Pale Horse, Pale Rider, part one


“And I saw a pale horse, and pale rider on it.
And the name of the horse was Winter.
And the name of the rider was Frost.”

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(Scarlet flies over endless, rugged mountains, enjoying the breeze, and attempting to ignore the maddening itch of the gash across the side of her face, left by Severen’s assassin’s crossbow. A chill enters the air, further even than the high altitude would mean it to be. She begins to be buffeted by turbulent, frigid winds, and the sky up ahead is black and thunderous; an incoming blizzard. Scarlet swears to herself in a language older than human civilisation and begins to drop lower, seeking any small town or hamlet in which to shelter out the storm…)

(Geran the Younger slouches against his spear as he stands on Pass Watch, guarding the rugged pass against raiders and barbarians. Not that there would be, this far out, he cursed to himself. He really wished that there’d be some ACTION. A figure strides purposefully towards the gate, and he jerks upright with a start. This was no mere traveler, but a lady of note. He noted. In detail.)

Geran: Who goes there?

Young woman: Who’s asking?

Geran: *roars out into the wind * I! Geran the Elder, Pass Guard of StormRidge!

Young woman: Impressive. May I enter?

Geran: Ugh… Yeah?

Young woman: Good.

(She wanders past a still stunned Geran and into the miniscule town. And walks straight into the tavern, joining a card game between some grizzled elders.)

(An hour later, Scarlet is feeling reasonably satisfied that this is a pleasant diversion from boredom, and was also getting the entire town’s money as she did. The storm had not abated.)

(Scarlet throws down her cards with a grin, looks at the chagrined faces of the elders, and rakes in her pot. A door at the other end of the tavern bursts open, letting in gusts of snow and frigid air as she picks up new cards. A chair rattles as someone sits down, an added presence to the table. Scarlet lowers her cards, to survey her opponents, and finds herself looking into two primordially cold blue eyes, and a wicked grin. The wind rustled in her ear, and a ghostly chuckle followed.)

Scarlet: *eyes widening in recognition * YOU!

(The blue, merrily twinkling eyes continued their gaze, and the smile deepened.)

-=Youuu wwwere exxxpectinnng sssomeonnne?=-

Scarlet: *snarls * You have a lot of balls…

(Frost gestures at her cards)

-=Yyyourrr calll…=-

Scarlet: *frustrated sigh * You’ve been following me. You tracked me when I was with the others. You've been doing nothing but meddling. And now that I finally meet you, you want to play POKER?

(Frost seemed to consider this.)

-=Yyyesss.=-

(The eyes of the village elders had been going backwards and forwards during this exchange like spectators at a tennis match, aware that more was being said than was obvious.)

Scarlet: Leave me alone, cold one, and I will leave you alone. There are more than enough people in this world to torment.

(One of the villagers attempted to intervene)

Grizzled man: ‘ey, culd we git on wi’ th’ game ‘ere?

(Frost turned towards him slowly, frigid, twinkling blue eyes staring into him.)

(The man felt unexplained fear creeping into him as he stared into the eyes that seemed as old as ice, and backed off.)

-=Wolllvvvvesss are mmmmore ennnterrrtainnning thaaannn the sssheeeep thaaat theeey ssslaughter.=-

Scarlet: Wolves also have a tendency to bite when you get too close.

-=But THAAATSSS whaaat maaakesss thingsss interesssting.=-

Scarlet: Why meddle with the wolves? Why not meddle with the tigers?

-=Thaaat'sss the beauty of the gaaame. I caaan dooo both.=-

Scarlet: Then why aren't you messing with the sheep?

(One of the elders tried to drink from his mug of ale, and jerked back with a strangled cry as he saw the ice rimed up the side of the frozen fluid.)

-=Whooo sssayyys I'mmm nnnot? The sheeeep are a divvversssion, mmmere paaawnnns innn the gammme. The wooolllvvves annnd tiiigerrrs are faaarrr mmmooore ennnterrrtainnning, annnd offfftinmmes the wooolllvvves haaave mmmore persssonnnaaality thannn the tiiigerrrs.=-

Scarlet: *eyes narrow * And what are you? The hand that moves them all, or merely another piece?

(Frost loses another hand to Scarlet, who eagerly piles up her gold…)

-=Aaalllll the worrrllld's a gaaame, annnd we jussst playyyersss in it. (Pause) Buuut who holllds the diccce?

Scarlet: Sometimes, I think whoever is holding the dice is cheating.

(The slim, pale man’s grin broadened further.)

-=Annnd wwwould you be wrrronnng?=-

(A slow smile crossed Scarlet’s features.)

(She raises her cards again, blocking her features, and her expression instantly reverts to one of cautious and intelligent hostility.)

(She drops her cards again and begins another riposte, but Frost was gone, with no sign that he’d ever been, aside from the surprised expressions of the Elders who hadn’t noticed him leave. The room temperature was already climbing.)

(Scarlet attempted to settle back into the rhythm of the game, content with the money that she’d one off of Frost during their conversation, which had fully doubled the size of her haul. She frowned slightly. Something odd was striking her about the gold. Mounting alarm assaulted her, but she couldn’t put a finger on why. Then she picked up a piece of Frost’s gold. It was melting. She pawed frantically through her winnings, but every piece of gold that she had won off Frost was melting into a puddle of gold coloured water.)

(A primeval shriek of incandescent rage pierces the tranquility of the mountains, starting several small avalanches in the valleys…)

-------------------

(The heroes sat in the lee of a massive fallen tree by a large patch of glowing embers, over which Severen was cooking a further batch of what is best referred to as ‘Mystery Meat.’)

Ethon: How’s D?

Mercy: He’s still not good. Improving, but he won’t be up and around any time soon.

(Severen’s green eyes stayed on the embers, unmoving.)

Severen: Hardly surprising, giving how badly the vampires got to him.

(Mercy sat up, as if remembering a question that she had forgotten to ask previously)

Mercy: What makes this so personal for you? I know D has a beef with vampires, but why you? Usually you're very detached about these things, but now, you're much more zealous.

Severen: Oh that's simple. I loved one, and that’s more than I can forgive.

(There was a lull in the conversation as all eyes turned to him. Severen looked around, sighed, and continued in a calm level voice, absent-mindedly flicking stones from the sole of his boot with a dagger.)

Severen: It was west. Far west, and many years ago. I was in a township called Falconguard, and decided to stay because I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere else. Maybe I was supposed to be there, I’m not sure. It was an alpine community, almost up to the snowline. Beautiful country. I must have been there for several months at least. Winter broke, and it was time for the festival of Imbolc, for the return of spring. I’d been working odd jobs around the town, as a guard, as a labourer, as anything that was going. It was a good time. One night I was helping to build the decorations for the town square on the night of the festival, and it was then that I saw her.

(He looked up, a slight, wry smile on his face, looking up at the trees.)

Severen: I hit my thumb with a hammer, and the foreman laughed and said it was the first time he’d heard me make a sound in months. She was drifting through the crowd as silently as a mist, and it parted for her. She looked so out of place that she caught the eye immediately. Waist length hair so dark it seemed black, but was brown where it caught the light, and lightly tanned skin from the spring sun. She was wearing a red velvet dress that completely stood out from the rest of the crowd, and the dancers, who hardly seemed to notice her. It was as if she wasn’t part of this world, but was just walking through it on her way to somewhere else. I stopped work and went to speak to her. That I did surprised her, it was as if she thought she was invisible.

(Severen paused in thought again, distracted by memory.)

Severen: She told me that her name was Alia and she smiled, and her eyes smiled too. She had these deep dark brown eyes, which you could drown in and not even care…

(Severen frowned slightly at the detail of the memory, paused, and moved on.)

Severen: We spoke briefly about trivialities, and then she left, moving through the crowd without creating a ripple of movement.

(He paused again, voice hardening)

Severen: I only ever saw her at night. And soon enough I discovered why. Each time I saw her, she looked sicker and sicker. Her skin was becoming pale and wan, and her eyes looked dead and hurt inside. Alia wouldn’t tell me what was the matter, she couldn’t even meet my gaze. After that I didn’t see her for several days. I was hunting in the forest when I smelt blood. I thought a wolf might be killing something or someone, so I was going to check how many there were and if they were a threat. It wasn’t wolves; it was Alia. She’d killed a deer, chased it down and broken its neck, and was lying in her weakened state in a pool of blood that wasn’t her own. She looked far healthier. I picked her up and carried her away to a safer place in case any of the hunters found her and she told me what I’d already figured out.

(He paused again, and looked at the floor, but as always his voice remained level and calm.)

Severen: She was a vampire, and had been turned several months before. That had been leagues away. She’d broken away from the vampire group and escaped, coming to Falconguard to find a beautiful place to die, since she wouldn’t take a life. I’d found her after she’d cracked and killed the deer from instinct and her hunger. Alia told me that she was afraid that the vampires would find her and take her back. That she’d kill because she couldn’t help herself, and then she wouldn’t be human anymore. It was then that she asked me. I can’t remember how long I sat and thought, with her standing beside me, but eventually I said yes. I said goodbye, she shut her eyes, and I cut off her head with a silver edged sword. I buried her body in a grove of violets down from the snowline. She liked violets…

(Demon memory assaulted Severen again, he frowned, paused, and moved on.)

Severen: And I left and haven’t gone back since. I doubt I ever will.

(The rest of the group exchanged grim, shocked glances as Severen looked placidly into the glowing embers. Fearless broke the silence.)

Fearless: Vampires seem little threat, you need only strike with special weapons.

Glitterspike: That is not the issue. They are fast, vicious and cunning, striking in the night upon the weak.

Fearless: I am hardly weak.

(The argument was building in the air and surged towards release. It was stopped, not by a shout, but by a mutter.)

Severen: Expertus metuit.

(Fearless turned his head away from mid-shout at Glitterspike, and looked at Severen belligerently.)

Fearless: What was that?

Severen: Expertus metuit. ‘He who has experienced it will fear.’

Fearless: *derisive snort * I fear nothing.

Severen: And you’ve experienced nothing. That’s my point.

(Fearless paled with anger and his face twisted into a sneer.)

Fearless: And what of you? A mysterious swordsman with a dark past. A walking cliché! You couldn’t save her, so you spend your life walking the world in search of wrongs to right. How pitifully romantic! You should be pleased that the girl asked you to end her life. It was clearly the only thing that you meant to her, a means of release that she couldn’t accomplish herself!

(Mercy bit her lip and paled, watching Severen silhouetted against the fire. He’d frozen as still as a statue, and looked as though he was going to stay that way. Fearless’ belligerent colour had faded from his face, and seeming to realize that he might have gone too far, stepped back a bit. Mercy thought it would be better if he shouted, if he hit him, if there was some emotional release, but there was none. Incandescent anger can either light a fire of unquenchable emotion, or extinguish one. Severen seemed as lifeless as stone. Wordlessly, he moved. Smoothly, calmly, without a trace of any turmoil beneath the surface, he stood and climbed lithely up a tree, keeping watch as per usual, silhouetted against the stars. The camp was silent as the grave.)

(Mercy did not sleep well that night, and neither did several of the others.)

-------------------

(Kain thought privately to himself about ponderings and memories that he daren’t share. He was walking through the woods towards Westmarch to sign up for the group advertised for in the poster, but his mind was elsewhere. His memories of the monastery were still hazy, but there was one thing for certain: Something had stopped Andariel and her minions from coming after him, and that meant that whatever it was, was worryingly powerful. Or perhaps, it was a someONE. Either way, he wanted to know what had happened once the thin, pale man had herded him out of the monastery, and why, Kain had to admit, that he was still alive…)

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(Andariel watched, in stunned, furious disbelief as Kain darted through the doorway, and it slammed shut behind him. She turned, venom in her eyes, to the thin, pale man, smiling impudently at her in the shadows.)

Andariel: Who, or WHAT are you, to work against one of the Prime Evil’s?! Some elemental with ideas above its station, perhaps? Or do you simply not realise who I am? You wouldn’t DARE-

-=Iii doo nnnot daaarrre.=-

Andariel: (taken aback) What?

-=‘To daaarrre’ immmplllies risk. Youuu arrre nnnooo thrrreat, thusss therrre isss nnnooo risssk, thusss Iii dooo nnnot daaarrre.=-

(A ghostly chuckle echoed in the still air, mocking her.)

(Andariel’s eyes flicked open in shock, her face twisted in an animal snarl, and with a shriek she unleashed a bolt of lightning, directly at the figure. The man’s torso disintegrated, sending crystalline shrapnel ricocheting around the room. A cloud of glittering particles floated in the air, like an extremely fine snow. The chuckling, ceased, and the lower body of the being collapsed, boneless to the ground.)

(Andariel was breathing heavily, still enraged at the way she’d been addressed. Phena was cowering in a corner away from her mistress’ wrath.)

(The crystalline powder still hung, suspended in the air of the underground room, with no breeze to move it. With each breath, it stung the back of Andariel’s throat, only adding to her annoyance.)

(A ghostly chuckle echoed around the room, sounding smug because it knew something that she didn’t.)

Andariel: Show yourself, elemental! Fight me, if you dare!

-=MUSSST Iii exxxplain why Iii dooo nnnot darrre agaaaiiin?=-

Andariel: Why you impudent-

(She was cut off by a spearing pain inside of her, doubling her over, gasping. The pain shifted to her shoulder, and became agony. A tentacle of living ice burst from her shoulder in a splatter of black ichor, demon blood, and moved towards the wall. Andariel reached around and tore it free from her, taking a chunk of her flesh with it. Another tentacle burst from her ankle, reached a crack in the floor and immediately thickened, finding a source of moisture. Another two simultaneously burst from her right wrist and right leg. She managed to tear the one on her wrist free, but the other ankle was bound. More and more icy tentacles burst from her agonised body, more and more managing to attach themselves to the floor, walls or ceiling, binding her into icy ropes. A weakening, panicked scream attracted Andariel’s attention to Phena, by now almost completely covered in the icy tentacles and frozen streamers of her own blood. Andariel struggled viciously, snapping off several of her bonds, but more formed. Eventually they held her completely still, and began to thicken and merge together. As an icy film covered her eyes, she could see the cheerfully smiling face of a man with terrifyingly blue eyes looking into hers, but then he moved out of sight, and out of Andariel’s frozen world.)

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(Mercy woke from the broken sleep she’d clung to throughout the night, troubled by the story of Severen’s past. Fearless was making a nuisance of himself.)

Fearless: I grow tired of waiting here! I say we move towards Dorado now, and take on this Abadon when he doesn’t expect it!

(The group ignored him for the most part, although eyes did roll, faces did darken, and Triesque did snort derisively.)

(Severen didn’t look up from where he was checking his weapons.)

Severen: Just what are you willing to do, Fearless? What are you willing to sacrifice, hmm?

(Fearless drew himself up haughtily.)

Fearless: I am willing to die for our cause!

(Severen still didn’t bother looking up.)

Severen: Of course you are. People with very little imagination usually will, when they feel that they’ll be martyred. But that’s not what I meant. Are you willing to live?

(Fearless did a double take and then just looked impatient.)

Fearless: If you’re going to be needlessly cryptic, I don’t see why I should-

(Severen stood up slowly and began to elaborate, getting slowly closer to Fearless as he did.)

Severen: You have to be willing to live. To see your friends die, but you live on. Everyone you’ve ever known, or shared moments with, they die, but you live on. Years go past where you hardly say a word to another human being, and then perhaps you make more friends, and then THEY die, but you live on! This continues until you’re hardly more human than the things you kill, all you ever bring to the world is death, and have no other purpose, living only until something finally ends it all. Knowing that you will eventually stand alone on a battlefield, knee deep in the bodies of your fallen comrades, with the very army of the night cresting the top of the hill in any moment, but you fight on, because there is no longer an alternative. You know that you will die, friendless and unsung, not even remembered by name or by deeds, just a nameless corpse in a ditch, and even knowing this, you live on, because it is the only thing that you can do anymore.

(Severen finished standing directly in front of Fearless, green eyes burning with hellish intensity.)

Severen: Are you willing to live, Fearless? Not for glory, not for honour, but because you cannot stop?

(Fearless seemed slightly shaken, but drew himself up.)

Fearless: Yes.

(Severen stood for at least half a minute, staring into Fearless’ eyes.)

Severen: Then you’re more of a fool than I took you for.