by Douglas E. Toth
Before you is a strange tale of a strange land. It bears many striking resemblances to a popular game that made its first appearance in the 1980’s. With in are the harrowing adventures of four souls that are seeking a wondrous and powerful device, what they discover in the end is something altogether different.
I thank my wife, Cassandra, for presenting the idea. She asked if any one had written any stories about the characters in the game. At that time, I knew of none and set out to see if I could make it happen. As it turns out there are many such tales, I submit this as just one more interesting look into the mythical world that we all share.
I started the story by going back to my first game where I drew the Ghoul and proceeded to cause much mayhem. That got the mood set and more notions of where the story could go came into play and the characters started to develop more favorably.
My goal was to write a decent story based on the characters and world of Talisman. Using the concepts from the game, the project sort of came together and it let me explore some different aspects of each character’s nature. If the story seems at variance with the game it is because I thought it more important to make the story interesting rather than make it seem like a game session. You will notice that I rarely name a game element directly.
Having no training as a writer I drew upon my experience as a reader in the hopes I could produce a story with some degree of success. Vague snippets of advice from articles and interviews came into play…”only write what you know…” was a main one. An interview with Charles Schultz (creator of the Peanuts comics) stuck as well. Each character in his comics is an aspect of himself…well at 46 I think I know myself fairly well so that went into the mix as well. My experience with combat reenactments gave me some help in the area of sword fights.
It was satisfying to write and I hope it is satisfying to read as well. I hope you enjoy it!
Part One: Crossed Paths
The Ghoul I
Asleep. Darkness. Engulfed. Cold. Awake.
The Hunger drives me, the need to quench a thirst.
I remember now the tales of glory and power that drove my life, my need for love that brought me to my death. That is all I remember, it is enough. All that I was before is gone but the Need joins the Hunger and it is enough to wake the dead.
I will continue my quest for the Crown and feed on all of those that stand in my way; they won’t stop me this time when…the memory fades, now gone.
Who are ‘they’? Why am I driven by hate? What have I become? I feel tears but the eyes are dry, the throat clenches, and my dead heart aches.
Why can’t I remember?!
A sound, in the…what are they…trees. The creature sees me and the Hunger pulls me. What was it called? No matter, the bright energy draws me as the thing brandishes it’s…the thing…weapon it was called. The gleaming blade does the creature no good, its eyes look into mine and I posses it, approach it, grasp it and the Hunger subsides. The creature, man it is called, lurches in my grasp and flees. Part of my mind awakes and I see the fields of a time before the great sleep.
That is it! A long time ago but not my youth; my life before. They did not understand but they will…she will! She would have been with me for all eternity, I promised her life and love with out end. They called me monster for what I wanted and now they will pay a heavy price. My searches into the forbidden lore have saved me from their revenge. I still live. The Crown is still there; perhaps guarded by some unworthy creature, that creature will be my coronation feast.
My wandering gains purpose as I stumble into more familiar territory, but changed. How long did I lie in that state of non-life? A battle must have raged here, the signs are every where. There is a figure of a man in the doorway ahead. Do I know this place? Indeed I do. It was a place of life when my mind first knew it, now it lies in ruin. The figure beckons to me, “What do you seek? Is thy purpose still true?”
Art thee a master or a servant?” I ask.
“Does it matter?”
“I will be no creature’s lackey, if you wish to master me then have at it if you dare, otherwise my will shall prevail.”
The figure in the shadow of the ruined structure bends knee to me as is my right. “A gift for thee master. I was pledged to aid thee long ago. You lack strength from your long sleep, lay your hands upon my shroud and my service will be complete.”
My dead hands clasp the hem of its cape and the energy of the thing enters me. I feel renewed, my desiccated tissue rejuvenates. The figure dissipates into me and leaves me utterly alone. Within the wrecked building there lies a sword, rusted and pitted but whole. I remember such things, but of greater worth. This common relic of a former age will serve for now. I will need to seek more powerful artifacts, this sliver of corroded steel is a pale shadow of the weapons of power I new, some of them crafted by my own hand when I was…what? Who had I been that I know it is my right to command? What people and forces did my bidding in that bygone age? And how long past was it?
Darkness falls but I feel no fear of it, in life I braved many unwholesome things in pursuit of my goal. I had endured the greatest darkness one could imagine when they took her from me. I had just awakened from the eternal darkness. Darkness could not hold me. There is merry music from a dimly lit building near the wood. Laughing and singing spill out to chase the night away. Peasants. A useful breed, their humble shack would provide me with meat and drink. It would not be the food my true Hunger clamored for but it would do, these lesser creatures would not provide much more in that regard.
The music died as I entered. A bright decorative tureen on the wall gave me a look at my physical self for the first time since the awakening. I could but smile, filthy and draped in rotted rags that had once been the funeral garb of a high born noble I was a horrific site. My best choice was the darker corner of the inn. The minstrel struck up his music again, fearing the rabble would stop tossing pennies into his hat.
A great, ham handed man loomed over me demanding I show my coin or be on my way. I hadn’t much, just the two half Sovereigns that were placed on my eyes when I was interred. Even though convicted as a murderer I was still a noble and ceremonies must be enacted to their fullest.
The food was rough and the drink bitter. I remember a table set each day for my beast that contained better fare than was offered to me here, and this insult…well…patience. When the final obstacle was removed and my goal achieved I would remember this one and make a special example of him.
Though bitter the brew was immensely potent and I found I had lost an entire day because of it. I hated delay. That man I had fed on after I first awoke was no common cooper or hay maker… that minstrel too was not some singer of bawdy songs and seducer of wenches. The fashions may have changed since my demise but I well knew the look of an adventurer on the Quest. It is in the bearing and stance, many a dandy may start on some treasure hunt but they lack the stomach for the perils it brings. I will stay mindful of these two; I will not be thwarted in my goal. It is my right and I have slumbered too long.
Part One: Crossed Paths
The Ghoul II
A few days had passed since my awakening. I had traded my tatters for sturdy wear that better suited my purpose. A jerkin and trousers and good stout boots, my rusty blade was discarded and a bright broad sword hung at my side, over it all a coat of plates. I had battled several beasts as I sought the knowledge to locate the lost Crown. It would be into the wilder areas of the world that I would venture. There to seek a Warlock of great renown. The Crown was hidden behind many protections. I was confident that I could overcome them all, save one.
The white heat of the Valley of Fire could not be defeated by force of arms or wits and guile. Only a Talisman could protect me from that inferno. In my life I had learned of the making of such things. My memories had become clearer of late, there were still gaps but some things were returning. Several of the Talismans had been crafted and this strange Warlock had the secret of their whereabouts. Only one other thing stood in my way, the Sentinel. A deathless guardian that barred the way to the midlands, a wild and dangerous place filled with fantastic creatures and magical places. To deal with this wild land I would need something a bit more potent, the Rune Sword. I laughed when the old sage told me about it. To him it was an ancient thing, a weapon of power to be feared. In my piecemeal memories it was the weapon I had commissioned for my family’s heirloom. God how long I had slept. She whom I loved has been long dead. The kingdom I knew had fallen and the usurper that had captured the Crown was gone to dust.
“The beast lays ahead my Lord” was all my guide would say as he pointed down the hill into the pile of stones that had been a temple.
My guide had been a starving outcast until I took pity on him and gave him purpose. I looked at him with narrowed eyes, he would go no further. That was just as well, this was warriors work and he had more value at his trade. We had been spared many hazards by his canny wood craft.
At my side was a creature that used to be a lion. It had thought to waylay us and have an easy meal. My strength and sword craft had improved of late, aided by the finding of an enchanted belt. Its power gave heft to my sword blows allowing me to break down the beast’s defenses and cleave it through the lung. My fluids (I cannot call it blood any longer) carry in them the elixir that permitted me to pass through death and return at this late date, by sharing a small portion of this with the recently deceased they will return to a semblance of life and I may command them as I see fit.
I could see the great reptile that coiled around the warm stones in the sun. The beast was totally unaware of the treasure he was guarding. I crept down; the feline corpse shambled silently behind me. No sound betrayed me; no footfall snapped a twig at an inopportune moment. I was nearly upon my quarry and had just motioned my undead war beast to advance to the forward when the crafty wyrm unleashed it fury.
Dragons are not truly intelligent creatures but they are clever, this one had feigned slumber until the last moment and now I was in a whirlwind of talons and teeth. Lunging, biting, slashing, grabbing. A clean blow spoilt by bad footing, a savage bite evaded by a slim tree serendipitously placed. The beast’s tail unwound like a colossal whip, I ducked and let the sword slip under it. The great wyrm roared in pain as I was driven backwards into the hard ground.
A mighty claw racked the earth and I rolled clear. I gave it another prick with the point of my blade and its other claw smote me a glancing blow, from a beast of this size that means it was not immediately fatal. It saw me prone on the ground but it had not reckoned with my cadaverous guardian. Just before the final lunge that would cause my second death it stopped and whipped its head around. Its jaws clenched on the undead lion that had latched its teeth in the Dragons soft underside and destroyed it, this opened its vulnerable neck and I lunged. The blood and gore drenched me as I reveled in the mighty reptile’s demise.
Not needing air I did not pant or gasp, I simply smiled as I made to claim my prize. I was brought up short by a wild cry.
Part One: Crossed Paths
The Warrior I
“This world is in a lot of trouble” A true enough statement in any time but it was his father on his death bed that had said it, which gave it a certain poignant sorrow.
The world was indeed in trouble. It lacked order, guidance and strength. The world needed to be forced under control and then it could recover from its past ailments. A resolve had been building in the Warrior’s mind since his father was taken ill, a resolve to prove the legends true or prove them false. In so doing he would bring the world order.
The Crown of Command was a part of the world’s history and mythology. Historically it was known that a powerful usurper came and used a Crown that held great powers to overthrow the ancient rulers. In mythology the Crown was purported to hold great and varying abilities. It was said to give perpetual life, see thoughts, move mountains, and bestow ravishing beauty and a hundred or more outrageous claims. It was certain, at least, that it was a weapon of such power that it could reach out and destroy your enemies wherever they may be.
He struck out on his own in the cool of a spring morning, prepared for any challenge that was offered him by the Fates. He did not carry much, but he had more with him than he knew…and less.
It was not long when he came upon a crude campsite, a fire pit sufficient to roast an entire sheep. Bones littered the ground, bones of something…best not to dwell upon it. The sound of heavy breathing startled him, in the trees there loomed a face that bespoke a joy of atrocities. Ogres are not legends here; they are a brutal fact, a consequence of disorder. The Warrior had spent the scant coin he had gained on a stout axe. It was lucky that he found the remnants of a less fortunate soul that had fallen to some unknown cause, there was a touch of sorrow but it passed. A disorganized fool and his life were parted, leaving some much needed coin for a more worthy person to use.
The Ogre swung its cudgel in practice and anticipation, the Warrior charged and grabbed for his axe…but no axe was there! Damn, that scrawny runt he had met on the road the day before had filched it! Well it was bare knuckle brawling then! They clashed, each swung wildly. Bodies collided, the Warrior went down, and he swept with his feet. The impact did not cause the Ogre to fall as hoped but the pain elicited from it a bellow, giving the Warrior a chance.
He had earned his keep by bouncing young bravos and hot headed ruffians from local taverns so he jumped into his fighter’s crouch as the cudgel arced for his head. A pretty side step and he landed a fist in the Ogre’s lower back. It snorted its discomfort and its hand, as big as the head of a mattock, swung back.
To late to dodge the Warrior jumped up and latched on the monster’s heavy wrist, decreasing the blow to a tolerable slap. He held for a moment only and let go, rolling on the ground some few feet away. The Ogre turned and swung but its club lodged in the over hanging branches. The Warrior plunged his shoulder into the things belly, causing it to expel its air. The impact did the Warrior no good either, nearly dislocating his shoulder. This give and take raged for what seemed like hours. Each was panting on the ground, battered, bruised and exhausted. Wordlessly they gave their mutual consent to end the pointless battle. Each went on their way to seek easier prey.
Damn thieves and robbers and their entire ilk! The Warrior was in a rage even though his outer countenance did not betray it, a fine axe taken and no hope of money in the near future. He hoped that the land here about would reveal some lucky finds. Many were the times that a farmer would be plowing some new tract of land and uncover some artifact of an ancient battle or forgotten burial ground.
It was while searching for such a place that he came upon a creature that made the Ogre look as a child. The Giant laughed and the ground rumbled.
“Come little morsel…it has been a long time since I have tasted good meat.”
A cold fury crept up the Warrior; the Giant towered and strode forth, wielding a small tree trunk.
“I will trust to Fate on this!” the Warrior thought “If I can but get a hold on it I can climb its back and throttle the life from it!”
He made his move and met the tree trunk in mid swing. So much for Fate.
The warrior sailed back and rolled down a muddy slope into a bog and lie still in the cool mud. A bruised rib at least, more likely it was broken.
“Now, were have you gone my little piggy?” the foot falls of the Giant seemed to be moving away. He stifled a moan and lie as still as a corpse, unsure if he would not be gathered to his ancestors and a stew pot. He became unconscious.
Silence for a time. Aching he reached for his water bottle to quench his thirst and could not find it! The lanyard that had held it was cut clean! Damn that thief! It was now clear that he was being followed by some gutter rat from the city. Their kind would be the first to go!
Slowly he rose, keeping his arm close to his aching side. After some wandering he came to a clear spring that bubbled out of the rocks. It was fresh and cold, the drink cleared his mind and he found himself awakened and refreshed in a strange way.
Trudging onward he passed through an old graveyard. Graveyards did not bother him, but the knowledge that he was being followed kept him alert. As he passed out of the jumble of headstones to honored fathers and monuments to beloved mothers he sensed a presence. There, through the trees. As he peered through he saw as uncanny a creature as one could imagine.
It shambled in a bewildered fashion, it resembled a man in the same way a withered tree does when viewed from a distance. It did not look strong; he thought he would simply move away, and then it locked eyes with him. Strength beyond the physical gripped him. As if in a dream the thing lurched toward him and the Warrior found he could not move. Cold damp hands grasped him. They were weak and shaking but he could not free himself, he could not even move. Cold lips and jagged teeth closed on his exposed neck and he felt life ebb from him. Shivering, weeping, powerless…with one mighty effort he called on his physical strength and threw off the wretched thing that was feeding on him and fled!
Wildly he ran; no direction, no purpose, tears streaming down his face. A thousand physical dangers he could endure but the memory of what had happened, the loss of some part of himself, he could not bear it. He curled up in a sheltering copse of shrubs he wept.
Part One: Crossed Paths
The Warrior II
It was some hours that before the Warrior could bring himself to uncurl and stand upright. How many times had he been in this position before? It was hard to say. He thought he had gotten used to such abuses; this was worse than his past experiences by far. At last he convinced himself that sitting here to rot was more foolish than trudging on. As he rounded an outcropping of rock in the hills he came upon a scrawny fellow just making camp. In the man’s hand was an axe…
”My axe!” the Warrior growled. He had endured enough, beaten and drained as he was this was something he could understand. With out a second thought he stepped out and reached for the little man.
The Thief made a desperate swing with the axe and the Warrior punched him square in the belly. Gasping the Thief pleaded and groveled…
“Don’t sir…“ the Thief wheezed “I know of…” he could only gasp out portions of sentences at this point “a place…” the Warriors blow had loosened something that wanted coughing up “and a weapon…spare me sir?”
“Very well then…tell your tale…but I will have my axe back!” and he snatched it from the Thief’s quaking grasp.”
The Warrior sat and made himself comfortable, even having a bit of the dry bread that was the Thief’s supper.
“It is in a pile of ruins, the Rune Sword. I saw it but there is a beast there. I can’t do anything with it but a man like you could” The Thief had been in just this predicament all too often, damned annoyingly often. Why can’t these dunderheads just leave him be. If you can’t hold onto your own property it’s your own fault. “You’re a strong one, quick too, if anyone can handle the monster it’s you.” He looked pleadingly up at the Warrior. The face of the Thief looked hopeful and thankful; in his heart he felt contempt for the poor gullible fool. Let this one do the hard work, he would just pilfer his shiny the next time they met…and there would be a next time.
The Warrior, having claimed his forfeit, left the Thief’s camp. He had not yet come in site of the place that the Thief had spoke of. He was taking a round about way, which caused a few days delay, but it kept the Thief at a distance. The path he took would show the blackguard some interesting sights. In his trail blazing he had come across an odd pile of stone and earth. Within it was a tiny and ancient little fellow.
“Oh good sir” the tiny chap started, “spare a crust for a hungry old beggar?”
The Warrior could not help but smile at such humble honesty.
“What do you here little grandfather?” he said as he broke a piece of his hard tack off for the wretched creature.
“I am Bolton,” he stuffed the dry crumbs in his mouth; the Warrior offered him water, “Bolton Notlob. I am a master lock smith and I have much skill in mountain lore.”
“Such a handy fellow and you live under a pile of stone in the wilderness? There must be more to the tale.”
“I am amongst the last of my people. In elder days we were well thought of but now the big folk are everywhere and we have gone into hiding.”
“You seem bold enough.” The response would make the Warriors decision.
“A hungry belly makes the meekest of creatures a lion for a while…”
The Warrior laughed at this, “I think there is more to your tale than you want to say” the Gnome turned red at this accusation, “but no matter, if you have the craft you claim then join with me and fall under my protection.”
“Indeed!” the little old man bounced with glee “permit me a few items, tools of my trade you know, and we can be off!”
The glee of the small man warmed the Warriors heart; he had not had pleasant company for many days.
Part One: Crossed Paths
The Thief I
A fine coat (a bit large) and a pair of good boots (also a bit large) and at a good price too. Leaving things out in the open was inviting thieves you know, and he never turned down an invitation. It was time to quit the city; things were no longer as prosperous, especially since the guardsmen were so intent on ruining one’s life.
At every turn there was one accusation or another about what you were doing here, a rule that you can’t do such and such there. How do people live like that? The constant, watchful oppression of the law enforcement types was stifling. There was a way to get your real rewards. He would be the rule and law if the legends of the Crown were only half true. Out in the wilds there were no interfering lawmen to get in the way of you plying your trade. That swaggering young pup looked to be an easy mark The Thief would keep up with him and see what he could gain.
He dogged the lummoxes trail as best he could. At one point he saw him digging in an old pile of bones. Obviously luck was on his quarries side because he saw him stash something in his belt pouch and move on. Near the end of the day he followed the Warrior to the edge of a village. It was the next morning that he took up his pursuit again, at mid day he chose to make his presence known.
Not being far from the village it was easy to make a friendly gesture and join together for a mid day meal. The Thief was the first to decide to have a ‘snooze’. He had been generous with his meat and shared his wine…useful tools, food and drink. They dull further the already dull wits of the common sort of rabble he preyed upon. It was not long before the young, muscle bound oaf was peacefully asleep. His axe would make a nice prize to take away.
With that done he quietly moved away and left his victim to his fate…but he was not done with him yet.
The Thief had taken the long way around to avoid an Ogre that was dwelling in the woods he wanted to pass through. The Warrior, fool that he was, blundered right into the monster. The contest promised great sport, he enjoyed watching these bouts. There was many a tavern he had been in just to goad some over drunken farm hand into a fight with some other wastrel just to enjoy the spectacle.
This ‘warrior’ had the luck, but not in a fight. The Thief had seen him gleaning some trinkets earlier and the fact that someone had a thing that he did not made his hands itch…let’s see how this fray goes first however.
It was fairly disappointing at the end of it, no real victory was reached. That was probably for the best, he would have a hard time getting round the Ogre. The Warriors encounter with the Giant was far more satisfying. A good solid thump and his mark was laid out in a perfect fashion. Getting round the towering Giant took some doing but the Warrior had fallen outside the creatures view.
The Warrior was not as lucky as the Thief thought, slim pickings at best. That big canteen promised to be useful however. Where he was headed there were burning deserts that he may have to cross.
“Goodbye old chap! I am sure you will have a few more goods for me to help you with as the days go on!” He patted the battered, unconscious man on the head and made off for tamer territory.
Part One: Crossed Paths
The Thief II
The Storm River was quite deep here, but the Thief was not concerned with that yet. He would need to cross eventually it was true, but there was a point along the way that would take him closer to the cave where the Warlock was rumored to be. It was a matter of finding some suitable trees to make into a raft. The wooded terrain ahead held promise; one must always be on ones guard of course. Beasts and dishonest men often lurked in such places.
The wood was dark and cold, not the cool of a shady glade but a cold like winter winds…then he heard a sound. It was like someone drawing a breath, but they were drawing it out of someone else’s lungs. There was a deep shadow here, deeper than the shadows of the trees. He raised the axe knowing full well that he had no weapons suitable to combat this foe.
“Come to me little creature.” It whispered.
The shape was slim and sultry, but dark and cold.
“So lonely, so lonely for so long…” It glided over to the Thief. It had a pleasant form but the fear gripped him. A conflict of two basic, primal urges was upon him.
The veiled shape revealed its sultry, feminine lines; it was more solid now, shapely, and comely. His heart raced as he became aware that the predator/prey relationship he was so fond of was now reversed…but another urge that was in opposition to this feeling was just as strong. It reached its smooth hand for his face, his feet wanted to run, his hands desired to touch.
Its eyes locked with his, the apparition was solid now, beautiful. It was a thing of flesh; it seemed to pulse with life. Its every move invited him to join with it, but the primal part of his psyche screamed from his animal brain to flee…they touched.
It began as an ecstasy, heart racing, body aching…then the thing’s eyes darkened, sunk away and he felt his heart miss its rhythm. A weakness over came him, the lust that had gripped him left because he had no power to sustain it. The figure laughed a deep, throaty laugh. The Thief wept and the instinct for preservation found its opening and he let his feet take him as fast as they could. Tripping over roots and stones, the branches slapping his face awakened his senses. Behind him the hollow, taunting laugh of something that had just taken what it wanted…he knew that sound, he had made it many times before.
Drained, panting, shaking he left that cursed wood and the unworldly thing that dwelt there. The sun renewed his courage but he would not go in that wood again. That thing had mastered him and he would not tolerate that again. At the top of a small hillock he looked about, more to affirm that he did live rather than to see any wonders. It was his keenly tuned gift for observation that allowed him to see the thing before he had wandered directly into it.
Coiled around a pile of stone that had once been a building of some sort was a dragon, basking in the sun. Of more interest was the gleaming thing that he glimpsed through an opening in the rocks. These lands were once home to a vast empire and battle grounds, tombs and ruins dotted the landscape. The wars that raged and the tyranny of the ancient wizard that used the Crown of Command to force others to his will have left it fallow for centuries. No mundane weapon would still shine as new like this bright blade did. It must be some powerful weapon of the ancients. The Dragon was its guardian, not by choice of course, but because such things have an aura of power those creatures are drawn to.
How to capture that weapon? To gain the Crown was the driving goal. Its power would command the world to provide him all of the things he sought. Power. Wealth. Women. That sword would aid him. He wandered and thought. As he made camp he was no closer to his answer when a shadow fell across him.
He turned to see a familiar face…the young lummox…he almost said it aloud. He could see on the lads face that this would not be a happy reunion.
Part One: Crossed Paths
The Prophetess I
The day had come at last. Brother Nod had prepared dinner for her. Father William was purposefully not in the vicinity. Ever since they had come to the abbey they were raised together but Brother Nod did not have the feelings of a sibling towards her.
This was all well and good. Their order was not so strict as to require any unnatural suppression of the Almighty’s gifts. It did have some very specific things to say about when and how those gifts were to be shared. There was no concern for any lapses between these two, nor was there any longer hope that they may be joined in the Holy bonds. The quest for the Crown did not lend itself to hope.
Since the day the Prophetess was chosen for the Quest there was no talk of anything else. Once set upon, the Quest was your life. No one would return from it if successful…you played for keeps. No ‘there and back again’, no ‘heroic return’. If she succeeded she claimed the Crown and none would hear of her again. Her sole intent was to claim the Crown and then never, ever use it.
If, on the other hand, she did return, it would indicate failure of the worst sort. In that case some adventurer would have taken it and a reign of tyranny and terror would inevitably begin.
This was probably the last time they would be together.
“You don’t have to go you know” he said.
“Yes…yes I do.” She insisted. “I was chosen and I dare not refuse. The Holy order has its reasons.”
“I know…I just…I…”
“Don’t say it, it just makes it harder.” A tear formed and she looked down into her empty bowl.
“As you wish…” He ladled out the rich and fragrant broth.
“My favorite, you are a dear.”
Early the next morning she started out, no one but a young layman was about, tending the fences. He remained silent, unaware of her intentions. There were no fan fares and celebrations for those that undertook the Quest. Such things would simply mark you as a competitor and thus end your journey before it began. There was a noble Knight that had ridden out alone on such a morning but that was a year ago. No word had reached them, but that too was normal, one did not advertise their whereabouts on the Quest either.
She remembered Father William talking about an attempt years ago. It took some doing but the old Priest finally had admitted that he had gone on the Quest himself. She and Nod were just children back then so it was hard for her to imagine the sweet old man battling the terrors that she had heard tell of. He was made of hard stuff and his failure haunted him to this day. It seemed that the Quest had drawn many to it and most had perished in distant and nameless lands. One day, as if by some mutual consent, the last few had just grown so weary of the endless horror of it that they simply stopped. The Priest had returned and raised her as a daughter.
She had been chosen for her gift of sight. It was a fickle thing at best, a combination of trickery, keen observation and true foresight. Most of her training had been focused on developing these abilities; while not perfect her visions were a distinct advantage.
The birds were singing and the dew stained her boots and the hem of her traveling dress. She had no weapons, not that she was restricted from using them as the men of the order were. A loophole in the rules at best but the Divine made all things for a purpose, even loopholes. She had taken the time to memorize a powerful enchantment that she hoped would serve her in time of great need. She shuddered at what she might do with such knowledge.
Knowledge! Before she took another step she must look ahead. She calmed herself and let the energy of the world enter her. She did not go blind to the mundane world but it was a new, sixth sense that she was able to use…and she was terrified at what she saw.
The Enemy was there, waiting for her. Not her specifically, but waiting for someone like her. She could sense his promises, his rewards if only she would forsake her vows and serve him. She would be freed from any restraint, whatever she did would be justified if she went down the path she was looking at…her power had served her well.
With out this fore warning she would have stumbled into “Old Screwtape’s” grasp unawares and the seduction would have been too much for her. That was how the Enemy worked; don’t give your prey time to think. Well she saw the truth of it; she was merely prey to the seducer. He would make you believe that you are the hand when in reality you are just a tool and disposable as well. She would not even go near the cursed place; he would take by force what he could not capture by guile.
Instead she found herself walking past a run down old farmer’s hovel. She stopped to have a breath and was taken aback by an old man coming from the humble building. He was smiling and waving and calling to her, “You’ve come at last. He said you would…”
She stayed on her guard but it was plain that this old man was not a threat.
“I have it for you, the Priest said you would come one day and here you are!”
“Slow down my good man. You say a priest bade you give me something?” Madness was not uncommon in some of these lonely old folks, their families moved on, their wives passed away and they were left with only their own minds to talk too.
“Come in, come in…”
She followed certain that she could handle the old fellow, although she did not wish to harm him. “Why would he give something to you?” a pang of regret, her contempt was not well concealed.
“It was a long time ago and he wanted it safe you see. He wanted the right person to have it, someone that would not be tempted by it.”
This was a bit too mysterious. “I am sure it is very special but…”
“Here, here…” he had pulled a tattered, moldy cloth from behind the wood pile near his hearth. It was carefully wrapped around something and tied with gilded silk cord. No mad farmer would have access to such as that. And the cloth was once quite rich; it looked to have been the same color as that worn by Father William.
She took the parcel and the old man danced with glee, clapping his hands. “Open it! Open it!”
The fabric fell away in pieces but it revealed something that was untouched by time.
“He said someone would come and here you are! You are from the Order and the Quest is renewed.”
In her hands she held a Talisman. One of only a few known to exist and she held it in her hand dumbfounded.
“You’d have thought I would have seen that coming.” She muttered.
Part One: Crossed Paths
The Prophetess II
The Prophetess had seen many sad and terrible things in the few days that she was away. She had also been blessed to witness beauty and wonders that her life in service at the abbey would have denied her. Drenching rain chilled her to the bone but the sun was more precious to her for the suffering. Hungry and weary she was overjoyed at a bowl of porridge and a bed of straw in a barn.
She had come upon a sad sight indeed this time. Here were the broken remains of a knight. She recognized the blazon on his faded surcoat, he had undertaken the Quest from the very chapel that she left and now his story was complete. There was another story that ended here as well. A smashed lute and torn finery lay about; the blood was dry but still bright.
Immediately she was on guard, then she heard the heavy footfalls amongst the trees. This was the lair of an Ogre and he had been very successful of late. She had no allusions that he would let her pass, no, if it was well fed she would be subject to worse horrors than being flayed and roasted.
The incantation she had memorized leapt to her conscience mind and she allowed the power it released to over take her. She blazed with a force that she did not realize she had within her. A fury and a focus sent her hurtling bodily at the monstrous humanoid. It had no chance to defend against the burning thing she had become.
It was over in a twinkling. All the force of her will had been joined with what physical strength she had and it had struck deep into her enemy. There was no blood; she was glad of that at least. The Ogre now lay in a lifeless heap.
She had never done anything more violent than the usual school yard tussles. Taking a life outside of a need for food had been unthinkable…the Ogre was exercising its right to survive as well…she hoped that was all it had wanted. Sadly, it was kill or die out in the world.
A good knight had fallen, and a sweet rhyming minstrel as well, by the look of things. All that seemed to remain were their tatters. The remains of the knight lie near a spear, or Lance as the chivalry insist they be called. It gleamed with a newness that belied its long time of exposure.
The Prophetess picked it up. A short Lance suitable for use afoot or mounted, but it had a power about it. No mere Ogre could slay a knight so equipped, and the wholeness of the corpse coupled with its advanced state of decay indicated that something all together more dangerous had been here a year ago.
The Minstrel on the other hand had sung his last and she wept and prayed for him as well.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
The Warrior was certain that he had left the Thief behind and in a sticky situation. He had crossed the road that the Giant hunted on and the Thief would surely have a hard time of it. On his way here he had been accosted by wild beasts occasionally, but they were no real threat. He would have let them pass but they had been of another mindset. Bolton had fashioned the claws and teeth of the slain animals into a necklace and insisted that it be worn as a trophy. The Warrior could not see upsetting the little old Gnome so he forced himself to don the thing.
At last he came to the place that the ‘rat’ had told him about. He was quite dismayed by what he saw. There was the old wyrm as promised but it was quite dead. Near it was a thing that made him grow cold in the remembering of it. He would know the uncanny creature anywhere. The thing that had pounced on him like some animal and drained a…he could not finish the train of thought. How could he approach such an unnatural thing? It was moving the stones aside and it was clear that they sought the same prize.
Surprise was on his side, correct? If he could attack swiftly and decisively the ghoulish monster may not have time to turn its power on him. The Warrior attacked!
The Ghoul turned in swift smooth move and saw the crazed Warrior bearing down on him. It gripped the Rune Sword and spat into the dead dragon’s eye…it was enough. The corpse of the enormous reptile began to stir, its dead brain retaining the recent memory of a fight for survival, a fight it had lost.
Undaunted the Warrior bore down on them, yelling a fearful battle cry. He was a whirlwind of destruction. He wielded his trusty axe and a broad sword he had acquired.
The Ghoul, having managed to take possession of the Rune Sword, joined the battle in earnest. The undead dragon took the first brunt of the Warriors fury and did not hold together well. It died its second death under the well schooled science of a trained fighting man.
Lunge and parry as he might the Ghoul found no opening in the Warriors web of steel that he wove about himself. Just one prick of the ancient blade would end the mad mans assault and feed his Hunger at the same time.
The Warrior jumped to avoid a leg sweep by the Ghoul and turned it into a powerful kick to the horrible things sword hand. The Ghoul felt no real pain but the jarring hit sent the Rune Sword hurtling from his grasp.
“Noooo!’ it rasped. Cursing the Ghoul fled.
The Warrior claimed his prize, sniffed at the twice dead dragon and moved on ready to meet the next challenge on his quest.
The Thief, on the other hand, was in a state fit to be tied. The Warrior had lost him in the craggy area near the mountains and he was surly well in advance of him. Well, no matter, he did not want the buffoon to know he was near in any case. What he needed to do would be best done in the dark. It would be a bit of revenge for that serpent that had gotten the better of him as well. The poison from the thing still caused his arm to ache and burn. Night was falling and the Thief was looking to make a bed as best he could when he felt a low rumble.
“Ah…a little sausage for my table!” The low voice could be felt in one’s belly.
The Giant strode forward faster than a man could run, and run the Thief did. He was no match for this nightmare! The Giant bellowed his anger at his quarry’s lack of cooperation. Determined not to be denied his supper the Giant hurled its tree trunk at the fleeing figure.
This turned out to be a mistake on his part for, while a branch from the gigantic missile did clip the Thief in the head, it also caused a blinding cloud of leaves and birds to fill the air, as well as fell several lesser trees.
The Thief ran on, his head swimming, unsure of what direction he was going. Finally out of air he collapsed in a heap, certain that whatever the Giant might do would be a mercy.
As he rolled over the twilight descended and it became quiet but for the sounds of insects and night creatures…then it gripped him.
The same cold feeling that the spirit in the woods had given him, but there was no seduction this time. Cold hands clasped on him and dry teeth gnawed at his exposed flesh. His heart fluttered and he grew cold, then sleepy and he fell into eternity never to return.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
“Now that was most satisfying.” The Ghoul commented to his guide. “I had no idea that the last drop of life could be so intoxicating.” He pushed the body of the dead Thief aside as his eyes gleamed with an unnatural satisfaction.
The guide tried to push the image from his mind. He had taken service with this thing and now he was bound to it. He dare not betray his master for that would place him squarely on the menu.
“I will save that for the sword wielding fool when I take my place and don the Crown. I will have him brought before me and he will grovel and plead but to no avail…” The Ghoul’s dead eyes managed to shine with glee as he spoke of his revenge.
They walked through the night. The Ghoul drove a hard campaign. He only stopped to feed or to allow his vassal a chance to catch a few hours of rest. Even in his undead state he had to let his body rest and take nourishment, not that he could taste any but the most powerful flavors. This he saw as a great delay but it was necessary. His artificial life processes needed fuel as well but he was as well off with scavenged carcasses as fresh meat.
A small voice croaked out in the dark, “What a vile thing you are.”
Instantly the Ghoul was livid. “I see quite well in the dark crone. You will kneel to me now or in the future but kneel you will!”
“Oh ho, kneeling it wants. Such a repulsive thing it is, and with what purpose?”
“Old woman, I warn you to do my bidding!”
“Now its warnings! Well hop right over here and tell me more!” she taunted.
The Ghoul leapt forward, the transformation happened so quickly that it was impossible for the guide to determine when it happened. At one moment the Ghoul, his master, was advancing on the old witch and in the next there was naught but a huge toad in its place.
The witch cackled with glee, the guide fled into the dark, the toad that had been a Ghoul looked accusingly up at the capricious woman.
“This may teach you some manners; you may even have some use for a while. Just because you are repulsive does not mean you can’t rid us of a few troublesome insects.” She continued to laugh as she retired to her damp hut.
The toad looked on mournfully.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
The Prophetess was ready. Her sight had served her well. She did not avoid all obstacles, some she met full on. The Priest had told her that she would need to harden herself by physical challenges. There were things she could not avoid as well. The spirit in the woods was one such. It was a frightful thing, not because it had a terrifying form or because of its desire to drain your life away, but because it attacked at your most basic and primitive needs.
It had come to her showing itself in the form of a most attractive male figure. It was subtle and persistent. She was a healthy young woman and it was beginning to have the desired effect on her. It taunted the edges of her awareness, barely displaying its reward for her submission. Its power clouded her thought and she would have submitted to the desire to feel, just once, the embrace, the fulfilling of a desire she knew she would never have a chance to feel again. Then she remembered her Quest, her belief, her duty and…maybe it was her imagination, but she thought she could hear the prayers of one so dear to her she could not betray him.
She saw the seduction for the sham it was and rose up to her full height.
She spoke to it in a voice that was colder than the malevolent spirit itself. “I am not for you shadow of lust. Go away from here, tell your master that you have failed and take your punishment in the place you truly belong.”
The dark thing lost all form and looked about as if in terror, “No, I am not permitted failure!” It was pleading now, “Succumb, give me a portion, a taste…”
“No!” she shouted. It was so final that there was nothing to be done.
A growling wind rose up and a door seemed to open behind the spirit for a moment. There was a brief vision of a horrible place with a sky of roiling gasses, the spirit was pulled screaming into the opening and it closed abruptly.
All was silent and the Prophetess slept peacefully amongst the sheltering trees. Tomorrow she would make for the bridge.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
The Warrior had his prize and thus began a blood soaked campaign. When the Rune Sword was sheathed he seemed his usual self, but he seemed to go out of his way when there was the smallest opportunity to use it. There was a wild boar that could have easily been dispatched but the sword came out and the crazed look came over him. A shambling bear threatened them, the Warrior’s raw strength would have been a match for it but he needed to let the Sword drink from the thing. A common bandit that could have been bribed with a gold coin was dispatched with the cold blade, and on it went for every terrible encounter.
Bolton and Escobar, an alchemist by trade who had just joined the Warrior, were musing about whether the Warrior wielded the Sword of if the Sword wielded the Warrior. They daren’t speak of this to their master but it may have surprised them that he wondered the very same thing after each killing.
Each time the Warrior sheathed the cruel weapon he vowed to never use it again, embarrassed by his desire for it. Each time he saw an opportunity he drew it and reveled it the perverse delight of the coursing energy it sent through him. It was as if each slaying was in someway compensation for some past injustice. What it really accomplished was to draw him further from his goal and give him a false sense of his own worth.
He was obsessed with dealing with the Giant that had bested him many days ago but had lost its trail and he was now searching vainly, always grumbling about vengeance and hunger.
They had found a road on a grey morning and were about to take some rest and food when an old haggard woman came shambling by, her cane thumping with each step.
“Hello dearies.” She said “You look all done in.” she eyed the Gnome and Alchemist with a jealous eye.
“Take your ease with us if you will madam, but we move quickly on our journey so daren’t hope to keep up. Bolton, would you please make us some food, I think I espy some manner of beast in the thicket there.” He stalked off; hand gripping his prized weapon, even though he had seen no creature.
He returned to such caterwauling that any creature with in five miles had either fled or was headed directly for them.
“Out, you useless little freak!” the old woman was in a fury! “Go now and let me serve my master!”
“Where are my companions?” he bellowed.
“There dearie, those two know nothing about cooking and such. Just look at how they have arranged the fire wood. You are better off with out them.”
He stammered, then called out for his friends but they were well hidden. With a helpless look he sat and was brought cold salted meat and bread.
“What of the fire, surly there will be some hot water for tea at least?” he pleaded.
“Oh dearie, you know so little about such things. Let me handle this and you just eat now.” Her voice was soothing but under it was harshness waiting to be released.
He quickly made to move out but she was at his heels; apparently the walking stick was just an affectation. “Come now dearie, no need to rush, plenty of time.”
He was debating on how best to rid himself of this bothersome old crone, a swift back hand or simple murder, when a bright light filled the world.
The woman cried out and tried to hide beneath a bush but only her head would fit under it, the rest of her sizable self was fully exposed to what ever terror was coming.
The Warrior had no defense against this sort of foe. His shining dark sword was powerless as the creature of light loomed over him.
“A bright blade for a mighty warrior.” It said. “Do you enjoy the taste of power it brings?”
. He wanted to flee but could not; he looked at the Rune Sword. What difference was there now between him and that thing that had crawled from the grave?
“Who are you?” the bright being asked.
“I- I don’t know any more.” He answered. Then he looked up and recognized the being of light.
“What did I always tell you?” the voice asked.
“Father?” it did indeed have the visage of his departed father! “Um…learn something.”
“I cannot aid you, you have gone too far down your path, learn something”
The bright being faded slowly away. He had a new thought now and he came to a decision just before his voluntary follower began her usual tirade. The woman was obviously sent by some demon with a distinctly cruel sense of humor to vex him.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
There it was. Her training had readied her to fight legends but to face the fact of it was daunting.
“I am counting on you my friend.”
The Unicorn that had decided to join the Prophetess was a most congenial companion. It did not talk too much (not at all actually) and it was stalwart in the face of danger. They had met in a field near the Storm River and the beast simply decided to stay with her.
The Sentinel loomed mightily; she had gotten into her stride however, combat was still appalling to her but she had developed a work ethic about it.
“To the task!” she called from astride her mount.
There was no ability to evade the encounter with the titanic guardian, nor did she have the necessary mage craft to thwart or delude the monstrosity either…it was a straight on attack, the Sentinel readied its tremendous weapon but did not give an inch on its bridge.
Her Lance point was aimed true; the Unicorn held his twisted horn on the mark as well, at the moment of impact she held her breath and clenched her teeth. She felt her steed slip from beneath her and she seemed to hover in the air for a moment; all sound had been chased away by the mighty metallic crash of the Lance against the Sentinel’s armor!
She became aware of a rushing noise and looked to see its source. The Sentinel was swinging its fantastically huge sword towards her. The Lance had lodged in the Sentinel’s armor; no mundane weapon would have survived the impact let alone penetrated the supernatural protection. To dodge the blow she had to release her hold on her weapon, in so doing she had unwittingly unbalanced her opponent and it began to stagger to regain its footing; this was the opportunity that the Unicorn needed. With a mighty kick the Sentinel was totally undone; back he went into the ground.
The Prophetess was swift and she leapt to the spear shaft and threw her weight on it, burying it deep in the Sentinel’s body…then she was thrown back. It felt like a kick but her arms were numbed by it and lightning was arcing from the guardian of the pass. A smell like a thunderstorm filled the air and the Sentinel lie still.
“It must have had some kind of final enchantment as protection,” she said to the Unicorn “to try and kill who ever killed it.”
They crossed the bridge into the wild lands of the deep continent. This territory was untamed even in the time of the old Empire. The usurper had encouraged the land to grow wild and strange things dwelt here. The land itself was said to lend its strength to its native inhabitants so it was with great caution that the Prophetess ventured forth. Her goal was the Portal of Power. Because of the gift from her mentor she did not have any need to bother the unpredictable old Warlock.
Unfortunately the old Warlock did not enjoy those that bypassed his authority. He had allies in the wilder lands and he had vision. The Prophetess did not move unobserved.
She gave a backward glance to say goodbye forever to her homelands and saw the Sentinel rise and take its position at the bridge.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
“Unbelievable!” The Ghoul spat, he was appalled that such a potent transformation was at the command of a dirty old witch. The state of the world as he found it was appalling. The Ghoul had located his guide and admonished him. His wroth passed quickly as he sought the small clues to his next conquest. His time as a toad had given him a new perspective and he had found a buried chamber that no full sized man would have noticed. Once the transmutation had worn off he forgot all else and found his way back to the spot and pried the stones up.
A book lie here, dirt encrusted it but its pages were sheets of gold. He recognized the inscriptions on them. Not that it was astounding in itself; the modern language was derived from the ancient tongue he had known. Any literate school boy could have made it out in time. What he recognized was the formula and processes outlined in the book. They were from his works during that bygone age. Someone had studied, learned, transcribed and then lost these derivatives of his researches.
He easily understood what was here and the words of power settled on his mind gently. Such forces were tenuous at best, they rest on the outer fringes of consciousness and once evoked they fly away, but it was knowledge worth having. The carving on the stones told him a thing or two as well. If he could but cross the river from the nearby forest he would be at the cave of the mysterious Warlock.
It took some doing but the guide felled some small trees with the axe he had acquired and soon the crude craft was assembled. It was a treacherous crossing with a few close calls. A dunking in these rapid deep waters would not be an easy thing to recover from; soon the further shore was under foot. The raft seemed to be grateful to break apart and drift away with the current.
The cave entrance was covered in curious runes and the Ghoul suspected that they had no real meaning. He would not underestimate this Warlock however. Perhaps he was insane but he held the secret to gaining the one thing that was absolutely required, a true Talisman.
“Hail Warlock!” the Ghoul shouted. Hardly an appropriate deed for one of his station but he had no herald to announce him in a proper fashion.
Silence from within the cave was the only response.
“I seek an audience with the master of this place.” He called. “Please honor me with your presence.” A galling thing to say but it needed to be done.
Fire light rose in the cavern, he took it as an invitation. The torches lit the way down, not that he needed such aid but the Warlock could not know this and these sorts loved their theatrics. Once he possessed the Crown this one would have to go. He could not have anyone else gaining access to the seat of power.
“You are of an ancient line.” The Warlock stated. They had walked suddenly into a chamber. All about there were trinkets and treasures, no small amount of gold as well as more than a few skeletal remains.
“Yes, from a noble house, the line of the first Emperor.” The Ghoul boasted.
“Yet you are denied your right to rule. You seek the Crown.”
“You do indeed see the truth of things.”
“I do, I will show you something that may dismay you.” The Warlock bade him look into a mirror.
He saw a young woman riding a beast with a single horn growing from its forehead. She sported a Lance and shield and laid low a mighty guardian on a bridge. Motioning to a bowl of clear water he saw a familiar face. A young Warrior, he seemed to be wandering aimlessly, followed by a nagging old woman. The Ghoul laughed.
“I dare say you have rivals on this quest. Dare you face them? Can you continue onward with the knowledge that they would endeavor to thwart you?”
He laughed again. “This bumpkin in the bowl is known to me. He seems to be doing himself in. Outside one lucky moment he is no threat. The woman bears closer examination but I wager she is no more a problem than the average tavern wench.”
The Warlock smiled, the Ghoul took it to be approval.
“You have the knowledge of those artifacts called Talismans.” The Ghoul said; it was not an inquiry.
“You seek to cross the Valley of Fire and claim the Crown?” the Warlock asked.
“Why else would I come?” this game was wearing thin but it was out of his control.
“If you be stalwart in your desire than I will show you the path to take, however, it requires a ransom of blood.”
“I have no blood to give.” The Ghoul stated.
Until now the guide had been content to let this play out, he suddenly realized that his part in this was to be more than ever he bargained for.
“Blood I must have or you can leave my sanctuary and may you fare well.” This was no polite dismissal, it was an ultimatum.
“Guide, kneel before me.” The Ghoul ordered.
“Master!” he squeaked “I have been loyal and true, let me continue to serve you!”
“Do me but one more service and you are released from duty.”
The opening to the cave was some how gone. The guide found himself in a sealed chamber with his ghoulish master and a mad Warlock. No matter how he pleaded the Warlock only laughed the more for it and his master became more insistent.
The Ghoul grew impatient and grabbed the guide by his hair and plunged his sharp fingernails into the pleading mans throat. He held tight as the poor man tried to staunch the flow of his life’s blood. Screaming, squirming pleading but it was too late and darkness closed about him.
The blood pooled and flowed down an indentation in the floor. The small red stream made a steaming path in the coldness of the cave.
“Follow that trail; you are truly one who could claim the Crown. Go, I anticipate the drama that waits.”
The Ghoul followed the bloody trail down a winding stair and there he saw it, on a small pedestal, a true Talisman. He claimed it triumphantly; the race was nearing its end.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
The Warrior had no money but he was determined to ‘learn something’. The only place he was aware of that might hold any knowledge was the near by village.
He made his way there and, after some enquiring about, was directed to small hovel which was home to a man of mixed reputation. He was said to be very knowledgeable by some, a crack pot by others. When the Warrior first arrived at the old man’s home the blustery old lady that had attached herself to him started right in on the condition of the house. The old, gentle, man looked her in the eyes and she started to object to that but she could not utter a word, she looked at her feet, the walls, everywhere but the old man’s eyes. After a short time she walked out silently and was never seen again.
“Who was she?” the Warrior inquired.
“Some demons have a distinctly cruel sense of humor, she was sent to vex you.” That was all he said for some time.
They sat in silence for a long while; the old man would say nothing in response to his repeated questions. The mysterious old man just rocked in his chair, at one point he lit a pipe and smoked a bit.
The Warrior was dozing off as the sun set when the elder began to speak. He spoke of many things, slowly and with absolute assurance. When challenged on a point by the Warrior he always had a response that was correct, good and would work. There was a point of frustration when the young man was about to storm out never to return but the elder never wavered nor insisted that he stay. The youth looked back at this now as a turning point. To leave would have sent him on a dark path that he could never return from. As it was he stayed and then the real lesson began.
The Mystic’s words had pulled a veil from the youths eyes; he now saw a world of delight and joy. He also saw things of terror and majesty that he could never have imagined. It was humbling, enlightening and horrifying.
When the dawn broke the warrior left in silence, the Rune Sword was no longer at his side; a new vision had set itself in front of him.
After a time he heard singing. The warrior had been aware of singing in his life but he actually heard it this time. It was amazing, a young woman was singing in a joyful voice larger than her size would indicate. When she saw him she did not stop or miss a beat, but her tempo and demeanor changed when their eyes met.
He was compelled to sit and let her finish.
“Good morning.” She piped.
“Good morning to you fair Maiden.”
She laughed, it was like music. “Where would you be heading looking so brave and heroic?”
“I am headed to the Valley of Fire to claim the Crown of Command and keep it from the hands of those that would use it to do harm.” Why had he said that? Surely it was the truth but he did not know this woman in the least.
“You do not fear to tell me this, am I so meek that you think you can trust to your strength to keep me silent? Mightn’t I go about and tell those that would be enemies of your quest?” She was still smiling as she asked this.
“You would not do that. I speak the truth is all; if there are those that would thwart me I will deal with them, it wouldn’t be the first time.”
“And now you brag about your might!” she laughed.
“Again, the truth. Of course you would not tell others if you became my companion. You are a person that seems wise and there is no secret that I lack wisdom.” He smiled and looked down at an insect scurrying across his boot.
“Very well then, I will trust to your protection and aid you if I can.” She looked a bit more somber.
He blinked and looked at her for a long time.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“Hmmm, something a friend told me.” He hesitated as if to go further would wake him from a dream, her beaming eyes were insistent. “He said that some angels had a distinctly generous nature.”
They spoke very little until they came to a tavern. Oddbottle’s was its name. They needed refreshing so there was no need to debate the issue. As they ate the small amount his few pennies provided they were caught up in rousing song lead by a boat man and his small crew. It was a bawdy tune and he feared that his new companion would take offence but she saw it as a pleasant diversion, or was it the warrior’s ill concealed concern for her that made her giggle?
After the second shanty the captain or such they presumed him to be, sat near them.
“You seem a strong lad; I need an extra back to unload some grain and sundries at the port across the Storm. It’ll leave ye near the Temple and unless I miss me guess you need be headin’ thar.”
Yes, some angels were generous indeed.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
The crossing was done with practiced ease. The experienced river captain was merely making a cake run. After the heavy crates and casks were off loaded the warrior and his companion, the Maiden, whose name was Celestia, walked the pebble covered path up the hill to the ancient temple. The stone pile was huge, weathered and awe inspiring. Around the entrance where images of the four lesser gods carved in marble, these were representations of the four elements that were said to have formed the world at the command of the Most High.
As one passed through the gate an image of the Watcher Above; carved and painted on the ceiling, seemed to scrutinize each person that walked below it. Directly ahead was the golden altar of the Most High. The only sign of habitation was the smoldering embers of the braziers that flanked the walk way.
They kneeled in front of the altar and opened themselves to its power.
“Who are you?” a voice asked him.
“A servant.” He responded.
“What do you seek?” the voice insisted. “Justice.” was the only reply he could give.
“Then go, let this gift hasten your journey, for haste is essential now.”
“How can I gain a Talisman? Without it I am doomed as surely as if I had never started!” the warrior pleaded.
“The Warlock will provide you the answer. Heed his words but do not trust him, the answer lies beyond him.”
“I don’t understand!” he called out.
“Understand what?” the Maiden asked.
He could not explain, she had heard nothing of his exchange with the supernatural and he could not bring himself to speak of it. He barely believed it himself even though he had experienced more than his share of other worldly encounters. The only evidence of his revelation was the new and potent power that had been loaned him. He thought to use his gift at once and visit this Warlock’s cave but then thought better of it. It was not far and he may have better use of such power at a later date, and he knew that it would only be his to use once. He decided not to squander it, even though haste was required.
It was by round about ways and some large portion of luck that they avoided going directly through the desert. With out sufficient water it would have drained them mightily. The thought of water reminded him of the bottle pinched by the Thief and he wondered what had happened to the accursed cut purse. It gave him a moment of reminiscence and regret. It was during these thoughts that they came to the cave they sought. All of the stones were carved with strange symbols and the entrance was dark.
The warrior, unschooled in the finer points of etiquette; peered inside. In the dim light he saw a torch and pulled it from it’s mounting on the wall. The Maiden looked some what dismayed by this but said nothing. With a few strikes of his flint it was soon burning brightly as it was well saturated with pitch. Down the tunnel they went, around twists and bends until all at once they stepped into a large chamber.
The cavern was decorated with odd items that had no purpose either of them could fathom. Heaps of coins and gemstones were strewn about and, as if to highlight certain special treasures, human and human like remains were arranged around them.
They jumped at a low cackle, “So you have come at last.” The ancient Warlock became visible as the light increased. “It is well for I do not like my domain trespassed upon. A toll must be paid.”
“What do you mean?” he said boldly, looking at the jumble of items and skeletons that lay strewn about.
“My price is blood.” The Warlock grinned.
The warrior rose to his full height and stepped in front of the Maiden.
“She is under my protection…”
“Nay hero,” the sarcasm was not lost on the warrior “here, see. Thou are not alone on this quest.”
He was motioned to look into a bowl of water, within was revealed the clear view of a young woman astride a Unicorn. She brandished a spear and shield and was cautiously crossing the landscape.
“She is your chief rival. She has failed to pay me my rightful due.”
The warrior was intrigued but he was distracted by a motion in the background on the image. Perhaps it was because the movement was mimicked in another medium that he caught from the corner of his eye. Over the Warlock’s shoulder, behind his throne was a mirror that showed a different scene.
An uncanny creature that sent chills up the warrior’s neck was there. He glanced at it furtively as the Warlock spoke. It was well that he viewed it in this manner for it gave him a clear idea of the things intent. It was making to waylay the young woman!
“Bring me her blood and your way is cleared. I will then give you the gift you seek.”
The warrior looked to the Maiden and then to the Warlock.
“I will not bargain in the blood of those unknown to me. It is a cruel game that you play but I know another one.” He grasped Celestia’s hand and let go the incantation that had been placed in his mind. In a twinkling that even the Warlock could not expect they were gone.
Enraged the Warlock turned to find them but he knew that he had not put up any protections this time. Who would have thought that a sword wielding boy would have any arcane gifts! Then he saw the mirror and howled with fury.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
The way was clear to him now; he only needed hinder this slip of a girl and satisfy his Thirst (all at the same time conveniently) and then to the Portal. Before the Ghoul began his descent he stretched out with his mind and hurled one of the powerful formulae at the damsel. It would bind her with etheric forces and permit him his chance to have his way with her.
He picked his way down a slope that would allow him to ambush her, thus permitting him to throw the full force of his will against her, when he heard a sharp crack.
He turned to see a youth armed with axe and sword had just appeared on the slope above him. A young woman was there as well.
“I am come to stop you. I have guessed your intent and you will not be permitted to harm another as you did me.”
The Ghoul grimaced in defiance, “Thwart me if you can!” He drew his sword and the warrior launched his attack.
The Ghoul had gained in strength and skill but the warrior was showing the legacy of his time wielding the Rune Sword. They dueled along a ridge, neither wishing to make the first misstep.
“Have you lost my sword fool?” the Ghoul asked during an uppercut to the youth’s thigh.
“I cast it aside.” He replied as he deflected the Ghoul’s weapon.
“Simpleton! The weapon of power thrown away?” he thrust for the throat.
The warrior let the thrust come and then easily deflected it upward so it passed over his head. “It was a thing of evil and I no longer have use for such things.”
The Ghoul swung the weapon ‘round and brought the edge down to the warrior’s breast. “You will wish you still had it now!”
“Nay.” He replied and hooked the axe on his enemies sword pommel and, with a twist jerked the weapon away and snapped his sword down to point at the Ghouls neck.
The Ghoul yowled in his fury and leapt back, the warrior thrust forward to pierce his opponent’s throat but missed by a hairs breadth. There was a moment’s hesitation and a slight tug on the warrior’s sword before the Ghoul slid down the hillside.
As the youth hastily reposted his sword he saw what had ensnared it for that moment. It arced upwards and glittered in the waning sunlight, a Talisman. He snatched it from the air and looked at it with reverence.
The Ghoul looked up and screamed in rage, he unleashed a torrent of curses and insults followed by threats and promises of dire revenge. The warrior did not stay to hear the tirade; he made all haste to see if he could catch up with the young lady.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
The Ghoul was out of his mind with anger. The fight had cost him his one necessary tool and the fall had taken him off of his intended path. He did not know how the idiot had managed to gain on him but he smelled magic behind it. His sword was near him, its point driven into the earth by the force of its impact. He jerked it free with a feeling of contempt. He cursed the idiot boy again for discarding the powerful Rune Sword. What would cause anyone in their right mind to throw aside such an item? It was truly beyond the Ghouls ability to comprehend.
He found himself amongst a circle of stones, each deeply carved with runes. These he recognized as real symbols of power. What they represented he did not have time to learn, there was still time and he had a few weapons yet to unleash.
There had been a conflict here, not too long ago either. He scanned the ground and surrounding landscape, he found an Amulet. He new its power would not aid him; indeed it would block his use of the forces he had gained from the book. It was true that it would act as protection from such forces but he needed the channels of the universe clear. There were signs of a conflict here but whatever had happened was long over and the participants had moved on.
He prepared to release a new ensorcellment for his rivals to deal with, another power that reached across the land and placed a hazard at the Portal that they all must pass through. He was bound to follow them now, he had need of a Talisman and his trap would weaken the first to attempt the mighty gate.
Part Two: Beyond the Storm River
The Prophetess was in the midst of picking a trail across a valley when the world just stopped. It was like a dream at first but then she realized that it was not the world but she who had ceased to progress. Her friend the Unicorn was not in her field of vision and she could not turn to see him. She had to presume that he was immobile as well or he would have cantered by at some point. She had a wave of fear sweep over her but as the time passed and she lingered the fear subsided and was replaced by a feeling of annoyance.
Someone or something was purposefully delaying her. She knew that she must have rivals but they had not revealed themselves until now. Even if she had seen this coming she could have done nothing about it.
A figure topped a hillock in the distance. It was a man striding at an easy pace, near him was a woman. The man hurried forward.” Here it comes.” She thought, she was at his mercy.
“You look to be in a nice fix.” The warrior said. She was incapable of reply. “We are enemies by the rules of this Quest but I think that we can avoid any unpleasantness.”
She looked on; the spell she was under was starting to fade.
“We both seek the same prize but who decrees that we need to kill each other over it. My purpose is just, though I started with a less than savory motivation. That is changed; you do not look like a cruel or greedy sort. We have a worse enemy than one another that would surly use the Crown for purposes that you could not imagine.”
“And you can imagine them?” She was at last able to speak.
He looked at Celestia and cast his eyes down, “Yes. We can at least keep this creature from gaining the power. I propose an alliance.”
She thought for a time. His combat skill was obviously greater than hers. He could easily do what he wished yet he was of a mind to parlay.
“I see wisdom in this.” She said. “I suggest that between us it be a race, no tricks or ruses, the first to the Crown owns it and the other gives up their claim.”
“The conditions are simple enough; the one who wears the Crown will have the final say in any case.”
She looked into his eyes deeply, “The Crown is no proof of victory. If another enters the chamber they may challenge for the right. Can I hold you to the bargain?”
He looked back, trying to find a slight opening. “I see by the symbols of your order that once your word is given it will not be revoked. What can I say that will convince you that I will keep my covenant with you?”
“You have said it. There are no sweet words or high toned rhetoric that would cover your true intent. Even I, in the presence of such power may forsake my vows. It is a matter of trust and faith.”
They stood thus for a time and then clasped hands to seal the pact.
In the morning they set out on separate paths to the Portal of Power.
Part Three: The Portal of Power
The young warrior made his way through the wild landscape, struggling through twisted undergrowth and more than one menacing goblinoid. They were stronger here but his skill with weapons easily won through. He rested for a bit under the shade of some ancient stones. They were carved with peculiar runes and arranged at mad angles. No mason he knew of could have, or would have arranged such a bizarre edifice. They all seemed to be pointing towards something but try as he might, thinking it a strange road sign, he could see nothing of note in the directions they tilted.
Quite by accident he saw a curious Amulet on the ground. He had learned that if such a thing were discovered that showed no signs of age or wear that they held arcane power. His Talisman was such a thing. At first glance it appeared to be a mere trinket, its gold plate peeling away. When one looked beneath the façade it was shown to be made of a strange sort of greenish stone unlike anything he had heard of. The gold plating was someone’s notion of disguise or decoration. The Talisman needed no protection from the elements and neither did the Amulet he had picked up.
He gleaned at once that the Amulet was some form of protection but that was all he could gather for now. He ventured onward over rough terrain and he took care too totally by pass the realm of the Black Knight. He had learnt of this extortioner from Escobar the Alchemist, his one time companion. The Black Knight was said to have armour that was proof against any weapon or conjuration and if you could not pay his ransom of gold he would ride you down on his unnatural steed and not care if you lived or died.
The detour delayed him but he at last came to the Portal of Power. He and Celestia surveyed the area. Someone had been here before! His eyes narrowed, so he lagged behind in the race. If it were the Prophetess than he would do his best to keep to his bargain, if it were the Ghoul then it meant that the young woman had succumbed to the creature’s power and all bets were off. First, however, was the matter of the Portal.
They examined it and could not fathom the intricate locking mechanism. He shrugged, grasped the enormous handle and turned with all of his might. The Maiden was not sure which would give way first, the Portal or the warrior’s shoulders, and then there was a snap and a mighty groan as if something had been broken deep inside some living thing. The Portal swung open.
The view beyond nearly caused him to surrender all notions of continuing. The place was a blasted and bleak landscape. He had seen depictions of Hell in holy manuscript and other books but this made them look like pleasant garden playgrounds.
The sky looked odd as well, too close. In fact all perspective was distorted to such a degree that he could not be sure if it would take days or minutes to reach his goal and he knew that there were several obstacles still in his path.
He motioned towards a crumbling structure in the distance. “Yonder Crypt seems as good a place to start as any.” And they plodded on, feeling the weary weeks on their backs more than ever.
Part Three: The Portal of Power
I was quite put out. How had the thick skulled sword slinger managed to thwart my trap? That spot at the Portal was hexed and he had walked through it unscathed, even I would have been burned through by the enchantment I had laid.
Aggravating at the least, he was the one I most needed to weaken if I was to claim my rights. Well, I would see how the young woman faired. She may be the easier to over come. I could take her life’s energy and her Talisman and be on the tail of the fool in short order.
I watched and soon she arrived. It was only natural that our paths would narrow and converge as we made our assault on the forbidden land. Her approach was far more satisfactory. As she made to touch the mighty Portal she was engulfed in the blue-black flames of unfiltered arcane power! It was a most delightful spectacle to see her writhing in agony, that ridiculous beast hopping about helplessly. I laughed for the first time since my awakening, there would more such rich comedy under my ruler ship.
I tried to reach her before she was too far gone but she recovered quickly and mastered the lock on the door to the land beyond. My way was clear and in good time I had made my way to the puzzle of the Portal. A master work indeed, but simple enough for one of a superior intellect as mine.
Within the buried land I saw her; she had gone far in a short time. My senses told me that this place was completely artificial. It was a pocket of the cosmos, sealed off and perpetuated by an unimaginable power. Such powers were at the behest of the wearer of the Crown of Command. Whether through my own hand or those commanded by me I could alter the fabric of the universe and make my domain invincible, my ruler ship perpetual. But first I must capture and slay my quarry.
Part Three: The Portal of Power
Clambering through the old Crypt was child’s play to the young warrior. The Maiden had a hard time of it but he easily carried her for the most part. They came to a place that bespoke an inescapable dread. Crossing the rough terrain was hard going but it seemed that they crossed ground at a fast pace. The sky and ground bent together in an unnatural way and he felt much like in insect trapped under a bowl might.
They climbed a rough stair and beheld a gruesome sight. There was a table in the center of what could have been a room but for its lack of walls. As it was there was only one exit, an archway through which nothing could be seen. The floor of the area was a on a high plateau, all around was a sheer drop to an unseeable bottom. At the table were two chairs, one empty, as if waiting just for him. The other was occupied by a grim cloaked visage whose skeletal hands rested patiently on the table; its face was shrouded in its hood. The warrior was glad of this; he had no desire to look upon the face of such a creature.
He stepped forward and they saw that the floor was packed with the bones of the dead to such an extent that it was impossible to tell if the plateau was of solid earth or solid skeletons.
The figure bade him sit in the chair.
He could turn back but to go onward he must parlay with this spirit.
He sat, in front of him were two dice made of bone. The horrid figure opened its hand and revealed a pair of its own dice. These were red and they seemed to pulse. The warrior’s heart pounded, what was required of him? He noticed that with each beat of his heart the red dice throbbed in perfect rhythm.
The figure of Death gestured for him to take up the bone dice. Was this to be the game, a toss of the dice to decide his worthiness to continue onward? A random throw and his life would be drained or he would pass on…it was madness.
The hooded figure took up his red dice and the warrior felt the cold hands clutch at his heart. His quaking hand took up the bone dice and hesitated. The dead hand of his opponent gave the red dice a toss and the warrior felt his heart flutter as they bounced across the table, he hurriedly let his fly. They clattered wildly, nearly rolling off of the table. What would that have meant? He had no desire to ask, he probably would not have gotten an answer in any case.
His dice stopped, showing a total of six, the red dice stopped. They totaled eleven! His heart seemed to stop for a moment, he slouched in his seat, Celestia made to come to his aid but the cloaked figure of Death gazed upon her and she relented.
The warrior wanted to stand but Death bade him take up the dice again. He tried to refuse but Death only gestured to the still blank archway behind him, then back towards the Crypt and then cupped the dice in its skeletal hand.
The throw was eight for Death and three for the warrior. He had never been lucky with games of chance; his coin had been made enforcing the payments from those that lost their throws. This game was enforced by the power of the dice owner…he felt more of his vitality drained away. The Rune Sword had fed him with an unwholesome energy and now he was paying the price. Perhaps this was justice for usurping Death’s authority; he must pay the house its share.
Undeterred, Death insisted that the game continue, perhaps until it concluded in the youth winning or dying. Another throw was required. Sometimes a person can receive enough hurts that they become immune to further abuse, sometimes the abuse only made one more sensitive to the pain. This was the later case. The warrior had felt the surge of taking life and had endured his life being drained. He far preferred the former.
The dice rolled. The red Dice of Death displayed a total of four, the warrior’s dice stopped with a total of five. He gasped as he prepared for another draining of his life but it did not come. Death gestured to the archway; it displayed an open rocky plain dotted with shrubs. The youth grabbed Celestia by the hand and they quickly plunged through the opening, putting as much space between them and the terrible gaming table as possible.
Part Three: The Portal of Power
What ever had hit her at the Portal was surely the work of her least worthy opponent, the Ghoul that had been on her trail for some time. It was behind her she knew, someone had forced the door not long before but if the undead thing was in the lead then it would have no need to place a trap on the door. It sought to punish her, detain her and then slay her. She continued in haste, the Unicorn was letting the Prophetess take the lead; he had no notion of what to do in this unnatural piece of the world.
She looked at the Unicorn with a sweet smile and was about to speak, not knowing if the beast even understood her, when a faraway look came to its eyes. It tossed its main, snorted and cantered about as if in a struggle and then it bound back towards the Portal. She was dismayed, angry and hurt.
Why had her stalwart companion suddenly deserted her? Surely not fear of this place, something had taken it from her and she did not need to guess as to whom.
The Unicorn came bounding to him, blank eyed. The beast was his now, the supernatural formulae that he had devised had overthrown its will and he could now use its abilities for his gain, it was helpful that it diminished the woman that opposed him as well. The Portal closed behind him and he prepared for his last mighty push. He was behind in this race but there was on more ‘card’ he had to play.
The Prophetess decided that it was foolhardy to turn back now to regain her friend. She would hand out some punishments in good time. She was certain that the warrior was ahead of her and she needed to get there in order to…to what? Was not the agreement that the first would retain the Crown and the other turn back forever? She had to see for herself, or so she told herself, that the warrior was indeed the Crowns rightful owner. She would go that far, she thought as she clambered through the tumbled down Crypt, be certain that it was him and not some other. She was lying to herself she knew but she did not care. Then she came to a table on a plateau of bone and all thoughts of the future fled her mind for a time.
Part Three: The Portal of Power
The warrior could still see the cold plateau behind him; the way that this place altered perspective was unnerving. He was sure he could make out the figure of a woman seat herself at the table with Death. He hoped she faired better than he, and then he thought that maybe she might do worse and he did not think that would bother him too much. This notion disturbed him more than any thing, had the power of the Crown become that alluring? Was the death of a rival to be preferred, rather than make good on his promise, was he also aware that she may truly be tempted to take the Crown from him?
He was suddenly accosted by a raging creature of hair and teeth! It growled and lunged at them, it gave him the impression that is was both man and beast. Its growls and barks were like a hunting wolf; it grabbed and raked with clawed hands like a mad man!
A werewolf! He had heard legends of such creatures and knew he would have to deal with them before he could reach the Valley of Fire. The thing was immense and powerful. In strength it out classed him, but not by much.
As he swung his sword it grabbed his wrist and tried to throw him, the thing fought with skill as well as might! The warrior was well tempered and he rolled with the throw that would have torn his arm loose. A nimble roll gave the warrior his advantage and he began his onslaught. The werewolf tried to parry and dodge to get inside the warrior’s attack but to no avail. The tide had turned and the beast was on his heels, and then its knees, then it died, an axe cleaving its skull.
He looked to the horizon and the dice table of Death but could not see the Prophetess. Was she dead or had she won her game, and if she had won how much had it cost her?
He looked ahead to the infernal glow of the Valley of Fire, a figure was there and it was holding what could only be a Talisman above its head! It had come from the other side of the Valley; obviously this one had taken another route. Had he miscalculated? Was the Ghoul equipped with another Talisman and, thus, able to circumvent both he and the Prophetess to now step forth and claim the Crown? He and the Maiden charged ahead.
Part Three: The Portal of Power
Dice! Dice damn it! By the Crown but that was a brilliant ploy! I knew there would be a contest with an agent of the underworld and I had taken pains to be well schooled in all manner of riddles and tests of skill, but dice, there was no preparation for that game! Fortunately Fate was kind to me in games of chance in my life before and those good graces had carried over into my new existence, I was not greatly delayed, but I was slightly drained. I saw that my rivals had dispatched two lycanthropes prior to my arrival so I was well prepared when one of the creatures came to assault me. The beast that I had taken from the woman was of great benefit, its skill and endurance had made the difference between victory and defeat.
This landscape played tricks on one’s sight; it was as if this small pocket of the universe was designed to allow one to see all happenings within its boundaries. Ahead was the woman I needed to kill, she had the Talisman I needed. Beyond was the sword slinger, he would be a hard one to beat so I must drink deeply from the woman to be ready for that challenge. The horned beast I had claimed would help in that battle as well; I had used my final bit of sorcery in order to gain on these enemies. It had folded time ‘round itself and I had closed the gap and now I was with in striking distance of my Kingship.
Part Three: The Portal of Power
His every day was spent in preparation for the Quest. In greatest secret he had studied the arts that would let him attune the energies of the universe to his needs. It was not science by any means and he was uncertain, sometimes, in what form the powers would manifest themselves. When he started on his journey he had done that in utmost secret as well. Others were out on this Quest but he would not delay by trying to thwart them, his best chance lie in an undistracted attack on the goal. When others he suspected of competing on the Quest came near he shrouded himself with an enchantment. He never sought to attack or delay them, these things invited retaliation. He did not have time for such indulgences, by wining through to the Crown he could remedy all past grudges, imagined and real.
He had built up a following but he never entered civilized precincts lest he give away his existence. His ability to tap the arcane energies of the universe at will was his greatest strength. He could blast obstacles to dust or use subtle means to bypass them. By dealing only with dodgy hedge wizards and calling on departed spirits that listened at the edge of reality in the places of the dead, he was able to gain even more powers.
He was not blind to good fortune when it came his way; he came upon the parts of what was once a raft lodged in a backwash of the Storm River. It took his team little time to repair it and pole across the treacherous river. The crazy Warlock was just a charlatan, in the face of the Wizards real power and he dared not try to confound him. He had found some real treasures to be sure; the true Talisman he gained could not be duplicated. The Wizard had ‘convinced’ the Warlock to take a payment of gold and be done with it. He knew the Warlock had some power, that there was some game he was playing at, but it did not matter, the Quest was the important thing.
He and his troop had braved the burning desert and faced spirits from the netherworld to arrive here. After passing through the portal they had gone through the maze like underground of an ancient mine. This was no trifling thing but come through it they did. When they had passed it they were confronted by an old tower, much given over to decay. From it came a screaming horde of vampires! They were starved for blood but their leader stopped their onslaught, there were matters of etiquette to maintain. Vampires existed by an unusual code of behavior, probably adapted because of their lack of true death. Their endless existence had to be punctuated by certain amusements and ‘playing with your food’ was one of them.
Vampires remembered very clearly their former lives and they always sought to mimic their previous habits, so it was now. They would not enter your home uninvited, no matter how humble, and they expected the same courtesy. They had demanded a payment to allow the wizard to pass, he paid it without remorse. As the undead monsters swarmed over his faithful followers the Wizard passed through their domain without regret. The Gnome had been of value at the Portal and in the mines, so it was with a tiny Pixie that could find secret ways through the deepest forest, he was done with them now, as well as the others he had permitted to follow him; there was no place for them in the Seat of Power.
He had to cross a region of fetid pits and, as expected, he was assaulted by a horde of Fiends. These were lesser creatures of the underworld given physical form, he was able to master them all and move past to the Valley of Fire. As he entered the Valley he discerned an interloper. A callow youth he had seen in passing early in his journey, this one could be trouble, he had come far but he was too late! The Wizard held aloft the Talisman in the prescribed manner and stepped onto a small arcing footbridge of stone that crossed the Valley and into the chamber of the Crown.
Part Four: The Power and the Pain
The warrior and Celestia ran for the Valley of Fire. It was not as grand in scale as one would imagine. In thirty paces a normal person could walk the space to the other side or cross the narrow bridge that led to the Crown of Command. It was the intensity of the heat that made the Valley as impassable as if it were a thousand leagues. Without the protection of the Talisman they would have been burnt to vapor before they could complete a half step. There were no flames as they expected, just a shimmering from the waves of heat that radiated from the place.
As it was they cautiously crept up the narrow footbridge, the warrior noted that it, and the land about the Valley was composed of the same unearthly stone as the Talisman. They did not recognize the man that was now in the chamber of the Crown, from the raised vantage point of the bridge he saw the Prophetess running towards them, and as if being allowed a full view of the world, he also saw the Ghoul approaching.
A rival that none of them had been aware of had been on the Quest and he was near to making his claim. The warrior turned to enter the chamber when they all felt it, a crushing blow that was unlike any wound or draining of essence they had experienced before. The new rival had donned the Crown and he was using it to pour ice water onto the flame of their lives!
The warrior recalled what the Prophetess had said; he could still challenge the usurper for the Crown. He leapt into the chamber and the Wizard turned a livid hue in his rage. Too close now to use the Crown he unleashed the formula of his vocation. A ray of black fire that would burn this swordsman’s soul! Yet it had no effect!
The warrior had braced himself for yet more assaults on his mortality but he was surprised to note that there was no effect from the Wizards arcane powers. The Amulet! It was proof against magical forces, not so powerful as to protect against the Crown but he had the best armor possible now.
All of the Wizards legerdemain was useless as the Warrior advanced and for the first time on the Quest, the Wizard considered that he might fail.
The Warrior attacked with all he was worth and was oddly pleased that the Wizard did not go down without giving him a plausible contest, the old man had a power of the mind that no protection could thwart and this caused the warrior some hurts and no little concern as his mind was assaulted. The learned old man had lacked true skill at arms however and the battle ended in the only way it could have.
He turned to see the Prophetess at the far side of the bridge, she gazed up with sorrow.
“We have a bargain dear lady. Do you keep your part or do we shed more blood?”
Her eyes began to well up and she was about to speak when a phlegm filled throat cried out “Mine!” Filthy and discolored hands ripped at her and clutched for the chain that bore the Talisman she possessed.
The Ghoul and the Prophetess struggled, the Ghouls hands gripped the woman’s supple flesh but he could not truly feel the softness under his fingers and this enraged him even more! He had other lusts that he could satisfy, and he bent to that purpose.
“Use it!” she called out. “Use the Crown!”
“If I cannot control who it affects you will be damaged by it as well!” the warrior called back.
“It is your only chance! Without me he cannot withstand the Crown for long. I feel it.” The Ghoul clasped his cold hand across her mouth and bent to feed on her.
The warrior looked sorrowfully at the Maiden; he cast side the Amulet for he sensed it would impede his use of the Crown. While the Crown could over power the protection of the Amulet, the medallion stifled the flow of energy that was required to activate the Crown. Like starting a bon fire, one had to use tinder and flint before the blaze could begin in earnest. He placed the Crown on his head.
The warrior could see…everything. The world was before him but in an abstract play of colors and sensations that was more real than reality it self. Bright spots of various colors moved about, some larger, others brighter. Many would fade and disappear whilst others sprang into being to replace them. He was seeing the whole of humanity and the living world as the lights of their souls. In front of him he saw two powerful lights in a battle, one was diminished and it was trying to take a portion of what was left from the other.
He focused his will and the power of the Crown smote them like a block of ice. The Prophetess released one last fragment of arcane knowledge to protect her from this attack and hoped that it would be enough.
The Ghoul relinquished its hold on her and reeled, clutching the Talisman he had stolen. His eyes became unfocused and he swayed as if drunk. “Mine.” It said feebly. “My right…”
The Ghoul sunk to its knees and then it slumped forward with its face pressed to the green stone. It had died its second and final death within steps of the goal that drove it back from the grave.
Part Four: The Power and the Pain
She looked up at the warrior. The bridge was so feeble looking, as if a sharp kick would knock it to pieces. The warrior looked down at her.
“Do you keep your bargain?” he asked, holding the Crown in his hands.
“You have used the Crown already, how do I know that you will not use it for the ill purposes that it was made for!”
“I sense that you could challenge me, we are both weakened. How do I know that you are able to resist the temptations it offers?”
“I was raised in the Order of the Most High. I have never been subject to temptation or cruelty as you have.” She said in protest.
“That is what you should fear.” He offered.
“What is this, a riddle?”
“Have you ever been driven by anger or revenge?” he asked.
“Never.” She stated proudly.
“Have you never felt the desire to exact a punishment on someone for some little slight? Have you ever had such things done to you in any form?”
She wavered in her answer. “Never.” It was a true statement; she had led a life protected in the abbey, free from such grief. “Does your having been tormented make you somehow more worthy to claim the Crown than I!” she found that she had raised her Lance during her protest, it embarrassed her a little.
“No, not more worthy, but perhaps more capable.” He had reached a painful moment of truth that must be revealed. The Prophetess looked perplexed.
He took a deep breath and let his eyes meet hers. “I have experienced all of these things. I know the savory flavor of revenge, and the bitter after taste. I have been wronged and abused with no chance to retaliate and I would not wish it on any other being.”
“But” she retorted “was using the Crown on your enemy an act of revenge or justice?”
“There are rare cases where they are the same thing. I pity the poor soul that I had to squelch. Perhaps he did have the Right to claim the Crown, more so than any other on the Quest. That did not mean that he was with in his rights to use it as he sought to. He could know nothing but his desire. What would you do in the long lonely hours of your life in this chamber? Your beast might be a companion for a time but he would wither at his separation from the natural world he craves.”
“In your isolation simple desires would grow into unnatural perversions and with out the experience of having tasted the real thing, they would rule you. You may not even realize what horrors you are visiting on others, the things you would command them to do would seem as natural and necessary as the food you eat.”
She suddenly felt the truth of it. She recalled the unwholesome spirit in the woods that had tempted her. She was willing to give in to what it wanted so she could experience what it offered for one time, regardless of the unseemliness of the thing. She had felt her self esteem grow in her struggle, now she saw it now as a false confidence; she had no opportunity to test her faith or skill in the real world.
“Can you trust yourself to not use the Crown?” she asked.
“No, the Crown will likely be used.” He looked to the Maiden “But with proper guidance its power will only be used in its own defense, to keep others from it while I live.”
She had let the point of the Lance drop and it rested near the dead Ghoul. She looked down at herself and saw that she was in a state of such dishevelment that she was suddenly ashamed of the way she looked. That sealed her decision. The warrior and the Maiden were no better off but somehow she thought she should appear in a better light. She was vain! It was a vice that she would turn into a virtue with unbridled access to the Crown. That would be the start of it, and it had not even been a few minutes in the presence of the thing.
“Keep it well warrior, and take care of him dear Maiden.” She turned to go, tears welling in her eyes, partly from sorrow, partly from relief.
“I will keep the way clear.” was the last he said to her.
It took a long time for her to relate the tale of her journey to Father William and Brother Nod. Neither really believed it for many months but, as no horrors descended on the countryside, they accepted the truth of what she said. Brother Nod was so overjoyed that he was willing to overlook anything to have his beloved return to him. Father William was quiet on the matter but he was more content now. Having someone that could understand what you had suffered made the bearing of it more tolerable.
The Prophetess used her time to write the tale in a book bound in leather that had been tooled in a representation of a Talisman. She and the warrior had changed the rules of the game; it was a matter of free will. The tales said that to possess the Crown was an act of avarice. She had started out to keep others from claiming it; the warrior would fulfill that obligation. He was correct; she did not have enough life under her belt to control her passions. Well that was changing quickly. She and Nod had been wed and she was with child. They had their joys, sorrows and arguments. Hard times came and went but they endured.
There was always the fear that the warrior would succumb to the temptation of the power that the Crown afforded, was that not the fear of any that took power? Some day the warrior would pass from this life. When that day came others would take up the Quest, with faith and fortune the victor would be a benign overseer. That was for the future; one had to live their life in the moment and not always try to see what was coming.
About the Author
Douglas Toth is a grouchy old game geek with an Associate Degree in electronics, a tolerant wife and a penchant for drifting off into his imagination. He can be roused back to the real world by the sound of beer bottles opening, the smell of fresh coffee, the rolling of dice or a thump to the head.
His favorite games are seeing resurgence; Talisman, Starfleet Battles (as Federation Commander) Titan and Tunnels and Trolls (I give up on D&D!). Reading Sci-Fi (Blish, Asimov and others) Fantasy (E.R.Burroughs, Lieber, Howard and, again, others) fills a rainy afternoon alone. Movies of the same ilk are also a constant waste of his time. He views computer games as a weak fill in for real gaming with real people.
Mr. Toth also enjoys the outdoors on warm days where he can camp and participate in live action combat games like Dagorhir (look it up). He dwells in the middling part of Indiana, USA; which is actually a pretty nice place.
Special thanks to Jon New for his effort in putting this where everyone can read it.