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From Darkness to Light and back again...(Fantasy)

Discussion in 'Creativity Surge' started by Shura, Oct 21, 2001.

  1. Shura Gems: 25/31
    Latest gem: Moonbar

    Aug 9, 2000
    Likes Received:
    Hey guys, this is the continuation of The Legend of Shura. The updating of this story will be VERY slow, as I only get to spend a few hours at home every week. Well, without further ado, here goes...

    The stench of spilt blood and burnt flesh clogs my nostrils, as always. Sitting atop a pile of bodies, I gather my black cloak about me and huddle against the icy teeth of the chilling night wind. My two swords jut hilt first from the heap of corpses, covered in blood. More than fifty souls have been sent to oblivion by my hand this day. I look into the glazed eyes of one of my victims, the sightless orbs staring accusingly at me, asking the eternally unanswered question: why?

    Why? The answer eludes me sometimes. All it takes is a stray gust of wind to blow a loose lock of my white hair into my sight to remind me. The screams of the children haunt me and the whispers of their ghosts torment my sleep. I see their crucified forms every time I close my eyes. The butchered bodies of their parents and families, dear, dear friends of mine get up and walk behind me, moaning in agony at my back whenever I stop looking over my shoulder. Vengeance would mean nothing to them: their souls are already beyond the concerns of this world. Why?

    I am avenging myself. I have lived for more than nine decades, the demonic blood running in my veins shielding my physical vigor from the decay of time. Hundreds of beings have perished under my blades, demons and angels among them. My blades have struck for evil, slaying the countless foes of the Arch-Devil Blackmire and they have struck for good, when I fought side by side with my valiant friend, the battle magus Elle Delryin. Never have I truly allied myself with either side.

    I still remember that starry night in the billowing snow as I left the service of Blackmire. How full of hope I was! Jo-Annia was out there in the world somewhere and I would rejoin her after I have purged the darkness from my soul. Or so I thought. Her daughter is now an aged great-grandmother. I watched her wedding from the shadows, saw her set up the university with her husband. I sat by her bedside as she breathed her last from old age. My face, contorted with perpetual hatred and unending agony was one of the last things she saw before she entered her final sleep. Not even her radiant presence could lessen my pain.

    Here then, is my tale. The story that may somewhat answer the question: why? I cradled the head of my victim and held his bloody face close as I spoke…

  2. eveningdrive Gems: 8/31
    Latest gem: Skydrop

    Sep 6, 2001
    Likes Received:

    Great prologue! Hope to

  3. Shadowcouncil Gems: 29/31
    Latest gem: Glittering Beljuril


    Jan 8, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Welcome back! We will wait even if it takes long, we know it is worth it!
  4. Shura Gems: 25/31
    Latest gem: Moonbar

    Aug 9, 2000
    Likes Received:
    The boy was covered with wounds. Bruises discolored his face and contusions lined his small arms and chest. Sweat flowed down his body, stinging them painfully but the boy’s eyes never lost his intense gaze of utter concentration. A wooden sword rested lightly in his small but heavily callused palm and already he wielded the weapon with skill most grown men might envy.

    The broad-shouldered figure of Shura loomed before him, a similar wooden sword held in his hand. Long black hair held back by a leather cord jutted from the base of his skull, accentuating his ferocious look. The master frowned at the pupil.

    “ Attack! Attack now!” his harsh voice barked. The child leapt forward to comply, his sword streaking towards Shura. The Swordsman blocked the blow with ease, sneering at his pupil’s weakness. The child pressed his attack, wooden blade twisting and slashing frantically. Shura stood with his feet planted firmly in the ground, his whole body stationary except for his right arm that intercepted the whirring blows of his pupil. The child’s breaths came in short, shallow gasps as he tired and his strokes began to slow down. Shura knocked aside a half-hearted thrust and launched his own counter attacks. His wooden sword crushed the defenses of his pupil and slammed repeatedly into the child’s body.

    The child tried to parry Shura’s attacks but the master was more proficient in swordplay by far. The blunt end of the wooden sword rammed into his small belly and the pommel cracked against his face. Finally, Shura swung his foot upwards, catching the child on the chin and sending him flying into the air. The pupil landed some distance away from Shura on the muddy ground. He tried to rise but Shura strode forward and dropped a heavy foot on the back of his head, grinding his head into moist soil painfully. Shura glanced at an hourglass resting on a rock near by.

    “ You have failed, weakling. You did not last one turn of the glass against me and I shall do as I have promised.” Shura spat at his pupil. Turning, he walked towards another child chained to a wooden post. The little girl looked up at the swordsman with fear in her teary eyes.

    “ Sensei! NO!” The pupil struggled to his feet and ran forward but Shura drew the razor sharp katana tucked into his belt and sliced the little girl and the wooden post in half. Blood spurted everywhere as the gleaming blade cut through flesh, bone and internal organs. The child died before she could make a single whimper of pain. Her glazed eyes stared at the pupil accusingly. The howl of anguish from the pupil made Shura jerk his gaze to his pupil, however. The dead child was a village girl his pupil had befriended as the two of them traveled the land.

    A small hand snatched up the fallen wooden blade and the pupil charged towards Shura, his feet tracing intricate patterns on the ground. Shura recognized the footwork as one of his own advanced techniques and he was stunned with surprise for a moment: the little weakling had made so much progress!

    The swordsman did not have time for prolonged contemplation, however, as his pupil launched his attack, a lighting quick slash to Shura’s midsection that he barely parried. He quickly recovered and blocked all the ensuing strokes, roaring in approval.

    “ Yes! Fight with hate! That is the core of the my swordplay!” Shura sheathed his katana and retaliated with his wooden sword. His attacks slipped through the enraged pupil’s guard and struck home repeatedly. Blood flowed out of the pupil’s mouth as the wooden blade struck a nerve point but he ignored the pain and pressed his attack. Shura started to frown however, as more and more of his attacks got through.

    “ Do not forget your discipline, fool! Hate drives your attacks and discipline guides your defense!” Shura barked at his pupil while smacking the pupil across the face with his wooden sword. The pupil immediately followed his master’s instructions and Shura now found himself driven back by the brilliant swordplay of his pupil.

    “ Finally, you understand!” Shura laughed. He called upon the higher echelons of his skill and overwhelmed his pupil. A final resounding blow upon the top of the pupil’s head sent him sprawling onto the mud, unconscious. Chuckling at his pupil’s progress, he started to walk away but stopped suddenly. He reached down and grasped the pupil’s hair in his fingers, hoisting up the child. Slaps across his cut and swollen cheeks brought him back to consciousness.

    “ You were fighting in the vain defense of your friend just now. That is wrong! The Shura Sword must never be used in the defense of another being! To do so belittles it! It can only be used to further its wielder’s desires and to wreak untold carnage upon the world!” Shura screamed at his barely conscious pupil. The child mumbled some incoherent response and Shura’s face twisted in rage. “You have insulted my life’s work, you little bastard!” Throwing the child back into the mud, Shura rained punches and kicks on the child, beating him into unconsciousness…

    The pupil woke up to find himself draped in soft blankets and his whole body aching tremendously. He was Shura, a slight young man with cropped black hair. He was tall but the skulking way he was accustomed to walking with gave him a slightly stoop shouldered look. The wrinkles of worry and pain around his eyes belied his twenty-four years of life, however. The young swordsman had lived a life of slaughter and carnage. Ever since he struck down his sensei on the snow-swept mountain so many years ago, his sword arms have never rested. He had carved an existence of blood from his homeland in the east to the western lands where he now was. He found his two swords propped neatly upon a wooden stand and retrieved them. His black cloak was folded and placed on the wooden floor of the room he was in and he wasted no time in draping it over his shoulders when he froze in realization.

    He walked back over to the wooden sword stand and stared at it, his mouth gaping open in astonishment. It was built to hold the curved swords of the east and he had not seen such a piece of furniture since he had left his homeland. He whipped his head about, his gaze scanning the room. Scrolls of calligraphy hung from the wooden and paper walls and a tattered standard was neatly folded and stacked before a suit of ancient samurai armor resting in a corner. Shura examined the flag. Two words were written on it. They were in the language of the east, a tongue Shura had not used for many, many years. He took a moment to ponder them before mumbling softly to himself.

    “ Kuroi… Itezeru, the Black Crow.” Wincing in pain, he rubbed his forehead and found a painful lump there. He found similar bruises all over his body. Apparently, somebody had given him a sound trashing with a pole of some sort. No wonder he had dreamt of his sensei. The only door in the room creaked open and Shura whirled about to face the sound, the flag dropping to the floor and his hands clutching the hilts of his swords. A slight figure stood in the doorway. Slanted eyes and yellow skin matched Shura’s own. Shura could not help noticing the stranger’s slightly pointed ears, however. The man’s face was slightly wrinkled with age and his eyes shone with wisdom. Streaks of gray showed in his black hair and goatee. The lines on his face were numerous and Shura could see that there were as many lines of smiles and laughter as well as lines of determined snarls and resolute glares. He was dressed in a simple gray and blue kimono.

    The man had to tilt his head upwards to look into Shura’s eyes. In the west, Shura was considered a man of slightly below average build but he was deemed a near giant among the people of his homeland. The man’s height barely reached Shura’s chest. He opened his mouth and spoke, his voice melodious and soothing, much like Kalvairn’s when he took off his mask.
    “ You’re finally awake…my pupil.”
  5. Ironbeard Gems: 20/31
    Latest gem: Garnet

    Mar 6, 2001
    Likes Received:
    What can I say? That was well worth the wait! keep'em coming.
  6. Namuras Gems: 13/31
    Latest gem: Ziose

    Aug 21, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Hmm, maybe I'm wrong, but didn't Shura have white hair?

    Anyway, this is great, and well worth waiting for!
  7. Tiamat Gems: 17/31
    Latest gem: Star Diopside

    Jul 9, 2001
    Likes Received:
    This is really amazing, but I think a lot happened between the "Legend of Shura" and the "Darkness and Light" post that we missed or didn't understand about. Could you please clarify?
  8. Shura Gems: 25/31
    Latest gem: Moonbar

    Aug 9, 2000
    Likes Received:
    OK guys, just to clarify some things: The Shura who wrote the prolouge was already ninety something years old. His hair had turned white already. The Shura in the story was him during his youth. Anyway, here goes the next installment.

    The diminutive figure dressed in a kimono was fishing by the lonely stream when Shura came across him. The swordsman had been traveling for two weeks since he had left Blackmire’s service and he had trained intensively every day. Dust from the roads covered his black cloak and his face was streaked with caked dirt and sweat. For two weeks he had strove to attain a greater mastery and understanding of the Shura Sword. To his ultimate frustration, he had made little or no improvement in his swordplay at all. Shura was too exhausted to worry about that for the moment and he ducked his head into the cool and refreshing waters of the stream. The stream’s fishes darted away in all directions at his intrusion. Pulling his head out, he sighed contentedly for a moment before an indignant cough caught his attention.

    “ You have ruined my attempt at fishing, young man.” The fisherman’s voice was soft and melodious. Shura shrugged and rose to his feet. He was in no mood to reason with anybody. He turned to leave when a metal object darted past him to bury itself into the trunk of a nearby tree. Shura gave a startled yelp and jumped around, his hands ripping his swords free from their sheaths, the curving blades singing a clear note as they swirled in the air. Shura glanced at the metal object. It was a steel dart called a shuriken. The weapon was commonly used by the ninja of his homeland, superhuman spies and assassins. Shura had battled an order of the shadowy warriors before and he had barely survived, despite his skill with his blades.

    “ A more polite person would have apologized. You seem to need a lesson in civility, my rude friend.” The fisherman continued. He hefted a short walking stick lying beside his fishing rod and wielded it like a sword. Shura shifted uneasily. His finely honed instincts had not detected the slightest trace of hostility in the fisherman before he threw the dart. Had the fisherman desired so, the dart would have been embedded in the base of Shura’s skull and not a tree.

    “ Cease this foolishness. I have no time for this.” Shura snapped his blades back into their sheaths and once again turned to leave. He was more wary this time, however and the slightest patter of sandaled feet on grass warned him of the fisherman’s attack. He whirled around deftly, balancing his body weight on his feet with a skill that could only be gained through years of non-stop training. The fisherman’s walking stick hurtled down and Shura sidestepped, confident of dodging the seemingly unsophisticated and slow attack. The stick thudded onto Shura’s forehead, the force of the blow sending him staggering a few steps back.

    “ What?” Shura muttered in pain, clutching his head. The fisherman chuckled. “ I see you fancy yourself a swordsman, young one. Draw those blades and show me what you can do!” The stick swung towards Shura again, the attack slow and straightforward. Shura failed to dodge the next blow and the stick smacked solidly into his ribs. Groaning, he drew his swords and attempted to parry the next blow. The walking stick broke through his guard again and hit him on the shoulder. Shura’s eyes widened in disbelief even as he grunted in pain. He could cut down a crossbow bolt in mid-flight and sidestep the lance of a charging knight. Yet the fisherman had struck him thrice, each blow a mortal wound had he been using a real sword.

    “ I’m afraid I have to offend you then, old one!” Shura leapt forward, his blades twirling in intricate patterns that no opponent had ever foiled before. The fisherman tangled the swords with his walking stick and kicked Shura solidly in the groin. The swordsman fell to his knees, clutching his latest affliction. He had never been in such an embarrassing position for a long, long time.

    “ Very nice. I’ve rarely seen such skill in one as young as you. Though you are a far cry from what I was when I was your age.” The fisherman mused, stroking his goatee.

    Shura gritted his teeth against the pain and attacked again. His katana arced in from an impossible angle while his wakizashi streaked forward with blurring speed. The fisherman moved his body infuriatingly slowly. Shura could see his every move clearly but he found his blades catching nothing but air. The walking stick fell across his face this time and Shura found himself on his back, spots of light dancing wildly about his vision.

    “ What…sorcery is this?” Shura demanded. He got to his feet again and readied his blades. The skills of the First Sphere flowed into his mind and he executed the deadly attack routines that had been perfected through generations of trial and error by every incarnation of Shura. The fisherman blocked blows that the greatest knights and most powerful samurais would have perished under. The fisherman’s expression changed as Shura utilized his more advanced techniques.

    “ The Shura Sword!” He breathed harshly. The fisherman soon went on the offensive and Shura found himself incapable of blocking a single blow. The walking stick hit him again and again. Shura snarled and fought on, ignoring the pain. “ Who are you boy? Where is Shura? What is he doing in this part of the world?” The fisherman questioned him.

    “ I am Shura!” Shura screamed in frustration as yet another of his perfect attacks hit air. He almost lost his grip on his discipline as the walking stick smacked him again. This time, he rolled with the blow to lessen the impact, tucking in his shoulder and dipping his knee as the stick hammered against the side of his neck. He was beginning to get used to his opponent’s attacks. He sent his wakizashi streaking out, not towards the fisherman, but towards the walking stick. To his satisfaction, he felt the slight tug of resistance as their weapons made contact. Perhaps he would be able to parry the next attack.

    The fisherman struck again and Shura slowed down the speed of his parry. He caught the walking stick on the hilt of his katana and pushed it aside, leaving the fisherman’s chest exposed to his wakizashi.

    “ HA!” Shura could not help but exclaim in grim satisfaction. He thrust his shorter sword forward, only to find that the walking stick was already streaking towards his face. The blunt end rammed between his eyes and Shura felt his vision explode into a blinding white that faded rapidly into soothing darkness…

    The fisherman stood in the doorway looking at Shura. The two of them stared at each other for a while. Who was this swordsman who could give him such a beating? Never had he been so bested in swordplay except for the Warrior Sage Bu-Shin.

    “ Pupil? What are you talking about?” Shura questioned the fisherman. Gray-streaked eyebrows raised on that wizened face.

    “ You have good potential, young one. I merely thought that you could benefit from my guidance.” Came the reply.

    “ What makes you think I desire your guidance, old man?” Shura knew he was being rude but he could not help but be annoyed by the fisherman’s presumptiveness.

    “ You must have been living in these lands for a long time. Even to one who hails from your homeland you speak the tongue of the gajin, the language of the western lands.” Shura blinked in confusion for a moment. He had not heard the language of his homeland for many, many years. The two of them had been conversing in two different tongues just now.

    “ I fail to see the relevance of your point to this conversation. I thank you for the night’s lodging and will take my leave now.” Shura decided to bring the discussion to a quick and abrupt end. He walked past the old man and into an adjoining room where he could see the door that led outside.

    A pair of curved swords resting on another wooden stand caught his attention, though. They were covered in dust, as though they had not been touched in years. The hilts were beautifully crafted handles of ebony black wood and delicate scrollwork ran down the length of both sheaths. Shura felt awed and appalled at the same time. Which respectable warrior would neglect his weapons so badly?

    “ The amount of dust keeps track of the length of time I have spent in peace. It is my wish that I would look in the direction of the swords one day and see nothing but a huge pile of dust.” The fisherman chuckled, knuckling his goatee. “ Forgive the musings of an old man. My thoughts tend to wander due to my advanced age.”

    Shura remembered the battle standard in the previous room. It bore the words ‘ Kuroi Itezeru’, which translated literally into ‘Black Crow’. He stared open-mouthed at the fisherman.

    “ Who are you?” He asked breathlessly. The fisherman shrugged.

    “ My name is Magatsu Yagyu but I was known as Kuroi Itezeru back in our homeland during my youth.” Came the reply. Shura pulled back the hilts of his own swords and bowed immediately.

    “Kensai!” Shura addressed Kuroi Itezeru using the respectful title that he had earned. His own sensei had spent many hours telling Shura about the legendary swordsman who had achieved such proficiency in his craft that he became known as the Sword Saint.

    “ Now, now, no need for that.” Kuroi waved his hands impatiently. “ You are called Shura, am I right?” Seeing Shura’s nod of assent, Kuroi continued. “ Then I can assume that the fourteenth Shura has passed from this world and that you have taken his place?”

    “ That is correct, Kensai Kuroi Itezeru. I struck down my sensei and took his name. That, as you know, is the tradition of those who practice the Shura Sword. There can only be one master and one pupil at any time and the pupil must defeat the master if he wishes to survive his sensei’s final test.” Shura replied, his tone now much more respectful.

    Kuroi Itezeru sighed in sorrow. “ Alas for my old friend. I should have known he would have chosen such a path.”

    Shura could not help feeling amazed. He had run into one of his sensei’s old friends hundreds of miles from his homeland! Kuroi laid a hand on Shura’s shoulder.

    “ As it is, I am sure he would not mind me continuing your training. You still have a long way to go, young Shura.” Kuroi said.
  9. Shadowcouncil Gems: 29/31
    Latest gem: Glittering Beljuril


    Jan 8, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Great again. You are really a great writer. Keep on going!
  10. eveningdrive Gems: 8/31
    Latest gem: Skydrop

    Sep 6, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Its been a while since I've visited SP, Shura. I'm thankful that you're still spinning your wonderful tales!

    Great work! :)
  11. Shura Gems: 25/31
    Latest gem: Moonbar

    Aug 9, 2000
    Likes Received:
    The young man sat down exhaustedly. His whole body ached from the pain of numerous blows from a wooden pole. A few feet away, an old and slight figure with one hand holding a wooden sword tucked behind his back and the other stroking his goatee hummed complacently.

    “ Your foundation in swordplay is amazing, Shura. In fact, your proficiency has already surpassed mine.” Kuroi Itezeru said, twirling his wooden sword idly. Shura looked at the old man in consternation.

    “ You’re wondering why I can still defeat you so thoroughly on the practice field if that is the case, am I right?” The old man continued. Shura nodded, too tired to even give voice to his queries. Kuroi smiled.

    “ Well, come on and find the answer, then!” His wooden sword came up again and Shura groaned. The younger swordsman pushed himself to his feet using the two wooden swords of unequal length that simulated his ambidextrous fighting style. Gritting his teeth resolutely, Shura forced his senses to their full focus. He would learn as much as possible from each and every stroke demonstrated by the kensai.
    Swords extended, Shura rushed the old man…

    A few hours later, the two of them were by the same stream where they first met. Shura was grateful for the icy chill of the water that had not frozen despite it being late winter and bathed his bruised and battered face. Kuroi dipped a linen handkerchief into the stream and mopped his face gently. The older swordsman had barely worked up a sweat after more than six hours of fencing with Shura.

    “ Well? Have you found your answer yet, Shura?” Kuroi questioned. Shura could only shake his head. From his viewpoint, the day’s fencing had proven one thing: Shura was much more skilled and faster than Kuroi. However, the old man had struck Shura again and again, landing nine blows out of ten. Shura’s swords had not even come close to touching Kuroi. The older swordsman patted Shura on his forearm.

    “ Your problem is not here, Shura.” Extending a finger, he pointed at Shura’s temples and then pointed at his heart. “ Your weakness lies there.” Shura gaped in puzzlement for a while.

    “ Do I lack intelligence and courage, then?” Shura asked, feeling more than a little dismayed. Kuroi looked into Shura’s eyes and the young man could not hold the kensai’s piercing gaze. He chuckled and shook his head.

    “ Hardly. I have lived for many years and can be considered a fair judge of character. You have courage surpassing a thousand men…in some areas. By being able to decipher my sword strokes in less than two days, you have more than convinced me of your intelligence.” Kuroi reassured the young man.

    “ What is the problem, then? What is holding back my blades?” Shura mused. “ Why can’t I attain the ultimate mastery of the Shura Sword?” Kuroi frowned at that.

    “ I must caution you, young one. The Shura Sword is a dark art that corrupts everyone who practices it. Abandon the blade of shadows and choose another path.”
    Kuroi said. Shura started to protest but Kuroi raised a hand to halt him.

    “ First, name me the precepts of the Shura Sword before we continue this debate.”
    Kuroi’s demand caught Shura off-guard. The Shura Sword was imparted verbally from master to pupil who had to memorize a few volumes worth of techniques by heart. He could reveal the secrets of the Shura Sword to none but his own pupil, when and if he took one. His eagerness to learn made him forget the taboo quickly enough though.

    “ Darkness, Death and Destruction. The world comprises the four elements of earth, wind, water and fire but shadow is the sharpest. It is the absence of light that steals the hope from the land…” Shura recited.

    “ And that which sends the souls of your victims screaming into the abyss.” Kuroi finished for him. “ I studied alongside your predecessor once before. I know all there is to know about the Shura Sword.” Shura was silent for a moment.

    “ I had a friend called Kalvairn once. He was a sorcerer of great power, able to command the elements and conjure hordes of demons. To him, his magic was all that mattered and the perfection of it by any means was deemed justified. My sensei gave up everything in his life to perfect his swordsmanship. I agree with them to the extent that I believe morality to be a secondary issue when it comes to the perfection of your craft.” Shura responded after a while.

    “ So you chose to be amoral and uncaring of your actions in the pursuit of excellence, am I right?” Kuroi said. He did not wait for Shura’s response.

    “ Do you know what is the difference between the samurai and the common bandit? The common bandit takes what he desires. Another man’s gold, his wife and so on and so forth. To him, the only law he obeys is the precept of ‘Do as thou wilt by thy might.’ A samurai takes pride in his strength. His blades strike out for his lord, the oppressed and the weak.” Kuroi lectured. He hefted the walking stick that he always carried around when he was not sparring with Shura.

    “ Far from being a weakness, my morality strengthens my sword arm and guides my strokes.” At this, Kuroi began to weave intricate patterns in the air with his walking stick. He moved slowly but Shura was amazed at the skill with which the old man wielded his mock weapon. “ Observe carefully, Shura! This set of swordplay is my life’s work! It has not been perfected through thousands of murders but through years and years of study in the way of Bushido, the way of the warrior!”

    The walking stick weaved and danced in the air. Despite Kuroi’s lack of speed, Shura could hardly decipher one stroke from another. The old man flowed seamlessly from stance to stance, his movements smooth. Kuroi’s swordplay contrasted starkly with the rapid, streaking slashes and thrusts of his own. The walking stick thudded against the trunk of a tree. The tree’s branches were bare except for a small amount of piled snow that shook loose from the impact and fell onto the old swordsman below.

    None of the snow touched Kuroi. The walking stick intercepted all of the falling mush without sending it flying all over the clearing beside the stream. The kensai held out his walking stick. The fallen snow was packed neatly along its’ narrow length. Shura could only stare in awed admiration.

    “ The Blade of Harmony.” Kuroi named his set of swordplay. “ How much of it have you absorbed, Shura?” Shura searched his mind and found that he had subconsciously memorized and analyzed every move Kuroi had made. A flood of realization hit him as he finally figured out what he had been doing wrong. He had been too set on the precise and choreographed attack and defense routines of the Shura Sword. Each stance and stroke was one of utter genius and scrupulous contemplation but their full potential could never be attained as long as one failed to improvise and adapt to the circumstances of battle. Kuroi’s swordplay embodied freedom within discipline and that showed him how to progress in his own skills.

    Shura got to his feet and ran back to Kuroi’s house, a single floored structure made of wood and paper. Retrieving his swords, he ran back to the clearing where the aged swordsman awaited him. Kuroi watched calmly as Shura drew both blades, their steely surfaces glinting in the failing sun.

    “ Kensai, I request further pointers from you.” Shura asked politely. Kuroi chuckled and raised his walking stick, assuming a fighting stance. The knowledge of the First Sphere flowed through his mind, flitting through his consciousness. Strangely, Shura no longer felt the barely restrained fury that fueled his limbs in battle. Instead, he felt cool and detached, able to observe every move Kuroi made.

    The kensai exploded into motion, his walking stick hurtling towards Shura. This time, Shura snapped his katana sideways to intercept the blow…and succeeded! The younger swordsman countered with his shorter blade but Kuroi avoided the thrust. Shura disengaged his katana from the walking stick and swept his blades together in a crossing slash that Kuroi had to leap backwards to avoid. Shura followed him, flowing from stance to stance, his movements smoother than mirrored crystal. Kuroi’s brow furrowed in concentration as he tried to defend himself against Shura’s onslaught. He could no longer predict where Shura’s blades were coming from and had to react using his own honed reflexes and instincts. The old man smiled.

    Shura’s wakizashi blocked a sidelong blow from the walking stick and the swordsman immediately put his shorter blade into twirling motions. Kuroi felt his weapon being dragged out of his grasp and had to step closer to his opponent. Shura slashed out with his katana but Kuroi ducked its’ sweep. The kensai’s weapon was pinned to the side of the combatants and he could not return Shura’s blows. Hence the advantage of fighting with two weapons, the younger swordsman noted calmly in his mind.

    Finally, Shura’s katana came to rest upon the side of Kuroi’s neck. The swordsman grinned in satisfaction. The grin was mirrored on Kuroi’s aged and wrinkled face too.

    “ I finally understand, Kensai. I humbly thank you for all your help.” Shura said earnestly, taking away his weapons and sheathing them.

    “ It was your own talent that made your learning so swift.” Kuroi replied. “ But I would like to see how you measure up in another aspect of the martial arts.” He took a deep breath, his chest expanding as Shura watched curiously.

    “ HAI!” The exclamation blasted right into Shura’s face and he was flung a full four feet back to land heavily in a crumpled pile on the ground. Blood streamed from his nose and ears as he tried feebly to rise. Kuroi rushed over hurriedly and propped him into a sitting position.

    “ My greatest apologies, young one. I had no idea you would react so adversely to my expulsion of ki.” Kuroi said worriedly. He watched as Shura shook his head and wiped the blood from his face. “ Truth be told though, my previous exertion would merely have caused a healthy young man like yourself to jump in fright. Your ki must be abnormally weak to have been injured like this.”

    “ My sensei himself had always been puzzled about my abnormally weak ki, kensai.” Shura replied as he spat the last of the blood from his mouth. “ Hence the skills of the Third Sphere of the Shura Sword are inaccessible to me. I can only use the most basic techniques of ki manipulation at great physical cost.”

    Kuroi sighed. “ What heights you might have achieved as a warrior if only your ki was strong. Even the great Warrior Sage Bu-Shin would not be a match for you.” The old swordsman helped Shura to his feet. He was surprisingly strong considering his slight frame. “ As it is, you have to rest first. Perhaps we shall continue our training some other day when you have recovered.”

    Shura was grateful and amazed at Kuroi’s benevolence. Under his own sensei, Shura had to spar and train regardless of his injuries or fatigue. Once, he splinted his broken left arm to the side of his body and commenced his daily sparring session wielding the heavy mock katana with one hand. That led to the development of his dual weapon fighting style. Few could wield the two-handed katana with a single hand without flailing it about like a war-hammer or a heavy mace.

    The two of them made their way back to Kuroi’s house.

    “ How old are you, kensai?” Shura asked respectfully. Night had fallen and the two were sitting on the floor of Kuroi’s house beside a warm hearth. The old man smiled indulgently.

    “ I have seen two hundred and seventy winters, young one.” Kuroi replied.

    “ You look much older than that, considering the fact that you are an elf, kensai.” Shura asked, puzzled. The elves made up the ruling caste of his homeland. They were the ones who acted as the feudal lords who ruled the land in the name of the Emperor. The highest status a human could ever hope to attain in the hierarchal society of the east was that of a samurai, the eastern equivalent of a knight. The stout folk, the sneaky ones and the brutish green-skinned savages called Orcs could only aspire to less. Shura himself belonged to the caste that was ranked one level below that of a samurai, the kenkyaku, or swordsman caste, according to his sensei who was the only one who knew anything about Shura’s parents.

    Kuroi laughed sadly and lowly for a while. “ I am of mixed blood, young one. My father was an elf and my mother was the daughter of a merchant. My early years were harsh indeed as my mother was shunned by all and my father was demoted by his lord…”
    The old man paused to sip his tea. “ Would you like to hear my tale, Shura?” Shura nodded eagerly, his black eyes shining in anticipation.

    “ Very well, then…” Kuroi said.
  12. Namuras Gems: 13/31
    Latest gem: Ziose

    Aug 21, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Still incredible. I never imagined I'd find something like this when I first poked into these boards. :)
  13. Jovialjuggler Gems: 1/31
    Latest gem: Turquoise

    Nov 3, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Damn, These Shura stories just keep getting better and better. Keep up the good work dude.
  14. Arkados Blackmire Gems: 7/31
    Latest gem: Tchazar

    Mar 22, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Just to let you guys know, Shura's computer got fried by lightning and judging by the incompetence of the computer repairmen here, its gonna be a few weeks before he posts again.
    Never fear though, he's penning it all down on paper for now.
  15. Shura Gems: 25/31
    Latest gem: Moonbar

    Aug 9, 2000
    Likes Received:
    The weak rays of the early morning sun shone through the wooden rafters of Kuroi’s house, illuminating the two occupants who had sat there the whole night. Shura was filled with respect at the trials and hardships the old swordsman had to overcome and was intrigued at his deep friendship with his sensei. What intrigued him more was the fact that the two had once bested the Warrior Sage Bu-Shin in a duel by combining the twin techniques of the Shura Sword and the Blade of Harmony. Perhaps the golden skinned samurai was not so invincible after all…

    ” And so I have spent the last decade of my life in the west, tending my gardens, painting and doing some simple work for the town of Terun, a growing business district half a day’s journey from here.” Kuroi finished. Shura stroked his chin thoughtfully. He was on the way to Terun when he met Kuroi, having heard that the great warrior Kervast Cairn was recruiting mercenaries for one of the countless wars that plagued this land there.

    “ I have business in the town of Terun today, young Shura. Perhaps you would like to accompany me.” Kuroi enquired. Shura nodded his head in agreement.

    “ Certainly, kensai.”

    The two of them gathered their belongings and left, Shura carrying his traveling pack and his swords while Kuroi brought along his walking stick, a small bundle of books and a light roll of cheap parchment.

    Walking along the dusty roads, Shura spoke of his life as a mercenary and sword-for-hire and his thoughts about such an existence.

    “ One can hone his skills with the blade against worthy opponents while still making a living. It is most fortunate that there is such a convenient path through life.” Kuroi frowned disapprovingly at this statement. His young friend’s inability to tell right from wrong disturbed the benevolent and honorable swordsman to no small degree. He could not detect the taint of evil upon the young man’s soul though, otherwise he would have slain him the day they met.

    “ One does not get to choose his opponents as a mercenary! Your blades would strike by your employer’s will! How many undeserving people have you cut down in the name of ‘business’, Shura?” Kuroi snapped harshly. The young man was taken aback by Kuroi’s rebuke, but he defended his stand.

    “ If I appear on my victim’s doorstep one day, chances are that he has done something to bring me there. Not every battle is a justified one but neither is every battle unjustified either.” Shura said, thinking about the lords and senators that have fallen to his blade during his tenure as an assassin in Blackmire’s service. They fought a war against Blackmire, not a war of armies and battle formations, but a war of spies, intrigue and backstabbing. It was a war, nonetheless, and Shura felt that they died as warriors, even when they soiled themselves as Shura stabbed them in the back from the shadows.

    “ Since when is any battle justified? Loss, pain and sorrow are the only things war has ever brought to this world. Would that if all warriors were farmers and their swords and axes were harvest scythes and ploughs!” Kuroi sighed sadly. Shura bowed his head, feeling chastened although he did not know why. Life was cheap and only the strong, skilled or powerful had any real right to it. Blackmire and his sensei had demonstrated this fact to him time and time again. Jo-Annia came to his thoughts suddenly. She was not a powerful sorcerer like Kalvairn, or a master of intrigue and backstabbing like the Blackmire siblings, the Arch-devil himself and his sister. She was certainly not a warrior like Shura or Ander, who had become a legend among the sell-swords. By the same logic, she had little or no right to life when compared to his other friends. Yet Shura knew that the world would be a much darker place if she did not exist.

    Kalvairn and Ander were treasured friends. Not a day passed that Shura did not mourn their loss. Yet he knew that with their deaths, many young children would be spared Kalvairn’s necromantic experiments and many women would be spared Ander’s lust. The soaring sense of achievement as he saw Blackmire take to the skies on wings of darkness that day was undermined by a disturbing sense disaster. Shura was confused.

    Seeing his young friend deep in troubled thought, Kuroi was tempted to leave him to his contemplation but he knew that there was no better time than this to guide Shura onto another path through life.

    “ You have read and memorized the precepts of Bushido, the way of the honorable warrior sometime in your education, am I right, Shura?” Kuroi enquired. The young swordsman nodded. “ Perhaps you could find an answer there upon a more in-depth study.”

    Elle Delryin was tired. Her face was streaked from the sweat that ran down her red hair. A young woman of twenty-six, her large green eyes radiated an intensity that spoke of great determination and inner strength. Well-toned muscles made up her lean frame, muscles that screamed with fatigue.

    Her sword arm ached and her mind was a numb sponge after the casting of numerous battle spells. She felt a grim sense of achievement, however. The Orc raiders had been driven off, leaving behind many of their dead and wounded. Only the sting of many cuts and bruises from the weapons of the orcs kept her from smiling in delight. She turned to regard her companions.
    Mikealus Blek-Lance stood haughtily. His old and battered armor bore a few new dents and scrapes and bruises marred the surface of his stern, unyielding facial features. A young man who had just seen his twentieth year, his gaze and countenance had been hardened and tempered by the trials of battle. Yet his companions respected him more for his calm wisdom and loved him for his sincere compassion. He carried a plain and unadorned sword in his right gauntlet and a shield of heavy oak in the other. Blood dripped from many of his wounds but he paid them little, if any attention. He walked to Elle’s side with a few rattling and clanking steps.

    “ A most distasteful battle.” He remarked.

    Elle sighed, nodding her head in agreement. An orcish blade had struck a glancing blow along her thigh and she grasped that wound now, wincing in pain.

    “ I do not look forward to facing them again.” She muttered. “ Let us hope they do not return soon.”

    “ I agree! They were not much of a challenge!” A bubbly voice piped in. The weary pair turned to look at the owner of the voice. Zheng Long was a warrior from the Far East. He claimed to be a disciple of the revered Han Warrior Monks of the Dragon Empire. A youth of seventeen years, he was possessed of great energy and walked about in bouncy steps. A perpetual smile lit his youthful and boyish features, which fit his colorful and garish clothes. His cheerful and carefree demeanor belied his prowess, though. He was the only one of the trio who had emerged totally unhurt from the battle, having fought against the heavily armored orcs using nothing but his bare hands. Elle had seen him strike a palm against an orcish helm and cause the contents to erupt in gore. It was not sorcery, he said. That was the ki strike, a fighting technique utilized by the Han Warrior Monks.

    Elle squatted beside the body of an orc. With a gloved hand, she fingered the badge the orc wore on its’ chain-mail vest. Every other orc that the trio had battled sported similar adornments upon their chests. These were not rogues but an advance party for a much larger force. The quick thinking battle-mage grew worried.

    Mikealus, looking over her shoulder, understood her concern. Zheng Long, who was idly twirling a broken twig while rifling through the money pouches of his victims, hardly realized the implications of the situation.

    “ We must warn Duke Cypher. A force of sinister intentions lurk at his borders while he remains oblivious.” Mikealus said. His wounds burned painfully but his pride refused to allow the agony to mar his polite speech. Elle smiled ruefully at her stoic friend.

    “ Yes, that is what we will do.” She agreed. Duke Cypher was a minor noble whose duchy consisted of barely more than a collection of a few villages and a couple of small towns. Yet the man was a benevolent ruler who was well loved by his people. The Duke was a vassal of King Blackmire but his sphere of influence was in too remote a location for either the King or his rivals to bother with. Any aggression against the small duchy would not be of human origin, Elle reasoned. Nor could the Duke expect any help from the King.

    Zheng Long hopped to the pair, casually juggling two purses that jingled heavily with copper coins.

    “ We eat well tonight, my friends. And not of orc flesh!” His wide smile was so endearing that Elle and even the stern Mikealus found their faces twitching in amusement. The warrior monk produced a small pouch from his belt and applied its’ contents, a sticky black paste, to the more serious wounds of the pair. Elle and Mikealus were grateful. The strange medicine sealed cuts and stopped bleeding quickly. When the trio was ready to leave for town, Zheng Long hopped into the air and turned a complete back flip.

    “ Never fear, friends. Nothing is a match for the combined forces of fist, sword and spell!” He pounded a fist into a tree, felling it with incredible ease. Elle and Mikealus never ceased to be amazed by the power of the ki strike.

    A humming sound ceased the monk’s cheers and the silver fletched arrow that thudded into the stump of the tree that he felled caused the blood to drain away from his face. The arrow was lodged in the stump between his legs, an inch from his crotch.
    “ If you persist in your wanton destruction of nature, even your heroics against the orcs will not save you.” A musical voice said. Elle spun to regard the speaker with delight; a female elf dressed in garments the color of the drab greens and browns of the forest.

    “ Aalariel!” She cried, extending her arms in greeting. The delicate creature clasped the woman’s hands warmly and bowed respectfully to Mikealus.

    “ Greetings, Knight of Glimmer.” Aalariel said in a polite tone. Mikealus returned the gesture, despite his wounds. The cold glare she gave Zheng Long brought blood rushing to his face and a sheepish look to his features. The boisterous youth would be quiet for a while, Elle smirked.

    “ Would that we have met in more joyous circumstances, dear friend.” Aalariel told Elle. “ My brethren have spotted a thousand orcs advancing from the Blighted Caves towards the Cypher Duchy. They are heavily armed and armored, unlike any orcish raiding party that you or I have ever seen.” The news shocked the trio to the core. Duke Cypher could muster at best a hundred and fifty half-trained men-at-arms. “ Orcs would never gather in such numbers. Something more sinister must be goading them on.” The elf said.

    “ We must waste no more time, then! Duke Cypher must be informed immediately!” Elle cried. She reached into a pouch
    containing her spell components and drew a small leather bound book from her tunic.

    “ Will you come with us?” She asked Aalariel. She got a shake of the elf’s head as an answer.

    “ I have my own battle to fight.” Aalariel replied. The delicate elf embraced Elle. “ Go with the blessings of Valmyrie, Goddess of Nature.” Mikealus made a warding sign, trying to make the movement as inconspicuous as possible so as not to offend the ranger. “ The Celestial Knight forbid!” He whispered under his breath. Zheng Long clasped his hands and bade Aalariel farewell as the elf faded into the forest.

    “ Let us be off, then!” Ele gritted her teeth as she started casting her spell. The battle with the orcs had pushed her to her magical limits. She plodded through the chants and arcane gestures, however and the trio disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

    Mikealus caught her swooning form as they completed their magical journey to the Duchy of Cypher.
  16. Namuras Gems: 13/31
    Latest gem: Ziose

    Aug 21, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Hmm, got a bit confusing there... No matter, keep up the great work!
  17. Khementi Gems: 2/31
    Latest gem: Fire Agate

    Sep 13, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Damn right man, writeous stuff.
    ps. hmm kuroi is very geezer eh! i know i sound old..
  18. Shura Gems: 25/31
    Latest gem: Moonbar

    Aug 9, 2000
    Likes Received:
    A few days later, Elle and her friends materialized just outside the town of Terun, where the famed Kervast the Wolf was said to be at. The Duke had received the news with great alarm, having ruled for many years in peace despite the recent succession wars. After a night’s conference, the Duke decided to send Elle and her companions to Terun to seek out and enlist Kervast’s mercenary band to battle against the encroaching horde. Sending Zheng Long to purchase a few supplies, the mage walked into the town with Mikealus.

    The city of Terun was bustling with activity. Hawkers clogged the town’s narrow streets and laborers dragged their feet under the burdens that bowed their shoulders. No one noticed the arrival of two easterners, the younger one a tall, stoop shouldered man and the older one a diminutive figure with gray streaked hair.

    “ Terun has grown from a remote town to the busy center of commercial activity that it is today. A rich merchant established a ferry system that made transportation of goods down the river that cuts through the town cheap and efficient around twenty years ago. Since then, the volume of trade has increased exponentially down the years.” Kuroi said. The old man then gestured towards a building. “ That is the library of Terun. I have some business there.” Shura shrugged and the pair promptly made their way into the shadowed recesses of the library.

    Shura immediately noticed the soft glow given off by the smooth panels of wood hung on the walls that illuminated the building. He whistled lowly under his breath, appreciating the presence of such benign and practical sorcery. Kuroi too regarded the glowing panels with a raised eyebrow. The light sources were evidently a recent addition.

    They soon emerged into the main chamber of the library where a bald, bespectacled old man with a genial smile greeted them softly.

    “ Good morning to you, Yagyu-san.” The old librarian said to Kuroi, calling him by his real name and not his warrior title. Kuroi smiled warmly and bowed.

    “ It is good to see that you are in fine health, mister Attucks. How has the new class fared so far in their studies?” Kuroi enquired.

    “ They are easily capable of producing excellent results, Yagyu-san.” Attucks led the two of them into an adjoining room where ten children, barely into their teens sat behind desks, studiously working on an essay of some sort. Shura could not make out the words the children scrawled onto the pieces of cheap parchment. In fact, the characters seemed to crawl and swirl about. Shura felt a stabbing pain at the back of his head and was forced to turn away, wincing painfully. Attucks noticed the young man’s sudden affliction.

    “ You must not look upon their writing, young sir. The children are scribing scrolls of minor sorcery and for the untrained eye to gaze upon their work is to only invite psychic torment upon yourself.” He chided gently.

    “ Sorcerers? These children?” Shura asked, massaging his temples. The sharp pain had receded to a dull ache by now.

    “ Not sorcerers, young sir. Rather, these children learn spells that they use to make their everyday lives easier.” Attucks replied.

    “ I see.” Shura was recalling the time Kalvairn stripped the skin from a foe’s bones with one of his spells, leaving a screaming cadaver that took a long, long time to die.

    “ I have a calligraphy class with these children in about an hour’s time, Shura. You might want to take a walk about town for the next few hours. Of course, if you want to read, I’m sure mister Attucks will allow you full access to the library.” Kuroi informed Shura. The young man considered his options for a moment, and then opted to see the sights of the city. The ache in his head would make reading a painful experience for the rest of the day at least. He bowed to the two older men and left the library, leaving them looking at his quickly diminishing back.

    “ Shura…what a violent name…” Attucks mused.

    The noise and bustle greeted Shura as he stepped into the marketplace. He tucked the hilts of his swords securely under his cloak as he wandered the various bazaar stores, inspecting goods ranging from small wooden figurines to brightly colored fruits. He noticed a commotion that proved far more interesting than the pretty but useless trinkets he was looking at and so moved to investigate.

    A red-haired woman was accosting a huge and impressive man, with shoulders thrice as broad as Shura’s and tree trunk like arms corded with heavy muscles.

    “ Would you not reconsider the Duke’s offer, Sir Kervast? You will be well rewarded if you would sell the services of your mercenary band to the Duke for a few battles.” The red-haired woman pleaded with the huge man. So this was Kervast Cairn the Wolf, Shura noted. He was a warrior of great renown, having held off Blackmire’s Blackguards for a whole week despite being outnumbered ten to one, allowing an enemy noble to escape. The king had the utmost respect for the mercenary leader despite his many rejections of offers to enter his service.

    “ Listen, lady. Your precious duke is not offering enough for my band to make the distant trip to the Cypher Duchy to fight orcs!” Kervast the Wolf knuckled his thick mustaches as he spoke, growing more than a little irritated at woman’s insistence. The woman glared at him.

    “ Perhaps your band is overrated, to demand such a high price for battling a few hundred lousy orcs!” She snapped. Kervast snorted, not even bothering to refute the remark. The reputation of his band was secured in a foundation built upon countless enemy corpses. He started to walk away but the woman spoke again.

    “ Eight thousand gold! Please, Sir Kervast, the Duchy of Cypher is in great danger! Your band must set off immediately!” She implored. An armored young man standing beside her gasped in alarm and laid a hand on her shoulder but she shook it off. Kervast stopped, stroking his mustaches.

    “ You would offer no more than three thousand just now, lady. Either the situation is less desperate than you say so or I should begin doubting your ability to pay up.” The canny warrior said.

    “ You will get your money, mercenary. But I can only afford to pay you three thousand now. The Duke will see to the rest when you arrive.” Came the reply.

    “ Very well. Let us discuss the details in the comfort of my office. There are too many over-curious fools in this area.” Kervast agreed. They turned to leave, jolting Shura out of his reverie. He realized that he had been staring at the woman throughout the whole exchange, the words registering only faintly upon his memory.

    “ Wait, Sir Kervast! I would speak to you!” Shura called out to the huge warrior, a wry grin on his face as he considered the momentary lapse of his discipline. The man turned, his shaggy hair falling in a mess about his huge shoulders.

    “ Am I to be accosted non-stop this day?” Kervast grumbled. “ Yes, what business do you have for me?” Shura pulled his cloak open, letting the huge man see his swords.

    “ As you can see, I am a swordsman. I would like to join your band for the duration of this expedition, Sir Kervast.” Shura said. The mercenary was unimpressed, a sneer appearing on his weathered face.

    “ I have enough warriors. Be about your own business, young man.” Kervast replied. One massive hand ran up to finger the hilt of a huge sword strapped to his back lovingly as the mercenary spoke.

    “ Perhaps you require a demonstration of my abilities, sir.” Shura said. Kervast started to shake his head but the woman spoke up.

    “ I would like a demonstration of your abilities, Sir Kervast, since you demand such an exorbitant amount of gold.” The huge warrior scowled in frustration. “ Very well! If I must! Know that I will not be kindly on you, young man, so pray your skills are sufficient!” He snarled at Shura.

    “ The clearing just outside town will do!” He continued. They then proceeded there, accompanied by a multitude of curious onlookers. The red-haired woman spoke in hushed whispers to her companion as Shura squared off against Kervast. Shura knew that Kervast would be more than obliged to lower his price if he was defeated. The huge warrior was impressive and had a magnificent reputation as one of the best swordsmen in the land, but Shura was more than confident of his own success.

    Kervast tossed his thick fur cloak aside, and then proceed to stretch and flex his cord-like muscles. Having done so, he drew the enormous blade strapped to his back, the huge sword singing as it cut through the air. Spinning the sword easily in his hands, he regarded Shura. To his surprise, the easterner was standing with his feet apart, blades sheathed.

    “ Prepare yourself! Or are you frightened already, little boy?” Kervast asked, holding his sword before him, tip extended towards Shura.

    “ I am ready.” Came the soft reply. Kervast’s eyes narrowed. He obviously thought that Shura was mocking him. “ Very well! Die then!” he roared, charging ahead with a powerful thrust of his sword that Shura easily sidestepped. Kervast whipped the huge sword sideways with frightening speed but Shura dropped to one knee, avoiding the slash and then drove himself to his feet, using the momentum to do a back flip in the air as Kervast’s blade came roaring in low, angled for Shura’s ankles.

    “ Very nice, young man.” The mercenary now regarded Shura with new respect in his eyes. The crowd gathered about the two were silent, awed by the sheer speed and power of Kervast’s sword. “ But you will not defeat me by merely avoiding my strikes!” Kervast shouted as he charged in again. Shura glanced at the red-haired woman from the corner of his eye. She was now watching the battle with an intrigued expression on her face. Shura would have to make his victory an impressive one if she was to bring down Kervast’s credibility and his fee. Kervast now swung his sword with greater fervor as he recognized the truth of his opponent. Shura leaned away, ducked or sidestepped each air-splitting chop, barely avoiding contact with the blade.

    Kervast was extremely skilled, Shura knew, more skilled than Ander by far. Where his old friend relied on brute strength and sheer bulk and power, Kervast combined the might of his arms with a technique that must have took decades to perfect. If Shura had not grasped the basics of Kuroi’s sword style, he would have been run through with the first thrust. His consciousness was suspended in a chill calm, a sea covered by frozen ice. Unlike the state of controlled rage that drove the Shura sword, the icy detachment from reality gave Shura new insights and analytical thoughts to the path of his opponent’s blade. He silently thanked Kuroi as the huge sword whistled past his face once again, tip almost grazing his skin.

    Kervast growled in frustration, but he did not lose his patience. He kept his attacks measured and focused on driving the slight swordsman back, looking for an opportunity to strike home with his gigantic sword. The time to retaliate was at hand, Shura realized. He could only avoid the huge blade for so long despite his skills. Twin arcs of steel spun from his sheaths into his hands, and he set his feet firmly in the soil, raising the swords to parry an incoming overhead chop from Kervast. The crowd gasped. The woman’s eyes widened in alarm and her companion exclaimed in fear.

    “ A foolish move!” The armored young man burst out. Kervast bared his teeth in grim satisfaction as his huge sword thundered down between the crossed blades of Shura. Shura sent his swords streaking forward, twirling and pushing down the length of the huge blade. He utilized the same technique that he had developed in his battle with the paladin Laron de Culaes, seeking to neutralize the momentum and power of an overwhelming force using subtle twists and slaps of the entwined weapons. True enough, Kervast’s huge sword was diverted sideways, rushing past Shura’s shoulder to crash into the earth behind him.

    Kervast’s astonishment lasted only a moment, however, as he took in his new predicament. Shura was standing inside his reach and his sword was embedded in the soil. The opponents locked gazes, a grin spreading on their faces. They exploded into motion as one, Shura rushing forward while Kervast spun, tearing his sword from the soil, using his turning body to bring the huge weapon in a shortened, devastating sweep. The blade whipped through the air as Kervast turned a complete circle that left him holding the sword parallel to the ground with one hand fully extended. Shura was nowhere to be seen but the gasps from the crowd, along with the increased pressure on his sword arm sent his gaze towards his own weapon.

    Shura stood lightly on the flat of the huge sword, balanced perfectly on the balls of his feet. Kervast’s eyes widened in astonishment as the swordsman ran down the length of the sword, the wicked curved blades streaking towards his face. Kervast let go of the sword, marring Shura’s glide and took the opportunity to unhook a spiked mace from his belt. Shura’s leap took him past the huge mercenary, striking as he went. Kervast swung his mace too, and the combatants passed each other with the ringing sound of steel on steel. Shura landed behind Kervast, a slight weal forming on the side of his face. The high collar of Kervast’s tunic split apart neatly and the mercenary’s thick neck showed two slight, diagonal nicks.

    “ I could have smashed your face in.” Kervast said, a grim smile cracking his weathered features.

    “ As I could have lopped off your head.” Shura replied, a grin of admiration showing on his face. The crowd cheered and applauded, appreciating the techniques of both fighters and the woman nodded her head in appreciation. Kervast extended a gauntleted fist to Shura.

    “ I could certainly use your swords for this expedition, young man. You’re by far the best user of light swords that I’ve seen so far.” He rumbled. Shura struck the fist lightly with his own clenched one. “ I am honored by your offer and readily accept.” He said.

    “ Well, I guess that settles this issue, then.” The woman and her companion had moved to Kervast’s side as the crowd started dispersing now that the entertainment was over.

    “ What’s your name, swordsman?” Kervast asked Shura. He readily supplied it. The woman turned to regard Shura.

    “ From the east, Shura? You are from the lands of the Empire of Blades and not the Dragon Empire, am I correct?” she asked. Her large eyes studying the curved blades that hung at his waist. Shura bowed.

    “ That is correct, lady…?” he let the words hang in the air.

    “ Elle. Just call me Elle. We will be working together from now on, then.” She wrapped a gloved arm around one of Shura’s, a gesture that caused the armored young man standing beside her to raise his eyebrows in surprise. “ My companion here is Mikealus Blek-Lance, a trainee Knight of Glimmer.” Elle introduced him to Shura with a sweep of her arm. The swordsman was more than a little unnerved at Elle’s hold on his arm but he still managed to nod politely to the young knight.

    “ Well met, sir knight.” He said. Mikealus bowed slightly. “ The same to you, mister Shura. It is an honor to meet someone as skilled in swordplay as you.” Shura accepted the compliment gracefully.

    “ Well, let us be off, then. We have many details to work out if we are going to set off on this expedition.” Kervast broke in, scowling with impatience.

    “ He is so much like his predecessor, Yagyu-san.” Mister Attucks said softly. They were standing under the shade of a tree, having witnessed the battle between Shura and Kervast. “ I shudder at the thought of a Shura unleashed upon the western lands.”

    “ This one is different.” Kuroi insisted. “ Trust me, old friend. The two of us have seen fiends abandon the paths of darkness before, have we not? He is young and possesses an untainted soul despite his skills. I have every confidence that he will become a hero that the world sorely needs in these dark times.”

    “ You refer to the Archfiend Blackmire, do you not? I have seen his ascension among the stars. I can not imagine the torment he will bring to this plane of existence.” Mister Attucks muttered, wiping his balding head with a handkerchief nervously. “ Perhaps the two of us can…?”

    Kuroi chuckled ruefully, his eyes running over the corpulent and aged form of his friend. No one would have believed that the bald old man standing before him used to be the great Warrior Priest Galon Attucks, a name still murmured with reverence among the holy soldiers and knights of the land. It seemed like only yesterday when Kuroi and Attucks, in the prime of their youth, defeated the demon lord Asmodius, destroying his physical form and dooming him to wander the world forever as a specter of his former self. Attucks raised an annoyed eyebrow.

    “ I know, I know! You do not have to remind me!” he said, face downcast. Kuroi patted his old friend’s shoulder.

    “ There, there. No one said getting old would be easy.”
  19. Namuras Gems: 13/31
    Latest gem: Ziose

    Aug 21, 2001
    Likes Received:
    [​IMG] Fantastic work! (Have you heard it before? ;))
  20. Shura Gems: 25/31
    Latest gem: Moonbar

    Aug 9, 2000
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    The elderly swordsman met up with his protégé in a cheap tavern that evening. Shura informed him of the expedition that he has signed up on and Kuroi received the news with little surprise.

    “Very well, then. Looks like my old bones will be severely strained on such a long journey, then.” He replied. Shura’s eyes widened.

    “ You’re going too?” The young man asked skeptically.

    “ Of course!” Kuroi replied in indignation. Shura shrugged in response. Kuroi was still a mighty warrior despite his age and would certainly be welcomed by Kervast’s band.

    “ In that case, we’ll have to return to your abode tomorrow so that you can retrieve your swords and armor, kensai.”

    “ No. I shall be playing the role of a tactical advisor. Kervast knows of me and will not disagree.” Kuroi said. Shura nodded, not disputing the fact. A nagging doubt still bothered him, however.

    “ Why the sudden decision to return to a war-like life, kensai?” he asked.

    “ When evil rears its ugly head, one’s selfish desires must be put aside in a bid to confront it.” Kuroi answered promptly. Shura was silent for a while.

    “ Do you always know what is evil and what is not?” He shot back at the old man, his tone slightly accusatory.

    “ Of course not. In fact, I rarely do and seldom judge. But a marauding orcish horde bent on slaughtering innocent peasants and despoiling their lands is hardly a difficult situation to assess.” Kuroi quipped in response to Shura.

    “ The orcs might require the foodstuff and livestock for their own survival. They might be justified in their raids. After all, they are only fighting for their right to live.” Shura pointed out.

    “ The slaughter and rapine that accompanies their raids can not be justified in any way!” Kuroi snapped, fast losing his patience. He recalled Attuck’s words earlier today and had to fight hard to dismiss the foreboding that plagued his decision to take Shura under his wing. The young swordsman had developed a totally warped sense of reasoning during his short life. “ Why, then, are you so eager to join an expedition with the sole purpose of battling them?”

    Shura shook his head and shrugged, the answer eluding him. “ Perhaps I am eager to seek battle.” He reasoned. Kuroi sighed.

    A commotion broke out in the tavern’s common room just then, breaking up the conversation between the two swordsmen. Two burly thugs were cursing and swearing at a young man dressed in gray, travel-stained robes that the practitioners of magic usually wore. The young mage regarded the thugs wearily, his face gaunt with fatigue.

    “ Please, sirs. Leave me alone.” He pleaded with the thugs. One of them snarled and grabbed a handful of the mage’s robes just under his collar, heaving the skinny man to his feet.

    “ Ah’ve just had enuff of yer prim and proper speech!” He snarled, more than a few teeth missing in his scowling mouth. “ A knocking in the mouth would do ye good!” The thug threw a heavy punch into the young mage’s facing, connecting solidly and sending him sprawling all over the tavern floor. The barkeeper chortled loudly and motioned for the thugs to go on, thoroughly enjoying the entertainment. The first thug slammed his booted toe into the prone mage’s ribs, causing him to writhe in agony.

    All this while, Kuroi looked closely at Shura. To his dismay, Shura ignored the whole affair, removing his cloak and folding it neatly after unbuckling his swords and propping them beside Kuroi’s table. The old man snorted in disgust as Shura calmly ordered a meal from a barmaid as the thug kicked the mage repeatedly. He got up, ready to intervene when an red and orange streak slammed into the thug kicking the mage, sending him tumbling head over heels.

    Kuroi blinked in surprise as he saw the streak take the shape of a young easterner as it slowed down. Dressed in bright orange and red clothes, with his hair tied back in an elaborate braid that reached to his waist, the newcomer’s appearance practically screamed for attention.

    “ Now, look here, you miscreant.” The newcomer waggled his finger in the air at the thug who was scrambling to his feet and gesturing angrily to his companion. “ I, Zheng Long, shall not abide such bullying in the immediate vicinity that I am in. Now apologize to him and I shall let this whole matter pass.” Zheng Long said in an extremely cocky manner that only fueled the thug’s rage.

    “ Bah! Another fool lookin’ for a kickin’!” The thug rushed forward, punching out with his fist. Zheng Long deflected the blow cleanly with a sideways parry with his forearm. Growling, the thug unleashed a vicious head-butt that Zheng Long avoided with a slight twist of his body. Placing an open palm over the thug’s chest, the warrior monk inhaled deeply, his eyebrows knitting in concentration.

    “ Ki strike!” He bellowed, launching his internal energy into a blow that blasted the thug vertically up into the air to crash into the low hanging beam and fall back to the ground heavily. The thug groaned in pain as he tried feebly to rise in vain.

    “ Perhaps you will have better manners next time.” Zheng Long said in a low tone.

    “ Behind you, friend!” The young mage shouted a warning as he spotted two of the thug’s friends rushing at the easterner from behind. Zheng Long spun around but one of them suddenly let forth a high-pitched scream and clutched his eyes as the mage chanted a few words and pointed at him. The other thug did not slow his charge, however, until an object streaked across the room with an air-splitting sound and struck the thug’s thighs as they aligned in mid-stride. The thug looked down to see both his thighs transfixed with a short, curved blade and gave a scream, falling to the ground. Zheng Long and the mage turned their gazes to Shura. The swordsman had flung his wakizashi across the room while still eating his meal of gruel. Seeing that his blade had found its’ mark, Shura got up and walked forward to his victim. He yanked the blade out mercilessly, causing the blood to spurt as the hapless thug trashed in agony.

    The mage watched as the barkeeper’s bouncers dragged the losers out, sniggering at their plight. Shura’s victim had his thighs bandaged crudely. The treatment was barely sufficient. Inclining his head, he regarded his saviors.

    “ Feros Thonas gives his thanks, kind sirs. People who would intervene in an unfair situation are few and far between in these dark times.” He said.

    “ I shall always come into conflict with unfairness, Feros. Think nothing of it.” Zheng Long replied. Shura shrugged and turned to leave but Feros spoke again.

    “ Sir swordsman. I appreciate your assistance but truly there was no need to strike so lethally. Your victim will most probably lose the use of his legs.” Feros pointed out. Shura glared at the mage, disliking him intently, although he did not know why.

    “ But a magnificent throw it was!” Zheng Long butted in, unaware of the growing tension between the two. He beamed widely, draping an arm over Shura’s shoulders. “ Truly, I have never seen such a deadly strike!”

    Shura was taken aback by Zheng Long’s over enthusiastic display of appreciation and awkwardly disengaged the warrior monk’s arm. “ I am of little inclination to debate the concept of mercy with you, mage.”

    “ Your name, sir?” Feros asked firmly.

    “ Shura.” Came the curt answer.

    “ Well, then, Shura. I know your kind. In the future, I shall warn decent folk to beware of anyone who bears that name.” Feros said. The two locked glares for a moment and Kuroi started to move towards his student. He had never seen the young swordsman so full of loathing and was afraid that he might lash out with the wakizashi gripped tightly in his fist.

    Shura turned on his heel and stalked back to his and Kuroi’s table, his face struggling with barely concealed fury. Zheng Long bowed politely to Feros and followed Shura. Ignoring incredulous stares of Shura and Kuroi, Zheng Long sat down at their table and ordered a meal. After introducing himself to Kuroi, Zheng Long then proceeded to wax lyrical about various irrelevant subjects concerning the weather, the tavern’s food, the texture of wood that the tavern’s benches were made of…Kuroi was more than a little amused at the whole affair and talked heartily with the young man. Shura listened quietly, eating his meal and responding to Zheng Long’s small talk with appropriate monosyllabic answers.

    “ I have been traveling for the last two years in the western lands, having left the monastery that I grew up in. My teacher was the Han Warrior Monk Nan Yen. Perhaps one of you might have heard of him? He retrieved me as an infant from the ruins of a battlefield and raised me…” Kuroi shook his head slightly in response to Zheng Long’s query. The eastern lands were divided mainly into the two empires, the Dragon Empire and the Empire of Blades, which was ruled by the elven lords. Both Shura and Kuroi belonged to the latter and were thus largely ignorant of the prominent figures in Zheng Long’s land. Even their language differed and the three had to communicate in the common tongue utilized widely in the west.

    The tavern’s doors opened just then, admitting Elle and Mikealus. Elle had a self-satisfied smile on her face, letting Shura deduce just how successful she had been in slashing Kervast’s rates. Picturing the huge man slamming his head repeatedly on his desk induced more than a little mirth in Shura, dispelling some of the anger that the mage Feros caused him. Mikealus removed his dark gray cloak and propped his sword against their table.

    “ I see you have met the third member of our trio, Shura. He did not make a nuisance of himself, I hope.” Mikealus said, grinning at the youth. Zheng Long stuck his tongue out at the knight. Elle sat down after ordering meals for herself and Mikealus. She regarded Shura gratefully, her large eyes glinting amidst the dancing shadows in the tavern.

    “ I’ve cut the old Wolf’s knees out from under him! Duke Cypher has to pay him a mere five thousand for his band!” She said, smiling widely. “ My thanks, Shura. Surely you have done the Cypher Duchy a great favor this day!”

    “ A minor labor on my part, lady Elle.” Shura said politely. They ate, drank and talked for a while before seeking their beds. Feros and the swordsman exchanged baleful glares as they passed each other’s path more than once, the mage’s eyes scornful and pitying while Shura’s gaze was alight with contempt and hatred.

    Kervast’s mercenary army truly lived up to its’ reputation. Within the short span of three days, the freelance soldiers had embarked on their march towards the remote Duchy of Cypher. Shura spent the days assisting Kervast in the organization of his forces, putting the logistical knowledge gleaned from the pages of the War Manual written by the legendary tactician Mheng Tzu to good use. Needless to say, the huge warrior was both impressed and grateful. In his spare time, he meditated, running the flowing forms of the Blade of Harmony through his mind again and again, combining it’s abstract patterns with the aggressive and murderous strokes of the Shura Sword. It was during one of his practice sessions with Kuroi that Elle walked into, in an attempt to find out more about her newest ally.

    “ Less tension on the wrist, Shura. You are focusing too much on specific forms again when you should be less conscious of the exact stances.” Kuroi berated the young swordsman gently. Elle watched, awestruck as Shura again sent his twin blades into intricate, spinning patterns, feet shuffling in perfect synchronous balance. She had always considered Mikealus an expert swordsman but the young knight seemed like a clumsy oaf in comparison to Shura. Zheng Long was also a warrior from the east but he specialized in the usage of his bare hands and the strange sorcery he called ‘ki’. Elle was glad that she had Shura as an ally and not as a foe. Her skill in the arts of magic would be of little use against a foe that could dodge streaks of energy and bolts of flame. She doubted the spells that attacked one’s mind would be of much use against an individual such as Shura. Yet the young swordsman’s moral stand was unclear to her. The battle-mage was no naïve young maiden. She had fought in the succession wars against the forces of the usurper Blackmire and had dealt with people from all walks of life.

    She had no desire to deal with treachery when the threat to her beloved homeland was so real.

    Shura stopped in mid-motion suddenly. Both he and Kuroi turned their heads towards the shadowed archway where Elle skulked.

    “ I sense no hostile intent.” Shura muttered in a low tone, his brows knitted in suspicion.

    “ Of course you do not! You perceive too many foes in your world!” Kuroi snorted irritably. “ Greetings, Elle. What can the two of us do for you this morning?”

    “ Oh, I am just here to inform you that Kervast’s band leaves tomorrow.” Elle said hurriedly, her face flushing. Maybe she had enjoyed watching the practice session a little. “ Have the two of you packed your belongings yet?”

    “ This young delinquent here has nothing but his two swords and a spare set of clothes.” Kuroi answered, jerking a thumb back at the indignant Shura who had sheathed his swords. “ As for me, I have already gathered the daily necessities an old man requires for a journey. You need not worry about us.”

    “ Very well, then.” Elle nodded to the diminutive swordsman. “ I shall leave you to your training then.” Kuroi waved his hands.

    “ I’ve been disgusted enough by my pupil’s poor aptitude.” He grinned, ignoring an annoyed ‘Hey!’ from Shura. “ He’s all yours, lady Elle. He has an unhealthy lack of friends for one so young.” Elle had to bite her lip to keep from chuckling as Shura mimed an action of pulling Kuroi’s pointed ears of his head.

    “ Be careful going down the stairs! Your eyesight is not what it used to be, old man!” Shura called after the leaving Kuroi, getting a huffy ‘Bah!’ in response.
    The swordsman was left alone on the roof with Elle.

    She drew her dagger and struck in one fluid motion, the blade streaking towards Shura’s throat. The swordsman intercepted the dagger, clamping it between the last two fingers of his left hand easily. He raised a curious eyebrow at Elle’s delighted smile.

    “ I have seen that move before. The Naked Blade Capture! Zheng Long once caught a sword between his palm and thumb.” She said.

    “ His ki must be a thousand times stronger than mine, if he can do that.” Shura replied. “ Your blade was small and light and your blow had little force behind it, despite its swiftness.”

    “ Tell me more about this ki sorcery. At times, it seems to enable an eastern warrior to defy the limits of men.” The battle-mage hopped onto a sealed water barrel and sat down, inviting Shura to commence with a lengthy discussion.

    “ Ki is the life force present in various amounts in every living thing. If one can channel or focus it, he or she can achieve various results. Know that there are many nerve points in a humanoid body. By focusing ki on the dan tien point for example, one can improve his breathing and steady his center of balance. Other effects include the hardening of one’s limbs to withstand the bite of blades and the ability to leap great heights and distances in the air. Your friend Zheng Long is probably able to perform such feats, since he is a Han Warrior Monk. They are renowned for their mastery of ki throughout the east.” Shura supplied obligingly.

    “ And you? Are the warriors of the Empire of Blades proficient in the use of ki as well?” Elle asked.

    “ Most are. Many Samurai utilize ki to empower their sword strokes.” Shura replied. “ As for me, I have little skill in it.”

    “ Why?” The simple question made Shura uneasy. Should he reveal his inborn physical flaw to someone he hardly knew?

    “ Call it a lack of talent, lady Elle. My skills lie elsewhere.” Shura said.

    “ I know. By the gods, where did you learn how to use a sword? Never have I seen such swordplay!” Elle gushed.

    “ Tell me of the school of sorcery that you practice instead, lady Elle.” Shura responded in an attempt to deflect further prying on his dark origins. The battle-mage smiled ruefully.

    “ I do not wield the might of sorcery, Shura. Such a power can only be inborn and developed. I wield a lesser arcane art known as pattern magic. By using incantations, hand gestures and spell components, I am able to bend the laws of reality slightly to my desires.” She twirled her hand in an obscure gesture. “ With that gesture, a pinch of salt and the correct words, I would be able to conjure a spark of energy.”

    “ I see. Arcane power is granted from three sources: sorcery, pattern magic and divine energy gained from the worship of the gods, from what I have read.” Kalvairn had access to all three forms of arcane might, Shura realized upon hearing Elle’s explanation.

    “ Correct. You are indeed well-read for a mercenary.” Elle brushed a few loose strands of hair from her eyes. “ I shall take my leave now, Shura. See you tomorrow morning.”

    “ An enjoyable conversation, lady Elle. Good day to you as well.” The swordsman bowed politely. His sensei had always been maniacally strict about good form and etiquette even when he was butchering his enemies.

    The mercenary column was not a huge one, Shura realized, as they made their way down the dirt highways of the land. Kervast’s army consisted of mostly heavy infantry and a small contingent of crossbowmen. This would be most practical in the defense of a city against a siege. Kervast himself rode atop a great black warhorse, his huge sword and heavy armor giving him an imposing appearance. Beside him, Shura, Elle and Mikealus trotted on sturdy geldings.

    “ Are you sure you have brought enough men, Kervast?” Elle asked anxiously. “ The orcs number more than a thousand, yet I can barely count seven hundred here!”

    “ Bah! They are just orcs! Primitive savages, no matter how well armed they are!” Kervast snorted in derision.

    “ The orcs are armed with forged weapons and fight in standard military formation, Sir. Do not be so quick to underestimate them.” Mikealus put in. “ An elven ranger spotted the presence of a few orc shamans among their midst too. We can expect a magical and a military assault from them.”

    “ I’m sure Elle here can handle whatever those shamans can throw at us.” Kervast jerked a huge thumb at the battle-mage. “ Leave the orc warriors to me.”

    “ Your force is highly immobile. Do you think we should re-equip a small number of them to form a light cavalry force that can sally forth to harass the enemy?” Shura asked.

    “ Good thinking there, young man. I have considered such a move before, but I would rather concentrate on holding the lands of the Cypher Duchy first before attempting any kind of offensive foray.” Kervast replied.

    “ You seem to underestimate the enemy too, Shura.” Elle cast a reprimanding gaze upon the swordsman.

    “ Kervast’s Wolves held off the Blackguards for more than a month under overwhelming odds.” Shura said. “ I have every confidence in their abilities.” The huge warrior shuddered at the mention of Blackmire’s elite soldiers.

    “ I hope never to face them again! Every Blackguard trooper is more fanatical than a paladin. And the atrocities they commit! Rapine and genocide are as minor transgressions in comparison to their deeds!” Kervast said feelingly, an opinion shared by Mikealus and Elle, both of whom had fought against the Blackguards before. Shura was uncomfortably silent. He knew very well what the Blackguards and Ravagers were capable of: he had a played a major role in founding the latter.

    The mercenaries arrived at the Cypher Duchy after a week’s march where the Duke’s guardsmen met them. They regarded the mercenaries suspiciously until they spotted Elle among them. Swiftly, they ushered the armed men to the Duke’s castle. As they rode along the roads that joined the villages of the Cypher Duchy, Shura studied their client’s fiefdom. The scenery was idyllic, with peasants gawking in amazement at the mercenary column as they passed their well-tended fields. The land was fairly prosperous, but too remote to be of any interest to any other lord seeking to enlarge his own fief. It was, however, an ideal target for marauding orcs.

    The Cypher Castle was very small compared to the one Blackmire lived in. It was a solid, compact structure with a few towers, a narrow moat, and thick stone walls. Shura noticed Kervast studying the castle’s defenses and shaking his head, muttering disapprovingly under his breath through his scowl. The swordsman knew why. The castle was hardly an ideal fortification with which to hold against a besieging force. The castle looked large enough to accommodate the peasant refugees that would surely come surging in once the orcs arrived, however.

    A lone figure awaited them before the castle gates. Focusing his vision, Shura saw that it was a female elf, a bow slung across her back. Elle greeted her joyously as her horse neared the elf.

    “ Aalariel! What news do you bear?” Her smile faded as she noticed the grim look on the elven ranger’s face, though.

    “ Grim news. I shall break it to you along with Duke Cypher.” Aalariel’s musical voice could be clearly heard despite the din created by a few hundred men marching. “ These are the mercenaries? They will not have to wait long to display their prowess.”

    The mercenaries were billeted at the castle’s spare barracks and Elle led her companions along with Kervast, Shura and Kuroi to Duke Cypher’s conference hall where the duke was seated at the head of a long table.

    “ I present the leader of the Wolves, Kervast, my lord.” Elle bowed in respect. The duke was pale and haggard and dark rings showed under his eyes. He ran a liver-spotted hand over his nearly bald head and nodded. Shura could not help noticing how dirty the lord’s fine clothes were.

    Duke Cypher approached Kervast and shook the huge warrior’s outstretched hand.

    “ Greetings, Sir Kervast.” His voice was quavering and weak. Kervast responded with a nod of his head and a sweeping gesture of his hand to indicate that the duke had no need to stand up on his behalf.

    “ Your lordship, my men are here to defend the borders of your land.” His low, rumbling voice was brisk with professionalism. “ Rest assured that we would uphold our side of the bargain as long as you do with yours, a side worth five thousand gold, of which I have only received three.”

    “ You shall have the rest of the money immediately, sir.” Duke Cypher gestured to an aide who handed a parchment to him. The duke scribbled a few lines on the paper, dripped some wax from a burning candle onto it, and pressed his signet ring onto the wax after signing it. He gave it to Kervast. “ Show this letter to the Bank of Curomin. The steward there will give you access to the money I owe you.” The mercenary nodded in acceptance. Such practices were uncommon, but not unheard of among the nobles.

    “ By the ancient pact between the Cypher family and my people, I have come to inform you that an orcish army is within a week’s march from your borders, Duke Cypher.” Aalariel broke into the conversation. “ You can expect their advance scouts to begin pillaging the more outlying districts in two days time.”

    The Duke raised a palm to his wrinkled forehead. “ This is dire news indeed. I am so close…so close…!” He became aware of the eyes on him and recovered his composure. He ran his hands down his crumpled clothes and turned to Kervast. “ I shall leave things in your capable hands, sir. I hope you will be able to work closely with Elle here. I trust her as I would a daughter.” He staggered back to his chair and sat down heavily. Elle rushed forward to place her hands on his shoulders.

    “ I think it’s time for you to rest, my lord. I shall escort you to your chambers.” The battle-mage spoke in a respectful tone but her determined stare left no one in doubt that she would not back down as long as the duke did not comply with her suggestion. The duke chuckled wearily as he regarded her. For a moment, the darkness that overshadowed his presence left him.

    “ Yes, yes. I should get some rest. No need to support me, though.” He got up. “ Tell me about your journey, little Elle. Was it nice?” Their voices faded as Elle led the duke out of the conference room, his voice indulgent and fond while the battle-mage’s answers were crisp and bright.
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