As the Guardians approached Anarόrë Mindon after their victory on the battle field, their spirits were high as the smell of death and decay was far behind them. Though they were still weary from the journey, they had enjoyed the ride across the plains and fields towards the mountains where their home lay waiting and a bed stood ready to receive them. The tall white walls stood quiet as they came closer to the immense structure which had seen so many years. The stillness in the air made some of the Guardians on edge for there were always keen eyes watching from the inside. Many were aware of the rumours of Chaos spies in Middlemark.
The great gates of the city remained still as they came to a halt, starring up at the gate tower. Ados Varámere called out but no response came to his ears. He applied his shoulder to the door and it opened with some effort. It was a strange scene inside the gate, everything appeared as normal, the only difference was that there was no one in site. Carts lay on the ground, no one peered from windows, and no one walked about in the sun. Anarόrë Mindon did not have a large populus for its size but people did live within its walls, protected by the Dawn, they could live peacefully. They ventured further into the city, drawing weapons as they went, not knowing what or who they may cross. The sound of clanking armour echoed, not hindered by the life that normally occupied the streets.
They reached the main hall and immediately spotted movement within. As the party drew closer, swords, shields, bows and staffs were ready, the doors burst open and the residents of Anarόrë Mindon poured into the square in front of the Guardians with looks of relief on their faces. One of the black smiths named Cliff strode towards the party to relay the troubles which the city had faced. As the crowd dispersed, the Guardians were told of an elite Chaos force that had breached the city walls. As Lady Dalemere, Vitori Thaenor Galdimane and Vaeltaja had stood watch vigilantly over different sections of the outer walls, the Chaos agents had slipped into the city by the catacombs and newly opened arcanium mine. The extent of the catacombs and mine were unknown as these parts of Anarόrë Mindon were as old as the city itself. The Guardians had not yet had the opportunity to explore the depths of the mine but Chaos must have known that the mine bypassed the walls. Vaeltaja’s and Vitori’s parties had reacted quickly to the threat and had fought back the forces with great skill. Meanwhile, Delamere’s party had rounded up anyone unable to fight and barricaded them in the hall while they remained outside defending the area.
After several hours Vaeltaja arrived at the hall and told of how Chaos had been driven back into the catacombs and reinforcements were needed to drive them completely from the city. Vaeltaja and Vitori had cleared the city but the residents should remain hidden until Chaos was finally driven out, encase the Guardians should fall. So Delamere and party joined the others to fight inside the catacombs of Anarόrë Mindon.
The Guardians decided to slip their efforts to locate the defenders of the Dawn. Half would search the city and assess any damage the battle may have caused, while the remaining would enter the catacombs. Ados walked to the place in the city where the entrance to the catacombs was hidden. The closer he drew, the more corpses lay scattered amongst debris and the faster his pace quicken as his anxiety rose. Chaos had ransacked this district, brick and stone lay smashed on the ground and wood smouldered. The door to the catacombs was closed and upon closed inspection it was either locked or jammed. Ados looked for support from his fellow Guardians and swang his sword, connecting with the door. He chipped away at the door, with the sounds of his blows ringing out. An undefinable sound was suddenly heard from behind the door. Ados stopped and the Guardians fell silent. The sound continued, it became clearer and sharper each time it chimed. It was the sound of iron against iron. Someone was hacking away at the inside of the door. Ados called “Name yourself”, but only muffed yells could be heard from within. “We must trust our friends have prevailed and release them from this tomb” said Ados, as he again picked up his sword. The Guardians all took to the task of opening the door. A dark gap appeared in the door and an arm and then a head burst through. Vaeltaja had emerged from the catacombs…
Vaeltaja struck the door over and over with her axe, Filbane. She was ready for another fight. If the Chaos warriors had returned, she would not let them take her alive.
She heard Ados call to her from the other side of the door and stopped, relieved.
"It's me...Vaeltaja" She yelled, hoping she could be heard. She heard no reply, but took a step back as the swords of the Guardians struck the door until finally they broke through.
She scrambled out through the broken remnants of the door. As her eyes adjusted to the sun, she was glad to see that the Guardians had safely returned. She relaxed and lowered Filbane as she caught her breath.
"Chaos...is gone," She said between breaths, "But...so are...Vitori and Lady Delamere." She took one last deep breath, and stood up straight, "I know not where."
Shrike felt a Chill as he walked through the city towards Anarόrë Mindon. So many people missing without a sign of struggle; it brought back memories of home. As they made their way through to the fortress, he began to dwell more and more on the past. He had become a Guardian to try to prevent this very thing from happening again, and while he was slowly coming to terms with the fact that he couldn't save everybody, he felt like he should at least have been able to protect the people closest to him.
The sounds of swords being drawn snapped him out of his reverie. He looked around and realized they had already reaching the great all, and he caught a flicker of movement inside. He drew his sword, forcing his focus onto the task at hand; he would be no good to anybody dwelling on the past. But he quickly relaxed seeing not the agents of chaos coming to great them, but the residents of the town.
A look of grave concern flickered across Ados' face as he sheathed his sword.
"You bring good tidings Vaeltaja, but with a bitter twist." He looked at carefully so as to ensure that no wound was hidden under her Northern pride - she looked looked exhausted, but whole and hale. Relieved he turned to face the Guardians that had gathered around him.
"Brothers and sisters. I would have have your ears for a moment." He waited as their voices hushed and then went silent." It appears as though the forces of chaos have been banished, at least for the time being, but I must ask that you remain vigilant. These are strange times, and the Lady Vaeltaja brings dire news." He paused.
"Ser Vitori and Lady Dalamere are yet unaccounted for and are feared missing." The tension amongst the crowd, which had begun to ebb with the knowledge that their kindred were safe, now crept back into with a vengeance. Hands darted towards hilts and each mind returned to thoughts of darkness and horror. Ados gestured for their attention once more.
"Guardians, with this in mind please heed my words. Tend to the wounded, stay on your guard - but do not mourn until we have counted all the dead." He turned to Vaeltaja and motioned ahead to her.
"Walk with me. I would know what has transpired here in our absence, and please, spare nothing".
"There are men still down there. Many of them injured, but the healers have been doing all they can. Please, help them."
Vaeltaja turned away from the group of Guardians and made sure they were out of earshot before she began speaking with Ados.
"Chaos invaded via the mines beneath the city. Vitori and I lead parties to hold them back, but we were unable to contain the threat completely. Lady Delamere rounded up all the civillians and lead them to the great hall before bringing her party to reinforce us.
The fight was...gruesome. We lost many men, but we were able to defeat Chaos, I am sure of this. Had any of the foul creatures been left alive they would have tracked me down in the catacombs by now." She paused, not wanting to continue, "But, as I said, I know not of what happened to Vitori and Lady Delamere. As we fought down in the catacombs, I was seperated from them. I used all my power, both physical and magical, to vanquish Chaos, but the mine began to collapse. The earth shook like I have never felt before and rocks fell, splitting me and some of my party off from the rest of the soldiers. By the time we slayed the creatures surrounding us, most of my men were wounded, if not fallen. I...I had no power left to heal them. We cleared the rubble, but most of the men on the other side had met the same fate. We searched through the bodies but could not account for many of our kin. The Guardians that fought with me would not leave without their brethren. The other healers began tending to the wounded, and they sent me to find a way out. Normally I would have insisted on helping, but I could tell that to them, this was personal."
Shrike gathered the men around him as Ados and Vaeltaja walked away to discuss the events of the day.
"Whatever happened, there's still men down there who need our help. Lets go find them" At first he worried it might take days to find the injured, but in reality it was far easier to locate where the fighting had been; just follow the gore. Every few paces he would find traces of blood on the walls, a body, or some green ooze he didn't want to think about. In short order they stumbled up what looked like a cave in, though the path was already clear. Bodies still lay on both sides, though it looked like some on the inside had been taken further down, so he followed the trail down.
"Your assistance in this is beyond what we could have asked for Lady Vaeltaja. Know that you will always have a home at Anarόrë Mindon and that, should you ask of it, you will have always have the swords and shields of the Guardians at your back." As they had talked they moved back towards the returned Guardian Vanguard. He nodded to each brother and sister as he passed, the salutes of station beyond those who who stood as equals before the dawn. Those who had fought together and bled together.
"As much as it pains me, there are other pressing matters that we must deal with. Celondosse is still recuperating from the battle with the chaos champion, but the ward is ours and it must be placed somewhere safe." Ados sighs and with great effort he removes the crown from his head, a look of great weariness and great sorrow washing over his face.
"He speaks to me sometimes." He holds the the crown up the the light, it is old and well worn, but the gold still holds lustre and the sapphires are still clear and bright.
"This is the last true relic that I have of my bloodline. It was my father's and his his father's before him. All the way to the sire of my house. Whatever is left of his blood now flows in my veins. A small spark of his nature and of his kind." He runs his sword hand through his hair, fingertips brushing the the slight point to his ears as if to remind himself of this.
"Still, whatever is left of his mind. Of the soul of Veer'in Ka. He who took up the cause of the Ancient Guardians, and then to his shame fled when they fell so as to safeguard what little was left. he exists in this." The crown seems to throb at sound of the name and there is at once the tang of burning metal upon the air. Ados returns the crown to his brow. His features sharpening, as if by a trick of the light, becoming less human.
"He is getting stronger. The longer I wear it, the harder it is to take it off and the louder his voice becomes - and at the moment he speaks nothing but warnings of what will come to pass if this should fall into the wrong hands" Ados begins to move forward again, through the throng of Guardians and towards the tend of Celondosse.
"We must hope that brave Vitori and the lady Delamere have managed to survive this terror. For it would be a grave thing to loose them in this dark time."
"That means more to me than you know, Ados. Truly." She smiled.
She watched the crown glimmer in the light as he spoke, "These are dark times to be sure, but we must hope that things will get better...that the sun will rise again, so to speak." It was strange to watch Ados as he returned the crown to his head, and she sensed something unusual, but dared not think too much about it.
"I must go and speak with the Gods. I will pray for the safe return of our friends."
Drip… drip… cold… wet…Delamere awoke and wiped the water from her brow. She thought her sleeping place had been a good choice but the moisture always appeared to follow her. Her companions lay around her, now only a few in number since they had been separated by the cave in. The dark of this place made the passage of time hard to keep track of. It may have been days or weeks since they had seen Vaeltaja.
The tunnels and caverns run of miles under the mountain and there was very little in the way of familiar markers to point to home. As the party had pursued Chaos deeper into the tunnels it was clear they had spent a long time exploring the mine and learning their way. Chaos ran swiftly through the tunnels barely misstepping, while the Guardians tripped and fell at many obstacles. The tunnels were narrow and occasionally vast, they twisted and turned, but could also lie straight, up, down and at odd angles. Arcanium deposits could be seen in the rock, the mountain was full of it.
Where the arcanium was richest the atmosphere held a freshness which was a pleasant change from the stale air which filled their lungs. Many time the same pattern looked as if to repeat itself in the arcanium slivers in the walls, though the Guardians swore they had not pasted that way before.
They had been searching for a way out for days since ending their conflict with Chaos, journeying back the way they had come, but it seemed as if they were going in circles. Delamere strode over to the edge of where the rest of the Guardians were still sleeping and pressed her last arrow into a crease in the wall. She looked at it with tried eyes. They had been their sign posts of places been and had not seen any in many days, so confidences were high but which direction they were traveling was a complete mystery. The further they walked the staler the air had gotten; they only had instinct to try and direct them to the catacombs.
Delamere placed her hand on the wall and sighed, touching her head next to the arrow. They must improvise another means to mark the way, as their swords only dulled on the hard rock. Drip…drip… She turned her head to wipe away the water. Drip…drip… she did not feel the water hit her hand. She placed both hands on the wall and looked at its surface. It was not wet at all, not even damp. She placed her ear to the wall. Nothing. With a sense of urgency she run a few steps and again placed her head against the wall. Drip…Drip… It was not the sound of water, it was armour. Delamere drew her short sword, bashing it against the wall and yelled “Are you there?”. The Guardians stirred and rushed to her side with weapons drawn. The tunnel lay quiet as they waited to see if they could hear a response. “Lady Delamere?!”. Delamere thrust her shoulder into the wall, small pieces of stone rained down. “The rock must be thin here, it must open out onto another tunnel” shouted Delamere. The Guardians summoned up their strength the prepared their bodies for the great effort they would need to open a hole in the rock.
Shrike grew anxious as he led his party deeper into the cave. The signs of combat had long since ceased, and he was glad that it didn't end with a mass of bodies, but it meant there was precious little to tell them if they were heading in the right direction. In truth, he was beginning to wonder how much further they should travel. He could never give up on those lost, but the further they delved the greater the chance that he and his own party would get lost in the depths. On the other hand, could he face his brothers knowing that he'd abandoned their...'GAH, my eye!'
Shrike's thoughts were cut abruptly short and the people around him jumped at his sudden cry of pain. He clawed in front of him with blurred vision. "Sorry, just ran into a god damned... arrow? Blue fletching, and this design, this is one of Delamere's isn't it? We're on the right path!" The group moved forward with new vigour at such a clear sign that they were heading the right way, and soon their path was set out in front of them, the next two turns marked with which way they'd gone. And then they could hear movement around the corner. They rushed around, ready to see their friends, and as one their hearts fell. It wasn't the lost Guardians at all, but some kind of imp, skipping through the caves and carrying a bundle of blue-fletched arrows. The next few seconds were a crash-course in swearing in every tongue in Althea, and the imp was dead before the curses had died on their lips, but their hope died with it.
They slumped again the cavern walls. There was nothing for it; they had been tricked and now he would have to head back and tell everybody that he'd failed. The party headed back in silence, no sounds except the clinking of their amour, and so it was he was able to hear a faint thudding echoing through the tunnel. He paused, footsteps? There was no signs of anybody in either direction, and the sound seemed to be coming from the walls. He called for silence and leaned in slowly, a muffled voice coming through from the other side. "Are you there?" Shrike hardly dared to hope. "Lade Dalamere?" The responce was a loud thud against the wall. “The rock must be thin here, it must open out onto another tunnel” shouted Delamere, and the banging was replaced by a methodical thudding; they were trying to smash their way through.
Shrike took stock of their group. In their haste to follow down, some villagers with him had grabbed anything that could double as a weapon. Being a mine, that had included a handful if picks, and Shrike laughed at their good fortune. Who would have thought being short on weapons would turn out to be their saving grace. He leant against the wall and shouted through "Stand back! We're going to dig you out! Stand back!" He hoped they had gotten the message as the pick axes started to chip away at the wall....
Crowley had strode toward Ananore Mindon with a vigor, every step closer to the mountain dulling the pounding in his head. He had been in a haze after the battle, dulled and filled with flashes of memory of times gone and he had spent the journey pondering his visions. He did not notice the damage to the city as soon as the others, lost in his own world of reflection, and thus it was Prince Ados who was first to reach the gate and push it open.
Upon seeing the destruction and the fear in the eyes of the cities residents, his eyes focused in clarity. He abruptly grabbed one of the younger guardians and demanded his blade, the stunned warrior immediately obliged, ever trusting of his brother - And many in their party knew Crowleys own blade had been destroyed in the banishing of Nurgles Herald.
While the majority of the Guardians quickly received reports and prepared to aid the wounded or seek out possible chaos survivors. Crowley stormed off, alone, heading towards the central keep of Ananore Mindon.
As he strode towards the keep with clarity and purpose, he thought to himself
"Let the others worry about treasures hoarded deep, not all secrets are hidden in the depths... Vitori and Lady Dalamere will not have been dispatched so easily as to burden myself with concern. I have more pressing matters to attend"
A pick came smashing through the rock in front of Delamere, showering tiny flecks of rock onto her face. She extended her arms signalling the Guardians to stand down. They slumped against the wall; the realisation that they were on the path home had finally come to them. They were exhausted, marching the stone halls in the dark had taken its toll. As the hole in the wall reached a size where a man could fit through, the Guardians lined up in anticipation. They filed through, some having to scrape their shoulders against the rock, but they didn’t care, the clean, bright faces of their friends lightened their hearts. Delamere was the last to step through, it was a blessing to see everyone’s spirits so high yet she still had to deliver the grave news to the rest of her friends.
Delamere stepped out of the catacombs and wished to feel the sun on her skin. The light from the full moon greeted her instead. More darkness she thought, but not for long, she could see a sliver of sunlight on the horizon. She turned to Shrike and said in a low voice “We must speak”. They walked behind the group as everyone headed for the hall. Several Guardians had run ahead so food and drink could be prepared for the lost party.
Shrike spoke first, “Why is Vitori not with you?”
She looked at his face and was sure her expression told him the answer before the words left her mouth.
“After we were separated from Vaeltaja, Vitori lead us deeper into the mountain. He led us with keen senses and we made our way to a large open cavern.”
She looked away from Strike and continued, “The cavern held an encampment of Chaos warriors and spies.”
Her throat started to close up as she formed the words, “He fell, when we were fighting off the last wave. We had been pushed back and the terrain was not to our favour.”
She could recall the event almost perfectly. She had just caught a quiver of arrows that Helthea had thrown her from the shield wall and had turned to swoop if over her shoulder. As she turned she saw the left side of the wall been pushed closer to the edge of a huge gap in the floor. There was also a deep cut between the two parties and she stood at the edge as she fired arrow after arrow into the attacking force. The forces started to equalise as Vitori shouted a change in tactic. An orc grunted orders and a goblin in light armour sprinted towards it. The goblin leapt at the orc and was lunched from the giant arms and thrown towards Vitori over the Guardians’ line. Delamere fired an arrow into the goblins back as it grappled Vitori. Vitori and the goblin seemed to move in slow motion as their heads fell from view, below the rocky edge.
“We couldn’t have prevented it. There wasn’t any time to help him mid battle. We tried to find our way down to the bottom, but there seemed to be no end. We had to find our way out before we ran out of rations.”
The dawn rose in front of her, but it did not look as beautiful as she had remembered.