chapter 1: the graveyard landscape
" Leave this place. Forget that it even existed." the dying man said, weakly.
The old knight clutched at his sword, holding it to his chest like a child would hold a favorite toy. The fever as it was called was taking its effect on old Will. Sickness hit the island like wildfire. With his death I was going to be the last person alive in my small home. I looked down at the last of the great guardians; his face was strained fighting to live. During the great wars, Will was one of five knights to survive the three year long battle. Their conquest united the island and brought prosperity to the land. His greatness was being overshadowed by his death. He began to shake and his muscles were going into spasm. Will coughed up blood and the cyst that had grown over time on his face had opened up and began to ooze green and brown pus.
"Wherever you go, protect your new home with your last breath." He gasped again.
With that he died. I never liked the man but not enough to wish him dead. The late knight may have been a cruel teacher but his cruelty had a purpose. He made me a strong fighter. After the king and queen died Will took control of the island and what few people were left. With my family and friends gone this didn't feel like home anymore, at least not my home. An empty look came over my face; I was desensitized to death. Sadness has caused more pain than relief in my life, killing it was easier than killing a fellow knight. I pulled the sword out from the dead man's grasp and stared at one of the holiest relics of my island. The Evermore sword's past is so long that not even the scribes can trace back it's history. The handle was shaped like two gold serpents consuming each other, their tails merged with a silver orb. The blade was smaller then a broadsword but longer than an average sword. Holding it I felt almost regal. My reflection on the blade showed my island's dying heritage. A common trait of our people has been red hair and metallic gray eyes. I almost confused my ferric orbs for the blade.
"Sorry but you won't be using this in the underlands." I said, trying to excuse my lack of respect.
My once beautiful world was now a landscape of gravestones. The Edgewater farmlands just south of the main capital of Manchester was becoming overgrown by the ever-expanding forest. The once grand capital was now a crude mortuary. A few of the surviving animals roamed the streets feasting on the late citizens. Even most of the beasts of the land were dying off due to the plague. Other than wolves and the rampant blue foxes most of the creatures of the country were dead along side their human counterparts. The sight of bodies littering the streets would have haunted most people. Like I had said before I had become desensitized. I took a tip from the scavengers and started to strip the body of all the useful things I could. Including the Evermore, old Will had the other great artifact of Astarxia, the star pendant. Rumors flew about the pendant, that magic still survived within the star shaped stone. It had the power to protect its master, it didn't work for Will. Death and disease were the only magic that survived on my land as far as I was concerned.
My only hope was a boat docked off the shoreline. With a small bag of sliver and gold dancing in my pouch I walked down to the Clear Horizon. If it weren't for the ship I would have killed myself. I named my ship the Clear Horizon in honor of the ocean I was about to set my sights on and the weather I wished would come. It was the largest ship in the now still harbor. Two dim-witted sailors were going to sail around the world with it. Astarxians had never gone twenty miles outside of the coastline and the fools were going to try and sail the world. Stepping onto the ship I began to wonder who the fool was now. No outsider has ever step foot on my land so I hope there was something outside of our local maps. It is better to die of a plague than it is to die from hunger and loneliness.
"May the Gods be with this guardian." I said as I cut the line anchoring the ship.
The stiff breeze was fully caught by the sail and I was quickly off. With enough stores for two weeks I felt I was going to hit land before I hunger. Water was plentiful, even if I had run out of it in storage I had learned how to purify the seawater from my late sailor friend Othello. Since childhood Othello and I were friends. As we grew we taught each other our specialized skills. He taught me how to purify seawater, rigging and fishing. Where as I taught him swordsmanship, tactical defenses and the arts of stealth. Unfortunately the pestilence couldn't be killed with weapons. Othello was the first to die of the fever.
My armor sat at the back of the boat and I was sitting by the mast. East was my main direction, the wind was my guide. The current and the wind were swift, by the time the first nightfall came Astarxia was a distant memory. The second day's sky showed clouds on the skyline, but I wasn't concerned. I placed my hand on the mast and took a deep inhale of sea air. Breakfast weighed down my belly. If it were not for the memories of the plague, I would be having the time of my life. The Evermore sat in my lap, haunting me of home and blessing me with memories. The clouded joys of knighthood joined with the nightmares of death. With the clean air and the rocking of the boat I couldn't help but sleep.
The old hall of the Nashmir Castle echoed the grandeur of the crowd. The guardians stood in line as David started his long walk down to the king. His eyes were open wide as the fifty guardians stood in single file, lining the red marble floorway to the throne. David's armor was heavy full plate for he had the strength to carry it and a broadsword. Years as his father's only farmhand and personal workhorse made him strong. The crowd whispered as David marched to his Royal Highness. A foot from the regal official the future knight knelt down to the cold floor. David's right arm crossed his chest; his left hand rested on the floor.
"Your strength and wisdom as been so noted for years. Come join the brotherhood of guardians. For you may have come to this world David Kit, you will arise David Guardian." Spoke King Melander.
An intense roar from the crowd woke David from the euphoria of the ceremony. The king placed his hand on the young knight's shoulder and thanked him for his services against an assassin that nearly killed the old monarch. Scars from the assassins' arrow tattooed David's left shoulder. The king motioned to the young knight and David leaned his ear to the monarch's whisper.
"Remember your loyalty to your king, good knight." So whispered the graying king.
Just then the ground started to shake. The marble flooring cracked. By blind instinct David pulled his sword. Instantly the living transformed into a community of dead. Old king Melander's dried cadaver dropped in front of David. Blue and pale pink shriveled bodies crowded the giant hall. Cheers of joy were replaced with screams of death. The nightmare was to begin.
Startled, I yelled out, " What?"
The boat rocked violently, a storm was sending eight foot high waves over the sides of the massive craft. I placed the Evermore over my shoulder and steadied the mast. Sails were torn and the rigging was a tangled mess. My armor had already gone over into the seas and if a strong wave were to come over the boat I would soon follow. Wind caught at my pendant and the weight of the charm pulled at my neck. If the damn thing weren't a relic I would have heaved it over. My actions to try and save the ship were futile as the storm started its assault on the craft's seaworthiness. With one final blast the mast broke in my hand, with one final giant wave I was sent over. I didn't hear the splash as I went under. Waves crashed over my head keeping me under. Salt water burned in my eyes but I forced myself to kept them open. Fighting and gasping for air I prayed for the gods to help me. By this time the once great Clear Horizon was rubble. The mast was snapped like a twig, half of the bow was under, and the stores floated all around me. The last thing I would remember of that night was a wave carrying a large piece of the hull towards my head.
The fact I woke up from my fatal dream is a miracle. My head rested on the timber that had broken in my hands during the storm. Skin that was exposed to the sun was slightly burned; the back of my right hand was beginning to peel. I found the Evermore was still on my back, the leather strapping held the sword in its sheath. Amazingly well rested I turned to my belly and started my swim. Even with my ship gone hope began to grow in me because I could see a faint speck in the horizon, land and my new home.
chapter 2: a new thing called magic
Sand ran through my fingers as I grabbed a handful of the precious stuff. I rubbed the yellow white sand across my cheek and smiled. After swimming for miles I was tired and hungry. Crabs and other sea creatures filled my belly, a nearby stream quenched my thirst. After all of this, I prayed to the first god I could think of, Sakkan. In front of the beach a range of hills blocked my path. Those green foothills soon turned into jagged white mountains. It seemed that the elements themselves were trying to put an end to me. Winter storms chilled me, steep mountains blocked my way, but I fought on. I wouldn't stop until I was in civilization. Willpower had become my new ruthless guide. Clear Alpine streams satisfied my thirst, the occasional goat or sheep eased my hunger. Keeping warm was easy, the hides of my meals kept the coldest wind away. Othello in his thorough education of the sailing skills taught me how to sew. Quite handy when the sails tear on an especially strong wind. I made a cap and winter coat filled with fleece out of sheep's skin. The gear keep me somewhat warm but it was the wild scenery that numbed my more painful senses. My island was large but this land was gigantic.
One night I hid in an ice cave on an especially cold night. The ice walls blocked out the howling wind but I was frozen to the bone. My skin was starting turn blue and I felt the cold death wrapping his arms around me. At first I thought I was alone but then I felt a soft current of warm air passing through the cave. I turned and instead of the wall I thought was behind me a giant creature and a pair of blue eyes stared at me. In the elder legends mystical creatures called dragons wandered the Earth but the great knight Aturn destroyed them all. Another myth died as the creature walked his way around me and he curled his tail around my body. He was warm to the touch and he worked his heated body around. The dragon laid his body in front of the opening and he pushed me with his tail towards himself. I could see his eyes were amazingly gentle for a creature his size. He lazily closed his eyes and slept. I was tired and I rested using his warm tail as a pillow. For the first time in many months in the mountains, I was warm. The next morning I would wake up to find the creature was gone and a large bit of shed skin wrapped around my body. The dried clear skin was not as warm as the creature but it still radiated heat. I carved a bit of the flesh and it became a liner to my skins. I would never be cold again in my hard journey.
I spent months in the valleys and crags of the land. Everyday I climbed sheer cliffs as I carved my own path through mountain passes. Climbing made me physically strong, my mind on the other hand was bombarded. Loneliness and a lack of human contact may me stop a couple of times in my trip, my hands would cover my tear stained face as I broke down. My reason should have been gone, loneliness should have transformed me into a mindless mountain man. Something kept me alive inside, I didn't know what it was but it kept me in touch with reality. My hope was lost when I saw the forest. As I entered light shafts peaked through the leaves making the wood seem blessed at first. However after walking several miles through the thicket it seemed the fog conquered the woodland floor. With the night quickly coming it added to my fears of the timberland. I pulled out my sword fearing the unknown habitat. Hooting owls and howling wolves made me fearful for the first time in a long time. Every time an animal sounded I spun around to my backside. If a child or old man were to walk along side of me I would have killed them. Unfortunately, with all of my spinning I didn't see the thief sneak up behind me. He was silent as he jabbed his knife into my side. As the robber reached for my purse I saw an old man coming out of the woods. The hermit raised his hand up and the thief dropped his blade. I turned to see the crook grab at his throat and begin to cough up vomit and other bodily fluids. He dropped to the ground and began to shake. Green and brown foam oozed from his inhuman lips, a loud snap came from his neck and he died. Good riddance slipped from my mouth. My doubts about magic died right there. I jumped as the magician grabbed my arm, fear subsided and joy filled my mind. My arms wrapped around his waist and once again I broke down. I tried to thank the man but he reached for his ears and shook his head. A deaf man but still a man among beast. He led me to a clearing in the wood and to his home, a hovel which looked as if it were built by a younger man fifty years ago. Inside animal hides hung from the walls. Grabbing a piece of salted meat, the wizard walked back outside and started a fire.
Even though he was deaf we managed to communicate. With wild hand movements we managed to tell our life stories over a fine dinner of venison and bread. Jacob as he calls himself was a novice at magic when he decided to leave the restraints of society. A druid of his god, Jacob learned enough magic to protect himself and survive on his own. He guesses he is about eighty-four years old, I believed him. Jacob carried wisdom beyond any wise man and that was the only reason he's alive today. I admired the man. He looked at me like a father would look at a son. I knew he longed for kin and a family, but he was a druid above else. Worship and prayer were his sole reasons for living. He helped me bury the thief's body and he made a place for me on the ground to sleep and rest. As the old man rested his back I managed to make another set of gestures saying good night. The old man nodded and began to sleep. The Star Pendant pinched on my neck and I removed it from the slight hole it was leaving in my neck. Exhaustion overwhelmed me and as soon as I hit the ground I entered the dreamlands.
While I was still sleeping Jacob cleaned my face and removed the beard I had grown from my odyssey, it would be later I found out that I slept for 12 hours. That morning, or what I thought was morning, I saw Jacob pull a long bow and quiver from wall mountings and he walked out into the wood. I followed he from a far, his old age couldn't handle carrying any big game I thought. Jacob moved like a dancer, quiet and each step was project. I just thought he was going to go after something small like a rabbit of a bird, but to my surprise I saw Jacob stalking a deer. With each step he moved closer and closer. I was fifty yards from him and he was only fifteen feet from the large buck. I didn't even see him set his arrow, his right hand was cocked and ready. Steady as a rock he fired and the arrow shot right into the deer's heart.
Never in my lifetime have I seen a man so quietly kill an animal. The quickness of the kill was mind numbing but what he did next was truly amazing. Jacob raised his hands and lifted the carcass with his magic. I watched him bring the carrion to his hut and with his knife he removed the hide from the meat. At that moment I wanted to learn magic and learn it quickly. He looked up from his kill and motioned me down to the deer. He wiped his hands on the hide of the deer and placed the cleaned hand on my shoulder. He had a child like smile on his face. He knew even before I did that I was going to leave him that day. Slowly he walked back into his hut and came out with two loaves of bread and a flask of water. A slight tear fell from his eye. With his silent language he pushed me towards the trail. Jacob knew that I couldn't stand the life of a hermit.
I looked at Jacob like he was my father, I hugged him and I went back on the trail. Long dead emotions were being resurrected as my eyes turned at him. Love, compassion, and humility mixed with my honor, fear, and hate. It was a sad thing to see him fade into the woodland. I would come back to him, some day I might need his wisdom. The occasional chirp of a robin or oriole added to my cheerful spirits as I rode down the forest pass. In the distance I saw smoke and as I slowed I heard chatter. An encampment blocked most of the path in front of me. Soldiers were preparing for a large battle. There were twelve of them but they were encamped just so an infusion of troops could join battle. A woman was being held to the ground as two of the impish monsters were enjoying themselves on her. One of the creatures was holding her mouth shut as he held her down. With the full moon shining high in the sky I lurked closer. The insanity of blood lust grew in me. Combat was something I was hoping to avoid in my new home, not that I didn't enjoy a good kill or two but I thought my skills may have become rusty over the trip. Stalking in silence, I approached the demons. The rapists didn't even notice I was a few feet away when I attacked.
The Evermore was as sharp as it was old; it quickly removed the head of the creature on top of the woman. Her screams awoke most of the troop as she ran away. Before they could gather their swords I pierced their hearts. With nine to go I knew I had a hard battle on my hands. Three charged at me, they snarled at me with a foreign tongue as I continued my assault. They were ill trained and with five quick disarming slashes I quickly removed them from this realm. Malformed bodies lay like idol worshipers at my feet. The well-built general was right behind the next influx of attacking troops. With the woods behind me I used the trees as my shield. The first of the malcontents used a rough stabbing technique. Dodging in and out behind a tree, the beast stabbed deeply into the maple. It would be the last mistake he would ever make. His hands still gripped at his sword as the rest of his body dropped.
I have never liked clubs. Only unmannerly brutes carried clubs. The two unmannerly brutes were shocked as my sword sliced through their weapons. They stared at each other as I opened each other's sternum. Blood trickled down to the handle and coated the tips of my fingers. I desperately gasped for air. Five remaining foot soldiers charged at me as I stood my ground. Death was at my doorstep. Just then arrows started to fly through the air. They seemed to be coming from the trees themselves. Within twenty feet two of the warriors dropped. At ten feet one more of the fighters fell. The intelligence of the brutes was lacking as they turned around and faced the shooters. Not being an unfair fighter I tapped one of them on the shoulder for some one on one. As the creature raised his blade I quickly removed his insides and smiled.
The second brute carried a weapon I had never seen before. It was a blade attached to a spiked chain. The grunt began to swing the chain around and I couldn't figure out how to attack. I wanted one of the arrows to land in his back so I could go after the general. Unfortunately the assassins were busy with their own as the sound of distant swordplay started to echo through out the wood. Around and around the blade went. Patently I waited to attack. He kept swinging the blade about and I missed played the timing. I took a step trying to judge the speed of the chain, but the blade nearly took off my left arm. Desperately I took whatever strength I had and threw my sword towards him. A godly miracle saved me as the blade cut through his chain and his spine. I looked over towards where the general was but he retreated leaving his troops behind. I held my hand to my wound but the blood was flowing like a river of crimson. Fading in and out I welcomed death.
chapter 3: the holy demon
Living wasn't an option. My race should have died on some stranger's land. The last guardian/king of the Astarxian Empire should have died in an extraordinary land. Fortune smiled as I entered my savior's home. As I passed in and out of consciousness I felt the long fingernails of a woman scratching through my red ponytail. She hummed a song I didn't recognize but with each note I felt cared for. In my drifting dreams I imagined a divine woman dressed in white, beautiful and kind in spirit. Red hair cascaded down her shoulders as she looked at me with her gray eyes. Her touch was a gift from the gods themselves, she looked like the idol Sakkan.
After a couple of days of resting I finally had enough strength to wake up. The room was nearly empty; my sword was by my side and my arm was bandaged. My divine figure was also my divine healer. Herbal scents filled the chamber, incense burned in a center altar, the god of which I didn't recognize. Under the cloth bandages more herbs were healing my wound which by some great act wasn't fatal. What was left of my clothes was washed and folded on a chair. My body was also washed thoroughly. I had almost forgotten what my body looked like clean. Slipping the blue ribbon from my hair, I shook out the knots. As I had expected my hair grew down below my shoulders, rubbing against the mid-portion of my back, instead of being shoulder length. Still nude I looked out of the window to the world. The sun shined brightly as a small white cloud passed by. A tower above it all was my temporary sanctuary. Below the world seemed perfect, almost. Bodies from my latest conquest were still lying on the forest ground. This land was like Astarxia. I was home.
The door opened and I was about to thank my savior. But the figure wasn't my divine white spirit; it was a demonic creature. Half-woman and half-wolf, she had a woman's shape, she dressed like a lady but her gray fur was her proclamation to being a beast. Instinct took over my mind. She spoke in a tongue that I couldn't understand. Swiftly I grabbed my sword and rushed to my clothes. Not caring about being nude I quickly grabbed my garments for some kind of defense. I had wished my armor were still on my back. With my bundled apparel in my left hand and the Evermore in my right I aimed my sword towards the wolf figure.
"What are you?" I asked.
She still spoke in the foreign tongue, her words were soft but I was still wary. Just then another figure showed herself. Another animal woman cross, this time I didn't recognize at first the beast. The new creature seemed to have a multi-colored fur made of blades growing out from her back. Then I recalled what kind of animal she was, a porcupine. The two creatures talked to each other in their language. Their eyes were fearful, the fact they didn't attack me like most animals would told me that they were more human than beast. Assessing the situation I realized that I might not be in trouble. Why would they go through the trouble of healing me just to kill me later? Reason over took my instinct which lately has been occurring less and less. There was only one thing I could do, take a chance.
"I know you can't understand me but I'm going to try and trust you."
The two women watched as I deliberately placed my sword in my scabbard and turned it to my back. I showed the creatures my open right hand and started to put on my clothes. They didn't attack, with their act of trust I knew they were allies. Taking a deep breath I tried to figure out how to communicate. Taking a few notes from the old man I tried to recall most of the silent language I had learned. Slowly I placed my hand on my chest.
"David Guardian." Speaking in as simple terms as I possibly could.
The wolf woman cocked her canine head then a strange smile came over her face. She was beginning to understand what I was doing. Her eyes turned gentle and she placed her own right hand . . .paw to her chest and spoke.
I looked down to my dressed wound then back up to Raven. My right hand copied my eye movements. It was the only way of asking if she was the one who healed me. She understood me and nodded. A slight smile came over my face. Raven's intelligence surprised me, it took a good hour before the hermit and I began our conversations. Easing myself back on to the bed I tried to think of other things to ask and how to ask them. Raven interrupted my thoughts as she removed the cloth from my arm. I panicked at first but even with the inhuman eyes she had, Raven gave me a gentle look. Her claws easily removed the bandage and I was amazed. The wound was nearly gone, other than a red slash marking my white skin. Forgetting about the language barrier I asked where I was. Her odd look was no surprise. What she did next was. She placed two of her hands to the side of her head and leaned towards them. She then held four fingers in the air. Realizing what she mean I gave a look of shock. Four days gone from the world is not something you just throw away like a piece of garbage, but it seems like nothing compared to the months in the mountains. Just maybe these were divine figures after all, sent by the gods to protect me. Maybe the Star Pendant is magical after all. Raven looked back to the strange creature still standing at the doorway. She turned to her spiked friend and spoke again. I wished I could understand their language. Impatiently I got up and pounded my hand against the castle wall, frustrated at the world. The lupine woman confused this as a question.
I blinked a couple of times to remove the sleep from my eyes. Waving my hands about all around the room I repeated what she said. Her wolf head nodded a couple of times but I was still confused. Was the room Metamor Keep or was this whole castle Metamor Keep? Just then the bladed one pulled Raven aside and whispered something in her pointed ear. Raven shook her head and looked up and down my body. Something told me that I couldn't trust the creature behind Raven. That's why I pulled away when she tried to grab at my arm. Raven with her easy manner placed a hand on my shoulder had started to lead me to the door. Rational thoughts suddenly returned and my mind began to think clearly. My fears from passed experiences made me prejudice to the unknown thus creating my fear for sharp-backed creature. Trying to apologize and be understood at the same time, I kneeled down and kissed her hand. She placed a hand on her snout gave a slight giggle. The scarlet robe that was on her back slipped a bit and she corrected herself. I had guessed correctly that a kiss to the hand was universal.
As they took me to where ever we were going I couldn't help but look around their world. The stronghold was enormous. Just a single room in this place made old Nashmir look like a hovel. Unknown creatures of all kinds walked the halls. Beautiful women in battle armor walked by men covered in green skin shaped like scale mail. Conversations filled the air, none of which I could understand. They flowed like water, unfortunately I could drink it. Raven and her fellow animal companion lead me to what looked like a cross between a throne room and library. The figure pointed to me and spoke. Knowing manners are universal I bowed to the equine monarch. Keeping my eyes on the king he lifted a hoof and I arose.
Raven walked up to the king and they began to exchange pleasantries. After a while the conversation turned ugly, I wished I could have understood what they said. I turned to see my other companion, she was watching the spectacle along with me. The porcupine raised a finger to her mouth, around it a silver band. Raven's arms flailed in the air as she worked her arguments into the horse's skull. Back forth went the debate; both tried to stay calm but it was futile. Another universal hand gesture ended the tirade; the king's 'be off with you' hand flick. Frustrated Raven stormed out of the grand room. The porcupine and I followed. Backtracking, Raven stormed back to where I had spent several nights. Pent-up anger finally burst out in an untranslatable rage. She bellowed to her companion, I felt like I wasn't even in the room, I was just a silent witness. The woman's paw gently pushed Raven down into a chair. After the porcupine made some kind of important point Raven looked blankly at the stone walls. A deep sigh came from the muzzle of the wolf woman. I figured that Raven didn't like the decision the king passed down but she was finally giving in. She looked defeated. I knew what was happening, I didn't know how I knew but I knew I was going to continue my travels.
chapter 4: no longer alone
Sadly my visit to the mostly animal kingdom of Metamore Keep ended. They were protecting something or someone, I didn't know what though. The king of this land ordered it and I always followed the orders of a king. Respect for monarchy no matter who it is a virtue in my home. At the gates Raven gave me a pouch of gold and silver coins and a map. I gave her my pouch of Astarxian monetary except for one silver piece. Her small smile hid the fact I was being removed for some strange reason. I reflected her grin on to my face. The gates shut slowly behind me and I never looked back. I took the silver piece and buried it in the path. This was my secret way of saying I would return. My eyes turned south and looked down the trail ahead. No winding roads this time, just a straight path to town, or so the map said. Nightfall quickly came and the forest that once haunted me was surrounding the trail.
The scream was familiar, a cross between fear and pain. Running to the sound, I would soon be returning to combat. Four familiar impish figures were fighting one lone human figure. A fifth creature was going to successfully sneak up behind him. I charged, my scream distracted the mindless imps. With their backs to their main target, the victim swiftly speared one of the malformed warriors. More club-using malcontents, my internal rage was stepped up a notch. Two attacked, it didn't matter to me, the more the merrier. With one strong sweep I killed the two rouges and destroyed the weapons. The man was doing quite well himself, as quickly as I had killed my opponents he had lanced two demons of his own. After watching his compatriots succumb to our blows the last demon ran. Panting I took a good look at the man and I nearly lost my edge. His hair was red and his eyes were gray.
"Are you Astarxian?" I asked the man in my native tongue.
His iron stare shone. The stranger's nervous laughter made me cautious. Arms spread out wide the man started to yell.
"Finally someone of my kind! The gods still exist!" He said in the Astarxian language.
I followed him to his home just on the edge of the demonic wood. His name was Nathan Cold, and he was going to be the one of the sailors to try and sail around the world. He just decided to leave a month earlier. Nathan's profession back home was that of a teacher but his soul was the traveler that took him to this land. He was now currently a metals merchant.
"By the gods good graces the weather remained calm and the seas still." He said.
"Not on my trip. Do you know what happened back home?" I asked.
"No what?" Nathan said with a smile.
Taking a deep breath, I told him how our home was lost, "They're all dead, the whole island is dead. A plague took them all."
Nathan's eyes turned down. His face changed from a smiling front to a stone mask. His thin frame slouched. Almost magically his face turned from thirty to forty. He rubbed his hand through his very short hair, wiping away imaginary sweat.
"I . . .I, gods." He stammered.
"We are the last two members of our race."
It finally sunk in for both of us. We sat their at his table, contemplating. An hour passed by before any of us could try to speak. Nathan decided that it was time to sleep, more time to contemplate our situation. Managing to rest was impossible, my constant thoughts of death kept me awake.
"Are you asleep Nathan?" I asked.
"You just turned my life upside down. How can I sleep?" He said.
"Could you tell me about the giant fortress to the north?"
"Metamor Keep? Why do you want to know about that place?"
"I had just come from there."
He turned from his back and looked directly at me. A slight bit of fear tinted his face. There was a lot more to the castle than I thought, I knew that I just wanted to know what.
"How long did you stay their?" Nathan asked.
"Less than a week. I was wounded by one of those impish creatures. A wolfen woman took care of me. Why do you ask?"
A look of relief captured Nathan's face, "There is a spell that has taken over the place. If you stay there for more than a week you become like one of those keepers. You are a truly lucky man."
The pieces came together. They were trying to protect me from the spell. It would seem that the stallion king's wisdom was right after all. The group in the keep were kind people even with their curse and I owed them my life.
"Will you teach me the language?" I inquired.
"Of course, you can't survive without it. Don't worry it is a simple tongue to translate." Nathan said with confidence.
"I hope so, I hope so."
For the first time in a long time, death didn't invade my dreams that night. My dream was a large void, black and short. Fog swirled in the darkness and the only sounds that I heard were quiet whispers. It was late when I woke up to the smell of breakfast cooking on an open flame. Eggs and meat were the staples for this morning. After the meal Nathan pulled me aside and handed me a slate. Still being a teacher Nathan forced fed me lessons and I ate. The language lessons were quick; it seems that the Astarxian and the native languages are very similar. In fact a few of the words were exactly the same. I felt like a complete idiot for not noticing it. Weeks passed, Nathan taught with a taskmaster's iron grip. If I had failed a lesson he would take a branch of a tree and crack it over my knuckles. With each smack Nathan apologized. He compared a lack of knowledge with a lack of survival. That bit of knowledge caught my attention and I studied harder. I would have hated him if it weren't for the fact we were becoming good friends. Like Othello, I gave my teachings on sword-play and defense. If any thief were to cross Nathan's path this time, the robber's insides would soon be enjoying the sun. I also learned about the deep secret Nathan kept hidden from me. One day he came in drunk. He stumbled into the house and fell to the floor. He screamed for his wife, Lia. She was raped and died by the hands of some person named Nasoj. As he fell down on the ground he sobbed for revenge. Within a month, I felt like I had enough knowledge of the language to be able to talk, but my lessons were not over. Over lunch Nathan started to go over the current events. To keep the knowledge fresh in my mind Nathan forced me to speak to him in my new tongue.
"David, you do realize that you have stumbled upon a holy war?"
Confused, I asked, "What do you mean?"
"The imps that we fought are actually creations of an evil wizard called Nasoj. They are called Lutins. When Nasoj first tried to destroy the Keep his groups of underlings conjured a group of spells. They reacted to each other and thus the spell that curses Metamor Keep." Nathan said with a bit of hate.
Nathan started to tell about the horrors that the evil one was causing through out the midlands. Even after my experiences with plague, I became sickened of the man. After the forth tale I wanted to have Nasoj's lower intestine on my mantle, not only for Nathan sake, for myself.
"Why don't the people fight this man if he is so evil?" I inquired.
"They are more afraid of the Keepers than they are of Nasoj. This is a three-sided war: Nasoj, the Keepers, and semi-neutral humans. Now which ever side the humans join will win the war."
"I see you have already have taken a side." I said, remembering Nathan's wife.
"I provide some of the needs of the Keepers and I make a profit, albeit a small one but still I don't deal with evil creatures to the north."
It was then I noticed the shield. It was a standard issue guardian's shield with a few alterations. Sharp 3-inch spikes circled the outside surface making it a weapon and a form of defense.
Curious I asked, "Where did you get this?"
"It was my father's shield, he became a guardian at age nineteen. He added the spikes himself."
"Do you use it?"
"No, I'm not strong enough to carry it."
"I know it's an heirloom but may I . . ."
"Who's side are you joining?"
I removed the shield off from its wall mountings and felt the weight of the artifact. My left arm was still strong even after the attack. Even with the iron spikes the shield was light to be effective. All I needed now was armor.
"The Keepers healed me, Nasoj and his warriors haunt me like death himself. I'll use it to protect the keepers."
"To protect the Keepers? Don't tell me your going back in there?"
Nathan gave a look that didn't need a translation, he thought I was insane. I just stared out of his window as a cart and horse trotted by.
"I made a promise to an old knight I would protect my new home at any cost. As soon as I entered that stronghold I felt at ease. Metamor Keep is my new home, the Gods have chosen it. Besides I owe them my life."
"I hope you are making the right decision David Guardian."
"I hope so too."
Nathan's eyebrow turned up. "If you get the chance kill that bastard Nasoj."
"If he is as evil as you say he is the Underland demons will enjoy his soul for a snack."
"Remember they call the Underlands here Hell."
I was amazed I had made it that far into the conversation without slipping. My knuckles ached with my mistake. Like Nathan had said before it was an easy language to master.
"As I was saying, Nasoj will be dancing with demons in Hell."
"When are you going back?"
My eyes turned to the stable. "The sooner the better if what you say is true that their forces are not truly organized the keep may need as much help as it can take."
"I'll give you one of my horses. Try and remember me, especially when it comes to negotiations." Nathan said with a devilish smile.
A coy smile slipped from my mouth, "I'll try."
We walked to his stable and I mounted up. The ride would be short; it took me a whole day by foot to reach Nathan's house. It would only take three hours to go back if I was generous to the horse. As I sat in the saddle Nathan gave me a look. A sad one that a wife would give her husband as he walked to the gallows. I owed my life to those creatures at Metamor Keep and even if it means I have to become one of them I will repay them. An odd thought came to me, I had spent 4 months in the mountains and I had spent two months in the forest, keep and with Nathan, I had to pray soon.
"Don't be sad my friend, you're going to be the last Astarxian left on the world."
He didn't take comfort in that thought frankly neither did I. A kick to the side of the horse and I was off. Waving good bye Nathan walked back to his stable. The sunshine and blue sky made the trip enjoyable for my eyes and my heart. Halfway through my journey I saw an encampment of Lutins. Fifteen to be precise, all preparing for a war, the sight of that was an enjoyment for my blade. Quietly I passed within earshot of the camp. Hiding in a tree I heard everything. This group and two other battalions were going to storm the main gates while another two battalions were going to sneak attack the back. They wanted someone named Misha out of the way, he was beginning to become a pain in the side of Nasoj. Within three days the two battalions were going to meet with this group and start their charge. A thought came to my mind as I listen to the battle plans, fifteen is too much for me to kill at once. Just then three of the creatures started to eat their lunch at the base of the tree. They talked about plans to turn Misha into a coat. Assassination is not my favorite way of killing but a kill is a kill, and I was killing a group of assassins. With the spiked shield in my left hand and the Evermore Sword in my right I fell down from my perch and killed two instantly. The third one was too shocked to speak, his head lobbed off quite easily. With the giant castle in the background I started my assault.
I crept up to the first tent and just sliced it in half. As my sword went through I could feel the blade go through two of the creature's spines and the third I could feel the sword scrape along his rib cage. The top of the tent bounced of the ground, it was weighed down by three skulls. It seems that I'm a better assassin than I would like. As Lutins came out of their tents I quickly killed them. Pouncing at each victim, I killed the evil creatures with efficiency, and their silence was golden. It was amazing that I murdered so many of the monsters so quickly. By the time I felt like I was ready for hand to hand combat I had reduced their numbers to four and discovered my darker nature. The three foot soldiers in the captain's tent and the captain himself. Bodies lay everywhere as I pierced my sword into the tent.
"What the Hell?" Screamed one of the creatures.
As I had planned I completely missed everyone within the tent. Lutins flooded out of the tent with their swords drawn. Their sickening purple eyes were as wide as plates. In the middle of the chaos I stood there with my arms spread wide. Blood and flesh of my prey surrounded my feet. An evil smile filled my face, the insanity of murder filled me.
"If you plan on attacking Metamor Keep, you will have this to deal with and me, demon."
They shuttered at the sight of the burning corpses. The Captain went insane at the destruction of his brilliant plan. He charged at me, the man was old, fat, and clumsy. I simply tripped him up. My sword went cleanly into his throat and a fountain of blood poured out. My eyes looked up at the foot soldiers, two had wet their pants and the third was running away.
"Tell your master that with each evil act he commits, we grow stronger. I will hunt him down, and feed him to the demons he raises up."
The rest of the Lutins followed the coward, I might have wanted to kill them and all of their friends at the keep but I wanted to save lives. Even if you know an enemy's plan you still will have losses. The trail to the keep was straight and the sight of the castle still frightened me. With each step the keep looked more and more like an imposing figure. The gatekeepers were surprised I had returned.
"You might want to dismount before he becomes spooked." Said the buxom guard.
"Thank you, milady." I said forgetting about the curse and how it changed some of the men into women.
Just before I strolled through the entrance I dug my silver piece out from the ground, keeping my promise. My curiosity forced me to listen to conversations. Most to my disappointment were dull. Moments like this happen, I can't explain, but I fight it. I shook my head and focused my attention again. I had to go to the king and tell him what I saw. Recalling the floor plan of the keep I retraced the steps to the throne room but I was hopelessly lost and by luck I had found the room. The king was standing on two hooves and reading a chart.
"I thought he left several weeks ago?" The king asked his fox like sage.
"I did, we don't have much time to talk here the Lutins are going to attack." I yelled out.
The shock of my speech and determination was drowned out by the fear of attack. The sage ran out of the room preparing the keep for attack, his red and white plume flew through the wind.
"How did you come by this information?" Questioned the equine.
"I stumbled upon a battalion of Lutins I heard their plan and killed most of the legion."
"How many were there in the legion?" Inquired the horse king.
"Fifteen." I said, boastfully.
"You killed fifteen Lutins by yourself?"
"I assassinated most of them, three were left but I left them escape to send a personal message to their leader." I said as a smirk slipped from my mouth, " They were after someone named Misha. If they still use their plan they will first attack the front gates, then while our attention is turned to the front a second smaller group will attack the rear. If they see the damage I caused to their first group they may retreat to gather their forces. If I'm wrong they will attack quickly and try to catch us off guard."
"Still we will prepare the forces."
I took to my knee and said, "Thank you my liege."
"My liege? You plan on joining us, David?" The king asked with a bit of understated confusion.
"I owe my life to the people of the place." I said rising from the floor.
"Are you willing to accept the fact you may be transformed into an animal?"
I gripped my sword tighter, "Yes."
"Are you willing to change into a child?"
My heart skipped a beat, "Yes."
"Are you willing to become a woman?"
My soul shuttered, "Y . . .yes."
Finally the leader asked, "Not that sure of yourself, are you?"
"No one is ever sure if the decisions they make are the right one's." I didn't know if my comment came out right but think he got the point.
chapter 5: homecoming
The night was perfect, bluish-black with last glimmer of sunset casting a purple skyline. Times like this I wished that I were watching the sky instead of watching for attack. From the distant hills and nearby plains a light fog rolled into the courtyard of the Keep. Inside, I knew this was a place where mythology was born. I volunteered to watch the front gates, my first official duty as a resident of the keep. My sight occasionally drifted to the sky while the rest of me was wandering. The saddest of my memories died, my thoughts were to the present, and my new home. No matter how odd the inhabitants within it, they were my neighbors, and maybe future friends. I knew the Lutins weren't going to attack tonight, they had suffered enough losses to rethink their plans. The only way I could think of to pass the time was to fidget with the Star Pendant or take my finger and line it around the crest of my new full plate. Faith kept me alive and sane through out my travels, faith in myself and the gods. It was my faith that kept my epic story from turning into a tragic tale.
"Am I bothering you?"
Raven walked silently, she was a stalker and a damn good one. She sat down beside me, letting her legs dangle over the edge of the wall. From what I had heard she is a cold hearted druid, but her demeanor said lady. A wide yawn escaped from my lips, I wasn't tired just bored. Ironic, I had spent most of the day looking for her.
"The first face I look for and it turned out to be the last I find."
"Thomas told me you wanted to stay here, is that true?" She said with a bit of amazement.
"Yes, this is my home now, and I will defend it. Fate has brought here. I am a warrior who is willing to die for the common good." I stared out to the darkening sky, "Thank you for healing me."
"That's not my handy-work, Brian Coe is the physic here, I was just coming in when you woke up."
She turned her face away from me and I turned my head towards her, she was trying to hide a slight smile. Raven must have worked very hard to create the illusion that she was a cold wizard.
"It doesn't matter, you are still my healing spirit. I already owe you so much, can I ask a favor?"
Raven without even looking at me said, "What is it?"
I turned my eyes to Raven and said, "I want to tell you a story about a distant land called Astarxia."
My eyes came off the parchment, and locked to the bed. My quill rested on the table next to the ink-bottle and above the half moon rose. Slowly, I lifted myself up off of the chair and I fell into bed. With my new tail twitching, I forgot about my worries and I began to dream about Astarxia.