1 A Promise of Balance

Halifax, lord of the undercities, master of disease and poison, stood overlooking the city of Scree, the only city where the vexen lived above-ground. The land was covered in poisonous mist, while an artificial twilight ensured that the beady eyes of the rat-folk was not abused by the contemptible sun.

'One day… The mist will go… The light, I will see…'

Halifax nodded to himself, thinking it would be nice to stand in the light —unafraid and in defiance of all custom. He had fought long and hard for this day to come, for the right time to proclaim his ambition to his people; to begin a new age for the vexen.

As the youngest to ever rise to the seat at the vexen council, Halifax was a living legend to his people. Their jealousy and hatred for him was almost tangible, especially when he stood in the council-chambers, a sensation that Halifax found great pleasure in.

What he was about to do on this day would undoubtedly increase their hatred, and probably incite many to revolt. He dug his claws into the window sill in exuberant expectation. Their attempts at defiance would only increase his power, once he had squashed it thoroughly, of course.

Turning away from the view, he looked into the cracked mirror by the wall, inspecting his appearance. He needed to be both imposing and intimidating today, enough that his enemies would hesitate, while ensuring that his allies knew they had made the right choice in siding with him.

The vexen possessed the blessed form of the Lord of Pestilence, evolved from the petty rat into a humanoid shape, and Halifax was a prime example. Standing tall at five majestic feet, Halifax had two thick horns sprouting from the sides of his head, curling around in an imposing fashion and adorned with straps of gold. His fur was a deep black, with a single white streak running from between his eyebrows over his head, and all the way down to his tail.

His deep-set eyes held the greedy luster of the traditional vexen, but it also hosted an intelligent gleam which had so often confused his enemies. While not large in stature, Halifax was lean and powerful, his claws sharpened to points, and his teeth shining like silver whenever he grinned.

From his lower back, his prided tail slovenly snaked down onto the ground, where it was ready to become a deadly weapon if any assassin thought he might have lowered his guard.

Dressed in the robes of vexen council, he looked as imposing as a vexen could be. The dark cloth looked deceptively soft and light as far as armor went, but anyone trying to pierce through the robe would find it both impossible and suicidal.

The fabric was made from the web of steel-spiders, making them impervious to bladed weapons, and was, furthermore, soaked in a deadly poison, one that only Halifax — through his blessing from the Lord of Pestilence — could survive.

In short, Halifax was ready to go to war.

A knock at the door disturbed Halifax from ensuring his appearance was adequate. Since he was more or less done with his inspection, he decided he would not kill the interloper… this time.

"Come," he rasped, giving himself one final glance before turning to the door.

"Greeting, Regent," said the sniveling vexen who entered, "Council speaks. All is ready."

"Good," Halifax nodded and swept out of the room. It was time. The messenger followed from behind, and could not resist the temptation to open its fuming mouth.

"Great day this is, Regent. Such trickery, such deceit!" It snickered, then looked up to find Halifax looming over it with fire in his eyes. It immediately shrunk back, its nose whitening in fear.

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"Who is your master?" Halifax asked, still keeping the vexen subservient with his glare. "Master is Callix, Regent," the vexen replied, its sensitive nose pressed to the ground.

Callix, one of the council-members. Halifax sneered. "Go back. Tell Callix I will see them in field." The vexen nodded furiously and darted down the hallway, away from the dangerous lord. Halifax laughed with delight, seeing how pathetic an attempt this had been at spycraft.

Callix was old, and had grown complacent. The haughty councilman had tried to get himelf into Halifax's good graces, but Halifax had known the vexen for what he was — an opportunist. Granted, all vexen were opportunist, but even then there were some among them who went too far.

Halifax had told no one what he truly intended to happen on this day. He would shock them into subservience, and see them try their petty tricks. They would fail, and Halifax would end them whenever they gave him the opportunity to.

With the blessing of the Lord of Pestilence, and the skills he had honed over decades, nothing could stop him.

Grinning all the way, Halifax made it to the ground floor of the citadel, before he strode out into the city, through emptied streets. Normally, Scree was a bustling place, full of activity between the vexen and those who dared trade with them, but on this day, Halifax had proclaimed all to stay inside.

As he walked down the street, the shadows around him stirred. From within the poisonous mist, plaguemongers appeared, swinging their censors back and forth to maintain the poisonous mist of the city. These were the ones that Halifax had personally trained, each of them willing to die for him, or kill him if given the opportunity.

His retinue grew with each step, as he passed all the way through the city and out onto the the withered fields surrounding it, where Scree stood alone like a hollow tomb to the lost world. It was said that the city had belonged to the men-kin, back when they ruled the world. Now they were a pathetic rabble; their glory lost when the big-boom destroyed the old world. Out of the ashes, the vexen had risen by the blessing of the Lord of Pestilence and his mutagens, which had changed feeble ratlings into the more powerful forms they now possessed.

Swamps and bogs protected Scree on two sides, while the city nestled up to a large mountain, keeping its back safe. Only the front entrance was relatively approachable, however, it was a long, thin line of dried-out land, full of vulnerable positions.

Any army attempting to besiege Scree, would have move into small columns, making it an easy target for guerrilla forces hiding in the swamps and bogs. The entire train of manpower and supplies would continuously be harassed, until they either died or gave up.

Thus, no one had ever taken Scree. Only a few had tried.

It was therefore strange to see a completely unmolested army of men-kin standing at attention outside the range of the city's catapults and cannons. Banners waving in the air above them, the human army seemed poised to either attack or go on parade — whichever suited the situation best.

Halifax gritted his marvelous teeth, readying himself for the worst. Humans were notoriously fickle, and he could not be sure that they would honor their promise, even if he — in spite of his devious nature — intended to do exactly as he had said.

His own retinue spread out behind him as he approached, forming a line of green mist, which obscured the city behind them. While Halifax did not intend to fight these humans, he had no compunction about making them feel uncomfortable.

The move worked, at least if the uneasy movement he saw from the front-ranks was anything to go by. Halifax grinned with delight as he strode forward, leaving behind the shielding wall of mist and stepping out on his own.

A small part of the human army mirrored his actions, although they were three who approached to face his singular existence.

'They fear…' Halifax's grin grew wider. Fear was a useful tool to induce, even when you were not being hostile. The small party of humans approached cautiously, although it was hard to tell from the figure leading them. Dressed in shining armor, with plaited hair billowing in the wind behind, the Saintess of Fratine, Lady Silvain of Moren rode forth with her back straight and light shining around her.

She was beautiful and powerful. Just as Halifax remembered her.

The figures at her sides were no less impressive, if not in appearance, then at least in standing. General of the Fratine army, lord Stalton and 3rd prince of the kingdom, Halford DuRone, sat upon their mighty steeds, following behind the saintess.

They were figures who should be leaders, but faced with the authority and power of the saintess, they were nothing but followers.

When they had approached within earshot, Halifax gave a slight bow, before removing the thick cowl obscuring his features, and said, "Saintess… We greet you."

Lady Silvain blinked and tilted her head. A short silence ensued, before she finally smiled — brightening up the world around her — and said, "And we greet you, Lord Halifax."

Halifax grinned, knowing the affect his macabre expression would have on the Saintess' followers. The prince forced his horse forward and drew his sword half-way out its sheath before Lady Silvain stopped him with a gesture.

"None of that, Your Highness. We cannot harm our host before we have even heard him speak."

"Lady Silvain," the prince protested, waving in Halifax' general direction, "I must protest this course of action. My father has humored your request, but standing here, I say we deal with this rodent and that horrible filth behind him, right this instance!"

"You will fight us?" Halifax's grin grew wider. His teeth shone like silver, gleaming in the light from the saintess.

"We will not, Lord Halifax," Lady Silvain insisted, while giving the prince a warning glare, "We are here at your invitation, and will endeavor to hear you out.

"I still say this is madness," the prince mumbled, but backed down. Halifax gave him one last mocking grin, before turning his attention back on the saintess.

"We call you to deal," Halifax said, and made a waving motion over his shoulder. The plaguemongers behind him stopped their swinging censors and withdrew, leaving Halifax unprotected in the middle of the field.

"The vexen deal only in filth and murder," Lord Stalton growled at Lady Silvein's left side, "Why should we deal with you?" The saintess eyed the general, but gave no rebuke, silent or otherwise.

"For balance… no?" Halifax let his words sink in. He saw a glimmer of recognition in the saintess' eyes. Smiling, he reached into his robe to confirm her suspicion. "A gift," he said, as he retrieved the item that he had kept for many long years, "Received long ago."

The three watched as he drew out a circular item, glowing with inner power. "What, by the gods, is that?!" The prince exclaimed and moved back, while both the saintess and the general drew closer.

"This is… Indeed it is you," Lady Silvain sighed, while her face filled with warmth.

"You know this vexen, lady Silvein?" The general looked at her with surprise.

"Indeed, I think I do," the saintess said and dismounted. Looking at one another, the general and the prince followed suit, following behind the saintess. Striding up to take the item Halifex held in his outstretched hand, she inspected it closely. "You found a use for it, then?" She asked, returning it to Halifax once she was satisfied.

Halifax nodded, grabbing the glowing item between his claws and gave it a good jerk. The piece split into two, its light diminishing, although there appeared to be a thin connection between the split pieces still.

Once more he offered up the item, now in half, while he kept the other half to himself. "A gift returned," he said, "An offer of balance, I give."

Tentatively, the saintess reached out and grabbed the piece he was offering. Whole, the item had been circular, but now it was in the shape of a teardrop. She held it tight and smiled.

"I accept your off—" She got no further. A dart had lodged itself in her throat. Turning his head, Halifax found the offender; a night fang — a vexen assassin.

"Assassin!" The prince called, unsheathing his sword and turning it on Halifax, "Kill the vexen!"

"No!" Halifax bellowed, but he hesitated. His instincts told him to deal with the assassin. He knew who had sent it — Callix, of course, who else — but he also needed to save the saintess. This was important. It was about balance!

Growling, he cast off his instincts and threw himself at the staggering Lady Silvein. The general tried to block him, as the prince attacked, but Halifax was not a vexen overlord purely due of cunning.

His dark robe billowed with the power of a withermancer, disease and pestilence spreading out around him, attacking his enemies. They both staggered backwards, disoriented by the immediate nausea.

Darting in between them, he caught the saintess before she fell, reaching for the poisonous dart. With golden eyes she looked up at him, their luster slowly dimming as her expression dulled, but still full of power.

'What kind of poison could this be,' Halifax had thought it was impossible to harm the saintess through such mundane means, but the moment he touched the dart, he knew why it had been effective.

It was not merely a poison, but also a mutagenic curse. It was a curse inflicted by the highest authority of the vexen, the Lord of Pestilence — the very same who had blessed Halifax.

"Protect the saintess!" the prince cried and attacked again, eyes blinking through tears. Halifax had no more time, but could neither retreat nor fight back. He needed this alliance — he needed the balance. He had sworn it would be so.

Unwilling to let go of the saintess, Halifax caught the sword with his hands. His skin was hardened by years of fighting, and was as tough as steel. It resisted the immediate attack, but when the prince ignited his royal bloodline, the Pyre of Grache, Halifax almost lost his hand. Although not as strong as the saintess' bloodline, the Pyre of Ghrace was a strong flame that could burn away even the filthiest poison of the vexen.

Screaming in agony, Halifax held onto the saintess as he withdrew, trying to control the poison within her while simultaneously fending off the idiotic prince. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw both the human and vexen armies approach, the latter having appeared behind the scattering mist Halifax himself had ordered.

He almost admired the use of his own move against him, but the situation at hand was too dire for him to waste mental energy on it. The Lord of Pestilence had turned against him, without a doubt, and it was probably because he had discovered what Halifax intended to do.

He could feel his own blessing wane, as the mutagen that made him what he was began to self-destruct within. Only his half of the gift, held tight in the hand that also held the saintess, fought the dizzying exhumation of energy, imbuing him with its strength. However, it was only half now. It was what had allowed him to grow into such a powerful vexen, but with only half he could not resist the debilitation.

'I didn't know…' He cursed himself for his negligence. That the blessing he had received could be rescinded had not crossed his mind, not until now that it was too late. If he was to die regardless, he should at least do one thing right.

He had to save her. Had to save his savior!

Screaming so loud the prince had to stagger backwards and hold his ears, Halifax bought some time. He laid the saintess down and gathered all the disease he had available in his hand, sending it into her body to make it fight the poison.

His powers were still marked by the Lord of Pestilence's power, even waning as it was, and would be the only thing that could counteract the curse. Halifax was not a healer, though, he could only force the issue, hoping it would be enough.

It was not.

He saw the assassin before he saw the attack from the prince. The night fang was attempting another dart at the saintess. There was nothing he could do but place himself in between, catching the dart with his wounded hand just as the prince's blade thrust through throat.

Even if his robe was a powerful protection, it could not fully cover his body. Desperately holding on to his consciousness, Halifeax stumbled onto the ground.

Poison and curse running through his body, along with a burning blade, Halifax' looked up at Scree, the ancient city which had stood as a symbol of vexen corruption for centuries. Would that he could have changed that. Would that his life could have been exchanged for something meaningful.

Instead, he fell down. His last vision was of the saintess, her face so endlessly close to his. Her hand clasped her half of the gift. He held his own half, held it so tight it cut into his leathery hands and drew blood.

With the timing of a miracle, the saintess opened her eyes and looked into his. Her eyes were unfocused, but she smiled and managed to say, "Hello… little… rat."

Then she was gone. Only darkness remained; darkness and the memory of what once was.

'Hello little rat!'

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