Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"The Game - Chapter 5, Part 2"

If you haven't read Chapter 5, Part 1, do that first.

Valinor noticed immediately that there was something different about one of his opponents. That one was almost a full head taller than his companion and wore a smattering of metal plates about his person, complementing the chain mail armor that both gnolls wore. It's weapon was heavier, as well, indicating a greater strength - and most likely, greater ability. "The Leader," Valinor decided. His suspicion was born out as the larger gnoll barked out an order to the other and then stepped back to watch the combat.

The underling moved forward carefully, still wincing from the sting Valinor's bow had imparted to his face. He took a straightforward swing which the ranger easily blocked. Valinor returned a slash with his second sword. The gnoll stepped back out of reach and brought his axe up to counter the ranger's follow up thrust. The exchange followed for a few seconds, each trading blows that were subsequently blocked or evaded. The gnoll was good, but followed a fairly set pattern of maneuvers that the crafty ranger soon deciphered. Valinor launched a right-handed thrust at the creature's midsection. When the gnoll predictably brought his axe handle across to parry the blow, the ranger swept his left sword across and struck the axe driving it farther out to the right. He then twisted his right wrist, rolling the blade about and under the axe driving the point home in the creature's unprotected armpit. As the gnoll jerked in pain, Valinor spun, reversing the swing of his left blade and simultaneously retracting his successful stab. The full circle spin brought both blades across the startled gnoll's neck, relieving the creature of its head.

Valinor ended the spin in a ready position and eyed the gnoll leader. To his surprise, the gnoll spoke. The words were heavily accented, but in well-spoken Common.

"Such pretty displays will not work against me."

"So have others said who were bigger and stronger than you. They are all dead."

The gnoll laughed. "I hardly fear the boasts of a weakling human. I am Kartoch. I will feast on your flesh tonight."

"You will feast on your doom."

The laughter continued as the gnoll leader advanced.


Theadina found herself hard-pressed. While no novice to fighting - the Knights of Calinde were not a true martial order, though they did receive martial weapons training - her sword skills lacked the fluid grace of Teserk, the effortless coordination of Valinor and the raw power of Colin. She relied on well practiced routines and strategies and had little success with battlefield improvisation. Her opponent lacked even her skills, relying on brute force to overwhelm his foes, but in this case, that strength was just enough to throw off Theadina's rhythm. The gnoll couldn't penetrate her defenses, but neither could she recover fast enough to press an advantage.

The two were at a standstill.

Worry began to eat away at the knight. What if her skills were not enough? What if her strength gave out first? Already she was beginning to tire, the heavy axe blows causing her arms to go numb. She couldn't last at this much longer, and she couldn't expect that her friends would save her.

A flash of inspiration came to her then. Theadina leapt back as the gnoll executed another of his powerful overheads and stepped into the tightly packed trees off to the north. The slope made it difficult to maintain her footing and for just a moment she almost regretted her hasty decision. Then the gnoll was upon her and she had no more time to question. The gnoll's first swipe came - Theadina ducked - and the axe crashed into the tree next to her. The gnoll had to jerk twice to pull the heavy blade from the wood, giving the knight the extra time she needed. A quick slash drew a thick line of blood down the creature's arm. It howled in anger and launched a mighty overhead chop. Theadina swung around the tree to her right and attacked the gnoll from the rear. The monster spun quickly to block , but the axe head caught up in the brush and didn't make it up in time. Theadina's sword stabbed through the gnoll's throat and the creature fell heavily to the ground.


Colin dispatched the first gnoll he had felled and took stock of the battle. He couldn't see Valinor, a large boulder blocking his view, but he watched as Theadina neatly dispatch her foe. He turned to find Teserk one on one with a gnoll and having no real difficulty. Mammoth was keeping another of the foul creatures occupied. It looked as if the battle was almost over. That's when he heard Mort's scream. Theadina heard it, too, and the two of them followed the sound into the trees to the south of the trail.


Teserk was toying with his opponent when he heard the scream.

"I guess play time's over."

The gnoll looked at him funny.

"That means it's time for you to go bye-bye," the swordsman explained. He launched a lightning fast thrust which the gnoll barely managed to so sidestep. The move brought him right into the path of Teserk's follow up kick. The toe of Teserk's boot caught the creature square on the muzzle, snapping its head back. The gnoll fell backwards to the ground. Teserk spun his sword around, reversing his grip, and plunged the blade down through the rusty chainmail and into the gnoll's chest.

The swordsman caught sight of the last of his attackers fleeing scene. He snatched a javelin from the earth nearby and launched it at the retreating figure. His aim was true, the missile taking the unfortunate creature in the hip. It stumbled, falling backwards down the slope to land just beneath Mammoth's flailing hooves. There was a sickening pop.

Teserk retrieved his blade and followed his two friends.


Kartoch rushed in suddenly, leading with the thrusting point atop his two-bladed battle axe. Valinor darted to the left, slashing down with his right blade. The gnoll pivoted smoothly, taking the slash on a battered bracer and brought his axe about in a horizontal cut. Valinor stepped back and slapped the passing axe head with his left blade, hoping to throw it farther out to his left, and thrust his second blade in at the expected opening. Kartoch anticipated the move, dipping the axe so that Valinor's blade slipped over without much impact, then swept the axe back across one handed, intercepting the darting stab. The gnoll's free hand shot forward to grab the ranger's neck, but Valinor spun to the left and avoided the clawed hand.

"Give up, human. You cannot match me," Kartoch snarled as Valinor maneuvered himself against another charge.

"Perhaps not," the ranger replied, "but at least I'll have the pleasure of knowing that my friends cut your murdering band to pieces before I died."

The advancing gnoll leader paused briefly and cast a glance back along the valley floor. His superior height allowed him to see that Valinor spoke the truth. His tribe lay scattered across the ground - broken and bloody as three of their intended victims moved off into the trees, seemingly unharmed.

Kartoch roared in anger - a chilling half laugh that reverberated off the valley walls in spite of the trees. "You will die first, and then I will hunt your pitiful band single handedly until each lies twisted and torn at my feet."

"Save your words for someone who cares, Kartoch. You are a leader with no one to lead."

The gnoll sprang at Valinor, unbelievably quick for one of such large stature. Valinor barely managed to slap the axe head aside before Kartoch plowed into him. The force of the charge threw the ranger backwards. Valinor tucked into a roll and came up in a crouch, his swords crossing above his head. He caught the descending axe in the vee of the cross, the sharp blade stopping a scant inches above his forehead.

Kartoch put his considerable weight behind the axe, trying to force the axe-head into the ranger's face. Valinor strained to keep his blades in place, but his arms were beginning to tire. The razor edge of the axe slipped ever closer. Valinor managed to set his feet under him, then, and with a mighty heave of his legs threw Kartoch back. The gnoll leader recovered almost instantly, launching himself again at the weakened human.

Valinor parried the blow and the one following, the hits ringing along his arms. He had to end this quickly. He dodged another mighty blow and scrambled over a fallen tree to give himself time. Kartoch pursued relentlessly.

Valinor spoke a command word as the gnoll leader came over the log and his two short swords began to glow, their blades bathed in white-hot blue flames. Kartoch failed to notice, arcing the great axe in a mighty two-handed overhead blow. Valinor sidestepped and brought both flaming blades down on the axe handle. The twin swords exploded with a concussion of fire, shattering the wooden shaft and singing the fur of Kartoch's hands. The startled gnoll pulled back in a panic, but Valinor gave him no recourse. He stepped over the gnoll's burning weapon and unleashed a devastating combination attack. Lines of blood appeared in several places across Kartoch's body as magical blades sliced almost effortlessly through the gnoll's makeshift armor. Flames licked at the wounds as the creature's clothing caught fire. Valinor finished the attack with a full thrust that took the gnoll leader in the stomach. Again the sword erupted in a hellish blast. The magical fire burned from the inside out, leaving the gnoll leader a smoking husk as Valinor withdrew the enchanted blade.

Valinor grimaced and stamped out the small fires that had caught in the dead leaves littering the valley floor. It was dangerous to use those blades in a forested area. Not that he had had much of a choice.

The ranger sheathed his twin blades and headed off towards where Mort had disappeared into the trees.


Valinor arrived at the scene a few moments later. Mort sat on the ground, his arms wrapped around his legs, rocking slowly back and forth as Theadina tried to comfort him. Colin and Teserk were examining a body - a human body.

"What happened?" he asked, walking over to the two men.

Teserk stood. "Near as we can make out, Mort was following your advice to hide in the trees when he came across this guy here. Mort says the fellow attacked him and he defended himself. With this."

Teserk held up the farmer's small skinning knife.

Valinor blinked. "He killed a man with that?"

Colin pointed at the gash that ran under the man's chin. "One stroke. Nice an' clean."

"This from a man with no combat experience," Teserk added dryly. "You have to admit, Valinor, this is more than a little off. Add it to the other discrepancies in the man's story and the strange reaction of Mammoth. It just doesn't add up."

Valinor was forced to admit, if only to himself, that Teserk was right. Something wasn't right here. Still, the ranger was always one to give a person the benefit of any doubt. He looked at the sobbing farmer who called himself Mortimous deVous.

"This isn't the time or place for questions. Dusk is here and we've still a mile or more to the wizard's home. "

Teserk looked at him incredulously, but Valinor ignored him. "Get him up, Theadina, we've got to move.

"Leave the body," he instructed Colin as he started back down the slope, "We don't have time for a proper burial."

Teserk watched in silence as Valinor left the area. Theadina helped Mort to his feet and led him after. Colin made to follow, but Teserk stopped him with a hand.

"Valinor's making a mistake here."

"Aye, lad, it's possible. But it's his mistake to be makin'. We put him in charge, remember? Never ye fear, we'll be keepin' a watch on our Mr. deVous."

Colin trudged after the others, but Teserk remained for a moment. He bent one more time to study the body in the failing light. That wound...it was just too perfect to be an accident. He ran a finger along the smooth cut - then noticed something he had missed before. In addition to the knife stroke, there was a small line that traced around the back of the man's neck, almost as if a thin wire had torn the skin. It was too thin for a rope. A necklace perhaps?

"Teserk, let's go!"

Valinor's words were just loud enough to carry to him. Teserk filed the information away to study with the rest of the clues he'd discovered. He would get to the bottom of this, if Valinor's misplaced trust didn't get them all killed first.

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