I was watching my leathery finger trace circles in the water when I heard the thumping at the door. They broke through the old wood frame and saw what had become of my life. Lazily, my gaze went from the tub of black, ashen water to the familiar faces. It was Brian and Raven. She slowly walked up to me and with a touch of suspicion; she placed a paw to my muzzle. Her hand felt soft against my face and without thinking I pulled both of my hands out of the water and held her hand there. Brian's jaw dropped I could see almost down his throat and into his stomach. Out of all of the transformations he had ever seen, all the grand changes life could give, he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Amazing.
"David, is that really you?" Raven asked. She looked as if she was a little girl watching a beggar magician in the street. I smiled and nodded contently. My mind was in a peaceful sleepy haze, dulled by a lack of sensation in my lower legs. Slowly, I wiggled my feet and a slight tingling ran up my thighs. A pair of blue eyes gazed into my lazy brown ones, admiring not the physical change but the peace that became my mind. Raven had thought that my soul was lost and she was nearly right. Brian had thought that I was going to lose my life, but I proved my faith was stronger than physical limitations.
"What happened?" She asked, as she sat cross-legged by the tub.
Rustling a bit in the basin, I sat up and the story unfolded.
"David. David, wake up my sleepy child."
A groan echoed in the room, "I'm not a child."
He opened his eyes to see that he was lying naked on the cold marble floor of King Melander's throne room. The Guardian picked himself up and walked through the rolling mist that hindered his vision. A woman's silhouette appeared out of the fog, and as he walked over to the lady, his grey eyes caught hint of a light blue aura emanating from the figure. Sitting at the place of honor was a beautiful woman, a goddess. Her skin was like polished ivory and her hair, which rushed down to her hips and swayed from an imaginary wind, was the color of the sun during a hot summer day. A hardened leather book encrusted with jewels rested upon the matriarch's lap. At first sight of the woman David bowed down to the hem of her long white gown.
"Sakkan! I am sorry. What have I done to disappoint you?"
"Nothing, my child. It is I who should be thanking you. You are my only remaining follower and as long as you live, so will I."
Nervously he said, "I am at your service."
"I am grateful for your pleasantries," She smiled and lips rose to show her perfect grin. "but I must ask a question of you. I am the Goddess of literature, art, and knowledge; you are a Guardian, not an artist. Why was I the first god you prayed to?"
"I felt that I had favored the other gods with my deeds. When I prayed at home I always prayed to Sith, the god of honor and death; then I would pray to Kitahn the god of life and birth. I prayed to all of the gods except you. My family never worshiped you, that is why, because I ignored you for all of those years. It sounds foolish but I felt it was right."
She softly stepped down from her perch and placed a divine hand on the knight's cheek. Sakkan then rested her other hand on David's broad shoulder.
"You may look up to me."
David turned his head up to the divine creator and was awestruck by the power encompassing her. He turned away from the deity's overpowering blue-grey eyes and turned his gaze back to her feet.
"You see this hall and you see that I am the only one who lives in it. This was once the home of the gods. We played, we danced, and we watched over our followers. One day we were feasting and Daki, Lord of the underlands, entered and declared a challenge. Daki's twin, Anki took the challenge and we unknowingly watched the destruction of our world. We did not know what Daki had planned, every time there was a challenge Anki always won. They fought bitterly and Anki died." Sakkan paused and stared into a point in space. "The god of good health was dead and Daki spread his plague across the land. We were powerless to stop it."
"We knew that the island was dying and we could not do a thing about it, not even Daki could stop his own disease. It was during these dark times that we met the new gods. They were so powerful, so strong, and they were willing to allow us to become one with their houses. Daki, being a young god, dismissed their kindness and ironically he died due to his arrogance. One by one they fled into the houses of the other gods, indulging on the spirit of their new followers. The new gods were surprisingly kind and we were allowed to become seconds to them. I waited, many days passed but no god came for me. I sit here alone and now I am here with my last follower."
David foolishly looked back up to Sakkan only to be blinded by her light. "Like you said before I'm just a Guardian, why do you favor me?"
"You are my only follower, that is reason enough, but also the keep you are now protecting is a house of arts. Carvers, painters, writers, many numerous artists live below you and you have vowed to protect them with your life. I gain strength from this castle."
"Every creative act is a prayer to me, a moment of worship. Even if they do not know it, they still are powering my spirit. I am strong because of you and your creative friends, and I may become even stronger because of you."
"I am sorry, I do not follow."
"It is difficult even for me to understand but it does not matter now, there is a more pressing affair to deal with. There is a prophecy that after the destruction of Astarxia a condemned hero will live to fight another day. Within the next month you will have your life challenged. Your soul will be taken to the depths of darkness, and just when you think your adventure is over, your travels will become an even greater challenge on your life. Evil in new forms will tempt you with unimaginable powers and amoral deities will ask you to follow them. Block out the temptations with all of your might for they will lead to your doom. This is what the prophecy tells me. I cannot protect you but I will not ignore you, I can only give you this warning, and this promise. If you survive your journey, I will empower you, some how." Sakkan placed a hand on his forehead and eyes. David slowly drifted back down to the marble floor.
"Sleep, my Guardian of the arts."
The sun was still dancing with the horizon when I opened my eyes. As I lifted the blankets off my body the cold air stabbed me like a sword. A strong wind opened the shutters to the window letting the weather in. My hands rested on the wooden frames as my eyes opened to the world. I looked out to see the stars and the moon were fighting with the daystar for the sky's attention. Other than the guards below the town was silent. The base of the window touched my chest and a cold shiver ran through me.
"Gods help me, it's the spell!"
I searched my body and found that I wasn't becoming a beast or a woman. My own natural sensitivity was to blame for my paranoia. Recently, every time I felt my body twitch or a slight twinge would hit me I thought it was the curse taking over my body. I did not know which was worse, the fact I was going to change or the mental agony of just knowing and waiting. The world was too cold, not even my clothing could take the chill off. I inched closer to the window for I was intrigued by the sky, and how the colors faded from the blackness of the night to the purity of light. Someone walking towards the main entrance caught my attention. It was Brian; I recognized his mask from the distance, and I couldn't help but smile at the night creature wandering down the empty streets.
My dreams are wishes I never thought would be granted. When I was training to become a Guardian I watched a healer use his skills on a wounded patient and I was jealous of his abilities. The healer had one of the most wonderful jobs in the world, he could prevent someone from going to the other side, and all I could do was send someone there. Once I watched a comrade in arms die, the Master Teacher pierced his lung, and he bled all over the ground like a butchered pig in the town market. My hands could do nothing while the boy coughed up blood, and the master laughed, setting the cruel example of the price of failure. The next day I killed the Master Teacher in cold blood. It was the only thing I could do, the only thing I was trained to do. The king forgave me, and the others who saw the murder cheered what I did, but I could never forgive myself, it's another of a long line of burdens I carry.
The world's silence was shattered when, in the distance, the sound of shrill screams filled the air. Fires poked out from the tops of homes like yellow and orange spears. I rushed into my armor and out on to the street. People called for missing children as the older wood structures of the Keep collapsed under their own weight. As I ran, I passed the raccoon-man treating the burned and my irrational jealousy grew. At every torched house people ran out of their homes, coughing soot out of their lungs. Neighbors helped out fellow neighbors by grabbing a bucket of water and dousing the infernos. Everywhere people yelled for help, mainly for a hand putting out the fires, but it was the call to save a child that beckoned me.
In the distance I heard, "My home exploded with flame! Fire from the sky!"
An equine couple was still inside their blazing building fighting the flames to reach for their young son. A roof bracing blocked their way to their child huddled by the back corner of the room but I wouldn't let a simple thing like that stop me. Inside I was roasting in my plate mail and I was choking on cinder filled smoke, but the pain was bearable considering what was going to happen to the child if I did not save him. My sword quickly cut through the wood, allowing the family to escape in time to watch their dwelling crash to the ground. They held each other close as they brushed embers out of their fur, crying about what they could have lost.
I stood away letting their safety be my reward. There was no resting on any laurels as another cry for help filled the air. As I kicked open the door a flame kicked back burning my face and by chance I raised my shield just in time to block the falling rubble. Pacing back and forth in a cage was a nervous red fox.
"Help me, please!" he cried as the house crashed all around him.
I couldn't understand why someone would forget him in all of this madness and I couldn't understand why he was in that cage. What kind of prisoner was he? The only thing I knew was that I had to free him. The metal bars of the cage bent just enough so I could pull him out by the scruff of his neck, and into the square. As I carried him under my arm into the courtyard he started to hyperventilate.
"Why, why, why did you save me?" The fox panted.
For someone who was crying for help, he wasn't appreciative of my gesture. I couldn't understand what he was saying, no one deserves to burn to death, nor should they want to. It became clearer when a woman with fur that looked like wet combed down hair came running towards me.
"No, David! Varnal is one of Nasoj's wizards!" She yelled over the roar of the fires. "I was letting him out for his walk but I got called away on business, I placed him in the cage in my house!"
She pulled him out of my grasp and tied his paws together. As she walked away, he looked back at me in a touch of wonderment and confusion.
Time passed and the morning was measured in hours used to douse the flames, four to be exact. At the end those who lost the most were huddled in the castle for sanctuary. A few curled up in the corners of the keep, some jumped in pain still feeling the fires burning within their hair, and others held their children tightly. Duke Thomas walked around and cared for everyone in a common sort of way. Admirable. The fox I rescued was locked in a new cage next to the same otter-like woman who pulled him a way from me. I stood around the huddled masses wiping away the soot from my face, letting my sword rest against my hip in the scabbard, giving my arms a chance to rest. For some strange reason the world was peaceful, quieted by the conquering of the flame, and the masses grouped in a common bond of community.
Sadly the peace ended. A sound I never wanted to hear in my life echoed through the hall, a father screaming. He carried the charred, limp, dead child in his hooves. Tears fell from his face and dried on the body. A look of utter shock and sickness filled Duke Thomas' face as the father placed the remains on the marble floor. I stood there not thinking about the child or the father, but I was selfish and I thought only of myself.
The image of what was once a little girl burned into my mind like the fires that burned her poor body. Without any rational thought I ripped the cage out of the otter's hands and forced the fox to look at the girl.
"LOOK AT HER! LOOK AT WHAT YOU DID!"
My mind snapped. As I raged I slammed Varnal into the front of the cage forcing him to bounce closer and closer to the girl.
"Your evil did this!"
He yipped in pain each time he hit the bars, and after the third bounce he vomited. My frustration brought me to a point where I threw the cage down on the ground and pulled out my blade. Thomas and two others grabbed my arms, I wanted to kill him.
"Ashur! Wilcox Ashur, did this! He did this, dear Gods don't kill me." The red fox yelled.
I relaxed and listened to the creature, still wanting to turn his hide inside out and crush his innards in my hand. The others sensed my easing and released me.
"He has always been bragging about finding a way to make a dragon invisible to all senses, normal or magical. I swear it is him!" He screamed, still thinking his life was about to end quickly.
"Where can I find him?" I said with an animal like growl.
The fox turned around in the cage so he wouldn't have to look at the girl. I had enough of what I thought was stalling. "TELL ME!"
He jumped up and his fur spiked all over. "Starven, the Alabaster Bar! He's always there!"
I was going to kill him, I pulled out the Evermore and I was ready to put the tip into his belly when Thomas looked me coldly in the eye. His giant brown orbs caught the last part of my sanity, I owe him my soul. Instead of killing the enemy, I rushed out, looking for my new target, Ashur. Another fox creature; this one stood on two legs, tried to stop me with the handle of his axe.
"Please stop." Said the man with a chain of ears around his neck.
I viewed this as insolence and I pushed him aside. Forcefully, I charged out of the gate and jumped on the nearest horse I could find. Death was my future plan, Ashur's or mine. I did not care if it was both.
Misha came off the ground with a wide-eyed expression on his face. The long scout looked out the castle doors and saw David riding off with his horse.
"He's gone insane! If he doesn't come to his senses he's going to kill himself!" Misha screamed as he carelessly waved the axe 'Whisper' about.
Thomas pulled away from the man who lost not only his daughter but also his profitable workshop and walked to the vulpine with a tear in his eye. "Yyyes."
"Gods, Thomas you're shaken." Misha said, as he placed a furred hand on the equine's shoulder.
Thomas was still distraught when he spoke. "I'll be fine, please Misha follow him. He's a good man but he's still a child trying to act like an adult. I will take care of the people."
"Are you sure?" Misha questioned.
Thomas nodded and went back to comforting the grieving father. Misha patted his blade with a growl under his breath. "Another adventure, old girl."
As Misha found irony in taking David's horse to Starven Thomas looked back at Raven and saw hidden within her stern demeanor a worried look.
"What's wrong?" Thomas asked.
Raven looked Thomas straight in the eye and spoke. "David's dying inside."
"Halt right there, you are not allowed into the Giantdowns!"
I looked up and saw the human standing in the middle of the road. He dragged his cyan robe across the road and trailing the garment were two vile creatures, lutins. In the middle of the road was a downed tree, and next to the tree were three tents for six people. The rain crashed down in buckets and I used my sleeve to wipe my runny nose. It was only my second day of riding and already I had come down with something.
"Let me pass and I'll let you live." I snarled as I curled my hand around the handle of the blade.
The rather young wizard, almost my age, called on three of his vile lackey lutins and said. "I am afraid I can't do that, Metamorian. What I can do is kill you."
The first attacker came at my right side. I kicked him square on the nose and the sensation of bone breaking skin could be felt through my boot. A large, dim witted lutin tried to take my head off with an axe but he hit only air and the next thing he saw was my sword going through his mid-section. Not a very pleasant sound when you're close. After quickly dispatching the last lutin, I realized that these creatures weren't very good fighters. The wizard stood confidently alone with his arms crossed.
"For your sake you better know some powerful magic. I am not only going to kill you, I'm going to slowly skin you alive!"
Rage was the only guide I was using and I was still thinking of my failure, not the girl who died. The wizard clapped his hands in the air and smiled.
The ground shook and what I thought was a distant hill rose up and became a giant. Pools of rain water flowed from his fat body. His face was an unsightly yellow matted pus like mess. The giant picked up the tree and banged it into the back of his hand.
"Master, who do you want killed?" Brambly grumbled.
The wizard pointed one finger to me, but I wasn't afraid, I wanted to die a hero. Swinging the giant club proved to be cumbersome to the great oaf. After swinging twice the giant grew frustrated and threw the log, barely missing me but killing the wizard instantly. The oak's trunk crashed into a greater sized tree, in between a robe became stained with blood . . .
David stared off into the vapors of the healing candles Raven placed within the dimly lit room. His story couldn't continue. The lies he told held down the truth and without even knowing it David started to shake.
"Why did you stop?" Brian asked.
David hadn't noticed Brian had taken a seat while he listened to the story. The question startled the bathing knight. Raven watched as shame filled his face, David took his two paws to his face and held the tears down inside. He sniffed at the sorrow and his glazed over eyes gazed at the raccoon.
"I . . .I lied." David wiped his nose and continued. "I only wish it were true. It was a lie for I was ashamed of what I have done."
They did nothing but stand by the water logged road waiting for the rain to end. In the distance was Starven, I could have snuck away and let them be but I wanted them dead for my sake. Patiently I waited, my reward was the darkness of night and a chance to kill. I walked into the camp unhindered. They foolishly slept in their blue and white tents. Did they even know I existed? The first to die was the guard supposedly watching the camp, but his attention was to his wooden dice and the game he was playing. His head bounced into a puddle a foot away from the body.
For some strange reason anything sleeping looks innocent. As I slowly walked in, I watched a lutin suck its thumb. This was an afterthought as I slit its throat and watched his blood pool on the ground. He kicked and gurgled as his last breath left him. Like a cat pouncing on a mouse, I killed everyone mercilessly, uncompassionately and when I killed the last of the enemy, I spit in his face as he cried as he held his stomach wound. As I walked back to my horse hitched to a tree, there stood that same fox creature with the axe. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to him.
"You just killed six soldiers in their sleep!" He whispered.
"They shouldn't have been sleeping!" I snarled, pulling my arm out of his grasp.
"You did not even give them a fighting chance!" He said, as his eyes became wider.
"So!" I grabbed his shoulders and pushed him into a nearby maple. "They did not give that girl a change to fight. They just killed her without thinking! Why shouldn't I do the same?" "Because two wrongs don't make a right." He said calmly.
"Just stay out of my way and I'll be back next week." I grunted as I released my grip.
The vulpine creature tried to walk in front of me but I have enough of his disrespect. As hard as I have hit anyone in my life, I knocked him out. I did not care about him or his morals and I rode off to Starven.
Misha woke to find a large bump on his head and a knife like pain in his mind. The storm had vanished, and with it, David. Tree branches blocked the blue sky from his vision and he groaned as he sat up. As he pulled himself back on his feet Misha shook his head in disgust.
"He's going to kill himself . . ." Misha hopped on to his horse and looked down to the town of Starven. " . . .but if I try to help him he'll try to kill me."
He turned his back to the city and to David, leaving him to his own devices. As far as Misha was concerned David earned his fate.
"Let him die."
Night was becoming my friend. Every thing seemed right when it was night time, the clouds are grey, the sky was black with a navy tint, and the air is always cold. I danced with the shadows and they kept me hidden from my enemies, one of which was becoming intoxicated in the Alabaster Bar.
The beauty of the Keep was far from my mind as I stood in the squalor of the street. Beggars tugged at my legs as I watched Ashur drink himself silly. He stumbled around with a mug of ale proclaiming himself the destroyer of lands. Without thinking I kicked the beggar in the head, his constant tugging was becoming an annoyance. Ashur belched and disheveled himself even more as his drink spilled on a brutish customer. He foolishly smiled and begged for mercy from the large oaf. The man grumbled a bit and grabbed the wizard's purse, taking all of his gold and buying a drink for himself. Ashur let him have his way and began to exit. He fell at the doorway of the bar and stumbled the rest of the way to his home.
At first he stumbled towards his home but then he turned and walked to the large dilapidated barn next to the equally decayed home. I followed and I watched. The middle-aged wizard opened the door to the unstable shelter and resting in the building was a red scaled dragon. It looked directly into the old man's eyes and snorted.
"Ah . . .My old friend, tomorrow we . . .burn the Keep, and make our master proud." Ashur said drunkenly.
The dragon snarled, restrained by a chain mail net surrounding its great body and clasping his jaws shut. Its golden eye gazed at the magician as it rustled in its thin cage. As he moved a charge of power rushed into the creature subduing the dragon.
"What's a matter, don't like your pen?" Wilcox taunted, as he barely held on to his balance. "Just do what I say and destroy the Keep and I might let you go."
The red beast growled again, clinching a handful of mail, waiting to have his chance with Ashur. I stood at the door waiting for my own chance. His back turned and I crept to his unprotected side. The night's silence was constant until a bail of hay fell from the rafters. He turned and I looked at his eyes, they were a sick combination of lutin and human, purple irises with gold surrounding the violet.
"So you were going to walk up behind me and kill me knight?" He smiled.
"Why not? You killed before without showing your face." I snapped.
"My beast did kill someone at Metamor Keep?" The smile on his face was sickening. "Good. I hope they suffered like the others in the Southlands."
It was all I needed. I charged and just as I was about to make contact, he moved swiftly out of the way. I turned and saw he had changed shape. His robe, which hung from his shoulders before, was now fallen and his chest had become muscular underneath his simple shirt. Claws lengthened and Ashur's skin had become reptilian. Black mist rose from his scales and his eyes were gold orbs.
"Foolish man! You never fight with a demon!" Ashur hissed.
Before my eyes, I watched Ashur, the weak greying old man become an eight-foot lizard demon. I took one quick look to the dragon next to me and I saw the same thing in his gold eyes that I was feeling in my heart, fear. The creature strode confidently to me with an evil snarl spread across his alien face. Memories of Astarxian legends flew into my mind and the word 'Ashur' came back to me. An exiled demon with superhuman strength and mild magical power. It took an army of holy men to banish it off the island, and I was alone.
"Did I surprise you?" Ashur growled as he malformed. "You only saw a drunk old fool, but that's what I wanted you to see, that's what I want you all to see! I am the demon that feeds on fear, I am an Ashur, demon of death!"
Just as I rose to my feet, the fiend knocked me back another five yards. Without knowing it, he disarmed me. An unfamiliar feeling arose in my hands and I clinched them to shake them of that feeling. I did not have my sword. Dazed, I looked up to see Ashur walking over to the blade. In his hands, my life would have been over, with reckless abandon I used every muscle I could and dove for the Evermore. With luck, I managed to grab the handle just as I was once again backhanded into a pile of hay.
The Ashur slowly walked to me, his snarl was sickening but he guessed I did not have enough in me to fight. He grabbed my arms, but I used the lowest tactic I could to get him off of me, I kicked him in the groin. The Ashur shuddered for a second but it was a second enough. It was a chance I shouldn't have had, but it opened to door to Ashur's death. He turned as I sliced his arm off of his body. His shrill scream was inhuman and unnatural, bringing my hands to my aching ears. The pain was enough to break his concentration and the chain mail net, which surrounded the giant beast faded. Red wings stretched and smashed the rafters into a thousand pieces. I was barely awake when the roof caved in on my head.
His clawed hand stretched and clutched at the wounded enemy. The dragon's eyes locked on to the Ashur demon within his claws and if his snout could smile it would have.
"You made me something I never wanted to be, a killer." He screamed.
"Don't kill me, Shilan." Said the demon.
Ashur gave a weak attempt of struggling, but even he knew it was too late. The bones crushed very easily as a pair of gold eyes popped out of a reptilian skull. A dull splash, and he was dead. The dragon flew out of the rubble and rose to an elevation higher than visible to the human eye. He turned and looked down to see a party of Nasoj's man dragging a limp body out of the large flattened barn. The beast's keen eye caught a trickle of blood running down the side of the knight's mouth. Grief filled him. The scent of free air and his home was present and the trail pointed to the mountains.
The cold, arctic air beat his body. He struggled to even breathe his lungs were so unaccustomed to the suddenly bitter gusts of the peaks. Just as his flight changed into a freefall, his aching body fell into his cave home with a god blessed bounce. His mate, missing her love for nearly a year cuddled next to the limp mass of red scale, unquestioning the reasoning, her mate was home.
His dream was a nightmare of fire, people burning, houses burning, roads, carts, children all burning in his fire. The ash, the melting flesh, the screams, and the cries haunted him. The dragon's tired body kept him locked in his mental jail and he watched himself continuously kill for no reason. Not only Metamor Keep but also many more townships, many more castles, but Metamor was the first time he had ever killed. It would be a week before he would be finally released. Curled near his belly was the child he barely recognized.
It was night when he awoke and the family was sleeping a good night's sleep. The answers came to him and with a loving nudge he awoke his mate.
"Shilan you're up." She said with her eyes half open.
"Mila, I have to go. I'll be back soon." Shilan spoke, keeping the words low so the child wouldn't wake.
"Don't go! Please!" Mila begged.
A touch of anger glinted his eyes. "I have to. I was forced to murder a child"
Mila looked at her pacifistic mate with a touch of surprise. Shilan could never hurt a child nor anyone. "I have to . . ."
Mila nodded, and said. "I understand, go."
That night he flew to the place of his doomed destiny, Metamor Keep. In the morning he arrived, the news he carried was sad. The Duke walked to the red beast and looked at the fatigue and the sadness of the dragon.
"Your knight is dead, and he was after me. I burned your town, I killed your knight and I am deeply sorry for I was forced into that deed."
He wished for an honorable fate as he told his story. Shilan told his story to the gathering croud of how he stopped and drank from a glowing pond and slept until the Ashur woke him in his chain mail. His only chance at freedom was to terrorize the enemies of the state. As luck would have it, Thomas felt his warm heart on that cold sad day.
"What happened to David?" He whispered, not knowing how soft he spoke.
"He died trying to kill the Ashur. I only thought of killing the demon and my wings knocked the barn down. I killed him." The dragon trying to look down at the monarch lowered his head even lower. "I have caused too much pain in your house."
Destiny is a cruel creature, one day it will lay at your feet like a loyal pet serving you hand and foot, the next it can be going for your throat. It was destiny that left me chained to the floor, studying the cracks in the wall, noting the patterns of the dingy stones, watching the rats scurry along the bottom of the dungeon and around my body. Nothingness is torture and I was waiting for my destiny to attack again. My actions of the past rolled in my mind like the wheels of a cart. I committed murder. I lowered myself below the levels of a assassin and I was irrational with my thoughts and actions. On the filthy floor, my age came back to haunt me. I was twenty, I was a man in most terms, but my recent behavior was below the level of a child. I was headstrong, foolish, and irresponsible. This wasn't a capture of warrior, this was my punishment.
It was just after this realization that a black mist began to form from the walls. The clouds solidified into a vague shape, which then took hold into a figure of a man. Everything about him was dark, skin, eyes, hair, but the only thing remotely white on his person were the whiten bones around his neck.
"I am Revonos." He bellowed, in a deep voice.
His mere presence made my blood boil. Above my head, my numb tingling hands clenched into fists.
"I have been admiring you from afar."
"Really, I have been disgusted from anear." I sneered.
He raised his hand and a globe of black filled his large hands. "Join me, let me set you free and I will give you power beyond your imagination."
My eyes went to the black sphere and I saw what could have been my future. With an ebony tint over everything I saw myself sitting on a throne of gold with the Evermore sword hanging high over my head. I cold feel the respect and honor coming from the peasants as they bowed to their warrior-king. I saw the empire that rose from the ashes of the defeated kingdoms, all lands bowed down to me, and was a god on the earth. It was one of my hidden dreams and Revonos hit it for all that it was worth.
Revonos was tempting, no, his power and possible freedom was enticing. His look exuded charisma, but it was the evil that caught my attention. My ambition to become a ruler pulled me closer and closer to him, but my morals kept fighting him. It was then I turned my eyes to my sword. The same black aura surrounding him was surrounding the blade. The gold snakes that wrapped their way around the handle were alive and hissed at the sight of me. It was the first time I saw the relic as it truly was, unholy.
"You already carry my blade, join me. Be the king, and not the pawn." He said, as he looked at the Evermore.
The word 'yes' was on my tongue. I wanted to say yes. Every part of me said yes. Freedom called for me, but it was the word killer that made up my mind.
"Do you want to die?" He yelled.
"Go back to where you belong demon." I grunted, making sure he got the point.
He rushed over to my side, his face was very bitter looking. Revonos knelt down and reached down to physically put his hand on my throat. He stopped, brushing his rough palm against my neck.
"Have you ever seen a person whose soul is bleeding? They are confused, complex little creatures running around the world looking for a purpose, but are bound to never find it because their souls are restless. These people spend their whole lives looking for something they will never find, and fool, you are one of those souls." He paused for a moment, trying to add meaning to his thoughts. I still coldly stared into his black eyes. "I'll give you one more chance. Do you want my power?"
"I want nothing of you, demon." I growled, spitting into the face of Revonos.
He stood and pointed to me. "Tomorrow you will die painfully."
Revonos faded back into the door of the cell and I was left to rot in the chamber. I looked across the floor to his rage filled sword and I curled a fist. Inside, I realized what I had become. Flashing images of the past rulers of Astarxia gave proof that the blade was wicked. The many, many wars, all rested upon not the kings but the king's curse hidden in the iron in his hands. I could almost see the black aura rising from the Evermore into the minds of our monarchs. As I looked at the blade I was happy to know that the evil would end today. For a strange reason, I was happy knowing that I was to be the last to be taken in by the immoral blade.
The dream was a violent bloodbath, which dried and hardened into the dreamer's memory. A well- built man with short red hair screamed as fireball after fireball burned him to the core. His arms and legs were gone, only smooth rounded buds were left. Fluid oozed from his eye sockets for they were poked out. The wall behind the hostage was brown with the stains. The prisoner was a waste of rotting human flesh laying on the floor screaming for life to end. At first, the sleeping man shuddered at the vision of torture, but then he saw himself with a soiled axe in his hands. A young mage stood by his side and he felt anger filled victory. The images were complete guides for misery and death delayed by pain. A dark figure overwhelmed the images and coldly spoke to the man. In his mind, the dreamer bowed for this was his deity. The demon raised a thin finger to the axe and smiled showing stark white teeth.
"Do this for your master!"
A thunderclap rattled the town and the dreamer awoke with his mission. Under his wood frame bed was a battle axe. With a touch of a shudder, he bowed his head into his hands. "I will do as you say master." A young blonde haired guard walked into the room and looked in on the slightly fat man holding his axe with both of his chubby hands.
"Sir Johan. The prisoner is in the dungeon. What do you what us to do with him?"
His round head shot up bringing down a couple of bangs of brown hair into his eyes and the sound of hands tightly griping a handle could be heard over the silence. "I'll deal with him."
Just as the guard was about to walk off, Johan stopped him with a question. "How old are you, Daniel?"
The question seemed odd at the time but the guard followed his superior's orders. "18, sir."
"You're too young to be in this business."
The boy just looked down to the hall and led the older man to the holding cell. Sir Johan looked in and saw what was soon to be a dream come true. With one beam of light lighting his head, the prisoner rustled on the floor. The red haired man's eyes looked up to the obese knight and broke the silence.
"I knew you were going to come."
He was a big man, not over-eaten like spoiled monarchs but large. His belly poked forward from under his cloth but he could handle an axe with ease. Before he even spoke he twilled the handle around once just missing the boy about my age just at his side.
"I am Sir Johan Lauss, your 'judge'. How are we on this fine morning?" He said, with a smile.
"Why don't you just say executioner, it would save us a whole lot of time." I sneered.
Johan's eyes opened a little at my crack. "Oh a bit of lip, I thought all of you Metamorian knights were proper with education and spoke only with a purpose?"
"I'm not a Metamorian. I just arrived."
"Another surprise. Truly a stranger fighting for the 'writers', I thought I was going to reacquaint you with womanhood." He spoke as he pointed his axe at my groin.
A bead of sweat rolled into my eye, I fought not to blink. "Well, I'm surprised. For a man under the tutelage of a tyrant you are well educated."
"I once lived in Metamor, my father and I had a disagreement about who should be ruling the lands. I left and joined Nasoj before the war. So how is old Jacob? 90, 100? Waving a fox tail about like it was a flag?" He conversed elegantly.
The memory of an old man who I owed my life too burned into my mind and I couldn't understand how this person could be related to him. "He left before the change, he's now living in the woods."
"Ah, yes. His druid god has him prancing with the nymphs again. Foolish man."
Rage boiled in me, "How could you say that about your father?"
"He's just my father." Johan waved his hand away much like one would swat a fly. He then turned back cold. "Back to business. You killed the Ashur we hired to destroy terrorize our enemies. He was effective, even if we did not know his technique. That was a very naughty thing. You must be punished for your crime." The smile on his face was sickening, like Revonos. "Daniel!"
The boy stood at attention and looked wide-eyed at my unwelcoming host. Johan shock in disgust at the young guard's fear.
"Daniel, you were taught simple healing magic?" The blonde nodded and was still at attention. "At my command I want you to use your skills."
Just as he stopped his command he swung his great blade and cut off my arm.
My story was important to me, I wasn't able to talk for a while until recently, but it was Raven's face that brought my story to an end. "Raven, you're pale."
Her grey fur seemed to whiten a shade as I spoke of my torture. Raven's blue eyes looked almost frightened.
"I'm ok. I'll be fine." Raven lied through her teeth.
"Are you sure? You look sick?" I said, trying to comfort her.
"I am fine." Her tone rose and he pulled herself together. "Continue."
"As I was saying."
The pain was unbelievable. Every sense was assaulted, not just touch. The sound of the axe crashing into the ground, the sight of the blood flying out of the arteries, the smell of decay, and the vomit coming up my throat burning my taste buds. Losing an arm is a shocking experience, and it was only a warning.
Johan screamed into my ear, "Now that we have your attention let the interrogation begin. Daniel, cover over his wound."
The boy walked over, stunned by his master's actions placed his hands in the jutting blood stream. The pain increase ten fold as his hands touched my wound. The incantation was foreign to me and the crimson hands glowed healing the wound with a round patch of fresh skin. As he worked I looked into his eyes and I saw compassion for my troubles. Daniel wasn't a heartless killer like Johan. His sickness of war could be seen in his face as he held down his wanting to throw up.
"Daniel, go and fetch some wine for me and a proper meal for our guest." The knight said with a grin. "So, my good sir, how many are in your party?"
My head was spinning and I was still in physical shock. "Just me."
He booted me just as he yelled. The pain was minimal compared to my arm which was now kicked over towards the far side of the cell. Daniel walked in with a plate with bread and meat.
"Where's my wine?"
"I could only grab for one, sir." He said apologetically.
Johan's stare was cold, and inside I knew I had an ally. Johan grunted as he walked past Daniel, his eyes locked on the young man's. Daniel clutched at a tray but I could see his knuckles whitening as they gripped tightly. Without Johan's gaze looking over head, Daniel tried his best to give mercy to his master.
"He is a good man, really he is." Daniel atoned, placing bread in my hand while a piece of meat went into my mouth.
"How can you say that about him?" I grumbled, as I swallowed.
"My family died in the war and Johan was the first to care for me. He was a very good man until the black knight came."
He did not have to say who the black knight was. I knew it was the same 'man' who came before me, asking for my services. I could recognize Revonos' hate in the large oaf's face.
"I some times see the old Johan, just this morning he asked about my age, he must have remembered today was my birthday." Daniel spoke with a strained smile.
I look at him straight into his blue eyes and with all of my strength I said, "His soul is corrupted. Daniel, don't trust him."
In the distance the master could be heard, "BOY! Where did you hide the wine?"
Daniel walked out of the room and using my good arm to hold the bread I watched in the distance a pair of rats pick away at my arm.
"Was it Daniel who saved you?" Brian interrupted.
"No it wasn't." Raven answered for me.
"Sort of, Brian. I owe my life to many. Daniel is just one of them." I was still sleepy, but my mind was sharp enough to pull a question out of my mind. "What happened to the dragon?"
"After Shilan confessed his crime, Thomas felt the real killer was punished. He allowed the dragon back to his home. We held obsequies for you, but only Raven came to speak on your behalf. You died a hero in our eyes, and we placed a grave in the town-square. I guess you're the first person in Metamor history to die twice and live to fight another day." He said with a half-laugh.
Raven was still sitting on the floor, her eyes were still wide-open. "Could you please continue with the story?"
"Did you feed the animal yet?" He spoke as if I wasn't in the room.
"Yes sir." Daniel uttered with his head down.
"Good." He said, in between swigs of wine. "The more he eats the longer he lives."
"May I go, Sir." The blonde hair man said as he tried to walk out.
"No! I want you to learn how to treat a prisoner." He yelled, not even noticing the maligned face that was looking back at him. "Now, I hate repeating myself, I hate wasting time. How many are in your party."
I managed a slight return, "None."
Johan stood from his chair, and stepped hard into my stomach. I had passed his breaking point. His screaming continued.
"Do you like pain? Do you like being hurt? Well in that case I might as well become a gracious host."
He walked over to his axe and twilled it once on the ground. Johan, for a very unhealthy looking man, carried the axe like it was a twig. Daniel watched as he not only cut off my other arm he removed both of my legs.
She walked to the cell and felt her knight's pain with in her very core. Sakkan's essence flowed down a flight of stairs into a dark corridor. She peered through the gated window of the cell and saw David's legs laying next to his arms in a far corner. What were left of his limbs struggled to move with the ground.
"What do you think you are doing?"
She turned and saw the dark image of Revonos. The skulls that adorned his body turned their empty eye sockets to her.
"I am saving my knight. What is it to you?" She said trying to add power to her words.
Revonos felt the insult and began yelling. "It has everything to do with me! He insulted me, and I want his blood spilled and his life taken."
Sakkan ignored the foul demon and she tried to rush into the cell but he over powered her and pushed her down.
"No." He laughed, humored by the diminished goddess. "I will see this whelp die, and you can do nothing about it."
"If he dies, I die." She cried.
He turned a cold eye to her and said, "So?"
David was dying as was she, and the only thing she could do was to submit her freedom. Sakkan closed her blue grey eyes and faded from the mortal realm and into the realm of the Gods.
My cries reached a new level, and I faded in and out of consciousness. What seemed like weeks of pure pain and suffering were actually minutes. Sensations of having arms and legs were delusions to the cold, heartless fact that they were laying on the floor, fodder for the rats. The darkness ended along with the pain, and the first face I saw was Daniel's.
"You are healed good knight. It has been two days since Johan took your legs and he is asleep."
I did not even feel a moment of relief when the voice came from the hall, "Wrong, boy."
Johan stood with his arms crossed at the chest, a snarl rolled across his lip and his eyes burned with hatred. My concerns went to Daniel. I was going to die anyway.
"You disappointed me. I thought I could make you into a soldier, but I guess I can't." He turned to me and then he smiled. "Or can I?"
Johan grabbed the boy by the shoulders and turned him to face me. I looked into his eyes, wondering how the large man was going to turn a meek man like Daniel into a killer, but then I remembered the angry foreshadowing look on his face. The fact that my life was in his small hands brought a sense of satisfaction to me, but it was Johan who I was truly afraid of.
"Burn him." He growled into young mage's ear.
Daniel turned a glance at me and then shook his head, "No, I won't do it."
"It's the eyes isn't it?"
Only Johan understood exactly what he said. I did not even know what Johan was referring to, not even when he pushed Daniel aside and grabbed me by my head and pushed me into the floor. I looked right into the knight's eyes and I could only see hate. In one moment, I watched my life; my childhood of farm labor, training at the academy, knighthood, spilt blood, destroyed lives, and the bloody crescendo of my own death. The last moment passed and Johan pushed his thumbs into my eyes, ending the visions.
"Cold hearted bastard. You cold hearted bastard! You call yourself a man of honor, of valor, but you are lower than vermin in a lavatory. You don't deserve death, you deserve humiliation, you deserve to have your blood spilled drop by drop hanging from a tree."
I heard Daniel's speech over my own dull muted cries. Pain came from everywhere on my body and even from the cut arms and legs that were being eaten. I felt the bites of the rats and maggots as they hit bone and flesh. I felt the vibrations of footsteps and I could even smell Johan's breath over the stench of the decaying room. But over all of this, my suffering stayed and I screamed and sobbed
"You're right Daniel." Johan replied.
I heard a smash of glass over my head. A bottle was broken and the glass pieces landed around me but for some odd reason they did not land on me. Wine from the bottle poured all over my body and the sweet taste of it was a brief moment of pleasure. In the distance footsteps led to the front of the room and I could hear Daniel charge at his liege.
A body crashed to the far right corner of the room and the heavy footsteps of Johan came towards me. I could hear his laughter come closer and closer. A weight crashed onto my stomach, a torch, and the fire lit my entire body. In my life I have had arrows gone through me, blades cut me, clubs smash into my skull, but the pain of flame taking over my body was the greatest torture I had ever faced.
While I burned, a thought came to my mind: what would happen if I were to survive? What use would I be if living were my destiny? The image of me sitting in a chair limbless, scarred, blind, and unloved came to me.
The truly painful death would have been living, to be an open sore to the people of the Keep. I could not let that happen. I was burning to death and I wanted death to come quickly. I prayed one last time in my mind; 'Let me die Goddess'.
The answer to my prayer came when a rough blanket landed on top of me. Daniel, in his attempt to smother the flames, only cause even more pain as my molten hide rubbed off on to the cloth.
"David, I killed him. I killed Johan. We can escape."
I turned to the general direction of his voice and pleaded with him, "If you have any compassion in your heart, you will let me die right here."
"Good knight I --"
"No!" My voice was weak, but the message was clear, "Johan won. I'm going to die. What life will I have I do live? I'm nothing. You are a good friend and a hero. If you want to stay a hero, let me be."
"But I --"
"Go. Find a new home, a new country. Just leave now. The Gods will have their say about me, not you."
"I won't leave you."
"Yes you will. You may be a hero to the people down south but you are a fugitive here. I am already dead. No matter where I would go I would be dead to the world, and I would take my own life."
I wanted to hear his silence. He fought with his morals, but he found reason. The last sound I would hear from Daniel were his footsteps running up the stairs.
"Could you help me out of this tub?" I asked.
Brian shook, his mind was locked in the cell and my adventures, "Wha?"
"Could you two help me out of this tub? It feels as if my body will go into rot if I don't leave." I said, trying my best to smile with my new muzzle.
Raven went to my right side and Brian to my left, and they pulled me up to find my legs were still numb from a lack of blood. Their furry hands steadied me as I stepped cautiously around the room. My steps led to an incense candle. The scent was strong of strawberries. They placed me in my bed, my mind wasn't tired, but my body was exhausted. Raven did the honors of placing the covers over my legs and chest. I did not complain, at least I had my legs back.
"I heard Daniel had escaped the Giantdowns and came to the keep. How is he?" I asked.
"He's fine. A bit shaken, but he is going to the south lands tomorrow. He told me that he sends his best wishes, but he doesn't want to be caught up in the curse." Brian replied.
"It's almost dusk." I spoke as I glanced over to the window. "I think I will finish the story before it turns nightfall."
(Written by Raven Blackmane)
Sakkan felt the sensation of rising, passing through clouds and rings of light. Then, a softly glowing curtain, a veil, was drawn aside and she found herself kneeling on a floor of marble, dazzling white. She lifted her eyes and gazed at her surroundings: the floor that seemed to stretch out forever, towering white columns that seemed to hold up nothing -- or perhaps everything -- and a soft white mist that hid all but her most immediate surroundings in a bright, indistinct radiance.
"Welcome, Sakkan." It was a woman's voice, melodious like a bird's song, but as warm and soft as well, "We have been expecting you."
The mists before her parted, and Sakkan saw the figure of a human woman appear before her. The being was deceptively mundane in appearance, dressed in the manner of a common scout. Her leather jerkin was dirty and well-worn, her boots scuffed, her breeches simple and plain -- but in her dark eyes shone the light of Heaven, and Sakkan knew she was looking upon a fellow goddess. The mysterious woman smiled, extending a hand to lift Sakkan to her feet.
"I am called Artela," She said, "I have brought you here because I have seen the suffering that has befallen your last believer. Since one of the Dark Ones has wronged you, you are entitled to a plea before our king, Come now. His excellency will hear your case."
No sooner had Sakkan taken her first step than she found herself standing before a white throne. Massive and towering, it glittered with some internal light of it's own -- and yet it was nothing compared to the one sitting upon it. A man, seeming both ancient and ageless, sat upon that seat of judgement, clad in radiant robes of brilliant white. His face shone so brightly that even Sakkan was forced to lower her eyes before him. When he spoke, the floor trembled beneath her with a sound like distant thunder.
"My sister has pled most eloquently on your behalf, daughter of Earth," Said Lord Kammoloth, King of the Gods. "Being that she is the Goddess of Mercy, I would expect nothing less. But let us hear from your own lips, goddess: why shoud I, ruler of the younger gods, extend aid to one whose time has passed away from the world?"
It was a question Sakkan had given much thought to over the centuries, should the time ever come when she would be forced to stand before these new gods and render an account of herself to them. So it was that when she stepped forward to speak, it was with a practiced confidence -- and an assuredness of the validity of her case. Taking a deep breath -- thought the gods need no air, it was a gesture important to her own psyche --she spoke.
"Lord Kammoloth, King of the Heavens," She began, "I have learned that there are goddess among you, their number nine, whose task it is to convey the inspirations of the arts to the mortals belows us, You call them Muses and theirs is a work that I understand well. But talented though your Muses are -- for they have produced many a great creative works in word and movement, color and song -- I have been saddened to know that they have no one to lead them, for all the Muses are equal to one another. There is no direction to their efforts, no focusing wills that would lead the mortals below to the creation of truly magnificent works. When I first learned this, I was troubled, and set to find the reason why. The answer soon came to me, my Lord, your Muses are under the direction of the Son of morning, Lord Samekkh -- the God of wisdom and logic, the affairs of the heart are distant from him."
"And why should it not be so?" A man's voice sounded out of the mists, strong but with the sound of long years' age and experience behind it. >From the place to Sakkan's left emerged Lord Samekkh, his hair long and grey and his face lined with age. His eyes were cold, sharp and unrelenting in their gaze.
"Our dear sister Velena, bless her foolish heart, is mistress of the matters of love," Samekkh said, bluntly. "And I would just as soon have nothing of such triffles. They are a waste of my time and my talents, as well as the Muses'. Writing and sculpture and song -- these should be used to instruct and edify, not to built up the empty-headed fantasies of mortal dreamers and sluggards, like so much foam on the waves."
Sakkan turned her attention to Kammoloth. "But that, my King, is where Lord Samekkh does not fully bring to the light the Muses' potential," She said, choosing her words carefully so as not to offend. "Wisdom comes from the mind, and it is a beautiful thing in it's own right. But creativity flows from the heart, and in it we find the perspective that allows us to truly appreciate the things that wisdom teaches us. Wisdom can teach us to see value, but it can never teach us how to recognize beauty. Wisdom can teach us how to live with our fellow beings in mutual benefit but it can never teach us the love that makes that sharing of lives so joyous and refreshing to the soul."
Kammoloth leaned back in his throne, his hands steepled in thought, "What do you propose, Sakkan?" He asked.
The goddess took another deep breath. "With all humility, my Lord, I ask for a place as Lord Samekkh's second." The God of wisdom scoffed, but Sakkan continued speaking. "My long centuries of experience in fostering the arts would provide sense of purpose and a unifying vision to the Muses, helping them to do their inspirational work. At the same time, I would be taking off of Lord Samekkh's hands what is, for him, a tedious chore: the management of a group of chaotic, emotional artists." She grinnedtoward Artela at the last bit, and even Samekkh twisted his lip in an ironic smile.
Kammoloth was silent a moment. "This notion seems good to my ears," He said, pensively. "What say you, brother?"
Samekkh chuckled. "It is a great irony, my King, but the artist speaks wisdom. I would have gladly have the Muses off my hands. Indeed, I would have given them over to Velena years ago, would that not have doomed us to a world where artists thought of only romances. It would be wise, I think to have an experienced mistress govern them."
"Then so it shall be, Kammoloth declared, rising from his tghone to stand before Sakkan. Automatically, she fell to her knees before him.
"My Lord," She said, "I hearby pledge myself to you and your house, to honor you and serve you to the best of my ability. My tribute and my subjects shall be yours to command."
"So be it." The king intoned, placing a hand briefly upon her shoulder. "Now rise, Daughter of Heaven -- Sakkan, the Goddess of the arts."
Sakkan rose to her feet, only to discover that the light from Kammoloth's face was no longer quite as blinding to her eyes. "Thank you, my Lord." She said. "And now, if I may ask your help, on behalf of my servant, David?"
The king smiled, "Very well, Sakkan. Artela."
"Yes, my Liege?" The scout-goddess answered, stepping forward.
Kammoloth looked down warmly into the blue-grey eyes of his newest goddess. "The hour of Revonos' vengeance has come to an end. Go, quickly, and carry young David to safety. The master of rage shall not stop you."
With the briefest of nods of acknowledgement, Artela turned and raced off into the mists.
Cold winds whistled past the massive cave door but it wasn't the sound that was keeping Shilan awake. His glanced at the flying hail passing by his home for his nightmares of death kept him awake. Once when he was a pup, Shilan was told dragons couldn't cry for if they did the dragon's fire and the dragon itself would die. He proved the story wrong. Shilan closed his eyes, resting them the best he could, and as held them close a sense of power filled him. He shook his large head once thinking his insomnia was fooling with his mind but the sensation of a change in power was still there.
"A goddess?" He questioned the air.
A red tail re-curled around his body and Shilan looked to his sleeping mate. Mila still slept peacefully holding their child, Alexander, to her chest. Shilan's eyes locked to the opening of the cave.
Just as he thought the moment had passed, a rush of power filled him, launching him into the back of the ice cave. Shilan's bones cracked as visions of David alive flew by with images of the new goddess and within those moments the dragon saw David's future. Not even noting the pain he was in, Shilan stood as best as he could. One of his claws broke off and found its way into his side, scraping a rib. He didn't notice. With a loving nudge, Shilan woke his mate, and child. Mila opened her eyes a little.
"Sleep, my lover." She said, barely keeping herself awake. "The world has done enough to you."
"He's alive, Mila. The knight is alive."
Mila cocked her head to the side. She thought then realized what the dragon was talking about. Her large gold eyes sparkled as she lovingly nipped at Shilan's face. Just as she gave her kiss, he painfully screamed. They looked down to the claw in his side and Mila bit at the foreign object.
"I didn't," He stopped only to scream one more time. "I didn't kill him."
"How much pain are you in, good knight?"
It was a woman's voice; soft, flowing, caring in nature. I did not hear her footsteps but her coming did not at all seem like a surprise. Though burned my skin could almost feel her aura about her.
"The Gods have sent me to save you."
"The Gods of this land, or my goddess?"
"I can not deny my goddess." I groaned, "Save me holy one."
I was nothing to the woman, or should I have said goddess. She carried me as a mother would carry a child. The woman had to have been a god. Her touch brought no pain to my burned skin but I wouldn't have know it, my skin was a shroud of pain wrapping my soul.
"Where are you taking me?" I cried, surprised by how strong my voice was.
"Home." She said, her voice was as soothing as her touch.
"What is your name, goddess?" I guessed, most likely right.
"Artella, goddess of nature and mercy."
It was then that I realized why my voice was so strong, she spoke directly to my mind. Without realizing it I had spent most of the conversation groaning in agony and without even knowing how fast we was going, I was home.
(Co-Written by Raven Blackmane)
Raven sat on the edge of the cliff looking towards the Southlands and thought to herself. Something called to her to admire the land at night. She thought at first her mind called for the look of the scenery, but it was divine intervention. A sound at her back called the lupine's attention, and in the distance, she watched as a woman carried a dark package up the ledge. As the image came closer she saw who the woman was and that the package was really a wounded man. Raven saw through the disguise of the scout and bowed to the goddess.
"My Lady," Raven said.
"You may rise, my friend." The scout said, smiling. "Quickly, before the castle guards see you acting so strangely. I am not to stay overlong."
"As you say, Mistress," She said, quickly rising to her feet. Raven's attention turned to the groaning figure resting on Artella's shoulder. "Qay daedrastra, What happened to him? He looks as if he as if he has been through the ninth hell." Raven turned her eyes to the face and recognized it as the lost knight. "David?" She whispered.
"This is the black rider's doing," The Goddess said solemnly, a touch of anger and bitterness in her voice. "I entrust him in your care. His restoration is the affair of others -- my part in this is done."
"Aye, my Lady," Raven said as she took the pathetic man in her arms and settling him gently to the ground. "What am I to do with him?"
Artella looked down at David's crumpled form with pity in her eyes. "Be merciful," As she spoke, she turned to go.
"My Lady!" Raven called. The seeming-scout turned to look back at her. "Begging your pardon my Mistress . . .but why this interference in the ways of the Lord of Rage? This man -- an alien, a worshipper of foreign gods -- what is he to you?"
Artella smiles. "Ever the practical one, aren't you, Karenna?"
Raven raised an eyebrow to the use of her real name in front of a stranger, but she realized that David was deafened by his pain to hear their words. Artella crossed her arms, looking upwards to the sky, asking permission from the other gods. Then, she looked at Raven and says, "Tell me, Karenna: have you ever wondered why the Muses -- goddesses of art, inspiration, music, literature -- are under the guidance of Lord Samekkh, the master of all things of logic and reason? A being more inclined to mathematics, and alchemy, and pharmaceutics, than to painting and poetry and composition?"
The Lightbringer nodded, "I have, my Lady."
The Goddess smiled, musing to herself, "Then I am pleased to tell you that the Muses . . .are under new management."
Raven's puzzled look did not surprise Artella, "By whom, Mistress?"
"You will find out soon enough," She said with an all-knowing wink. "Goodbye, Karenna. Take care." She raises a hand in a final wave, then turns and fades into mist.
The moment of silence after the Goddess disappeared was broken by the gasp of the figure at Raven's feet. "Water,"
Even with his weakened form, Raven still struggled to carry him down from the cliff and into the sleeping town below. As politely as she could, Raven kicked open the door to Brian's room and the raccoon woke from one nightmare to another.
"Raven, wha?" Brian said. His verbal tirade, which he was about to launch at the Lightbringer, was halted by the sight of David's hollow shell. Brian saw it all, the once bright red hair burned completely to the singed scalp, the rounded nubs that once were his arms and legs, and the dried stains of vitrous humor that once were his iron grey eyes. This was all that was left of a once proud knight who never asked for anything. Who was now asking for only one simple thing.
"Sometimes I wonder how much more of an insult the kingdom of Nasoj could possibly give to us. He has robbed us of who we are, our way of life, our humanity, even our lives, but never in my life could I believe that one of Nasoj's men is even capable of this." Brian said, as he poured the cold water into the basin. The room which was Brian's chamber, an object of his own creation linked to the magic of the shifting keep, was now swirling in the scents of Raven's incense and colored candles.
"We keep forgetting that there is evil in the world, and evil has the power of a god. It sometimes takes a reminder of that." Raven said, showing wisdom beyond her years.
"Lightbringer, I can't see any chance of him healing at all." Brian paused, and the thought that was against everything he stood for came to his mind. "Maybe we should put an end to him."
"No! The Gods have his fate in their hands." Raven yelled, bringing the cold anger she is known for, "David will be healed Brian. You must have faith."
Her blue eyes turned to the knight. David laid still, his lap, his backside, and a large stone Brian found outside of his home kept the patient from sliding and drowning in the tub. "Have you ever seen a child train to be a fighter? At first, he looks so feeble that some may question him and say it might be better for him to quit, but he trains on and grows to become a great fighter. David may seem weak and it may seem that it may be easier to quit, but he will fight on."
"It's the change, isn't it? That's how he's going to be healed isn't it?" Brian asked.
"I don't know Brian. I was," Raven turned away, thinking about her encounter with the goddess. "I believe so."
"So we wait."
"We wait, healer," The wolfen one's eyes then shifted their focus from Brian's face to a point in space. "There is something I have to bring to help him."
Confused, Brian gazed at Raven, "What?"
"A temple, it is a small temple but it is still too large for me to carry."
Before even questioning her logic, Brian found her cold stare aimed at him. To argue with Raven was a lost cause and the matter of a trivial temple would have been a waste of breath. He nodded obediently. The healer did not want to leave a patient, especially a patient in as weak of a condition as David, but Raven's will could never be tested. Coe rose up to the door and just as they were about to turn the corner, the large oak door closed in on itself. Brian turned and ran to the door just in time to hear the door's locking mechanism click shut. Brian turned back to the Lightbringer and did not see any surprise on her face.
"You knew this was going to happen did not you?"
"I had to find a way to get you out of the room, a goddess is coming to heal David."
"You could have told me to leave."
"Then you would have said no, you couldn't leave a patient, when in truth you wanted to see the goddess."
"Why the lies, Raven?" Brian snarled, knowing calling her by her first name would rile her dander. "Why is this man so important?"
"Just because I talk to the Gods, doesn't mean I know the answers."
The darkness was maddening. I was tired, but my agony wouldn't allow me the freedom of dreaming. I could feel Brian's cold water, but it only numbed the pain a little. I heard them speak politely and yell loudly. Listening, I learned they did not like each other, but they respected each one another. Sadly, it took a disaster on my own part to learn about some of the people of the keep. I prayed. It was one prayer, and it was a lonely prayer compared to the others I had prayed before it. I prayed for the Goddess to act, if she was going to act on my behalf. The greatest moment of my life came when it seemed stars from nowhere appeared in my mind and collected to form Sakkan. As she formed, my sight came back and the vision of the darken room faded into focus from her footsteps.
"The prophecy is fulfilled, brave knight. I feel honored in your company, David." Sakkan said, her radiance was even brighter than when I had first met her in my dreams, but yet I could see through the light to her beautiful flawless face.
"It is I who is honored, my Lady." I said, as I saw her I noticed a gold box covered in gems within her hands. "May I ask what that is?"
"A gift for you, the gift of life. Not many earn a second chance at life, but the Gods have seen your future and have seen the gift you will give to your people. I chose you to become one with the prophecy and I feel I have chosen wisely."
"Why me, Sakkan?" I asked, not understanding why I was chosen by her.
"May I tell you a story?" She said, her words flowing as if they were honey. "When Astarxia was young, two factions ruled the land. Lord Meno of Red and King Harlon of Blue. Two simple sides, one cruel war which lasted a hundred years. One family was deeply divided. On one side was Alan, the patriarch of what was left of the family, and knight within Harlon's army. Then there was Darius, the brother in law of Alan, and chief of Lord Meno's troops. In the middle was Elena. She cared for no side, but both of the men dearly. She," Sakkan paused, for some reason as she wiped a tear from her eye. I never thought Gods could cry for mortals. "She was an artist, a poet, a lyricist, and a painter. She was also a confidant of both Darius and Alan. They would tell her everything, and she remained silent. The war reached it's darkest moments and what was going to be the largest battle of that war began to rise up into a bloody climax. Elena could stand it no longer. The morning before the battle she found the middle ground and stood there as large masses of at least five hundred men came charging to her. Horses neighed as the troop stopped within a sword's breath of her. Alan and Darius pleaded with her to leave. She cried one tear and sang a poem she only shared to her only two loved ones. Her song was about a lonely old widow. Elena sang with so much emotion,"
"That they declared peace." My mind's voice said strong and true. "This is the legend of peace. My mother told me this story when I was young."
"But there is a part of the story that your mother did not tell you. As Elena softened the soldier's hearts, a bolt of lightning came crashing down from a clear sky. The shot killed Elena and left Alan and Darius to weep about a love they had lost. The gods heard her song and called Elena's soul to the home of the righteous ones. They found her love and fearlessness admirable. Elena looked into their eyes to find compassion no mortal could believe in a god. She looked down at her old maid's clothes and looked down on her mortal self but it was Anki who placed his holy hand to her chin. It was he who called for the great god of all, Herron, to empower her. To make her greater than her moral soul. He agreed and as the power rushed into Elena, Anki was the one to give her a god given name, Sakkan."
The idea that Sakkan was mortal was blasphemous to say the least. A goddess who controlled all inspiration, a mere human being? It was no wonder she was so mysterious.
"And the reason why I chose you is because you remind me so much of Anki. Your mind, your heart, even your face all hint of Anki." She cried, holding tears back with her pale hands.
"Goddess, what are your tears made of? Man's tears are made of the sadness of the human soul. What are yours made of?"
She stopped, placed her box on the ground and collected a small pool in her hands. She walked towards me and held out the tears in front of me. "Out of all the things men and gods share are tears. Tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of pain. As a soul travels to become a spirit, that spirit walks along a trail of tears to his destination, but David you have a long way to go before you have to walk that trail."
Sakkan dropped her tears and walked back to her gift. She opened it and showed me the gold dust in the treasure. As if by magic, the dust flew from the small chest and littered the chamber. As each fleck touched an object, the magic of the gift showed as a warm glow covered everything except me.
"Do you see the glow? It is the magic of the keep. Your cure is with this magic."
Sakkan placed her hand on the basin and the glow followed the Goddess' hand and stretched. She laughed as the curse tickled her palm. Echoes of that laughter and a sun like light hit me as she placed her hand on my brow.
A second of pure light passed and I stood on a cliff over looking the keep. I was whole, and as I looked at my returned strength, I clench my fist in the air.
"David, do you have faith in me?" She asked. I almost thought it to be a foolish question but I answered.
She smiled and said, "Then jump from this cliff."
Without question, I jumped. The ground seemed distant. Three hundred feet I thought, but quickly it rushed towards me. My faith was stronger than my wisdom. I kept my arms straight and I knew I was going to survive. A strange feeling came over my arms, not painful sensations, but more uncomfortable. My teeth pushed forward, hardening and fusing together to a point outside of my mouth. The arms that were held straight out thickened but felt lighter. A pair of legs I had once lost and regained, were lost again as they became talons.
Misshapen as I thought I was, I became more graceful in the air. My wings turned and the blossoming white feathers on my belly brushed against the ground as I turned up to the sky. I flew. The height was playfully calling me to swoop, to dance, to become one with the air but it was more than that, I truly was one with the air. As I flapped my wings, wind rushed from them and I rose higher to the clouds and my own little wind pushed a small white puff away from the keep. My play with the clouds joyfully ended and down I swooped to a lake where I caught a glance of my new blue jay form.
Ideas of false gracefulness went to my head. I crashed into the water and my beak cut sharply into the surface. A cool drink wouldn't hurt I thought, but my thought was dangerous. I tried swimming up but my wings wouldn't push me up. The harder I tried going up, the more useless I realized my wings were. A terrifying second passed and I realized why they called it 'the curse'. Even though I knew swimming was useless, I tried, I survived a lot more than this to give up.
Salvation came from another transformation. My wings changed, the sensation of fingers arose, and legs tightened as they thickened. Bright feathers dulled to a brown fur. The yellow beak I had grown accustomed to became jagged and pulled back into my mouth. Whiskers burst from my lip, and my face formed into a soft muzzle. My eyes blinked once and the surface was a swim away. The sky never looked better as I gasped for anything the air would give me.
Floating on my back I looked down at myself and held a pair of brown paws to my sight. I was an otter, much like the woman who guarded Varnal back at the keep. Swimming back to shore was effortless, and at first I did not even notice the puddle at my feet but then I watched the depth of it grow to a size that shouldn't have come some a simple swim in the lake. The water was coming from the fur itself. I wrapped my mouth around my arm and swallowed five times before I knew I was right. The fact I tasted good caused me to laugh. I looked around and saw the forest wrapping around the lake breaking into a large meadow. I wished the lake flowed directly to the keep for swimming may have been effortless but walking was like trying to step across a pool of mud. My balance deceived me once as I took my first step, I thought I had control until I fell again in the middle of the field, but I laughed it off.
I couldn't conceive of it. I always thought the curse was a one time change, but this was my change, the change given to me by the Goddess. 'Was there more?' I asked myself, was there even more to my adventure? The answer came by way of a lightning bolt. Just like the human who became a God, the charge struck from the clear blue and set a nearby tree ablaze. A burning limb crashed to the ground and the meadow began to quickly burn. Trying to stand on my two shaky feet, I watched the fire turn and engulf the grass. The fire reached all around leaving an unnatural circle of grass between me, and the incredibly hot flames. Only Sakkan could have left me this test, but I didn't have the spiritual strength to try myself. I was too ashamed to even say it to myself but I was beginning to fear fire.
"Goddess, I can't do this. Please give me another test of your faith." I cried over the fire's roar.
"Be strong, knight." Sakkan whispered in my mind, "Believe in me."
"I'm," I screamed, "afraid!"
I cried and turned to the exit of the field. Looking down I knew that my fur, which was secreting a little water, would most likely burn to a crisp in the inferno. To my back was the lake, any fire which caught on to my fur could be extinguished, but I would be trapped, and my goddess would think of me as a coward. At my front was the way home and a fire which would kill me. If I was to survive running past the flames, I would have no way to put it out. As I worked on an answer I realized fire, not one man was my worst enemy. I laughed at the idea because Sakkan gave me the chance to fight the one thing that has hurt the ones I loved the most. The thing that has caused me the greatest pain. My arms went down to the ground just as I started panting. With each hurried breath I felt a rush of courage. My muscles tightened as I spoke to myself. "Some enemies you can't kill with a sword."
I ran headlong into the inferno. Fire caught on to every part of my body, but I ran. Hidden in the flames were the images of the saddest memories. The fire's only weapon against me were the darkest moments of my life. I saw myself holding friends who died from Daki's plague, I saw fellow soldiers bleeding to death because of cruelty. Finally, I saw the little girl who burned to death in my new home. My pace quickened but the image changed. The scars, which were caused from the flame, were seemingly healed. The dark toned fires lightened and showed a much prettier face. She was a very beautiful six or seven year old girl. Her dress hung to her knee and the soft smile she showed was warm and kind. I stopped and looked at the healing image as it spoke to me.
"Forgive yourself, David." She said, softly
"You know my name?" I said, surprised.
"Everyone knows you, David." She smiled, the sheer fact everyone knew a stranger like me was amazing at the least. "Forgive yourself."
"I can't, you died because I wasn't there."
"The Gods called my name, it was my time to leave this plane. David, no single man can carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. You are dying inside, but you keep trying to save the world single handedly. Good will win, David. "
"No, you have a destiny to fulfill."
"What is my destiny?" I asked, nearly begging.
"You are a living charm." The girl said. "A sign of good fortune to whatever land you dwell in. Your destiny is to live a long life in the Keep and provide a key-stone to other prophecies. The Gods have fashioned you as the pennant of victory. The Evermore sword you carried was a curse that cancelled your charms, but inside, you put too much blame on yourself. Slowly, the sword's curse worked its way into you."
"I -" Before I could speak, the image started to fade away but there was one more question I had to ask. "What is your name?"
"Maria." She said before a rush of fire warped the flame picture.
I stood there, waiting for something, wanting something else, but inside I asked myself, why. Even with the blaze around me, I wrapped my arms around myself shivering. I was cold inside.
Raven sat in the hall with Brian by her side. Not a peep was heard from the locked room, but she knew a miracle was happening. Brian was a bit more impatient.
"How long do we have to sit here for?" Brian asked.
"As long as the gods take."
"May I ask how someone who is in almost constant contact with the gods can know so few answers?"
Raven turned a cold look to Brian and left his answer unchecked. He look created an uncomfortable silence. They stared at their points in the wall and waited.
"Do you think we are born with destinies?" Brian asked.
"Why are you asking me that?" Raven countered.
"Because if the Gods are going to force me to sit here and wait, I will at least get a few answers from the people closest to the Gods."
The Lightbringer laughed once. "All men are born with destinies, some are larger than others but each one is just as important as the other. One man's crusade can lead to the starts to many other journeys."
"Do you know our destinies?"
"I'm not that close to the Gods." Raven cracked, "Why are you asking about destiny? Is this about David?"
Brian nodded, "It's just that if Gods have kept David alive this long, they must have a great plan for him."
"Or it may be a great plan for the Gods. I sense a change in the air."
When I left the fire I turned and watched it slowly die. The girl's memory still weighed heavy on my heart, but she was right. Before the fire, I had never met her but I swore to protect her. I should have realized that was foolish. It would be like saying I was going to protect the world. What if it was just a regular fire that killed her, or a disease, or a fall? I could never protect her from fate. When the fire died, I heard another fire near to me. I looked down and I saw I was the one burning. I was scared but the flame did not hurt. In fact my fur was becoming the fire. It rose and as it advanced, my shape changed. My arms were covered in a heavy black flame up to my elbow, but then lightened to bright orange and at my belly the fire was pure white. I was a walking blaze and when it reached my head, my muzzle grew and became sharp at the nose. Feet, which were webbed, were now canine and the claws on my fingers lengthened. I was a fox, I saw my swaying plume-like tail and it too was fire. Another surprise from Sakkan.
Forward was my only choice. The field was ashes, and night was coming. Every part of me was tired and the road that I thought would lead to Metamor stopped at a large burrow in the earth, wrapped in dense dark forest. The decision was an odd one. Sleep on the road and hope a passer-by would not see a six-foot walking fire, sleep in the woods and hope my body does not start a fire, or wait in the cave. I could almost hear the Goddess tell me to go forward. I listened to my intuition only because when I went to check to see if I still had a body, I felt my finger push into my chest. A sword still could do mighty damage to me. Slowly, I walked in. Light wasn't a problem, but the walls closed in suffocating fashion. At the end of a quarter of a mile journey into the cave a wall of peat and dirt met me. I sat down and rested on the ground.
I always seem to make myself laugh when I talk to myself. I looked down and saw my nude body pulling my knees to my chest. Getting up off the ground, I saw that my fire would go out and a pelt of normal fur would show. Closing my eyes and willing the flame to come back worked, but it was what happened next that truly showed how wonderful my change was. My arms felt tired and facing me was a boulder I could have lifted when I was human. Casually, I walked to it and I tried to lift it. Many times I tried, but I could not budge it. I could no longer wield a sword or much less light armor. Shaking, I pulled my hands to my face trying my best to hold back the tears of joy. The burden of knighthood and war was lifted. My knees crashed to the ground and I thanked her for the freedom. She answered by dropping the cave on to my head.
A rumble from the entrance of the cave spun my gaze to a cave-in that was heading my way. I put my arms to my head and the ground crashed in on me. When the noise ended, I opened my eyes. The way out was gone and all that was left in its place was an obstacle wall of stone. I turned my eyes up to the ceiling of rock above me, but my true intent was to the sky.
"If your weren't so kind to me, Sakkan, I would think you would want me dead."
I looked down. Without knowing it, I was in the middle of another change. Looking down, I saw the fire had gone out and my legs growing in bulk. My body had become large, not slender like a fox's frame, but broad shouldered and wide. I went cross-eyed and watched my snout expand across the sides of my face.
"What have I become now?" I asked the air. "How many times to I have to reach the brink of death to satisfy you, Sakkan?"
She appeared behind me and whispered into my ear. "I give you these tests to show you what you are capable of." I drifted from my sight and looked her in the eye. "My hands will not kill you, nor will my wishes." Sakkan grasped my paws in her hands and it was her turn to look me in the eye. "I can see you want to go home, but you are already there. As we speak your body is in an ewer filled with water. As we speak Raven and Brian are sitting in the hall outside. I am not touching flesh. I am touching your soul and you are touching my spirit. If you want to end this, you can give up now, but you will never be home again." Her small hands released mine and pointed to the sod. "If you want to live your life go this way. "
"Goddess." I spoke, but I was too dumb-founded to say what I really wanted to say. "Thank you."
Without looking back, I dug with my third set of claws that day. With everything I had, I rip open the ground and went to where I thought I was going to be the safest, up. I panted, but each time I felt as though I was going to give up I dug harder. The shear fact that the only person I was going to fail was myself, gave me the fuel to hit daylight and when I did hit daylight it was more then just light, it was indescribable. For one moment I was nothing, I sensed nothing, I felt nothing, but it was enjoyable and peaceful bliss like sleeping with my eyes open staring at the sun and seeing only the sun.
When I opened my eyes I saw a dull light come into focus and when my eyes finally came to, it was a candle. The room smelled of musky incense and wax. I looked down and saw I was in a tub filled with dark water. In the other room, I heard quiet snoring. After taking all of this in, I looked out the window and saw the sun rising above a cloud. I smiled and spun a claw around a floating piece of my old burnt flesh. My other hand went to something I had forgotten about in my journey, the Star Pendant. A dull white-blue haze glowed for a second from it and I knew my Goddess was watching over me. I smiled a sharp fanged smile the Gods blessed me with, and my new life was about to begin. All over my body ached and I was physically tired; I had a rough journey home and I could feel it. My eyes went to the door and I spoke.
"Raven, Brian. The Goddess is done. You can come in now."
And that is how this man became a wolverine.
When I saw the story finished on my table I nearly cried with joy. A shaft of moonlight crowned my head casting a shadow down to the pile of parchment. I looked up to the stained glass window above me, fitted in the thatch roof of my humble home. The half moon shined, almost warmly on my face. Two nights. It took two nights for the story of David to play out in my mind, the gore, the sins of a man who didn't know better, and his redemption from the gods he didn't understand. I don't know if I will write anymore stories about him, but I do know this, my bed looks very comfortable, even if it is the ground.
I dream about being a noble in the court of the Keep. My father, whom died in the Seven Gates War, dreamed about joining our lord Thomas, but a sword to his back ended that and him. It seems that he was lucky. When I was sixteen my blue fur grew and the curse took hold of me but that was minor compared to the death of my mother before that. Twelve years into the world and I was forced into manhood. I once worked under a baker and half the loaves he cooked went to me. Hunger outweighs all morals. Everything that is mine was stolen and that was just for survival. Sometimes I took a little for luxury.
When I was an assistant for a glassblower I took a few of the flatten scraps, pieces half the size of parchment, and I made my window which now covers half of my home. My mind would wander to the heavens every night I looked up to sky. Working with a forester, I made my chair and table from the unwanted wood that was going to become paper for the nobles. Many vocations have gone under my belt; forester, glassblower, laborer, all of which I had no passion for. In the six years I am alive, I went from surviving on begging to thriving as a master jack of all trades. I learned knowledge is everything, my body isn't as strong as a knight, but I manage. I know not my role in the land. My hope is to be the man that fills the holes that need filling. A small bit in a grand scheme.
Most of my education comes from the servant girls in the Keep who every morning I meet and exchange the things we really need most; they give me the books I wanted and I would bend an ear to listen to their hearsay. It may be meager but it was enough for me to become a better man. Two of the girls, Angela and Christina, would sneak into the library, scurry past the roving eye of the head librarian, and they would pass on to me the books I asked for. At the well, gathering place for all, they would talk about the gossip of the day, Brian and his healing, the lame Hughes, the fiery Lightbringer, and of course the horse king. Constantly they chatter, saying, 'Oh Jacob, you must hear this….' Or 'If the light of day were to shine on this….' But I still listen and I sometimes enjoy what they had to say, laughing at the nobles expense. They are two lovely mice, with two lovely minds, and two large mouths, but they only love their work, and I am just a charmer working his tricks. Journal, I brag of my accomplishments only to you because my mouth has gotten me into enough trouble. As I have written before, my life is destined to live in the shadow of those others who lead.
The time has come for me to sleep and my hands already hurt from writing the David stories. Tomorrow, I labor for the widow Morris, her roof needs to be re-thatched.
(P.S. Journal, I thought that David should have died of his wounds just as he came back home, but that was too sad.)