Chronicles of the Light Warriors
by Owen Axel
Chapter 1: Shrouded Dawn
The rising sun’s radiant form was trapped behind the black clouds. Only a single stray ray of light shone down upon the slain dragon. The warrior who had defeated it stood calmly in the wasteland, surveying the unfamiliar landscape. He was a wiry young man with bleached red hair, looking uncomfortable in his rusted armour. The sword in his hands, which had a moment ago brought down the mighty beast, now appeared gritty and cracked. The crystal shard worn around his neck no longer sparkled with blue light, but was lifeless and grey.
“What demon’s world is this that I have wandered into?” he asked aloud.
“Good question!” a sly male voice remarked.
Three youths approached from the direction the warrior had come. The one that had answered was a man in tattered rogue’s clothing. He wore a belt with many leather pouches, a green rag for a bandana, and a bronze ring in his left ear. His rapid stride was more than the two mages could keep up with.
“I see you, too, have strayed into this desolate land, my pilfering friend,” said the warrior kindly. It was clear that they knew each other well.
“Strange that we meet up in this nightmare, eh Owain?” said the thief casually. “Out of my three comrades I’d rather share a dream with Alyssa.” His wit ran out the moment his eyes took in Owain’s drained crystal. He reached into his shirt and pulled out his own crystal. It was as dead as its twin. Holding it nervously he beckoned the other two to hurry.
The white mage was a tall woman, over a head higher than her counterpart. Her once pure white robe was now stained dark with soot and muck. A rust-covered hammer was tied to the rope she wore for a belt.
“By the Light! The crystals have lost their glow,” the white mage Alyssa exclaimed.
Rand the black mage, who knew more than the others of both sorcery and mysticism, examined the four crystals critically. Between his wide-brimmed pointed hat and large blue robes, very little of the black mage’s body was not concealed. The only indication that his eyes were upon you was their yellow glow that pierced the shadow of his hat. His conclusion was not uplifting.
“This is an omen of the foulest sort,” he said gravely. “These amulets are magically linked to the four Elemental Crystals that sustain our world. Without the power of Wind the clouds will fade and the air will succumb. Without Fire everything will shiver and freeze in winter’s eternal cold. Without Earth the soil will rot and every crop will fail. And without Water the oceans will dry up and be left as the deepest barren valleys. In short: without the Crystal’s power this world will die....”
The thief Darreth had no patience for these grim silences. “Well, aren’t you a bringer of merry tidings,” he remarked to their residential doomsday prophet.
“We must return and warn people at once!” Owain said, always the most duty-concerned of the party.
“Return where?” asked Rand.
“To... We must get back to...” The warrior faltered.
“You have no idea where we are or where we came from,” said the black mage with the unhelpful smugness that the other three had come to know and loathe. “What do you think we were discussing while you ran off to slay passing dragons? Some wicked magic has muddled our memories!”
“No...I don’t think that’s true,” said Alyssa slowly. “I would be able to sense if we were under the effects of dark magic. It feels more like...we’ve strayed into someone else’s private property. I mean to say, it feels like we’re someplace we don’t belong.”
“I know what you mean,” said Darreth. “This place gives me the creeps. Is anyone opposed to the idea that we get our butts out of here? Beats me how our bulky knight took down a dragon with that crappy sword, but I wouldn’t wanna risk running into any more of those.”
“Agreed,” said Owain, nodding. “I think I spotted a town over in that direction.”
The four youths went forth, the strong warrior leading as usual while the mages stayed in the back.
The newly appointed captain of the Cornelian army signalled his troop to halt. He turned around to face his men; the temple ruins standing ominous behind him.
“Sergeant,” he called to his second-in-command. “Choose two of your most trusted men and follow me into the ruins. The rest of you stand guard out here in case our opponent tries to make an escape.”
“Sir, permission to speak freely on behalf of the men?” said the sergeant, saluting.
“As always, Horace,” the captain responded.
“Well, I know this must weigh as heavily in your mind as it does in mine, sir, but I think it needs to be said: We who serve the king have always looked upon Sir Garland as a hero to our land and its people. It’s hard for us to understand how the great knight who has countless times risked his life for the kingdom could ever turn traitor. It is much his effort that’s kept Cornelia safe from the vast numbers of goblins and other hideous creatures that dwell here-”
“That is enough, Sergeant!” the captain snapped. He decided to remind his subordinates of their priorities. “I understand. Before he committed this heinous crime we all knew Sir Garland as a friend. But we must not forget our oath to the king. Treachery of this degree is unforgivable, regardless of whom the criminal may be. Saving the princess is our priority. If Sir Garland tries to harm the princess then not one of you must hesitate to kill him! Is that understood!?”
“Yes, cap’n,” the men said with little enthusiasm.
“Oh, come now. Is that any way for His Majesty’s pawns to respond to a direct order?”
The captain made a sickening noise and slowly lowered his eyes to the bloody edge sticking out from his chest. The time it took him to slide off Garland’s blade lasted the rest of his life. The captain of the Cornelian army was dead before he hit the ground.
“Never let your enemy catch you unaware,” said Garland, stepping over the fresh corpse. His voice sounded cold and inhuman from within his horned metal helmet. “A captain who forgets that rule does not deserve his high post.”
Not one of the soldiers dared to make a move. Most of them were in shock from seeing how easily and how without remorse the Cornelian hero slew their leader.
“Aren’t any of you going to attack me?” Garland asked.
Only the sergeant dared to respond to the invitation. His powerful lunge only achieved a slight tear in Garland’s cape. He’d never have guessed that a man wearing such heavy steel armour could move so fast. Garland swung around and sliced a deep cut across the sergeant’s back.
“You were always a promising swordsman, Horace. Unfortunately, you never realised the worthlessness of chain-mail against edged weapons. However, I think I’ll let you learn from your mistake this time. The next time, I’ll let you suffer the consequences.”
With that Garland beat the sergeant unconscious with a blow from his gauntlet. When Horace Bydale awoke it was to a gruesome sight.
Every single member of the troop lay dead on the ground. The sun had risen over the sky and begun its descent while he slept. Ravens were pecking at the bloody corpses. He knew that some of the men had been barely out of their teenage years, while some had been on the brink of retirement, yet Garland had spared no one...except him. Thirty years of service and training did not help the sergeant now. He threw up violently, and continued dry-heaving for several minutes after his stomach was cleared of all its contents. As soon as he was able to stand on his shaking legs he started running, with no intention of ever slowing down.
He concentrated on his duty to block out the grief. The king had to be informed of Garland’s madness. Because the possible reality was so emotionally horrifying, the sergeant clung to the belief that the man who murdered everyone was not the hero of Cornelia – something in the Temple of Chaos had poisoned the noble Sir Garland’s soul and made him into a monster!
At that time the four youths had arrived at the city walls...
“Halt! Who goes there?” the gate watchmen demanded to know.
Owain stepped forward. “I am Owain,” he said. “This is Darreth, Alyssa and Rand. We’re wanderers seeking food and shelter.”
“I’m afraid we cannot let strangers in at this time,” said the watchman. “Cornelia is at a state of national emergency. Er, what do you say?”
The other watchman had been prodding the speaker on the shoulder. The two had a whispered conversation. Owain caught a few excited words, like “The prophecy said there’d be four of them!” and “Each with a crystal!” and “Sure they’re dressed like beggars, how else would they travel in secret!?” And so on...
“Er,” the watchman tried without much success to recapture his dignity. “This may sound a bit stupid, but...well, the thing is...”
“Are you the Light Warriors!?” the other watchman asked so loudly his co-worker immediately turned red from embarrassment.
“Light Warriors?” Owain repeated. It was the first time he’d heard the term. He didn’t understand why it fitted so well in his mind.
“Yeah! Just like in Lukin’s prophecy!” the younger, more excited watchman uttered. “You’re here to save the princess, right?”
“Wedgevald! That’s classified information!” the older, brawnier watchman shouted.
“But, Biggsson, sir!” Wedgevald protested. “If they’re really the Light Warriors we have to help them, because they’re the ones who’re going to save the world, remember?”
“Shut your mouth or you’ll get us both in trouble!” Biggsson pushed the other watchman aside. “Erm, excuse me, sirs and madam. We’ve been ordered to escort the Light Warriors to the castle if they should arrive as Sage Lukin prophesised.”
“Who is Sage Lukin?” Rand asked curiously.
“Don’t you people know the Crescent Sage?” Wedgevald asked. “He’s the one who prophesised that the Cryst-“
“That’s enough!” Biggsson interrupted.
“Take us to the king!” Darreth suddenly ordered.
“What are you doing?” Alyssa whispered in his ear.
“Doesn’t Light Warriors sound just ‘right’ to you?” the thief whispered back. “I think there’s something to this prophecy deal. Maybe this king of theirs can help us figure out where we came from? Just trust me!”
“Follow me, Light Warriors!” said Wedgevald, gesturing wildly.
“No!” said Bigsson. “I’ll take them to the king. I’m not having you spill more national secrets while my back is turned. You’ll stay here and guard the gate, and if anymore legendary heroes show up, don’t let them take one step into the city until I return!”
“No buts! Stay!” He softened his tone again. “Walk this way, sirs and madam.”
The newly-named Light Warriors looked at each other and shrugged.
Chapter 2: Garland’s betrayal
The Light Warriors sat in the comfortable leather couches, staring at the walls and each other. The idea of waiting rooms didn’t appeal to any of them.
“Y’know,” said Darreth the thief. “This king’s got some really nice furniture. Look, gold-framed paintings, silver candlesticks, silk wall hangings, bowls of exotic fruits, glass tables-”
“And it’s all going to remain here after we leave,” the white mage Alyssa interrupted in a stern voice.
“What? Surely you wouldn’t think me the type to stoop to petty burglary?” Darreth responded indignantly.
“Stop pretending,” laughed Rand, who was adept in the arts of black magic. “We could all hear you calculating pawn shop payments in your greedy mind.”
“Sheesh, you’d think people could be a little more trustworthy in this day and age,” Darreth commented, still putting on a show of innocence.
“You mean the Dark Ages?” Rand retorted.
“Whatever?” Alyssa looked confused. “Surely you mean ‘whenever’.”
“No, really. Whatever.” Darreth tried to look clever. “I think I’ll make that my new catch phrase. Like, I’ll be a dark and brooding, shut-in youth, who’s all mysterious and no one really knows what he’s thinking, you know?”
“Wouldn’t suit you,” said Rand, and tastelessly added “Besides, that description sounds more like a closet merry-man to me, heh heh!”
“Pfhh!” Darreth blew his tongue. “Everybody knows I’m all about the maidens and the wenches. Right, sweetie?”
“Don’t look at me with those unclean eyes.” Alyssa slid a little further away from him on the couch.
“Oh, sorry wet mage. I forgot about the White Magic Practitioner’s vow of chastity.”
Owain the warrior turned away from the door to the royal chamber to say “Could you guys keep it down a minute? I’m trying to hear what they’re saying.”
The other Light Warriors settled down, except for Darreth, who muttered, “Listening in on royal dignitaries, tsk, tsk. And they think I’m the sneaky one.”
“Never mind. Sounds like they’re coming for us.” Owain stepped away from the door quickly.
It was the Cornelian chancellor who beckoned the party to enter the royal chamber. “The, ahah, Light Warriors to see you, Your Majesty,” he said. Darreth didn’t like his lacking subtlety one bit.
The four youths assembled before the throne, taking the hint to kneel on one foot after the royal guards gave them a few very pointed looks. The king was not at his best, they could tell. He looked like he’d started out a healthy well-fed forty-year old and then aged another twenty years in less than a week through constant stress and worrying. Though he did seem regain some spark of life after the Light Warriors were introduced to him.
“So.” He spoke slowly and regally. Normally Darreth wouldn’t have had the patience for this kind of talk if he wasn’t painfully aware of the very heavily-armed royal guards. “So, Lukin’s prophecy was, true. He said, the four Warriors, of Light, from the ancient legends would appear, when the world stood on, the verge of disaster. And, indeed, you have come. I see you are wearing, a crystal pendant, such as the sage described, young man,” the king said to Owain. “Do you three, also have, such pendants?”
Rand was just the type to irritate himself over speech errors like misplaced pauses. Fortunately he didn’t say anything, just lifted out his dark-red crystal pendant from his robes.
The chancellor was examining the crystals far more doubtfully than the king, who just took one look at them and appeared satisfied.
“Light Warriors, please rescue my daughter Sarah!” the king implored, managing to get the whole sentence out in one go. “Garland, who was, formerly one, of my bravest knights, has, uff! captured and imprisoned, her in the ruined temple that, lies, north of Cornelia past, the marshes.”
“But, Majesty,” Darreth had been starting to wonder when the shifty chancellor was going to protest. “We cannot be certain that these four are the true Light Warriors. Why, according to the legend the Light Warriors fought the god of darkness almost exactly two thousand years ago. These young men and woman hardly look two thousand years old to me!” he laughed. “And as I recall the legend says that the Light Warriors were killed by the dark god. Doesn’t it seem strange that Lukin would suddenly announce their return from the dead two millennia after they, ahah, supposedly died to save the world? Doesn’t it seem more likely that these are just a band of pranksters wishing to earn themselves glory by impersonating the legendary heroes? Just look at their clothes! Would the Light Warriors come before a king dressed as beggars? I think not!”
“That’s, enough....” the king managed to say. Trying to get angry seemed to drain his energy further.
“Now, now, Majesty,” the chancellor grovelled. “Of course I understand your hopefulness, but really! As a king, mustn’t you be hesitant towards wistful prophecies? At least we should ask for more proof of their identity than those filthy rocks? They don’t look like real crystals at all to me.”
“Why you dirty little...!” Darreth began in a low voice before Owain grabbed him arm tightly to silence him. The excited yells of the young watchman had given the warrior an idea.
“Majesty!” he began in a loud and powerful voice to drown out the chancellors attempted interruptions. “I beg your forgiveness for appearing in such tattered clothes, but we were forced to make our way here from the Crescent Sage’s dwelling under most extreme circumstances. We could not risk allowing agents of the dark one know of our presence here before we had ensured that you Majesty would side with the Light. Grant us your leave to arm ourselves properly in your illustrious kingdom and we will prove to you our worth by rescuing your daughter from the clutches of Garland the traitor!”
The king’s smile widened considerably. Seeing his lord’s mood so firmly set in favour of the four made the chancellor decide to hold back his doubts for now, so as not to risk his influential position in the hierarchy. After that it was easy to convince him to donate some small funds to the party, at least enough so they could shop for preliminary equipment before setting out.
Once they were out of the castle, the Light Warriors could finally breathe out. Owain’s quick-thinking had impressed even Rand. Before he made his loud speech it had almost seemed as though the interview had started to drift in the direction of the chancellor having them all thrown into some musty dungeon.
The shopping trip wasn’t eventful enough to describe in detail. Suffice it to say that the party was soon looking more like legendary heroes and a lot less like beggars.
Meanwhile, in the Temple of Chaos...
Princess Sarah’s awakening was not a pleasant one. She found herself chained to a dusty stone altar with no view but a group of five bats resting in the ceiling. Her first instinct was to scream for help, but the sight of the devilish statues that lined the chamber (most of them half-crumbled over the centuries) let her understand that she was far too far away from anyone who would care to answer her pleas.
“Not going to scream for help?” said Garland, as if reading her thoughts.
Sarah managed to turn her head, the chain scratching her throat. “Why are you wearing that helmet?” she asked in a voice that was admirably calm considering her predicament.
“Excuse me.” Garland gripped his helmet. “Is this better?” he asked, lifting it off his head for a moment.
The princess didn’t scream now either. However, there was no way she could disguise the shock and fear in her eyes.
“I’m not a fair sight, I know,” Garland agreed. “Unfortunately, it is part of the process. Lord Chaos grants His servants great strength and agility – enough to be worth a few physical alterations. It will not be a problem for long. Once I inherit the full power of Chaos I will have freedom over far more than mere appearances.”
“Y-you think you can obtain the dark god’s power?”
“Yes. And when I do nothing else will matter. All that’s left for me to do now is wait until the two thousand year anniversary begins tonight. I’m sorry you won’t be alive to witness my ascent to godhood. At least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I couldn’t have accomplished it without you. Mwahahahaha!!!” His booming laughter sent the bats flying for safety through a crack in the wall. “I’m sorry. The irony probably is not as amusing to you.”
“I-Irony?” Sarah stuttered.
“Yes. If your father had not forbidden my advances to you none of this would have come to pass. I admit that at first my kidnapping had mostly to do with preventing your scheduled marriage to the Duke of Pravoca, but now you will give me so much more. Had you agreed to my proposal to elope together you would have given me the greatest joy a man can know. Now, by denying me and setting me down this path you will instead lead me to the joy of surpassing all of Man!”
The dark knight’s laughter echoed on within the sinister temple....
As Garland’s plan neared completion, the youths began their first journey together as Light Warriors...
The remaining goblins scattered after watching their leader fall. Owain, finally un-tensing his muscles, wiped the blood off his sword with a handful of thick leaves. Three hours of marching had led them to the dark marshes surrounding the temple. Though still a ways, their destination was at least within view by now. Rand had suggested they take a short rest stop here. He’d been calmly smoking his pipe while Owain and Darreth fought off the goblin ambush. “You didn’t look like you needed help,” had been the black mage’s excuse for sitting out the battle.
“Here, you’re hurt,” Alyssa lay her hand on Owain’s chest.
“Gonads, some guys have all the luck,” Darreth complained, planting his butt next to Rand’s convenient tree stump. “I didn’t even get a bruise out of that battle.”
“Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t,” Rand philosophised while blowing a smoke triangle. It was almost funny watching that little pipe disappear into the everlasting shadow that passed for his face.
“Yeah, well. It’ll be getting dark soon. I say we’d better get a move on if we’re going to make it to the temple before nightfall.”
“I suppose. Hey, Alyssa! Are you done ‘healing’ our staunchly leader yet?”
“Quite finished,” said Alyssa in a voice that made it clear how much she disliked Rand’s badly used double-meanings.
The moon was climbing high by the time they arrived. Soon the anniversary of the dark god’s birth would begin...
Chapter 3: Full circle
Behold the Temple of Chaos, its white marble walls now all but worn down by the flowing of time. At one point it stood complete, a symbol of unforgotten evil erected to contain four incarnations of destruction - now home to nothing more than spiders and wandering undead. In this cursed ground the dead knew no rest. Already the corpses strewn before the entrance were beginning to stir. Reawakened to sad skeletal creatures, knowing nothing more than bitter jealousy over the still-living.
Garland watched the skeletons surround the four young adventurers through his demon-enhanced mind’s eye, with keen interest.
“Lord Chaos’s predictions have again come true, I see,” he said aloud, more for the sake of voicing his thoughts than for entertaining his prisoner. “Somehow I would have expected the legendary Light Warriors to be...taller. Hopefully they will prove to be more of a challenge than their appearance would suggest.”
The Warriors seemed to be doing well so far, although they had yet to tackle the strongest undead present. The captain’s unclean death and strength of spirit had given form to a Blood Bone. With the aid of magical fire and spells of healing, the thief and the warrior cut through the mêlée with ease, crushing the weak fragile skeletons. It proved that regular reanimated corpses were pathetic minions. The battle didn’t heat up properly until the Blood Bone stormed into the fray like a berserker, raining heavy blows down on the human swordsman. No undead could count as an intelligent opponent. What it lacked in combat finesse the Blood Bone made up for in endless supplies of stamina. The warrior managed easily to block the blows with his sword, but it was questionable how long he could keep it up against the skeleton, which fought like a machine. Because the two other adventurers were caught up in combat against the remaining underlings, it was the white mage who came to his aid. She did not waste time, starting at once to chant a spell.
“By the pure light of heaven, let divine light pierce the black shadows and evil’s grasp be undone – Dia One!” she shouted to release her magic.
A single ray of fluorescent light impaled the Blood Bone from above, instantly turning its bones to dust.
“Impressive,” Garland admitted. “They may actually have a chance. An insignificantly remote chance, of course, but nevertheless.”
“You won’t get away with this!” the princess suddenly uttered.
“Oh, please. How trite,” said Garland once he’d eventually stopped laughing. “I have already succeeded in my ambition. In a few moments the time of your sacrifice will be at hand, and I will become omnipotent! These four mock impressions of the original Light Warriors are mere formalities.
“Since we are now approaching the appointed hour, I think you should know that I have decided to grant you a painless death, to the extent that I am able. You loved me once, as much as I loved you. Beautiful maidens such as you were not meant to suffer long mortality’s end. Oh, I’m sorry. Did I say maiden? Mwahahahaha!!”
Footsteps from the stone passage interrupted Garland’s laughter.
“Oh, good,” he said. “They’re here.”
Hearing the villain’s clichéd laughter had put an end to the Light Warrior’s argument of which passage inside the temple they were going to try...
Not one of them would have guessed that Garland’s lair was less than twenty feet from the entrance. Owain signalled for them to lower their voices.
“Okay, let’s come up with a strategy before we go in there,” he whispered. “I say Darreth and I FIGHT him one at a time while Rand backs us up with his MAGIC. If it looks like he might get the better of us, Alyssa can use some healing MAGIC and maybe a few of those recovery ITEMs we bought in Cornelia to-”
They looked at him.
“What?” he said, confused.
“Your speech impediment is acting up again,” Alyssa explained.
“You mean I was shouting out words in mid-sentence?” They nodded. “Damn, I THOUGHT I’d gotten OVER that by now.”
“Let’s just go,” Rand suggested irritably. “Unless Garland is deaf, he must know from your yelling that we’re standing right outside his door. Oh, and I’ll do the talking from now on!”
For some reason Garland was standing over the now slumbering princess with his back to the intruders. Once Darreth though he could score a quick victory by stabbing him in the back, the knight turned around swiftly, his cape swishing dramatically through the air. The first thing Owain noticed about him was his lack of any honour – clearly evident in the blood, which he had not bothered to wipe off his sword. For the other three it was the glowing eyes seen through the slits in his horned helmet.
“So the king’s pawns have arrived,” said Garland’s voice, suggesting a taunting grin on his face.
“I resent that,” Darreth responded automatically. “I’m at least a tower or higher.”
“Quiet, you!” said Rand, and to Garland “We’ve come for the princess. Release her unharmed and we will not be forced to kill you.”
“I surrender unconditionally. Feel free to take the princess with you and leave in peace.”
“Yeah, very funny,” said Darreth, who had more than enough experience in the use of sarcasm to recognise it.
“This is you last chance to surrender and face justice,” said Alyssa.
A tremor suddenly erupted from somewhere beneath the floor.
Garland behaved almost as if he’d been waiting for it. “I fear this contest of wits must be cut short,” he said. “I’m on a very tight schedule, and your part in it has just ended.”
“Bring it on!” Darreth challenged.
Like a transition from one scene to another, all five combatants drew their weapons and assumed battle stances. Garland wasn’t kidding about his impatience to defeat them. His first attack came like a flash, moving faster than the mythical Cactuar. Managing to throw himself backwards at the nick of time saved Owain from being sliced in half, but not from the windblast. Cracks formed in the back wall by the weight of his armour.
“I call that my Satan Sabre,” Garland explained in a smug voice. “Which one of you would like to try it next?”
Alyssa, impressed beside herself by the dark knight’s power, decided to take a chance. “Dia One!” she recited. But the holy light had no effect on Garland. Her assumption that such a drastic change in character as the king had described was rooted in a necromantic transformation was proven wrong.
“How insulting,” Garland sniffed, pretending like his feelings were hurt. “You would take me for a lowly undead? I say you deserve a time-out for that offensive assumption.”
Alyssa tried to back away.
“From earth to ash to cast in stone, I curse you to a frozen form – Break!”
Once the visual effects of the magic spell had settled there was now one more statue, looking very out of place with the gargoyles that most of the other carvings depicted. Darreth took in the sight of his subject of affection set in stone with the same expression of shocked surprise as was encased on Alyssa’s face.
“You...f***ing, dirty, evil, BASTARD!!!” he screamed, barging at the villain with his dagger poised to kill, not caring about the danger.
Garland dodged sideways, then swept the thief aside with his heavy arm as if he wasn’t worth the effort to kill. Once Darreth was sprawled on the floor, glowing with hateful embarrassment, Garland completed the humiliation by putting his foot on Darreth’s throat.
“Gkkhh!” was the only sound Darreth managed to get out as he felt the weight crushing his windpipe.
Garland raised his foot for a last fatal stomp. Rand wasn’t going to hesitate a moment longer.
The burst of charged energy shot out of empty air and struck the knight by his raised metal boot, knocking him into the air. Garland crashed to the floor behind the altar. Trying to get back on his feet, he grabbed a dusty black tarp for support, accidentally pulling it off the object it was meant to conceal.
“Now,” he started to say, finally sounding angry.
But Garland never got to say another word. Owain had been pushed far enough to disregard his vow to fight honourably. While the villain was momentarily caught off guard, he plunged his sword between the gap in Garland’s armour, impaling him clean through. For one long-stretched moment Garland stood still, letting blood trickle between his fingers. Then he fell dead on top of the black crystal sphere. His sword remained locked in a death-grip.
Owain wiped his sword on Garland’s cape. Afterwards he helped Darreth back up without saying anything.
“Gods rest his soul,” said Rand without feeling.
“Is she-?” Darreth asked the black mage.
“No, she’ll be back to her usual stiff self in no time,” Rand promised him. “Petrification spells are fragile enough while the caster’s still alive. It doesn’t take more than a gold needle to disrupt a Break spell. Watch:”
Rand removed a thin golden pin from his robe and poked it into the white mage statue. Instantly the needle melted into a yellow film that washed over Alyssa’s body and restored her to normal. She blinked.
“What happened?” she asked.
“We won,” said Darreth.
Owain pointed to the body.
“That poor man,” said Alyssa, shaking her head sombrely. “If only he had not given into corruption, this sad fate would not have needed to happen.”
“Yeah, it’s a damn shame. Shouldn’t we wake the princess now?” Rand asked impatiently.
And so it was suggested, and so it was done...
Princess Sarah’s eyelashes fluttered in a manner that made Darreth think many of what Alyssa called ‘unclean thoughts’. “What happened?” she asked, which was apparently the appropriate thing for damsels to say at times like this.
“Hi, we’re the Light Warriors,” said Darreth, using his dagger to pry the chains loose.
“Is Garland dead?” Sarah asked.
“I’m afraid so.”
“I suppose there was no other way this could have ended.” The princess sighed. “There was hardly any of Sir Garland left in that monster by now. I can only hope his soul will find peace now.
“Oh, forgive me!” Sarah apologised. “I have forgotten to thank you for saving me. A-are you really the Light Warriors?”
“So they say,” Rand chuckled.
“Then you must know what has befallen the Elemental Crystals.”
“Actually, no,” Owain admitted. “But we’re working on it.”
“There! I got it!” said Darreth, triumphantly after cutting the last bond.
Darreth made sure he beat Owain to the honour of giving the princess a helping hand, even if he had to shoulder the warrior aside to get it. The only reluctance Sarah had about leaving the twisted temple was Garland. She begged the Light Warriors to bring his body back to Cornelia for a proper burial. Since he was the strongest of the group, Owain won the unwanted honour of carrying the late knight.
Creepy, Owain thought. Garland’s eyes were still glowing. He knelt...and nearly tripped when another tremor, much, much stronger than the previous one, shook the entire temple.
“Earthquake!” Owain shouted over the noise of grinding stone. “Everybody get out! Hurry!”
Because they opted to run for safety, the heroes did not see what become of Garland within the Inner Chamber...
The very air around the lifeless body shimmered and sparkled, like the surface of a pool of water. Lights came out of nowhere, shining yellow, then red, then blue, and then green. When the colours met they mixed and blurred until only a burning black fog remained. The darkness flowed over Garland, gathering into every pore on his body. Then when the black fog had evaporated, the stone floor was empty.
Only a seemingly unimportant group of five bats had witnessed what transpired. Now they turned their blind eyes towards the black crystal orb, shimmering ominously...
Chapter 4: Crescent Prophecy
Sage Koren was much younger than the other eleven sages of Crescent. His grey hair was not a sign of age, but the result of a magical accident during his years studying under the famous Sage Lukin. The reason why the young man had been pushed so far ahead of his classmates was for the most part his astounding intellect. That coupled with a craving for knowledge had left him suffering terrible boredom the first months of his training – a craving only remedied by his drastic choice to study in both the black and white schools of magic. And unlike most students of the magic arts, who sacrifice their strength for longer hours spent delving into enormous volumes of ethereal theory, Koren would even come to excel in his physical exercises; mastering the use of both sword and shield. This unprecedented path of education led a great confusion among Koren’s peers upon the day of his graduation, as they could not agree upon which class title the graduate had earned (at least specifically – one could argue that he was as naturally a black mage as he was a white mage). It was Sage Lukin himself who came up with the idea of granting Koren the honorary title of Red Mage (as opposed to the other suggestion; Grey Mage).
Koren’s most recent promotion to the position of Sage was only due to the unfortunate demise of Sage Nerhoff – as Crescent lore stated that the number of wise sages governing the village of Crescent River was to be no more and no less than Twelve.
It was that rule that bothered Koren the most as he unearthed his red mage outfit for the first time in over a year.
“But Master Lunkin,” he’d protested yesterday after listening to the advice of the eldest and wisest of the Crescent Sages. “Can we really justify disrupting the Circle of Twelve during this darkest time when our services are needed the most?”
Koren remembered how very old Master Lukin had seemed. He could hear the tremendous strain within the Grand Sage through his voice. “Koren,” the Sage had said. “You know as well as I do that while the Black Shroud continues to rule of this world the Eye of the Twelve is blind. The other sages are foolish to hold so adamantly to the belief that our effort alone can pierce the darkness. Now that the third of the Four damnations has awakened our window of opportunity is fading fast.”
“Surely the tide of evil will be halted now that the prophecy of the Light Warriors is to be fulfilled, as you yourself predicted.”
“These are fragile times, Koren. Even I cannot be certain that the future will play out as I foresaw it. It has been nine days since the Light Warriors proved themselves in the Temple of Chaos, and since their coming the darkness has only continued to grow. That is why I must send you to Melmond. For four hundred years the sky has deteriorated into an airborne pestilence, for two hundred years the ocean has fallen prey to tides of nightmarish creatures. If the Earth, too, is corrupted then mankind will perish. If the Earth crystal is not restored, in two hundred years time the last of the Four will awaken to a world swept clean of human kind.”
It was a prediction far more terrifying than any of Lukin’s publicly announced prophecies, which were always presented with an underlying message of hope. Koren understood that the Master had intentionally been holding back the darkest truth, so as to quell the people’s fears. Koren couldn’t object to Lukin’s request after hearing that.
Dressed in his red clothing, Koren viewed himself in the mirror. After concluding that the outfit was missing a certain something he found the long grey goose feather that he normally used as a quill, meticulously wiped the ink off the point, and inserted it into the brim of his hat. Much better, he thought. Before leaving his dressing room, Koren made sure that his mythril sword was properly sheathed and his buckler was tightly enough strapped to his forearm. Most importantly of all, he made absolutely certain that the spell scroll that Master Lukin had given him was safely tucked away his provision bag.
“Let me give you this,” Lukin had said after explaining the details of the quest. “This is a scroll written many centuries ago by a white mage from the far North. It details one of the most powerful spells in the world. ‘Dia Four’. According to ancient lore, the Earth Fiend’s power is drawn from the realm of death. Sever that link and it will most assuredly be destroyed.”
Now there was only one thing left to do before locking up his house, probably for the last time in a long while. Walking quietly, Koren moved down the hall to his sister’s bedroom. While he was not quite the role model for a responsible adult, Koren at least felt he’d done a good job of taking care of his only family since their parents succumbed to the Shroud’s plague two years ago. That was why he’d put so much effort into writing the letter he was about to leave behind for her to read after he had left.
The eleventh, and final, draft read as follows:
I’m sorry for leaving you like this, but I have to go Save the World. Will be back as soon as I can. Go see Mrs Ferend at the Inn; she’ll look after you.
With love, your big brother
Ironically, the original draft had been over three pages long. Koren knew a lot about great works of poetry, but he knew even more about dealing with his sister. He felt sad, knowing that he was most likely going to miss her tenth birthday next month. Telling himself that if the Fiend destroyed the earth, she’d never have the chance to grow up anyway helped a little, but not much.
Koren heaved his bag over his back and finally set out, daring himself not to look back until he was onboard the cargo vessel to Melmond and there was no chance of turning around. The heavy, splashing raindrops pummelling the cobblestones fit his mood well.
The heavy raindrops splashing against the windows only helped to further worsen Owain’s mood...
Because of this stupid storm the Light Warriors had been stuck in Pravoca for over a week. It was like the wind and the rain were holding some personal grudge against them. While the journey from Cornelia had gone reasonably well, excepting the odd life-death struggle against ferocious monsters, there was no way they could gain passage by sea until the storm died down. So here they were, stuck in this boring inn, chipping away the long hours with tedious activities. Darreth had tried to get the other three into the local card game as an effort to pass the time, though unfortunately most of the attempted games ran like this:
“Okay,” said Rand, looking at his cards like they were complicated arcane scriptures. “I have three of these Black Widow spidery cards, and one Sword of Everlasting Judgement card. What does that mean?”
Darreth looked carefully through the big book of rules he’d borrowed from the innkeeper. “Er, it says here that the Sword of Everlasting Judgement has a +5 attack against physical opponents, so I guess it beats Owain’s Stone Golem card. No, wait, it’s got a variable attack value. That means you have to roll the dice again, Alyssa.”
“Okay. Five and three.”
“Alright,” said Rand, who liked to win more than any of them.
“What are those red triangles on my Crazy Horse card?” Owain asked.
“Give me a second.” Darreth searched until he found the right page. “No, those colours only apply if we’re playing with rainbow rules. I’m sure rainbow rules don’t count in Pravoca.”
“Why are there arrows on the sides of these cards?” asked Rand, still treating the game like an insight into an ancient foreign language.
“Arrows? Wait, wait I think I’ve missed something somewhere.”
“Just read the basic rules,” Owain suggested.
“Which ones? There are over ten chapters of rules; regional rules, trade rules, variable rules, fake rules, advanced rules, expert rules, street rules, made-up rules, foreign value integration rules... Hmmm, damn this thing’s heavy... I found it!” Darreth shifted the weight of the book and started reading aloud. “’The arrows indicate which direction a card may a force an offence against the opponent’s card. The natural position of the attacking card on the grid is... Hey, what’s a grid?”
“It means an arranged setting to place the cards on, like in Tic-Tac-Toe,” Rand explained.
“So, does that mean we’ve been playing it wrong?” Owain asked.
And so on... It was amazing that a game that tedious could become so popular.
Right now, a dark evening wherein the storm would still not abate, you could tell that the Light Warriors’ adventure was reaching the height of its boredom. While Owain continued to stare lazily out the window, Alyssa spent her time re-reading the new spell scrolls they’d bought, and Rand attempted to further complicate the geometric shapes he liked to create with his pipe smoke. Darreth, uncharacteristically, was attempting to play the lute.
“I can’t get a sound out of this thing,” he complained after a while. “Beats me why Garland went to the trouble of stealing it. Ally, are you sure this thing’s not magical?”
“Apart from managing to remain rust-free after thousands of years, there’s absolutely nothing mystical about it, as far as I can tell.” Alyssa shrugged.
“It’s not even got any gold or silver in it. The guy at the item store said he wouldn’t give more than ten gold pieces for it, since it doesn’t make a sound.”
“As I told you before,” said Alyssa sternly, “it wouldn’t matter if the lute were worth a million gold pieces. You can’t just sell a Cornelian national artefact like that. After all, the princess entrusted us with it because she believed it would aid us in our quest.”
“Well, whatever.” Darreth dropped the lute into the bottom of his bag, handling it with a lot less care than the considerate white mage would have.
“Hmm?” Owain thought he saw something through the window. A few seconds later they all heard the loud pleas for help coming from outside, and there was no doubt.
Owain dived over his bed to retrieve his sheathed sword. “To the rescue!” he shouted, after getting back up and flourishing his weapon.
Darreth was not so eager. “Do we have to? It’s pissing down outside.”
“I said, to the rescue! Grab your daggers and let’s go!”
The calls for help were muffled in the rain...
The pirates closed in on the young woman. Their manner was hungry and threatening.
“Arrr!” Growled the leader, a heavily scarred fat man with an eye-patch, a peg leg and a unkempt beard. “Quiet, wench! No one’ll hear ye!”
“I- I don’t have any money!” the woman tried to point out, now with her back against the wall.
The pirates’ laughs were as stereo-typical as their captain’s. “Ah-harr-harr-harr!! Now, don’t worry, lass. I’m sure me men would be happy to lend ye a few gold pieces, ah-harr! in return for a few ‘favours’ from ye... Ha harr!!”
Thunder and lighting filled the air, mixing appropriately with the heavy tension. With the blazing light illuminating them from behind, the pirates looked like evil shadows to their terrified victim. None of them noticed that the thunderous display was accompanied by a human voice, until a thunderbolt struck the sword of the nearest pirate, blasting him unconscious onto the wet road.
Those pirates that had the intelligence to turn around could see two glowing yellow eyes staring sinisterly at them from out of the darkness. Sparks of electricity were just fading from the newcomer’s claw-like hands. The shortest pirate, about to prove himself as the smartest, chose this moment to run away. The rest, rather foolishly, chose to raise their swords at the black mage.
“Short-sighted fools, let their vision be clouded – Blind One, blind all!”
Two points of yellow light proved too hard to hit when, for the pirates, it seemed the night had fallen into starless darkness. They couldn’t even see the two strong combatants appearing by the black mage’s sides, easily defeating each pirate with fists and the flat of their weapons. Soon the only pirate left standing was the captain, who was more the type to stand back while his henchmen fought on his behalf.
“Ready to surrender, you lousy thug?” asked the apparent leader of the four valiant assailants to the captain of the group of nautical assailants.
“Arr, ye wicked brutes! How dare ye attack the great pirate Bikke?”
The loud snorting sounds that immediately followed the pirate’s name came from the wiry fellow with the daggers. “B-Bickey,” he mumbled while trying hard not to burst into laughter.
Alyssa led the frightened woman away from the conflict while Owain and Darreth held Bikke back with the points of their blades.
“You know, Bikke,” said Darreth, sniggering as he pronounced the name. “If there’s one thing that really pisses me off it’s meat-headed bullies like you who try to take advantage of innocent young ladies. That’s why I can’t for the life of me think of a good enough reason not to kill you. Care to make a suggestion?”
“Better think fast,” said Owain, playing along with the good-warrior, bad-thief routine. “The last creep who tried to harm a woman around my friend, here, got fried to death in his own armour.”
A few threatening waves of Darreth’s daggers and Bikke soon got the point, figuratively speaking. “Me men and I haven’t got any booty to offer ye. Plundering these days’s too dangerous with the wretched monsters haunting the seas.”
“That’s a real shame,” Darreth said, unsympathetically. “If you can’t think of anything better to offer us, I guess I’ll settle for the satisfaction of knowing that a bastard like you won’t be around to bother anyone anymore.”
Bikke began to grow desperate. It came upon him that there was only one thing he had to offer, but that one thing was nearly more precious to him than his own life. Yet, the word was ‘nearly’. “Me ship...”
Darreth pulled his daggers slightly away from the captain’s throat. “Your ship, eh? Now, that’s interesting. What do you think?”
“Oh, yes. Very interesting, indeed.” Owain nodded.
The warrior nudged Bikke forward with the point of his sword. “Take us to it,” he ordered.
The storm was eventually beginning to abate...
Koren stared into the distance, leaning on the rails of the cargo ship. He thought he could still make out Crescent village if he squinted. In a few hours the sun would be up, and his little sister would wake to find his letter on her bedside table. Koren couldn’t tell if it was the rocking of the waves or the guilt of leaving her behind that caused the heavy nausea brewing in his stomach.
He waited until his homeland had disappeared over the horizon until returning to his cabin to lie in bed and wait for sleep to come.
Chapter 5: Revenant of the Black Shroud
Those who are deeply familiar with magic can see mana flowing freely within nature. Watch it gather at points where spells are being used, and disperse where the touch of life has faded. And see it twisted where evil sorcery is performed...
Astos paced the ruined hallways of the elven castle. Now, even though his plot of vengeance was at last within moments of completion, he felt his patience grow thin. So near was the day when those who had unwritten his ancestors from the chronicles of history would be justly met with the same fate. The dark magic which had allowed him to cheat death for so many centuries would not allow him to rest until every man, woman, child and elder from the race of Elfheim were made to suffer for the crimes of their forefathers.
Though his mortality was stretched, Astos’s body still felt the shrivelling touch of time. Shrunken and dried-up, he was far from the imposing figure of a dark elf he had once been.
Flora had long since sought its way inside the ruined castle that he had made his home. The sight of the deteriorating estate actually comforted him. It was a satisfying testament of the day he – along with the last strong survivors of his once proud race – drove out the last true elven king and banished the royal family to their summer fortress in the capital city. How insulting that the crown prince still insisted on forcing his path to the throne when Astos’s father had given his life to cast the accursed Royal Crown into the deepest pit of the Spider Marsh.
The irony was that all the effort the dark elves used to dispose of the Crown now was the reason why their last descendant was being kept from the ultimate goal. His attempted poisoning the crown prince was only the first step. Once Astos possessed the symbol of the elven ruler he would be able to put his final curse on Elfheim, thus damning its entire people into the waiting arms of the Reaper. At least now that he possessed the witch’s Crystal Eye he could find some unwitting fools to retrieve the Crown for him.
The night before Astos had meticulously searched the lands of Elfheim with the witch’s all-seeing eye, and this time he had not looked in vain. These four youths who called themselves the Light Warriors were the perfect marionettes for him to manipulate. All that was left for now was to wait until his servant in the summer fortress directed the youths towards his lair.
Meanwhile, near the Elfheim coast...
While it was undeniable that the heroes were skilled fighters and magic-users, the same couldn’t be said for their nautical aptitude. It had taken some amount of persuasion to get captain Bikke to devote his crew to their cause. Eventually it had come down to threats of magical dismemberment and a contract promising 5% of the party’s accumulated treasure to the pirates. If there were still any thoughts of mutiny amongst the crew after that, they were quickly dispelled once the number of Sahagins slain by the Light Warriors started to rise.
“You’d think monsters this easy to kill would be less aggressive, wouldn’t you?” said Darreth as he and Owain hauled the slimy corpses over the side of the ship.
Alyssa and Rand were with Bikke in his cabin. The captain had unfurled a large map on his desk for them to plan their voyage.
“Can’t take ye any further than this, for now,” he said, and pointed at the map. “Since all them earthquakes in Melmod started the West canal has been buried by mud slides, see?”
“Too bad,” said Rand. “According to the king that Lukin guy should be our best bet for information about what’s happened to the Crystals.”
“Nevertheless, first we must talk to the elven prince,” said Alyssa. “Princess Sarah did promise us that he would be willing to help.”
“Of course. Who better to ask for help in matters of dark sorcery than the nearest group of merry tree-huggers?”
“Rand! How can you say such things?” Alyssa asked, appalled by the black mage’s nasty tone.
“Urrrgh!” Rand groaned, limping towards a chair. “When do we land? I can’t stand another hour on this godsforsaken rocking ship!”
Her nature was not to find amusement in the misfortunes of others, which was why Alyssa’s short chuckle was a suppressed one. It was funny that her magic spells, many able to bring one back from the very brink of death, could nevertheless do nothing for simple seasickness.
Just then the lookout stormed into the captain’s cabin. He had something terrible to report; a most unholy phenomenon had come into view as the ship drew closer to land. Alyssa and Rand had never heard of the thing the pirate described to Bikke. The captain’s horrified reaction told them enough, though.
“Arrr... We can’t dock,” said Bikke. “I’m sorry, but I won’t risk me men or me own life for anybody’s sake. Tell the men to drop anchor,” he ordered the lookout pirate. “We’ll stay put here until we can tell which way it’s moving.”
“Excuse me,” Alyssa began, but Rand interrupted her with the same question she was about to ask.
“What the hell’s the Black Shroud?” he snapped.
Bikke looked at them. He looked as if he was trying to decide whether or not to believe his own ears. “Ye don’t know of the damned hell’s fog?” he asked in tones of disbelief.
“We’re not from these parts,” Alyssa said as an attempt to explain away their ignorance.
“By the blarney black depths! Ye’re hometown must be the most wonderful place on the Earth, if ye’ve never of heard of the accused Black Shroud. ‘tis the living nightmare – a portentous black cloud from the far North. Wherever it travels death and suffering follows as its trail. Anyone who breathes air tainted by its hellish presence’ll catch its plague, and die a slow and painful death...”
“The Cloud of Evil,” Alyssa breathed. “Rand,” she said in a lower voice, “you know what this means...?”
“Yes,” said Rand, also lowering his voice and turning away from Bikke. “The Wind Crystal has been corrupted into a weapon of evil. It is the only energy source in this world powerful enough to unleash such force of destruction. At least we’ll be safe from that Black Shroud until we can find someone to tell us where the Crystal altars are located in this world.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! Our crystal pendants are directly attuned to each Crystal’s light. That means that as long as you have the Wind shard we’ll be safe.”
They turned back to the captain.
“Captain Bikke, we need to reach shore quickly,” said Alyssa.
“Hah! Are ye mad? Ye’ll all catch Shroud plague and be dead by a fortnight.”
“Do I look mad?” asked the glowing yellow-eyed wielder of powerful black magic, who just two nights ago had taken down Bikke’s entire crew in less than a minute.
Bikke opted to obey the old proverb about letting dormant black mages lie. He offered to lend a lifeboat so the Light Warriors could row ashore by themselves, and even promised to keep the ship anchored until they returned. Unless, of course, the Black Shroud started moving in the direction of his ship, whereupon he’d high-tail his pirate behind as far away as possible.
It took every ounce of Rand’s dignity to keep him from kissing the sand...
Owain and Darreth dragged the little boat ashore and wedged some rocks under it to prevent the tide from pulling it away. Rand needed a few moments to get his bearings or, as he put it ‘to wait until the damn world stopped trying to shake him off his feet’.
They didn’t start moving inland right away. The sight of the tremendous Black Shroud kept them at bay while they stared in awe at its hate-filled incarnation. Surges of blood-red energy criss-crossed the cloud while its black form pulsated like the beating of a giant’s heart. Just looking at it seemed to inspire hopelessness. How could anything as small and insignificant as a human being hope to have a chance against such overwhelming evil? Perhaps Rand was more resilient to the vision of hopelessness than his comrades, or perhaps he’d just seen enough evil in his time to get bored with it, since he was the first one to suggest that they get moving while the sun was (presumably) still up.
The Black Shroud didn’t just block sunlight, it seemed to radiate a darkness of its own, soon making the Light Warriors’ surroundings darker than the night. They had to make torches before they were able to continue further towards the blooming forest that surrounded the elven capital. It was an uneventful, though unsettling trip. More than once they came across the fresh remains of monsters and animals, and it was clear that the smell of rot permeating the area was from the plants choking to death from the Shroud’s poisoning air. Bikke had said that the Black Shroud usually stayed in the Northern lands when not spreading death the continent. Alyssa could imagine the lifeless deserts and wastelands where the death cloud bided its time while it waited for its next command from whoever was behind all this evil.
The barren canyon they’d seen when they first found themselves in this world had been so out of place in the lush kingdom of Cornelia. Perhaps that place, too, had been green and beautiful until it was laid in the Shroud’s path.
Crescent, too, had been beautiful...
Koren’s dreams were troubling him again. He saw himself as a young boy standing in a flower-filled meadow, sharing a picnic with his parents and his baby sister.
Everything is peaceful and lovely. Birds singing, bumblebees buzzing over the blooming flowers. Then suddenly a black shadow falls. The flowers die, the birds plummet to their deaths, even the insects scream for the choking darkness. He turns from the oncoming veil of death’s darkness, knowing he must protect his family. But they’re not there. Just three tombstones side by side, with their names inscribed upon them. There are no flowers now, only dirt and dust. But he’s still alive. Still alive because he didn’t even think to look back – didn’t see his mother fall, didn’t see his father stop to go back for her.
Now he’s an adult. All the years they should have lived are left to him to carry by himself. The grass has grown back – the land of the Crescent River has healed its scar. But the dead remain buried.
Now he has begun to grow old. The flowers have grown back. All is as it once was. And now his time has come to watch the black shadow return. He knows that his end lies with where it began, so the cycle is complete. “Only until you break it,” says a voice.
He turns around to see who...
Koren blinked. He was awake. He was lying in a hammock in his cabin onboard the cargo ship to Melmod. It was just a dream. It didn’t mean anything. He didn’t have to feel guilty anymore.
The boy grown up told himself all these things, and wondered if he’d believe them.
‘Only until you break it.’ What did that mean?