A Note: This is not the next chapter in The Robust Five story I have been posting. This is just something I felt like writing, it follows the events of the eighth scenario of the previous campaign.
The Braun mansion was silent in the night, the air still and only the sounds of sleeping were heard in the upper portions. The day had been long and deadly, John's flesh a burned wreckage repaired by Xein's sorcery and each member of The Robust Five left sickened and nauseated by the effects of the sorcery within the catacombs of black glass beneath Meroteth. Only two remained awake in the depths of the mansion, one an unsleeping sentinel of iron and steel, the other a concerned brother.
Kethranmeer worked in the depths of the mansion in his freshly constructed forge and D'alton, pale and sickly looking from the sorcery of the evening, sat on a table cleaning his guns and knives. Kethranmeer had removed his chest piece, revealing the copper coils and sparking contacts of A'lst's lightning heart and D'alton marveled at the complexity of it. Every time Kethranmeer moved those heavy limbs of his there was a whine of electrical current and the sparking lines of electricity brightened considerably. Within his chest was the only portion of Kethranmeer that did not look worn and dented and rusty.
"Brother," said D'alton weakly and quietly, his face pained, "you look like shit."
"Kethranmeer thanks brother D'alton for his eloquent concern."
D'alton's glacial eyes glowed like the moon with reflected light from his brother's chest as he said, "Brother, dispense with Thoeleknair's mannerisms, I am too weary from battle."
Kethranmeer nodded, "Fair enough, brother. I thank you for your concern, but steel and iron endure as much as fresh forged wolf-iron when layered heavily enough. My sons have need of my flesh."
D'alton scoffed, "We have need of your flesh, death drew close to us today, brother. A dragon, never have we fought something so deadly. John lays weak and wounded above us, his face whole only because of Xein's sorcery."
Kethranmeer set aside the wolf-iron chest piece and placed a battered looking twin of it atop his anvil, this piece cold forged from crude iron. He hammered it here and there, rust flaking as he did so. The pounding grew fierce and D'alton slid from the tabletop and closed the heavy door to the forge.
"They sleep above us, brother, and they have need of it."
"Fair enough," rumbled Kethranmeer.
D'alton sagged against the wall, his limbs and body more exhausted than after a day in the mines of Beltan. He was Fell-Human in origin, but as thin blooded as Xein, despite his eyes, and the sorcerous traps of the evening had left him subdued and sickly. He only clung to consciousness out of worry for his brother.
"What do you do here, brother? Stripping away your strength piece by piece and gifting it to those mindless beasts beyond the doors."
Kethranmeer's hammer flew from his grasp and put a dent into a different wolf-iron door of the forge.
"Spineplate was a beast, mindless and full of naught but wrath and hate for all that was flesh and could feel. I am Kethranmeer now, gone is the Beast, gone is Spineplate. As A'lst before me has done, I have found the wounded and broken and would gift them with what I have achieved. I take from them all they knew, all they hold dear, I kill what they are and replace it with madness, for that crime, I sacrifice of myself in the hope that they return to sentience as I did. Of my unfeeling flesh, I build a family."
"But why, brother? What do you seek? We are brothers, we live among friends and allies."
Kethranmeer snarled, "Silent John that cares nothing for anything beyond our next battle? Mad Derf, the liar and wretched sorcerer that you all put too much faith in? Xein the businessman? These are our swordbrothers? When Nakmander tires of our services shall we all then retire to Xein's bar and become bartenders and waiters?"
The lightning heart within Kethranmeer surged with blue-white ferocity as the once-Soulless turned to face his brother.
"I seek more than that brother. The challenge of battle was once enough for me, I have ever been a stalker of battlefields and bringer of death, but I desire more than that now. I am Kethranmeer, warrior of steel flesh and steel mind. To sit in this city, protecting a bar and busting heads for a sorcerer is not how I would end my days. My flesh, even rusted as it is now, will never fail me. To die in battle, shattered and rent apart my foes is one thing, but to pass into monotony as a bouncer or die at the hands of another's foes shall not be how I end my days."
D'alton stepped forward and ineffectually shoved his brother, his limbs weak and shaking, "Then what? Who are Kethranmeer's foes? Who shall he die in battle against? Speak brother, pull yourself from the trap of your own self-enforced restraint and call me to battle as well!"
"The Fallen Empire. The Bleak Tyrant. The Black Souled Monks of the Necropolis. I name these as my foes," whispered Kethranmeer.
"Are you Nakmander, then? A freedom fighter mad enough to believe he can tear down an entire nation?"
Kethranmeer growled, and the ice blue slush of D'alton's blood stilled in his veins, for he heard the Beast in that growl.
"No, brother D'alton. I am a slave, as I have been for almost one hundred and fifty years. The Soulless are slaves to the Fallen and only because of A'lst and the betrayal by my own masters am I now free. I would grant the rest of my people freedom as well, by a kinder fate than being left for scrap in a lightless cave, as I was."
D'alton nodded, remembering his short eight years in Beltan, "What can I do to help, brother?"
"Be patient. My sons need time to return to stability, A'lst needs more time to craft lightning hearts. I will stay here, working with Nakmander until my Rankethlek mature. When they do, they will go out among Soulless and free them from the control of the Fallen that possess their minds and when the time is right, we shall forge our own race and our own nation from the chains the Fallen placed upon us."
D'alton stepped forward and gripped the iron flesh of his brother's forearms and Kethranmeer returned the gesture. When cool flesh meant forge warmed metal, tendrils of darkness spread from under D'alton's palm and wrapped around the limb of the once-Soulless. D'alton leapt away as if trying to escape his treacherous flesh.
Kethranmeer's hand and arm clanked as he shook lingering tendrils of shadow from his limb, they dripped to the floor like oil and snaked towards D'alton's shadow.
"Your control weakens, brother."
If possible, D'alton looked more shaken than he already was, sweat sprang out on his brow and his shoulders shook, "I think the events in the catacombs have accelerated what Nakmander began when we met with him to buy our freedom."
A metallic rumble issued from within Kethranmeer, "I owe my existence to sorcery, and A'lst's methods, but it is a perilous beast to ride brother, and one I would never willingly trust again."
D'alton snorted, "Derf and Xein and my traitorous blood can attest to that, but it seems I have no choice in the matter. My blood cools more and more of late, my breath now mists even in the heat of Kusseth's unrelenting sun, my shadow falls where it should not and its skeletal fingers twitch upon the butts of its own guns."
Kethranmeer had ceased even the pretense of forging now and faced D'alton fully, "I have noticed, brother."
D'alton's gaze grew unfocused, his lips met in a grim line across his tired face.
Sensing his friend's descent into darkness and misery, Kethranmeer spoke, "D'alton, Have I told you before of Kardusa?"
D'alton shook his head, as Kethranmeer had expected, for it was a memorable story and he knew fully that he had not spoken of it before.
"When I fought and killed in the name of The Bleak Tyrant and his black throne...I was much more than I am now, and much less. Sorcerous fires burned within me, my wolf-iron flesh glowed red in the gaps between the plates of my limbs and chest, my talons were black stone carved from the deepest crypts of the Necropolis and knapped into a deadly sharpness by Fallen with sorcerous skills of the highest order. I was a cold killer, completely enslaved by the Fallen voices in my mind."
Kethranmeer paused for a moment, his body eerily still and his eyeless face aimed over and to the left of D'alton's face.
"I was unstoppable," he finally said.
D'alton's raised a brow at that, his friend was usually reserved and silent about his past, and never arrogant.
Kethranmeer went on, "Nakmander told you that once the sorcerer kings of The Fell Peaks and Meroteth rode to battle on dragons, domesticated and bred them in their warrens. This practice is more modern than he led you all to believe. There is a ruined city, far to the south near the border between The Fell Peaks and The Beast Lands, once known as Menteth, now a derelict ruin.
Kethranmeer flexed his fingers, remembering the black blade talons he no longer had.
"It was in Menteth that the Fell Humans hard first learned to breed dragons, originally they had attempted to control them with sorcerous mind powers as they had the Glenwighta, but that ability seemed only useful against the Glenwighta, and it has fallen far from what it once was. Regardless, they found that they could only control the dragons as you control an attack beast, and only when they were young. The older dragons got, the more intelligent and obstinate they grew."
Kethranmeer grew completely still, he was not a storyteller, and had no need to rest or quench a parched throat. His words droned on in his tinny voice, his body motionless and his hands at his sides.
He went on, "The eldest dragons were not stupid though. They could not speak, but they could make themselves understood, and they could understand the Fell Humans, in a fashion. The eldest brood dragon of the Menteth warrens was known as Kardusa. He was the most magnificent creature I have seen in my life. He was one hundred feet of sinuous black grace and muscular violence. His scales had long ago gone black, warped by the sorcery in Menteth and looked like palm-sized scales of obsidian that glittered like black diamonds."
"My masters in The Fallen Empire determined that Menteth had grown too strong. They knew of Kardusa, even across the continent, and they knew he was allied with The Fell Peaks. Kardusa was a willing dweller within the warrens, he was a strong and ancient dragon, and his young were strong as well, so he was allowed to breed as he desired, and he was allowed to leave the warrens whenever he wished. He was not a caged beast, but an ally to the empire. My creators determined that it would be my task to destroy Kardusa, to cripple the breeding program of Menteth."
"And how did the forty foot beast we fought this night compare to mighty Kardusa, brother?"
Kethranmeer made a metallic raspy noise, his equivalent of a snort of derision, "Its scales were changing as Kardusa's had, but the slug we fought was two hundred or more years behind Kardusa's evolution."
"My brothers and I, ten of us, the Kanthek Brotherhood, were veterans. We strode into the warrens of Menteth as unstoppable juggernauts, with a cadre of Fallen following in our wake and neutralizing the sorcery of the Fell Humans. Despite this, and our strength, five of my brothers fell to their sorcery before we even encountered Kardusa. The sorcery of Fell Humans is unreliable, but as potent as that of their undead cousins."
"Despite his size, Kardusa was a silent shadow in the dark warrens, a glint of shine moving through the night as my fires reflected off of his scales. He destroyed my brothers...quickly. We cut and hacked and beat at him with our weapons, and he was wounded, but they fell too soon to the titanic black lizard. I pressed on alone, tearing great rents in its black scales with my own talons, and it tore off and ate my right arm."
"When it tried to swallow me whole, its fangs caught on my flesh and I tore out its eye in a welter of blood and fluid and it spat me across the cavern we fought in, dousing me in burning black sludge as he did so. He approached and attempted to rip off my left arm, but I channeled the sorcerous fires within me to the black talons of my claws and scoured his throat and face with blades of fire that sent him reeling."
"Forgive me for interrupting brother, but it seems as if he was very focused on eating you, despite your lack of meat."
Kethranmeer nodded, the first movement he had made in some time, "Sorcery changes living flesh, and Kardusa desired to consume the reliquary of the Fallen within me to fuel his continuing evolution. The six Fallen within me represented a vast store of necromantic sorcery that he hungered for. Also, I suspect that he understood that consuming the reliquary was the surest way to destroy me, just as destroying my lightning heart is now the only way to ensure I am irrevocably destroyed."
"Ah, I see."
"I am not a storyteller, brother. I will say that the battle was fierce, the place we fought was littered with scales and fragments of my broken body and scarred by the caustic spit of the dragon. By the end of it, he had taken my arm, half a leg, and most of my torso with his teeth and talons. Sorcery bound in fire leaked from every wound upon my body, but I slew him. I shattered his skull and shredded his brain with my fiery black talons."
"When my masters found my, I was dragging myself across the black floor of the warrens, my body studded with broken teeth and claws and leaking sorcerous fire. Kardusa had consumed two of the Fallen animating me. I was weak and broken. They did not congratulate me or thank me for me service, or try to aid in my recovery. I was a slave warrior and had served my purpose. They determined that it would be too costly to repair me, that binding more destroyed Fallen into my reliquary would make my personality too unstable. They left me there, shattered but not dying, for I could not die so long as the reliquary within me contained at least one Fallen. So there I sat in the darkness, bereft of my brothers with only the increasingly agitated and bitter Fallen within my mind to keep me company."
Kethranmeer grew silent for a moment, then spoke, "They were not kind to me. You remember the Beast, brother?"
"As I am now to the Beast, so the Beast was to what A'lst found in those warrens. I only vaguely remember A'lst finding me. I can barely recollect the incandescent bolts of lightning from his black glove that he used to subdue me and the Fallen within me. I do not remember dying at his hands, I remember waking though, chained and howling at him, thrashing as he removed my black talons and replaced them with wolf-iron ones. I remember an absence in my mind and a sense of energy within my chest, rather than the infernal heat of sorcery."
"I was as an animal for a time. When I grew too violent, he punished me. When I served him loyally, he rewarded me with modifications to my body. When I could speak and understand, he taught me of the lightning heart and how he had obliterated the Fallen with beltanizine and how the electricity of the lightning heart sustained my animating sorceries now. He taught me Thoeleknair and granted me my name and taught me how to repair myself and the lightning heart. At first he was the master and I the hound, but as I returned to myself and became more than myself, he became the father and I the son."
Silence grew and D'alton filled it hesitantly, "I...I thank you for sharing that story with me, brother. I would ask a favor of you."
Kethranmeer nodded, "Do so."
D'alton's shadow shifted, its fingers twitching on its gunbelts on the floor as he spoke, "If these powers of shadow and cold that I am manifesting grow beyond my control, if I become something unnatural and murderous or mad..."
Kethranmeer hefted his maul, "As long as there is life within this metal body, as long as lightning thunders within me, that will not happen. I will end you before allowing you to become something foul and cease to be my brother."
D'alton's shoulders sagged and he sighed, "I thank you for that, brother."