Steps Saga Part 7 – Save Us Today
By Thomas J. Lauser
“Nothing can save us forever, but a lot of things can save us today.” –Night in the Woods
Black miasma swirled around the theater. A dark grey storm of smoke. It coalesced, forming into a legless, floating giant of obsidian mist. A Midion Ghoul.
Venomar had encountered such a creature years earlier, during his Windswept Walk. Born of the ancient magic of the Midion Wastes, Midion Ghouls were captured and bound to vases by the sorcerers of Girajan.
He knew not how Telakka had acquired one. They could not simply be purchased – such instruments were fiercely protected, passed down from master to apprentice and only used when absolutely necessary.
The Ghoul brought its hands together and slammed them on the ground, creating a thunderous shockwave that propelled multiple Arkresh Elite against the wall. Thanks to a Water-Shield Wall spell, Venomar protected himself against the blast. He then lowered it, and hurled a volley of fireballs at the creature. Three hit the mark, resulting in small implosions of flame that tore through the smoke and gave the Arkresh the opening he desired.
With Liberator held high, Venomar charged. He landed two great swings, tearing at the Ghoul’s smoke-body like a wanderer cutting at fog with his bare hand. After the second swing, he spotted his target – three swirling gemstones at the center of the Ghoul’s body. Shatter them, and the beast would dissolve into nothingness.
Venomar tried to press on, but the Ghoul roared and swatted him aside. The Arkresh slid across the ground, finally coming to a stop when he collided with a broken theater bench. With a groan, he picked himself up.
“Elara!” he shouted, scanning the theater. Elara and the Elites had taken cover behind rows of damaged benches and were firing volleys of arrows at the Ghoul. “Half the men, with me! The rest of you, give us cover fire! Keep it busy!”
Elara nodded. The Elites came out from cover, formed a semi-circle around the Ghoul, and opened fire. Eight Elites moved to Venomar’s side. In one burst, the nine of them rushed the beast.
There was only one other way to slay a Midion Ghoul – to kill the person who released it. But before of the stage rose a wall of miasma, unnaturally thick and dark as the sky on a starless night. Venomar saw no way to get past it, save finding a back entrance to the theater. But even then, the Ghoul would come the moment its summoner sensed danger. It would take an assassin of significant skill to accomplish such a feat.
The Ghoul’s obsidian fists darted at the oncoming attackers. With a wave of his hand, Venomar raised a wall of flame in front of his comrades. It broke when it collided with the Ghoul’s fists, raining embers down on the beast’s fingers. The Ghoul wailed and recoiled, bringing its hands back to its body.
“Keep at it!” Venomar commanded them as he stopped in his tracks. “Assault the sides. Like Goredemar said, ‘strike, retreat, and then strike again.’” he continued, echoing the words of the former Arkresh he admired the most. His warriors did as ordered, splitting into two groups of four and attacking the Ghoul’s sides.
“Meldah,” Venomar whispered as he brought his hands together. “I’ll tell you and Vakera all about this soon.”
Lightning cackled between Venomar’s fingertips. It gathered and formed into an orb the size of a Kathann ball. Not as nearly large as Otak’s. But it would do, the Arkresh thought. He shook violently as he tried to contain it, so much so he nearly lost his footing. How in Octavarius did anyone aim this spell?
With his head cocked to the side, Venomar tried to focus on the location where he’d seen the Ghoul’s gemstone core. After finding it, and about half a minute of aiming the orb, the Arkresh prepared to fire. But before he could, he was knocked off his feet, sending the orb spiraling up into the ceiling. It broke a hole in the already damaged roof, causing bits of stone to rain down.
Venomar looked up to see two smaller Ghouls, each identical to the main one, towering over him. He quickly unleashed a stream of fire, forcing them back. He then drew Liberator and cut them down with a series of swings.
Glancing around, Venomar saw that the beast had spawned numerous clones. Five were harassing the Elites in the back, preventing them from providing cover fire and another four were keeping his men in the front away from their superior. He had feared it would employ this tactic eventually. From his previous encounter with a Ghoul, Venomar knew this could mean but one thing – the beast respected its opponent, and felt truly threatened.
The Arkresh gripped Liberator in both hands. Flames sprouted from his fingertips and coated the weapon, swirling around the axe’s diamond blade. He then let out a roar, and charged. The Ghoul’s right fist came barreling at him in a great hook, but Venomar anticipated it. He leapt out of the way and brought the burning axe down on the breast’s wrist, severing the hand. In a puff of smoke, the torn appendage vanished.
Like a Rhinox on Niallen, he kept moving, confident he had the Ghoul right where he wanted it. The Ghoul’s left fist came next, but the Arkresh was prepared. He swung the movement it closed in, cutting the hand between the middle and ring finger. Once more, it wailed, and again the destroyed appendage dissipated into harmless miasma.
Venomar pivoted and ran at the Ghoul, Liberator held high and still doused with fire. With a series of strikes, he sliced through the miasma and clear to gemstone core. He raised the weapon, but before he could bring it down, a cloud of smoke enveloped the Arkresh and carried him into the air.
Seconds later, he was staring into the Ghoul’s red eyes. They shimmered, a spell channeling within them. The Arkresh cast sparks of lightning from his fingertips, trying to wrench himself free, but it was to no avail. The cloud shook, but refused to surrender its prey. Venomar looked down, where his men were still occupied with the Ghoul’s clones. Many Seragorn lay dead on the theater floor. Behind him, Elara attempted to aim a shot to free the Arkresh, but kept getting hit by a clone every time she tried to do so.
Two beams of red energy fired from the Ghoul’s eyes.
The Arkresh braced for impact.
Suddenly, Venomar came crashing down to the theater floor, as the Ghoul and the fog wall behind it collapsed into nothingness. As he cascaded to the ground, confused as he was relieved, he cast a Waters-Shield to break his fall.
Through the rapidly evaporating miasma, saw a figure holding what could only be Telakka’s severed head.
“You’re lucky I came back.”
“Bazra!” Venomar exclaimed.
Pain. Coating her arm. Inside the limb, as if there were maggots digging holes through her veins. Aside from child birth, she could remember no worse pain.
For hours, she saw the world through hazy snapshots; a museum of moving paintings where all sense of reality had been abandoned and replaced with a penchant for the absurd.
Venomar in bed beside her, passed out and clutching a bottle of some strange alcohol. Vakera, next to her, crying hysterically. Bazra, standing near the door, shouting at her about “betraying the cause”. Osiren, wrapping her arm and singing Goredemar’s Lament. Her former master, Arnold, asking her to check the books again. Venomar again, leaning over her and praying to Ela’Hae.
When Meldah awoke, Osiren was standing beside her, tilting a Blessed Water potion into her mouth. She swallowed hard and gasped. Bitter and dry. Just as Venomar had always said.
“How long has it been?”
“Since the attack? Nearly a full day.”
“How is it?” she asked, glancing at her heavily bandaged left arm. Osiren did not respond, and instead went to work mixing another potion.
“Osiren, answer me.” Meldah tried to move the limb, but found she could only do so slightly without a wall of agony stopping her.
“I wouldn’t move it,” he said as he continued his work.
“I can see that. Now, answer me.”
“The flames were magical in nature. Haelrune powder—”
“Used by the Dwarven Varayag. Seeps into the bloodstream, ravages internal organs. By Nez’Gar!” she exclaimed.
“Venomar stabilized it. Don’t think he knew what he was dealing with at the time, but it surely saved your life. If he’d have simply doused the flame, you’d have died. I was able to root it out of your system. But the arm. . .”
“It’s still there. So it survived the attack, right? Right?” she asked frantically.
“Tell me, Osiren. Tell me.”
“The scars aren’t going to heal. And they’re quite—”
“Let me see,” she demanded. She sat up, her back against the pillow. Her arm ached as she moved. “Let me see.”
“It wouldn’t be good for you, not right now. It’s one of the worst cases of Haelrune scarring I’ve seen.”
“Let me see!” she ordered. “Let me see!”
“I don’t take orders, Meldah. Not in my Temple, not unless you’re the Arkresh.”
“Then I’ll remove the bandages myself,” Meldah reached over to her left arm with her opposite hand. Osiren groaned, shook his head, and returned to her side.
Slowly, he unwound the bandages. Meldah turned her head, looked out the window to her right, and quaked with fear.
“There,” Osiren said after what seemed like weeks.
Meldah glanced at her arm and gasped.
Black tar sores, infested with scarlet, lava-like lines. It stretched from her fingers up to her shoulder. A map made from charcoal and etched with red rune roads and rivers. She had expected the worse, but this was more horrible than anything she could’ve imagined. It was as though her arm had been severed completely and replaced with the limb of a grotesque monstrosity.
“There’s an expert tailor in the Heights. I can give you his name, if you’d like. He could make you a new wardrobe full of single-sleeved dresses.”
“No,” Meldah said through tears and gritted teeth. “Let them see. Let them all see.”
Venomar sat outside the door to Meldah’s room, his head in his hands. Bazra leaned on the opposite wall, her arms crossed.
“Ven, I’m,” she began.
“No, Bazra,” Venomar shook his head. “I am sorry.”
For several long minutes, there was silence between the two of them, as the Arkresh choked on tears and tried to put his thoughts together.
“I’ve a problem. A serious problem,” Venomar admitted, the words sliding from his soul like a snail down a hill. “And I need—”
Venomar nodded and leaned back in his chair. His violet eyes were bloodshot, his hair matted and disheveled.
“Then let me help you.”
“I will. Next time the Black Dog barks, I will not send you away. I promise—no, I swear it.”
“That’s not enough,” Bazra said, to Venomar’s surprise. He looked at her confused. An actor whose scene partner had just got hopelessly off script.
“Please, Bazra. I’m sorry. I know this is no excuse for how I’ve treated you. Forgive—”
“Ven,” Bazra stepped forward. “You’ve no need to ask forgiveness. I wouldn’t still be here if I hadn’t forgiven you. The truth is, you don’t have a problem. You have an illness. I’m glad you’re going to let me help you. Governor Arus, the 10th Crusade, your first rebellion—you didn’t win any of those conflicts alone. And you won’t best the Black Dog without others, either.”
“Then what do you propose?”
“People deal with this every day, the same as you. You need to speak to someone about it. Get professional help. Osiren’s right in there. Talk to him now, while we’re here.”
Venomar stroked his beard in thought, but eventually shook his head.
“He’s my mentor. I can’t.”
“Then go see someone else. Vartok, or a Theraan doctor. You aren’t alone, and you aren’t without resources. Stop acting like it.”
“I’ll consider it,” Venomar said after a pause. “But I think your presence, helping me through the long nights, will do for now.”
“It’s better than your current solution.”
Venomar’s thoughts drifted to the liquor cabinet the Reavers had set ablaze. If it weren’t for his damn vice, those accursed bottles he used to drown the Black Dog, Meldah would’ve never come to harm. He needed to stop. He needed to find a new solution, a new means of stopping the infernal canine. And perhaps, Venomar thought, the woman who’d so diligently guarded him since the end of his rebellion was the answer.
“I’m quite the night owl. I’ll warn you. Long nights are ahead.”
“I’m sure we’ll find something to pass the time,” Bazra grinned, her head tilted. Venomar stood up, smiled, and gazed into her amber eyes.
“Of course. We could play Quippa.”
“In all the years I’ve protected you, I still don’t understand that damn game.”
“Then I’ll teach you. It’s far less complicated than it seems.”
“Are we still talking about cards?”
It’d been years since Venomar had last heard words spoken in such a dulcet tone. At least ones he cared to hear. Not since—
He held the Claudian woman from behind in bed, his left arm beneath her, his right gliding through her blonde curls. Their child was asleep in the adjacent room.
“Good to see you’ve not lost your touch,” she said. Venomar ran the edge of his hand over her pale cheek and smiled.
“I’ve been without practice. But for you? Never.”
“I’d imagine it was quite the struggle. Mind against body.”
“You could say that,” Venomar chuckled. “Like in Chardonare’s The Conquest.”
“I remember when I taught you to read that story.”
“A fine memory. A finer day, in fact.”
“Come with me. Leave this rebellion behind.”
— that night so many years ago. Venomar lowered his eyes. After all this time, he wondered if the memory of that day—if the decision he made that night—would ever stop following him. An ancient, rusted anchor forever bound to his leg.
“What’s the matter?” Bazra asked, noticing his change in demeanor.
“Arkresh!” shouted Iranok from down the hall. “Daggerface has his report ready. He’s on his way to the Palace.”
“I’ll explain later.”
Venomar turned and headed for the exit. Bazra sighed and followed.
“Can I get you anything, Arkresh?” Iranok asked. Venomar sat at the Campaign Table with Bazra behind him. Daggerface was still on his way.
“I’ll get a glass of,” Venomar began, the bitter taste of Kholdros Spiced Rum on his mind. Bazra placed her hand on his shoulder, and he thought better of it at once. “I’ll get a water.”
“Much better,” Bazra whispered. “How are you feeling?”
“Honestly?” Venomar asked, looking back at her. “I’m not ready for this. And now, I’ve no means of preparing myself.”
“To Octavarius with preparing yourself, Ven. You can handle this. You’ve bested everything that’s come your way. You don’t need alcohol to ready yourself for a damn report, no matter its nature.”
The Arkresh doubted Bazra’s words. He could heard the howl of the Black Dog as clear as ever. It was outside the Palace, looking for a way in. And without his preferred vice, Venomar feared the infernal canine would soon be upon him.
“But what if he failed to find him? What if he’s to be executed, and there’s nothing I can do to help him?”
“You’ve no way of knowing that yet. Wait for Daggerface before you start asking such questions.”
“That doesn’t help me now!” Venomar shouted as he slammed his fist down on the Campaign Table, causing a few of the tactical pieces to tip over. “Where is he, anyway? What’s the damn hold up?”
Bazra stood silent for a moment. She then grabbed a chair from beside the wall, placed it next Venomar, and sat down.
“Tell me about Quippa. What do I need to know?” she asked, her right hand on the side of her head and her elbow on the Campaign Table.
“It’s based on the Saga of the Divines,” Venomar began. “All the Gods are present, and it relies on what we know of them from history.”
“So I’m assuming Nez’Gar isn’t as powerful as the seers might want him to be?”
“You’d be correct. There are countless decks, each based around one of the Divines. The objective is to protect your God and defeat your opponent’s.”
“Sounds simple enough.”
For the next hour, Venomar lectured Bazra on the game. He even had Iranok bring him two of his decks – Ela’Hae and Grexoden – to use as examples. The more they talked, the less he heard of the Black Dog, until finally the canine’s howling was forgotten. Like carrions to a carcass, it would inevitably return, but for now, Bazra’s distraction had managed to ward the beast away.
“I’m surprised the designers included Kalcerus,” Bazra said as she looked through cards from the Grexoden deck.
“Only his pre-fallen form. The Nez’Gar deck is a natural counter to Kalcerus.”
“Of course,” Bazra said. “Though he should be the best.”
“The Dwarves would say the same about Archaeus, and the Leonii about Ela’Hae.”
Nez’Gar. The Earth Father, patriarch of the Divine Council, and father to all Seragorn. In his youth, he prayed every night to Nez’Gar. He’d stare up at the ceiling from his moth ridden bed in the slave quarters on Caecilius’ farm, begging the divine who slaughtered the vile Kalcerus with his mighty hammer for salvation from slavery. Though his prayers were eventually answered, as an adult, he found it difficult to be the model of Seragorn faith he’d once been.
How could he be, when so many of his people were still in bondage? Why have faith when he’d watched so many die for this cause? And if Alistair – the first Claudian to truly fight for abolition – was next, how could anyone say Nez’Gar truly cared about his people? As Venomar saw it, The Earth Father had abandoned the Seragorn to their problems like an unprepared parent dropping an unexpectedly unruly child off at an orphanage.
The Arkresh was so entranced by his thoughts that he did not notice Daggerface’s arrival.
“My apologies, Arkresh,” Daggerface said as he dropped a stack of papers down on the Campaign Table. “I was on my way to deliver a report on our operation when I received new information.”
“Yes. A letter. From Alistair himself.”
“What?” Venomar said after a long pause. “How?”
“He’s not in the Carcerium, or any other prison.”
“Then where is he?”
“It would be best to show you,” Daggerface said. He pulled scroll out of a pouch on his belt and tossed it to the Arkresh. Venomar caught the scroll and unrolled it.
Venomar, my friend,
By now, I’m sure news of my “arrest” has reached you. It is true—the Summit failed. My own brother, Letherious, outmaneuvered me.
But to my great surprise, he’s been outmaneuvered as well. A double-cross, if you will. We’ve an ally in the Empire. A powerful one. Emperor Ferdinand himself.
I know you have had contact with Ferdinand in the past, and I am aware that your previous correspondences ended in a deadlock. In exchange for my freedom, Ferdinand has asked me to end this impasse.
At present, I am on the island of Stiiros with an Imperial envoy. I have brought with me a proposal that Ferdinand believes will bring an end to the war between our people and free the slaves. He hopes that, in light of our history, you will reconsider your previous position and make a decision that is right for all Theranos.
While I understand any apprehension you might be feeling about this situation, I ask, on behalf of our friendship and all I have done for this cause already, that you come to Stiiros and hear out the Emperor’s offer.
Needless to say, my personal wellbeing relies on it.
I pray this letter finds you well, and hope to see you at our camp near the Precursor ruins on Stiiros in the coming days.
P.S. Bring your rum and Quippa cards. You owe me a rematch.
After Venomar finished reading the letter, he remained silent for several minutes, questions dancing through his mind. Then, at Bazra’s request, he read it aloud.
“This is a trap. It has to be!” she exclaimed.
“Unlikely,” Daggerface countered.
“And why is that?” Bazra shot back.
“The seal at the bottom. It’s Selerian’s Rose,” Venomar said, holding up the letter to the group.
“But Claudians don’t worship the Divines!”
“They call it Beatrice’s Rose. Still, the intent remains the same.”
By marking an offer with Selerian’s Rose – or Beatrice’s Rose, as the Claudians dubbed it, the writer promised hospitality and goodwill to an adversary in the event of a future meeting. Nearly every successful treaty in history had been agreed to under the blessing of the Rose. To disgrace the Rose was to incur the wrath of Selerian, Queen of Spring and Goddess of Peace. And as the people of Theranos knew all too well, hell hath no fury like the wrath of an enraged Peace God.
“Still, who’s to say they’ll honor it? They’ve been trying to kill you for years, Ven!”
“He could have been coerced,” Daggerface said. “He is in Imperial custody. They might have him at knifepoint, with assassins waiting for a shot at your skull. It wouldn’t be the first time the Rose has been violated.”
“Even so, we can’t afford to ignore it,” Venomar said as he rolled up the letter. “If it’ll save Alistair, I’ll hear out this proposal. But we’ll go prepared, just in case.”
“And what if it’s the same deal Ferdinand offered you before?” Bazra asked.
The prospect had already crossed Venomar’s mind. He prayed that Ferdinand had come up with a better proposal than his last. Peace and freedom for the slaves in exchange for a concession was simply unacceptable. The Arkresh refused to leave North Avarad in Claudian hands, and the idea of trading anything for a basic right disgusted him.
“What if you’re forced to choose between Alistair and what’s best for us? For the Seragorn?”
“Let us pray it does not come to that,” Venomar replied, concern evident in his violet eyes.
A little more than an hour later, Venomar, Bazra, and a battalion of Arkresh Elite made their way for Stiiros.