The Beginning of The End
I - Dead Alive
Belial was a city of constant change. Every minute detail was subject to modification by a troubled local government elected by a confused populace of wealthy merchants, retired soldiers, and common folk; the merchants, soldiers, and other variously well-off citizens were content to live within their own sphere of reality in which the only thing of concern was where the next gala was being held.
Meanwhile, the toiling common folk, the pitiful souls who dared to get their hands and minds dirty to bring home a morsel of food for dinner, lived in a quite different world. News of nearby settlements being raided by the mysterious "Cult" was cause for great anxiety among the proletariat, coupled with the sudden and unexplained appearance of strange obsidian obelisks throughout Kilran, with reported sightings in locations as remote as Elenmoir.
Still, while the tides of change within Belial were unpredictable by even the most renowned sages, one thing in that cursed city remained constant: the incessant, torrential downpour of rain from angry black clouds that choked out the warm blue of the sky and deprived the jealous sun of its light. Yes, it seemed no matter the week, month, or season, at least half of every Belian day was pure overcast.
Cannonwalker had always enjoyed the rain. The steady dripping of cold tears from the sky always seemed to give him some trace of odd comfort in his youth when he could deprive none from any other sources. And yet his fondness for rain simply couldn't have prepared him for the daily apocalyptic flooding of Belial. It was truly a sight to behold for both Cannonwalker and any other visitor to the bustling city that sat on the bay. Truthfully, though, Cannonwalker's reasoning for visiting in Belial was a far cry from virtually any other traveler's, he concluded.
Under the protection of a crude parasol he purchased from one of the many stingy streetside merchants that had set up shop near the city's center, Cannonwalker hurried through the bustling crowds of Belial, clutching his satchel tightly, though not as tightly as his parasol, which the persistent wind repeatedly attempted to wrestle from his hand. Several native Belians chuckled softly as they glanced his way, catching a glimpse of a young, black bearded man from the mountains in the north, his expression as icy as the bitter tears of the sky.
Following the ebb and flow of the crowd, Cannonwalker eventually reached the Residential District of the city, passing several great structures along the way; a great statue dedicated to an elderly looking individual that, from what he could tell, actually bore some resemblance to Cannonwalker, and an ornately crafted building of quartz, both of which he wished sorely to stop and get a better look at - though he knew that stopping for anything longer than what was absolutely necessary was grounds for a fight in the constanty moving Belian streets. Besides, he was already running late, if his sense of time was accurate.
908 Byrd Street. This was the address that was covertly given to him several weeks prior, and here he was, on the second day of autumn, as instructed. It was one of the many modest apartment buildings in the Residential District inhabited mostly by the most secretive and hermetic individuals in the city. This particular street typically received relatively little traffic, though as Cannon arrived at the door and knocked, he overheard two individuals in the nearby alleyway quietly gossiping about a great many things, namely the apparent impending end of the world.
Cannonwalker had heard the stories of the obsidian structures that were popping up in several locations in Kilran. They went by many names and had many potential explanations - it depended on who you asked. But what was more or less agreed upon was that these objects were a sure sign of something dark and sinister to come. Cannon couldn't be sure what exactly the structures were, or if the end of the world was imminent. But the stories of the obelisks corrupting landscape - twisting the grass into a sickly purple and driving wildlife and terrified human passerbys alike to madness - they deeply concerned him.
However, the mountain man had little time to ponder his fears before the door before him swung open, and an unseen hand pulled him inside. Clutching his satchel, Cannonwalker whacked the assailant with his parasol before he could open his eyes, prompting the individual to yelp in pain. Opening one single eye to scope out the danger, Cannonwalker realized he was finally free from the storm outside, basking in the warmness of the apartment. He cringed when he looked upon the face of the man he whacked in self defense.
"Gah! What's your... problem?" groaned the man, clutching his face in pain. He was an older man, perhaps a touch above middle aged, with premature snow white hair common among the moorlanders of the west. Cannonwalker set his parasol down and rushed to the aid of the man, helping him up.
"I-I'm sorry, you caught me off guard," Cannonwalker apologized. The older man groaned and removed his hand from his face, revealing a nasty black eye.
"You're a canvas shy of a full sail, if you ask me," the man scoffed.
"To be fair, you did grab me... violently," Cannon shrugged. The white haired man sighed.
"Come on, he's waiting for you," he said, wincing. Cannonwalker didn't bother to ask who he was. He was fairly certain the white haired man probably didn't have a good answer himself, or perhaps wouldn't give it to him if he did. The two men walked into an adjacent common room, on the far side of which was a small table placed near a roaring fireplace. A man with his nose deep in his notes, which were draped erratically on the table, was sitting alone. He remained silent for a few moments before asking them to take a seat without taking his eyes off whatever he was studying.
Finally, as he sat down on a modest chair, Cannonwalker got his first good luck at the man whom he could only guess was the enigmatic recruiter that had brought him here in the first place - Bronze. At least he gathered the man was Bronze, as the well-defined man sported a magnificent ginger beard. Bronze was a mostly unremarkable man with calm green eyes and modest garb that could very well be the attire of a remote farmer. But his enormous muscles were by far his most recognizable and intimidating feature. After a few moments, Bronze lifted his eyes from his notes and observed Cannonwalker. The other white haired man lazily sat down on a rocking chair near the fireplace.
"So," Bronze began. "You must be Cannonwalker." His tone, a low bass, was almost emotionless, and undeniably commanding.
"That's me. And I presume you are this mysterious Bronze," Cannonwalker nodded.
"Correct. I see you've already lacerated Ned. I would commend you, but he is not your enemy," Bronze said calmly. Ned pouted, rubbing his face.
"And who exactly is my enemy?"
"Oh, I think you know," Bronze nodded slowly. "The black hooded figures in the night. The same ones who whisper dark secrets and promises of wealth and power into the ears of our politicians. The ones who are responsible for this."
Bronze placed a standard map of Kilran over the table, completely mundane except for the fact that several locations were marked with black triangles. He then carefully handed Cannonwalker a sketch of an obsidian obelisk, adorned with strange markings in a language he did not know.
"We call them Monuments," Bronze explained. "When the first one appeared in the spring, we were content to label it an isolated incident of little threat or consequence at all. But now we've counted at least fifty all across Kilran, and more are appearing every day."
The ginger man handed Cannon another sketch, this time of a mountainside cloaked in shadow. He could vaguely make out a number of hideously twisted creatures meandering about in the darkness with haunting deformities. Most of the creatures were completely alien, but a small minority of them had barely recognizable features of animals that he had seen before, as if these Monument devices had corrupted them into something evil that defied nature itself.
"You were brought here because you want to help keep what order Kilran has intact," Bronze continued. "To seek out the enemies of the Empress and defend her cities and the people within them at all cost. I do not know your true motivations. Perhaps you simply yearn for adventure. But this matter is a grave one that could very well threaten all our lives."
"So you do work for the Empress," Cannonwalker noted.
"We serve Tatha, yes," Bronze said. "She entrusted us with defending Kilran at all cost, and we can't do it alone. You and Ned are just two of about a dozen individuals whom we have placed our trust in."
"But why us? Who is the enemy?" Cannon pressed.
"You know them. The Cult has eyes and ears everywhere."
"You're saying the Cult is responsible for these... monstrosities?" Cannon asked in disgust, glancing at the sketches.
"Exactly," Bronze confirmed. "All machinations of the one they call Kastor. Don't bother - all we know of him is his name, and that he has learned things throughout his unnaturally long life that men were never meant to learn."
Cannonwalker considered the situation before nodding. "Where do I start?" he asked.
"Where do we start, you mean," Ned corrected him, standing slowly from his rocking chair and crossing his arms with a crude grin on his face.
The room was black as midnight, save from the dull light in the center that illuminated the map directly below it. The map, a detailed likeness of the continent of Kilran, was decorated his small set pieces of hooded men and a handful of colorful characters - some old, some young, one with a bow and one with a dagger - in battle armor. Along the border of Kilran, several tiny hooded figures were encircling the men in battle armor.
"It will be a swift and painless death," explained one of the individuals standing over the map, carefully moving around the set pieces with a short acacia staff, studying the details from behind his obfuscating green goggles. "The collapse should be more than enough to eliminate them, but just in case, it would be prudent to send some additional backup to confirm the kill. I recommend someone whose brutality you personally trust."
"The Butcher is dispatched elsewhere," another figure stated coldly. "You must find an alternative." This individual's face was completely covered in shadow cast by a large red hood, and though he must have spoken in only a hushed whisper, his words reverberated throughout the room with supernatural weight. The other man might have had shivers sent down his spines by the spectre's diction some months ago, but now he had grown accustomed to his ghostly growls.
"Not to worry," the man with the goggles said apathetically, clutching his staff with both hands. "I think I have just the man." From behind him, two red eyes slowly manifested in the darkness, accompanied by a low rasping sound.
The beast was hungry.
II - The Outlanders
"We're nearly there," Ned exclaimed over to Cannon over the sound of the horses trotting. It must have been roughly noon; the two men had been traveling for well over three days now, leaving first thing in the morning after their meaning with Bronze. For several hours, the only thing Cannon could see for miles in any direction was wildly flat plains with the greenest grass he had ever set eyes on. The trip had exhausted him greatly, but he still managed to awake at least halfway excited, as he knew he was close.
"Look, directly ahead!" Cannon pointed and shouted forward. The shape of a mountain came into view, and closer was what appeared to be a small camp comprised of four tents. Cannnon and Ned spurred their horses and accelerated; they caught the sight of another set of mounted individuals racing towards the camp. Distracted by the other riders, Cannonwalker kept speeding towards the camp, and nearly crashed into a pile of supplies on the border of the settlement.
The chestnut horse nearly collided with the boxes before Cannon commanded it to yield, prompting it to neigh in excitement. "Hey! Control your beast!" someone shouted, running up to the crates to ensure nothing was damaged. Cannon calmed his steed as Ned galloped in.
"Won't happen again," Ned apologized for him. Cannon shot him a puzzled look.
"The stables are that way," the man pointed to the far west side of the camp. "And don't get yourselves into too much trouble." Ned and Cannon slowly trotted toward the stables. There must have been a little over a dozen individuals in this camp. Cannon deduced that they had all been brought here for the same reason he was. Most kept to themselves, but a few had decided to take the initiative to make friends, as it were. Three people were congregating around the stables.
"And that's how I learned to never trust a man with a ponytail," a young man with tan skin and dark ecru hair concluded, addressing a black haired woman and a middle aged man. The lady chuckled.
"That's quite a story," she smiled, speaking with a thick urban accent. "I wonder just how much of it is true."
The young man half-grinned. "All tall tales are based on truth, are they not? And what's this?" he asked, looking towards the stables. Cannon and Ned emerged from the stables and joined the group.
"Welcome," the woman nodded her head slightly. "You made a bit of a scene back there."
Cannon shrugged. "I was distracted."
"An isolated incident, or a sign of things to come?" the tan man wondered aloud.
"At least you've got off on a better foot than that poor fool," the older man scoffed, motioning towards the center of the camp. A small man in chain armor was wrestling a bow from a buff nord, who was laughing boisterously. Cannon, Ned, the woman, and the tan man rushed toward the scene.
"Let... go!" the little man shouted, straining to wrench the bow from the other person's hands.
"What's that?" the nord chuckled. Cannonwalker stepped up to the fight.
"What's the problem?" he asked seriously. The ercu haired man joined him with his arms crossed.
"He stole... my bow!" the small man yelped.
"Of all people, you're picking on this guy?" the tan man scoffed at the bigger individual.
"That's quite enough," another voice commanded calmly. A wizened old man, slightly hunched over, walked over to the scene. The nord let go of the bow, forcing the little archer to fall on to his back with his bow in hand. "It is not wise to antagonize your allies."
"I'm going to be working with this pipsqueak?" the large man asked, dumbfounded.
"You were all brought here for a reason," the old man said. "You were not selected based on your physical strength, rather your devotion to the cause. Come with me." The old man in modest clothes led the dozen or so individuals to the edge of the camp, where the shape of the mountain in the distance could just barely be distinguished. Before joining the group, Cannonwalker retreated back and helped the archer up on to his feet.
"Don't let people step on you," Cannon offered the man as he helped him off the ground. The little man didn't respond to his advice, but gave him an appreciative look.
"What's your name?" the man asked.
"Cannonwalker. And you?"
"Sam Darkwalker. You have my thanks, Cannonwalker." The two men joined the rest of the crowd, where the old man addressed them all at once with a modest smile. His skin was weathered and scarred, probably from a combination of advanced age and advanced combat.
"Welcome, outlanders," the man nodded, studying them all closely.
"Outlanders?" the tanned man asked.
"You are not from this land," the old man reasoned. "So you must be outlanders. But moreover, you are all servants of Her Majesty, for one reason or another. Whether you have come to taste excitement or merely to make ends meet, the reward for your success in these trying times will be great, and your sense of duty to the Empire will be greater. We stand on the edge of Kilran - beyond these mountains is the land of Magdeleine. Within the winding caves of the mountain yonder is the source of the darkness that has gripped this land of late."
The man turned and faced the mountain in the distance. It was the first in a series of mountains to the west that dotted the eastern border of Magdeleine.
"You must brave the darkness of the caverns within," he went on. "You will be tested as you never have before, but I am confident you will defeat the great evil that festers inside."
"You're not coming with us?" Ned asked suspiciously.
"I am old and weak. I am not the warrior I used to be," the old man explained. "Now go, before we miss our opportunity. That would be most unfortunate."
Cannonwalker was certainly suspicious of the old man, and he gathered many of the others were as well. But with his head held high, he and the other outlanders remounted and began racing towards the mouth of the cave. He didn't quite grasp its size until he was close; it was as if a great explosion had torn the mountain open, allowing misguided travelers to wander inside to their deaths. The outlanders gathered at the entrance to the gaping maw.
"I never caught your names," the tan man said as he stared into the darkness.
"And uh, Sam," the archer added, joining the other three.
"You can call me Zoomer," the man turned to face them. "It's been a pleasure to make your acquaintances, but I don't like any of you enough yet to die alongside you in glorious battle, so, let's get out of this alive if at all possible, hmm?"
"I suppose we shall see," Cannon said mysteriously, taking the first step into the mountain. The other eleven outlanders cautiously followed him; as he stepped into the darkness, he studied their faces more, and was impressed at the diversity of individuals that had been called to serve Tatha. He and Ned had come armed with simple blades, but the others were equipped with a wide array of weapons - Sam was one of a few archers, and though he couldn't spot any blades on Zoomer's person, he was quite sure that he had come prepared for a good fight.
Gradually, though, the light of the outlanders' faces faded as they descended deeper into the abyss. The buff nord from back at the camp ignited a torch that just barely allowed Cannonwalker to see a few steps ahead of him. Unsettlingly, he began to hear whispers in the darkness. It was impossible to tell if it was the mercenaries behind him, his own imagination, or something more sinister. He jumped slightly when the dark haired woman told everyone to stop.
"Do you hear that?" she asked in a hushed whisper. Silence.
"I don't hear anything," Sam whispered back.
"I guess it's noth-" Ned began before a gigantic blasting sound cut him off. Immediately, the roof of the cave, collapsed, sending tons of rocks down onto the outlanders' heads. What little light there was was instantly extinguished.
Cannon groaned and felt around. He guessed his body was more or less intact, but badly bruised. Pushing himself off the ground, he called out into the darkness.
"I'm here," Zoomer coughed, struggling to get up. Cannonwalker carefully stepped in his direction.
"Hello?" Sam asked.
"Follow the sound of my voice," Zoomer groaned. After a minute of call and response, Cannon and Sam had both roughly met up with Zoom. Shortly thereafter, the light from the torch returned.
"Over here," the dark haired woman rasped, holding up a torch. The lifeless body of the nord was faintly visible in the torch's light.
"Christine," Zoomer whispered with a faint sense of relief. The three men quickly met with her, after which they began to search for other survivors. To their horror, the body was littered with grotesque bodies, all horrifically deformed from the cave-in.
"How did this happen?" the woman asked quietly, holding in her disgust.
"We were betrayed," Cannonwalker simply stated.
"Look!" Zoomer exclaimed, noticing faint movement in the darkness. He rushed over and helped Ned up.
"That much is obvious," Ned coughed, looking at Cannonwalker. The group continued to search around for survivors for several minutes, but after some time, it grew apparent they were the only ones left from the explosion. As the entrance appeared to have been covered by fallen rocks, the group silently agreed to continue down into the cave, hoping the path would lead back out to the surface eventually.
As they traveled, the silence had returned. Cannonwalker listened intently; he could hear the faint running of water, and counted five pairs of footsteps. A sixth would be a sure sign that either someone was still alive, or another individual, perhaps the source of the blast, was following them. As the torch only offered so much light, Cannonwalker relied solely on his sense of sound to remain alert, and thus neglected his eyes. Yet still, it would have been difficult not to notice the inky crimson eyes forming in the darkness several meters ahead.
"Hello?" Cannon asked, drawing his iron sword. The others had apparently also spotted the tiny red lights, as they drew their weapons in turn. Sam nocked an arrow and took aim at the faint shape in the darkness. Cannonwalker stepped closer one foot at a time, taking care not to startle whatever the creature was. But as he came within two meters of it, the creature hissed savagely and leaped from the darkness directly at the group, its red eyes twisting into anger.
A blast of pain shot up Cannonwalker's back, as if he had been hit by a blunt object. Christine desperately shone the light in the beast's direction to get a better look at it, but all she saw was a dark humanoid figure with red eyes, draped in a dark cloak and wielding some sort of stick. To regain its advantage of the shadows, the creature leapt at her and brought its wooden staff down on her head, forcing her to fall to the ground unconscious and drop the torch, which went out as soon as it met the ground.
Ned charged at the cloaked monster with his blade, but the beast was remarkably agile, leaping overhead and striking at his head. Zoomer drew a concealed dagger and braced to face the humanoid, but the darkness afforded him no opportunity to attack or defend, and he quickly fell unconscious as well. Cannonwalker desperately swung his sword in all directions, cutting through the shadows like a knife through butter, but his weapon never struck anything.
"You and your friends are lucky to be alive," a sinister voice chuckled mischievously. "My master's master ordered that you be killed, but we foresee that you are more useful to us alive than dead. It is best that you sleep now."
Cannonwalker winced as he took a ferocious blow the head, instantly falling unconscious.
III - The Halls of the Enemy