Friday, January 20, 2012

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Melody of the Dark


15th of the Blood Moon; Brightstone, Sannr Midgard

The Midlands of the world known as Midgard had gone through a drastic change after the doom of the gods known as Ragnarök. The power unleashed by the gods fused itself with the very stone and earth, creating levistones, energy crysts, and lumini stones. With the passage of years, the people of the Midlands learned how to utilize those wonders to their benefit, creating airships, which not only eased travel, but had become a greatly desired luxury. With such advantages, cities flourished and changed with the passage of time. And, as greed would mount, the Midlands had become easily fractured into several distinct kingdoms.

There were places in the Midlands where the past and the present meshed together quite nicely. Brightstone was one such place. Hundreds of centuries old, the Dvergar city was equally as impressive as it had been during the Age of Gods. Deep within the Syrnja Mountains lay a massive cavern with a towering ceiling and walls lined with veins of shinning mythril in its natural state. Raw lumini stones jutted out from the walls in the form of massive crystals. The city itself had been hewn of stone and tiered up towards the peak of the cave, carved from one colossal stalagmite and was surrounded by a labyrinth of deep black ravines. Wooden bridges stretched out from the city, bearing tracks for mine carts across water that rushed below. Buildings were decorated in carvings of geometrical design and the doors were thick, heavy metal.

Grim Stoneshield stood at an entrance tunnel, looking across the stone bridge leading into Brightstone. One of the Dvergar himself, it had been many years since he'd last been to his ancestral home. Like most of his race, he was stout and tough, much shorter than the average human. Grim bore a thick and long brown beard, an ancient custom among his ancestors, and bushy brows above hazel eyes. An axe lay across his back, the blade bearing centuries of battle scars.

"Boss is waiting."

His attention turned to his most unusual traveling companion. Liskula Darkwind, one of the storm Jötunn race, towered well above the heads of the tallest humans at ten feet in height. Her light skin was touched with gray and her long hair was so dark it was nearly black. Her gray eyes mirrored the sky with the coming of a storm. Though she was a member of the Adventurers' Guild with Grim, Liskula was a merchant first, always finding time to try and sell wares.

Grim nodded. "Alright, lets get to it." With a grunt, he shifted his pack on his shoulder and walked across the bridge. Boss had told them to meet him in the bazaar, at a tavern called the Bearded Lady, a place he knew would be hospitable to Liskula. The presence of Imperial soldiers wasn't highly noticeable in the lower regions of the city tier, which was much to Grim's delight, especially since he and Liskula had the pleasure of their presence halfway into the entrance tunnels.

The bazaar itself, situated to the left of the bridge, was filled with wooden stands covered in bright, colorful cloths. The bazaar was crowded, mostly with Dvergar, but he did spot the occasional human and Álfar, their height alone making them easy to pick out. Nestled in the corner, out of sight but by no means forgotten, was the Bearded Lady tavern.

Walking up the three steps, he pushed the door open and walked into the dimly lit tavern. Lumini stones were few, and bore a few cracks. The wooden tables were round and crowded with patrons. Smiling serving women with long braided hair carried heavy trays covered in pints and mugs, weaving their way effortlessly through the tables without spilling a drop. It was certainly an odd place for Boss to request their meeting, but Grim could easily understand. The Empire was the enemy of many and the best way to remain unseen was to keep low, and the Bearded Lady was by all means low.

"Grim! Is that you?" called a sweet feminine voice.

Turning, he found a Dvergar woman approaching him with long golden hair and an equally long braided beard. She was the owner of the Bearded Lady and the namesake of the tavern. Her green eyes danced as she approached him.

"Ah, Svanna Thorshammer," he greeted her warmly. "How have you been?"

"Can't complain," she replied with a smile. "The tavern has been pretty busy lately." She played with the end of her beard as she spoke. "What brings you back to Brightstone, Grim?"

"Business," Grim replied simply.

"You'll be looking for Boss then, won't you?"

He nodded.

"Over there." She gestured to a small table sitting in the corner. Surprisingly young, Boss was only sixteen years of age, but deeply respected and looked up to. Though head of the guild, he had much of the world yet to see. His brown hair was a bit longer than when Grim had last seen him, reaching long enough to finally be tied back. His grey eyes seemed dark in the dim light, but Grim knew well that there was always a mischievous light in them.

Boss waved them over with a bright smile.

Digging in his pouch, he handed Svanna a few coins. "Bring us a round. You know what we like." Making his way to the corner of the room, Grim sat his pack down on the floor and hung his axe belt off the back of his chair before sitting down with a grunt. Liskula grabbed a tall stood and made herself comfortable.

"Relax a bit, Grim," suggested Boss. "There is no need to rush."

Grim raised a brow in question.

"There has been whispering among the merchants here in the bazaar," he continued. "Even Tiny himself saw the same their eyes have. The signal fire has been lit and the Door of the Valkyrie was opened. Not long after, a group of five travelers arrived in the city. One merchant claims to have actually seen them come from the Valkyrie's Pass into Brightstone."

Grim frowned. "But the Door of the Valkyrie will only yield to a Valkyrie," he stated bluntly. "Surely Mæja's distant ties to Brynhild would not be enough to grant her passage."

"Exactly," replied Boss, running a finger along the rim of his cup. "It wouldn't be enough. Even the Rhine Maiden wouldn't be able to break the seal that Odin himself put in place. Which could only mean…"

"That Mæja is a Valkyrie," answered Liskula, keeping her voice low.

Boss nodded. "If she has awakened as a Valkyrie, that means that she has been chosen by the gods and that the threat of a second Ragnarök is indeed looming before us."

Grim cursed softly and rubbed his face. He hardly noticed Svanna as she brought a tray of drinks, sitting them down quietly before leaving. "So that leaves the matter of finding them…"

"Already done."

He looked up in surprise.

Boss grinned. "Don't look at me like that, I have my ways. They are all staying at the Grumble Inn," he continued. "We'll have time to observe them while passing in the streets. I don't want their suspicions raised. I am almost certain they are here for Thor's hammer, Mjollnir. Which means that if they are after it, the chances of Emperor Ensor or even Severus looking for it as well are very high. Our goal is to gain their trust and cooperation. Is that agreed?"

Grim and Liskula nodded.

"Good!" Boss smiled brightly. "You're next round is on me!"

Smirking roguishly, Grim leaned towards Boss. "How about my coins back for the airship trip all the way up here?"

* * * * *

The room wasn't overly large, with only three beds to share between the five of them, but it did have its own private bath, which was much to Mæja's liking. They'd hardly set foot in the Grumble Inn before Connor and Linkyn decided to go and sample the drink at the Cellar Rat tavern, leaving Mæja with Ril and Mjrn. The inn keepers wife, Devi, brought them a warm meal for dinner and fresh juice to drink, which they had gratefully accepted after so many days of nothing but travel rations.

Sitting on a bed, Mæja ran slender fingers through her long, fiery red waves while her blue-green eyes remained fixed on a certain pirate with all the turbulence of a stormy sea. Ril, on the other hand, remained apparently oblivious to the cold glare centered on him as he carefully cleaned his mage gun. As for the Rhine Maiden, Mjrn had decided to partake in a long bath.

Mæja's eyes unconsciously followed the movement of Ril's dark, blue-gray hands as the Dökkálfar man paid careful attention to every nook and cranny of his gun, the gold ring on his left hand shinning brightly in the light of the lumini stones illuminating their room. Colorful speak stones swayed from gold clasps attached to his long, pointed ears. Absently, Mæja began to wonder what Ril used to dye the tips of his platinum hair violet.

Sighing, Mæja pulled her legs up onto the bed and crossed them. She was tired and worn from their trip. Since her reunion with Connor, and unfortunately Ril, they'd hardly had a moments rest. Everything had gone wrong when Ilario had betrayed them. It wasn't that he'd betrayed the resistance to the Grand Duke, but that he'd sided with him. Severus, son of the Shilykan Emperor himself, knew that she was alive, and that alone could prove problematic to their plans.

Mæja could not guess how much Severus knew of their plans, but since Ilario had given him Brynhild's book, she knew certainly that he would go after the five treasures of the gods. Running into Ilario in Lahrheim had proved it far too well. The feeling of the knife he'd pulled on her remained fresh in her mind. The edge of the blade had been cold against her throat before it had broken her skin. The wound had closed up well and wouldn't leave a scar, but his violence, his greed and betrayal, had marked him by the Wolves of Odin. She knew as soon as Connor and Linkyn got their hands on him, Ilario's life would be forfeit.

It was because of Ilario's attack and the Imperial presence that Mæja decided she was content to stay in the room for the time being. Which left her, most unfortunately, in the company of a certain pirate who decided he wanted to stay in instead of wandering the streets of the Dvergar city of Brightstone, no matter how impressive it was. And so, once more, Mæja's gaze narrowed on the man in burning fury. With Mjrn in the bath, she was, essentially, left alone with Ril. A matter to which she wasn't entirely fond of. After all, her second meeting with the pirate was when he had put that very mage gun he cleaned to her head in Ragnarr castle. She had, after all, been in possession of the treasure he sought, Odin's ring of power, Draupnir. The resistance's attack on the castle had proven to be her escape when she fell through a portal which had inadvertently sent her far north to the High Woods and away from him.

But, as luck would have it, the gods cursed her and she was forced to meet with him a third time. Draupnir had then served as their bargain to grant them passage by his airship, the Sacred Hart. She still didn't know how Connor or Linkyn had come to know the arrogant pirate, and at times could care less. She would be rid of him soon enough.

"Do you expect me to burst into flames under the intensity of your glare, Jarlessa?" came the rich, upper-crust accent of the pirate, his tone laced with sarcasm. It seemed he had not been as oblivious to her glare as she had assumed.

Mæja frowned. She really could not abide the man's insufferable manner and detested being addressed by the title of Jarlessa. Her kingdom had fallen under Imperial control when her father Woden, Jarl of Ragnarr, was murdered by Grand Duke Severus' own hand.

"I could only hope," growled the woman in irritation.

Ril chuckled a bit, not pausing in his work. "If looks could kill, then I suppose your glare alone should have killed me a thousand times over by now."

Mæja looked away. Perhaps, if she could get him to walk the streets with her, she would get the opportunity to shove him into the labyrinth of deep ravines surrounding the city.

"Ah, don't pout so, Jarlessa, it diminishes your beauty," Ril told her with a cunning grin.

Mæja didn't justify his teasing with a response. She knew it would only encourage him.

He was silent a moment, almost contemplative, before sitting his mage gun down and turning his full attention on her. "What is it, exactly, you find so detestable about me?"

"Can you honestly be so ignorant in the matter?"

The pirate flashed her a bright smile as he relaxed a bit on his own bed. "Enlighten me."

Mæja had long decided he took far too much enjoyment in her hatred of him. "You're a petty thief for one."

"Pirate," he corrected.

"Is there a difference?"

"I have an airship," came Ril's cool reply.

She resisted rolling her eyes. "Fine, pirate then,"
remarked Mæja. "Not to mention you are arrogant and cocky. You have this confident air about you that I simply cannot tolerate. You are the most insufferable man I have ever been forced to meet, let alone been forced to travel with! You act as if you know everything and place yourself on this high pedestal above everyone else. You are every bit the cocky bastard Connor said you are!"

Ril chuckled in agreement. "Is that all?" he asked in amusement. "Well, Jarlessa, you aren't much of a pleasure yourself. You are as stubborn and haughty as that noble blood flowing in your veins. You regard Connor and Linkyn so highly even though they have more blood on their hands then even the dogs of the Empire. You refuse to trust anyone simply because of what Severus did to you and your father, acting as if anyone and everyone will stab you in the back," he countered.

"Is it too presumptuous of me not to expect that of a pirate?" retorted Mæja.

He rose to his feet and approached her. "Now, now," scoffed Ril, "I told you before, I may be greedy, but I'm not murderous."

Mæja scooted back away from him, wanting to maintain what she considered a safe distance from the pirate.

Ril flashed her a wicked grin. "Careful there, Jarlessa," he warned.

"Stay away from me, you worthless, good-for-nothing, bastardly scoundrel!" demanded the woman, continuing to scoot back on the bed.

Ril put his hands on the bed and leaned towards her. "My, my, getting more creative in your insults, are you, Jarlessa?"

He was so close she could smell the semi-sweet, mildly spicy scent of dragons blood he wore. She wanted to hit him, push him away, but her body wouldn't move. Mæja could feel the warmth of his breath on her own lips at their close proximity and an odd feeling filled her. She refused to break eye contact, fearing her eyes might wander somewhere that he could use to his advantage. It was closer than she ever wanted to be with the arrogant pirate and still she couldn't push him away. That was until the door clattered open loudly.

Mæja started, finally regaining control of her body, and pushed herself away from Ril, only to fall off the edge of the bed and land on the hard stone floor with a grunt. While Connor and Linkyn stood in the doorway, a bit surprised, Ril kneeled on the bed and looked down at the woman, amusement dancing in his pale blue eyes.

"Ril, ye bastard, what the feck did ye do ta her?" demanded Connor.

The pirate spared the man an admonishing glance. "Nothing. We were only talking. Honest."

Connor and Linkyn hardly looked convinced.

"I'm fine, by the way, thanks for asking," muttered Mæja. "And we were talking…in an argumentative sort of way."

"Argumentative sort o' way?" commented Linkyn with a laugh, as he walked over and offered his hand to the woman. "Will the two o' ye ever get along?"

"I tolerate him, isn't that enough?" replied Mæja bluntly, placing her hand in his and letting him pull her to her feet.

"Only tolerate? You wound me, Jarlessa," Ril remarked with a feigned tone of hurt.

Mæja gave a short laugh. "I highly doubt that," she sneered in return. "My dislike of you only amuses you. I know you see this as a game."

"Oh, you noticed then?" grinned Ril.

* * * * *

Ashylia, Capital City of the Shilykan Empire

The capital city of the Shilykan Empire continued to flourish as the Empire thrived, becoming the center of innovation and learning. Though lacking in natural resources and fertile land, the Empire had come to prestige and wealth through studies and technologies that brought them the most powerful airship fleet in all of the Midlands. Knowledge was the true strength and power behind the Empire, giving rise to famed mages and housing the High Order itself within the borders of Ashylia.

Octagonal in layout, Ashylia was divided into eight separate districts with the Imperial palace sitting in the center of it all. The streets of Ashylia were cobblestone and very well maintained, lined with lanterns of lumini stones to illuminate them at night. Buildings stretched tall, at times reaching over four stories tall, with bridges connecting many. Shops, inns and residences served as the lower floors while the upper floors were left to the pleasure of the wealthy. A large central port compensated the many airships that docked and brought to Ashylia various wares and travelers.

The architecture of the Imperial palace was not shy in shamelessly flaunting the Empire's wealth. Intricately sculpted statues lined smooth stone paths of a lavish courtyard and garden where a grand fountain stood. The outer stone walls of the palace were covered in well crafted bas relief carvings that depicted Shilyka's history and rise to power.

By far the most impressive room in the palace, the Grand Chamber was circular in design with walls and ceiling of curved glass. Hanging from the center of the glass ceiling, suspended by a heavy, thick chain, was a chandelier covered in several sparkling lumini stones that twinkled in the sunlight, but glowed brilliantly at night. A long, rich azure rug bearing the golden emblem of House Valine, three swords intertwined with a snake, stretched across the polished marble floor, leading from the door to the heavy oak desk and chair. Two statues flanked the desk: that of an archer standing ready with a bow drawn, and that of an armored soldier with a sword held before itself with two hands. Exotic plants lined the edge of the circular room, adding rich colors to the chamber.

Ensor the VIII of House Valine, Emperor of the Shilykan Empire, had always found solace in the Imperial palace's Grand Chamber, that was until that moment when papers continued to mount upon his desk and the man before him had delivered rather upsetting news. "Are you sure of this?" he drawled in a low, gravely voice as he looked up from a smaller stack of papers. Age had not been kind to him, leaving his brown hair full of gray streaks and heavy wrinkles by his gray eyes.

The man standing before the Emperor nodded with slight hesitation. "Yes, my lord," he replied. "House Krövekks refuses to allow the Dagnir soldiers to conduct sweeps through Brightstone to look for the wolves."

Ensor folded his hands together on the desk. "It would seem that We shall be forced to rely on Ilivarra's contact to locate the wolves then," he muttered. "We need the levistones that Brightstone provides Us with, so We cannot risk endangering our trade agreements by intruding upon their wishes. Contact Gavin and Micah. Inform them of the situation. The wolves must be located and detained. Too long have they run free."

"Yes, my lord," answered the man. "The contact has also informed the third squad that there were two others following the wolves. A Dvergar man and Jötunn woman. From the information provided, the two only seem to be after the wolves and not the female that Ilivarra seeks."

Grabbing the stack of paper before him, he tapped the bottom edge against the table. "This female wolf…We wonder what it is that Ilivarra knows that We do not," he murmured. "For her to hold the female at such value does indeed concern Us." The Emperor looked back up at the man. "Tell Gavin to see if he can learn more about the female wolf."

The man nodded, bowing low. "Yes, Your Imperial Majesty."