’s blank stare dismissed all that he saw – including his younger brother.
Rian began to worry that Devon was lost to him.
The older students formed a line in front of them, matching the wondering looks of the younger students with a dead pan expression.
After the last of them settled into formation, a white-robed mage appeared. This time his hood was down, leaving the black vein in his neck clearly visible – and now grotesquely large – same with his dark set eyes and splotchy skin. He was no longer hiding. His arrogant stride said as much, his attitude more pompous than ever.
“Red Horn assures me you are progressing nicely,” he said, looking almost fondly at the older students. “Now . . . for the second phase of your training.”
Rian couldn’t imagine what new evil the man had in store for them, or how their training could possibly be any worse.
“Look upon your elder classmates,” he continued, directly addressing Rian and his companions. “They are more than Montrose ever dreamed . . . they are stronger, faster, more skilled than any human could possibly be.”
He walked down the line of dark-eyed young men and women, often patting them on their backs. He ended at Devon . . . and with his hand resting on his shoulder, he looked directly at Rian and said, “And now, it’s time they train others. Time to expand the class.”
The giant iron gate grumbled open. A dozen wolves came through, escorting a large mottled group of thugs into the grounds. Several hundred of them were chained together; a hardened and grim looking lot. They sneered at their captors and at LeCynic, but they sneered at the students too – even the youngest of them. For the women, they gave the cruelest looks of all; the lustful gaze of a man both depraved and deprived. They called out, insults too foul to comprehend, while eagerly rubbing their soiled fingers together.
Rian was more than eager to teach them a lesson or two. It was clear by the way they carried themselves, and their battle scars, many were fighters. But not a one of them were schooled soldiers . . . Perhaps some even survived the Red Wall, but the wicked look in their eyes and shackles marked them not as heroes, but as killers.
The gate slammed shut behind them. The wolves began to unchain them, placing weapons in their all too eager hands.
“So then,” LeCynic called out, completely disregarding the fact that many of the criminals had their eager eyes focused on him. “Let us see how far you’ve come. And if your lessons can be passed on to others.”
The older students turned in unison to the newcomers – who had a murderous look in their eyes as they held their weapons.
“Show them what you learned.”
Devon and the others marched forward . . .
The older, hardened killers grinned wickedly at the young men and women calmly walking towards them.
“I can’t decide what I want more, to gut, or to f*** them,” a lean, leathery faced man said, his face a mix of scars; most of which were self-made, carved into a checkerboard design on his face.
“I’m good either way,” another said.
“I know what I’m after,” a fat, oily skinned man said. His intentions unclear as he longingly stroked the sharp of his blade.
His companions laughed at the comment, and then in a bloodthirsty howl, they charged the students.
Rian could only watch the ‘lesson’ a short time before he had to turn away.
It was a bloodbath . . .
Many of the other young ones turned as well -- and vomited. Only Victoria had the courage to face the carnage unblinking.
When it was done, the older students were covered head to toe in blood – not a drop of which was their own. The criminals they defeated lay dying all around them. Rian was shocked by the horror of it – especially because his brother partook of it, hacking the men apart in a blank-faced stare. Rian was also surprised how easily the men were defeated. Not only did they have the numbers – nearly triple that of the students – but it was clear to see many were skilled fighters – likely veterans of the battle of Lock Core. The students – Devon in particular – were faster and stronger than ever before (near equal to the wolves). And they had skill! Loads of it. That combined with their sudden physical enhancements made them virtually invincible.
They were perfect . . . but at what price? Judging by the way they callously slaughtered the men, the cost of perfection was most likely their souls . . .
Devon was surely lost . . .
The wolves took the bodies of the men away . . . Rian was certain he would never see them again . . .
Days later they returned . . . the criminals . . . the killers. They joined the young ones in their training at the Warphanage.
. . . others came, more criminals . . . more kids. Together they trained at the Warphanage under the tutelage of the new masters – Devon and the others. The wolves only watched from that point on – Red Horn unleashing his whip when necessary. Meanwhile, against the superior skill and abilities of the older students the trainees flourished . . .
When they achieved perfection . . . they vanished.
Devon – dirk leading . . . probing, taunting, biting. Longsword always working, slashing, hacking, seeking . . . breaking down Rian’s defenses.
Like all the fights now, the stakes were high – death was always a real possibility. But this fight was even more important, this fight was personal . . . Rian’s victory wouldn’t be had in the defeat of his enemy, but in the discovery of his soul.
As Devon fought through his defenses, Rian was fighting through his – his vacant gaze – in the hopes he could stir any sign of recognition or emotion from within him.
Thus far there was nothing; no anger, frustration, nor the slightest sign of compassion. This wasn’t his brother . . . Devon was gone . . . only dead eyes returned his gaze. Without so much as blinking, the being he fought would kill him.
It was an ultra-focus . . . similar to what Montrose once taught -- a state of focus so deep, that conscious thought gave way to instinct. But according to the elven master, it was something one could achieve only through years of discipline and deep meditation. Somehow, Devon had achieved it overnight . . . and his amazing strength and speed, making it obvious to Rian that Devon’s ultra-focus was the result of a far more nefarious means than meditation.
Rian – defending, ducking and dancing through his brother’s barrage.
The blades moved too fast to see . . .
But he knew his brother, his style, his skill . . . he was even becoming accustomed to his strength and his speed . . . it was incredible – inhuman, but it had limits.
Ultra focus . . .
Perhaps Rian had it now too . . . to keep up with his brother he had to . . . to fight on instinct alone . . .
The speed of the dirk left no time for second guessing – even first guessing for that matter. Rian simply moved . . . if he moved wrong, the blade dug in. If he moved right, he kept moving . . . and moving . . . and moving . . .
The fight boiled down to Rian moving -- without thought -- for as fast as he could and as long as possible . . .
Then it just ended.
With no indication, Devon suddenly stopped in his attacks.
He stared blankly ahead at the line of young students.
Rian may have survived the fight, but he had failed . . . this time . . .
In the end, Rian was left with many new marks of the dirk; wounds he wasn’t even aware of at the time. Apparently, he wasn’t as fast and as focused as he should have been. Many of the wounds were sure to be added to his growing collection of scars, but otherwise he was no worse off than before.
Panting in exhaustion -- his brother calm as stone -- one of the wolves came up to the pair; a vial of black liquid in his hands.
“No,” Devon abruptly stated, a hint of anger in his voice, a glint of recognition in his eyes as they fell upon the vial. “He’s not ready yet.”
The wolf cocked its head almost quizzically.
“He’s too young . . . too immature. The process will kill him.”
The wolf continued forward, as if still not convinced, or perhaps it just didn’t give a damn if it did kill him.
“The Master wants this one to live.” Devon continued, and indeed, Rian sensed emotion -- a hint of desperation. “Would you risk his efforts?”
Was his brother still in there somewhere? Was he trying to spare him his fate?
The wolf grunted, still uncertain, yet he moved on, leaving the pair
“Devon . . .” Rian said, hoping to catch a glimpse of his eyes to confirm his hopes.
But before he could, his brother quickly turned and walked away.
“Wait . . .”
He never looked back.
Sleep was elusive in the Warphanage. If it came, it came with nightmares and fitful dreams. The thump of the wolves steel boots as they patrolled the barracks was a constant reminder of their situation; as they neared, the rhythmic march invaded even the deepest sleep.
At the end of the day, their weapons were immediately taken when they left the training grounds. Some stashed make-shift blades – the criminals proved ingenious at their manufactory – but to have them discovered was a guaranteed night’s stay in the well. Even so, Rian accepted the risk, hiding a sharpened piece of curved metal under a stone by his bedroll. As he laid awake at night, he occupied his thoughts with plans of escape. And when he fell asleep, he dreamt of running the rough metal blade across the sentry’s throat.
“. . . his hands took hold of that cackling helm . . . he had their strength . . . no, he was even stronger . . . he was a boulder dwarf, his hands as large as the wolf’s head. The helm crushed like a tin cup under his palms, as did the skull within; the bones crunching as he continued to press his hands together. Black blood oozed from the helm’s eye sockets . . .”
What a wonderful dream . . . Rian thought as he awoke. He wished it could have lasted forever, but as usual, something disturbed his sleep . . . though this time, it wasn’t the steps of the wolves . . . it was their absence . . . the pure utter silence.
Then came the whisper at his ear . . . without realizing it, his curved blade was in his hands.
“Come . . .” came the familiar, elegant voice.
He was so shocked at the sound of it, he remained still.
“Come, now,” the voice continued with far more urgency. “The guards are down, but I cannot guarantee for how long.”
“Montrose . . .” Rian said, awestruck and uncertain if he was still in that same glorious dream.
He stood up and found the dead eye looking down at him from within his half melted face. His blade was in his good hand; the thin length of shiny blue-steel soiled by a layer of thick, dark liquid.
There were others in the room, more slender and tall forms, rousing the rest of the students. In the hall, the headless forms of several wolves rested in pools of black blood.
“You came back . . .” Devon said in disbelief.
“I’m only sorry it took so long,” Montrose replied, sadness filling his good eye of grey and white. “The school is heavily guarded, to take it would have required an army. And then there’s LeCynic . . .”
He lowered his eyes, shaking his head.
“Short of the Destroyer, I’m not sure anything can kill him.”
“How did you get in?” Rian asked, more curious as to how they were going to break out.
“I may not have an army behind me, but I have many friends . . . and LeCynic has many enemies. To get us here in secrecy, my dwarven companions burrowed a tunnel directly below the school.”
Most of the students were already up and on the move.
“But we must hurry. LeCynic and his guards are infected . . . unlike anything I’ve seen before . . . even at the Red Wall. They won’t stay dead for long, and more are sure to come. My friends are waiting for us in the tunnel, and once we are clear of this place . . . they rigged the tunnel to collapse behind us.”
Rian nodded his head knowingly. Since the day they first barged into the Warphanage, he had expected as much. The foul odor and open sores of the Keeper were an obvious indication of some incurable disease – the most likely being the Plague. As for the wolves – it was no wonder they couldn’t be killed.
“Where are the others? Devon and the older students?” Montrose asked.
Rian’s heart sank . . .
If the wolves are infected, what does that say about Devon? he wondered, dreading he already knew the answer and the reason for his vacant stare.
“They’re lost to us . . .” Rian replied, to which Montrose gave a knowing and sympathetic nod. “We leave them . . . should we encounter them during our escape, if possible, kill them.”
Wasting no more time, Rian went into motion . . .
His first thoughts were of Victoria -- he quickly found her, already up and armed with a thin rod of steel, sharpened to a point. He nodded to her and was rewarded with her beautiful smile.
“Go,” Montrose urged, coming up alongside him. “Quietly . . . quickly,” he insisted.
He ushered them into the training grounds, and to Rian’s surprise, to the cliff of the Destroyer. Rian never once questioned his command, and wasn’t about to do so now, especially not at such a crucial time. To his relief, as he neared, he realized several lengths of rope had been anchored to the edge.
More of Montrose’s elven companions manned the ropes, motioning the students forward.
They ran on . . . the ultimate symbol of their order – the pit of the Destroyer, now their bastion of hope and freedom.
“NO . . .” Rian cursed.
The elves stopped waving their hands . . . they drew their blades instead.
“Keep moving,” Rian called to his companions as he turned back. “No matter what happens, don’t stop . . . don’t look back.”
He looked particularly hard at Victoria as he spoke, but knew by the wicked gleam in her eye she would have none of it. She didn’t want escape, what she sought was revenge . . .
The students continued to run to the cliff, but from the barracks several wolves came bolting out, quickly gaining on them and swatting them down as they did so.
Montrose at their lead, the elves were quick to engage.
That’s when he saw it . . . perfection. One-handed, Montrose dove into the wolves. In a blur of silver-etched blue-steel, he ended the wolves’ charge, leaving them in pieces. For as much as Rian had learned, Montrose’s blade was utterly unpredictable. The very steel seemed to bend, moving in impossible angles. And every . . . EVERY . . . time it moved, it moved with deadly purpose and precision, taking a limb or striking a lethal blow. His allies were equally effective. And in no time, they made short world of the wolves . . . again.
Then came the dreaded sound . . . the main gate started grinding open. A larger pack of wolves came pouring through, as well as the group of older students. And at their head came the massive bull-headed Red Horn, his monstrous two-handed sword clenched in his hands.
Montrose spun behind a wolf, lopped its head off and turned to face Red Horn. His gaze held no anger . . . only pure focus, and the focus was deadly intent. Red Horn, however, was enraged, howling like the beast his helm resembled as he charged the group of elves.
Rian ran out to aid them, many of his companions at his side.
The forces collided, the elves primarily focused on the wolves, as Rian and his companions took on their fellow ‘students’. Due to his rudimentary weapon, Rian was forced to improvise his attacks. He feigned a swipe of his curved blade, spinning as the student’s sword came to great it. As the sword sailed harmlessly past, Rian planted his foot in the boy’s sternum. There was a loud crack as his breastplate collapsed. The student remained standing, though struggling furiously to breathe. Rian cut a deep slice into his weapon hand with his curved blade, then snatched the boy’s blade by the hilt as it slipped from his grasp. In the same motion, he swung upward with the newly acquired weapon . . . Rian dove away to his next opponent as a spray of blood erupted from the gaping slit in the student’s throat. He ducked a backhand chop to his head, scored what would normally be a mortal blow to his opponent’s waist with his curved blade then kept moving . . . stabbing, slicing his way through the crowd, he eyes always seeking his brother.
He finally found Devon, burying his blade in the thigh of an elf. The elf looked up at him, a stunned look on its face; not only shocked at the length of steel sticking through his leg, but that he had been bested by a human. In a spurt of blood, Devon pulled his blade free then sought out his next opponent. The elf collapsed, injured but not fatally. There were other fallen elves scattered around the courtyard, all of which had similar, non-fatal injuries. It was then that Rian realized that those they defeated, they didn’t kill. The injured abounded but thus far they killed no one.
Rian tried to fight his way to him, but their enemies were too numerous, and were hemming them in, leaving little room to maneuver to his brother.
Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Montrose dance around Red Horn. The armored giant’s massive blade moved impossibly fast, but Montrose was even faster. His blade scored one mortal blow after another, but the beast of a man remained standing, and fighting. Montrose took off one of his arms, but yet the large weapon kept spinning. So he took off his hand . . . and then his head. The bull helm rolled across the bloodied sand.
Montrose fought his way to the children who had formed a tight circle to defend against the better armed and more skilled enemies. They were quickly losing, the elves were falling to the overwhelming number of wolves and surprisingly skilled elder students. Montrose managed to reach their circle to stand at Rian’s side.
Then the fighting stopped. The circle of dead-eyed students and cackling wolf-helmed soldiers stood motionless around them. Then a towering being came forward . . . the bull helm rose above the crowd.
Impossible . . . Rian thought, he had seen the man dismembered, and decapitated with his very eyes.
In one arm, Red Horn held his sword, the other the whip.
“Surrender, elf,” he commanded, his voice thundering out from his helm. “Or watch, as I slaughter them all.”
Montrose sheathed his sword.
“I sorry,” he said, turning to Rian. “I failed you . . .”
No . . . Rian thought. The failure is my own.
In a thunderclap, Red Horn’s whip struck Montrose’s chest. The elf took the blow stoically . . . and the next one . . . and the next one after that. Rian lost count, but eventually, the legendary swordmaster collapsed to the ground.
They shackled Montrose’s good arm to his dead one, and with the rest of his injured companions, they were taken away.
Rian knew he would never see them again . . . and that this hell would not end.
He gave a final pleading look to his brother, who only replied with that same dead stare
Rian dropped his sword and his curved blade, letting them fall to the sand.
They would be useless anyways . . . as was any thought of hope.
Days later . . . he knew not how many, their time had finally come . . .
Rian’s training was complete.
They were the only ones left now.
First went the criminals -- now highly skilled killers, one and all . . .
Then the elder students . . . infected, immortal, and invincible fighters – the elven ideal . . .
The last to remain in the Warphanage, Rian and the younger students were marched out into the city under the guard of the wolves, leaving an empty and desolate Warphanage behind them.
They were guided to the Rift, a pulsating hole in reality hovering atop a pier of circular black stones.
So this was his destiny? What his training amounted to? Rian wondered as he approached the Black Door.
He had his weapons, but he already knew it would do little good against the wolves.
Nearby, construction crews working to restore the fallen northern tower and crumpled wall stopped their projects to regard their march in disgust; many gripping their tools tightly as they eyed the wolves.
At the head of the line, Rian was the first to come face to face with the Rift. It throbbed violently as he neared, as if eager for him to enter.
Laughing, a wolf guided him onward. Rian recognized the man’s dented armor. Oh how he wished for another chance to kill that one . . .
Rian put his foot forward, preparing to enter . . . A roar filled the valley, the Rift seemed to quake in fear.
His guard turned to the disturbance . . .
The split second was all he needed . . . his smallsword went under his wolf-helm and into his head. Rian’s foot went out, kicking him into the Rift.
He wasn’t sure if he could kill the creature, but hopefully whatever dwelt in the Rift could.
Excepting the rest of the wolves to swarm him, he spun, and found chaos at his back.
A wolf went flying through the air, landing with his breastplate crushed. A horde of workers were charging toward them, at their lead, the largest being Rian had ever seen. And in his hairy and massive hands, a glowing hammer swung out, crushing all it touched.
They wouldn’t get another chance like this ever again . . .
Rian turned to his companions . . .
He looked upon that beautiful smile . . .
Grinning back at Victoria, Rian dove into the fray.
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