II. To Kiss the Crusader

1.

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The world was that of ash. Charcoal colored ruins dotted the countryside, the concrete skeletons sliced at the sky. No trees were swayed by the bitter wind. The ash rolled off the hills, and yet there seemed to be a countless amount of the stuff. The gray was unending.

This was the Ash Plains. A decade ago this was the Redwood, a spiraling forest full of trees with red leaves. This was a domain of the Elves, once. It was here that the combined armies of the Dwarf King, the Emperor, and the Elves rode together against the serpentine horde of Sathlokiir. Good men rode valiantly, fought honorably, and screamed horrendously as they were burnt by the arcane fires of the Blue horde. The Redwood became a plain of ash and dust, and it was here that the servants of the Blue forced a treaty of cooperative coexistence.

The dragon had dropped them off and flew off with little fanfare. As they patted the dust off they saw the silhouette of an armored figure. They kept their distance. The dragon’s blue form had long since escaped their vision when they saw the carriage. It was pulled by two Ikaltikas, the lizard cavalry so favored by the Dark Elves and Dragonspawn. Some say that is what won the Dark Elves the War for the Vault – they could crawl on just about anything, could see in the dark just as well as in the day, and were ferocious beasts. Their jaws could swallow a man’s head whole. And they were fast.

The carriage itself could best be described as a giant iron box. Rivets could be seen poking out of the side. It was not elegant, but it was functional. It was designed to serve a purpose, not to display a scale of power. But it certainly did send a message, even if it was something as minimal as “I am different from the rest.”

It came to a stop. The driver was dressed in a dark, plainly stitched together. He turned towards them and they could see his scaled face. He looked down on them without any suggestion of interest. He knocked three times on the carriage. The door opened with a slight creak and out stepped out two Dragonspawn, one that originated from the Red and the other from the Blue. In contrast to the driver they were both impeccably dressed. Both of them were dressed in black silk, with golden flourishes stitched at the end of their sleeves. Their coats were tightly buttoned up to the chest, where they parted ways and a white shirt was seen underneath. The entire thing was held together with crimson red cloth that was tied around the waist, acting like a belt of sorts.

With a regal pace they approached the back of the carriage and pulled out various compartments of what would end up being a table. With effectiveness and precision they assembled the iron table in just a few moments. They returned to the back of the cart and pulled out three oval shaped objects. They approached the Adventurers, who cautiously took a few steps back. The Dragonspawn kneeled and felt around the edge. Then there was a click, followed by the sound of clockwork, and the objects were lifted upwards by the propulsion of chair legs. Bars that shot upright from the top of the seat formed the chair’s backs.

The Dragonspawn tapped on the chair, and there was the obvious suggestion to sit. Elnan and Olvir slowly sat. The two Dragonspawn looked at Ralph, and then looked at the sole remaining chair. They looked at each other, and then nodded. One of them felt the side of the chair again, and this time the object expanded, with the gears pushing the seat outward. The back and the legs followed. Raph took his seat.

The Dragonspawn returned to the back of the carriage and they returned with a significantly larger chair, fully furnishes. It was made of metal, just as all the others, but cut into it was a large variety of runic letters. The armrest was shaped into draconic talons, as were the feat. On the back could be seen elegant representation of wings. It was carefully placed on the side opposite of the Adventurers.

The Red Dragonspawn knocked on the carriage door and opened it. Out stepped a Blue Dragonspawn, dressed in a white robe with dark blue stitching. A long hood trailed behind his neck, but the sleeves only went up to his elbow. From there could be seen a sleeve from a cloth tunic, dark in color. As for the Blue Dragonspawn himself, he had an unusual slimness for those of his kind. Whereas his assistants had the buff appearance to be expected of their kind, the Blue was small and almost scrawny in comparison. But there was no hint of timidness. They could all feel his gaze laying upon them.

He was in control. Everything said that from every inch of scale of being; from the way he held his head, to the assurances of every step he took, to the strong demeanor in his face. It was he that held this scene in his grip. He took his seat at his table of iron. He folded his hands together and laid his sharp thumbs firmly upon his knuckles.

“Gentlemen.” The Dragonspawn let out something resembling a smile. “I hope your journey was not entirely uneventful. Exalted Salthuline does not entirely understand the fragility of mortalkind, like most Dag.” He tapped on the desk, and one of his butlers arrived with a small leather wrapped tome. The Dragonspawn snapped it from his fingers and began to flick through the pages. “Although considering you are all here in one piece, I dare say the journey wasn’t too rough.”

“I do believe introductions are in order. I know who you are – Elnan, Ralph, Olvir and Octavian.” He tapped on a page. “Elnan, born on the seas, desiring answers as to the death of his family. Ralph was one of the first Ironforged to be discovered. Olvir had the honor of being the acquaintance of Tutrethos, and suffered for it. And dear Octavian here is the servant of a God that does not speak.”

“These introductions are very one sided,” Olvir said with folded arms.

“You seem to know us very well,” Ralph began. “But, we are in the dark concerning you.”

“Yes, you are quite right.” The Dragonspawn rested his right fist beneath his chin. “I am familiar with all of you. I know that Elnan had spent several years training under a minstrel of little renown, and I am quite familiar with how Ralph had first-hand organized the recognition of the Ironforged as sentient being with recognizable rights. Oh, and I am quite familiar with the exploits of the Blessed Olvir. And quite naturally, the military career of Sir Octavian is quite readily and easily accessible to those that know where and how to look. Which I do.

“But neither of you know a thing about me, minus the fact that for most of you at this table I am the source of your kidnapping. Allow me to rectify that. Does the name Nasald mean anything to any of you?”

An eerie wind swept across them before Elnan spoke. “It does to me.” The adventurers inclined their heads to him.

“Are you aware of the name that the Empire has given me?” He leaned forward and rested his head on his hands.

“Yes, but I would prefer not to say. It would be rude to speak further.”

“Nonsense. I’ve asked you to enlighten us. So speak.”

“Very well,” Elnan said with half of a swallow. “They call you the Flesh Hunter.”

“The Flesh Hunter.” The way Nasald spoke the words was akin to someone savoring a fine course meal. “Yes, that is the unofficial name that Imperials call me. Now, could you enlighten us as to why they call me that?”

“Because you have caught every Imperial spy within the past twenty years. You are the rival of the Spymaster.”

Nasald smiled. “Precisely. My title was one that was well earned. I don’t understand why the Headman hates his unofficial title so much. He seemed to do everything in his power to earn his title. Whereas I love my unofficial title, because I have done everything in my power to earn it. And because that I have done so much for the state of Drakkenhall I have been granted the honor of a second task. A task that is very dangerous for everyone involved.”

“Congratulations,” Olvir said dryly.

“This conversation is all well and good,” Ralph said, “but I doubt that you had a dragon snatch us from the top of the Boltstrike Pillar for just bragging rights. How are we involved?”

Nasald leaned back on his chair, a mark of confidence on his face. “For starters, you are implicated in the destruction of Boltstrike Pillar.”

They were silent for a moment as the fact settled in.

“You’re going to have to explain that one,” Elnan said.

“Gladly. Just as Boltstrike Pillar was about to fall into the hands of Sathlokiir, you were plucked right from the top of the tower. Unharmed, I should add. There is going to be a certain amount of suspicions raised regarding that.”

“But we were seen taken on a Blue Dragon!” Elnan said.

“A wounded Blue Dragon,” Olvir corrected.

“We all did it in plain sight. And then we stormed the tower to reach Varis-“

“Whom, I should add Ironforge, was a sleeping agent of the Blue. And somehow you three managed to defeat scores of Lizardmen and their Dragonspawn commanders? Varis was an accountability at that stage, so it is well within the realms of plausibility that you were allowed to pass through the tower to kill off the agent at my command.

“And as for Korathalax, whom you so cruelly maimed, and you should be lucky that I did not have you torn asunder for the sin of murdering? Well, consider the fact most of your witnesses are most likely dead by now. For as much as anyone is concerned, you had nothing to do with the demise of Korathalax.”

The adventurers looked at each other, a nervous realization hovering over them. They were stuck at the hip to this conspiring Dragonspawn, and they could not see a way out of it. He had them in his grips before they even laid eyes on him.

“What is it that you want from us, Commadant?” asked Ralph. He did his best to make his metallic voice as unthreatening as he could.

“A business proposition, one from which we will all benefit.” Nasald leaned forward. “How familiar are you with the Lich King?”

“He is a threat to the Empire,” Octavian spoke at once.

“He has a rather permanent affliction of dead,” Olvir added.

“His Pale Legions are hovering around Necropolis, content to stay within the Lich King’s provinces. More or less.”

“Only if you count tales of flippant romanticism of how he was brutally murdered by the Orcs and have risen from the dead to avenge his people and take back what was rightfully his.” The adventurers stared Elnan down. “What?” he shrugged. “I’m a bard.”

“So to answer my own query, you all know absolutely nothing. That suits my desires perfectly. How do you feel about retrieving the Crown of the Lich King?”

Elnan allowd his mouth to drop.

“The first Crown of the Lich King.”

Elnan’s mouth dropped even further.

“I was hoping that I didn’t travel through half the Empire to just be given a suicide mission.” Octavian snarled.

“If you wanted to kill us, why didn’t you just have your dragon swallow us whole? It would save you the trouble,” Olvir remarked.

Ralph remained silent.

“A dangerous request to be sure. However, I am not without business sense. I propose a transaction.”

“Of services?”

“Of information, Ironforge. For the bard, he shall be granted information regarding the deaths of his parents at the hand of sea brigands. For the Draven, a secret detailing how to uplift a goddesses’ curse. Octavian shall learn just how to keep his Silent God from not talking –“

“And for me?”

“For you, this.” Sanald snapped his fingers and one the butlers approached with a small case. He opened the case, and strapped inside was a glass box containing a stone inscribed with runic symbols. “I trust this seems familiar to you, Ralph?”

“It…does,” he said with some amazement.

The butler snapped the case shut. “Give me the first crown of the Lich King, and I promise you this stone from your maker’s civilization.

So gentlemen, do we have a deal?”