Saturday, April 07, 2007

Antaria: Proving Ground

Palanthus clutched at his sword. For a second it felt as though it was not lashed to his belt, as though he had lost it somewhere in the darkness, but a moment later his hand came upon the rough metal hilt, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

There was a laugh beside him. Regardless of the fact that they were crouched in the shadows trying to remain silent, the bearer of the laugh was a man who would gladly have roared his pleasure in the face of death. A massive gauntlet, heavy and oil-stained, clamped itself on Palanthus's shoulder.

"What, nervous now?" Angus asked, and laughed again.

Palanthus was about to give the bigger man an answer when he found the same oil-stained gauntlet clamped tightly over his mouth.

"Shhh," Angus said. "Don't think about answering that, lad. We're supposed to be quiet, remember? Lord Bloodborne would have our hides if we gave them so much as a whisper."

Palanthus shook his head. He was in no position to argue.

Angus chuckled, releasing his grip. "You're a better one than we've had lately," he said. "The academy meat don't usually last this long."

Palanthus wiped invisible traces from his mouth. "I'm sure," he whispered.

Both men glanced at the alley. It unfolded beneath them, barely touched by the light of the street lamps. A light rain had just begun to fall; Palanthus could feel the first drops spatter on the rim of his cloak.

"Do you think anyone's going to show up?" Palanthus asked, glancing at the house that they were watching.

"Sure I'm sure," Angus drawled. "I wouldn't give the good Imperator Malen two coppers for his courage, but Lord Bloodborne confirmed that there's a sect of Thanatai inside."

"And Lord Bloodborne is never wrong", Palanthus said, eyes narrowing.

"He's been playing the game longer than any of us, lad. Even scares me sometimes."

Palanthus nodded. He had to admit that it was a relatively nondescript house. It was old and run-down -- the sort of place that looked as though it was going to fall apart any second -- but it blended perfectly into the slum districts. It was the sort of place that should have become suspicious merely because it aroused absolutely no suspicion at all.

"Angus," Palanthus said.

"Yes, lad?"

"No one's showed up in the last hour."

Angus scratched at his beard. "That's how it goes sometimes. You can't catch a rabbit in every trap."

"I see."

"No you don't, lad." Angus said cheerfully. "Could be because we're watching the back entrance. Olred and Lord Bloodborne are probably seeing quite a few of them come in the front."

"I'd have expected them to come in through the back, Angus."

"Aaaah," Angus said, grinning. "The Thanatai have been at this for a while, lad. They know the same things we do. You get your crowd all coming in the back door, and tongues start wagging. You meet them at the front, though, and people'll just think you're having a few friends over."

"Doesn't that seem strange either way?"

"You're the one trying to put some thought into it, lad. Me, I'm just an old knight trying to keep his beard dry."

Palanthus nodded, pulling his cloak more tightly about his shoulders.

Some minutes later, a similarly-cloaked figure emerged from the western shadows and slowly trudged towards the house. Its clothes were drab and tattered, and both knights could see that there was more than a little hesitation in the man's pace.

Palanthus heard the figure knock a simple code on the wood of the door, amidst the falling rain. A few more knocks from the inside answered the interloper's query, which was followed by a succession of further rappings. Seconds later, the door opened and the new arrival was quickly ushered inside.

"That's number two," Angus said.

"There can't be that many of them, then," Palanthus said.

"We're just looking at the back entrance. Listen to what I say for once, lad."

"How do we know when we're supposed to make our move?"

Angus set his jaw in the grim darkness. "Lord Bloodborne gives the signal, lad. Lord Bloodborne always gives the signal."

Palanthus opened his mouth to say something, only to be interrupted by the distant sound of splintering wood. There was a roar of righteous indignation, and a scream that cut off into almost instant chaos.

"That's us," Angus said, his voice suddenly twisted and tense. "They'll be coming out the back. Move, lad, move!"

Palanthus stumbled into the open alleyway, his sword tangling in the straps of his sheath. Angus bellowed an oath that rang in his ears, and suddenly the door was open among the screams and sounds of spattering mud.

The younger knight managed to draw his sword as the first of the cultists bore down upon him. "Halt!" Palanthus shouted, but the man was too panic-stricken to hear. As he ran past, Palanthus merely stepped aside and struck the man's head with the flat of his blade, knocking him to the ground.

Then there was the sensation that he had learned to dread: The sharp rising of hairs on the back of his neck. He turned in time to see a second necromancer emerge from the doorway, one arm pointed in his direction amidst the drone of a spell being cast. Palanthus suddenly felt a searing pain start in the pit of his stomach.

And then Angus was there, ramming a single iron-shod gauntlet into the Thanatai's face. Palanthus staggered and almost dropped to his knees, hearing nothing but Angus's triumphant shout cut through the night air; Then the older man's voice faded slightly as he waded into the carnage inside the house.

"Angus!" Palanthus cried hoarsely. He remembered the weight of his sword, almost stumbled once again on an outstretched leg, and stepped carefully into the darkness of the open doorway.

It was pitch black inside the house, and a few screams told Palanthus that not all the cultists had been dispatched. Someone placed a cold hand on the young knight's arm, and Palanthus slashed wildly in surprise. His blade met something soft yet tough; there was a groan and a splash of warmth on his gauntleted hand.

Palanthus took a sharp breath and stepped back; As he did so, he slipped on a wet spot and fell backwards onto the wall. By some miracle he kept his grip on his sword, and as he came to his senses he realized that a single tall figure had suddenly risen before him.

Palanthus struggled to stand, and as he did so, he heard the tall figure growl. It was a familiar, disapproving growl, and Palanthus recognized it instantly.

He realized that everything had suddenly gone silent inside the house.

"Sir Olred?" a voice suddenly asked.

The tall figure grunted.


The room suddenly shone with the brightness of Olred's spell. Palanthus could suddenly see that it was a tiny house, about as run-down inside as it looked from the outside. Bodies covered the floor, men and women alike.

An imperious-looking man wearing the armor of a paladin stood near the front doorway, wiping his sword with a piece of cloth. "Sir Palanthus," he said.

"Yes, Lord Bloodborne?"

"Get up."

Palanthus got up, aware that the searing pain in his stomach had not yet disappeared.

"And clean yourself up, by Aran," Bloodborne said. "You look like you just rolled through a pigsty."

"My lord," Angus interrupted.


"We left two more outside. The lad took one out cold, and..."

"Then bring them here," Bloodborne said, without any trace of emotion.

"If I may take the lad..." Angus began.

"Now, Sir Angus."

"Yes, my lord," Angus said, and marched outside.

Palanthus watched as his superiors sifted through the bodies on the floor. All of the cultists had been wearing perfectly ordinary clothes; the youngest looked as though she was only fifteen years old.

He stared at the body closest to him; It had a grievous wound in its side. Palanthus glanced at his bloodied sword and wiped it carefully on a nearby tablecloth. He wondered just what all this had to do with keeping the faith.

"Sir Palanthus," Bloodborne said.

Palanthus straightened. "Yes, sir."

"Get Imperator Malen," Bloodborne said. "We have something to show him."

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