By Bret Zawilski
Thick black smoke rose above three pits spread across the
fields of the Amroth Plains. Bits of
armor and discarded weapons scattered across the ground reflected the few
shafts of sunlight that pierced through the clouds. The stench of singed flesh washed up stony
slopes toward the fortress of Temrel, which sat upon the foothills of the
When Darion regained his control, he found himself in the center of a ring of corpses. His silver ringmail tunic was tinted red from still-wet blood and his leather-padded leggings were torn in places. Darion inspected the blade of his sword. It was chipped. He threw the sword aside and removed the silver gauntlets covering his hands. These he hung on the belt pouch at his side.
One blessing of his talent--the only he knew of--was the fact that he could never recall what he'd done while under the Madness. However, from the many bodies surrounding him, it wasn't hard for him to see what he'd done. Around him, soldiers were gathering the remains of Temrel defenders and carting them to the fire pits. Among the bodies were children and women. One resembled Moira and the Madness briefly surged within him till he could calm himself.
With practiced reservation he focussed on the path up the slope to the fortress. In the distance a group of infantry were breaking into songs of victory. Darion marked his own men scattered across the battlefield. Most were following their commander's idea and heading toward Temrel. A few others, mostly new recruits, were still battling the Madness and striking at corpses; both friend and foe.
Atop Temrel flew the banners of Duke Morias. Two years of conflict were coming to an end, which meant mass decommissioning throughout the army. It was a problem for another day. Besides, it was rare for Darion to stay with any force for longer than a single campaign.
When Darion crested the slope and came to the fortress, he noticed four heads impaled on stakes near the main gates. One was an old man; the other three were young girls. Presumably the former King and his daughters. Darion shifted his eyes away quickly. He passed through the gate and entered the inner courtyard. Most of the bodies had been removed, but fallen weapons still littered the ground.
Amid the courtyard rose the Keep. It filled a good portion of the fortress and Darion guessed it was most likely larger than Duke Morias' home. The Keep was a mansion carved of black marble with gold and silver trimmings lining its many stained glass windows.
As Darion began to search for a barracks, a personal messenger of the Duke approached him. He wore the accustomed violet clothing of a servant.
"Milord Darion," the messenger had a thick accent Darion couldn't place, "the Duke wishes to see you."
"Where?" Speaking brought forth a great thirst to Darion's throat.
"The Throne Room, milord."
"Will you lead me there?"
The servant nodded and turned toward the Keep. Darion followed him across the courtyard and inside. A main entranceway branched off into three long corridors lit dimly by candlelight. He soon lost interest in where he was headed and merely followed the servant. All that caught his attention were scattered tapestries that hung down the walls. Long past his Moira had done equal weavings. Silently he fought down the smoldering Madness.
Moments later Darion found himself in front of two brass doors covered by intricate symbols of the notorious Prophet, Alexandra. The cult she had inspired was one casualty of the current campaign. Duke Morias persisted in naming her an Enchantress, yet he'd spent the past two years seeking out her treasures. Inside the keep was labeled to be another.
Two of the Duke's personal guards pulled open the heavy doors. Out of the entire Keep, only the Throne Room managed to shock Darion. It was a wondrously simple chamber. The floor was made of unpolished gray stone much like that of the surrounding mountains. Near the farthest wall was a large wooden chair; well crafted, but unadorned by jewels or metal. Around the rest of the room were a few white chairs that didn't seem to mix well with the atmosphere.
The only other remarkable feature was a stone archway placed behind the throne. At the apex of the arch, the symbol of the Prophet was engraved.
"Not what you would have expected, Darion?"
At last Darion became aware of Duke Morias, standing at the center of the room with 4 more of his Personal Guard.
"Indeed, sire," Darion stuttered, "It is disillusioning."
Morias chuckled and walked to the throne, "Much about them was an illusion."
"I was told you wished to speak with me, sire?"
He nodded and sat on the wooden chair, "I wanted to thank you for the services of your men."
Darion shook his head politely, "Sire, they can hardly be called my men. I taught them how to focus, I do not lead them."
"Even so, your training has allowed us this great victory."
Darion bowed at the compliment.
"I am told," Morias spoke with a thin smile, "That one of your beserkers first took the Throne Room and dealt with King Cundial and his heirs."
"He should be rewarded."
"Alas, he perished moments later."
"A pity, sire." Darion focussed on the design of the floor.
"Indeed," he sighed, "But let us rejoice in our victory."
Darion heard the twin brass doors grind slightly as they swung open behind him. He looked back over his shoulder and saw a man with a light blue cloak enter the room. The Duke's Loremaster, Talain, bowed deeply, then faced Darion.
"Congratulations on your victory, Master Darion."
Darion nodded in acknowledgement. The Loremaster walked forward and stood next to Morias.
"Darion, my friend," said Morias, "Return in one hour. I shall have a gift waiting for you."
"A gift, sire?"
The Duke nodded, "You shall see. Be patient."
Darion was confused, but bowed, "As you command, sire." He walked out of the chamber as the doors were closing and met with the same servant as earlier.
"Do you wish to rest, milord?"
"That would be pleasant." Darion smiled. "Anything to erase this day is welcome."
The servant beckoned Darion to follow and marched down a side corridor. Darion followed the man for a short distance until they came to a rather elegant room. Most likely a former noble's quarters.
"Rest here, milord. I will return in an hour."
"Thank you." Darion slipped the man a silver coin.
Rank and title were rather ironic to Darion. Two men equal in capabilities, yet one higher than the other. He stopped his train of thought there; knowing that to go further was a needless risk. Irrationality filled the world to overflowing, he had no reason to search further for it.
Darion removed his ringmail tunic and fell upon a warm soft bed, a luxury he hadn't enjoyed for years. Sleep came quickly and he retreated into nightmares of Moira.
"It seems authentic."
"Wonderful." Morias could barely restrain himself from laughing, but to do so now would be a disgrace to his people.
For years he had searched for the Prophet Alexandra's greatest relic, the Gateway. And now it was standing within reach. As yet the archway was silent, but Morias could almost feel a powerful undercurrent spreading from it.
"I think we shall give it a final test."
The Loremaster raised an eyebrow. "All scripts pertaining to the Gate have mention of a Key, do you possess it?"
In answer, Morias reached to the collar of his shirt and lifted a small pendant into sight. At the center of the pendant was a small green stone that pulsed rapidly with light.
Morias grinned, "Today is a glorious day for our people."
"Are you sure of its use?"
"Of course!" Morias barked, "I paid a great deal to discover the method."
The Loremaster bowed his head.
Morias unclasped the pendant from a thin golden chain and extended his arm. When the pendant passed inside the edges of the arch, a brilliant light exploded through the room. An icy chill ripped through Morias' bones and forced him to drop to his knees. He could see the Loremaster and his guards rapidly backing away from the arch. Fear sprouted in Morias' mind, but it was soon replaced when an insane amount of strength passed into him.
He'd dabbled in the Art of Sorcery before and knew how to gauge the power he held. It took him a moment to fully realize that nearly anything was possible. Focussing took more effort, but Morias had confidence he could channel the power given time to grow accustomed to it. Pillagers would never again threaten his lands.
Turning around, he laughed at the five men who stood trying to open the doors. "Pledge your loyalty to me."
The Loremaster shook his head, "This is no natural force you meddle with!"
Morias knew he should have expected such. Men such as the Loremaster were taught to be wary. So seldom did they see the benefits of any gift, merely the horrific tales from their tomes of history. He knew to keep his power, he could not let rumors spread of its source. They were expendable. Besides, the soldiers would be quicker to follow.
"I summon the Lord-Knight of Shadow!" Morias cried, "Come forth!"
A green light flickered in the gateway and at the center appeared a dark silhouette. A black cloaked shape stepped forward into the room. The face was completely covered by a hood. Partly hidden within the cloak was a long white sword.
"Sire!" Called the Loremaster, "Stop this devilry!"
"Cleanse the room," Morias commanded his newest warrior.
It strode across the floor quickly and charged toward the Loremaster and the Duke's four guards. The Loremaster had turned to run when his body was skewered by the black warrior's blade. His guards fared slightly better, managing to draw their weapons. Two of them even managed to hold against the creature's attacks. But soon they found that their own weapons had no effect on it. Moments later they fell, disemboweled, to the ground.
Morias enjoyed the curtain of silence that draped the room. "We shall never fear again. With an army of your kind, no more of my people must die."
He felt drained, but was thoroughly satisfied.
A light tap on the door brought Darion back to consciousness. His muscled ached with fatigue, but he forced himself to his feet. In the meantime, the knock sounded again. Darion reached for his tunic, but stopped himself. He had worn the armor for weeks, and the pleasure of wearing something as light as wool was too much for him to resist. The war was over.
Trudging to the door, he pulled it open and faced the Duke's servant.
"Duke Morias requires you immediately, milord."
Darion nodded and stepped into the corridor. "Lead the way."
He followed the servant down the hallway, feeling slightly dazed. The Main Hall was strangely quiet. When they reached the Throne Room, it was unattended. Darion felt a warning sound in his skull.
"Do you carry a weapon?" He asked the servant.
"Of course not, milord."
"Bring a group of my men to guard the doors until the Duke's Personal Guards return."
The servant bowed and hurried away.
Darion looked over the doors briefly, then decided to enter. After all, he had been told the Duke needed him immediately. He grasped the doors and pulled back. They opened far more easily than he would have thought. Darion glanced into the room and froze. He prayed he was hallucinating.
The bodies of the Loremaster and the Duke's Guards were scattered across the floor. A black cloaked figure, wielding a long sword, stood next to the Duke. Morias was too focussed on the arch, which glowed brightly, to notice Darion. He crept forward into the room and robbed a corpse of its sword.
The Duke finally turned around and spotted Darion.
"Do not fear my friend."
"Be careful of that thing, sire!" Darion felt the edges of the Madness come over him.
"Darion, this is one of your newest soldiers."
Darion shook his head, "That is no man."
Morias laughed, "Of course not. That is why they are so useful. Imagine never having to waste lives in war again."
"It is not something to meddle with, sire!"
"Be calm. I am granting you command over their legions."
Darion shook his head, "I have no desire to command these unsavory things."
"Can you not see the benefits?!" Morias exclaimed.
"You know the tales of these creatures! They have no benefits."
The Duke stomped forward and growled, "You fool! Are you so easily scared by the night tales of peoples who do not exist any longer?"
"They no longer exist for a reason." Darion could see in the Duke's eyes that his argument was having little effect.
"I had hoped you would understand," Morias muttered.
"By unleashing that thing, you bring forth death."
"To our enemies."
"To ourselves!" Darion shouted.
"Be warned, Darion, you begin to press to me too far."
"Madness assails you, sire."
The Duke clasped a pendant in his hand, "Is it madness to protect my home?"
"Through senseless murdering, yes."
Morias sneered at Darion, "Then what is your purpose in life?"
Darion fell silent.
"You are but another worthless machine of death."
He could still think of nothing to justify himself. The Duke was right, although Darion knew he was not as horrible as the creature standing in the room.
Morias' face soured when Darion did not reply, "I am glad I did not bestow my trust upon you."
"I'd rather die."
"And I'm sorry that I must fulfill that desire." Morias gripped the pendant tightly and said coldly, "Kill him."
The Shadow Warrior glided across the floor toward Darion. It's sword rose into the air and Darion charged forward. He sidestepped a wild thrust and countered with his own swore. The tip slid through the creature's cloak but only pierced air. Darion flung himself backward as the creature attacked again. He rolled onto his feet again in time to parry another thrust.
"Let the Madness take you!" the Duke called out, "Your talent is your weakness here."
Darion couldn't deny the truth and fought to keep the Madness at bay. Any assault on the creature was a waste. Escape was his only slim hope, but that wasn't victory.
The glowing pendant held by the Duke caught his attention. Darion ducked under a vicious slash and began retreating toward Morias. His thoughts were nearly blocked by the Madness, but he kept it from taking control of him. The creature was not terribly skilled. As long as he could think, Darion knew he had a chance.
"An opponent with no defense," Morias droned on, "Your counterpart."
Darion parried a strike and swiveled around. He broke into a sprint, sensing the creature following behind. Morias looked up incredulously as Darion charged toward him. Darion was upon the Duke in moments. A crunching palm thrust sent Morias stumbling into the archway. His body vanished in a flash, only leaving behind the pendant.