Netherquest: Lich Unleashed
There was once a time when King Greyhood was beloved by the people. His sword stood for justice and equality. Elders spoke of a time when the Kingdom of Greyfort was nothing but a few tribes that had banded together to protect themselves against a barbarian horde. The tale of Greyhood the Valiant had been told to every child born in the Kingdom in the last 50 years. The defining tale of the Kingdom had been retold and embellished a thousand times over. Who knows how many details had changed over the decades. Even the elders sometimes contradicted themselves.
“He rode in on a stormy night when the Ebony tribes were being looted by the barbarians!” some said.
Others chanted poems that had been written 25 years after King Greyhood first appeared to take charge.
“King Greyhood split the night in Twain.
And he became the Barbarian’s Bane,
Beheaded all the vicious monsters with his mighty blade
He brought together warring tribes,
Pushed invaders back to their hillsides,
Our land was freed of wights and demons when goodbye he bade”
It wasn’t terribly catchy, yet so many had sung it in the streets in his honor that the entire Kingdom knew the words.
Yet, children only knew of the cold gaze and stern thunder that emanated from the once noble king. They only knew of the stone walls that stood in the center of the kingdom, ominous and unforgiving.
Many had not even seen the King in years. He only ventured out when there were more wars to fight. And when he returned, there were no celebrations, no festivities. His steel helm stood as unwavering as the will of the Grey Force. Few even wondered if there was flesh behind the exterior. The ones still alive from the time of his golden conquests even said that the old King had died long ago. Now only the Greyhood remained.
When children asked their elders why the King had not remained so, they only spoke a single name, “Zevara.”
Zevara was King Greyhood’s Queen. It was after he had wed her that he became the savior of the warring tribes. When Grey Fortress was first built, it was constructed with white marble and only the minarets were grey. In honor of Queen Zevara, the base of the castle had been entirely white, to signify how she had been the basis of the entire Kingdom in King Greyhood’s eyes. Zevara meant Snow in the ancient tongue.
Zevara was no ordinary Queen. She hadn’t just given King Greyhood the strength to fight, she had fought alongside him. The realm used to ring with chants of “Greyhood and Zevara!” when their army would arrive to liberate a tribe or save a town from the barbarian hordes. If Greyhood was the blade, Zevara was the hilt that swung it with the fury of a thousand soldiers.
And so it came to pass that barbarian horde after barbarian horde fell to their fell strikes. Their dominion shrunk by the day and as the years went on, the tide turned on them. Casualties grew on both sides, yet King Greyhood and Queen Zevara’s message of liberty and freedom rang true, while the terror of the barbarians kept running out. Yet it could only continue for so long.
Shortly after the Battle of Shadow Cliff, when the barbarians were all but defeated, an assassin was sent to King Greyhood’s tent. The elders say he was sent with forbidden magic which put the guards around the tent to sleep.
As the assassin lunged with his dagger at King Greyhood in his bed, Queen Zevara awoke and stayed his hand. She was as fast and as strong as her king. What she didn’t anticipate was that the assassin had a second knife concealed in his robes. He plunged it into her heart mere moments after she had stopped him.
Accounts differ as to what happened next. Some say Queen Zevara slashed the assassin’s throat with his own dagger and screamed. She then fell into King Greyhood’s arms and slowly faded. Others say she died instantly and silently. However, all agree that King Greyhood awoke and hacked the assassin to pieces. His rage could be heard for miles as his reason for living had been stripped away from him.
At Queen Zevara’s funeral, he couldn’t bear to let her burn and instead tried to burn with her on the funeral pyre. It was only after he was restrained by his generals that he gave in and let her enter the afterlife without him.
From then on, his nature as a benevolent leader changed to that of a silent protector. When he did speak, it was only to his generals. He almost completely cut off communication with his people, preferring to send out important announcements through his sages and advisors.
While his people didn’t feel threatened or oppressed by him, they didn’t ever feel loved. They never had a chance to. How could a man, who had had his one true love taken from him, feel anything towards anyone else? As the years went on, his rule became more iron clad. His people were well fed, well clothed, and well-compensated. No disease or pestilence ever roamed the land. It seemed that all was well.
And yet, there was a sense of fear among the people. No one ever questioned any decision made by the King. No one ever thought of debate or free expression. Not a soul thought of writing a poem or a book that ever expressed anything contrary to the King’s decree. Benevolence, it seemed, would give way to silent tyranny when made devoid of love.
Inside the Grey Fortress, Greyhood, spent his time drinking, feasting or fighting. His blade had not been dulled, even by years of sadness and apathy. While his armies swept away his enemies, he preferred to circle his throne and left the ruling to his advisors.
Chief among them was the High Wizard Master Haldor. A companion of Greyhood, since his first battle against the barbarians, Haldor had become the only source of comfort to the sad king. It was he who kept the king sane through the occasional stories of his youth. At times, he would also conjure up visions of Queen Zevara when the king felt exceptionally crushed by his despair.
Haldor was also responsible for the decree sent out to the people. He kept the rivers clean, the markets well stocked and the people well-fed. Although, he also crushed any dissent that brewed within the kingdom, without the king’s knowledge. The king wouldn’t care even if he was informed in full. He was oblivious to the ethereal world. All he ever wanted was to be united with his beloved one day.
And so it was that the king got tired of waiting. He called Haldor to his chambers and asked everyone else to leave.
- “My dear friend, I cannot bear the thought of her loss any longer. Alas, the time has not healed this wound. It may be too great to fathom for ordinary men that their love has been taken. Yet I, a king, bear it without complaint. That doesn’t mean that I do not feel. The only reason I do not plunge a sword into my heart is because of the promise I once made to my beloved.”
The High Wizard placed his hand on the king’s shoulder
- “It is a heavy burden for any to bear my king. Greyfort itself would crumble if not for you. Yet, you hold both the kingdom and your own demons at bay because you must.”
- “Come now, Haldor, we’re old friends,” replied the king. “You know I am no ruler. I am simply a monument. I represent, I do not govern. People compare me to the Torch of Brimia that guided ships to safety. Yet, the flame that burned within me once was extinguished long ago. It is by you that the kingdom has borne so many harsh times.”
- “Only by your companionship and…”
- “I do not wish to hear it,” interjected the king. “The reason I called you here is not merely for consolation. I wish for you to remedy my sadness once and for all.”
- “Sire, I will not, under any circumstances, take your life.”
- “NO! No, I wouldn’t dream of that. Zevara made me swear on her love never to follow her unless it was time for me to see her again. What I need from you is to see her again before my time.”
- “I have drunk as much wine and feasted on enough meat to kill a man twice my size. Yet, my health doesn’t seem to be deteriorating fast enough. I do feel the years coming on to me, yet I can’t help but admit that I have a good decade in front of me. However, you once spoke to me of the Shade Talisman.”
- “Sire, I would ask you not to test that magic. It was what turned the barbarians wild. Until you came along, it seemed like the Talisman’s magic would stop only when the known world would be swallowed whole.”
- “Yet, it did work, did it not?”
- “….Yes, it did.”
- “I recall you telling me that the Shade Talisma had far greater gifts within it than strength and magical abilities. You told me it had the power to contact those that had left the ethereal world.”
- “Sire, what you are forgetting is the price that you will have to pay for it. The Talisman not only requires a sacrifice of human flesh, but it also feeds on the soul. Even if you were able to speak with Queen Zevara again, there is no telling what your mental faculties would be reduced to, as a result. The barbarians became the barbarians because generations toyed with the Talisman. It feasted on their minds and souls until their race became hollow and empty from within. They only desired to fill the pit within their soul with as much life as they could. And it was never enough. Have you forgotten?”
- “My soul is already empty, Haldor. There is no King Greyhood anymore. He passed on with Queen Zevara and her child.”
Haldor stepped away from the king as the king’s beard slowly began to drip. When Greyhood looked at him with eyes as piercing as the day he first stood in front of him, Haldor knew that he could not be swayed from his wish.
- “Queen Zevara was with child?”
- “I have kept that buried within my heart for what seems like an epoch. The burden just got to be too much for your beloved king. I….”
The king held his tongue as if he was about to disclose too much. The next moment, he approached Haldor and put his arms around his shoulders. His eyes, piercing as they were, were not enraged or sad. They were just clear. He slowly embraced his oldest living friend and spoke into his ear.
- “I want to see my wife again. I want to see my child for the first time. I want to hold my child within my arms for once in my life. I want to feel the joy of having created something that doesn’t feel cold. I want to feel as if I’m free and not a prisoner of these dark stone walls. Please, my friend. Do this for me. I will never ask you for anything again.”
Haldor and Greyhood gripped each other tight and wept. The walls of the Grey Fortress itself seemed to give way to something more human, more alive that night. Passersby, guards, knights, horses, man and animal alike, all felt the castle change that night. It wasn’t the Grey Fortress they had grown up in the shadow of. That night, for the briefest of moments, it felt like the beacon it was meant to be. Not a building of stone, but a chamber within which the heart of a hero had beaten, if only for a few minutes.
Haldor kissed the king on his brow and finally spoke.
- “Yes, my friend. You will have the chance to see your beloved again.”
- “Thank you, my brother.”
- “There is a cost that you will have to pay, however.”
- “Anything Haldor, name it.”
- “It will have to be a sacrifice of the soul.”
The next morning, the Grey Fortress’ doors opened. Trumpets signaled the arrival of the king. The kingdom felt alive for the longest time in years. Children climbed up on their parents’ shoulders to see the king ride out for the first time in their lives. They had never seen the grand ruler they had been told of their short lives.
Even the elders who sat on their chairs and sipped tobacco and never paid any mind to anything rose to see their king. No sages or advisors had come to deliver a decree this time. The king had risen from his throne to come to the people. What would he say? What would he decree? Was this the beginning of a new war? Was this the end of one? What was the reason that King Greyhood had chosen to show himself after all this time?
King Greyhood rode out on his stallion to greet the hordes of people gathered in the central square to see him. Some remarked at how fat he had gotten. Others talked of his beard. Children snickered at the size of his gut and the elders exclaimed at how sunken his face had become.
On the other side, maids presented fruit and wine to the king, while children ran at his side, laughing and chanting his name. Some even shouted “Barbarian’s Bane” and “Long Live King Greyhood!”
Yet, all that did not matter to the king. He cared not for the jests of his people, nor their praise. The smile on his face was one of reassurance and resolve. Nothing could distract him from his mission, the only mission; the only reason that he would live for now.
When the procession reached the central square, the king dismounted his steed and climbed up to the steps of the pavilion. The throne that had stood their unoccupied for years, now finally had a use. Or did it? When the king tried to sit down, the throne refused to fit him. This was followed by silence from the crowd. No one dared to laugh at the king. That is, until he let out a jovial guffaw of his own. Then the crowd joined in and the entire kingdom, after years of fear, laughed with their king for the first time.
- “My people!” the King bellowed. The crowd fell silent. “I know that I haven’t been the King you wanted me to be for the better part of a decade. I know that you’ve been telling stories of me to your children, when they’ve not even seen my face for their entire lives. And I must suspect that they would call you embellishers, or worse, liars, now that they’ve seen me with their own eyes.
Yes, it is true, I am King Greyhood. The Barbarian’s bane as some of you so eloquently put it. Yet, that was many moons and many feasts ago, as you can probably see from the size of my stomach.”
The crowd chuckled a little but fell silent again.
- “However, I am not here to talk of the past. I am here to make amends for the future. I feel ready to rule once more. I feel invigorated and determined to join my people in the sun. I feel as if it has come time for me to earn my title as King Greyhood once more. The heavens bear witness that I did kill barbarians, but they also bear witness that I didn’t rule the people I freed. I didn’t build this kingdom with them. Well, no more. I intend to be at your side, whether you are picking fruit, or building houses, or selling thread.
I will no longer be just a relic within the Grey Fortress. I will try to earn your trust so as not only to be your King, but your friend…Will you give me another chance?”
The crowd bellowed,
And the cheers commenced. Greyfort rang out that day as it had never rung out before. Nearby villages and travelers turned their heads as the walls of the kingdom spewed euphoria.
Finally, the king held up his hand and the crowd fell silent once more.
- “I thank you for your continued faith in me. For that, I will be eternally grateful. As my first decree, three months from now I will hold a competition. It will be a competition of strength, as well as intelligence. Brains and brawn will both be tested in the arena. All able-bodied men of Greyfort can participate. The nearby villages of the Greyvale can also send their finest men to compete in this grand contest.
It will feature jousts, sword fights, feats of strength, and of the mind. Every participant will receive a prize of 50 silver coins. The winners of each competition will receive an additional 150 silver coins. However, the winner of the entire tournament will win 10,000 silver coins.”
The crowd erupted in a frenzy, but the king was not done. He held up his hand to quiet them once more.
- “He will not only receive 10,000 silver coins but also a seat aside my throne to contribute to the affairs of state. For such a man’s talent shouldn’t simply be wasted within an army or on the streets. No, this man will join me to govern Greyfort and the lands of Greyvale beyond. That is part of my promise to you. This contest will not only entertain you but give one of you a chance to rule at my side to make things better for all of you.”
This time when the crowd erupted, there was no stopping it. King Greyhood had said all he wanted to say. He looked around at the subjects that he had so boldly lied to. That he had so bravely deceived. He looked into their joyful faces, weary of the present and hopeful of a better future.
As he gazed into the crowds, his eyes met with a young man with dark hair and dark eyes. The man’s eyes were steely and piercing, much like his own once were. While he couldn’t make out the man’s strength or weight from within the crowd, he didn’t much care. He descended the steps of the pavilion and mounted his horse once more. He bade goodbye to the crowd and rode back to the Grey Fortress. The crowd had begun to sing the famous poem again, now in unison. Children were still running beside the king, but now they skipped and laughed with joy.
Dozens of yards away from the celebration, the steely-eyed young man was walking past the crowds to his home. As he trudged back to his abode, he heard a cry.
- “Antony! Fetch my ale, will you!?”
- “Coming grandfather.”
He opened the door to an old man at death’s door laying in bed; pimples on his chin, nearly bald. The ale was but a few feet from his bed but he couldn’t move without aching it seemed. His grandson Antony Boneheart had been waiting for the King’s announcement his entire life. With no family and no title to his name, the only thing that he had to his name was a sword and shield. His father, his grandfather had said, was a soldier in King Greyhood’s army. In the final battle between Greyhood’s forces and the barbarians, his father had given his life for the realm. Antony’s mother had lived enough to see him become a man, but she too had fallen to old age and disease a few years ago. All that was left was his grandfather who was also a temporary guest in this world.
After him, Boneheart had no one. So when the King strode out of his castle and announced that contest, it was music to his ears. Finally, he would have a chance to become someone. He would have a chance to improve his own life and attain power. He could finally live up to his father’s name and make his mother proud. As for his grandfather, the man was only an obligation to him. While his grandfather had never been terrible to him, he had also never said a kind word, at least not that he remembered. All that he knew was his grandfather loved ale and steak. He never even spoke of the king or any tales of his father. Thankfully, his mother had told him everything he needed to know. She had also taught him how to swing a sword and a fair amount of arithmetic. The latter was how he made his living in the world.
Antony’s father Marcus Boneheart was not a high soldier in the army, but one of the best fighters. He had even once been commended by the King for saving his life from a barbarian’s sword. He had seen King Greyhood rise from nothing and sweep the land of the menace that once plagued it. If Antony could even gain a modicum of the respect his father had, it would’ve mean the world to him.
He passed his grandfather the ale and retrieved the sword and shield of his father from the cupboard.
- “I’m going out to practice grandfather.”
- “Be back before dark. I don’t want to be kept waiting.”
This was it. He would have to keep practicing every single day until the tournament. He cared not for the individual prizes. He cared for the final prize of ruling at the side of King Greyhood. For that, he needed to prepare. He remembered that the competition would not only test strength but the mind as well. And so he began.
Every day from dawn till the crow of the rooster he would train. After breakfast, he would go to Archives and request one book every day. The arts, history, philosophy, alchemy, catalogs of the world, he would go through them all. In the afternoon after lunch, he would begin training again and return after dark. This continued for three months until the day finally arrived.
At the central square, the King and his bannermen arrived at the hour of noon. The King looked much different from what he had been three months ago. He seemed leaner and had shaved his beard to a neat cut. Some whispered that he looked as if he had traveled back in time to his youth. Others said it was probably due to a renewed vigor that his body and mind had recovered from the sadness of losing his wife at last.
All competitors for the tournament were called to step on to the pavilion. They were made to stand in a line and were marched into the Grey Fortress. Antony marched along, determined to emerge victoriously. He had heard that the arena within the Grey Fortress had held fights before. However, it had been closed down for years ever since King Greyhood went into self-imposed exile.
The participants were then led into a huge hall at the end of which was a door. Antony stood tall against the participants, his body unrecognizable from what it had been three months ago. His mind was steeled against the fear of judgment. What remained were the arena and the seat beside the throne. Inside the gargantuan hall of the Grey Fortress the competitors were asked to step past the door into a chamber one by one. King Greyhood was nowhere to be seen. Yet, the crowds could be heard from beyond the room. Finally, after all the competitors had gone and only Antony was left, a guard signaled him to go on.
The door opened. The arena and the crowd greeted him with thunderous applause. His chest swelling with pride, he walked forth…and then darkness.
There was no crowd. There was no castle. There was only darkness. He could not feel his sword or his shield in his hands. He felt naked in the dark. He tried frantically to reach for any walls or even the door behind him, but all was gone. Suddenly…
- “Antony Boneheart! Step forward.”
The voice was alien to him. This wasn’t King Greyhood. This was a much softer sound that reeked of deceit. However, it seemed to command no less authority. He stepped forward and a green flame torch appeared before him. He took it and braved the darkness. Around him nothing made sense. The shining halls, the glittering rubies, emeralds and amethysts of the Grey Fortress were all gone. Was this the test? Was this the tournament, after all? It had to be. King Greyhood would not want just a warrior or a scholar at his side. He must want someone that could brave the darkness as he once did. He wanted someone that could stand shoulder to shoulder…
- “You are thinking too much and doing too little young warrior. The light will not stay forever.”
The voice struck true. Antony began to step forward. As he found his footing and began to perceive more of his surroundings, he saw his sword materialize at his side. He began to feel his shield on his back. He also began to feel his gait grow faster and more resolute. This was the test.
As he grew more sure of himself he felt the flame of the torch going out. It didn’t matter. He could do without it. He began to feel the air grow thicker. Something was nearby. He took his sword and dipped it into the torch. The blade grew red with the heat as the flame went out.
The air grew thicker and finally, the flame went out. It didn’t matter. He could see everything clearly now. He stood before a dragon, black as night; its nostrils issuing green flames and its tongue clicking faster and faster as he approached. Antony didn’t feel fear because he knew like all else, this was probably an illusion. Dragons died out millennia ago. However, just to be certain, he reached down on the ground and felt for sand. Picking up a fistful, he blew it towards the dragon. It didn’t flinch. It didn’t even acknowledge the dust. Antony ventured forth and the dragon stood on all fours. It opened its mouth to rain fire and Antony sheathed his sword. The test was over. As he bathed in fire, Antony couldn’t feel anything. He just knew he had won.
As the fire enveloped him, he began to hear laughter from beyond.
- “Well done, young warrior. Well done. You are truly Marcus’ son.”
The fire lifted and with it, the illusion. The King stood before Antony, a Wizard by his side. Antony knelt down with his sword in his hand and said,
- “You honor me by comparing me to my father, sire.”
- “You honor me with your presence my son. Everyone before you failed and was returned to their homes. You, however, performed beyond my expectations. You’re your father’s son indeed.”
Pointing to the Wizard to his side he said,
- “This is Master Haldor, the Greatest Wizard in the land and my oldest friend. He conjured up the illusion that you just defeated. Don’t go by the sullen look on his face, he was genuinely impressed when you blew that dust into the illusion. All the others either shrieked and darted or simply charged head on to meet their demise. I neither need brave fools at my side nor cowards. I need someone that can brave any danger, but think on his feet. I need an iron will and a steely mind. I need a Boneheart.”
Antony’s eyes welled up with tears and he rose up.
- “Thank you, my King. I…”
- “Not a word,” – the King stopped him. – “I intend for you to begin your duties at once. Kneel young Boneheart so that I may bestow your title on you.”
Antony knelt again. His head bowed down he finally had everything he had hoped to achieve. He saw the King take a large talisman from a chest and bring it to him. The chain was silver, the jewel at its center, a deep black. As the chain was hanged around his neck he felt the weight of it. It felt as if the weight of the world had been put on his shoulders.
The King stepped back and asked him to rise. With a smile on his face, the young Antony rose and locked eyes with the King. However, the King wasn’t staring back with happiness or contentment, but an odd madness in his eyes. His lips broke into a wide smile. Not of malice, but of bliss.
The Wizard whispered something beneath his lips and Antony began to burn. Such piercing cries had never been heard within the Grey Fortress before. Antony burned with the black flame of the Shade Talisman as it tore open a hole in his chest. Before he knew what was happening, two bony fingers protruded from the orifice and pushed it open further.
The King broke into a mad cackle and tears rolled down his face. He kept screaming,
- “Zevara! Zevara! At last! Zevara!”
As the flames burned all of Antony’s flesh and ate his sword and shield, he felt his soul leave his body. The world was nothing except darkness now. There was no torch to light the way. No illusion to be broken. No test to be overcome. All that lay before him was the end. All that lay before him was the abyss.
And then there was a fire. Roaring flames licked the soles of his feet while he hung from chains that felt of no earthly metal. He could see the flickering lights around him yet they illuminated nothing further. He felt the iciest chills run down his spine as if the claw of the grim reaper himself had closed around his heart. Yet he also felt the heat of the embers crackling at his feet with such ferocity as he had never felt before. If there was a hell, this was it. He wished he could shriek away his pain yet only tears fell down his bosom. They disappeared into the fire below with barely a hiss. This was the end for him. Eternity in Beelzebub’s torture chamber was the reward for trusting a king that had gone mad. Damnation without relief was his ultimate prize for trusting in a foolish dream of recapturing lost glory.
And yet…something felt strange.
Why wasn’t he burning? Why wasn’t he freezing? Why were the flames and the icy touch only constrained to making him fear and not wail in hopelessness? Why wasn’t he being eaten alive or crushed beneath a boulder or being condemned to a lifetime of hell?
- “It’s because you’re here before your time.”
Antony looked up. The blade of a scythe greeted him with its tip at his chin. Someone robed in the darkness stood not two feet away. The flames didn’t light up anything but what was within a few inches and so hadn’t noticed the approach.
- “I’m not expecting you till much later. You live to be a ripe old age of 63 before I take your soul. This either means that you’ve challenged fate, or that someone has used the Shade. Ah, yes. Someone’s definitely used the Shade on you. The mark is unmistakable. “
Antony looked down as the scythe scraped his chest which now bore the outline of a jewel. Before he had time to open his mouth, several bones reached out to touch his heart. He felt the pain of a thousand generations of his ancestors as their lives were recounted through him. He felt the incredible joy of conquest, of love, of fostering a child. He also felt the anguish of lost loves and crumbling empires and flames extinguished too soon. If the torture of hell was anything like this, it would drive anyone mad.
- “Boneheart. Your ancestors once offered up sacrifices to me. They believed I would be incredibly gratified if they threw the corpses of children my way. I must admit it was amusing for a few centuries, but then I grew bored. I much preferred when old men and women come here.”
Antony couldn’t take it much longer.
- “Please release me from this torment! I can’t bear it any longer!”
- “So it speaks. I was beginning to wonder you’d become mute as a result of your ordeal…No my boy I’m afraid I can’t release you just yet. As I mentioned you have more than 38 years to go before I take you. Who knows? You may even accrue enough good deeds to cross over quickly if you’re lucky.
However, you are here under very suspicious circumstances. It seems that men have fallen to their worst follies again. They don’t still seem to understand that death is permanent. Inconvenience, love, or even the Shade Talisman cannot reverse that fact.
Tell me, who did you leave behind in your place?”
Antony tried to speak but he knew not the identity of the bony fingers that tore open his chest from within. All he could remember was the King’s cackling face, weeping with madness and joy.
- “Speak up! I don’t have time!”
- “I don’t remember,” Antony stumbled. “I felt the worst kind of pain I’d ever known and then it all went black…wait. The King was screaming something before I fell into the abyss. He called out to the creature emerging from my chest.”
- “King Greyhood? That’s who used the Talisman on you? Did he want to resurrect…?” The scythe suddenly retreated and a hooded figure materialized in front of Antony. He still couldn’t see exactly who stood in front of him, yet he saw the crimson outline of an apparition. The outline disappeared and left behind the taste of ash. As if by some devilry, the grim phantom that held him captive had exploded, Antony was left hanging by those ethereal chains alone.
Barely an hour had passed and he felt footsteps echoing in the distance. The flames parted and the crimson figure began to materialize again.
- “So it is true. Queen Zevara has been taken back.”
- “Queen Zevara!” Antony’s voice echoed through the chambers.
- “Yes, it seems the King thought it wise to put you on the chopping block to resurrect his dead Queen. What he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about is that the person he has is not the true Queen. What humans have failed to grasp throughout their existence is that the Shade Talisman only manifests your desire; a feeble representation of that desire, but your desire nonetheless.
What your King now has is a ghostly shadow of his long-deceased Queen. What he doesn’t have is full control of his mental faculties. The Shade Talisman takes two sacrifices. The body was obviously you. However, the soul is the King’s. As we speak his soul is being warped into the worst kind of demon you would ever lay eyes on.
Men. They think if they’re strong enough or clever enough they can upset the balance of nature without consequence…Alright well, we don’t have much time.”
The crimson phantom extended his hand to Antony’s heart again. This time the boy felt his body tremble quake. His bones shook and his skin curled. His hair grew silver and his teeth grew sharper. The chains melted off and he fell down on to the solid ground. When he drew himself up he was no longer Antony Boneheart. He had become a living weapon.
- “What have you done?”
- “I’ve done what’s necessary boy. I’ve granted you a fraction of my power. Any weapon you wield will now have its power increased tenfold. Also, you have the power to reap souls as I do. However, you can only reap 3 souls within the span of a few hours. Any more, and you will collapse with exhaustion. Now go. You need to find your way back to the world of the living before you carry out your task.”
- “What task?”
- “You humans are truly dense creatures. The King has gone mad you imbecile! Even you know that. The Shade Talisman has worked its magic on him. No longer is he the Greyhood that you heard stories of. Now, he stands only to do what the Talisman commands, and all the Talisman wants is to reap more souls.
So I’ve given you a fraction of my power to kill the King and destroy the Talisman. It’s either that, or you can lie in purgatory until your 63rd year. So says the Reaper of the Underworld”
Antony was paralyzed by the thoughts racing through his mind. What had he done to deserve this? He had been given a task so gargantuan that he had only heard of it in myths.
- “How can I possibly kill the King?”
- “I am done talking with yousaid the crimson phantom and swung his scythe. A door opened up in the distance and fog began to roll in. Antony began to quake.
I don’t have time for this young Boneheart. Step through the gate. The Dark Forest of Souls awaits. You will have to wade through that Wood to cross over into the land of the living.”
- “Can’t you send me back the way I came?”
- “I don’t possess the powers to undo what the Shade Talisman has done. The only way back is through there.”
The Dark Forest seemed to be a woodless void into which anything could disappear without a trace. Yet, before Antony had more time to contemplate, he was lifted by his chest and thrust into the void. As he landed with a thud into the gloomy unknown, the door behind him closed. Yet this time, he drew himself up to his full height and stood in the reflection. Perhaps this was the test.
Destiny, fate, whatever he had been taught of in his infancy had now come to meet him. He oddly felt nothing like the heroes in fairy tales. He was not particularly brave or strong. Yet, an undeniably important task had been thrust upon his shoulders. This was his time.
He could start to feel the trees ruffling around him. Though the fog was thick and he could barely see a foot in front of him, he began to feel the forest around him. In fact, he began to see clearer every second. Was the fog beginning to clear? Or was this the crimson phantom’s power?
Whatever it was, the improved sight showed him the monumental undertaking that lay before him. An ocean of souls was flailing around the trees. There was no fog, the mist was the dense vapor of the souls that were gathering around him.
They emanated no sound, no smell, and seemed to be formless and weightless. As he reached out to touch one of them, he felt a large weight behind him. As he swerved around, he saw what could only be described as demons. Huge and Dromridge in appearance, they resembled creatures of the deep that he had heard of in fables. One of them swung what appeared to be an arm to his chest and he felt himself flying. He landed with a crack on to the nearest tree branch and fell to the ground. As he looked up, the blue demons were once again moving towards him.
He began to feel around for anything that he could use to fight them off if need be. His eyes darted around the trees and to the ground and back. He even felt his own armor to find any weapons that may have been attached to it. There were none and the blue demons were getting closer.
Then he remembered. Whatever would use to strike his enemies down would grow tenfold in power. He darted to the nearest tree and tore off a branch. It broke like a twig in his armored hand and as he swung it, the nearest blue demon exploded into the dark.
He drew himself to his full height and broke off another branch. He felt a rush of blood to his eyes and to his heart. It was beating faster than it had ever before. Was this the reaper’s power?
There was no time to think. He ran into the blue demons and kept on swinging. With each fell swoop, the demons either burst or dispersed. This was nothing like Antony had ever felt before. Neither the illusion with the dragon nor his training had ever put him in the state of mind he was in now.
In fact, he felt his swinging grow faster and faster. He was whipping himself into a frenzy. The souls around him that were shapeless, formless beings retreated further into the shelter of the trees. As the blue demons exploded one after the other, the only one left began to cower below the weight of Antony’s might.
- “Wait!”, he cried in a human voice.
Antony nearly decapitated him but stopped in time.
- “You speak?”
- “Of course I do. What are you doing here? You don’t seem like you’re at death’s door or awaiting judgment. Why are you in the Dark Forest? Why are you intruding upon my home?”
- “You struck first. I would’ve never touched you if you hadn’t thrown me into Kingdom Come.”
The demon came down from the tree and looked at Antony from head to toe.
- “You seem like a kind of parasite. We’ve never encountered the likes of you here before. We drew first blood because you seemed like you were here to harm us. And we weren’t wrong. You nearly obliterated every one of us.”
Antony dropped the two branches he had snapped from the Forest.
- “I am sorry for your fallen brethren. I wish I could bring them back…”
- “Oh they will be back. You simply scattered their essence into the Forest. They will begin to congregate their bodies soon. But more to the point. Who are you, and what do you want?”
- “My name is Antony Boneheart. I seek to return to the land of the living. I was brought here by trickery and then sent to the Forest to…”
- “Is that all? You need to find your way back? I can help you with it if you desire.”
- “You would help me after I struck down your brethren?”
- “Well it seems to me that you can’t be harmed by any of us. You took that first blow and came back unscathed. Your armor doesn’t have a scratch on it. I can only surmise that you are either a mutant or a being with magical powers. So if I can lead you out of our home as quickly as possible, I don’t see the harm.
Now let’s move quickly. My brethren will be back soon and their anger may prolong this episode.”
So the demon and the warrior began their trudge forward into the Dark Forest to re-enter the land of the living. As they walked deeper into the forest, the fog began to recede. The Wood became much clearer and the trees grew less thick.
As the fog cleared up, the moon showed its face to the warrior and it bathed the entire Forest in light.
- “Can I ask a question?”, said Antony
The demon simply grunted.
- “This is the underworld, so the moon…”
- “This is simply a dimension that you humans can’t access. The light of the sun and the moon both permeate here.”
- “How did you know I was hum…”
- “Because you said you seek to return to the land of the living. You see it’s not just the fog that is dense here. You seem to be a close second.”
Silence followed for a time.
A few shapes jumped around in the distance. If he didn’t know any better, Antony would’ve thought they were deer or gazelle. The forest was oddly quiet except for the slight footsteps that Antony and his blue friend made. The trees would rustle a little in the wind and that was it.
- “Is this purgatory or is this a type of hell?”, Antony inquired.
- “You talk a little too much for any warrior that I’ve met. No, this isn’t purgatory; not for us anyway. This is the final resting place for those that would be judged at the very end. Think of it as a resting ground for those that have committed crimes too heinous for judgment just yet.”
- “All of you? Even the souls that were drifting by without a single word?”
- “Those are the murderers, pillagers, looters, rapists, that ravaged entire towns. They don’t just have the blood of one person on their hands, but thousands.”
Antony’s eyes widened and he stepped away from the demon a little. The two locked eyes for a second or two. Then Anthony spoke.
- “What did you do? And why are you blue?”
The demon stared him down for a moment and then proceeded to walk. Antony stood in place for a little while but then continued. The trees seemed to grow even more scarce as the trail went on. The light of the moon even grew sharper and the fog retreated completely into the corners of the Dark Forest. The beast-like shapes that were conjured in the pale moonlight were nowhere to be seen and the rustling of the leaves even disappeared. Now, there was just silence.
It seemed like the rest of the journey would continue this way, until the demon spoke again.
- “Those who were touched by the magic of the Shade Talisman now appear a deep blue in the light of the moon.”
- “So, all your brethren.”
- “We were deceived by the Talisman’s power. We were promised riches beyond our wildest dreams, and to be granted fantasies that would pale in comparison to our own. Instead, we tasted death and ash where ever we set foot. And so we were sent here until our time comes for our…barbarous crimes.”
- “Do you…”
- “I wish I could take it back any day. However, it’s all too late for that. We killed thousands and we will pay the price. It is as it should be.”
- “I was betrayed due to the Talisman too.”
The demon swiftly turned towards Antony and his eyes darted all over his armor.
- “You bear no mark or sigil that tells that story.”
- “I was offered up as a sacrifice by my King. I think he tried to bring back his deceased wife through me. Though I can’t be sure until I investigate myself. The reaper gave me these gifts to set things right, I think. Though I don’t know if I’ll be able to reverse what has been done.”
- “We’re here.”, said the demon.
A few feet from them was a shimmering doorway. A huge city lay on the other side. Figures strolled about and talked to each other beyond. Though Antony couldn’t hear any of them, he knew this was the land of the living.
- “Walkthrough and don’t return.”
The blue specter spun round and began to walk back.
The demon turned around and stood in place.
- “I want to thank you. I hope that through remorse, you may find salvation in this land.”
- “Don’t waste an iota of your mind’s power thinking about any of this. Do what you must to set things right.”
- “Can I ask, what did you do under the influence of the Shade Talisman?”
The demon looked up one last time and said,
- “I plunged a dagger into the heart of King Greyhood as she stayed my hand from taking his life. And so he hacked me to pieces.”
Before he could utter another word in reply the shimmering doorway collapsed behind him as he rushed forward. Antony Boneheart heard the familiar chatter of a marketplace that he had spent his childhood surrounded by. This was the world of the living alright.
People were buying meat and rice, while children played in the streets. A few feet away a fish monger was arguing with a customer about the prices. A few yards away there stood a series of inns with smoking chimneys and a chatter about them. In fact, the chatter had become so hard to bear after the quiet of the world of the dead that Antony became frustrated with the noise. He turned away from the crowd and started walking towards one of the inns.
The city he had entered was not like his own in Greyfort. Then again, he hadn’t known any other city during his short time on Earth. He had ventured out to a few villages now and again, yet there was no memory so greatly etched in to his mind than the streets of his own neighborhood.
This city he was now walking in had a peculiar shimmer to it.
It glowed a little to his eyes. He didn’t know if that was the effect of his new found power or whether this was just how the city was. Everything else seemed to be of the same color as he remembered before. The trees were green, the ravens were black, and the chickens were white and red. Yet the city was…
“That’ll be five silver for the night.”
In all his thought, Antony hadn’t paid attention to what inn he had walked into. The owner now stood in front of him and wearing a frown that would only come from decades of toil.
“I’m terribly sorry. Which inn is this?”
“This is the Trumpeter’s Inn, we trumpet your arrival like a king.”
Antony looked up. The sign certainly said that and sported a trumpet next to the title. Yet, he heard no music and saw no instruments.
“But I hear no trumpe…”
“Look son if I trumpeted the arrival of every idiot who comes down to my inn the ruckus would never stop. Now do you want a room or not?”
Antony searched his pockets, but there were none to be found. He suddenly remembered that he wasn’t in his old clothes now.
Whatever money he did have was now gone.
“No thank you, sir. I seem to have wandered in by mistake. I think I’ll take my leave now.”
Antony heard footsteps coming from a few miles away. Was this another one of the reaper’s gifts? He turned from the inn owner and ventured outside. The atmosphere had grown a bit colder than before. In fact, there was a noticeable chill in the air. Soon enough, he saw frost forming on the tips of the roofs. He felt his breath getting heavier beneath his nose. What was this?
The footsteps began to get louder and louder in his head until he beheld a horde of soldiers coming down the hill above. Their emblem and armor were unmistakable. This was King Greyhood’s force. However, they were marching with a resolve that Antony hadn’t seen before. In fact, their pace was quickening.
What he saw next was unlike any army that he had ever seen. King Greyhood’s force had black faces. They were brandishing weapons like jagged rocks and their eyes seemed cold and devoid of empathy or emotion. They looked exactly like the barbarian hordes the king had once fought against. Was this the work of the Shade Talisman?
The market began to clear and the children ran to their mothers and fathers. The ground was now quaking beneath them all and light was slowly creeping away. A dark shade was taking over the city as if the light had been whisked away from the sun itself. There was not a cloud in the sky, yet the light of the sun dimmed like a candle going out.
Antony knew he had to do something. This force was not going to stop. They weren’t there to take prisoners or take over. They were going to massacre the entire city if he didn’t step forward. He looked around for anything he could use as a weapon. He looked to the fishmonger who was shuttering his shop. There were knives in there he could use. He rushed forward and grabbed the biggest one he could and right before his eyes, he saw its length grow and its blade widen.
His pace quickening and his heartbeat rising, he rushed forward into the demon-like horde with a fiery cry. What he didn’t notice as he was not alone. Three others were following his lead and attacking the horde as well.
As Antony swung his sword, it tore through the horde’s central flank. Armor flew off and shields shattered left and right.
Beside him, an archer shot in to the eyes of the soldiers rushing forth. On the other side, he saw a swordsman with a double edged saber tear in to the army with as much vigor and strength as he had ever seen. However, he was yet to see the source of the real power that was waiting for the horde behind him.
The three warriors tore through a huge portion of the army, yet they kept coming. It seemed like the force would never stop marching towards them. Right then, there was a swell of light behind them. And old man was holding his hands in the air and summoning energy.
The shade was now lifting from the city. The horde began to suddenly diminish and disappear. Their strength began to decline and the three warriors began to slice their numbers in half, in quarters, and finally, only handful remained. The swordsman and the archer finished them off one by one. Antony, now confident of the victory, examined the sea of corpses he had helped create.
They were King Greyhood’s forces alright. The same emblem, the same crest, and even the same armor. The only difference was in their faces and eyes. The purity and nobility of the Greyforces had long since disappeared as his grandfather had told him. While they were often described as pure of heart and noble of action in the stories, the Greyforces barely looked as if they were to him, even in his childhood. Yet now, their faces told the opposite story. Their eyes were apathetic, their faces, incredibly soulless and barren. Antony couldn’t even feel their breath on this skin while they were battling him.
“What has this Talisman wrought?”he whispered under his breath.
“It hath wrought what it did many decades ago.”
Antony turned around. High Wizard Master Haldor stood before him, robed in emerald and ruby robes. It was he who had drained the force of its potency. Antony stepped back, startled. The High Wizard had aged in to decay since he last saw him. Then he began to feel rage and reached for the Wizard’s throat. Haldor did nothing to stop him. Instead he closed his eyes as if to welcome the response.
“Let him go or I’ll plant an arrow in to your skull.”
Antony loosened his grip and turned around to see the archer taking aim. The swordsman was also ready to strike.
“You shouldn’t have stopped him children. He is only exacting the revenge that he deserves.”.
Master Haldor looked in to Antony’s eyes and the latter realized that he had been recognized. The old wizard knew who he was and from whence he had returned.
“What is this? What has the Shade Talisman done to the King? Why is his army marching to cities to destroy them?”
Master Haldor looked down and began to speak in a heavy voice.
“After your sacrifice, the King was mad with joy. I’m sure you remember how he was howling with laughter when the Queen was clawing her way back through your chest.
“Her appearance was completely different to what I remember, but when she began to speak in the same voice and act the same way that Queen Zevara had during her time alive, even I thought she had come back.”
“But it was never real of course. The Shade Talisman only creates an illusion. It keeps taking and taking and it never gives back, not truly.
Within a few days, the King had been wound around that creature’s finger. He grew more and more hideous and cold by the day, only reacting to what she was saying. And as she whispered in to his heart, it grew harder and more vicious. The Queen convinced him to wreak havoc on a world that had torn her from him all those years ago. When I tried to stop him, he even turned his sword on me. When I tried to destroy the Shade Talisman, nearly killed me with his bare hands.
Finally, when I realized my friend existed no longer, I transported myself from the Grey Fortress to the nearby villages. The King naturally sent out his forces to wreak havoc after that and I’ve been trying to save any towns or cities I can.”
Antony’s eyes widened as the story came to an end. “How long has it been since I was swallowed up by the vortex that took my body and my soul? You speak of a few days and the mobilization of armies and saving towns and cities. That’ couldn’t have happened in a few hours.”
“My son, time in the land of the dead passes much faster. What seemed like a few hours to you has been a few years here. Since that fateful day, it has been nearly four years. What you see before you is the shadow of a High Wizard. I’ve used so much of my power in the last four years that I’ve accelerated my aging process. I now stand at death’s door. Though, for my crimes, I don’t even think death will accept me.”
Antony looked at the High Wizard in pity and in rage still. Four years. He had been robbed of four years since he last stepped on this earthly plane. Who knows if his house still stood or if his grandfather was still alive?
“What about you two? Are you with him?” he pointed to the two warriors that had assisted him in battle.
“These are Asarya and Vilmont. They are brother and sister. Their town was ravaged and burnt by the time I got there. I couldn’t save their family, but luckily they were good at defending themselves, as you can see, so they survived without me. I found them scrounging around for scraps when I reached their town. They’ve been with me ever since.”
“Judging by your tone, I don’t think you’ve had much success in stopping the King’s madness.”
“Who are you to question the Great Wizard?” spoke the archer. “He’s been doing more for these lands than you have in your entire life!”
“He’s also responsible for this mess you imbecile! He sacrificed my soul to summon the Queen to this Earth and now the world is in ruins because of his blunder. You lost your homes, your families, your town, and I lost whatever life I had! He’s trying to clean up the mess he created and you want me to thank him?! I’d much rather crush his throat between my fists then sing his praises!”
Antony reached for the Wizard’s throat again, but this time neither sibling threatened to kill him. Antony felt the Wizard’s bones bend between his fingers and he felt a mad rush of excitement and zeal. He heard a whisper in his ear.
“That soul will be quite valuable to my collection.”
It was the reaper’s voice in his head. Antony felt his grip loosening again. “No. I need you old man. If you did this, you may know how to reverse it.
I want to see this entire disaster averted before I can crush your throat. So tell me, do you have a plan?”
The High Wizard rubbed his neck and looked up at Antony. “What makes you think I can reverse this?”
“Because you wouldn’t have been fighting so long if you didn’t.”
“What if I believed that this is my punishment and that wandering the lands freeing people from his hell was the only escape?”
“I know because you’ve done this before. You assisted King Greyhood during the original war against the barbarian horde. I know because the Shade Talisman has been defeated before. You were there when the barbarians’ power was broken. So tell me, what is your plan?”
The High Wizard’s mouth curled in to something resembling a grin. “I forgot that you beat my illusion. You aren’t just a fighter are you?
“Let’s continue this conversation inside one of the inns. The people are beginning to return to the city now and I think they will swarm to greet us as heroes and you’ll be able to get a drink.”
Antony didn’t budge. “Do you have a plan old man?”
“…Yes…yes I do.”
Chapter 6-Whispers and Shadows
The Trumpeter’s Inn was filled with the chatter of adoring townfolk while the three warriors and Haldor sat at the largest table and received their Hero’s welcomes. The pub owner, who had told Antony to cough up 5 silver for the night a few hours ago was now giving them all free drinks and treating them to a free night’s stay.
Antony didn’t know about the others, but he badly needed some rest in a normal bed. He had four years of rest to catch up on. Asarya and Vilmont were both filling their stomachs with the beef and steak served to them. It seems like they had been famished for ages. Haldor, however, was simply sticking to a large pint of beer that never seemed to get any smaller.
“So where do you we need to go next, old man?”
“Greyhood’s army must be stationed nearby. There are three places where they could’ve set up camp and the closest place is Ridelvase. It’s a small barrack a few miles from here that housed Greyhood’s army when it wasn’t soulless. It’s where they set up camp the night that the Queen…”
“What are the other two?” Antony stopped Haldor before he continued.
“The other two are a makeshift campsite that the barbarians used in the last war called Barrakath, and cave Lavaross.”
“I’ve heard of Barrkath, but I’ve never heard of Lavaross.”
“For good reason, there are very few that can even venture to it. It’s hidden in the mountains and very difficult to reach. In fact, the only people to have ever ventured inside were the armies of the barbarian horde when they were escaping King Greyhood’s armies in their last days.”
“How did King Greyhood reach them there then?”
Haldor took a large swig of beer and then cleared his throat. He wiped a few drops of alcohol from his exceptional whiskers and beard and then continued, “I conjured up a path that was much less perilous. I couldn’t support the entire army, but King Greyhood and a few of his elite guard were transported to Lavaross quite easily. They finished off the last of the horde.”
“How far is the cave?“
“It’s about 14 miles southwest from here.”
“Then it’s settled, they must be in Lavaross.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Well first, they are under the same spell as the barbarian horde, so they could potentially reach the same place as the barbarians. Second, why would the King send his army back to the place where he lost his love? Surely he would send them to the place where his love was avenged, would he not? And third, I can see them in the cave.”
Asarya and Vilmont stopped eating and looked up at Antony. He was smiling like a mischievous child all of a sudden.
Haldor’s eyes began to twinkle. “Is this another one of the gifts you’ve been endowed with since I last saw you?”
Antony nodded. “You could say that. I only realized it when I was fighting the army. I felt their presence before they approached and felt their power fading when you cast that spell. It was only a matter of time before I found out that if I focused hard enough, I could feel their presence in nearby places. That’s why I asked you where the cave is so I could focus my attention in that direction. There’s definitely something in that direction that reeks of the Talisman. It’s restless, but it doesn’t seem to be moving as of yet.”
Haldor took another swig of his beer and coughed. “Well then, we better get a move on tomorrow morning.”
“We should be moving right now.” said Antony
“Look out the window.”
A swift sunset was bathing Dromridge city in a deep lilac and the edges were turning in to a marine blue.
“The Shade Talisman, without any doubt, is more powerful during the hours of the shade. This is why King Greyhood always waged war in the hours of daylight. It’s why the assassin sent by the barbarian horde was able to sneak past the most elite guards outside his tent. Their powers of stealth and speed are doubled during the cover of night. Even with your enhanced abilities, I don’t think we’ll be able to take them on. Plus, we don’t want to destroy the horde or do battle just yet. We need to find a way back to the Grey Fortress before that.”
“How can we sneak in to that place? What is your plan by the way?”
“Well it was to slowly find a way into the castle by blending in to the army through a metamorphosis spell. Of course, that would require some time and access to a living soldier of that army. However, I don’t think we’ll be needing that any more. We have you.”
“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You resemble the soldiers quite a bit. You have the same skin color; your eyes are the deep shade of red that the army is known for. And you have quite a bit of the same…odor about you.”
Asarya and Vilmont snorted in to their food right then.
Haldor continued. “So the plan now is to use your appearance to infiltrate the army and make our way back to the Grey Fortress. Now, get some rest and we’ll head off in the morning. Don’t stay up drinking too long and you two, keep an eye on this one. He might be on our side for the moment but he did try to choke me to death twice so perhaps his disposition isn’t as trustworthy as it seems.”
“Your one to talk you senile magician! You threw me in to the netherworld!”
Haldor retreated to the back of the inn and the festivities continued.
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