SEVENTHMONTH, 2988 YEARS AFTER THE DEATH OF LANARIUS
Fight against the despair that darkens your heart, O ye Mother of Destruction. Within you sleeps the Destroyer. Let him awaken in peace lest his fear and anger overwhelm you and set the fires of death among the peoples of the world.
The prisoner woke up to his own screams. His wrecked and ruined throat ached as he drew in shuddering breaths, trying to calm his heart. Hot tears flowed down his face, leaving trails of mud in their wake. His matted beard was soaked with his weeping. Turning his head to the side, he wiped his face on his rough, dirt-caked sleeve. He was surprised he had any tears left. He was surprised he was sane enough to remember he had cause to weep beyond being in this dungeon waiting for his death to come. And it would come soon enough. His days were well and truly numbered. Death would be a sweet release from the bitter torment his life had become since his capture.
“Wanderer forgive me,” he groaned softly, tears running anew from the corners of his eyes. “I failed her. I failed her and she’s gone. Forgive me.”
The prisoner heard no benediction. He expected none. His weakness had led to this end and it seemed that even the face of his god had turned from him, leaving him in the darkness. Only insanity held any hope of holding the anguish at bay and even that was merely temporary. Reality always intruded – usually at the worst possible moment. For now, though, the prisoner thought he was safe enough to indulge in a little lapse of sanity.
He’d forgotten how his madness had begun. Lately it seemed as if he had always been barely sane. The days of his former life were distant and half-forgotten, melting away like the fading shadows of a dream melt upon awakening. She was the only thing he could remember from his previous life and the memory of her was an especial torment.
The prisoner closed his eyes and let his mind drift. A few surface thoughts tried to wrest his attention away from the drifting but he had learned to ignore them. Soon, his mind was silent and dark, almost as if he were sleeping. That was when the madness grabbed him and dragged his mind through a place of impossible shadow and into a place of impossible light. Here, in a realm where no shadow existed, the prisoner could let himself relax for a short time. Nothing could harm him when he was here as long as he did not allow his mind to be wrested back to reality. He knew that in time, the needs of his body would intrude and force him back. He also knew that his captors, if they had returned to torment him and break him further, were more than capable of dragging his mind back to his body. But, for now, the prisoner could rest and relax, far above and beyond his cell.
Perhaps, one day, if the Wanderer forgave him, he would be allowed to remain forever in this peaceful realm of light. The prisoner clung to that hope – it was all he had left after seeing what they had done to her – seeing what he had failed to protect her from.
“Forgive me, my love,” he whispered hoarsely, feeling tears run down his cheeks. “Forgive my weakness.”
As the prisoner wept, his mind and body crying out for a forgiveness he never believed he would receive, his mind drifted, searching and praying to find one he no longer believed he could see or name. If only some hint of her remained, some faint trace of her fragrance, he could find the strength to join her. But no matter how he searched this realm for his love, he found nothing but emptiness and the lonely echo of a love that had died.
The prisoner was about to give up, about to just let his mind drift in the realm he had come to think of as a false paradise, when an awareness brushed against him. His senses were honed, near razor sharp, from months of mad wandering. Focusing on the sensation, he tried to trace it, to track it back. Until now, he had never felt anything but his own emptiness in this calm asylum. But if something or someone else was there, perhaps they could help him. Perhaps he was not beyond redemption. Chasing after it, he could feel his body tensing, pouring all of the strength he had once possessed into the hunt for this elusive presence. Desperation poured into the prisoner. He had been alone with only his tormentors for company for so long. If there was someone else out there…
“No, no!” he cried as he felt his mind being dragged back to reality. He fell through the realm of light, slammed into the realm of shadow, and then was pulled the rest of the way back to his taut and weary body. “Please, no,” he wept pathetically as his eyes opened to see one of his jailers standing over him.
“Simion wants you,” the creature hissed through a mouth never meant for normal speech.
“Please, I’ll do anything,” the prisoner moaned.
“I expect you will at that,” the creature laughed as its clawed hands wrapped around the prisoner’s shoulders. “Simion’s good at making your kind do as he wants. You there,” the creature hissed to one of its brothers, “grab his legs and help me carry him. The Master doesn’t want him too bruised and battered. At least not yet,” he chuckled.
Limp, tired, and too broken to put up more than a token resistance, the prisoner let them drag him to another session of torture. However, deep in the back of his mind, he remembered the elusive presence and felt the beginnings of hope stirring amidst his despair.
Ann’le’anya paced restlessly up and down the tunnel. She could feel her guards’ eyes boring into her as they stared at her. None of them were comfortable with looking at her face or her protruding belly. Only their guides could look at her with anything approaching normalcy and even their gazes were tinged with awe. Her breath hissed between clenched teeth in annoyance. Mother of Destruction, the woman prophesied to give birth to the Destroyer, the youngest child and only daughter of the High Elven king of Syl’aria, archmage, daughter of battle and blood – she had more titles than she knew what to do with. The only one that mattered to her was “wife of Garal’anthin’aris sel Loriaska, Commander of Centralis.”
“How much longer must we leave him to suffer?” she growled angrily as she placed a hand on her rounded belly. “You could have rescued him months ago.”
“We must wait until the proper time,” one of her companions said calmly. “The world depends on it.”
Ann’le’anya grunted irritably. She’d heard that response so often she was ready to tear her hair out and use it to strangle the Demlinrolk who led their guides. For all that her family had supposedly disowned her; the elven princess was being escorted by enough guards and guides to fill a large squadron.
“If we wait much longer, they’ll kill him,” she argued, knowing it was useless.
“If we move too early, they’ll capture you and your child,” her brother muttered from the shadows. “And I have not come all this way to return to our father empty-handed.”
Ann’le’anya muttered an elven curse beneath her breath and resumed her pacing. Her back ached and her ankles were beginning to swell. She hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in several months – not since the day of Jarl’s funeral. She longed to be with him again, to feel his arms around her. That longing, coupled with her worry and her fear, kept sleep at bay.
She shivered with fright when she felt a hand touch her back. Turning her head to glance over her shoulder, she could see the Demlinrolk they called “the Watcher” standing behind her, offering his silent comfort. Sighing, she turned and leaned her head into his chest and wrapped her arms around his waist. He stroked her hair tenderly, like her father had when she was a child.
“He will be well, in time, young one,” the Watcher whispered softly, pitching his voice so that only she could hear it. “You must rest. You remind me of my granddaughter when she was with child.”
“Your granddaughter?” she repeated. “I never asked but what is the lifespan of a Demlinrolk?”
“Around six hundred years,” he replied. “I’m in my fourth century. I would have thought your people would be more patient than mine considering that you live so much longer.”
“Only those of us who are of the purest elven descent live the full span,” she muttered, pushing away from the Watcher and moving to settle down on her sleeping mat. “I still can’t believe that we were so blind. So terribly, stupidly blind. I should have seen this coming. We all should have,” she growled angrily. “And now, it’s too late to stop it.”
“It was always too late to stop it,” the Watcher said as he settled down next to the elven woman. He motioned for her to lie down and then tucked the blankets around her. “Your people drove out the prophets who could have warned you, could have prepared you for this. I know, I know,” he temporized when it seemed that she might argue, “but we’ve known this day was coming since we were exiled. That’s why we’re able to be patient. We know what comes next and why it must happen as it is happening.”
“That might be the case,” Anna sighed, “but it doesn’t make living it any easier to bear.”
The prisoner slumped against his cell wall and tried to raise his hands to his face. His arms shook with the effort. His legs went out from under him and he fell face-first onto the filthy floor. Closing his eyes, he tried to ignore the pain that coursed through his veins. He rolled onto his back, gasping for breath. This session had been especially brutal. Sweat made his ratty clothes cling to him. His mouth was as dry as the desert.
He felt his cares and concerns slip away as his mind slipped its leash and he entered that realm of impossible light again. Immediately, he felt that presence that had eluded him before. It was stronger and closer by. He…moved towards it and it remained where it was. When he reached it, he could see that it was a man. A human. He appeared to be in his forties. Sad eyes dominated his face but his body was hale and strong. When he looked at the prisoner, compassion flitted across his face and he stood up straighter, his shoulders back and his posture one of a man who was accustomed to leadership and command.
“I have been watching you,” he said, his voice deep and rich. “You have much promise, young one.”
“Who…who are you?”
“That is not the question you should be asking, youngling.”
“What are you?”
“Again, not the question you should be asking.”
“What is this place? Is it real?”
“Finally. The right questions. This place has many names, youngling. Some call it the Realm of Light. Others the Astral Realm. And it is as real as anything else. It exists above and around the physical world.”
“Like the Void?”
“It’s the opposite of the Void. The Void is this world’s shadow.”
“How can worlds have shadows?”
“That is the wrong question but I’ll answer it,” the other man said tolerantly. “Reality isn’t as neat as you believe it is. Once upon a time, it was. Then magic entered the world. Belief began to reshape reality as the magi cast their spells. Then the priests came to balance them. The Void was once a realm of possibility before it became a place of darkness and nightmare. Then the priests died out as the gods who had once been mortals who answered the Call were forgotten, their temples left empty, their prophecies ignored. The Void, the Astral, and the material grew further and further apart. Then the blasphemers tainted the Void, driving the Astral even further away. The gods sealed themselves away lest mortals reach them and wrest away power that was never intended for mortal hands.”
“What does any of that mean? How can mortals become gods? Reshaping reality?”
“Long ago, in ages lost in the mists of time, the world you inhabit was very different. Then came the wars. The horsemen rode rampant, culling mortals as they willed. Every corner of the world was engulfed. Mortal’s arrogance had proven their undoing. But from them, from those distant ancestors, came those who could see beyond physical reality. The first magi. But there are realms beyond these three. Realms that were once open to those who could hear the Call. Mortals had forgotten their ancient gods – the gods of blood and vengeance. Gods who dictated to mortals, demanding obeisance and homage. But the Call went out and those who could hear it ascended. They were found worthy and became new gods. Different gods. But now they have been forgotten. They were forced to seal themselves away from the mortals they loved and watched over. The Call must, this time, come from the mortals. Only then can the gods return and set to rights that which was disturbed so many years ago.”
“How do we send out this Call?”
“You cannot, youngling. It is for others to do.”
“I’ve gone mad, haven’t I? This whole thing is…a delusion.”
“No, young one, you have not gone mad. The torture you’ve endured is what allowed you to come here in the first place. Otherwise, you would have lived out your life never bothering to delve deep inside yourself. Never bothering to search for another realm, to search for escape. Soon, though, you will come here and learn to use the power of this realm, channeling it through your body and into your realm. When the time for that comes, you will know it. For now, pay heed to your dreams. Through them, I will teach you what it is you must know for when the time comes. Now, you may have one last question before you must return. Straying too long from your body can mean death.”
“My wife? Is she…”
“She is safe enough. Reaching for you. You will see her again soon. Guard your strength for that day, youngling. You will need it both then and in the days that will follow.”
The prisoner felt his mind returning to his body. For the first time in many months, when he wrenched his eyes open, he felt peace and hope.
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