Act 1: Hope
Scene 3: Arktos
It was an unusually cold day on the plains of Arktos. Snow felt slantwise with the howling wind. There was an Ursine axiom that said a barking bear never bites, but the same could not be said about the wind. Shent shook his broad shoulders to purge them of the snow that had accumulated on his shaggy white fur had leaned into the wind to make his way home. All that remained of his victorious band of warriors plodded along behind him in single file with their weapons slung across their backs. Despite their leaden feet and slain comrades, Shent's company was in high spirits, for they had almost single-handedly ended the Grudge War. Casualties had been unusually high due to Commander Gresh's unnecessarily modern tactics; Shent longed for a return to the olden days of honorable conflict, with simple pole arms and metal armor, when conflicts were settled between leaders. Back then, wars ended after one casualty and the warriors of each side rarely saw battle, spending more of their time ensuring peace was kept in the King's country. Now, whole companies were slain without ever meeting the enemy in combat, and whole wars were fought without leaving the castle.
Shent disregarded the biting cold and thought ahead to the festivities he would enjoy as a hero back home. He carried Commander Gresh's heart in a bag that hung from his belt, and since the Commander didn't carry a pole arm of any sort, Shent had merely taken his gauntlet, which glittered blue with all the various electronics that had been built in. On the way there, electronics of any kind would have risked detection, but with Gresh's lair in ruins, only his son, Furdin, was left to lead what few soldiers didn't die in the blast. Shent knew there was no risk of being found.
Shent turned to look at the long line they had made in the snow, like a crack in the earth extending to the dark horizon. The ground was a ghostly white where they hadn't disturbed it, and it shimmered with evanescent patterns by reflecting the faint star light. He only knew he wasn't alone by the heavy breathing coming from his comrades. There was no moon tonight.
Murgrad nudged Shent with his nose to get his attention. "Look, my Lord. The lights of Harlin. We are almost home."
Shent turned his attention away from where they had come and looked to where they would soon arrive. Low on the far horizon there was an orange glow that was barely visible with the naked eye. Murgrad had keen eyesight, though, which was why he was the scout of the troop.
"Aye, just a little while longer," Shent growled.
Presently the orange glow lit the sky and reflected off the snow, tingeing everything with an orange hue. The light danced and played tricks with Shent's eyes, casting long shadows that stretched all the way into the lonely darkness beyond its reach. The light was unusually bright for the city, though.
"Murgrad, have they already lit the celebration fires? The light is terribly bright for the usual damplights and fire pits."
"But how would they know our mission was successful?" asked Biphor. "We've been out of contact for five days."
Murgrad squinted his eyes against the glow coming from behind the city walls. "They have certainly lit a fire, my Lord, but it is not a fire of celebration."
"If it's not a fire of celebration, then it must be…" Biphor's voice trailed off.
"A fire of destruction," Shent murmured in horror. "Quick! To the city."
Before long it became apparent that Harlin was being razed to the ground. Still, Shent plowed through the snow at full tilt, still not able to believe his eyes. The ornate golden spires of Harlin had been scorched black and many of them had crumbled, destroying anything that had been beneath them when they fell. Blocky ships were visible by the light of the flames, hovering above the heat. Most were firing missiles into the residential quarters, for the automated defenses had already been destroyed. Others flew into the flames to drop more troops by the door of the keep, which was alight itself. All the electrical defenses that Shent's father had insisted on installing had been mangled and twisted by the conflagration. Shent's blood boiled with a fearsome rage and he ran towards the scene, aching to fight and destroy, to dig his claws into enemy flesh and be rent in return, all the while knowing he was powerless to act. The battle was already lost.
Shent's soldier's kept up with him out of loyalty, among other things. Each had a family in the city, each of them had his immortal honor to uphold, and each of knew that if they did not die in the flames, they would be hunted by Furdin's assassins, cornered in the mountain caves to the North and hunted like icerats. There was almost no choice except to rush headlong into the flames as a furious dervish of destruction, disregarding the instincts of self-preservation in order to inflict upon the enemy as much damage as possible.
While running, Shent was mindful enough to engage his electro armor before lowing his shoulder and plowing through the damaged outer wall of the city. The armor surrounded him with a bluish glow that protected him from the flames and debris. It was still fully charged, for he had been careful not to use it during his mission unless absolutely necessary. It had not been necessary then, but it was now.
Shent spotted three enemy gunmen ahead; all normal shock troops equipped with electro armor and armed with depletion rifles. They spotted him as he crashed through the wall and charged them. The depleted uranium shells that they fired glanced uselessly off the electro armor and did nothing but slow him down. With a hellish roar he unslung his pole arm from across his back and cut them down in a single fluid motion. The four meter long weapon was made from an alloy that passed through the electro armor without be deflected. Every pole arm was unique—each warrior forged his own—and the handcrafted weapon was worth more than several dropships due to the rarity of the metal. Snow steel, it was called.
His band of two dozen followed him in, some making their own holes in the wall. They immediately fanned out and took their own paths through the city. Four fell to Murgrad's throwing knives before they even realized they were under attack. Shent made his way to the castle, cutting down anyone in his way. Two managed to score hits on his shoulders and forearm, but Shent felt no pain. The two that had shot him, on the other hand, would suffer immensely from the belly-wounds he had given them for the next twenty minutes before they died of blood loss. That is, if the fire didn't consume them first.
When Shent made his way to the Castle courtyard, he was stopped dead in his tracks. Not by the enemy, but by the scene before him. He had arrived only minutes too late. His father lay dead on the steps of his own home, beheaded execution-style. Furdin's guards stood in careful columns as Furdin himself strode up the steps to retrieve the crown from the fallen head. Furdin's guards gave him a rifle salute.
"Furdin!" Shent bellowed. His voice echoed around the courtyard above the din of the battle. "Furdin! I will kill you a thousand times over for what you have done!"
Shent stood in the door way on his hind legs, rising to his full height of three meters. His dark silhouette was superimposed on the orange flames of the burning city and framed in the tall arch of the entranceway. Furdin's guards immediately trained their rifles on him, but Furdin waved them down.
"Shent! How kind of you to join us. I'm afraid you missed the regicide. But you're just in time for the crowning ceremony," Furdin said, feigning surprise.
"Good, because I brought you a gift," Shent replied. With a claw, he sliced open the bag holding Gresh's gauntlet, and tossed the metallic contraption so that it landed on the dirt by Furdin's feet. Furdin's expression changed from that of smug satisfaction to true shock.
"My father's gauntlet…"
"Don't worry, though. He sends his love," Shent said, tossing Gresh's heart so that it landed by the gauntlet. "To be quite frank, I'm surprised I found a heart in that monster you call a father. I think it only kept beating out spite."
"Silence!" Furdin roared.
"Do you want to know what his last words were? I don't know how he managed it, but he actually came up with a complete sentence. Probably more than he ever said to you," Shent continued, pressing the advantage.
"My father was brave! He did not fear death!" Furdin insisted.
Shent slowly descended the steps into the courtyard. "Perhaps, though he did beg at first."
"He did not beg!"
"No, you're right. Grovel is a better word."
"Silence, Shent Longclaw of Halgard, or I will strike you down where you stand!"
"He said, 'my son shall avenge me, honorably.' There is no honor to be had in ordering my execution, Furdin. Tell your soldiers to stand down, and we'll handle this as men. Certainly you haven't forgotten the old ways. Certainly you are proficient with a pole arm…"
"A thousand times moreso than you are, Shent. Varch, fetch me my pole arm," Furdin ordered his servant. Varch carried a large pack of his master's battle materials on his back, as it was regarded as unlucky to go into battle without one's pole arm. Furdin had stretched the superstition to permit a servant to carry it into battle. Varch handed Furdin a three meter long pole arm that terminated in wicked curved blade. It had barbs along the length of the blade and a flail on the other end as a counterweight. Shent could see Furdin's muscles ripple beneath his skin as he hefted the large weapon in a single paw. Furdin shed his electro armor and let it fall the ground, as it would be a useless encumberment in a pole arm fight. Shent did likewise, and hefted his own pole arm, which was simpler in design and consisted only of a long blade on one end, counter-balanced by the head of a flanged mace on the other. He could feel the adrenaline coursing through his veins.
Furdin stood on his hind legs and slowly began rotating his pole arm. Shent held his out before him in a low guard position. They circled one another, waiting for an opening. Suddenly, Furdin lashed out with the flail. Shent was taken by surprise and barely managed to duck the attack. The flail had impressive reach, and the nasty spikes were now slick with blood from his brow. Luckily, the cuts were not deep. Shent changed his grip to a higher guard position and watched Furdin's flail, careful to avoid another attack.
"A higher guard won't help you, Shent," Furdin taunted, noting Shent's grip. "The flail's chain wraps around any defense, and strikes its target. You'd live longer if you tried running away."
"Your father tried that and it only prolonged his life by five seconds. I am neither a coward, nor a fool."
Furdin lashed out again with the flail, and Shent blocked the staff with his blade. It was no good, though, because the chain of the flail swung around the obstruction and the ball buried its tiny blades into Shent's left shoulder. Furdin ripped the ball the away before Shent could trap it and it came out with bits of fur.
"The flail isn't barbed, because otherwise it would get stuck in you, unable to come loose. My blade, on the other hand, I don't need to worry about disentangling in the heat of battle. When I stick you with this, Shent, it's all over," Furdin said.
Shent only grunted in pain. The cuts were far deeper this time. Blood soaked his white fur all the way down to the forearm, which was already wounded from a uranium shell. He had to score a hit quickly, otherwise it would soon be over. He waited for the next flail attack. Furdin was good at veiling his strikes, but when it came, Shent was ready. He blocked the staff again with the blade of his weapon, but this time leapt inside the arc of the flail and swung the mace head of his pole arm around to strike Furdin in the leg. It was a clean hit and a deep cut, but Furdin quickly rebounded.
Furdin lowered the blade of his pole arm to block a second swing from the mace and struck Shent squarely in the chin with the middle of his staff. Stunned, Shent stumbled backwards, and Furdin took advantage of the opening. Using the side of the pole arm, Furdin pushed Shent backwards against a wall, struck him again in the chin, and then twisted away. The flail was still wrapped around the Shent's blade, and by twisting away, Furdin tore Shent's pole arm from his grasp.
Shent reached after his pole arm as it clattered to the ground behind Furdin, but he was not quick enough. Furdin had already turned completely around and stuck him in the belly with the barbed blade. Shent tried twisting away despite the pain, but the barbs had hooked into his gut and would not come loose. Furdin drove Shent backwards with the force of the blow until he was pinned against the wall by Furdin's blade.
"It's over, Shent, and it ended just like I said it would. I'd have struck you in the chest, but I wanted you to live long enough to hear me say my piece. You told me how my father died, now I will return the favor, because you ought to know before you die."
Blood bubbled from where Furdin's blade pierced Shent's abdomen. Shent stared in shock, barely able to feel the otherwise overwhelming pain. The blade had been buried to the hilt, and had gone all the way through his body, stopping only when it stuck the wall behind him.
"I found him hiding in his chambers. Perhaps hiding is not the best word, because you seem to be a stickler for linguistic precision. Cowering. That's a much better word, wouldn't you agree? He tried to escape down that secret passage he has from his chambers the kitchen—I'm sure you know about it. That was probably the reason he's dead, for if the old man had kept up his fitness instead stuffing his face, he might even have made it to the secret escape craft he has hidden underneath the courtyard. And I'm sure he told you, right before you left, and retreat was never an option, eh? It's a nice craft too, a shame you'll never get to see it."
Shent tried to close his ears, or drown out the sound, but he couldn't. He was too weak to even move, much less think. He couldn't back away, for even if there wasn't a wall behind him, the barbs would have stopped him.
"I dragged him out here to the courtyard and beheaded him publicly in front of my elite guards. They enjoyed it very much. Then you walked in, of course. In fact, you just missed his last words—and sooner and you might have heard them yourself. He told me, just before I cut off his head, that you would avenge him. Ironic, isn't it? He said, 'my son shall avenge me, honorably.' It's funny, because I always knew he was a coward, but I never took him for a fool."
Shent could take no more. His father had told him several things before he left, and he had indeed said that retreat was never an option. His exact words, however, had been, "Retreat is never an option. The only way is forward."
His father had been right. Shent couldn't back away now. But he could go forward. He grasped the shaft of the pole arm in front of him. The cool metal was slick with his own blood. Using what strength he could summon, he drew himself farther down the blade. The barbs did not hook going this way. Furdin could only watch in disbelief.
"The funny thing, Furdin, is that my father was right. I knew you were a coward and a fool, but I never took you for a liar. Any last words?" Shent grunted.
Furdin was mute as he frantically twisted the pole arm to halt Shent's advance. It was no use. Shent grasped Furdin's head in both paws and pressed together with all his might. Furdin's skull cracked and he fell to the ground.
"Too late," Shent muttered. He looked around him at Furdin's personal guard, who had been powerless to save him in his last moments. They were bound by the codes of honor as much as any Ursine was, and they could not break that unwritten doctrine. Fortunately, Shent knew it better than most.
"I have killed your Lord in honorable single combat. That makes me your Lord, now. I demand medical attention, and that an order be sent to Furdin's command ship to stop the assault," Shent wheezed. Then, his strength left him and he fell unconscious to the ground.