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CLOSED The Sword of Ascalon

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The Sword of Ascalon

A role-play by Etereality & HerculeHastings

 

Prologue

The frail husk of a man lay motionless on his throne, high up in the tower of his lofty fortress. The stone walls, through which no light nor warmth could penetrate, insulated him from the world outside in both the literal and figurative sense; none of the servants that oversaw the castle's upkeep has ever laid eyes on their master. After decades of servitude to their reclusive, the servants knew instinctively to avoid the northernmost tower lest they attract their lord's attention and be ensnared by his will. For although the immortal is nearly blind and deaf, he has mastered sight beyond sight and sees far more than any ordinary mortal ever can.

 

Today, however, the immortal is satisfied. After centuries of careful machinations, executed by the oblivious pawns whose minds he had spiked, the pieces are finally in place. There were times when he had nearly given in to the pain that wracked every fibre of his body, to the comforting light of oblivion within his own mind. Those were dark, dark times… times when the immortality that he had sacrificed so much to wrest away from the jealous bosom of God had seemed like a curse, not a precious gift. He had painfully learned that although he has conquered Death itself, Time remains his greatest adversary. Struck down by the wrath of God, he had lost nearly everything, been reduced to this most wretched state of All Creation. But no matter, today he was closer to surpassing godhood than ever. Today, the pain was much more endurable than ever.

 

For this was the day when he would set the wheels of fate into motion. First, he would claim for himself Silene of the West, whose flames once laid waste to the Arkenath continent many eons ago. The Uiurs were headed for Ascalon even now; soon Silene would join her strength with his. With the ferocity of the famed dragon, he would then wage war against the East and eventually all of Arkenath. With a bit more patience, he would see his dominion over the children of God restored, just as the way it was two millennia ago. With his children pined under the iron fist of his greatest enemy, God would surely be forced to reveal himself. And when that happens, the immortal would be waiting, ready to usurp the absent Father of All Creation and begin a new age of divine rule. One that will last forever.

 

Urgarth the Undying allowed himself the satisfaction of a small smile, an expression that was hidden from the sight of even God himself.

 

-

 

Chak… chak… chak...

 

The scraping of the rutter against the loamy soil was a ticker that divided the interminable flow of time into a comforting rhythm. Draken Hearthstone's arm had long gone past the point of soreness; now all he felt was the sensation of movement. At this moment, his entire world consisted solely of the area of loam before him and the bundle of sensations that was his body. His thin cottony shirt clung to his perspiring skin as he labored under the waning rays of the evening sun. Setting aside the tool, he tugged at a clump of weed, dislodging it easily. He dropped the errant plant into a raggedy pouch lying by the side and sat back on his haunches, wiping his face on a soaked sleeve.

 

Ascalon was neatly laid out on the plains before him, a rustic collection of stone huts silently enduring the elements. Smoke was coming out of the firesmith’s forge to the north, together with the occasional burst of flames through the billows. Draken imagined that Rinne must be hammering away at an implement even now, her keen features blackened with soot and slick with perspiration. His sister was the one who had inherited their parents’ talents and was the town’s best apprentice firesmith, as Dulmar the Iron-Dwarf had been boasting to anyone who would listen.

 

“Unlike that soft-hammed Draken,†Dulmar would say as he snorted dismissively. Draken still winced at the memory of Excalipoor, the sword he had forged after hours of backbreaking work with the forge. When he had tested it by swinging it at a rockmelon fruit, it sank exactly one inch into the flesh and became stuck there. Dulmar had chortled and made it a permanent exhibit in the forge, together with the rockmelon, which had become a permanent fixture of the weapon.

 

Burning with shame from the memory, Draken averted his eyes from the forge and let his gaze roam across the landscape – past the marketplace, the distinctive henge stonework that was Ascalon’s centerpiece, and the numerous farm-and-cottage clusters. He finally allowed it to settle on the jagged peaks of the distant mountainous range, where Central Arkenath lay hidden from sight. An insistent gust of wind blew from there, creating a hollow sound audible throughout the village.

 

“’You have done well today, but it is time we head back, young Draken. Night will fall soon.â€

 

It was Balthier who had spoken and who looked at Draken with benevolent eyes. The former Conductor had taken in the young Dragonkin under his apprenticeship when it had seemed like no one else would. Draken was immensely grateful for the his tutelage, even if he didn’t know Balthier very well and still didn’t quite understand exactly what he was supposed to be learning from the inscrutable man. All summer, the man had made him do odd jobs across the village like gather specific herbs from the surrounding forestry, weed the fields and observe the movement of the clouds, which hadn’t struck Draken as being particularly useful for his Calling when it comes two autumns from now. But follow Balthier’s words he did, for he had no other choice really.

 

“Yes, Elder Balthier.â€

 

There was no reply from Balthier, and so Draken looked up at the man, who turned out to be squinting intently at the distant horizon, his grey eyebrows furrowed.

 

“Those clouds herald ominous tidings, Draken...â€

 

At these words, Draken redirected his attention back to the mountains, but all he saw were the murky clouds that possibly signaled imminent rain.

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After all these years, Coralee Flamesworn had returned home.

Home, somehow, looked a little disappointing to the Dragonkin. Nothing much had changed since she left, which would have been a good thing, but her homesickness while abroad had led her to rose-tinted memories of the cosy village, of crowds of people bustling and laughing, and the smell of hot soup lingering in every corner. There were people here, of course, but nobody gave her even a passing glance, and the smell of animal feed and manure, and the metalworks at the firesmith, obscured any fragrance of soup that her nose had readied itself for.

To be fair, there wasn’t much reason for the villagers to laugh or gather in crowds. The next village festival was still three months away. Coralee had chosen to come back early in the morning, when fires would be starting at forges and steaming hot food would not be quite ready yet. Nonetheless, it was with some unmasked frustration that she trudged down the village square, carrying a huge bag of supplies that had lasted her the week-long travel, eager to throw herself on a bed at the nearest opportunity.

Perhaps no one had recognised her anymore. She had been much younger when she left, after all, with an aunt she never knew who lived in the distant town of Farthorpe. Her aunt had, after four years, decided to leave her in the end – as everybody invariably did. She had told Coralee that she felt that perhaps she was not the best person to care for her, and that Coralee should go back to the village where she belonged to and surely missed.

There was some truth in that. Ascalon had pervaded Coralee’s dreams countless times, and she did often think about her childhood days playing on the open fields with other children. Farthorpe was a much more developed town than Ascalon, and people there tended to keep to themselves, and the landscape was much uglier. Even the wind had carried with it the odour of dust and ash.

Coralee paused for a moment to take in the wind now, and with it the crisp scent of freshly cut grass. Then she headed back to her old home, a ramshackle wooden hut tucked in the corner at the outskirts of the village. She had lived in this house all her life. The four walls had witnessed her birth, her learning how to walk and talk, her parents’ departure and finally, her own, cheated by the promise of a better life. But she had since realised her folly. This was her faithful house, always patiently waiting for her to return from her mistakes.

She was greeted by a lingering musty odour and a sizable layer of dirt over the admittedly ancient furniture. There was a lot of cleaning up to do, and she wasn’t sure she was up to it yet. She suddenly realised she was very exhausted. She reclined onto her bed, feeling the familiar hard mattress under her back again, and before long she had fallen asleep.

It was already evening when she woke up with a start, realising that she must go and announce her return to the people she knew! She rushed out of the house, then abruptly paused, not knowing where to go. She didn’t know where anyone was anymore. She reasoned that being such a small village, though, she was bound to run into someone at some point, and with this conviction in mind, she set off along the perimeter of the pastures, gazing in awe at the henge stonework that resolutely remained, every one of its huge rocks in place, as if daring anyone to even think otherwise. They seemed particularly imposing against the backdrop of dark clouds in the sky.

And there she saw him, with the similar pointy ears that marked their lineage. He was walking up to her, beside Balthier, whom she still remembered for being particularly old – even if he physically wasn’t that old. Her face lit up with delight, and she barrelled down towards them as quickly as her legs could carry her.

“Draken! Draken! Is that you? Oh it is, isn’t it? Oh how great it is to see you! Do you remember me? I’m Coralee! We used to play together!†she yelled as she came to a stop in front of them, gazing expectantly at her old friend.

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The girl was a tornado of hustle and bustle that charged towards Draken, coming to a stop just shy of bowling him over. Draken only managed to situate her face and name within his memories several moments after the silence between them had become awkward, and his best attempt to save the mood amounted to a tentative statement and question, "I think so. We used to race the Rappigs together, right? Hello, Coralee."

He smiled uncertainly at her. Besides him, Balthier stroked his bearded chin and mused out aloud," Ahh, Coralee of the Flamesworn clan. Still as fiery as ever, I see. It warms my heart to meet you again. Did you just arrive at Ascalon?"

"Yes, I did!" she affirmed with a nod. "Could you two show me around? So much has changed here."

Draken felt Balthier glance at him before replying," I shall leave Miss Coralee's orientation tour to you, young Draken. There is something I must tend to."

The young Dragonkin didn't recall Balthier mention anything about a task before now, but his mentor had already disappeared down an alleyway by the time he thought to ask. Coralee was looking at him expectantly again, which made him a little nervous. Coralee had been the friendliest person in their childhood clique a long time ago, and often held the group together through the kind of petty conflicts that children had with each other. These memories of their shared past together, however, was mixed in with the intervening years of growth apart from each other, and this hindered him from reciprocating her warmth. She was at once a close friend and a distant stranger, and he was at a lost as to how to relate to her.

​"Shall… we start?"

He nodded in assent, and gestured at the nearest structure - the stone henge where the ancients of eons past worshipped a hallowed hero of Arkenath whose identity had now been lost to time, or at least that was what the sages had described. But Coralee already knew all these of course; even as the village changed its form to better navigate the flow of time, the henge was the one thing that resolutely defied all expectations of time and change, its symbol's identity notwithstanding.

However, as the both of them stood watching on its periphery, the stonework's appearance failed to measure up to its tradition. It remained an impressive example of the ancient's mastery of geomancy and stone-craft, with a small garden of bloodfire roses growing in the centre. But that was all it was - a nice little spot in the middle of the village. The chieftain, Hodr Brimfire, ordered the garden and henge to be maintained at least once every sunwalk, but that was it.

"… It's still the same, isn't it?" Coralee commented.

"Yeah…"

He then brought her to the firesmith's forge, which had closed for the day by then. Draken imagined that Rinne must be home by now, was perhaps even stroking the fire on which their father would cook right now. It was four turns before midnight by now, and the streets were beginning to thin out. He wondered if Coralee would mind if they went back to their separate homes for tonight, but he was too shy about asking lest he seemed uncourteous.

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The tour itself had not been particularly interesting. Draken was a terrible guide, with a monotonous voice and looking thoroughly uninterested in everything they passed. And yet with everything they saw, Coralee was flooded with memories again. There was the stall they bought candy from everyday without fail, the Gnarled Grove of trees with criss-crossing roots and branches where they played hide-and-seek. They could spend the whole sunwalk in the outdoors, only returning home when the sun went down, and Coralee would need to face the bleak empty house again.

The sun went down and streets began to thin out. They had scoured most of the village, and Draken was now standing around awkwardly, as if trying to say something but not daring to. Coralee had never been very good at reading people’s thoughts, and so she continued staring back. Draken himself was just as unchanged as the village. Age had done nothing to his shy, awkward demeanour. Even as a kid he had been quiet and slightly dull, and yet Coralee remembered he had had his ambitions. He had dreamed of acquiring all the knowledge of the world, and becoming a hero when he grew up. Come to think of it, this must be why he had chosen to become Balthier’s apprentice, rather than take the easy way out and becoming a firesmith or a shopkeeper.

“Where else are we going?†she asked, which for some reason seemed to heighten Draken’s confusion. He started looking about anxiously, looking for somewhere else to take her, probably. Even as children, she had often unintentionally pressurised her friends with her questions and comments. Perhaps she came across as bossy – indeed, the adults had often praised her for being a brave girl who took the initiative in making decisions and challenging existing norms, which was rather the same thing, wasn’t it? It wasn’t that she had meant to stress people out. In fact, she had ironically just wanted the opposite. She wanted people to like her, and in order to be liked, one must be assertive, mustn’t one?

Then again, what did she know? She had been abandoned so many times after all.

“I guess we’ll just go home then,†she said with a shrug after a while of indecision, and she thought she saw Draken heave a sigh of relief.

Back home, Coralee spent a turn preparing and eating a simple supper of bread and broth, before retreating to bed. It was much earlier than her bedtime in Farthorpe, which was all in all a much busier town. She rested her head on the pillow and thought back of today. It was comforting, Draken’s unchanging stability, and his slow calm voice. Maybe, maybe she could rely on him after all.

A surge of warmth crept up her chest, and she decided she liked him very very much. It was with this thought that she fell asleep with a smile on her face.

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Draken fidgeted uneasily as Coralee's silhouette receded further and further away from him before finally disappearing around a bend. It pained him to end their first meeting in years on such an awkward note, but it felt as though there was nothing he could say that would dispel the barrier between them. So he kept quiet, then sighed after she was gone and began his journey homeward.

 

As he walked, however, he became aware of the beauty of his surroundings and his troubled heart grew lighter. Nightfall had descended upon the village, with only starlight and mostly-spent coal-lamps providing dim illumination. Obscured in this way, Ascalon lost its familiarity and took on a certain mystique and intimacy, not unlike that of a woman whose thoughts and feelings were unfathomable to him...

 

His mind thus caught in a reverie, it was a simple affair for Draken to imagine the stars in communion with him, their mysterious intent carried down to him by the soothing breeze. Ascalonian legends believed that stars were born when Gilgamesh, the first king of humanity, slew Humbaba, whose dying breath lit up the night-sky and released humankind from millennia of terror under the first dragon and terror of men. Draken imagined what it must have been like to live during those times of legend and to be a hero of men. To ride a chariot into battle and deliver justice to the dragons, oppressors of men… how heroic that must be!

 

The clouds of omen, Draken noticed, were fast encroaching upon village from the east. Possibly they heralded rain, so Draken hastened his footsteps. There were no one else left outdoors at this time, and many of the cottages were lit on the inside; no doubt families were gathered around dinner tables and heartily tucking into their meals by now. Rinne, Magnum and Ruby were surely impatient by now, and like all Dragonkins, they were irritable people when made to wait. Thankfully, the bulbous shape of home was now in view, and Draken made a beeline for it.

 

The stormy clouds continued to propagate forebodingly, as though it had a life of its own.

-

 

“Well, Rinne, how was the firemeld today?†Magnum Hearthstone inquired, his amber irises flickering towards his daughter for a moment before settling back upon the bowl of beef stew in front of him. The Hearthstone family was seated comfortably around a stonecarved table, finally having their dinner after his son had returned late from his Duties of the day.

 

Rinne, seated on his right, set down the spoonful of soup that had been halfway raised and replied obligingly, “Yep! Dulmar is amazing at metalcraft, so he’s always able to tell when my flames are too stong for the Machalite Ores we’re working with. We managed to finish the dagger-fangs todays, so we’ll be working with full-length swords tomorrow!â€

 

She tucked her short brown hair behind her ear impatiently as she finished, realizing that she had brought her spoon down far too forcefully and left splatters of soup around the bowl. She wiped at the spots using the hem of her tunic, oblivious to Ruby’s disapproval. Magnum shrugged when their gazes met.

 

“Aaaaaand Draken? What has the Conductor been having you stay back late for?â€

 

Draken choked a little on the mishmash that had been travelling down his gullet, then framed a hasty reply because everyone was staring, “It wasn’t the Conductor! Coralee returned today, and I was showing her around.â€

 

“Flamesworn,†he added in response to the quizzical looks he got from the rest.

 

“You might remember her as Queen Rappig,†he offered hopefully to Rinne.

 

“Bless me, the Flamesworn dragonling. I thought this one had flown the coop. Why has she returned now after all these years?†Ruby asked, setting down her fork neatly in its proper place. Unlike the rest, she tended to the family nest and her cottony dress was significantly cleaner than the rest’s. She retained her maidenly poise and beauty better than the other women her age in Ascalon, even if she was also starting to develop early signs of crow’s feet.

 

“Dunno,†Draken gestured helplessly, “Didn’t feel right to ask.â€

 

“Well, is she back with her aunt? The poor whelp.â€

 

Magnum was about to interject when a trumpeting roar rang throughout the village.

 

“GYNNNNNYYAAAAAA!!!â€

 

For a moment, all of them stared dumbfounded at each other. Then there was a rumble beneath them as the loud cracking of a fissure opening up could be heard outside.

 

“Wha- what in the blazes was that?!†Rinne quivered.

 

As if on cue, all of them left their seats and hurried to the door, which Magnum swung open swiftly, narrowly grazing Draken’s feet. Stepping outside, they could see that their neighbors were already outside, staring at the flying spectacle with gaping mouths.

 

Which was entirely justified, for bursting out from the village’s centre was the monstrous, serpent-like silhouette of a dragon. As everyone watched, the entire length of the dragon exited the earth and begun coiling in the air. Electricity begun surging from its fins and before anyone could react, bolts of lightning begun hitting Ascalon randomly. Where the bolts struck the ground, explosions erupted and flames began devouring the buildings.

 

“GYNNNNNYYAAAAAA!!!â€

 

People began screaming and scattering in all directions.

 

“Draken, Rinne, with me! We have to drive it off! Ruby, stay in cover!†Magnum yelled as he headed back into the house, to the closet where his sword was stored. His mind raced to recall what he knew about a dragon residing in Ascalon, especially one that could control the elements.

 

And who was the one who awakened it? 

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Her eyes snapped open. She sniffed the air. There was an unmistakeable smell of smoke. She could hear faint screaming outside her window, screams and sounds of things bursting, whooshing wind. Coralee scrambled to her feet and went to the window to see what the commotion was and boy, was there a commotion. A dragon’s silhouette was blocking out the sky completely, the night air lit up entirely by its wayward flames. Lightning shot out of its fins. People were rushing out of burning houses, searching for loved ones. A few courageous warriors were trying to fend off the dragon with their limited capabilities.

Courageous warriors. She looked closely and gasped. Draken was among them, waving primitive firesmith tools, trying to scare the dragon away somehow. It was visibly useless; the dragon hardly paid any notice of the minuscule Dragonkin batting away at it. She hastily grabbed her coat and bag. She was going to join him.

Once outside the door, she spotted something else. Blending into the mayhem in the town, masked men with sacks over their shoulders were running around, glancing furtively from time to time. She watched as they entered a house and carried out a girl – Ruby Hearthstone! Her eyes widened in alarm. There was no mistaking the family resemblance to Draken. The little girl seemed to have been knocked out; she was thrust limply into the gunny sack as he went hunting for more prey. Some of the ones fighting the dragon were also stealthily knocked out and taken away. She saw one of the mercenaries head towards Draken.

“Stop right there!†she called out and pounced onto him without a second thought. The man struggled, shocked, but she clung valiantly onto his waist, hitting him repeatedly on the head. With a surge of strength the man turned around, and she felt herself flying momentarily through the air before her back landed on the ground with a thud. The man smirked, his teeth glinting in the light of the dragon’s flames.

“Do you think you can stop me, you frail woman?†he hissed, before he flung her too, kicking and shrieking, into a sack and tied it up. She felt herself moving, bouncing around the uncomfortable small structure. He was sprinting with her, probably taking her to wherever they left their sacks of people. She didn’t get it. Why were they abducting people from this village? Were they in cahoots with the dragon? And yet it was uncommon that a dragon would work with people or act as their decoy. Dragons were much too strong for that.

She tried making noise, shouting, but it seemed nobody could hear her well, for all she heard from outside were muffled sounds as well. She tried to adjust herself to a better position, but the sack had been tied firmly up and had no space for her to straighten herself, so she needed to content with this half-crouched position in an asphyxiating space. She could only hope that Draken was safe. If she could ever see him again.

She was moving again, uncomfortably so, for she was being bounced up and down in a dizzying fashion and could not feel the ground beneath her. She realised quickly that she was tied to a horse. She shut her eyes and pressed her temples, trying not to cry from the sheer discomfort of it all. She needed freedom, but most of all right now she needed air.

And then she felt something that made her open her eyes in wonderment. There was a breeze. A ray of light had streamed in from the top. She raised her head. The sack had loosened from the horse’s frenetic galloping.

Suddenly she could hear something snap, and she was tumbling off, rolling around on the ground. She tried not to scream, not to let her captors know. The sack rolled to a halt and she waited a few moments for somebody to pick her up again. No one did. She gingerly crawled out of the opening in the sack, and hurriedly shut her eyes as the welcoming glare of the morning sun greeted her again. She was free!

She got to her feet and looked to her right. The mercenaries and their horses were only a speck in the distance, their sacks bouncing to the sides. She turned to the left and began walking slowly back, trying to make sense of where she was. This seemed like a desert area, with only sand and little in the way of vegetation.

Up ahead of her were the silhouettes of 4 men. She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked closely, her heart suddenly taking a life of its own and thumping very, very hard.

There, taking the lead, was Draken.

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