Arcane Wonders Storyline
So a couple of years ago I was asked by the folks at Arcane Wonders, the people who put out the awesome game Mage Wars, to write a story for their Organized Play. It had been my hope, and intention, to craft a well layered tale of a clash of cultures in a story told from multiple points of view. I submitted this, my first draft, and asked how I could polish it, thinking I would be afforded the time to really put something special together.
Unfortunately, the creative team decided that my work was not a good fit for their website. For those of you who bothered to read what they have as "official storyline" material you'll understand why I'm still a little miffed by their decision. Anyway, here's the original draft of the first part of the unfinished story that was never used for the Conquest of Kumanjaro expansion.
Five months, two weeks, and six days. It had been less than half a year, yet it had felt like half a lifetime had passed since he had last slept in his soft, down, bed within the warm walls of the temple. It rankled that so much of the year had passed him by since he had been forced to exchange his home and PROPER position for the stomach-churning expanse that was the Viridian Sea. “On some FOOL quest, in an even more foolish attempt to prevent the Wizards of ‘Sacrilege’ from gaining more of a presence in Etheria and spreading their…FOOLISHNESS!” he thought to himself.
It was a bitter sigh that left Orren Cain’s lips. When High Priest Balazaar had been murdered, he had seemed like the most logical candidate to take up the staff and replace the old man. But, unfortunately for Orren, his promotion had been stolen from him. For a long time, talk had seeped throughout the ranks of the Order. Accusations of “sharp elbows” and spending too much time as a combatant in the arena hung around him like flies around an orc’s carcass. It was ultimately decided that he would benefit from accompanying The Seahawk’s crew on their voyage south, to explore whatever lands lay past Sortilege’s lone colony on The Shackled Frontier. “To insure that all will one day worship Asyra, we must insure that all Etheria is within our grasp. You will be the blade that cuts a path for the Order.” He had been told. They had been hollow words, meant to assuage his burgeoning resentment.
Orren stared out over the green tinted waters. An empty world was all that had awaited him outside of Victoria. He had won dozens of mage battles in the arena; a handful had even been death matches against followers of the Arraxian Crown. All had yielded before the fury of his burning light, but Orren had never encountered an opponent as concrete as despair, and he wondered if he was doomed to spend the rest of his days in glorified exile.
The wind whipped his white hair, symbol of his status as a “chosen” follower, as it filled the newly designed Angle Sails. He idly studied the large, triangular shaped, patches of fabric. They had been the reason for the ship’s “swift” travel despite the absence of a Lupuertan weather mage. Not for the first time he mused over the notion of studying magic designed for nautical purposes. At least the winds are with us today.
No sooner had the thought been formed, did his nostrils register the difference in aroma from this wind and all the other winds of the past half year. It was rich with a floral scent as well as the faint smells of cooking fires and petrichor. He turned, heart stuck in his throat, in the direction of the breeze. His eyes strained for the only possible source of the scent which had hit him so powerfully. Sure enough, out on the very edge of the horizon, was land.
A stretch of etheria the size of what they were now seeing was unheard of this far south of Westlock. Could they have gotten turned around? Perhaps sailed in a loop and found themselves near The Chental?
“Davin!” Orren cried, “Davin, what land do we now behold?”
From his perch at the top of the bird’s nest, the sandy haired boy looked away from his spy glass and down at the mage he had begun to detest.
“Could na tell ya, Masteh Orren.”
“Honestly boy, what good do you serve being on this vessel?” Orren fumed.
“More good den a priest, tuh be sure.” Davin muttered to himself before responding. “S’not a land I seen b’fore. Sand’s black and de trees 're strange.”
Heavy bootsteps announced the presence of the Seahawk’s captain before his gruff voice boomed across the deck.
“Aye, Master Orren. This be a new land, like I say there be. My hunches be never wrong. We be takin’ a crew to shore 'thin the hour. Week’s journey, mayb’ more.”
The white haired mage looked at the tan, muscled man in front of him with a cold gaze. If this was a ploy or ruse to be rid of him, the Seahawk would suffer for it.
“So be it, Captain Dawkins. I will accompany you and your men.”
He had not noticed the time passing as the small expedition had landed on the shore, and ventured into the thick jungle just beyond the black sands. He was excited, in the strangest of ways as the reality of unexplored land dawned on him. The first thing that hit Orren upon stepping into the strange forest was the air. It was the heaviest, richest, breath his lungs had ever been fortunate enough to inhale and the raw humidity of the place almost made the air tangible. Had he not known better he would have sworn he felt it settling on his shoulders, enveloping his person, and doing its best to weigh him down. There was an intense stillness to this heavy air, highlighted by the constant hustle of jungle life and the complete lack of a breeze. In some places, the air stayed so heavy with moisture that there was a constant fog engulfing and muffling everything around him. It was for these patches of smoky mist that he dubbed this the "Cloud Forest".
Trees of all kinds and endless vegetation stymied the process of the exploration crew. The sheer immensity of the trees and the incredible amount of different types of plants gave pause to each of them, though none had ever had a love for land based wonders. Everything within the massive jungle was a flamboyant expression of life, though Orren wondered if it was entirely natural. During his forays into Straywood he had encountered tall oaks that had been “aided” through magical means. Could this jungle belong to magic users? Literally everything around the party was in constant flux - in some stage of living, developing, decaying or dying. Once, he actually watched some of the plants growing with his naked eye. The wonders of the forest gave birth to a wonderful thought. The lumber within the trees was enough of a valuable resource for the Order to reward his journey. Generations of raw material for Malakai’s Army, was literally within the grasp of his fingertips. Perhaps this was his reward from on high for serving so vehemently and for enduring the long months at sea. Already he had secured trees as tall as any of the towers of Westlock, trees with leaves the size of sails, and this was only the beginning of their exploration. He would return not just a champion of the mage arena, but a champion of the political one as well.
****** As a child, and as a novice hunter, her grandfather had barred her from entering the forests of her land. A warm man by nature, he never questioned her skill, just preferred not having it tested. By her late teens he had poured all his knowledge into her; but his teachings and his knife were all she had left of the old man now. He had passed the same way many Animal Talkers before him had passed; in his sleep. Amongst the Johktari, Animal Talkers were revered even by rival tribes, as they insured the survival of all people, but her grandfather was perhaps the most revered of all. Makunda himself came out for the old man’s burial. The lions of the land held great respect for Tankgred and his prowess as a hunter. Makunda especially, had fond memories of Tankgred, “speaking” of him as if he too had been a lion.
Of the many in Tankred’s line, Aswani had been the only one to have the spark necessary to succeed him in his all-important role and she displayed perhaps a shade more talent than he had when he was her age. During the hunt, archery was her greatest strength, though she was no slouch when it came to spear throwing and she was more than capable of using a wootz steel knife in a pinch. Hunting was the single greatest act of training for Animal Talkers as it involved the use of all senses, as well as the intrinsic use of a sixth sense, a hunter’s instinct, to be successful. It was also the best way to integrate into the natural order of the wild. While nature always found its way towards equilibrium, it was in a constant state of struggle, and a hunt reminded the Talker of their place within that struggle.
This hunt was not unlike the countless others she had conducted; perhaps it was just a bit more of hassle, however. An antelope, in a desperate effort to escape its demise, had leapt into the thick greenery of the jungle bordering its territory. She had stealthily followed it into the brush, stalking her prey from the tree branches; a jaguar would have been pressed to have done it as quietly. The antelope had wandered deep into the jungle already, its fear and confusion serving only to push it onward. Wary of the beast’s path, she followed it for a while as it stomped around in the brush. Her heartbeat escalated as she continued pursuing the noisy, clumsy, creature. No clear shot had presented itself, and she sought to conclude the hunt in as quick a manner as possible now, because in the jungle, she was predator and prey. Notching an arrow, she waited for the antelope to turn into her line of sight. The length of sinew on her bow fought against her grip, aching to release the pent up kinetic energy. Seconds passed like minutes while she waited, until finally the bowstring snapped back to its proper place. She had loosed the arrow before the shot registered on a conscious level. It soared and stuck its landing, a silent end to the loud rustling of the antelope. Slinging the rosewood around her back, she deftly dropped down from the tree to retrieve her kill before an opportunist claimed it. Her footsteps made the most imperceptible of noises as she careened through the jungle floor.
Upon finding the carcass, she thanked the spirit of the animal for giving its life in exchange for continuing hers and her people’s. It was an unfortunate occurrence that the arrow she had loosed had broken when the antelope had fallen on its side. She retrieved the tip, half grumbling about the process of making a new arrow. As soon as she had stored the chipped stone arrowhead she heard the low-pitched, rumbling, bellow that was Makunda’s signature. She knew better than to think he was in the jungle, his incredible roar could be heard up to two leagues away, but something had disturbed him. Was there trouble in the pride? No, his rule was absolute. None of the males could challenge him yet. What was it then?
She breathed the heavy air of the jungle into her powerful lungs, and exhaled slowly as she tuned herself into the subtle energies of the land. Everything was abuzz with…curiosity? Something new had come into the jungle, and the perturbations had already echoed out into Makunda’s domain. As a link between her people and the natural world, it was her responsibility to find out what exactly was causing such a strong reaction. But first, she would have to safely store her kill. She pictured herself as a tree, with roots that tunneled into the very foundation of the lands, roots that soaked up the discarded or unneeded traces of living energies that were constantly churned out by nature. Her senses sharpened exponentially as she filled herself up with the raw life force of the world. She loved the feeling. Slowly, she released the energy into a sapling, facilitating its growth, molding the twists and turns of the tree’s branches until at last she had a hard wooden cage in which to tuck the antelope’s carcass. Storing away her dinner, she stretched the sapling’s height so as to insure no scavengers got to it.
Smiling at her work, she then set about her next task, calling out to her hawk friend in the process. Within moments she knew the whereabouts of the strangers, and it did not take someone of her caliber skill to find the noisy explorers once pointed in their general direction. So it was that on the day Orren Cain and the crew of the Seahawk traveled the humid jungles, Aswani Owusu of the Johktari found herself following the small cluster of inexperienced explorers. She silently laughed at their bumbling, even as she frowned upon their complete disregard for plant life. The jungle would have them soon enough. Though a peaceful people, the Johktari valued strength. If these light-skinned men were not strong enough to brave the harshness of the jungle, they had no business wandering around in it. She was curious as to where they came from though, having never seen people with such light complexion and manner of dress. Perhaps I could question them before giving them to the jungle. Perhaps.
The more time Orren spent in the humid forest, the more glimpses he caught of an unhindered savagery hidden beneath the lush exterior. Insects devoured other insects whole. Large raptors plucked adult monkeys from trees. This was a world where only the strongest survived. He wondered if the entire land mass was encompassed by the increasingly vicious forest, briefly regretting the lack of opportunity to bring new followers to Malakai. The group had also begun to wonder if this land was uninhabited when a guttural rasping noise caught their attention. They had entered a clearing leading to a sturdy looking bridge that closed the gap of what appeared to be a large ravine. Climbing up from under the bridge, however, was a creature Orren had only heard stories of.
Small by comparison to the trees, the nine-foot tall beast was an imposing figure blocking the path to the bridge. Loosely garbed in the tattered fur of some unknown animal, the troll let out another growl as it started toward the explorers. It dragged what had clearly once been a fallen branch, which had been modified with large chunks of metal wedged into the wood. The makeshift, spiked, cudgel did not interest Orren as much as the existence of metal. Metal meant civilization, and civilization meant trade routes and potential followers. The troll lunged at them now, club poised to crush the intruders. A flash of white pulsed throughout the clearing just then and the troll stumbled backwards, dazed from the intensity of Orren’s stunning light.
Aswani had wondered how the troupe would deal with the bridge troll that had given countless Johktari scouts so much trouble. When the white haired one had stunned the brute she had felt him do it. He had channeled an energy that was very different, but somehow still similar, to the energy she used for nature work. Was he a type of Talker as well? How had he come to use the life force in such a strange manner? Was it even the life force he was using? Her questions were starting to multiply immeasurably.
With no fear in his heart, Orren approached the troll. Still recovering its sight, it was unable to see the small human walking up, but it could still smell the puny creature get closer. Swinging at the source of the scent, the troll received its second surprise as its club quite literally bounced off of something even harder. A shimmering dome had appeared around Orren, and it withstood the barrage of club strikes better than some trees withstood the rain. Blow after blow bounced off of Orren’s shield until the troll was tired of trying. That’s when Orren made his move. Reaching out with his gold tipped staff, he struck at the beast, which yowled as its flesh was instantly burned by the light of Malakai.
It was often forgotten that priests of the Order of Malakai were trained as soldiers before taking on the cloak, becoming proficient with the use of a quarterstaff and light swords. Orren’s skill was such that he tested out of training. The Staff of Malakai was a golden tipped blur of motion as he rained down a series of arcing blows and spear strikes with the butt of his weapon. A yellow aura of light surged through the troll’s body every time his staff made contact, scorching all it touched. The troll’s sickly pale skin bubbled and blistered where some of the major burns had occurred. But as Orren himself began to tire, he noticed the layers of skin peeling off and crumbling to reveal healthy skin underneath. The troll’s natural vigor meant it had a wealth of regenerative abilities. He could not risk a drawn out match, nor test his luck by expending himself in a mana intensive battle. The only alternative was for him and the party to flee, unless...
The troll howled in pain as yet another strike left his skin on the verge of melting off of his body. Having already decided his plan of action, Orren quickly delivered three heavy blows to the beast. Striking its inner right shin, ribs and solar plexus in rapid succession he whirled the staff and raised it high as the golden symbol of Malakai burned with the light of ten thousand candles. Nursing three fresh burns and a pair of damaged retinas, the troll was too slow to react to Orren’s telekinetic push. Arms flailing dumbly in the air, the troll fell off the ledge and tumbled down the rocky slope of the ravine with several loud growling noises.
Motioning for the rest to follow, a now winded Orren ran across the bridge and continued running until he could do so no longer. He had learned the push spell in the arena, having worked out the trick of it in mid combat, but it still taxed him more than he cared to admit. Subtly leaning on his staff, he did his best to regain his normal breathing. Looking around the group, he noticed a large white strand hanging off of one of the crew.
“What is that?” he said, pointing.
“Looks like a web, if I didn’ know betteh.”
They were his last words, as the giant wolf spider whose nest they had so carelessly wandered into, pounced on the sailor and pierced his neck with its massive fangs.
After witnessing the white haired man’s battle with the troll, Aswani had deemed the party to be worth saving. Seeing the men in more danger than the Johktari had ever considered possible, she notched and loosed three arrows into the massive thorax of the arachnid. Warning shots. Vorinculus knew who she was, and now knew that the rest of the meat in its nest belonged to her. Rather than risk the wrath of the Animal Talker, the spider quickly snatched up her dinner for the month, and hid herself in the brush of the trees again.
Orren and his crew, however, had just witnessed a spider as big as a man kill, and snatch up, an ally. Such foul creatures were better off exterminated, Orren thought, and his staff began glowing with righteous anger. A black arrow landed near his foot as he had begun stepping toward the tree that housed the spider. His face contorting into an expression of rage, he sharply looked around for the source of the arrow, and found a woman unlike anything he had ever seen before.
She was a tall, lithe, being, clothed in furs, and silvery markings running up the length of her limbs. She was armed with an elaborate looking bow, a pair of large knives, and a spear of exotic design. Her skin was a different complexion than what he had ever encountered, despite knowing of many peoples with just as many different skin tones. Her long hair was darker than the most fertile soil he had seen, and was worn up, in an effort to keep it away from her line of sight. In a rare moment of insight, he realized that she had no intention of hurting them, as she could easily have slain him.
Aswani stared at the light skinned man with his glowing staff, puzzling him out, gauging his strength of character, until at last she gestured for them to follow her. It came as a great surprise when the strange men did exactly that.
In the weeks and months that followed, the barrier of language was gradually sheared away by the creative use of magic and common sense. It had been simple at first, with Aswani attempting to communicate with the strangers in a manner similar to how she communicated with the animals of the wild. She attempted to send them messages that were captured in images as she spoke to them, linking the visual and emotional ties of the images to the words she was speaking. The sailors eventually learned enough of the Johktari language to hold conversations with people other than Aswani. Orren had excelled in the process of learning the native tongue, and it was not long before he and Aswani, the only magic users for leagues struck up a friendship based of curiosity. He asked intensive questions about trade, precious commodities, and the process of creating wootz, which had proven to be a higher quality of steel than what had been considered “the best” in Westlock. Meanwhile, she asked of Malakai, of how Orren “channeled mana”, and of the stone walled cities from where he came. The Johktari had taken a liking to the loud, and boisterous strangers from afar, welcoming the prospect of trade and new allies, as well as the reality that their world may very well have shrunk over night. Unbeknownst to all, however, Orren had spent his time amongst the Johktari as a ruse to learn of “Kumanjaro’s” resources, and had been sending word of his findings to the Order of Malakai via a magical voice portal. Westlock and the rest of the northern world was aflame with rumors of an uninhabited land full of riches and resources that were simply waiting for someone to come and claim them. Meanwhile The Church of Asyra and the Order of Malakai were convinced that this new land was teeming with lost souls that deserved Asyra’s salvation as much as they no doubt deserved Malakai’s judgment. But through all the noise and misinformation, one fact rang clear, that it was thanks to Orren Cain that any of this had been possible.
The truth was that Orren had always despised non-believers. Even in “friendly” matches between himself and other mages, he had garnered a reputation for casting overpowered spells, and unfortunate accidents followed him like a shadow. The way the Johktari revered their savage beastmaster appalled him to no end, and he was patiently awaiting the arrival of more of the Order before converting these foolish people, forcibly if need be. You either followed the light, or were of the darkness, and all your resources were forfeit for the glory of Malakai and the greater good. As time passed, he grew increasingly arrogant, confident that his brothers would arrive any day now and that he was free of any and all retribution should anyone discover his treachery. After delivering another message to Victoria regarding the existence of a sacrilegious lake he was positive contained silver and platinum deposits, he discovered that he was not alone in his late night exploits.
“You wield light as your weapon of choice, but your soul is of darkness, Orren.” Came Aswani’s husky voice.
The symbol of Malakai ignited and he looked around, unable to see her in the light cast by his staff. Try as he might, the tall grass was all he could see.
“If I am of the dark, then surely the soul of one who clothes herself in it, must be as black as a demon’s.”
He had to end her if his brothers were to be successful. The Johktari could not discover his plans, could not be allowed to prepare themselves to defend their heretical way of life. It was for this reason that he trailed her voice, occasionally swinging at the edge of the darkness around him. Despite the aid of the stars and his staff, he could not find her amongst the shadows of the savannah.
“My people have treated you with kindness and acceptance. Were it not for my interference you and your followers would have perished in the jungle. Yet you plot against us as though we are blood enemies. If you represent the rest of your kind, than your kind is without honor.” Her voice came from nowhere and everywhere at once.
Orren grasped at more mana, feeling its heat boil through him as he pushed more of it into his staff in an effort to reveal her location. He realized then that she had lead him into the jungle, alone. He had played into her hands, and now knew that there was no escaping an all out mage battle with the dark skinned woman whose strength he had begun to detest.
“Your people are misguided, Aswani. You are misguided. The natural world holds only false virtues compared to what Asyra and Malakai have to offer. Join me, and you need not die tonight. Your soul would be saved by Asyra herself.”
“No, were I to join you, my soul would burn in the callous hands of your deity. Betrayal of family is the greatest crime a person could ever commit, and I will see that you suffer for your treachery.”
He felt a sharp tugging sensation on his left arm then, and looked down to see that he was bleeding from a deep gash across his forearm.
“You don’t mean to kill me, Aswani? How then am I to suffer anything?” he mocked.
“The scent of blood attracts much in the jungle.”
“You’ll find that I am no easy prey!” he cried, spinning round and swinging his staff in a diagonal arc. It collided with another shaft of metal, a reverberating clang ringing out as staff met spear. Aswani had seen the attack coming, and so, maneuvered her spear in such a way as to gain enough leverage to penetrate Orren’s defenses. He soon felt a sharp pain in his thigh as her blade ran across his leg before she once again vanished into the shadows.
As far as she could surmise, she was the better melee combatant, but a direct confrontation could just as easily have ended with her losing her sight as easily as it could have ended with her slitting his throat. She watched from above as his bleeding stopped and the wounds she had inflicted sealed themselves with fresh layers of skin. Not even a scar shone. Without quick thinking this would be a war of attrition, one that she could very well lose. She did not know if his healing abilities restored stamina as well, but whether they did or not, the battle could not be allowed to prolong itself. She called out to her friends via the power of her mind and silently began chanting a song that her grandfather had taught her. To protect what was most important, she would need to call in some favors.
Orren too, sensed that the battle may very well have gone in the direction of waiting each other out, but decided to increase his chances of survival by setting the forest on fire with the power of Malakai. The light of his staff spread down and out onto the jungle floor before combusting into white flames. The white fire bit greedily at the surrounding vegetation, casting its unnatural light about and burning through trees like dry tinder. With nowhere to hide, she would have to present herself, and he would be ready for her when she did.
Aswani quickly restored what the fire consumed, however, attempting to stall long enough for her reinforcements to arrive. A shower of arrows rained down from the canopy then, and Orren was forced to create a shield to protect himself. The flint tipped arrows bounced off a silvery dome of light. Moments later, the dome was gone. Shields were not cost effective, draining too much mana and requiring a large amount of stillness to function at maximum potential. He had hoped to call upon the strength of angels, but had readied the defensive spell in case he encountered any more Johktari trickery. He now lacked the mana to craft an angelic summoning array. Had he been in the arena, he could still manage to summon a loyal Knight, but he doubted any soldier would survive such a spell from so far a distance. It was then that he heard the paralysis-inducing snarl of a jaguar and felt the forest floor tremble with the sound of a savage stampede of jungle animals…
******Orren’s bloated body lay sprawled out on the black sand of Kumanjaro’s shore for the gulls and carrion to pick and feast on. It was an honorless burial. The Seahawk and her crew had quickly lifted anchor and sailed away upon Aswani’s public condemnation of Orren’s actions, and had not bothered to retrieve the mage’s corpse. The young priest’s body had been littered with lacerations and teeth marks, a prominent gash in his throat looked to be the cause of death. Aswani stood downwind of his dead body, regretting the loss of life but understanding its inevitability. Every day since his death, she watched the horizon of the ocean for hours at a time. On this day she saw what she had been dreading. Sails. Dozens upon dozens of sails. It meant one thing to her: war.
Yes, yes, "anti climactic" and "rushed" come to mind. Cut me some slack. I was supposed to have time to flesh out the fight scenes and create interesting dialogue. I was supposed to have time to sow seeds for the next part which focused on Aswani's desperate attempt to hang onto her humanity as the war for Kumanjaro crawled on through the years. I was supposed to do a lot of things, but the story's been killed so take it for what it is: incomplete.