There was a time when I thought nothing could make life worth living again.
It was the year 637, twelfth year in the reign of the Most Exalted Emperor Dynasis, Successor of the former Emperor Axalyn. It was the second day of the Feast of the God Month Hythalia, and all good people were expected to regale in the festivities. Always a good citizen, I was deep in my cups. A good strong mead can bring a surprising amount of peace to a weary soul. If you don't believe me, your soul hasn't been weary enough.
The pub was small and cozy. I had come here many times, and they knew me. Ordinarily, they had a kind word and a touch of the house mead for me to taste and give my opinion. This day, I walked in and was greeted by nervous silence as everyone watched me warily. A marked man. I asked for and was given mead. The entire jug. No word of friendship nor offer of better drink. I sat down at a worn, wooden table and set to emptying the jug.
As I drank (and cursed under my breath, for the barkeep had seen fit to water down the drink), I stared at a bit of silver and gold in my hand. Eight points of silver tipped the heavily crafted metal. Scripted in ancient Dornali, it read, The bearer of this award carries with him the pride of the Empire. Honor and service are his trade. I toasted the inscription, and drank a cup. Then another. Then another. I kept drinking until the world started spinning a little.
I snorted loudly. Honor and service, indeed! I took another drink, slammed down my cup and threw the gold trinket across the room. To my fortune, it narrowly missed the head of a large, burly fellow before burying three of the silver points in the wall. Honor and service be damned. What good has the "pride of the Empire" done me? I refilled the cup angrily.
Unfortunately, the burly fellow glanced down at greasy strands of hair floating toward the floor with displeasure: they had been attached to his head not long ago. He looked up at me in a rage. "Fool! That insult will cost you! No one threatens Ballor the Mighty and walks away!"
As I said, I was deep in my cups, but I've been a soldier far too long. Nothing else could have captured my attention so thoroughly. Besides, with the mood I was in, I found this a welcome opportunity. I was never a brawling man by choice, but it was sounding good just then. I very slowly stood up (one doesn't leap to his feet after a dozen cups of good mead, if one is wise) and faced him. "I apologize, good sir. Did I insult you? I missed my target. I had hoped to send the thing down your gullet in hopes of quelling your obnoxious mouth." I don't think I slurred my words overmuch.
Ballor the Mighty turned over his table with a roar. It crashed against the far wall. "You think my mouth obnoxious! Wait until you feel my bite!" He drew a knife, long enough to be a short sword, except on him it was obviously a knife. He stood maybe half a hand taller than I, and I am taller than most. His hands bore remarkable resemblance to smithy hammers, and his gut protruded over a thick leather belt. Most of the rest of him wasn't given to fat, though.
I gave him my most feral grin and reached over my right shoulder for a sword that wasn't there. Of course, it had been stripped from me, along with my commission. This placed me at an extreme disadvantage, considering his size and weapon. I whipped around my table and stood ready for him. I am large, but I am quicker than most realize until it's too late. My speed and balance should have alerted him immediately, but if he recognized the threat, he ignored it. The barkeep was cowering in the corner, shouting something about fighting outside, but neither of us were of a mind to hear him.
He was good with his knife, I'll give him that. He scratched my left arm as I twisted and planted my good right fist in his kidney. He collapsed to the ground with a small grunt, his weapon clattered somewhere off to the left. He twisted to maneuver, but I dropped to one knee and gripped his sword arm in such a way that he would be unwise to struggle. I felt his muscles tense as he tried to break free, but I didn't let him. Ballor the Mighty earned his magnificent title to be sure, but not only am I quicker than I look, I'm also stronger.
"Ballor the Mighty, you say? Ballor the Mewling I say. Your skill as a warrior is due for reappraisal. I think you should stick to your skill at drinking cheap ale and telling grand stories about your sword. The real thing is obviously far too much for you."
He glared at me through the tears in his eyes. His teeth gritted with pain, for his elbow wasn't far from snapping in half. "Klia take you to the Ninth Hell," he declared. A sudden twist of his arm made him close his eyes and turn away. A pool of sweat began to form under his head.
"Such disrespect from a man lying helpless on the floor, Ballor the Mewling. A man who holds your livelihood in his hands deserves far better than the drivel you spout. Give me something original, at the very least!"
He said nothing while sweat and tears of pain streaked down his face. We sat on the floor in silence as I let him contemplate his fate. Finally, I let him up and stood away, ready for reprisal. None came; instead he glared at me, motioned to his friends, and stomped out.
A pretty bar wench came up to me with cloth and water. "You're bleeding, Sir Knight."
I glanced at the ruined sleeve which was now soaking with my blood. Half of the golden emblem had been torn away by the knife blade. Once, this would have been enough to make me go after Ballor with murder in my heart. Now, I felt curiously empty. "I'm not a knight, girl. Not any more, at least."
"Surely, no one else would be allowed to wear the Crest of the Golden Stallion!" She dabbed at the wound, which slowly began to stop bleeding. I felt tired, weak and light-headed, and the light in the room seemed to shift and swirl. For a moment, she looked almost ethereal, like a goddess from the Heavens. I stared at her, thinking I knew her for a brief instant. Then I shook my head, and she was again an ordinary serving wench.
"There was a time when the Order was everything, and the Empire was my god. Now . . . all things change, eventually. No man wins every battle." I leaned against a table and reached for my cup. It was almost empty, and I drained the last. "I must go. I must be quit of this city by nightfall, or my head is forfeit."
"Your wound -- " she protested.
"Will heal, with time. A head without a neck will not." I favored her with a wilting smile. "You have been kind, and I thank you. I have few coins to give you, but take the star from the wall. Melted down, it should be worth a small sum."
She looked at me with wide, deep brown eyes a man could get lost in. I was in a mood to lose myself, and I didn't care how. A night with a wench would be welcome enough, but I felt I should go. Some stubborn streak in me told me that there was yet work left undone. If I died along the way, what of it? The world would go on. I staggered away from the table and made my way toward the door.
I heard a sharp intake of breath from the wall where the trinket had lodged. "But, this is the Thozali Star! You were a hero of the Veltaran Gorge!"
I didn't pause. "Was I?" Nor did I wait for a response.
The sun hung in the northwest, not quite dipping into the mountains. I had an hour or so before I had to be gone, but it was high time for me to move on. I was penniless, outcast and very drunk. I couldn't think of a better way to start. I headed for the famed Gates of Silver that welcomed so many pilgrims from afar to stare in awe at the Ebony Keep. I passed many such travelers; farmers and peasants, most of them, bumping into one or another as I made my way. Some thought to quarrel with me until they looked at me and saw the torn crest on my sleeve. Others merely mumbled apologies and hurried on. I approached the Gate and for a time, I stared at the shine of silver glowing in the setting sun. The gate guards saw me and knew me. One fumbled with a weapon to polish and hone the edge, another stared at me with open challenge in his face. I ignored him. When, at last, the silver sheen turned blood-red, I walked through the gates to leave the city forever. Within a week, I would be outside the land of the Dorns, and my fortune would fall wherever the gods chose. The one guard stared at me as I passed and spat at my feet. The other waited until his companion wasn't looking, and threw me a salute. I stopped, shocked and surprised. My hand went up to him in return by habit, but before it had finished I knew it was sincere. I remembered him: Hammond, one of the lower officers in the regular militia whom I had served with. I wondered why he was pulling guard duty.
There came a scuffling of feet, and I whirled to meet it. Ballor the Mighty had rallied his friends and rushed at me with pikes and maces. I deflected one, parried another, sent a man to the ground with a broken wrist, then fell to a blow to the head.
Everything went red, then black.
The water was pink with blood. The life of a young boy, barely old enough to show a hint of fluff on his lip, ran thick around my boots. I wept even as I hewed with my sword, cutting through leather, steel and bone alike. A rage was upon me, a rage I could not control or deny, and all who stood near me became a focus for that rage. The boy's face stared up at me from the ground, a look of surprise haunting me with accusation. It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The young never die, only the old and weak. The young live forever. I had been the one to teach him otherwise. No one had taught the boy how to fight, they had just placed a sword in one hand, a shield in the other, and told him to kill. There was no trace of red on his blade; his first opponent had cut through him like paper. Me. And I raged at the injustice, at the stupidity, at the sheer audacity of elves who thought to pit children against seasoned knights.
The boy was probably older than I, but the thought was the same. The Dornali are long-lived among men, but even we become greybeards before an elf boy reaches maturity. I hewed and hacked and wept my fury as men fell under my sword. My hands were slippery with blood, but I held on to my blade and dealt death to all around me. Their faces burned into my brain as they fell, faces besot with fear, with surprise, with hatred. Some begged for mercy, others cursed my blood before alien gods. All of them died.
There, before me, sat Ulanor astride his golden charger. Knight Captain of the Order of Jorun, also known as the Golden Stallions, greatest warrior of our time. I watched him parry a mace with his shield as he dealt a death blow to another. His horse reared, blood marred its proud chest, then it fell. Ulanor was caught off-guard, and fell with it. I was at his side in an instant, fending off snarling elves who roared at being cheated of their prize. Ulanor got to his feet and bellowed back. Together we fought as madmen, and made legends that day. Twice he fell to his feet as the elves rushed him, and twice I stood them off until he regained his stance. Twice more they beat me back, and he came to me like a whirlwind in their midst. We were immortal, and won the field.
Back in The Ebony Keep, Ulanor stood beside me as the Imperial Chamberlain placed the Thozali Star upon my brow. He was first to proclaim my worth, and first to decry my innocence. He was the first to die.
The water was pink at my feet, and I shied away from it. Soft hands took my arms and led me back to the water. Lilting voices sang in my ear, but the words were beyond my ken. White hands dipped in the water and came up clear; there was no blood. The hands urged me to sip from them, and I found myself kneeling to obey.
The water was cool and shocking. My body was jolted as the liquid trickled down my throat, and I felt the haze and dizziness fall away. My arm, which had been throbbing, tingled and fell quiet. I felt refreshed. Darkness lifted, and I opened my eyes anew.
I was not in a place I recognized. Soft, pink light drifted down from above, but I couldn't see a source. A small brook gurgled nearby, and the water reflected this light. I thought of the boy I had slain, and Ulanor's mustache as he grinned at me. I closed my eyes and sat back.
"Are you yet unwell? The water should heal all." The voice which spoke to me was soft and beautiful. It pricked the edges of my memory, but I didn't know why.
"Can your magick water heal wounds of the soul?" I asked in a whisper.
"No, such wounds can only heal with time and strength. But are you not a man of strength?"
"There is strength, lady, and then there is strength. I have not met my match in contest of arms or muscle, but that is a strength altogether different."
"Do you seek to die, man of the sword?"
"I . . . . " I paused. "I . . . have no answer for you, lady. I do not know."
"What is this wound, then, that makes you confused in your answer?" There was mirth in this statement. "Perhaps the injury is to the head, rather than your heart?"
I opened my eyes and looked up into . . . glory. "Do you mock me, lady?"
Her eyes sparkled gayly. "I do. For what is death but another process of life? So long as there is life, there is hope, man of the sword. Have you forgotten that?"
Her words struck me to my core. Never give up, boy, my father had said. Your comrades may be dead, your woman taken prisoner, your world crumbling around you. Never give up. So long as you draw breath, you have the chance to make it right. The only time you die is when you give up. I lived my life by his wisdom, and had never found it lacking. "How did you know?" I whispered.
Her smile outshone the sun. "Come, man of the sword. We have much to discuss, and precious little time."
She turned and began to walk toward a door I hadn't noticed before. I rose to my feet and followed her. Wonder filled me, and fear. The door opened at her approach, and she glided through on footsteps light as air. I hesitated, and she turned and smiled at me again. "Come. What is there to fear here?"
"Where am I, lady? What has happened to me?" Unwilling, I allowed myself to be drawn through the doorway. This room was differently lit. It was a shrine filled with candles. On the floor rested a pentagram drawn in pearl, and two cushions obviously meant for seating. This vision of beauty knelt on one of them. She beckoned with her hand to me. "Come, rest. We have a little time, yet."
"What is happening?" I asked, even as I knelt beside her. My hand brushed the edge of the pillow, and I felt the unmistakable sensation of silk. "Are you a sorceress who conjures me as if a spirit?"
Her laughter was like a spring rain falling on a quiet pond. "Nay, not a sorceress. But I have conjured you from your land and your time for a great Quest. Have you some wine." She reached over to a small shelf and lifted a clay jar.
I shook my head. "None, thank you."
She poured the wine into two clear goblets, and picked up one of them. The liquid was a deep, rich purple. She swirled it about for a moment, contemplating something, before taking a tiny sip. Then she sat the goblet down and faced me seriously.
"You are Amagor du Iri, second son of Rekal, lord of Osted Castle. You bear the strength of many men, but you are not a bully. You trained in the martial arts of warfare and excelled in them. Your father was exceedingly proud of you when you joined the army, and even more so when you attained the rank of Knight of the Order of Jorus. You fought in the Veltaran Gorge and gained the favor of the Emperor, who honored you with the Thozali Star at the recommendation of your beloved Captain. You were betrayed by a fellow knight jealous of your fame. He used a knife with a blue blade to slay another knight whom you had brawled with, and substituted your blade with his as you slept. When the magickal inquiry investigated the death, it pointed to the blade in your belt, and you were prosecuted. The Captain defended your honor, and met with a mysterious death that same evening. You were found guilty and exiled from the city and the kingdom in shame. And now you do not know if you want to live or die."
I felt the blood drain from my face. How could she know so much? Garras had told the public that the slaying had been done with a red-bladed knife, but in truth the blade was blue. Ulanor had put him up to it, claiming that the truly guilty party would try to point out the error. Ulanor had died a few hours later, apparently falling on his head in a drunken stupor.
"How can you know these things?" I demanded. "If you are not a sorceress, then who are you?"
"Who I am is not important," she replied. "That I know these things is proof to you that my words are true. Will you hear me, now?"
"One last thing. What is the name of the knave who betrayed me?"
"You did not know his name, but I will tell you. His name is Garras."
My mouth fell open to cry foul, but nothing issued from my throat. Garras? Garras, who is known as Just and Fair? Garras would do this to me? I thought my heart would burst. "It can't be."
"You will have your chance to prove the mettle of my words, if you survive. For now, you are needed elsewhere." She turned and lifted the lid of a small wooden chest. From it she took another candle of yellow wax, and lit it. She set the candle between them and closed the chest. "I am an Emissary from the powers of Light. The world has fallen under the sway of the Chaos Lords, and will be shattered ere soon. I have been charged with finding a champion to aide a party already in search for the means of defeating the Chaos Lords. They have quested long and hard, and the Chaos Lords are close on their heels. They have need of your strength and skill to survive further."
"I don't understand."
"There was a great battle between Order and Chaos. Two bands of mortals became our pawns for this battle, and their actions held the balance of power. One of ours, a paladin of unparalleled ability and faith, made one fatal mistake, and an entire city died for it. The heroes who fought toe to toe with the dread Chaos Lords . . . died, abruptly. The balance of power fell to the side of Chaos, and finally they have won. All checks and balances that we, the followers, leaders of Light instituted over the many centuries have been sundered. The effects are being felt through all times and dimension. Even you are a victim of it. We of Order have gathered one last band of mortals to do our bidding, and the hope of the world rest on them. In order to bring new heroes to the fray we had to choose from those that have no place, no power and not one tenth of the strength of the Chaos Lords. Had we done otherwise, the Great Balance would have awarded Chaos equal compensation. Your only hope is in the strength that you and your companions must gather. Already the questers have made a grave error and the Chaos Lord Herself has been granted new power that will ultimately lead her and her forces to the heroes."
She paused to take another sip from her goblet. A single drop of moisture formed on the outside of the crystal and traced a path down the stem. "This War is fought on several levels: you fight the physical, we fight on the divine. Your actions affect ours. Ours support yours. Now the balance is starting to weigh too heavily, for there is no one to fight the physical. We were therefore bidden to find another set of heroes to aide us, and I came upon you. You are but a man, a common grain of apathy, chaff with no will to live . . . yet all that we are, all that you know, love and hold dear, depend on you."
"This is . . . sudden." I groped for words, and couldn't find them. I was very aware of the candle burning between us, as it dipped lower and lower. I dreaded what it meant.
She noticed my intent and nodded. "That candle represents the time of peace left to us before you must be on your way. Yes, the time is very small. We are forced to move quickly before all hope is gone."
"I thought you said that as long as there was life, there was hope."
"So I did. But if Chaos stays in power too long, hope will be lost, for life will end. We fight on while we have breath, but it is failing fast. Already you see what happened to you this past week. That is happening all over the world, in greater and greater ripples, for even now, time is measured in the span of weeks and days. Deep in the vaults of time, a madman seeks to purge the world of what he calls 'abominations.' If he gains the power that Chaos offers him, he will bring about the destruction of everything. Elsewhere and elsewhen, the Elvish race must be rescued. The world will be threatened by religious war, where for the first time, the entire world may be engulfed in hellish flame and none of the gods will hold sway. In yet another era this evil seeks to cleave the earthmother herself. In the final battle . . . that is still veiled. I know that some of you will never live to see that battle, but if no one even tries, even those are to die, none will see to the end. Chaos will become so powerful that the world will be sundered apart, and all will be lost. All that is will be remade in the image of Evil, and all that you love will die."
"You speak of deeds far beyond me, lady. I am afraid that I am not up to the task. I have always been a simple soldier with a single path, and even that has been taken from me." In spite of myself, I reached for the second goblet and tasted the wine. It was sweet and pleasing to the tongue, and curiously invigorating.
She nodded approvingly. "You belittle yourself, Sir Knight." Suddenly, I saw in her the serving wench at the bar with her wide, inviting eyes.
"How long have you been watching me?"
"Long enough, Amagor. Long enough to know that you possess the heart, spirit and strength we need to overcome the Chaos Lords. Yes, I was there in the barroom with you, although I have never done aught but watch. When the time was right that you could be taken without arousing the suspicion of the Gods of the Chaos Lords, I spirited you away. For the moment, they think you dead."
A chill swept through me, and the hairs stood on my arms. "Am I, then . . . dead?"
She laughed gaily once again. Her voice was sweet and pure to my ears. "No, not dead. Not yet, at any rate. The body they dumped in the Illan River was not yours, although they think it is. We of the Light may be defeated, but we are not yet without power."
"What needs to be done?" I asked after taking another taste of the wine. I told myself that this would have to be the last cup for a while, else I would never stop.
She smiled as if having heard my thought. "Some of the task has already been accomplished. You must gather together a number of ancient and powerful Artifacts. You will then use some of these Artifacts to do battle with and defeat the Chaos Lords. Other Artifacts are being gathered to keep them from the Evil, for if they are used, they will have all they need for the final defeat. One among the party has been given the power to find these Artifacts where they are hidden. When you have found all you can, you will know, and the final battle will begin.
"Do not underestimate the power of the Chaos Lords, nor yet those of the Artifacts. Both sides have been seeking these treasures for a long, long time. Only recently did we of Order find a way to give one of you the ability to track them, but then it was almost too late. This is why we have gathered together this band of mortals, and why they need you to assist them. You have skills and advantages they do not yet possess, but will need. Some of the Artifacts can be as dangerous to the wielder as well as their target. You will be proof against some of those."
"Again, I do not understand you, Lady."
"It does not matter, for now. Hark! Our time draws to a close. Already the candle begins to die, and in its death I see two of your comrades die. Are you ready, man of the sword?"
I answered honestly. "No. But I will go where I am needed. What about provisions? I am ill-prepared for this venture."
She nodded solemnly. "Have no fear, your new friends have that which you need." She extended her hand to me, and I took it.
The world shifted, and we were again somewhere else.