A short story I wrote for Iaredios the Hip Historian for BZP's Secret Santa 2015. Forgot to put it up before, so here it is now. I might edit a little bit some time soon, but until then... enjoy! *** Atop the dune he stood, staring deeply into the eyes of the rider in black not a hundred meters before him. The harsh, biting wind whipped his cloak around his body, and sent piercing sand mercilessly into his eyes, so that he could only squint; yet the sun was so bright (and so hot upon him), that no chance of clear vision was present. Even so, the Rider in the valley before him was so dark, its chaotic aura so strong, that as it practically begged him to approach, Iaredios – for that was the Agori’s name – had no trouble knowing it was there. Indeed, he could feel the evil. But, who exactly was this "he"? Iaredios was a curious individual. His lineage was a proud one, but his ancestry had always stirred up controversy among other families of the Iconox. It was a well known fact that somewhere back a great grandfather of his had children with a Skrall or two, introducing their blood to the line. This was forbidden; but the matter was quickly covered up. For indeed, the Paerkenons as they were known were a powerful family of nobles: neither the highest in social stature nor the lowest, minor in size and influence, but still quite capable in the art of deception and influence. For cautionary purposes, mind you; not malevolence. It was many years ago that the House of Paerkenon fell, the reason why lost to time (and purposely so). But from the ashes of the nobles’ corpses one last descendant rose, born amidst the disaster and that miraculously, by the Great Spirit’s grace, survived. This was Iaredios, the last Paerkenon and a noble akin to his greatest forefathers. And as you can see from his history, curious! Indeed, the blood in his veins seemed to meet with a delta of different blood at some river, as his body was lightly riddled with the telling marks of a Skrall: maze-lines and spikes, though his were scarce and in most cases barely visible. The knobs ascending his head were so faint they remained naught but freckles in comparison to the spikes of the true-bloods; and the lines traversing his back, shoulders and chest were not raised but faded, barely visible but in shadowed conditions, where a slight glow was produced from them. His whole body was like blue sand in color, mottled in places as if some other color had been haphazardly scattered in and briefly stirred. Expensive fur robes and a cloak and hood serve as his wardrobe, and a small, curved blade of wicked origin as his defense. So this was Iaredios, noble in mind and powerful of blood, sitting atop a Rock Steed and, with a hand over his brow, peering over the expanse that stretched across the desert expanse before and beneath him. His left hand rested on the sword at his waist as he adjusted the helmet on his head – made it himself, as stories go; patterned after a tribal mask of a time before time – with his right. He was stalling, yes, but not for lack of courage; rather, for a lack of understanding. Why was he here, on a holiday of all days? The simple answer was that something – or someone, as it seemed - had called out to him in a challenge. He’d felt it in his sleep, and he’d felt it as he awoke. He felt it as he armored himself this morning, and as he began the journey into the desert. And as he looked on at the armored menace sitting atop his own Rock Steed in the valley below, he felt it in a chasm so low in his heartlight that it almost hurt. This was the “simple” answer, indeed. But he sought the complicated one: why does this being want him, and from what demonic source does it draw its power? “Time to find out,” Iaredios spoke aloud, yanking on the reigns and sending his Steed charging forward down the dune and straight towards his opponent. He drew his sword and held it aloft as he descended upon his enemy. The rider before him, once silent and still, suddenly snapped to life, as if the challenging move made by Iaredios had given him further energy. Shrugging his great black cloak and pulling the hood closer to his face with long, thick claws, the Rider drew his own weapon – a thorny club of hardash wood, the kind that grows stronger as it burns in fire. It is a favorite weapon of the Elite Skrall, and it appeared to Iaredios, who was drawing close enough to see the figure more clearly, that it was indeed one of these individuals… yes, even the thorns on his head were visibly protruding from underneath the hood, and pushing up on the fabric from beneath. And on the shoulder of his cloak – just there beneath a fold – was a small symbol. He couldn’t make out the details clearly from this distance, but the blood-red color of it glinting in the sun was enough to confirm the villain’s origin. Skrall, indeed. So perhaps another challenger? Ah, but the power… the power within this one. It was almost unreal. Something else was at work here. Iaredios was close enough now to hear the breathing of the Skrall’s Steed, and decided to make the first move. He swung his sword down mightily towards the Rider’s head. The Rider’s reflexes were keen; he reined his Steed away and went on the offense with a massive swipe of his club. Iaredios ducked and reared his beast back, preparing for another strike. “Your decision to lure me into battle here today is a poor one, Skrall,” Iaredios shouted above the wind. “I’ve defeated many of your kind – you will be no different.” The creature snarled and urged his Rock Steed forward, swinging again at the Agori. Iaredios ducked again, and this time followed up with a harsh stab of his sword into the enemy Steed’s neck. The blade sank in deeply, causing the beast to rear back in pain and fright – the sword still lodged in its skin. The Skrall held on tightly, his cloak swirling around him like a black rain cloud as he regained control of the injured animal. Iaredios regained his own balance and cursed at having lost his weapon. “The Great One calls for your death, sand mite,” Iaredios’s opponent rumbled, pulling himself to his full height and twirling his weapon in threatening arcs. “We shall comply.” He lunged again, putting full momentum behind his swinging club. Iaredios again reined his Rock Steed backwards, barely avoiding the blow. He grimaced and charged his beast forward, grabbing a new weapon – a nasty-looking scythe – from his beast’s side. He quickly swung the scythe directly at the Skrall. The being held up his club and deflected the blow, then swung his weapon mightily; Iaredios blocked and returned the favor, which the Skrall also managed to block. This fast-paced duel continued for some time, until suddenly the Rock Steed beneath Iaredios pulled back without command. The Agori now sensed the exhaustion of the creature – he knew he couldn’t continue with it, lest it collapse in the midst of battle and be his demise. And so he reared back a few paces, swinging one final time to keep his enemy at bay. Using the reins, Iaredios swung down and dismounted the Steed. The Skrall, angry at how long this had been drawn out, was a bit flustered by his opponent’s move. “Come down here and face me!” Iaredios shouted from the ground, bringing his scythe up in a defensive position. His Rock Steed had retreated a few paces and was catching its breath. “Leave your steed behind and confront me on your own feet.” The Skrall was silent a moment. Then, with a long cackle, he jumped down from his steed, the beast immediately taking off. The Skrall’s large feet sent sand flying as he stomped toward Iaredios, club held high in the air and poised for the kill. Iaredios pounded his scythe against the ground in a defiant manner and brought it up into a defensive position. He was ready. What had been somewhat boring and slow before now turned to a fast-paced and brutal confrontation. Where Iaredios had speed, this Elite Skrall had strength; the Skrall’s violent swinging-and-smashing movements were easily countered by Iaredios’s decisive dodges and swift counter-attacks. As the Skrall hammered forward with randomly placed attacks, shrugging off the well-coordinated strikes of Iaredios, the Agori in turn chose his path more carefully, planning ahead to avoid the brutish onslaught and strategically striking at the Skrall’s unguarded points. It was difficult due to the enemy’s cloak concealing much of him, though, and the Skrall’s skill certainly trumped his; for with every passing second the former grew swifter and more precise, as if learning with each move provided by Iaredios. The Agori warrior hastily sidestepped as the Skrall brought his club smashing into the sand, mere inches from where Iaredios’s head had been. Iaredios retaliated with a quick swing to the back of the Skrall’s head; the blow connected rather solidly, and the Skrall was sent tumbling into the dune next to them. For an Agori, Iaredios was strong. The realization of this enraged the Skrall; he pulled himself back to his feet, not giving Iaredios time to strike again, and swung his club at the Agori’s legs. Iaredios back-flipped away and swung his scythe around in a flashy motion. “You’re tiring, Skrall,” he panted, slowly circling his enemy. The Skrall did the same, though at a shakier pace. “You will have to bring Tuma a different prize.” The Skrall laughed mockingly. Iaredios was surprised. “Tuma? Tuma is dead, little Halfblood. I serve beside a greater master… and we are One.” And without warning he rushed forward, striking furiously at Iaredios. He then followed up with an unexpected leg sweep, which managed to connect with Iaredios and caused him to fall on his face. The hero quickly spun away just as the Skrall tried to stomp him into the sand. Iaredios jumped up and swung his scythe, which connected with the Skrall’s club and sent sand exploding as the powerful thud of the collision sounded across the dunes. The two were at a standstill, Iaredios miraculously holding his own against this enigmatic tyrant as they kept their weapons locked in a show of might. The Skrall was slowly pushing him downwards, their faces close now, and the two stared each other down as the wind picked up pace. The coarse sand swept into their faces, the blood-red eyes of the Skrall so piercing that Iaredios could make them out even through the storm. The Agori struggled with all the power he could muster… But it wasn’t enough. He felt himself being forced closer and closer to the ground, and a slight glint could be seen from beneath the Skrall’s hood – a nasty grin. Suddenly, the brute tore his club away and smashed it downwards onto Iaredios’s still-defending scythe, causing the Agori to fall with pain to his knees as the weapon flew from his hands and into the sand. He lunged for it, but the Skrall kicked him aside, ready to deliver the final blow. “Now… little one…” he panted, hands trembling with anger and exhaustion as he raised his club above his head. “You will fall at our hands!” Iaredios, who was bleeding from the mouth and hands, solidified his expression. He looked into the piercing gaze of the Skrall with the coldness of a true Iconox. “…Not today.” Iaredios whipped a strange-looking device made of seashell from beneath his robes and blew on it. No sound came forth. The Skrall was silent a moment, and then began to chuckle. “Nice try,” he hissed, and swung his club downwards. But before the club could even make contact, a blur of silver struck forth from behind Iaredios, colliding with the Skrall’s head and cracking his helmet. The vile creature was sent flying, Iaredios gasped – he could see something sharp had pierced through to the Skrall’s cranium. Blood spilt forth as he hit the ground, silent. The Agori whipped around to see his Rock Steed, whose harsh, stinging tail had been the instrument of destruction in the Skrall’s downfall. Blood dripped from the tail’s end as the beast let out a hissing screech, pawing the ground near Iaredios and shaking its head. It wasn’t happy. Iaredios painfully rose to his feet and went to console the creature, in order to keep it from striking the Skrall again. He then limped over to the Skrall. Pulling the cloak away from the damaged being’s lifeless body, he could see that while his wound was deep, the Skrall was alive – just barely. But this was the least of Iaredios’s concern. Creeping, sickly rust covered the Skrall’s body from head to foot, resembling pulsing, organic veins. The greenish-brown substance looked alive. Iaredios recoiled in fright as the Skrall’s body twitched and writhed. The thing gnashed its teeth weakly in anger, before hacking blood and green bile from its mouth in a final show of corruption. Then it was still. “What the Karzahni are you?” Iaredios breathed. “He is Legion. Or, he was.” So distracted was he that Iaredios did not notice the approach of a tall, muscular Glatorian – no, not a Glatorian; a Toa – from behind. Bright red and clad in silver armor, the Toa stood before Iaredios with a large sword in hand, ragged cloak fluttering around his body. “Iaredios?” the Toa spoke, casting a cautious glance at the unconscious form of the dead monstrosity. He stabbed his sword into the sand and knelt to the Agori’s height. “Are you alright? What are you doing out here in the desert?” Thirsty and exhausted, Iaredios removed his helmet and rubbed his forehead, desperately trying to blink through the sand and blood in his eyes. As his vision reset, he could make out a Hau Nuva, through which stormy grey eyes peered. Not just a Toa, a Toa Nuva, clad in silver armor… Jakura! “…I… received a message this morning, my friend,” he replied after a moment. “I was wanted here, at this spot. I expected foul play – and I was correct.” He motioned towards the Skrall. “But it was for worse then I could’ve imagined.” The Toa looked from the Agori, to the Skrall, to the Rock Steed and then back to Iaredios. “Yes. He is – they are – Legion. One of many Skrall that have been infected with the Darkness. That is why he undoubtedly referred to himself as ‘we’ and ‘us’; not only in reference to his brethren, but also to the living shadows feeding off of him. You were lucky he came alone. And… I can’t believe you beat him by yourself!” “I didn’t,” Iaredios coughed, reaching for the water skin at his waist. “I had help.” He then gestured towards his Rock Steed. The Toa cocked an eyebrow, amazed. “Where does it come from, though?” Iaredios pressed, rather confused. “I could feel the evil emanating from it. Even from home… the corruption, the darkness… surely it’s not from…?” “Look, ‘Dios, I’m sorry you’re only learning of this threat now, but I’m afraid the full story will have to wait. The Voroxian First Order made their move during your absence today, and we’ve needed every warrior that can function – especially Agori such as yourself. We need more soldiers at the bunkers, protecting the villagers from the Zesk Tunnelers while my brothers and sisters and I fight on the front lines. Are you strong enough to assist?” Iaredios sighed, before latching his helmet back on his head. He leaned heavily on his scythe nodded firmly, looking quite formidable despite his injuries. “Of course,” he said with a fully serious expression. “I’ve been bored to death for the past few hours.” The Toa nodded with a somber grin, pulled his sword from the sand and sheathed it on his back, and went to grab the Skrall’s corpse. He removed his cloak and wrapped the body in it, hauled it into the air, and tied it down on Iaredios’s Steed. Iaredios watched as Jakura Nuva walked back to his own mount – a large, winged beast with a single horn on its head - jumped into the saddle, and patted the thing’s neck. The Rahi gracefully lifted into the air. “Drop the corpse at the nearest security encampment, and then join me at Terai so we can patch you up.” Iaredios nodded, stepping up into his Steed’s saddle and grabbing the reins. He gave a humorless chuckle. “What a way to spend Naming Day, right?” The Toa snorted and slapped his mount’s reins. “I wouldn’t dream of spending it any other way,” he shouted, as he and his Rahi soared off. “Neither would I,” Iaredios murmured to himself. “Neither would I.” He reared his Steed around and sent it into a charge camp, his mind occupied with question after puzzling question. To his own shock, he was already forgetting… but maybe that was a good thing. He shook his head in dismissal and turned to the matter at hand.