Paul (llorean) wrote,
Paul
llorean

Chapter 1:



         The darkness coalesced behind him, as if trying to drive him
onward. His clothes were permeated with sweat caused by the
oppressive heat of the night, but he still felt chilled to the bone. The
screams still echoed in his mind, but the deeds he had committed
were so gruesome, so unthinkable that thankfully he found himself
unable to recollect more than the vaguest shadows of the memories.
He wiped his hair from his eyes, glancing back, the fingers of his left
hand clutched tightly around the hilt of his sword. He couldn't recall
what had chased him here, but he knew it was something he must
avoid. The castle loomed before him. Atop the ramparts stone
gargoyles loomed outward, their hideous grins implying unmasked
anticipation. The castle itself stood with the drawbridge down, its
portcullis raised, a gaping maw eagerly awaiting its prey. With a
curse the lone warrior turned toward the darkened portal, and with a
resolution borne of the deepest despair steeled himself for whatever
lay ahead.


         Sharp slivers of light pierced Xel's eyelids and the young man
awoke with a start. His hair was tangled in a sweaty mass, and he
knew that it had been no ordinary dream. The detail and clarity of his
memory, the sharp pang of lost companions left little doubt in his
mind. He could still feel the pebbly path grind beneath the heel of his
boot. He somehow knew that the lone warrior was himself, and he
knew that he must warn someone of the approaching darkness.
"But," he thought "who would believe a warning in a dream?"
Especially when presented by a youth who hadn't but last week
reached marriageable age. Having seen his 17th harvest he should
already be promised to one of the local farmers' daughters, but being
an only son he had little time to go to the traditional festivals, and so
wasn't known well around the village. He would have to spend more
time actually in the village this coming year. Xel decided to put the
dream aside. The harvest festival was in a week, and if he wanted to
go there was much work to do first.


         As he strode into the field, he noticed a faint odor on the wind.
Within a moment he recognized it as the rich scent of burning cedar.
The neighbors must be smoking ham in preparation for the winter
months. As he turned to survey the field and decide where to begin,
he noticed the smoke. Dark billowing tendrils seeped out from
between the trees, choking off the sun. As the clearing darkened, he
saw the orange flicker of flames dancing among the trees but before
it could full register he caught a flicker of movement in his peripheral
vision.


         Suddenly his father appeared before him, an unearthly shriek of
pain and terror escaping his lips, and Xel knew instantly where the
fire had originated. Putting the vision behind him, he took off
homeward, the only thought in his mind a desperate hope that he
could return in time to save his father. With a gut wrenching twist Xel
fell to the ground. Upon rising the sky was clear, and the sun
continued its inexorable march through the sky.


         He burst into the farmhouse frantically calling for his father.


         "What is it boy?" came the response, "You're carrying on and
hollering as if the world were ending!"


         "Father, you're safe? I saw the house burning... smoke made it
as far as the west field!"


         A strange expression crossed his face, and Xel's father, Carl
v'liem
descended the stairs to look his son in the face. "Well the
house seems decidedly unburnt, at least from here. And I feel as
healthy as an ox. In fact, haven't caught a whiff of smoke on the wind
either, for that matter boy. You feeling all right son? You may want to
head back to Rainelle's Crossing and see Old Lady Brimsthrip, she
knows more about herbs than most 'round these parts. Maybe she'll
be able to whip up something' to fix ye' up."


         "Thanks father. I'll make up the work tomorrow. Oh, by the way,
can I go to the festival next week? I'll make sure we don't fall behind
in the chores."


         "Sure son. Anyway, be careful on your way to town. I've seen a
wolf or two in the fields lately, and normally they'd have no cause to
hunt so far from where they normally live. Something's not right, and
we can't afford you getting hurt this close to harvest time."


         "Yes father," Xel responded with an exasperated sigh. "Don't
worry, I'll keep a watchful eye as always, and an arrow knocked at all
times." Maybe the vision and the feverish dreams were symptoms of
illness. And maybe the old hag could be helpful for once,
Xel thought,
as he began the long trek to Rainelle's Crossing.


         The road to the village was rocky, barely wide enough for the
carts dragged down it every year when the farmers brought in their
harvests. This day, though, it seems exceptionally narrow, the trees
lining it seeming to loom over the road, as if attempting to banish the
pure pale light of the sun. And unnaturally cool breeze blew down the
sinuously curving path, and Xel almost wished he carried more with
him than his hunting bow and a small number of arrows. Fortunately,
the walk ended without incident. The dirt and rock road led him to
town, as it always had, and although he could have sworn he had
seen the golden glimmer of a wolf's eyes here and there, and despite
the lingering scent of acrid smoke he made it to town safely.


         Rainelle's Crossing was a typical bridge-village. It was small
with a little inn, and about seven houses. There were also a small
smithy, a general store, and a cobbler. Across the river sat several
more squat stone and wooden houses. That is, if you could call the
muddy flow from the mountains a "river." At this point the river was
barely deep enough for anything but a small rowboat, but its width
was still too great to stop it from being an easy forge, and in the past
it has flown with far greater depth and speed. But this new bridge had
changed everything. Formerly there had been a small wooden bridge,
barely suitable for use. But now a massive construction of stone
spanned the river, ensuring that when the waters once more rushed
beneath any and all would be able to cross with a minimum of effort
or risk. It was the grandest thing Xel had seen in his life, from the
carefully cut stone heaved from quarries to the south, to the
intricately patterned rails carefully hand-carved by the mayor's
nephew Giln. Xel wasn't exactly widely traveled, but Xel was sure
that the bridge, which had been the focus of most of the craftsmen in
the village for quite some time, must be one of the most wondrous
things anywhere. Rainelle's Crossing had seen plenty of trade, being
the only place to cross the river for quite some distance either
direction, but sure people would now come simply to witness such a
testament to mankind's ability to conquer nature. Maybe even one
day soon the village would begin growing, for although it was quite
large at nearly two hundred people, Xel had heard tales of grand
cities far away with twice as many.


         Xel rushed to Valine Brimsthrip's house, desperately
attempting to remain inconspicuous. Not only was he of marriageable
age, but he was actually quite handsome (or so the girls told him),
and his father's farm was one of the larger around. Many a farm wife
felt they knew the perfect friend's daughter for him, and he didn't feel
like dealing with would be matchmakers this day.


         Valine Brimsthrip was a wrinkled old woman, quite possibly the
oldest Xel had ever met. For as long as the town had existed, her
family had been the herbalists of the village. When Valine passed
childbearing age, the villagers began attempting to convince her to
pass the secrets to one outside her family. Her only response was a
mysterious smile, and a mumbled "One will come in time." About 15
years back a young child, somewhere around a year old, appeared
on her doorstep. Valine named the girl Alwein, and took her in as if
she were her own daughter. Alwein answered the door.


         "Why hello Xel. What can I do for you today?"


         "If you would be so kind, I would like to speak with your
mother."


         With that a look of pain crossed Alwein's face, and tears leapt
into her eyes. She suddenly embraced Xel, her eyes pouring salty
streams down her red cheeks.


         "She's dead Xel... Three days ago. She's raised me for longer
than I can remember and now she's gone... and the villagers expect
me to fill her shoes... and I just don't know if I can do it. By the
ancient stone, I don't know how I'll get by without her."


         "I'm sorry Alwein. I really didn't know. I've not heard from town
for several months. Is there any way I can help? Any chores I can
do? I've a strong arm, and a sturdy back, and I'm sure most of the
rest of the village would just as readily pitch in. My father can spare
me for a few days, certainly. We all loved your mother, and it would
be the least I could do to give you a hand, and a shoulder to lean on."


         "Thank you Xel. It will be nice to have you around to help. I'm
sorry about the outburst. It's just... well... it all happened so
suddenly!" Fresh tears sprang to Alwein's eyes. "A week ago she
took to her bed, saying she needed rest. We cared for her for four
days, and on the fourth night she left us. She went peacefully, in her
sleep. The last thing she said to me was 'Alwein, I've taught you all I
can. I love you dearly; in everything but blood you are my own
daughter. I would stay if I could, but there is no cure for age, and I've
accumulated plenty of that. Let me rest dear. I fear I won't awaken,
but you must always remember I love you.' With that my mother fell
asleep, never to awaken again on this earth."


         As she finished, Xel returned her embrace, gently telling her
"Don't worry Alwein. She left content, with a loving daughter. That's
how she wanted it. You'll be okay. You mustn't dwell on her passing,
but instead labor to do good as she did. When you meet her again,
you'll be able to show her your life proudly, having spread the love
and caring she showed you to others in need. She loved you greatly,
and would not want you pained by her passing. I'm sorry for rambling.
My visit was unimportant, and I feel like I'm in the way. If you're okay,
I think I'll head to the in. Master Varél will put me up for the night, and
I’ll be here tomorrow to help with the chores.”


         “Thank you so much Xel. It’s been hard with no close friends
around although your friend Meli has been helping. He’ll be by
tomorrow as well. Thank you again.”


         With that, Xel turned and began the short walk to the inn.
Master Varél was a kindly man, and Xel knew that the old innkeeper
would spare him a room. He rarely charged the residents of the town,
making plenty of money off of the frequent travelers crossing the
river. Despite the sour nature of his day, a small smile began to cross
Xel’s face. He would for the first time in years be spending a day with
his childhood friends, even if under such dim circumstances. Why it’s
been at least three years since...


         A shriek pierced the air, breaking off his reminiscing, and
before he could think he was sprinting toward it, bow drawn. Xel
rounded a corner to see a pair of gruff looking men approaching a
young woman who had the misfortune of being stuck in a blind alley.
The men’s beady eyes gleamed cruelly as they eyed the fat purse at
her belt and the gold chain adorning her neck. But Xel knew they
were in for a surprise... He recognized the young woman as
Lauralyn, an itinerant wanderer who occasionally visited the
crossing. “Lau,” as her friends called her had supposedly been raised
by wolves. A supposed “wild woman” she acted placid and ladylike,
but Xel knew that she would have no problem with the brigands. Xel
was mildly curious as to where she had come by the money she
seemed to have, but was more concerned by the fact that there were
such brigands in the normally peaceful village. The merchant’s
guards tended to be a big gruff, but never before had he heard of a
single crime being committed in the crossing.


         “So, how are you doing young Xel?” Xel’s thought was
interrupted by an almost lighthearted, dancing voice. Although
nobody knew how old Lau really was, at most she was his senior by
only two or three years but for as long as he remembered she’s
called him “Young Xel,” as if chiding him for his inexperience in the
outside world. Xel glanced over to the groaning would-be bandits,
now bereft of weapons.


         “You okay Lau? I heard a scream. Shouldn’t we do something
about these two?”


         “Leave them be. I doubt they’ll be stirring up trouble any time
soon. Will you boys?” Groans came from the crumpled men. “Were
you burning brush earlier today? On the way in I thought I smelled
smoke near your farm. Come to think of it, I still smell some on you.”
Lau’s acute sense and observation disquieted Xel, but he wasn’t
quite ready to talk about the day’s events.


         “Yeah, one of the old fields grew over and I was burning off the
weeds. Good for the soil too sometimes. You staying in town, or
moving on?”


         “I think I’ll stay a little. Catch up with you and some other old
friends. The world stirs abroad and I feel the need for a warm hearth
and a bit of the predictable village life.”


         “You’ll be staying at the Inn then?”


         “I may. I may not. We’ll see. First I have a few errands to run.
Perhaps I’ll see you later.” With that and a wink, Lauralyn turned and
left.


         The inn was a short distance away, and he entered to find the
common room more crowded than usual. Not that a crowd was
uncommon here, but as an average a crowd would mean half the
tables were occupied. This night Xel was pressed to spot even one
empty table. Jak, a young boy from the village, entertained guests
with his flute. Once the city had hired a man from the Bard’s Guild to
entertain at the celebration for the opening of the bridge, but even
though Xel had not attended he knew that Jak could not compare.
Still, Xel wished he had some skill with the flute, or the harp, or
silvered tongue of a bard. Nobody ever heard of wandering farmers,
traveling hunters who tracked rabbits to pay their way. Reality
required these skills though, as life on the farm would not be easy if
he couldn’t draw a bow, track game, and remain unseen by his prey.
Fresh meat was rarely a shortage in his life, and that was better than
could be said for some.


         Bertin Varél was a jolly man. He could politely be described as
“portly,” but despite his appearance he was not slovenly. He had
never been seen without a smile on his face, and had never turned
down a friend in need. His inn was full to the rafters with guests, but
Master Varél always kept a small cot in the loft in the stables for just
such an emergency. He lent it to Xel and immediately offered a warm
meal, which Xel accepted humbly, promising to pay when he could
fetch some money from his home. Xel shortly retired, knowing he
would be rising early the next morn.




         He stood in darkness. Around him was an emptiness so
complete that his own presence came into question. He searched his
mind, seeking a sense of identity but found nothing. Alone he stood,
unnamed, an embodiment of pure thought and emotion, simply
waiting. Around him, six spheres appeared. Perhaps not appeared,
they simply became, merging with the emptiness seamlessly so that
if one looked into any sphere he felt as if he became the sphere,
merged both with it and yet still isolated. Without turning the figure
oriented, facing a white sphere. He did not move yet neither did the
sphere. He simply was, facing a white sphere. Toward and to his left
was a blue sphere, rippling softly like the surface of a lake.
Continuing counterclockwise was a gray-brown sphere, jagged, flat in
some place, as if hewn from stone by indelicate tools. To the right of
the white sphere was an emptiness. As the man watched he felt he
could sense a faint movement and he knew at once that although he
could not see it, before him was a sphere of turbulent air. Further
clockwise was a sphere glowing with heat. The red sphere of flame
flickered and spit as it floated in the emptiness. The man recognized
four of the spheres, drawing memory from unknown and inaccessible
wells of knowledge the fact that the spheres represented the four
elements which comprised the fundamental essence of all. He also
knew what the white sphere was, the piercing, pure glow of good
floated directly in front of him. Orienting the opposite direction he saw
nothing. Not the emptiness around him, but rather a sense of lacking,
a hole in nature as if something were missing. He turned his back
away from the sphere of evil, indifferent himself to the concept of
motive. With the clarity that occasionally accompanies insight the
man realized that he must be standing within the sphere of neutrality.
Finding that he could not walk, nor will himself elsewhere as he had
done to turn, he took his remaining option and randomly reached
toward the sphere of water.


         Water surrounded him, filled him. He felt currents flow and ebb
with his thoughts. Before him still were the spheres, water replaced
instead with a void like that he had just left. It looked not like the
gaping lack of evil, but more as if it just simply existed, no need for
reason. Reaching again he became earth, immutable. His mind was
set in stone. Things must not change, not flow onwards chaotically as
they had under the influence of water. Willing his arm forward he
overcame the stone and flickered into flame. Energy filled him, the
desire to spread, to dance across the world consuming and bringing
rebirth. Onward to wind he proceeded. His body became the dancing
currents of the breeze, as frivolous thoughts filled his mind. He could
feel himself brush across the treetops, through the leaves. Why leave
this kind of joy? With reluctance he returned to the void of neutrality,
the balance. He looked at the light and dark spheres with
apprehension, knowing that simple exploration was not a choice
here. Touching either would be a commitment, a dedication of his
being to the purpose of a will within.


         Realization flooded him as he sensed the relation of the
spheres. Fire was the inner heat of being, the hunger of life. Water
was the flowing blood in his veins. Earth was the flesh of his body,
and air was the breath of his soul. The void he was within was pure
thought. This was not empty but instead so infinitely vast that it
contained all. And he knew what the other two spheres were. The
white luminescence was self sacrifice, the will to do good no matter
the cost to the self. The inwardly focused sphere, for that is what it
was, drawing the light instead of throwing forth light to the others,
was desire. The will to do things for the self. Within lay greed, riches
untold at the cost of others. Understanding the nature of this realm he
knew neither black nor white held his path. Without looking he
reached upwards toward the unseeable sphere. The sphere of
choice.




         Xel awoke, clearing the fog from his head with a series of
blinks. He could remember when he lay down on the cot, but knew he
was not now in it. He could not remember where he was, and had no
inkling as to how he might have arrived there. Looking around the
room he recognized it as Alwein’s guest room. Curious as to how he
arrived, Xel slowly began to lift himself from the bed. Red flashed
before his eyes as his head split with pain. Xel fell back upon the
pillow.




         He was in the emptiness again. He still could not remember
who he was, nor could he remember being here before. He just knew
he had before visited, and knew he would return again. Although he
did not know they had been there before, the spheres were gone.
Before him stood a table, although the word table did not exist to him,
he knew the feel of it. On it lay a simple long sword, reflecting some
unseen light off its mirrorlike blade. It was a simple weapon. The hilt
was solid, wrapped in leather to comfort the hand. The blade was
honed to an edge so thin as to seem capable of splitting the finest
hair. To the left of the sword lay a book. The black velvet cover had
upon it a single symbol, an ornate spidery shape etched in gleaming
silver. The book held an aura of sinister purpose mingled with
immense power. To the right of the sword rested a farmer’s hoe,
simplistic and pure. It seemed to draw him, offering the simple
pleasures of the land, and a job well done. Resisting the urge, the
man considered what lay before him, and knew a choice was
required. He also knew it was not his first, nor his last, he knew
without memory that in both directions lay choices, one made, and
one yet unmade. He also felt a surety that this choice was not as it
seemed. Reaching into the bag he knew hung from his waist, he
drew out the horn he had determined would be in it. Raising it to his
lips, he denied the other objects, those which would set his life to
their destinies. Drawing unfelt air into lungs which did not exist, the
man let forth a blast of sound, a challenge thrown in the face of
destiny, for the horn was of himself, and so he chose no path but that
of his own.




         Xel awoke a second time, brief memories of darkness
scattering as the room came into focus. This time he did not attempt
to rise, but instead waited for Alwein to arrive. He knew that he must
be ill if that had moved him from the inn, and with her mother’s
training Alwein would not leave him untended for long. As he waited,
a feeling entered him. No words could describe it. He felt as if he
were being removed, dissociated with reality, yet focused into an
essence of being. Xel felt himself isolated, yet simultaneously one
with everything in the room. With his sudden burst of feeling the
weakened Xel was again overcome and darkness once more filled
his vision.




         The man stood in the emptiness awaiting his last trial, his final
choice. He remembered nothing, not knowing why it was his last. It
simply was. The void around him contained no table, no spheres, but
the man did not know of their absence. Before him stood the beautiful
Alwein, dressed in the simple clothes of a village herbalist. She
offered him life in the village, marriage to a beautiful and loving
woman, a family, and a simple ideal life. To the left of Alwein stood
Lauralyn, dressed in leather traveling clothes. She offered a life of
adventure, a tale that would be told by bards for ages. Riches,
adventure, and an exciting life. On the right of Alwein awaited another
woman, one he had not yet met although he did not know he had met
the other two. She was a noblewoman, as could be seen by the way
she bore herself, if not from the fine clothing she wore. The man
knew that with her lead the path to wealth and power, a title, and the
guaranteeing of prosperity for his family yet to come. He did not know
which choice was right for him. For a moment, he stood, unable to
make a decision. Then, with the clarity one has immediately after
waking from a dream, the insight that is lost only moments later, he
reached outward, his choice made.




                  Xel saw only Alwein before him, a nearly hidden grin on
her lips and a scolding glint in her eyes. It took a few seconds for him
to realize he had awoken. “Xel, that’s not like you to leave me on my
own so that you might take a few days’ bed rest.” Wit that her face
burst into a smile of relief, and she roughly embraced him, tears
spilling from her eyes. “Xel, I thought I’d lost you. I was so worried.
When nothing I did seemed to help, I feared you’d never return!” she
sobbed.


         “Well I’m better now. You said I was out for days? Don’t worry,
I’m quite sure I’m better now, but do you have any idea what I might
have been suffering from?”


         “Well you had no fever, nor any sign of an ailment I could
recognize. Had I not know better, I would’ve said simple exhaustion,
but I found it impossible to awaken you at all, and you’ve never been
one to overwork yourself.”


         “Well, I thank you Alweih. Now that I’ve recovered, I’ll handle
those chores we discussed, so I can get back to the farm.” With his
words a flutter of chagrin crossed Alwein’s face, but was replaced
with a forced wan smile and a nod. “Of course you’ll need to rest a
little first. Couldn’t have you collapse again, could we? Besides Meli’s
been helping out quite a bit.”


         “I’ll be fine Alwein. I don’t know what happened to me, but
whatever you tried in helping me has left me feeling as strong as an
ox. I’ll have this place fixed up in a day, and all the firewood you
could need split in half as long. I’ll be ready to return home tomorrow
evening, and there’s no point in trying to stop me. I’ll not be causing
you any more bother.”


         “Oh nonsense! You’re no bother! And you can’t go back to your
farm... I’d hoped to spare you the pain for a little longer, but it seems I
must tell you now. While you were unconscious... a band of sorcerers
invaded from Alludria. They used dark magic and many of the
outlying farms were burnt to the ground...”


         “My father?”


         “Is not dead. Astonishingly enough, none are. Despite the
destruction, very few were even injured, though they’ve kidnaped
several of the men. For the first time sine the War of the Flame the
sorcerers have crossed their borders and committed foul acts. No
Xel, I fear you cannot return home. Your father’s gone, and unless
you’re secretly a swordsmaster there’s not much you can do about it.”




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