Pale horse, Pale rider, part two.


NOTE: This entire story is posted BEFORE Xeiss' one, and so it is in the continuity, too.


(Abadon paced in his fetid throne room in the dead city of Dorado, face twisted into a rage. The prone form of Phena cowered on the floor, prostrate before him. She was badly lacerated, but had obviously got free of the icy prison.)

Abadon: So what you want to tell me, Phena, is that the mystery player managed to imprison one of the Prime Evilís in ice, and that it is beyond your power to rescue her currently?

(Phena nodded, fearful)

Abadon: I see. And I am supposed to be NONCHALANT about this!? Tell me PRECISELY what happened Phena, I donít care how powerful you think that this elemental must be, it is inconceivable that he could do that to a Prime Evil without some form of trickery.

(He listened impatiently as Phena told the entire story.)

(As she reached the end, Abadon sighed, looked resigned and ran a hand down his face.)

Abadon: Heís not more powerful than Andariel, Phena, heís just smarter. He got her angry enough so that she didnít notice that sheíd breathed in chunks of his physical being, which he had power over. Hence the ice tentacles. Now however, it is going to be difficult to extricate her from this mess once its done, the elemental in question clearly was more worried about her than about you. Iíll see what I can do. In the mean time, get out of my sight.

(Phena bolted for the door, and Abadon still seethed. He seethed for many reasons; heíd misjudged the mystery player in the game, and assumed more than he should have done. He was also taking the defeat of one of the Prime Evilís as if she was a diversion, nothing more, as a PERSONAL insult to the side of darkness. A side that he had assumed the mystery player had occupiedÖ)

--

(Severen sat in the treetops as he always did at night. The rest of the crew had become accustomed by now to him taking watch absentmindedly and didnít seem to think about it as much. He looked down and watched the prone bodies wrapped up for warmth as they slept. His gaze swept over the exposed horizon as it had repeatedly throughout the night already. Severen had a brilliant view, providing that all you wanted to look at was leagues of snow and wintering trees, bare of leaves, like skeletons silhouetted against the moonlight. Severen could feel the irritating need nagging at the back of his mind, scowled to himself and tested the tripwires. Severen DID need to sleep, although years of training in deliberate insomnia had diminished this need to where it could be controlled. But eventually, even he had to sleep. Heíd strung up tripwires and booby traps all throughout the clearing so that damn near nothing could get through, and all where attached to him; heíd wake in an instant if anything came within a thousand yards. With the need for sleep, came the demons that came with it, flashes of thought that Severen didnít want, and felt that he didnít need. He sighed long-sufferingly and lay back in the bough of the tree. He looked resigned but suspicious, not wanting to have to sleep, and waiting for an excuse not to. None came. He told his muscles to relax, and after a time, they obeyed. The scowl was palpable now, but he finally argued himself around to surrendering to sleep.)

(Severenís eyes flickered at speed underneath his eyelids at the images that assaulted him, frowning in his sleep for a split second when the image was particularly vividÖ Images of deeeep dark eyes that smiledÖ Of a lilting laughÖ A musical voiceÖ Graceful movementÖ Luscious soft dark hairÖ The scent of vanillaÖ)

(It was going to be a long night.)

--

(Severen awoke refreshed but vexed, as he always did on the rare occasions when he slept. It was still several hours before dawn, so he quietly set about the business of collecting all his traps and trip wires. His mind was slightly fogged with dreams and recurrent darting images of enchanting beauty. Thus Severenís first warning was not the sound of approaching feet, but the knife embedding itself into a tree trunk, pinning him to it by a handful of his long dark hair. Severen pulled out the knife, ducked and pulled his sword at the same time, whirling to face his attacker. Who wasnít there. Instead of whirling around as he assumed the unseen enemy wanted him to do, he dove six feet to the side and landed rolling, whirling to his feet as soon as he could. Severen sensed rather than saw movement from the corner of his eye and spun, sword raised. It deflected the falling sword blow and he leapt back, having time to identify the attacker. It was more slender than a man, and taller, and the eyes were pale and slitted like a catís. The face was twisted in a snarl that went well with the pointed, upswept ears.)

(Severenís eyes widened in recognition as he lunged out of the way of another skillful sword stroke. He flicked his wrist and the dark figure darted out of the way almost too fast for Severen to believe his eyes. However his life had taught him to ALWAYS believe his eyes, so he didnít linger on it, but rather dove sideways over a blast of arcane power. He landed heavily and spun, lashing with the blade to compensate. He forced back his attacker enough for him to drop, spin and kick the legs out from under the creature. The beast landed heavily, but rolled out of the way of both of Severenís lunges, but he gave it a deep gash in the leg as it managed to stand. The creature decided it was sick of fencing and just tackled Severen, knocking him to the ground and punching him repeatedly as it did. Severen kneed it hard in the groin, swept a blade from his belt, and had it knocked away as the creature locked its hands around his throat, preparing to crush his windpipe. The blade hadnít fallen too far, so Severen managed to grab it and slash the beastís belly before he passed out. The creature screamed hoarsely and gave him time to escape. Severen shook his head groggily and slashed its throat while it was trying to hold in its insides.)

(Severen watched it like a hawk until the struggles ceased, then shook his head to clear it again, spat blood and gave himself a preliminary check. He was rifling through the creatureís pockets when Mercy and Triesque burst into the scene, Mercy with sword drawn.)

Mercy: Whatís that?!

Severen: (croaking and grimacing as he tries his voice.) Moredhel. One of the Brotherhood of the Dark Path. Think evil elves.

Mercy: What was it doing here?

Severen: Trying to kill me, and since it went for me rather than attempting to butcher the sleepers, I think its safe to say that its personal.

(He continued to rifle its pockets, taking a wide variety of evil-looking blades and throwing knifes, and some other things that Mercy couldnít identify. He then searched the area for his throwing knife and anything that they might have dropped while fighting.)

+++

(A group of shadows came out of the darkness as if they were made of it, utterly noiseless and it would be impossible to tell they were there if they were not moving. They gathered around a small fire, shielded from the wind and from prying eyes.)

(A tall Moredhel stood, and the others watched with an air of subservience that said that he was their leader. He was lean and seemed to be composed entirely of toned muscle, but wasnít massively built. His head was shaved aside from a four-foot scalp lock caught in a ring of beaten silver. The one visible eye was of the palest blue, a very rare shade for his race, and as he turned, it could be seen that the other socket was empty and viciously scarred, though he wore no eye patch. There was no slashing scar across the face, so whatever had partially blinded him hadnít been in combat. A lithe female Moredhel stood suddenly with eager passion.)

Female Moredhel: We have found the Dark One, so why do we wait? We should strike now, before he can prepare!

(The tall Moredhel turned towards the female.)

Tall Moredhel: Thatís true Morgan, but that would be far too quick, and besides, he already knows weíre here, so heís already prepared. We leave him be, and hopefully other events will conspire to distract him and make us a lower priority. And then he will pay.

(The Moredhel smiled sinisterly and caressed the scar tissue around his empty eye.)

Tall Moredhel: Yes, he will payÖ

+++

(The small village of Checksum stood far off the beaten track in the deep woods. Surprisingly so, in fact, because it would be usual for such a town to have tracks and outlying farms encroaching out from the perimeter for a distance around it. But Checksum was barely there, houses, buildings and warehouses, with no hint of agriculture or trade. To a large degree, it didnít exist. And for one of the first times in its long, dark, history, Checksum was about to get a visitor who KNEW his destination.)

(A slim, pale figure walked steadily towards the town, calmly and with purpose. He worked his way into the center of the Village Square. Frost paused in the geometric center of the town, and surveyed the gathering crowds. It wasnít unusual to get wanderers from time to time, but this one was clearly mad. And thus a side show. The wind picked up. It chuckled. A tall vampire came out of the town hall flanked by his guards, watching the crowds and what could have caused them, eventually spotting the slim man himself.)

Vlad: What is this? Why the crowds? Just kill him, get it over with.

(The wind picked up more, and a whispering laugh began to grow within it. Vladimir Demonican clearly was irritated at being disturbed from his work, and turned tersely away. One of the younger vampires shrugged, walked up behind the man and sank his teeth into his neck. There was a splintering crunch and a scream of surprised pain as the vampire spat out broken teeth. The laughter in the wind built. Frost spun smoothly, smiled cheerfully at the stricken vampire and backhanded him, knocking the creature several meters away. Several vampires ran to attack him at once. Frost picked up one smoothly and threw him into the crowd. The other two he lifted off the ground by their throats, one arm each. He paused and winked at them. They gasped as the flesh of their throats froze, and then choked as he tore his hands away taking most of the flesh of their necks with them. The two vampires collapsed to their knees as the blood gouted from their jugulars. The crowd parted further away from him and the spreading circle of icy destruction. Vladís eyes widened as he heard the screams of his brethren and he whipped around. One of his more quick thinking guards unsheathed his sword and dove at Frost, who was still laughing. As he swung, the sword blossomed into flame like burning magnesium. Frost leapt sideways, but the laughter stopped. The humorous glint died in Frostís primordially cold blue eyes. He hated when people didnít have a sense of humour.)

(Icy blades condensed out of the air and whirled and slashed at the crowd. The guard with the flaming sword parried and hacked at them, but he couldnít deal with them all. Two dove into his stomach and froze; the guard twisted as his innards became solid and broke. He flung the sword at Frost as he died, who grimaced as he ducked and the sword passed by at apparently an uncomfortable distance. Frost sighed theatrically as he realized that the players of this game just werenít going to behave. A blue nimbus began to condense around every vampire in Checksum, rapidly incasing them in ice. Vlad swung at the nimbus with his sword, the sword leaping into flame as he did. The nimbus shattered, but still managed to trap one ankle in solid ice. He carved his way out.)

(Frost watched sadly as his playthings were incased in ice, effectively taking them out of the game. He spun quickly as he heard movement behind him. Vladimir Demonican leapt into the air, hovering above the ground with his flaming sword, and screamed a challenge. Vlad fired several bolts of shadow at the smiling figure standing among the frozen, still living ruins of his undead brethren. The bolts exploded as they impacted around Frost, who was momentarily obscured by the blast. Then he soared out of the top of the explosion as if blown upwards by the force of it, but simultaneously coiled into a gymnastic rolling leap. Frost flew upwards lithely towards the astonished Vlad, went past were Vlad was hovering, somersaulted forwards and landed neatly on the ground. Vlad snarled at this obvious mockery and dove through the air swinging the flaming sword. Frost looked at the sword with distaste, and it began to hail. Pointed slivers of ice danced through the air around Vlad, but were deflected by a magical shield around him. Vlad snarled in triumph.)

Vlad: Is that the best you can do, elemental?!

-=Prrriiide commmesss beffforrre a fffaaallllllÖ=-

(The hail turned to frigid rain, coating Vlad in freezing water.)

Vlad: My comfort has nothing to do with this fight!

(The rain coating his body froze. He screamed as the ice bit into his flesh, lost control of his levitation spell and smacked into the ground. Groggily he pulled himself to his feet, shivering and covered in frost, finding himself in a forest of his anguished, frozen comrades. Fog began to billow through the statues, and dutifully, Frost appeared.)

(He was walking calmly, with his ingrained smirk still on his features. Frost stopped about ten meters away, and Vlad charged. Smoothly he was blocked by one of the frozen vampires, but it was clear that the vampire inside had nothing to do with it. The ice surrounding him had taken on a life of its own, and swung with the vampires sword, as the vampire within the icy casing fought it with all his strength. Vlad snarled and sliced the statue in two with the burning sword, turning the vampire within to a silhouette of its former form in ashes encased within the ice. Vlad turned as more and more of the vampire statues were lumbering with alarming grace and fluidity towards him, and as ghostly, whispering laughter began to echo in his ears.)

(Frost sat fluidly in the bough of a tree not far from the center of Checksum, smiling up at the stars. The metallic sound of sword on sword echoed through the air for what seemed like a very long time, and his smile broadened as an agonised shriek, abruptly cut off, pierced the still, chill air of the nightÖ)

+++

(D woke with a start, sweating and breathing heavily, images of Checksum and his hated father, all dead. Everyone dead. Severen appeared next to him, managing to land after a jump from a tree branch with almost no sound.)

Severen: Whatís the matter?

D: IÖ I donít know. I think something very bad has happened to a very bad place. My father, is dead.

(A thought occurred to him.)

D: Itís several hours to dawn, Severen. Can you follow these directions and tell me what you find?

Severen: (looks quizzical) Certainly, but something unpleasant happening to your father I would have thought to be a good thing.

D: Oh yes. But if my dream was right, what killed him is many times more dangerous than Checksum. Which I think will be proven if you find what I think you will.

(Severen nodded grimly, as D told him where to go, and then disappeared into the darkness as if he was made of it. D tried to settle down, but the chill that had settled into his bones with the name whispered constantly in his dream made that a futile effort.)

+++

(D whipped around as Severen planted himself down silently beside him.)

Severen: I donít know what you dreamt, but the entire town is dead. The entire place was entirely vampiric, and they had been frozen into statues outside so that they died when the sun came up. Now theyíre nothing but ashes in the shape of humans incased in ice.

D: My god. Thatís what I suspected. Did you see my father?

Severen: If he was there, then heís dead.

(D went boneless and slumped to the ground.)

D: Heís dead.

(Severen waited for D to continue.)

D: My entire life has been based around revenge, and now heís dead, and not by my hand. Iím not sure how I feel.

Severen: I know how I feel.

D: How?

Severen: Scared.

(Mercy rolled over nearby.)

Mercy: I donít like the sound of this AT ALL.

Severen: And neither do I.

(Slowly the group stirred as the sun broke through the clouds covering this area of the forest. Mercy persuaded D to tell them about the dream, and Severen explained what heíd found. Everyone was silent as they thought of the ramifications of this discovery.)

(Xeiss was the first to speak.)

Xeiss: (hesitantly) I think Iíve run into something that might be capable of doing what Severen says he found.

(She looked up at the eyes on her.)

Xeiss: When I was captured by Andariel with- (she paused) with Celes, I was attacked by a presence that tortured me simply because it could. It got into my head and opened up all of my worst fears, playing with me. And finally when it was finished, and I was on the brink of screaming insanity, it gave me some ice to turn to drinking water, saving me from the potion that would help them turn me into one of them. All I know was that whatever it is, it was malicious and intelligent. I still have nightmares about what it did to me.

(Ethon muttered something to himself, then looked up as he realized that all eyes were now on him.)

Ethon: Did it sound like the wind was whispering words into your ears when it spoke?

(Xeiss sat bolt upright in shock.)

Xeiss: Yes!

Ethon: Then Iíve met it too. I was on guard and a pale man appeared in the trees. He didnít show up on infrared at all- (Ethon paused as he tried to explain infrared, and then gave up) I couldnít see him with magic. He didnít stay where I told him to, so I shot him. He died as far as I can tell, shattering like ice. But then I turned around, and he was smiling at me again, with his shattered body on the ground still.

Severen: I saw him too. I threw a knife at him, and it hit. I found the knife later, and it was so cold it burnt my hand. I heard it laughing in the wind.

D: Clearly, its been playing with us. And clearly, itís more than we can handle.

Kain: Thatís nothing. It freed me from the citadel when Andariel was about to kill me, and fought her. I donít know what happened after that.

(Mercy let out an explosive sigh.)

Triesque: It took on a Prime Evil?

(Kain nodded.)

Triesque: (moans) Weíre dead.

(Xeiss interrupted.)

Xeiss: (hesitantly) I have an idea. I canÖ FEEL its mind. I can still remember what it was like since the citadel. I could find it again telepathically, and see what weíre dealing with.

(Severen started to protest)

Xeiss: (retorts, cutting him off) You have a better idea?

(Severen subsided, but looked extremely grim.)

Mercy: Youíre sure you want to do this?

Xeiss: No, but I donít see any other way.

(She took a deep breath, stood, and her eyes became glassy and distant. All concentration of everyone in the clearing was focussed entirely on her. For ten minutes she stood, eyes distant, searching with her mind. Her eyes suddenly widened in shock, and she had just enough time to open her mouth to scream before whatever she had found struck. Before she could make a sound through her open mouth, she convulsed in agony, every muscle in her body twitching and spasming uncontrollably as she slowly levitated higher and higher off the ground.)

(Wind gusted through the clearing, and something rode in it. Now there was no whispering chuckle caught in the ears of those unfortunate enough to hear, now it LAUGHED. Malicious laughter roared through the air as Xeiss rose, agonised, further and further from the ground. The presence was moving with the wind, it whipped past Kain, circled him repeatedly, became louder as he swung at the sound with his swords, and then moved on.)

(Blood flowed from Xeissí lips where sheíd bitten them in her convulsions, and in between convulsions bitten off syllables could be heard in agonised tones.)

Xeiss: GE TOU TOF MY M IND!

(Severen loped across the clearing, jumped, and grabbed Xeissí twitching hand. There was a soundless concussion and he was thrown across the clearing into a tree with bone shattering impact.)

(Triesque shied in terror at the presence darting around him, skidded and lay still, paralyzed by terror.)

(Mercy ran after Triesque, swung at the laughter with her sword and screamed as the sword became cold enough to burn her hand.)

(Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, the laughter ceased. Xeiss was released from what held her and fell twenty feet to the ground, unconscious before she even hit.)

Kain: (Horrified) What was THAT?!

Severen: (rising to his feet shakily and in pain.) THAT, was unpleasant.

+++

(Xeiss lay under a blanket in the shade of a massive tree, shielding her from the chill wind that blew constantly. She hadnít moved since Frost had vacated her mind. Mercy and Severen had dealt with the incidental injuries that theyíd sustained during Frostís arrival. Fearless was pacing agitatedly back and forth, unable to accept the lack of activity among the others.)

Fearless: Why is everyone SITTING there?! We must strike back-

Severen: Youíre eager to die so quickly? Commendable in one of your mentalities.

(Fearless whipped around, face a snarl.)

Fearless: And what about you? You sit there like a foreboding lump and you do NOTHING! Why is that? Youíve shown partial competence with a sword, so why not act? (he drew his sword) Because you are a coward! You sit and disrespect your betters and when the time comes you donít have the courage to back up your claims!

(Severen didnít even turn around nor bother to stand.)

Severen: Put the sword away. You impress no one.

(Fearless snarled and swung the sword at Severen. Not to kill, but certainly to wound. Severen suddenly went from facing the other way and sitting down, to standing and blocking the blow with his own sword.)

Severen: You strike from behind, but preach on courage?

(Severen apparently reached a conclusion.)

Severen: You feel that you are a master swordsman, yes? Of course you do. This I donít contest.

(He swung several lightning fast blows, sending Fearless back, but Fearless parried every one. Then Severen suddenly had a long dagger in his free hand, and the rapid attack of a combination of weapons forced Fearless back. Severen rolled and swept Fearlessí feet out from under him.)

Severen: You ARE a master swordsman: Trained in ritual combat. What you donít realize is that in the real world, people CHEAT. You think a Moredhel or a vampire is going to decide NOT to put a crossbow bolt through your throat at one hundred yards because it isnít fair? I have had to survive in a cutthroat, vicious world for a long time, Fearless. We arenít formally trained in arms. But weíre alive, which implies that we know a lot more than you about survival. And thatís what fighting is, out here. Survival, not duels with rules and regulations. You kill them or they kill you. Deal with it.

(Fearless didnít take well to being lectured. He leapt to his feet with a snarl and swung his sword at Severen's head as he lost his temper. Severen simply wasnít there when it hit. He vanished. A voice rang out from the woods.)

Severen: And how can you fight what you canít see?

(As Fearless looked into the trees, Severen smoothly ducked out from behind an enormous oak, grabbed Fearlessí sword arm, disarmed him and flipped him in one fluid movement. Fearless lay on the ground, breathing heavily, face a mask of rage as Severen calmly walked away.)

(Xeiss suddenly gasped in horror, eyes shooting open as she lay in the shelter of the tree, and she screamed. And she screamed. And eventually, she calmed down into only mild hysteria, and then from there, into relieved sobs.)

Mercy: What happened?

(Xeiss took a deep breath and shuddered.)

Xeiss: I found itís mind, and it struck faster than I was prepared for. I donít know what it is, but I know what it IS. It is primordially old, and maliciously evil, committing ironic atrocities simply because it can, and because it finds them amusing. It has a definite, if warped sense of humour. (she shuddered again, at the memory, and then her voice sank into a reflective tone.) Its mind was so COLDÖ I thought Iíd never be warm again.

Kain: Do you have any idea of its powers?

Xeiss: Thatíd be like trying to gauge the sea. I have no idea of what terms to put the entity in. It doesnít exist with the same rules we do. And thereís something else.

(Xeiss looked grim.)

Xeiss: I think that everything I just told you is wrong, or distorted. When I first found its mind, I got a split second glimpse of nothing. A vacancy that was definitely the same mind that attacked me. It was empty, but filled with whispers and malicious laughter on the wind. I think what I saw after that was something that it built. Something that it wanted me to see because it was more or less what we suspected.

Ethon: Does it have a name?

Xeiss: No. It doesnít have a name, but it knows what it is known as. Itís known as Frost.

(Xeiss subsided into a restful, if broken, exhausted sleep.)

+++

(Severen combed the nearby woods, not looking for anything in particular, merely roaming a perimeter that he had subconsciously set up around the campsite. He turned around a tree and found himself eye to eye with a pair of blue eyes that froze the very soul.)

Severen: Frost.

-=SssevvverrrennnnÖ=-

(Severen felt a brush against his mind, and heard gentle, malicious laughter in his ears as Frost looked at his mind, seeking any obvious buttons to push to get the most entertaining reactions from this new toy.)

(Severen staggered slightly as he heard lilting laughter in the air, saw flashes of dark, smiling eyes and of red velvet before his eyes, and smelt vanilla scented hair. He stabilized himself quickly and his eyes narrowed dangerously.)

Severen: You can do nothing to me with my memories that I havenít done to myself every time Iíve slept for the last eight years. But having said that, (his voice filled with low menace.) Leave Alia alone.

(Severen heard movement behind him and spun. He took stock of the situation for a split second before striking with his sword. A figure seemingly wearing red velvet and with luscious dark hair shattered upon the ground, nothing but ice.)

Severen: I SAID, leave her alone!

(Frost was surprised, and not a little irritated. This toy was exhibiting far too much control of his emotions for Frostís liking.)

-=Sssheee onllly usssed youuuÖ Youuu fffounnd herrr when sssheee wannnted youuu to fffind herrr. Sssheee didnít havvve the courrrage to killl herrrssselllfff, ssso sssheee manupulllated youuu into doing it ffforrr herrr. Howww doesss it fffeel, to be a toolll?=-

(Severen stood completely still for several seconds, as if considering.)

Severen: How does it feel, to have lived for as long as you have, and yet not have known anybody? Youíve lived for a time that to me seems almost eternal, and youíve never known love, known only conflict and inflicting pain on others.

-=Iii LLLIIIKE confffliiict.=-

Severen: So do I.

(His hand grew an odd growth that looked alarmingly similar to Ethonís plasma pistol in a split second, and Severen pulled the trigger. Frost went from relaxed and poised to focussed entirely on Severenís sudden movement as if Frost was a cat. His eyes widened as he saw the incandescent green bolt flying towards him, and his eyes narrowed. The bolt dimmed in intensity by the merest fraction as Frost tried to dissipate the heat as he did with fire. It didnít work anywhere near well enough. The bolt hit.)

(Frost threw back his head. The wind SHRIEKED. Severen fell back, clapping his hands to his ears to blot out the pain. Frost was melting and distorting as he absorbed the heat, and the wind still screamed. The sound of agony from a being so old that time didnít have meaning was so loud that it was practically a solid object. Severen continued to fall back from the source of his pain, but it wasnít coming from one source, the air all around them was going through hell, and complaining loudly of its pain. Severen felt something give in his left ear and then there was nothing but dull agonised silence on that side.)

(Finally Frost finished distorting from the heat and the pain, and the sound stopped. Severen held a hand to his ear with the ruptured eardrum and edged forward to the horribly distorted ice sculpture that had been Frost, mouth frozen horribly open in a scream of pain.)

(He looked into the distorted face of the statue.)

Severen: Partial payment for hundreds of years of pain, fear and death.

(A sensation of filled space made Severen spin around. Quite a distance away, Frost sat on the bough of a tree, but looked prepared for rapid movement in case Severen took another shot.)

-=Youuurrrr naaame wiiill livvve ffforrrevvverrr iiin the hissstorrry of the gaaame. Nnnoo one wiiill haaave as much glllory, annnd nnno one wiiill SSSUFFFFFER as grrreatllly asss youuu wiiill to gaaain it.=-

(Frost turned into densely packed snow, which blew away as white powder on the breeze.)

(Severen looked back at the horribly deformed statue in the ice, and then back where Frost had been, and thought over the message. He moved his hand from the damaged ear and looked at the blood flowing freely.)

Severen: So be it.