TERA: For the Federation S2 Ep3 - The Most Dangerous Game
By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW), OnRPG Editor-in-Chief
I spent the rest of the evening camped outside of a forgotten Labyrinth just southwest of Castanica. Between the sound of chaotic battle to the south and the threat of Federation guards under the control of Samael to the north, getting a good night's rest was anything but easy. It didn't help that every time I blinked the afterimage of my imaginary Popori Cat friend kept appearing before my eyes. I figured if I only got some rest, the nightmare of today would pass.
In my dream I saw Wulynn lying on a cold metallic slab of a bed trapped in a containment cell in one of the many Argon bases now established throughout Northern Arun. Nothing our world would consider 'life' existed for miles around. Her bed was surrounded by what at first glance looked like flowers, but closer inspection would reveal them as cheap construct copies of the real deal. A small legion of corrupted fairies and a unicorn with a broken horn stood guard outside her door with malicious vigilance. And then as if by magic that smile from my imagination appeared before her. As the rest of his body formed together Wulynn jumped up in shock and pointed her staff head at him in defense. The wicked cat grinned and assured her he meant no harm.
"I am the result of an Argon experiment just like you. I came from a family of wealthy traders respected throughout the Federation. One day we were delivering goods to a customer in Northern Arun when a portal opened in the sky and a barrage of steel unlike any I had ever seen fell from the heavens. I was terribly disfigured in the barrage and my family killed, however the Argon's queen restored my spark through their magic. As unbelievable as it may be, the queen seemed different from the rest of the Argons I met after. She seems to think independently and even has emotion, even compassion. She knew I was of no value to her and yet still allowed me to live on as a servant of her empire." Wulynn smacked the cat on the head with her staff, anger flaring in her eyes.
"That sounds more like an inhumane punishment than an act of kindness to me!" The cat stood dumbfounded at Wulynn's words as he attempted to understand the point she was making.
"Perhaps we got off on the wrong paw? My name is Gemie of Pora Elinu. In both my life and my second life my family has taught me what is required to live and live well. Meanwhile others as useless as myself don't last a week in the Argon ranks because they don't know how to play the game. The most dangerous game. But a game nonetheless! Our lives are mere pawns of a greater war."
"It sounds like the Argon magic has twisted your reality already." Wulynn rebutted, though with less intensity than her previous words carried.
"Ah it has happened yes. Though I twisted it back as close as possible to my old form. If you would like I can do the same for you." Wulynn cocked her head to the side in confusion at his words, then jumped when he phased through her to reappear again behind her holding onto her central tail. Wulynn gasped at the sight of a metallic tip and small veins of ore slowly expanding down it towards her body. "It's only a matter of time until you to face the loss of self. Now if you want to play nice perhaps I will offer you guidance so you don't lose yourself."
Wulynn shivered at these words. She understood that the corruption had already begun and no Federation magic or medicine had yet to find a cure for the Argon's poison.
"Very well Gemie, teach me to be an Argon like yourself."
"Say please!" His grin expanded to the point of stretching his face into distorted lengths.
"...Please?" Wulynn had lived her entire life in prestige, having a room in the upper branches of the Elin Palace through most of her life. Bowing in respect to this ugly corrupted cat did not settle well with either side of her mind. A voice inside her head almost seemed to mock her, and the realization that an urge to act on more animalistic desires was starting to override her natural calm and reasonable nature.
"That's better," chided Gemie as he pat Wulynn on the head. He suddenly turned to face the wall... no to face me.
The surrounded environment began to fade away until only Gemie's wicked mouth surrounded by blackness spoke directly into my soul. "And you, Dizzy! Accept that Wulynn is mine now. The Wulynn you loved died at the end of your poison barbed spear. Stop your foolish quest to bring her back and live out the rest of your days in peace. Only death awaits those that defy the queen!"
I jumped from my bed and fell to the floor landing on an unlucky rooster that happened to be pecking for crumbs in the tent. The rooster's yell soon had everyone else in our encampment rushing into our tent, some to see what the fuss was, others to deal with the pesky "alarm."
After having a delicious chicken salad, we set out for the ruins under the cover of the local flora, leaving Surmun and Leander to cover our supplies at the base. Some of the men we had rescued in Val Aureum pleaded that we wait for further instructions from Dougal but Elleon's wicked glare was more than enough to silence any dissenters. I whispered quietly to Platy about what I had seen but he shook his head in confusion.
"Dizzy, there simply isn't magic that exists in our world to allow one to experience and share information with another across vast distances. No one among our races has such technology. The giants certainly didn't have that technology. And if the Argon's had access to it they would have already known that their diversion in Val Kaeli to draw attention away from Castanica for a full invasion was countered from the beginning. You just had a nightmare." I stared back at him with my blank bloodshot eyes, not immediately sure how to defend what even in my own mind sounded absurd. Thankfully the sounds of battle to the south were beginning to subside as one Argon portal after another accepted refugees and closed its gates to the approaching outsiders.
"I know what I saw Platy. That Argon cat is converting Wulynn into a monster and getting pleasure out of forcing me to watch!"
"Then catch him the next time he is around and prove it to me. I only believe tangible magic I"m exposed to!" As Platy turned a hard stick of bamboo caught him across the face. I attempted to dodge but got smacked as well. There Jelena stood looking to be in an even fouler mood than usual.
"Enough of your delusions Dizzy. We need to keep quiet so we don't tip off Samael to our presence. His thugs are already roaming around the tombs in droves expecting to hold off the Argon invasion. If we make a scene he'll be gone before we ever have a chance to expose him."
Suddenly a much larger branch smacked into Jelena's back, knocking her to the ground. She turned in rage ready to belittle Elleon, only to find a large orc standing over her chuckling to a small legion of lesser orcs at least 10 strong behind him.
"Ambush!" Jelena shouted and rolled, doding a crushing blow from the massive orc and then taking off in a mad sprint to avoid the 10 smaller creatures hot on her tail. Platy began murmuring incantations in rapid succession as I charged into the small horde of creatures, my abilities supernaturally bolstered by Platy's prayers. Without pause I tore through 5 of them, smashing their heads in with rapid succession as I flailed my shield left and right. The large orc ran at me without pause, swinging his club over his head to build momentum. I caught him straight in the throat as poison splashed from his neck and across my fur as I turned my wrist to open the Basilisks spikes that had covered my master's former weapon.
As the light faded from the beast's eyes, I felt a shock of lightning shoot up my arm and throughout my body. I looked closely as my weapon retracted to see a strange purple taint covering its tip. Undoubtedly my thrust had been so potent not because of the Basilisk poison, but rather the Argonian magic that destroyed all life it touched. It was hard to come to grasps between my need for power and the fear of what this meant for my personal being. Thankfully Elleon had returned with news of a secret back entrance to the Labyrinth's underground catacombs.
Minutes later we stood atop a large cliff side overlooking the labyrinth below. Elleon pointed out the hole blown in the side of the structure near a large stone staircase leading into the depths of the labyrinth. There was no doubt that this hole was made by Samael's men to bypass the horrors of the labyrinth, and that staircase held within it the God Lok's lost Spear of Gidd.
'I thought the labyrinth's challenges would have bought us more time, " Elleon groaned at the sight, "We need to act now."
"What about our plans to expose Samael to Seir and the Federation at large?" I wondered aloud.
"If Samael gets that lance in his possession, Seir will no longer be a concern for his power grab. With his lies and political connections he'll seize control of the entire Federation and utilize its power to bring about the resurrection of Lok without anyone knowing. I'll kill him myself if I have to. Living as a fugitive isn't as bad as living under his shadow."
"Elleon is right," Jelena confirmed. Elleon gave her a reassuring smile. "Besides, if you were against breaking the law you wouldn't have come with us in the first place. When in Castanica, do like the Castanics and live a little Dizzy!"
At that Jelena and Elleon began their rapid slide down the hillside where they disappeared behind the solid imposing walls. The rest of the men looked on, unsure of themselves. I could sympathize with their hesitation. These men were unfortunate pawns of Samael that had been pulled into a Civil War they wanted nothing of. I looked down at my spear, pulsating with dark power and bruised with scratches and discoloration from years of use and abuse by my master. Popori after all are more known for their botany than blacksmithing and don't take the best care of their equipment.
"Get out of here. All of you." I spoke, my words coming out as emotionless as I could possibly muster to prevent my voice from shaking. The mens' eyes locked onto my beady stare with uncertainty but respect. "Look at all of you. All I see is fear and uncertainty. Samael will feed on your fear. Samael will destroy you with your uncertainty. Anyone unready to die today may as well go home. You are only a liability to us otherwise."
I turned and slide down the darkside of the mountain, with the sound of pebbles rumbling close behind me. I didn't have to look to know this was Platy right at my back. Yet the sound grew louder and forced me to glance back to see the hillside covered with a small battalion of Federation humans right behind us. My plan to appeal to their honor worked. Humans are so simple minded sometimes.
As we reached the bottom we found a few limp bodies of curious labyrinth guardians that were likely drawn to the location after Samael's men had blasted down the wall. Jelena and Elleon had made it clear they meant business, cutting off limbs and random ligaments left and right to quickly clear a way to the staircase. Platy and I glanced at each other nervously and knew the sound of battle would surely draw a much... larger crowd. So we waved for the Federation soldiers to hurry into the staircase. Just before the daylight was blocked out by the earth covering our heads, a familiar voice called out for me to wait.
I turned to face Seir's Counsel, Dougal, standing with his full officer body armor and signature multiplated lance. A small battalion of men stood on the hillside behind him. He quickly shouted out that Seir had been informed of Samael's betrayal and that no matter the outcome, he would never be able to return to Velika a free man.
"Well that's good and all," interjected Platy, "But if we don't get back to Velika alive how can you buy us Popori a drink to celebrate?"
The men let out a brief chuckled laugh before Dougal reached the bottom of the hillside to raise his arm calling for silence. We heard the sudden rumbling of heavy footsteps and knew it was best not to overstay our welcome. We rushed down the staircase and came to a stop when seeing not 2 but 3 figures standing in close proximity at the base of the stairs. A large throne room stood before us, built from the ground itself with furniture and decoration carved completely out of precious metals. In the throne sat a beautiful but wicked looking Castanic.. no.. that name bears too much honor with it. She sat comfortably, a slight smile acting as the centerpiece of her countenance as she stared at Elleon and Jelena's tense forms with content. This was a high ranking Devas, and unfortunately one I had come to know all too well.
I broke our cover, stepping forward as if my lance was surging a wave of bravado through my tiny body that I had never before felt.
"Fadora you traitorous bitch. I should have expected you would be a part of this." I muttered through clenched teeth. The familiar figure of a Castanic Federation lancer emerged from behind her throne, forcing Elleon and Jelena to take a safe step back to remain out of the reach of his infamous lance. Samael's right hand man, Stadrian, pointed his lance straight at me with a heavy frown marking his countenance.
"Fadora is a fabrication you pompous little rabbit. Know your place when speaking to Akia, Grand Priestess of Darkness and mastermind behind the resurrection of our beloved God Lok!"
At this Akia placed a calm hand on his shoulder, silently requesting he step aside. With an effortless wrist flick she tossed a dark fireball at me. I knocked it to the side with my shield with considerable effort and charged past Elleon and Jelena, missing her left thigh by inches as she boosted off the metallic throne and flipped through the air behind it. From the shadows emerged Samael with a small legion of Devas hunched over, licking their blades in anticipation of the coming battle. Before I could jump back to clear distance, Stadrian landed an unsteady thrust of his lance directly into my unbraced shield, knocking me to the ground before he retreated behind the advancing line of blood thirsty Devas.
Samael held his lance out as Akia pressed her open palm against the sharpened edge. Her blood seeped out slowly at first and then gushed in a large spurt, covering the lance in a slimy red sheen. He then pulled the lance from her and jammed it into a circular cut out in the wall, immediately resulting in runic swirls of magic erupting around the lance, and opening a portal into some kind of sub-dimension. Samael began to walk into the light expecting to be bestowed with the God Lok's blessings. Akia grabbed his shoulder and nodded her head slowly, approaching it before him instead.
Binding chains of darkness shot out from all directions in reaction to her intrusion, attempting to pin Akia to the ground and bind her movements from counter-attacking. She held her staff before her, unleashing parallel chains of light that wrapped around and deflecting the Ancient's final trap to prevent intrusion into Gidd's Chamber. She waved her arms fanatically as the two factions of chains struggled and jockeyed for position against each other. Her eyes grew wide as one misplaced move allowed a large group of chains to break free and launch in her direction. She dove to the ground as they gripped the slower unsuspecting Deva onlookers from behind. I jumped before Elleon as Dougal did the same for Jelena, thrusting our shields forward to deflect the same fate from our crew.
As the last of the life within the Devas faded, their forms began to twist into grotesque forms, smaller monsters mirroring the multitude of statues lining the throne room with matching decorated head dresses and short sharp blades. The largest of the Devas however actually rose in size, one foot.. and then another, until he towered over even Elleon's imposing form with blades expanding from his shoulder blades like skeletal armor. He reached into the air as more dark chains wrapped around his upper arms, rolling in endless circles down his flexed bicep until forming into a bladeless handle at the end. Magic ignited the handle as he swung it forward, and flames shot out in the shape and form of a hefty broadsword.
The Castanic I once knew as Fadora blew a kiss to me with her blooded head and turned, placing a hand on Samael's shoulder. They strode together into the portal along with a reluctant Stadrian that stared with remorse at his corrupted allies writhing in pain. Just before their forms faded into the ethereal light, Akia waved her hand in the air, letting the last drop of blood drizzle off her palm and into her open mouth. She then turned back with a quick glance and bid us farewell, hoping we would be sure to suffer before dying. The portal closed behind as the monsters began to succumb to the curse of the chains and spread out, surrounding and pushing our troops slowly back up the staircase. Some of the men, losing their nerve, turned to run only to find the exit to the cavern suddenly blocked by a sliding stone.
"Crush them quickly. We don't have time to lose," Elleon said in a matter of fact tone.
"At least it can't get any worse," sighed Jelena.
As she spoke these words I noticed stones began to clatter and rumble on the ground. The clashing sound of a statue smashing into the ground drew our attention to the side of the room which was suddenly a good foot closer than I remembered. A quick turn to the left revealed a similar state on the opposing wall. We were trapped inside a box that was slowly closing in on us, a trap favored by the ancients for keeping pesky robbers from unleashing horrible artifacts of destruction on the world. Time was of the essence and opening the portal to the Chamber of Gidd seemed to be the only way out.
Dougal raised his lance, extending it fully and throwing it into the skull of the first minion to approach our cornered band.
"Today you live or die for the Federation men. May Goddess Velik be with us!"