The Dragon Between

In the shadow of the Feye Spire

Sier walked gracefully and soundlessly through a dimly lit jungle. The light came from all around, not revealing a location or even a time of day.
There are no days here, she thought. This is not of my world.
The path appeared to move on its own, more swiftly than her steps carried her, and the sounds of the jungle were all around, muffled, as if they were just out of reach.
One sound rose above the others. It was a female’s voice, lovely and familiar, which drew her despite her will. A face took form slowly like from a mist and just outside her vision. If she moved too quickly it would disappear only to reform again.
Sier halted her steps and reached to put a comforting hand to her bow, though she was not unsettled even when the path refused to stop its movement.
The voice broke through, as if the rest of the sounds of the world stopped all at once, and the words became clear. “Your path is before you. There is no turning back. This path was laid before the time of your fathers’ fathers’ father, though it is your mother that brought you here. She has given you a gift, which will be your burden to bear, as the gift is for all in the nation that once was. Your days of questioning are over. You will bring the power forth. War will bring peace; uncertainty will fall away in the light that will shine on the dark sins of the land; all will be revealed. See to your Duty.”
As the word “Duty” fell on her ears the light erupted. Blinded, Sier fell to her knees, and a shadow of a hand reached out as her world began to burn with a searing fire from within.
Sier found her voice again and screamed, climbing to her feet and trying to put out the flames she couldn’t see. Her bedroll fell away and weapons scattered over the dirt floor of the camp. The rest of the warriors stirred awake, appearing ready to take on an enemy despite the sleep still showing in their eyes.
I am insane, she thought, as the burning persisted. She looked around, recognizing the woods in the Reaches. We are back again, so why would I still hear the dryad? Does she have some devilish power to haunt my dreams?
The burning broke through her thoughts and she focused on finding the flames. There was no light, no fire, though her body still burned. She grabbed the neck of her underclothes and ripped them away from her skin, oblivious to the confused looks from her companions. She saw a strange and beautiful shape covering her shoulder, the light reflecting off the dying fire and the others’ weapons making the form change color. It stretched down her arm and it appeared farther up as well, though she couldn’t see its end. It shone like cold metal being worked and seemed to take in the light around it to shine more brightly than any color should.
Lorak quietly approached from out of the shadows, reaching out to the mark carefully. “You are marked, though not of any house I know.”
“I know.” I said. “I’m marked by dragons and dryads, and the spirit of my mother. It’s aberrant. They have shown me my place.” She reached in her pack and pulled out a small token. “If you need me I will be in the woods praying.” And with that she left the chaos in the campsite behind to pray to her mother’s spirit. May she bring peace.

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Message to Mardosk, leader, father, of my success
message sent from Greywall

I am far from Darguun, led by the task you set me upon. I have companions and lead them through many laces that have been protected by our ancestors. We have come upon some artifacts, and I believe this path may lead us to what you seek.
My skills have been tested many times. I know you have taught me to be a warrior above all, though in these times I find much of mothers’ teachings serve me. Where I would find honor bringing home the ears of of my slain enemies, now I find the caressing words and devotion to the spirits of our ancestors lead me to a great honor for our people. Her memories guide me and touch lives that do not know of our people and honor. We do much more than I set out to do.
I feel I have found my path. I will complete my task and when I return to bring glory to our people I wish to continue on this path before my. I wish to leave you to unite our people and I look to unite us as a nation so all people will know the honor and power of our ancestors.
I search and pray for an heir, so our tribe and the honor of our family may continue, as you have devoted your life. My heir will continue the honor and line of the trive and I will seek the honr of the nation that has been forgotten. I hope you find this to be an honorable task as well.

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Becoming

Hunger.

It flows through every vein in his body, saws at his mind with every breath and pounds on the door of reason with every beat of his heart.

Hunger.

It continues to rise in him, filling his senses with blood—tinting his vision, overwhelming taste and smell, and at the same time warring with the cold ache spreading through his body, growing as this thirst rises within his being.

Hunger.

It has not slackened, no matter how tender and savory the roast and the rolls he has eaten, the cups of wine and ale he has poured down his throat. It has not faded with the attentive discipline paid to cleaning his armor (damn the bloodstains that stubbornly lodge in the detailed crevices of breastplate and helm) or caring for his blade (and damn the cracks and dings in the metal from the lost hours in the condemned temple). It has not dissipated with the hours spent in prayer and meditation.

Hunger is what drives Viktor out into the cloudy, cold evening in Greywall, wandering the alleys of the ‘human quarter’ of this city, what the rest of its inhabitants call ‘The Kennel’. From there, into the narrow winding paths between buildings, grown ever more baroque or savagely decorated by their newer inhabitants, pausing in the shadows to watch gargoyles or harpies pass high above, or stranger lithe forms leaping from eaves to awnings just overhead.

Another chill races through him, a cold skeletal claw tearing at his being, while the ache of hunger, now becoming a snarling thing with a mind of its own, pulls at his senses, and just for a moment the night brightens with the soft chorus of heartbeats all around, the tang of spilled blood or the hot rush through bodies, demihuman or other. The Karrnathi staggers against the wall, plate armor scraping on stone and mortar, before righting himself with a defiant snarl, even as fangs indent his lower lip and threaten to pierce his own flesh, reminding him yet again of the hunger and the cold writhing in him like a pair of barb-scaled serpents.

As he turns another corner in this dimly-lit way, a few figures spill out of a back door, followed by pungent smoke and dim torchlight, the smell of sour ale (and is that the metallic heat of fresh blood?), brawling voices and pounding hide drums. Sloped brows turn this way and that, guttural voices exchanging rough humour and oaths, until the largest one elbows his mates and points to the approaching Karrnathi.

“You,” the hulking figure says in harsh-accented Common. “Wrong neigh-bor-hood, pink-skin.”

Viktor’s eyes narrow, glittering faintly beneath the fangs of his helm, his own fangs similarly bared. “Leave me be,” he manages to spit out between clenched teeth. Yet the icy ache in his bones, the hunger reaching into the core of his being—both rise at this challenge, despite the lack of honor, the wrongness and pointlessness of it.

The orc simply grins back through a mouth of tusks and blackened teeth, reaching for a heavy cudgel hanging at his belt, while his fellows spread out to either side, blocking the alley. The door creaks shut on rusted hinges, dull light cutting down to a wedge, a beam, a line, then nothing, leaving them all in shadow and silence once more.

Viktor’s hand drops to the hilt of his blade, bracing himself. “I warn you—” he begins.

“Warn nothing, pink-skin. Take him!” bellows the orc, before lunging forward, heavy club raising into the backswing.

Viktor’s sword clears its sheath with a harsh ring, and he manages to catch the iron-shod weapon just right, deflecting it and giving him time to shrug his shield off his shoulder before the orc’s companions—an overlarge, hairy goblinoid and some sort of upright hyena—enter the fray, bracketing him to either side. His vision edges with crimson, and the cold fever within propels him with savage suddenness into the midst of the trio, slamming his shield into one, parrying the jagged-edged blade of another, ramming an iron-toed boot into the shin of a third.

Yet they continue to press, hemming him in against a wall, raining blows against shield and armor, sword and club clanging against his blade—and an unpleasant tone to each parry sounds distressing to his trained ears. Viktor ripostes a swing from the bugbear’s serrated weapon, and catches the gnoll full in the face with the edge of his shield, splitting its lip and knocking loose a tooth or two—the smell of fresh blood hot and metallic amid the creature’s foul panting breaths—before a crushing two-handed blow from the orc’s great club smashes the shield from his grip, leaving his hand and arm momentarily numb.

The massive orc looses a triumphant snort, and Viktor raises his weapon to guard, before the gnoll hurls itself at him. Snarling, cackling, spitting blood and froth, flailing with bare claws that scarcely deserve to be called hands, he barely holds the wild thing back with his free arm, putting a hard kick into its groin. The gnoll lets out a strangled whine, breath driven from it for a moment, before he rams the blade into its midsection.

Hot blood pours down to the hilt, and the hunger within him suddenly howls and roars, deafening his own thoughts. The world is suddenly nothing but blood, the hot metallic stench of it flooding the alleyway as the wounded gnoll slides off the blade and falls in a heap, and just for a moment, the Karrnathi stands stunned, gripping his blade in both hands. The urge to cast the steel aside and bury his fangs in bleeding flesh seizes and nearly overwhelms him, just as it did in the temple—

The two remaining assailants wade in, stepping over their downed fellow, and Viktor forces himself back to guard just in time, parrying one strike, blocking another and sliding away from a third, blade clanging like a worn bell—

—then a simple, metallic crack as he raises the blade for another parry, and the orc’s club, banded in thick iron straps, collides just wrong.

Viktor’s sword shatters, fragments of Karrnathi steel ringing like windchimes.

He gapes in mingled horror and outrage at the hilt of the weapon, a short jagged length of blade still showing, nicked at its edge and spotted with blood. The weapon that focused his faith, that carried him through battle after battle—destroyed. Shame, dismay, fury and grief—mingled and roiling—rush through him in the space of a heartbeat. Then the backswing of the orc’s club catches him in one shoulder, and the bugbear’s blade drags against one side, and he falls to one knee, still clutching the ruined weapon.

“Aww,” the orc says, mock-crooning in its rumbling voice. “Broke toy. Too bad, pink-skin. Now we break you, too.”

With Viktor weaponless and unshielded, the pair assail him with kicks and punches and casual, almost playful blows from their weapons, leaving his head ringing beneath, his limbs sore and bruised, then numb. His vision dims as they hammer him to the ground, prone amidst mud, blood and refuse, and Viktor’s world diminishes to the thudding of his heartbeat, constricted slowly between icy chill and burning hunger.

All grows cold and quiet—and the beating of his heart stills.

~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Silence.

~~~~~~~~~~~~*

From silence, the senses of the world rush in around him with razor-edged clarity, and his eyes flicker open, black on black shining with crimson, skin drawing pale and the reek of spilled blood the only thing he can taste or smell, the only heat in a world suddenly full of ice and edges. The two living assailants stand over him, bickering over his cut purse and pouches, the stripped remnants of his armor, the few coins he carried.

Suddenly he is on his feet, voicing a howl to match the shrieking hunger and icy fury, now welded into one being that yanks him upright like a puppet with garrote wire for strings. Orc and bugbear startle at his movement, raising weapons anew and dropping their spoils, before he collides with the goblinoid, hands moving in a blur, slamming into the demihuman with inhuman speed and force.

Battered against the opposing wall of the alley in an eyeblink, the bugbear is helpless, and he sweeps a hand tipped with thick talon-like nails through the air, opening its throat like a razor through silk. More blood sprays in a hot splash against the wall and the bugbear falls to its knees, gasping and choking, eyes already dimming.

Yet hunger and rage are not satisfied, and the thing that was Viktor turns with awful slowness, fixing a cold glare upon the orc, even as the tusked humanoid backs away, raising its weapon more to placate than defend.

“Not man, not man…” the orc says, almost in a whisper, before the Karrnathi falls upon him, slamming him onto his back next to the downed gnoll. Pinioned, his club is plucked from his grip and cast aside with terrifying speed, and the silhouette above him bares long fangs, eyes shining deepest red in the darkness.

“No,” the thing that was Viktor snarls down at him. “Not a man.”

Then it sinks fangs into the orc’s throat.

Yanks its head back, still biting down.

A wet tearing sound and the splash of hot blood, the drumming of hobnailed bootheels and the burbling final breath, before it begins to feed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Somewhere within, Viktor struggles, captive to the fiend that has stolen his body. This vestige of himself watches, helpless, as it rends flesh, stealing blood and life in an unholy parody of his faith—the temptation to just give in, let this last part of him slip, to just let it go— presses him sorely. Yet he holds fast; The blood is life, the blood is life, the blood is life …though his resolve is beginning to fade…

The words of that voice from somewhere else still echo, and he clutches to the promise they offer. Life is more than blood. Divinity is within. Seek it. Something uncoils slowly within his breast, and the monstrosity that wears his flesh pauses in its feeding, turning its attention inward.

The soundless voice is like shield and weapon to his soul, and he arms and armors himself against the cold hunger, clashing with it as heat begins to slowly wind through him, a sensation like wings shrouding his heart, his being, protecting him like the scales of a great dragon.

The formless, yammering hungering darkness rages and claws at him, and he holds it at bay, parrying its mindless howls with the words of his faith, then casting aside words and wielding the strength of his faith itself. No words can describe this conviction, only its shadow, its barest form, and at last he holds the icy, razor-sharp hunger at bay, his own cold reflection, apostasy and madness to his faith and surety of self.

This hunger cannot be banished, only controlled. Destroying it would end him with it, but the spreading heat within him, like wings of dark fire, hold it to his will instead.

The dragon’s soundless voice calls again.

In Blood is Life, but there is more. Seek Divinity Within…

~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Viktor crouches low over the torn body of the orc and its companions, spattered with gore, weapons cast aside or smashed, armor broken. Within himself he can feel the hunger, held back, circling at the edge of his awareness like wild beasts beyond the light of a campfire… and a curious, cool heat spreads through his chest, blossoming outward like spreading wings.

He reaches up, and pulls aside his tunic with blood-smeared hands, and on his flesh, something begins to take shape as he watches, eyes widening slowly in disbelief.

A collection of winding, curving, angling lines unfold themselves on his chest—the suggestion of a dragon with head raised and wings mantled.

A dragonmark.

Viktor rests a hand on his chest, feeling the slightly raised tracery of the new shape on his skin. His flesh cold, but warming slightly, as his heart begins to beat anew. Slow, ever so much slower than before, but each thrumming pulse is strong, steady, full of power and promise.

He looks about himself, at the ruins of his armor—the battered remnant of his helm like a steel wolf rising from gore and mud—the hilt of his shattered sword.

I have died. But I live yet.

Rising to his feet, he holds wolf-headed steel in one hand, sword hilt in the other, still gazing down at the mark over his heart.

“Then maybe… what is broken, can be reforged,” Viktor whispers. “If I have faith enough.”

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Cold Camp

The sky above wheels slowly along through night above Droaam, stars and moons arcing slowly, majestically along their courses. Wrapped beneath the heavy blanket of his bedroll, Viktor clutches tightly at the clasp of his cloak, the dragon-skull symbol of his faith, eyes closed in fervent prayer. The weather is not too harsh for the season, even without the comforting warmth of a fire in this cold camp, and he is used to the biting chill of winters in Karrnath. Even so, Viktor shivers violently now and then, chilled from within.

He can feel it—black icy tendrils of corruption winding through his veins, leeching away at the warmth of his lifeblood, replacing it slowly, little by little, with a cold, unforgiving hunger.

“Saerun Road…” Viktor whispers to himself, shaking his head angrily at his own lapse in prayer, though his shivering has broken his concentration several times by now. His memory drifts back to that moment on the periphery of the Battle of Saerun Road… the Emerald Claw agent, a pale, skeletal woman and her minions… and a dying curse, propelled by her necromantic powers, hurled at him just before the Mourning consumed Cyre…

What has held it back so far? My fortitude? My faith? And is one faltering now?

Certainly not his faith, for it has carried him through times just as trying. His own resilience has won him through battle after battle, yet something in the sickening miasma of the corrupted temple to the Eight—or perhaps something more direct from the ravening creatures within, or the necromancer with them—has awoken this creeping sickness within him, like the ache of shrapnel deep in a healed-over wound.

Viktor shivers again, even more violently this time, and snarls in frustration, grinding his teeth—then stiffens, falling still despite the icy cold stealing through him. The points of his teeth are razor sharp, seeming more prominent than ever, and for a moment his senses are overwhelmed by hunger… the warmth of those in his party around him, resting fitfully… the slow thudding of their heartbeats… the bitter tang of dried blood in the crevices of armor and weapons alike… and the ever-growing temptation to seek out the heat of fresh blood and the life force it carries, like hot mulled wine on a blizzard-shrouded winter night in Karrnath.

“I will not…!” he whispers to himself. If I have been cursed, corrupted, I will turn it upon those who bestowed it to me. Not those who trust me.

Shivering yet again, so violently the chainmail joints of his armor jingles, he bends his head, closing both hands around the brooch, redoubling his fervent prayers.

“May I find the strength of the Divine Within. May it guide me in times of trial. May I seek the true path. For the Blood is Life…”

Blood is of life… the call whispers, in formless hints, leaving only the barest sense that words can scarcely convey in his thoughts. Blood is not life itself. Look deeper. Look within, and without…"

Just briefly, his shivering eases as… something… shrouds his heart, warding the core of him against the cold that moves into him, folding protectively around him, like a cloak, like a mantle, like great wings. He falls still, never slackening his grip on the brooch, continuing to marshal himself against this strangeness, before finally drifting into a fitful rest of his own…

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A Deep Breath

The vision began the same as it had before…

Xentril looked a little worse for wear. So, everything was as usual. Her weapons were the only thing on her not covered in blood, she had obviously had a few moments to clean them. They were often the only part of her equipment that shone.

She was walking cautiously down a dark corridor, alone, an everburning torch crammed into the buckle of her hide armor. It’s dim light illuminated the dragonborn completely. Both weapons were drawn, her flail’s chains making barely audible, musical clinking as she walked. The walls and floor of the corridor were smooth as obsidian, seamless, like blown glass. Warmth radiated from the stone.

Cuinas recognized the determined glint to her friend’s eye. This path, Xentril surely thought, would lead to her death. Finally.

Suddenly, the light from the torch wasn’t the only light. Two scones (lawl!) flanked a door. The end of the passage. Richly sculpted, the door bore three symbols, Siberys, Eberron, Khyber. No handle, no obvious way to open it. Stopping paces away from the door, Xentril looked closely at the ceiling, the floor, the walls. Finally, she looked behind her, shrugged, then stepped up to the door. She touched it with more reverence than she typically displayed, but after all, these were her gods, her religion, if it could even be called that. She pushed on the door, pulled on it, looked over it carefully, trying to figure out how to open it. Finally, she drew back and threw her shoulder hard against it.

A swirling wind erupted from the door, hot, smelling of fire. It pushed Xentril back, then abruptly stopped. The dragonborn was furious. “Breathe at me you thrice blasted door will you?” She bellowed at the door, “Well let’s see how you like it!” A whirling vortex of cold erupted as Xentril unleashed her breath weapon. It swirled around the carvings, a rime of frost appearing, then disappearing quickly. Nothing happened, and Xentril grunted in disgust.

Hefting her axe with reluctance, she approached the door again. To her surprise, it dissolved before her. No crumbling stone, no wind, no magical dust remained. Just an open, and dark chamber. The light from the sconces and the torch lit enough for Xentril to see that the chamber was vast, but not what was in it.

Mumbling under her breath, Xentril entered the chamber cautiously. It seemed to be built of the same dark, smooth, seamless stone. Carved into the floor, however, were rings of script. Draconic script, which was made of what looked to be dragonshards inlaid into the stone. The vernacular was ancient, but a few words stood out: Failure, Death, Destiny. What Xentril missed, that Cuinas’ scholar’s mind saw were the words: Scion, Rebirth, Hope and Empire.

The circles of words spiralled into the center of the room. The center was marked by a Siberys shard in the shape of a smooth, slightly convex disk. It was large, wide enough for Xentril to stand on. She did just that.

Bright light engulfed Xentril as a dazzling array of fires snaked up the walls. They burned in streams from floor to ceiling, revealing what was previously hidden by the darkness. The room was a vast domed circle, stretching to a great height. Five huge statues of dragons perched upright, set on ledges carved into the walls about twenty feet off the floor. Their heads nearly met in the center of the room, and in their forelimbs they each carried an orb. As Xentril watched, the orbs changed from opaque to transparent, and in each manifested the powers of the dragons: Flame, Poison, Cold, Acid, and Lightning. Xentril was awestruck.

A chorus of booming voices echoed through the chamber, speaking in archaic draconic. “You, kinkiller, dragonborn of disgrace, will meet your fate in this chamber, through the cleansing power of dragon breath. It will release you. If you accept this fate, stay. If you do not, you must flee. Choose.”

“I will stand and meet my fate.” Xentril said immediately. Cuinas knew that her friend was expecting to die, and truly the first time she had this vision she thought she was seeing her friend’s final moments. If that was the case, Cuinas knew that it was a better death than Xentril would have hoped for.

Light began to shine from the eyes of the statues. A wind swept in from the tunnel, swirling around Xentril. From the maws of the great dragons poured the weapons of the ancients. Fire, bright and hot, rippling down to consume her. Acid, hissing and deadly, poured over her. Lightning, arcing with white light, shot through and around her. Cold, unforgiving and relentless, rooted her to the spot and gripped at her heart to stop its strong beat. Poison, drifting down in a slow but inevitable cloud, choked the air out of her lungs and made her skin burn.

Xentril had never felt pain like this before. Individually, the attacks would have made even her cry out. Together, they made her speechless. Motionless in agony, she waited for her conciousness to blink out, for her unworthy spirit to leave her tormented form.

Though it seemed endless, the dragon breath that encompassed Xentril only lasted moments. When the pain lifted, quite suddenly, she staggered. Amazement was written across her features. Her wounds, and the dirt and grime covering her had disappeared. Her axe, which she had wielded at her last moment, was sheathed. In her hands instead appeared a large book. Exquisitely wrought, it was large and heavy and written in draconic. Cuinas’ vision did not reveal the details of the book to her, but she knew what it contained. It contained the knowledge that would redeem Xentril to her people, that would make her a hero to all dragonborn. Like it or not (and probably she would not like it one bit), Xentril would become a prophet to her people.

Cuinas’s vision slowly faded, this time not interrupted by the pyschic pain of her friend in the throes of a nightmare. She knew that it would only come to pass if Xentril expected to meet her death in that chamber. Wondering how to make her friend keep going without telling her of her destiny, Cuinas lay awake for a while, wrestling with her options. Something in her felt opened, and she knew that this was the last time this vision would come to her. That it would not be her last vision, she knew with as much certainty.

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Something Dark is Coming

Something Dark is Coming…

As the vampiric lord’s body dissipates into mist, and the party pauses to catch their breath, Viktor casts a glance around the interior of the ruined temple. The remnants of the master’s minions, vampire and giant zombie alike, lay in pieces scattered across the flagstones. The pews are smashed and rotted; the elegantly-crafted stained-glass windows shattered, the lead framing hanging like giant cobwebs; the Octograms and other symbols of the eight deities defaced or torn down; the main altar defiled with filth and old, dried blood. His features twist in disgust and he makes a low spitting sound.

“No symbols of the Blood. Only a gore-choked hovel. A waste, home to apostates and foulness,” he mutters to himself, pausing to wipe the worst of the clotted ichor from his blade.

As Viktor tends to this task, he pauses, coughing just faintly at the reek in the air, then more forcefully, dropping to one knee and hacking loudly. For a moment, it feels as though something has sunk claws into his chest, gripping his heart and lungs—then the sensation fades as quickly as it had come…

…but not entirely.

He rises to his feet again, hawking to clear his throat, and spitting out a gob of phlegm. The mass spatters at his feet, and in the light cast by the little metal-and-crystal sphere hovering around the Warforged nearby, he can see the stuff is tainted with streaks of blood, and something else, black and tarry. In the air, as he closes his eyes, clutching his holy symbol pinning his cloak, he can feel the taint that had gripped him, like a miasma all around. The very air of this place is suffused with the necromantic energies of this undead lord and his many minions, polluting and poisoning, like a vapor of arsenic.

Yet, it calls to him, or something in him—perhaps the same curse levied upon him at Saerun Road, years ago. Mastered by his strength, his faith, his determination, Viktor can still feel it growing within him like a flame in a gas-filled mine.

He bares his teeth, fangs prominent, and that sensation enfolds him again, leaving him feeling as though afflicted with a fever of ice, his limbs stiff and the air hot and thick around him. His eyes open again, and he looks around at the rest. Briefly, he can hear the collective beat of their hearts, the rush of blood in their bodies, even the bright pulsing spark of life that animates the warforged who stands nearby, and a hunger to take it all for himself threatens to overwhelm his senses as his vision floods crimson.

Briefly, Cuinas’ head turns in his direction, as though sensing the bloody impulse within him. Even the warforged… Torque, Viktor reminds himself… turns around, impassive face still seeming wary. The Karrnathi grits his teeth, hard enough to produce an unpleasant grinding sound, and draws breath through clenched jaws.

“The Blood is the Life. Seek the Divine Within. May I find the strength within myself to persevere through this challenge. May my blood flow undimmed,” he whispers to himself in prayer, clutching at his brooch as he squares his shoulders, raising his head.

The Blood is of Life… the unbidden thought returns to him, as some other sensation slips through him, shrouding his heart and seeming to ward away the psychic poisoning in this defiled place. But Life is not Blood. Life is… Blood is…

“There is something more…” Viktor whispers, steeling himself and preparing to move deeper into the temple with his companions. “…and I will find it.”

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Emo Dragon is Emo

The last devil dead, the battlerage cleared Xentril’s mind and she sagged, numbly surveying the carnage left in her wake.

She’d done it again. Except this time she remembered. She was there, present, fighting with every drop of her will to stop her axe from slicing down into Cuinas’ flesh.

I just… wasn’t strong enough. It’s done.

“It’s done,” she murmured. The others nodded, but Cuinas shot her a sharp, discerning look. Xentril shuddered at her friend’s gaze and quickly looked away.

How can she even bear to look at me? She knew what I am, but now she knows. How can the others just shrug that off?

She walked a few paces away and stood by the door, staring blindly about and raging internally at herself. Cuinas strode over to her and planted her hands on her hips, glaring up at her burly friend.

Xentril looked down, shuffling her feet, and if she hadn’t been so obviously distraught, the Half-Elf might have laughed at the picture she presented.

“I..”

Cuinas cut her off.

“Before you even say a word, I’m gonna have my piece. What happened was not your fault.”

Xentril looked up, meeting her eyes for the first time and seeing none of the horror she expected, but just her friend’s usual exasperation.

“If things were reversed, you would have been just as injured as me. I was the first one that she dominated. So don’t go telling me that your mind is weak, because mine is certainly not, and she affected me just as much as she influenced you. I’m still standing, that’s all that matters.”

Xentril just stared at her for a minute.

“I can’t just let this go. I almost killed you. ME. My hand, my blade. My rage.”

Cuinas snorted derisively and almost rolled her eyes at her friend.

“If you truly wanted to kill me, I would be dead. Deny it, I dare you. I’ve seen you kill creatures far more powerful than me.”

Xentril sighed and turned away, running her claws through her tendrils and slumping back against the wall.

“The bottom line is that I’m too dangerous to be your friend. To be alive. I can’t fight it any more. I can feel it creeping up on me every battle. Feel the rage coming alive, like a sleeping beast coiled inside of me, just waiting for the right moment to strike and slay those closest to me. It is my curse, to live and destroy everything I love.”

Cuinas shook her head and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder, forcing Xentril to look into her eyes.

“You do not know your destiny as well as you think you do, my friend. I have seen it. Today you stood against a blow that should have knocked you down. Yes, even you! You live for a reason. I promise you that. Once you stop looking for the darkness within you, you will start to see the light that has been there all along.”

Xentril paused, staring into the earnest face of her friend, this strange woman who seemed able to reach into the darkest depths of her soul and find something worthy.

“I… I need time to think. I won’t do anything rash. I promise.”

Cuinas nodded and released her gentle grip on the Dragonborn and turned back to assist the others.

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History Repeating

I reached into the chaos of the collective unconscious, grasping the first energy I touched and throwing that desperate… something… at the bowl of blood on the pillar. The light must have guided my mind, for an instant later a shock of force tipped the bowl completely off its perch, spilling its foul contents on the stone floor.

Their protection eliminated, the ritualists were made short work of, first by Xentril, then Cier, and finally by myself, as I severed their minds’ connection to their bodies with vicious and painful directness. As the beast wailed his anger at us, I focused next on the captured prisoner, briefly wondering why she was still alive. As I moved to intercept the bearded devil, his writhing, vile face grinned at me with evil intent. Suddenly, my mental barriers came under an assault of such astonishing strength that I had to gasp. As the helpless woman before me transformed into a devastatingly beautiful and horrible succubus, I realized that my guard had been lowered, and it was too late. Mentally screaming, I had no choice but to obey as the thing commanded me closer.

The horrors had just begun, however. As I battled the Succubus in the shifting planes of our minds, just shaking myself loose before my soul was sucked from me, Xentril roared up to assist. Sneering, the succubus focused on the dragonborn, sensing a less-guarded mind. Realization, fatal and full of doom, fell upon me as Xentril lifted her axe. Rage, despair, and shock radiated out of my friend’s eyes as the always-kept-sharp blade whistled toward me. Holding up my javelin, a pointless defense, I braced for my own death, hoping against hope that Xentril wouldn’t slay me with one strike.

The axe slid into my arm, and as my reflexes made me turn aside, I felt a blaze of pain follow me, nearly severing my arm from my body. Mentally commanding my nearly dead self to remain upright, I knew that if I fell, Xentril would be lost. Blood flowed freely, and Xentril just stared at me, as if not believing that I hadn’t been decapitated by the blow. A wry thought, that it was a good thing the dragonborn practically considers me a halfling, flitted through my mind. Catching a thread of healing energy, as across the room… too far nearly… Victor’s wounds were lessening as he called upon that damnable blood of his, I bound that healing to my mind, mentally keeping some of my own blood within me.

This. This was going to be bad.

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Costs of Conflict

Viktor raised his shield to deflect the incoming swing and answered it with a strike of his own. His triumphant “Hah!” was premature as his opponent parried, then riposted, wooden practice shields and swords clattering loudly with each collision. Around them, the rest of his squadmates faced off with each other, occasionally cheering, cajoling, or cursing as they continued their sparring drills on the Rekkenmark training grounds.

He paused to catch his breath, wiping sweat from his brow with the heavy sleeve of his padded jacket, then squared up for another round against Alinda Brand. Shorter and slighter than Viktor, the wiry young green-eyed blonde had proven herself more than a match so far, swift and agile even with a heavy blade and shield in her hands.

“Ready for another go, then, ‘Corporal’ Ullern?” Alinda grinned as she crouched a little, settling into the guard stance.

“As many as I need to do it right, Brand.” Viktor hefted the lead-cored wooden blade, and rolled his shoulders. “I do plan on getting promoted to Cadet Sergeant alongside you—Hrah!”

Their swords met with a loud crack as Brand parried, seemingly at the last possible moment. His disbelieving expression faded into admiration, then determination as he weathered the attacks against his shield, then lunged forward, battering his shield into hers. Their blades and eyes both locked, and they grinned fiercely at each other.

“Then,” Alinda said between heavy breaths as she worked to hold her ground, “how about you… match that muscle… with some speed…”

With a quick twist of her body, she hooked an ankle around Viktor’s, rammed her shoulder into his side, and watched him crash to the ground in an undignified heap.

“Ach, blunted…!” he spat, then rolled over, looking up warily at Cadet Brand as she slung her shield and offered a hand. She smiled, and nodded in approval at his expression, then broke into a grin as he took her hand and stood.

“Cadets, stand to!” They both turned at the voice of Garrick, the squad’s Cadet Captain, as he barked out the words. “Officer on the grounds! A-ten-shun!”

The entire squadron quickly fell into line, sparring weapons hung on belts and shields slung, as Captain Ostrow, in full academy instructor’s uniform, marched solemnly down the line. Viktor’s eyes flickered in his direction as he approached, appraising the cadets lined up before him. The captain’s gaze swept over him, and he quickly returned to eyes-front, but not before noticing the officer’s expression as he looked Viktor over—and the letter in his hands. Ostrow paused, then turned around and paced back up the line before he finally spoke, voice gravelly.

“We’ve received word that Tanar Rath has been beset by the Thranes,” he said flatly as he came to a stop. A few surprised whispers passed through the squad, but Viktor went silent and still as stone at the announcement. For a moment all he could hear was the sound of his heart hammering in his chest, the thump of his pulse filling his ears and washing out all other sensations. Next to him, Brand turned her head just enough to watch him from the corners of her eyes, as Captain Ostrow executed a sharp about-face, and continued.

“The townsfolk have taken shelter in the keep, but they are now under siege. We haven’t any reports on casualties yet, but reinforcements will be dispatched as soon as they can be assembled.” Ostrow continued pacing down the line, looking pointedly at Viktor as he approached. “Some of you, I know, have family there. But for now, you serve them best by doing your duty here.”

The captain paused before Viktor, facing him head-on, gazing sternly at him. “Do I make myself clear—Cadet-Corporal Ullern?”

Viktor’s mind overflowed with images of the Tanar Rath township, looted, sacked, burnt… its people maimed, raped, killed… The sudden insane urge to find a fast horse and ride it to death if only to get home warred with duty, honor, obligation, his own shame at the thought of disappointing Rekkenmark, his fellows, his family. He remained at attention as if nailed there, and raised a hand in sharp salute.

“Sir, yes, sir!” he answered. “For Karrnath, sir!”

Ostrow nodded grimly in return, and settled a hand on his shoulder. “We will not let this Thranish treachery stand,” he said, then raised his voice to the squad as a whole. “And you will all get your chance to show the enemy the error of their ways. For Karrnath!”

At the head of the line, Garrick drew his wooden sword and thrust it skyward, echoing the captain’s call. “For Karrnath!

Viktor turned his head to look back at Brand, his expression fading from worry into determination, and exchanged a nod with her, as they and the rest of the squad drew their own swords and rose them as one, the cry filling the practice ground.

“Khoot! Khoooot! Karrnath!


At the head of the platoon, Second Lieutenant Viktor Ullern’s horse led the way into the outskirts of Tanar Rath. In the distance, the keep still bore scorch marks and signs of repaired breaks in the stone, and here and there, a few burnt-out shells of buildings in the township still awaited clearing and reconstruction.

“By the Blood,” he said, turning to Jorgen, the platoon sergeant mounted on his own horse next to him. “How long until more supplies arrive? It’s been long enough, hasn’t it?”

Sergeant Jorgen’s eyebrows still went up at the religious oath, as they did every time. “Diverted again, sir,” he answered, calmly. “Lumber to ships needed for picket duty in Scions Sound, foodstuffs to the division at the Cyran border…”

Viktor nodded soberly, still frowning at the remaining damage to the township around him. “Next time we cross paths with the Thranes, let’s see if they feel like following their Silver Flame’s words of charity. Tell me when our scouts return. I want to see if their regiment left anything cached behind during their rout. For now… just distribute what we can.” He turned in his saddle, glancing back at the relief caravan escorted by the platoon.

“Yes, sir,” Jorgen replied, and tugged his reins, riding back to begin preparing work crews from the troops. Viktor watched him, then looked ahead, trying to find the familiar shape of a home, one fortunately intact… though as for its occupants…

He reached into a hip pouch, feeling for the letter though he had all but memorized its words. His mother, writing to tell him that they had survived the siege, but not without cost… his father’s wounds, his sister’s and mother’s burns…

“Viktor? Viktor?! Over here!” A young woman’s voice, familiar despite nearly two years’ absence, shook him back to the present, and he looked up, spurring his mount forward as Lena shouted and waved to him. As he approached, he could clearly see her arm, shoulder, and side of her throat mottled with scars, but still smiling in relief as her brother returned home.


Viktor shifted impatiently as, across the clearing, Cuinas’ negotations with the minotaur leader and his Droaamish rabble drifted in and out of hearing. The Brelish hostage is as good as ours. What else need be…

His eyes narrowed and he moved a little closer, listening more intently to the minotaur’s rumbling voice, all but boasting of their siege to Orcbone. One man rescued, and so many others left to die… including this man’s father. The memory of Tanar Rath’s charred wreckage and the scars of the wounded rose in his mind, briefly threatening to blot out everything else. Viktor’s lips peeled back, teeth clenched, as he strode forward. Even with her back to him, Cuinas’ head tilted, and she turned a little, sensing his approach, his mood.

’What’s wrong, Viktor? You’ve something on your mind. I thought you were bored with all this talk, and we’re all but done here.’ he heard, as she reached out to his thoughts with her own.

He kept his eyes on the minotaur as he approached, feeling something rising in him, the feel of his heart beginning to pound, the sound of blood in his ears. ‘We could end that siege. Here. Now.’

Cuinas looked back at him, surprise and puzzlement chasing across her features. ‘Uh… how do you figure?’

“You say your force holds Orcbone at siege. Let us settle the matter the way your people do!” Viktor shouted, and the minotaur’s head raised, eyes fixing on him. “You and I, one to one. If you defeat me, then my life is forfeit.”

“And if you win?” the minotaur rumbled, tossing his head. He let out a low contemptuous snort, and his cohorts joined in the amusement.

Viktor came to a halt, a stone’s throw away, one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other beginning to unsling his shield. His vision was edged crimson, and he raised his voice over the hammering of his heartbeat. “If I defeat you… the siege is lifted. Nothing more, nothing less.”

The minotaur leader eyed him thoughtfully, tilting his head, as around him, the Droaamish edged backward, beginning to form a wide circle. Cuinas and the hostage, Ben, took notice and began to move aside. Lorak kept his distance, waiting impassively, while Xentril nodded in seeming approval, and Sier watched him thoughtfully off to one side, as if preparing to act herself.

“I accept!” the beast suddenly bellowed, and stabbed out a hand. With a loud crack, a stroke of lightning lanced from his fingertips, crashing into Viktor’s breastplate.

The pain was incredible, threatening to drive him to his knees, but he remained standing as if nailed upright. As his sword cleared its scabbard, sparks dancing along its edge, he bared his fangs and charged at full, furious speed, answering the minotaur with an enraged howl of his own.


With a satisfied sigh, Viktor leaned his shield on the edge of the cot and wiped his hands on a rag, looking over the armor arrayed on the woolen blanket. Notched and nicked, scratched and battered, the armor plates and the underlying chainmail layers still held, sturdy despite their years of use—and now, finally, clean again of any last traces of blood and grime that might hide and spread rust.

Viktor sat down heavily on a nearby stool, leaning back against the wall and closing his eyes, letting himself relax for a moment. Beyond the thin sheet strung up to divide his section of the room where they were billeted, Sier, Xentril and the rest slept, cleaned their equipment, and waited for word from Orcbone’s commander. As to how this might affect their journey to the Shadow Marches, who could yet say, but after their many days on the road, even this rough accommodation was still a near-luxury.

It could be much worse. Kimon and his warriors could be laying siege to this place. He let out a soft, amused snort, and opened his eyes again, nodding in thought as he reached for his sword. Steel and leather rasped as he drew the blade, critically examining the edges for any cracks or flaws.

Viktor let the battle replay itself in his mind as he oiled a whetstone and set to work, running it smoothly down the length of the blade. The minotaur’s contemptuous response to his challenge… the violent back-and-forth tide of the conflict… spell and prayer, blade and shield… the enemy disappearing in an eyeblink before each strike landed… the final desperate lunge…

He paused and closed his eyes again as the memory unreeled, bringing back that final victorious moment. His enemy toppling, felled by Viktor’s blade, finally brought down, and him finally giving into the hunger… He traced the faint, but razor-sharp points of his teeth with the tip of his tongue, almost feeling his mouth filling with the hot iron taste of blood once again. Each time the hunger had come, it had been harder to resist—and even more rewarding to give in.

Is that so terrible a thing? To channel it, to use it, instead of the other way around? The Emerald Claw necromancer probably had meant to curse him at Saerun Road—but she had fallen that day, and he had thrived. Perhaps it should be… cultivated. Encouraged. Did his own faith not suggest finding strength within, overcoming all limitations? The limits of steel, of flesh—even perhaps mortality itself?

“The Blood is the Life,” Viktor whispered, opening his eyes and readying the stone once more.

_The Blood is of Life,_ came an unbidden thought from somewhere within, and he halted, letting the thought play out. But Life is not Blood. Life… Life is…

He carefully rested the sword across his knees, placing a hand over his heart, feeling its slow, steady beat—and another sensation. Something coiling, gathering within him. A faint cold heat moved under his fingertips, as through shrouding, embracing his heart… not painfully, but almost protectively.

For a moment his thoughts filled with images, each struggling to be seen above the others: Himself, pale and dark-eyed, fangs gleaming—the river of blood beneath the world’s surface, like a vein or artery under the skin—arching, angular lines, forming an unknown design that spread and weaved itself larger and larger—wings unfolding against a clouded sky—the dragon in the cavern on the Lhazaar Isles, speaking of destinies—an iron stand set with red candles, all ablaze—the conversation at the temple in Sharn—other, less clear visions…

Viktor jerked upright as the whetstone slipped from loose fingers and clanged against the tip of the blade, landing on the floor and rattling to a stop by his boot. He stared stupidly at it, then rubbed his eyes and shook his head.

“Dreams?,” he said softly, reaching to pick it up. “Maybe more tired than I think.”

Or something more? he thought, as he set to work with the whetstone again. The recitation came easily to memory: ‘…Seek the divine within, for the blood is the life, and in its call can be heard the promise of eternal life. One has but to listen…’

He wiped the blade clean and gave it one more careful examination before sheathing the sword, still feeling that faint cold heat within… waiting…

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A Nightmare

Smoke filled the air, making her every breath burn in her lungs. The din of battle rang in her ears – the clash of weapons, the screams of enraged warriors, the moans and cries of the dying. And then there was no time for thought, as three of house Cannith’s Warforged slipped past the front line of Dragonborn mercenaries she commanded. She slammed into one of them with her shoulder, swinging her axe down hard and catching him off guard, cutting a deep gash in his heavy plate.

Khyber curse these Cannith machines, they don’t even bleed or cry out when you wound them.

She felt a rush of air breeze past and quickly ducked a blow from behind, as the second one moved into flank her, but as she moved, she took a hard slash to the arm, from the third. This one was more lightly armored, but quick, and dashed back behind the first. And then she heard a familiar roar, as her brother, her second-in-command, charged in beside her and shoved the flanker back a pace, leaving her to take care of the quick one and the large one.

The battle blurred into a whir of blades and the clash of armor, Xandril fighting side-by-side and back-to-back with her brother for hours. They moved together like a well-oiled machine, the rest of the fighters flowing around them, as Xandril shouted orders and Xentril led the charges. The Cyrans fell before their fury, even the Warforged, and it seemed for a time that the mercenaries would push them into retreat, but then the Juggernauts came.

Two huge living machines, easily twice as tall as even the tallest Dragonborn, they swung massive spiked clubs and began pushing her fighters back and rallying the Cyrans. She cleaved the Cyran in front of her almost in twain, his blood spraying her face and fueling her battle fury, then met her brother’s eyes. They didn’t need to speak, but moved as one toward one of the colossal creatures. It turned and met their approach with a swing of its giant club, but Xandril dodged the clumsy swing and leapt toward the giant, his great sword ringing as it sliced through the creature’s armor and into its mechanical thigh. Xentril slipped around behind it, taking advantage of her brother’s distraction, and hammering the giant with a solid trio of blows to its backside.

After that, the fight shifted into a furious haze. She was knocked down; bleeding from a dozen wounds, but Xandril’s quick sword work stopped the creature from finishing her off with one two-handed swing of its huge club. She leapt to her feet, red filming over her eyes, and tore into the giant with her axe, not even feeling the multiple wounds all over her body.

And then someone was screaming. Was it her? Was it the enemy? Doesn’t matter. She kept swinging her axe; she was going to destroy the giant and break it into a thousand thousand bolts. Blood sprayed across her face, hot and ferric. That was wrong. Warforged don’t bleed. But it barely registered, until it was too late. Her fighters were surrounding her, holding her back. Someone was screaming. It was her. No… No.

“Nooooooo~” She howled, beating her fists against his bloody chest, willing him to stand up, willing it not to have happened. What happened, how did it get past her? Wasn’t I there protecting him the whole time?

As five Dragonborn dragged her back from Xandril’s corpse, she saw a shape in the smoke. A half-remembered figure from a dream; a half-elven woman with a shining dragonmark climbing up her neck and down her shoulder. She called out to her, reaching through warriors surrounding her and taking her hand, pulling her to her feet. The world grew misty around her and a voice sounded in her head, “wake up! You’re dreaming! WAKE!”

~~~

The haze cleared and she was alone in a room filled with broken furniture. A bedroom. Not a battlefield. In an inn. Sharn. It was over. There was no changing it. Nothing to be done. Xandril was dead, and a hundred of her men had seen the juggernaut fall under their attack, seen her turn and attack him, seen him dodge her blows, frantically calling out to her. They had seen her blade break through his defense, slicing through his armor and into his flesh. They had seen him fall and her continue to hack at him until she was sprayed with her kin’s blood. They had—-
A pounding on the door pulled her out of her haunted memories. Cuinas’ voice called through the heavy door.

“Xentril! Wake up! Open the thrice-forsaken door!” She grunted and stepped over the rubble that had once been well-crafted furniture to open the door. Cuinas stood in the doorway, looking exhausted and disheveled.

“Well?” Xentril demanded, trying to shift her bulk to block the half-elf’s view of the room, but Cuinas slipped under her arm and pushed her way in. “What do you mean, ‘well’?” She scolded. “You were having a nigh—-Oh. Ohhh.” She stopped, staring around the room at the destruction. “A nightmare.” She finished quietly.

“Yeah, well, er. It’s over. Uh. I’ll clean it up. I…” Xentril stammered to a halt, and then sank down onto the cracked bedframe. “You saw?” she asked with quiet shame.

Cuinas nodded and sat down gingerly next to her huge friend. “I saw. I was there with you – I pulled you out of it. And I saw something else too, a vision of the future. You will learn to control your demons. You will redeem yourself and bring honor to your people again.”

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