The Champion. Ch 3

You are blind, and you are deaf.

You cannot move, and you cannot feel. No. That is a lie. You can feel. But all you can feel is hellish cold. It robs you of strength; it creeps up your spine, spinning its web over your limbs with frigid hate. It reaches down into your body like slow daggers that peel back your skin and muscle, to let your bones turn to ice and shatter. You are screaming, trapped in your own mind, thrashing motionlessly, trying to beat at the walls of your mental prison, trying to make your body move, trying to open your eyes, trying to unclog your ears, trying to feel anything but that icy pain that enshrouds you from every direction, smothering you with its body, forcing you down, pinning you beneath its weight, subjecting you to its domination. You must be dead. It is the only explanation. This is punishment; this is the punishment for your dullard tongue that forced you to slaughter those humans. Your soul has been plucked from your body by the Lords, and cast into the ice fjords of shadow where your soul will be frozen for all eternity, speared on the ice spires of regret, forever lamenting your decisions.

It is a cruel yet just punishment. You have only yourself to blame- had you not shirked your attention… A bird chirps. Far off, and distant, echoing into your skull, you latch onto that. There is a thudding, dull, slow, and drawn out. It happens every other minute. You listen, in time with the thumping you count the seconds. Every two minutes, the thuds come again. What could they be? You hear the wind now. The rustle of leaves, wind through trees. You can hear the snuffling and pacing of a horse- Staugr? The thudding increases in time- it is a heartbeat. It is your heartbeat. You cannot move, you cannot see, your feeling is absent save for icy cold nails clawing into your body. Are you… frozen?

You perish the thought, how could such a thing even be possible? You cannot be dead then, for what you are hearing are the sounds of the living world. Increasing every second, the sounds of nature, of a forest, of the camp you slept in. Such things are not present in the Fjords. You will your body to move, nothing comes of it, you try to open your eyes if you still have them, nothing still. There is only nature, and the beating of your heart. Your panic diminishes somewhat, replaced by tepid concern and frustration. Are you stuck like this? Your heartbeat continues to increase; you turn your focus to that, to the grand organ in your chest. It was beating so slowly before… For what reason?

It picks up now, incrementally faster with each passing moment, until it has returned to what it should be. With that, you begin to feel. Sensation returns, along with more pain- pinpricks and needles, stabbing across your body as if you had not moved for days, of movement you cannot do so, your joints and muscles ache maddeningly, your eyes are sealed shut as well.

But with the return of sensation so fades your concern. You are returning to life, little by little, you must only be patient. Your eyes soon open, and the world is a picture of blurred colors and smeared shapes, unfocused and confused. In another ten minutes, that fades as well. It hurts too much too move, not that you can’t. Your legs twitch, your muscles spasm, your fingers curl and uncurl. You lay on a bed of furs, shaking; your nipples are doubtlessly diamonds by this point. You pass the time by counting your heartbeats, by the time you reach   four hundred; you can roll onto your back. Another four hundred, and you can sit up. You try to stretch, to get the blood in your veins moving. The sun is beginning its descent by the time you are able to stand and walk. Your legs are stiff and your muscles are sore.

You’re choking down rations painfully. Pulling your clothes and armor on is a task that makes you nearly vomit. You have to sit down and lay on your side for another few minutes before you have the strength to mount Staugr, who stares at you in clear concern. You tell him to not worry. The first thought that crosses your mind, of the reason for why such a thing happened, is that you are cursed. You pull off a gauntlet and bite a finger, drawing blood. You taste it- lavender and honey, normal, you shake your head. Not cursed. You assume it to be penance or retribution from the Lords, which would make sense; you had sinned, but sinned in their name. Not deserving of smiting but not free from retribution. It certainly was a punishment, that much was clear, and that much was painful.

You breathe easily now. Shaking your head, still feeling the chill in your body despite an hour passing. You wonder if this will stay with you the rest of the day. You cannot anticipate camp much more than you do now; you have your mind set on a roaring fire to warm yourself by. Even better would be a human settlement of some sort- though your mind goes queasy at the thought, perhaps a settlement would be best to avoid. Even if heresy lurked within one, it only needed to be dealt with should you clearly see it, and if you never went into a settlement, than you can safely say that you saw nothing… You would have to face reality soon enough and return to your duties and your quest, but the idea of laying waste to another settlement this early on was not within your ability, you could not bring yourself to do it again. You still had that rotten taste in your mouth from yesterday’s events. The haunting look of the bride and groom still resonate in your minds eye. You do what you can to focus on the trail ahead of you in the meantime.

You revel in memory, thinking back to the red sand of the burning plains and your home of Teloth. Just beyond the split-peak mountains, in the center of the burning plains, in the shadow of towering ancient stone plateaus, you can remember the glory of Teloth. An ancient city, encircled by great and mighty walls, all works in the shadow of the great castle cathedral that was built into the pillars of stone that plateaued upwards into the sky, the crystalline veins   webbing throughout the pillar tower shining in the night like starlight. You can remember your days of childhood, laying the roof of your hovel with your dear sweet brother, gazing upon the crystal pillar tower of the Exiled princess. You would hold each other’s hand and fall asleep like that, in the cool night air of the desert city of Teloth. You were both naught but lowborn orphans, transients, descendants of the chattel that the nobility under the lords themselves of the Black Mountain used as slaves and scum, only ever amounting to squires for true royal blood. Your brother and yourself, you roamed the paved streets of the outer ring, just under the walls of Teloth, you spent your days hunting for scarabs and wretch rats for food or by earning your place in the city walls by running bundles of wire and pulling carts of stone through the streets.

You had never known you parents, and in truth neither of you so much as cared. The sermons you listened to during the public masses told you not to worry of such petty things, because though your blood may be the blood of chattel, you and your brother were still descended of the Black mountain itself, and through that fellowship, you were doing the work of he lords through your tiny contributions and salve work. You and your brother, you both looked forwards to each new day, marking them off one by one on stones, counting the days until you were both of age, and able to fight in the blooding pits, an leave the streets of the outer wall ring.
That day finally came, and you succeeded.

The forest thins, the trail widening, a grassy expanse of rolling green hills and meadows before you, and in the far, far distance, the ocean. You’ve never seen the ocean before, and it stuns you with its great rolling expanse. You pull back your visor, and stare for several minutes from atop Staugr. A crystal vastness of blue and green, texturing the air with the smell of salt and brine, you breathe deeply of this and despite the chill that it stokes inside you cannot help but to take it in. it is a unique and unparalleled experience, this first encounter with the undisputed expanse, stretching as far as the horizon. You say a prayer to the old lords, one you wonder if they will bother with listening to, knowing your transgression. Your eyes catch movement, further ahead, moving horizontally with slow but methodical purpose. In the far distance you can see them just barley.

A caravan of sorts, three or four carts in size, you can see the gleaming metal tips of spears and shine of armor. You kick Staugr forwards and venture the trail that will doubtlessly intersect with their own. . There is a scent on the wind, and it calls to you. The trail your ride along will intercept with their own, and as the minutes go by and you draw closer, you cannot but help to grin behind your helm, for the convoy that you see is one of Inhuman nature. As they marched in orderly ranks with armor, shield, halberd and sabre glinting in the afternoon light, their emerald green scales shone with pride. They are Lizardfolk, and you know of their fiery desert dwelling cousins, and Teloth has fought both kinds before.

The closer you get the more you see, and your heart begins to race with excitement. You count thirty or more individual Greenscales armed with pikes, axes, and shields; each one wearing individualized armor, metal or leather. Though you have never personally crossed blades with the Green-scaled variety, you have heard and read much of these creatures- The Lizard Folk, one of the few races that have managed to earn enough merit and recognition that even prideful Teloth has come to respect their prowess. The green-scaled lizardfolk were slighter and not as stocky as their red-scaled salamander cousins. They did not have the same fiery power and vigor that the salamanders possessed, what they had instead, was a strong sense of discipline and comradery.

This was further reinforced by their warrior culture, broodmates forming squads that would drill together in unit based tactics, working together in larger formations as a functional battlefield force. Unlike the motley, ramshackle tribes and hordes of other inhuman races, the Greenscales were leagues above them- capable of operating as a cohesive fighting force and able to support each other with disciplined ranks of spearmen, men-at-arms, archers, and Calvary formations. They were not creatures that were to be taken lightly. They were skilled, and dangerous, and they decided to profit from their talents. They were mercenaries to the last, selling their skill at warfare to the highest bidder, and sometimes even entering life-long services to city-states. From what you remember, they are much like their salamander cousins in that they are one of the few races that is sexually dimorphic; possessing both Male and Female genders. Combined with a high fertility rate and quick gestation periods, they were able to spread and reproduce rapidly. More importantly to you, however, was their skill at arms.

Individually, they were capable fighters, well versed in multiple weapon arts, but what had your bloodlust stirring, was that a squad of ten were said to be the equal of any Telothian champion, and that a full platoon was the equal of a Paladin. You counted thirty at least, easily three squads worth, but you did not know if there were more of them in their carts. You could as well be facing two platoons worth of these warriors. This could be a chance for you to redeem yourself of your crimes last night. What’s more, this could be the great deed that your Quest demanded of your, and see you Galloping back to Teloth with a string of thirty or more heads of Greenscale warriors. Such a feat would ascend you to the rank of Paladin doubtlessly.

By the time you reach the northward trail, the caravan was a ways ahead of you. You push Staugr into a light gallop; the powerful Telothian charger easily makes up the distance, until you could at last make out the rear of the caravan in detail. They had called a halt, the report of their Rearguard having passed their message of a lone rider- yourself- to the head of the caravan, and your heart swelled with greed at the sight lain before you. Dismounting from their carts, sharp steel and battle-blooded metal in their hands, was another twenty plus warriors- and not newbloods either, this must’ve been an aged and combat tested band of warriors, a fire-forged clan of Greenbacks. You can make out the leader almost at once, you are remiss to admit that you cannot remember what they called their leaders, and you do them and yourself a dishonor without knowing the name.

You pull Staugr to a halt, hand resting on the pommel, reigns held loosely; you are ready to dismount at a moment notice with your boots loose from their stirrups. They have formed a loose shield formation facing outwards around their carts, the majority of it facing towards you but ready for any subterfuge that would see an attack from any other direction. You are grinning madly behind your visor as their leader steps forwards from behind a rank of readied shields and pikes.

This one was a male, a powerfully built specimen with green emerald scales flecked along his jawline with a short cut crop of fiery red hair, his skin was a dusky olive, tanned and worn like aged leather. You would guess that he was slightly taller than you by a head, and certainly stockier. He had powerful, rippling muscles across his bare chest, and his arms were swollen with strength. Aside from a leather belt and armored leggings, the only clothing he wore was a bright red scarf was tied around his neck- you knew that marked him as the leader of those warriors present. You stopped before them; they had closed ranks and presented you with a wall of spears and long shields that were square in nature and bearing an emerald crest on their surface. The spears were capped in a lucid silvery green color, a metal you were not familiar with, but not concerning you in the slightest.

Forming up alongside the ranks of the caravan were yet more warriors, interspersed behind the spear-and-shield wielders were swordsmen and crossbowmen. You sized up the competition; you roll your shoulders languidly, sighing as you savor this moment- the start of your legend and destiny, a streak of glory to wipe away the stain of yesterday’s events. You will begin with your claymore, striking from horseback, sweeping the pikes out from before Staugr so that you may wade into them- leaping off of your saddle in a great flourish and fearsome warcry- your core exploding into a roiling fire as you do so.

You reach back-

-and-

-tilt up your visor in a sudden, jerky motion.

You do not draw your Claymore; your grip tightens on Staugr’s reigns.

Something is wrong.

Something.

Is.

Wrong.

It is like a lance of hateful pain ripping into your spine, from the base to the nape of your neck downwards, meeting in the middle and spearing forwards, just below your belly, resonating where the heat that you normally feel erupting within you should be. There is not even the faintest lick of fire, not the faintest ember of it smoldering up into purifying, fiery strength and vigor. Your center, the core of your being, the wellspring of your power and pride as a noble warrior of the first royal house of Teloth, is cold and dead. The rancid chill, running over your body, like needles in your veins, the numbing ache of it feels like the reverberations of a cruel gods mocking laughter, its icy grip strangling your center of power.

What has happened to you? What dread happening is this? Is this how you die?

You choke, and then you speak. “Afternoon to ye?” You stutter aloud, pulling off your helmet, trying to play it cool as a hysterical fear rips into you like nothing you have felt before. It is unreal, the way you have to still yourself from trembling. You almost want to plant your feet back in your stirrups and turn tail and run. As you are now the prospect of fighting even three of the Greenscales and surviving was naught but a dying dream as the tendrils of icy corruption throb within you. Having not attacked, as you had seemed so ready to, the Lizerdfolk seem to somewhat relax. But they do not lower their pikes pointed in your direction, if anything they seem even more on edge. You are of the opinion had the leader not been there they would have attacked you regardless. But he was there, and he had not given an order to do so, so they hold. Your stomach is twisting itself into knots.

“You hail from the burning plains?” The Leader speaks to you in fluent Telothian. There was a faint accent, but you took this as a sign of luck. When you removed your helmet, he had tied his colored scarf to his belt, a mutual action? You don’t know what to think.

“I am from Teloth,” You nod, trying to keep your face composed. With or without grace, you will not besmirch the reputation of your blood. The leader took a step past his warriors, looking up at you upon Staugr. He was cautious yet bold, calculating in his stare.

“You wear the heraldry of the Teloth Knights, do you hail from the first?” He kept his clawed hands resting on the hilt of his weapons, one at either side of his hips. Shorthilt  warhammers designed for crushing through armor and piercing through scales with the reversed spike. You consider his question.

“I am a warrior of the First Royal House.” You nod, “What of it?” The leader cocks his head slightly.

“Only reason for one of you to be outside of the Burning Plains is because you are undertaking the rite of Championship.” He says, “A bloody quest.” You look away, catching sight of several of the spears moving along your flanks, encircling you but not cutting you off from behind, purposefully leaving you a means of retreat. They had no wish to corner you. “Tell me, are you a Champion?” He asks.

You look back at him and you nod slowly. “I am undertaking the Rite.” His eyes narrow but he makes no movements that could be construed as hostile.

“I’ve lost a clutch of brothers and sisters to your ilk traveling through the Split Mountains to cause trouble and strife in these lands like in the way bandits and highwaymen do, waylaying our clans and attacking caravans like this one.” You’d feel anger at being compared to a lowly bandit were this any normal circumstance. You’d summon up your grace and let these lizards feel the full force of your wrath. You do not have your grace, and such wrath is thusly cut off from your hand. The cold grip of cowardice lays claim to your heart this day, shameful as it is.

“I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with your kin, those looking to sharpen themselves against us.” He traces a claw over a scar that ran along his chest, from shoulder to hip. It had been a deep wound, caused by a bladed weapon of considerable size; your instincts scream Halberd, if you are correct, than this Greenscale was of considerable constitution. Furthermore, he had gone against a fellow Champion, and lived. He had killed a brother or sister. “Had to put them down, three of them so far.” He snorts. He’s waiting for you to react, to make a move. Anger is boiling in your chest, the thought of this creature crushing Teloth steel with his hammers and destroying the holy warrior that was beneath-

You make quick work of quenching that fire. A strained voice passes your lips. “Such is the way of things.” You manage to say. “Glory is reserved for the bold and victorious, all Champions know this.” It hurts you to say this, to let such sacrilege against your House go unpunished without at least a barbed retort, but it seems to ease the tension, your lack of ire from such an inflammatory admission on the Leaders behalf, he even seems to relent, his shoulders losing most of their coiled tension.

“Fight and win, or lose and die. That’s how it goes.” He grins. “Glad to see you understand that much. Last one of yours I had to put down didn’t understand that at all. Poor bastard.” He sighs. “Didn’t go down easy, I’ll have you know, even when he lost an arm.” Your hands are trembling, gauntlets clattering audibly, loud enough that the Greenscales notice.

“My apologies, I’m saying he died well, not that it makes it any better to hear it, I presume.” He seems sincerely apologetic by his misstep, to his kind, you recall, talking of death is the norm. Revering the dead is ritualistic and to die in battle is not only expected, it is demanded. Funerals are not solemn events for them; they are instead celebrations of a warrior’s fulfillment.

Your nostrils flare, letting out a harsh breath, bringing yourself back under control for a moment more. “I did not know him. It means little to me that he failed. I do not intend to.” You say.

“That’s one way of looking at it, pragmatic, albeit a bit cold.” He says. “Anyways, seems that we skipped introductions. I am Praetor Kel’Alkadeen Cul’Orocha of clan Orocha. With me is the warband of the Storm’s Spear. May we have your name, honorable Champion of Teloth?”

Praetor. That was his rank, the equivalent of a Paladin in your house if memory and vague recollection serves. As he spoke, the former cool certainty of violence in his voice was now replaced with an amicable richness and joviality; it was as if you were meeting a completely different individual. It takes you off guard for a moment, but you gather your wits and answer,

“I am Champion Enyo Talakenal Bellona of the First Royal House Knights, Third Legion. I am a blooded daughter of Warmaster Bellona, daughter of the Holy Princess of the Black Mountain.” Your chest does swell slightly at the reciting of your legacy and the bloodline you now share in because of it. You almost forget the chill in your body; you almost feel the faint flicker of fire again. It fades just as quickly as it came.

“A pleasure to meet you so cordially, Champion Enyo. What business as a Champion do you have here in the westlands?” He bows his head slightly, enough to be respectful but not submissive in any measure.

You turn and look across the ocean, you decide that saying your purpose was originally to slaughter your way through the westlands in search of a worthy foe, such as him and his warband, only to stop because of your… condition… seemed decidedly poor. You instead decide to stretch the truth. “I am in search of a foe worthy of my skill. So far, such a foe has eluded me. I’ve met nothing but brigands and vermin.”

“That’s no surprise, any arch-beasts have been driven off by you and yours.” The Praetor chuckles, “You Champions are damned good at what you do, so much so that anything you think to be worth a damn as a trophy has up and left to the north, long ago. I’m sorry to say that you won’t find anything worthwhile here, Champion.”

You slump in your saddle; Staugr looks back at you, feeling your shift in demeanor. It hurts to admit but you don’t think that the Praetor is deceiving you, he has no reason to, and thinking logically, it would make sense for the great beasts and creatures to flee from the wrath of Teloth Champions. You’ve even heard the more recent tales of the few Champions that had returned to Teloth, successful in their quest. They had told of traveling for endless miles, across southern badlands and ice-wastes, or through northern forests and Canyons in search of their trophy beast. The knowledge that this will be a far longer excursion than what you had hoped it to be does not break your resolve, but it dampens it with the fact that it will be quite some time before you can return home.

“So I see…” You grumble, spite in in your voice clear as day. The Praetor can see your displeasure.

“So what would be the reason then for you to approach the Storm’s Spears? I don’t reckon it was to attack us, you Champions aren’t really that big on the idea of talking and wordplay before a battle.” You shift in your saddle, he isn’t wrong… You had been fully intent on a ruthless charge, than the unknown chill made its insidious effects fully known; you come up with a good enough excuse.

“In the learning halls of great Teloth, I have been told of the Lizard-folks tribes and their warriors skill at arms…” You continue, not skipping a beat. “So, I have put to reason that since you are given to combat and adversity, you would know where best to find more of it.” You speak; you are glad that you do not falter, giving all the more credence to your partial deception. “Would this reasoning of mine be true?”

The Lizard-man cracks a grin. “You are entirely correct, Champion.” The Praetor hooks a thumb back at his warriors, “In fact, my warband is headed to the north to fulfill a contract involving Hellions.”

This perks your interest. Hellions. You have knowledge of these creatures. You’ve heard of them time and time again. Creatures of the wretched Abyss, spawned from the godlike beings that lie in-between the realms of reality, between existence and death. Hellions are the creatures that became manifest of humanities dark desires; wrath, lust, deception, wickedness, and all things of their like. They haunt the shadows of all creation and must be destroyed. They are powerful beasts, each and every one. Supposedly some are born of the blood of the Old Titans that your ancestors- those born of the Black Mountain- had led the armies of man to slay.

“Truly?” You ask, “May I partake in this knowledge? Killing such beasts would see to my quests completion.”

The Praetor laughs heartily. “That it would, but having our quarry wiped out by a Champion would lose us out of a contract and its reward. Can’t have that, now can we?” Disgruntled, you don’t argue the point, instead you merely sigh.

“That is a fair point, but why tell me this?” you ask.

“The Quarry is ours to claim, but there is plenty other beasts that lurk where we are headed. They can be yours to slay as you wish.”

You cock your head, “That is true,” You nod. “So then, you have no qualms of leading me to this place?”

The Praetor laughs again. “Only if you have no problems with riding alongside me and my own, and don’t cause any undo trouble along the way.”

You don’t say anything for the moment, the thought of traveling alongside these inhumans rankles you greatly, even if the inhumans in question are marginally more honorable than the regular inhuman filth that infests the world. Yet, at the same time, you have found yourself in an unwinnable situation, with no beasts to slay in these lands, and no idea of where they lurk, it would only make sense for you to utilize the help of the locals knowledge.

With your path decided, you nod your head, slowly. “I see no reason as to why I should refuse this opportunity.” You say.

The Praetor claps his hands together; there is a grin on his face. “Excellent,” He turns around, and motions to his warriors; they lower their weapons dutifully and begin to mutter to each other, this new development bemusing for them. “I’m glad this ended in a civilized manner, nothing worse than a bit of unnecessary bloodshed.” He looks back at you and then whistles to the caravan, the rearmost cart has its tarp pulled back to reveal its inside. You flinch.

Three Greenbacks in the peaked tricorn caps of south-land Marksmen are knelt in there, held to their shoulders are long barreled muskets, flintlock things with pearly white bayonets beneath their barrels. They raise their barrels back to resting and release the hammers back into rest. You quietly take this sight in, chilling in its implications. A single false movement or misspoken word would have seen your head broken apart by musket balls.

“Don’t mind them, a bit of insurance, can never be too careful.” The Praetor, Alkadeen, says to you.

You march astride the centermost part of the caravan; the noonday sun is bright and warm. The Greenscales have receded the tarps over their carts and are basking in the sun. It is a plethora of bare skin and shining scales as the warriors currently not on march or at arms lounge in the sun and salty sea breeze that rolls over the plains. You have returned your helmet to your head and keep a firm grip on the reigns, not at all at ease with the situation. You are focused both on the inhumans so dangerously close, as well as focused on the chill within you.

It has receded mostly over the course of the day from the destructive, painful rending blades of ice that had immobilized you before, but it seems that it has reached the extent of what it could be reduced too. Constant, and locked within you, it is much the same as a suit of armor around your core of power. Instead of shielding, this armor is a cage, encapsulating your grace with ice. It gives you no end of misery, having been reduced to the same level as an unblooded human with no discernible way of returning to what has made you and your kind into unrelenting warriors of legendary prowess.

You draw your mace from its harness at your side. Nothing soothes you more than arms practice. You sigh, and twirl the heavy weapon over your right wrist one handed, spinning it up and over and around your hand with a simple twist and flick, its movements are perfectly choreographed by your exacting standards, it spins on its head upon the top of your right hand, you flick your wrist, it spins head over end and you catch it on the butt of the haft with your extended index and pointer fingers, balancing it perfectly on the end of your armored digits. A whistle from your left draws your attention; you grab the haft of your mace, making ready to swing it out of fright, before you relent at once and and slide it back into its harness at your hip.

“Ah, my apologies don’t let me distract you.” It’s the Praetor, Alkadeen. The big Lizardman is grinning toothily. He’s hopped into the middle cart adjacent to you. You can’t help but notice his nakedness, emerald green scales shining with a metallic hue in the afternoon sun, his musculature and physique are seemingly carved out of stone but ripple and flow like water as he moves. He’d easily put the most prestigious warrior monks of the fifth royal house to shame with a body like that…

You are alarmed by your thoughts, and only now notice that you are staring- and at an Inhuman beast no less! You divert your gaze as quickly as you can but as subtly as possible so as to not give away your action. You instead turn your attention to the burgeoning conversation- such as it is. “I am practicing.” You shrug, “Nothing more.”

Alkadeen waves off your response. “Of course, it’s important to keep ones skill. I merely wanted to ask if there was anything that I can be of service for, my warband notices much, and you seem uneasy, tense.”
You look around; you haven’t felt any eyes on you in particular. You are encased in your armor, no part of you revealed. But you know all too well that even those wearing heavy armor have their tells.

“I see.” You grunt. “It is nothing to worry yourself with, I simply yearn for home. This place is far too cold for my liking.”

Alkadeen nods, “So, it’s chilly? I can sympathize with that.” He gestures to the front and back of the Caravan, his warriors had forgone most of their armor, exposing themselves to the sun as much as they can so as to soak in the heat. It looked to be a troop of exhibitionists, did you not know better. “The wind is chilling despite the sun, that armor of yours gets the worst of it. You might want to take some of it off and let your skin feel the kiss sun.” You don’t know whether to think this is an honest hint of advice, or a ploy to get you out of your armor, or even an attempt to see your naked body.

You shake your head, “I will manage. I just need time to adjust to this climate.” Alkadeen does not press the issue any further. You find that you are curious about something, “May I pose a question?” you say. The Praetor gestures for you to continue. “You know of the Telothian tongue, and in all honesty it is near flawless. Where did you acquire it?” This makes the Lizard man smile; leaning back against the side of the cart he spreads his arms in languid pride.

“That is quite the story, and an old one about the days of my youth. In short, I once visited the Burning Plains.” You turn and stare.

“You have been to the Burning Plains?” You ask, incredulous. “How did you gain passage from the sentries?” Alkadeen laughs.

“Simple, I was council to the sentries.” You can’t hide your confusion, but thankfully, the lizard man continues.

“The men of Teloth’s second, as you know, have many dealings with those of the westlands. On this occasion, they had seen contingents of Salamander raiders leaving the plains and traveling south. The Lord of your second wanted to know why. A deal was established and I was sent, I spent many years in your lands, telling Lord Wylden of their actions in the southern deserts. I can tell you that they were gathering arms, a great many of them bought from other clans of my people. Lord Wylden wanted to make a deal to with the weapon smiths, to purchase these arms instead in the name of Teloth and deprive them from the Red-kin.” He said more than just that, but you instead could only focus on one particular facet of information.

“You’ve met with the great Lord of our second.” You state bluntly. “That cannot be so. A child of the Princess would never deign to meet with an-“ you catch yourself. “-an… Outsider.”

Alkadeen shakes his head. “I assure you, he has, Lord Wylden himself has granted a writ of passage to my clan.” You feel as if you have been struck by this information. The Second Royal House has always been ‘unconventional’ in its dealings, but never have you expected them to be complicit in the dealings of inhumans. You shake your head and curse vehemently.

“You are angered by this?” Alkadeen asks. You nod your head. “’Tis not proper edict to involve ones self in the business of…” You stop yourself again. “-other species.” You say instead. You regret your choice of words regardless, as Alkadeen languidly looks at himself, those warriors with him, and then to you with a raised brow.

“S-Say nothing! I will not hear it!” You snap, squaring your shoulders and straightening your back, desperate for a means to undo what has been said. It is made all the worse as the Praetor laughs.

“Very well, Champion, I’ll leave you be. If you need anything, you are free to ask.” Alkadeen stood now and leapt from the cart, jogging back to the front of the caravan, furtively glancing over; you can see that he was indeed fully exposed. You lean back in your saddle, cursing your curiosity. His was certainly… significant, extremely significant; prodigious even, alarmingly so- no- unreasonably so. Your cheeks flush and you slap the side of your helmet, snarling under your breath, masking it as a cough, you shake your head. It is suddenly stuffy inside your helmet, so you take it off and turn yourself away from the Caravan. The cool air feels nice suddenly. Something sparks in you, and you disregard it, quick to chide yourself with blandishments- feeling arousal at the sight of an inhuman beasts genitalia, no matter their size and unprecedented girth, to say nothing of the twin spheres hanging… You whip out your mace; you begin to twirl and spin it, and then change from simple tricks, to savage swipes through the air, trying to exert yourself as much as possible while mounted. It works well enough, an hour or two later, and the heresy that had plagued you so recently has left your mind.

The sun is dipping below the horizon across the sea, and the warband has decided upon a camping ground for the coming night. You put your mace away, back to its loop on your belt. Something gives you reason to pause, and look. You stare at our gauntlet.

Steam.

You flex your hand, for a moment there is a quite spark of familiar power, you feel a chink in the icy-cage around your core, for a single moment there is a crack- and then it is gone. This does not drop you into the pits of despair, this chance now past you. You instead focus on the fact that it returned to you, for a brief instant, you had unlocked that prison of ice, you think, sitting atop Staugr, trying to think of what may have done so. You think all the way back to earlier this day, and then you remember… The Lizards were sunning themselves in the carts. You had spoken with the Praetor, he had been naked, and when he left you saw-

You hurriedly dismount Staugr, disgust and revulsion threatening to ruin you and make you ill. Ripping off his tackle and kit more forcibly than you mean to, you lead Staugr into the camp, the Lizardfolk were erecting canvas tents and digging firepits. You tie Staugr to a post where other horses were being kept and fed. Staugr towers over them all, his breed as a Telothian Warhorse all too apparent. Your cheeks are flush, and as you walk away, you can feel the core within you quiver, if only slightly. You are incredulous, furious even. Such a thing was not possible. Such a thing could not be possible. The core of your being, sealed by some curse or ailment was already ruinous enough, but the cage that trapped it being broken by wanton lust towards an inhuman creature? Impossible. Unthinkable.

You perish the thought that you even felt any arousal; it must have been a fluke, some side affect of your lamentable condition. You would never have felt any desire towards a beast had you been connected to your grace. You have been reduced to that of an unblooded human of the westlands so it would seem, thusly, you are merely being subjected to the casual heresies that they commit- This is a test of your faith, a trial set before you by the Old Lords. That is what this affliction must be, that is why you had that moment of uncertainty- a devils ploy to make you go against your faith in order to reclaim your power through an act that you certainly damn you.

You will not have fantasies that lead you into acts of depravity; you are above such base desires. You are still born of Teloth and Blooded to The Mistress of War- Bellona. Your will is unbreakable, and it is exactly that force of will that will see you through this test.

What you need is a fire, a large fire, one that won’t die out. You busy yourself with gathering logs. Several of the mercenary lizards are doing the same. You coincidentally assist in this, drawing your mace you grab a large branch and smash your mace against the base of it, it takes you two hits, and then the large branch crashes to the ground. You set to work, splintering it up into pieces. The fire gathering inhumans look at you in bemusement, you finish one branch, and then you do this again, and again, until you have several cords and fags ready to burn.

“I don’t think we’ll need that many,” One of them says in the local dialect, you have no idea what he has said, but you can imagine that it is something along the lines of this being an excessive amount. You remind yourself that you need to find a way to understand them- you had sworn an oath to learn the language of this land, but for now, you have more pressing concerns. You shrug, and go to setup your sleeping arrangements. You lay your furs down next to the central firepit. The Lizardfolk roast salted meats over a now roaring bonfire and make merry. There is never a moment where there is not laughter as one of the warriors recites a tale or a couple dances.

They play games with stones and bound twigs, challenging for drink and ale. Alkadeen watches over it all, and at times you can make out some of the words being said, you pay close attention. By the time the merriment is over, the warband warriors retreat back into their shared tents. The fire was low now. The sentries watch as you feed several more logs into it until it was a suitable blaze that threatened to sear your skin. You hold your hands close to the flames, they feel lithe and limber, not numb like before. You lay down on your furs, and pull a woolen blanket over yourself, your armor is covered and resting next to you, but you still wear your leathers and undershirts, you want to stay as warm as possible, to the point of it even being uncomfortable.

Something tells you that if you let yourself grow cold again- it will be the end of you. You are not sure why, where that thought comes from, but it screams like instinct. You musn’t let the fire die. You sit up and wrap the blanket around you and throw a few more logs onto the flames. You won’t be sleeping tonight it would seem. Doing so would mean letting the fire die. You sigh and stare into the flames, listening to the crackling embers, they sounded more like cackling demons, challenging you to undertake this game of endurance. You take a stick and poke the embers, rearranging the ashes until the stick burns and turns to cinder. You grab another.

It will be a long night, but you will ensure that it will be a warm one.

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