Bergen Kris was an unremarkable man. Unassuming in appearance, quick witted, beloved by family and friends - his life and deeds were easily summarized with very few words. He was no man of stature or renown, and had no aspirations other than securing enough for his family to be happy. In contrast to the great heroes and villains from stories of old, his life had been enviably ordinary.
Until the day the sky fell.
It was very early morning. The sun was just beginning to peek from behind the mountains, casting beams of light across the valley. The night owl was nestling in his daytime alcove while the field mice counted their dead and said their goodbyes. Folding and bagging his belongings, Bergen took down his tent and loaded everything onto his cart while his horse munched on a fresh bag of oats. After a deep breath, he took one last gulp of coffee and tossed the rest, removed the feedbag, then jumped on the cart and flicked the reins.
It was the final day of his journey home; a journey that had started at the base of the mountains. The air was more frigid than he expected, the temperature having dropped during the night as cold air descended from the highlands. As the sun continued its ascent into the morning sky, a dense fog appeared. It closed in around Bergen like hands closing slowly over an insect, and the surreal sight filled him with unease. Though two days away from the mountains, he wasn’t entirely out of Troll country yet, and despite assurances of his safety in their lands, he didn’t trust them not to slice his throat and rob his corpse. More than an hour into his ride, the fog was no less dense and the air was even colder. Shivering in his thin cotton shirt and pants, he fetched a blanket from the cart and wrapped it tightly around his torso.
“Almost home,” he whispered to himself, and partly to his horse, which kept grunting and whining.
The road was unkempt and unmaintained, for folks rarely used it anymore. In days of old, merchants and travelers had journeyed along the “Gold Road” like migratory herds. There had even been talk amongst several cities to widen and improve it. But everything had come to a sudden end when the Trolls rained down from the mountains and laid waste to the cities in the valley. Driven by greed and old hatreds, they took possession of the surrounding countryside and seized control of the road. Fortunately, Bergen’s village was outside their range, for they dared not stray too far from their beloved mountains. As the years went by, the road was used less and less until eventually nature took back what had once been hers.
Trying to distract himself from the gloom and his own anxiety, Bergen began counting the coins from his latest trade. To his credit, Bergen saw the conquest of the Trolls as an opportunity, financially speaking. He was one of the first to visit with the Trolls, and despite several threats towards his life, they were eager to trade for the wares he brought. As a whole, the Trolls were not an unreasonable race; most were perfectly willing to deal civilly with others. It helped that their leader desired acceptance for himself and his people as an equally civilized and respectable kingdom. While Bergen wasn’t prepared to acknowledge them in such a light, he was perfectly happy to accept their coins.
“Ninety seven, ninety eight, ninety…wait, this isn’t a coin. Bastard Trolls.”
A deafening noise filled the air as an explosion occurred in the sky overhead. The blast was so loud, it stunned Bergen temporarily, scrambling his thoughts and neutralizing his ability to hear. When his senses finally returned, his horse was bucking wildly from side to side and the ground was quaking. He craned his head to the sky. The fog was still too thick to see through, but far above there was an orange glow that continued to get brighter and brighter, taking up more of his view with each passing moment. “By the gods,” he stammered, fear coursing through his veins. All at once, every nerve in his body roared for him to move. He grabbed the horse’s reins and fought desperately to get control of the beast. By the time he did, everything was awash in orange and red and his face and hands began to burn with heat.
It was then that he saw it, an immense ball of flame falling from the sky. It crashed into the ground several hundred yards in front of him and the impact released a shockwave that flung him off his cart, and tossed the cart itself end over end onto its side. The horse, still tangled in its hitch, flailed and stumbled and eventually fell onto Bergen’s arm. The beast and Bergen screamed in pain and fear, and the fear was only heightened as together they began to tumble down into a crater forming right beneath them. Bergen rolled onto his stomach and crawled at the dirt with his good arm, trying frantically to find some purchase to hold onto. Eyes wide with terror, voice stammering ‘no, no, no,’ he appeared to almost be treading water as he scraped and scraped to keep out of the crater. But his efforts were to no avail. The ground gave way beneath him and he was sliding down the side of the crater towards a gaping maw at its center, a jagged mouth created by the falling star. The rim of the mouth glowed with heat from where the fireball had melted through the rock. Everything was collapsing towards it, an avalanche of dirt and debris. Bergen looked down past his feet and saw his horse and cart tumbling first, a cascade of food, clothing, perfumes and oils, and all manner of rare and exotic goods. In a matter of seconds, the cart and then the horse reached the hole and disappeared beyond the edge. Bergen tried one last time to stop himself, but the attempt was futile. Inhaling deeply, he closed his eyes as he sank into the mouth.
Dirt, burlap sacks, artifacts, plants, wood from his cart, and more rained down with him. What he thought was the bottom came less than ten feet down, and his fall was largely broken by a bag of cabbages. Immediately after landing, a fair sized rock dropped onto his ribs, and he mistakenly rolled in pain down a steep slope. Unable to prevent his descent, he continued to slide and fell onto another slope, then another, each time falling no more than a few feet, just enough to continuously knock the air from his lungs. Just before the last drop, a bolt of linen cloth bounded over his head, and he reflexively grabbed a handful. Clinging to the fabric with all his might, he found himself suspended in the air over darkness. A thin strip of the linen had snagged on a jagged rock, and it was the only thing preventing him from plummeting into the void.
His entire body burned as he swung precariously in the air. Frantically he assessed his situation. He needed to climb up the fabric, but his right arm was throbbing and his grip was loosening. Whats more, the fabric would not hold him forever. Gathering what little strength and spirit remained, he reached up and slowly began to climb.
A few feet was all that remained. Reaching his hand up, he felt the linen slacken. A loud tearing sound followed, and he was once again greeted by the sensation of falling. With a face twisted by dread, he disappeared into the dark below.
The fall seemed to last a lifetime. Bergen thought about his wife and children, about his parents, his annoying uncle Darcy, even memories of his favorite chair and smoking pipe. Tears filled his eyes as his arms windmilled through the air. And then, much to his surprise, he hit water. Momentary relief was quickly replaced by excruciating pain. Hitting the surface of the pool was like slamming against solid rock, and he fought against the urge to suck in air while still underwater. Lungs on fire, he rushed to the surface and burst out of the water gasping and spitting. A poor swimmer on a good day, he eventually reached a shore of black slate and pulled himself onto its cool surface.
Water dripped into his eyes as a cold shiver traveled up his spine. Coughing and still in great pain, Bergen glanced around the cave he found himself in. A few beams of light streamed down from above, highlighting the pool of water. The rest of the cave was shrouded in grim shadows and was too difficult to examine lying down. Groaning, Bergen stood up slowly and carefully. Hunched and grimacing, he started pacing around the cave, seeking a way out. Sediment and debris were still falling, splashing in the water and making the slate treacherously slick. He slipped clumsily several times, cursing his poor fortune with each misstep. The last stumble put him flat on his stomach, and he pounded his fist on the hard ground in anguish. Preparing to lift himself, he looked up and paused suddenly.
He was not alone in the room. A figure was lying on the ground, far on the opposite shore of the pool. Immediately he remembered his horse had also fallen into the crater and assumed that was what he was seeing. It wasn't until his vision adjusted to the light that he realized it was not his horse at all.
Bergen moved in slowly, stepping as silently as possible and keeping his eyes fixed on the body. Its skin was fair, like morning frost on a glass window, and it seemed to be wrapped in a cloak of brown feathers. When he was only a few feet away, Bergen could see that the figure was male and nearly nude, with brown hair and an impressive physique. Moving closer still, a look of astonishment came over Bergen as he discovered the cloak of feathers was no cloak at all, but a pair of wings. He could scarcely believe his eyes. Before him was something he had never seen before; something out of a fairy tale.
The mysterious man was wounded. Liquid light oozed out of gashes in his shoulder and ribcage. Seeing the severity of the injuries, Bergen nearly turned around and walked away. In his mind, whatever happened to this stranger was not worth getting involved in. A faint moan escaped the man's pale lips. Guilt washed over Bergen. Muttering to himself in annoyance, he started looking around for something to use as a tourniquet. Floating in the water were shreds of the fabric that had almost saved him from falling. Ringing the water out, he started walking back to the stranger and that is when noticed what the man held in his left hand.
It was long, jagged, and dagger-like. Bergen bent down over it, his eyes wide with obsession. He was no burglar, and had no intention of turning into one. But as a purveyor of sometimes rare and little known goods, the urge to examine the shard more closely was too great. His own hand closed around it. He tried to wiggle it free from the stranger's hand, but despite being gravely wounded, the stranger's grip was steadfast. With far too much effort expended, Bergen was eventually able to wrestle it free. Still entranced, he carried the spike over to the pool and let the light from above dance across its glassy surface. Nearly weightless and perfectly balanced, the shard was impressive to behold. As he turned it in his hands, he noticed its color was so dark, it almost seemed to absorb the light. Fixated on it, he felt a stirring in his stomach and a warming of his hands.
A groan interrupted his fascination. Suddenly aware of how long he'd been in a daze, Bergen returned to the stranger and put the shard back in his hand. Taking up the fabric, he wrapped the wounds as best he could and leaned back to take in his work. It was sloppy and unclean. Bergen was unsure if it would have any affect on the stranger.
Mortal methods cannot save him.
Frozen still, Bergen frowned. Was the "voice" he had just heard in his own head? Was it his own subconscious responding to his uncertainty? The figure was still lying on the ground, eyes closed and body bleeding. Unless someone above had shouted down to him, there was no one who could have spoken.
I can save him, Bergen.
Still unable to move, Bergen’s mind raced and his skin crawled. This time it was unmistakable. Something was speaking to him, its monotone voice resonating inside his body. Every hair stood on end. His eyes and skin burned.
“Who are you?” he asked aloud, his own voice a sharp contrast to the to one that responded.
I am an echo. A residue of power. I reside in the shard; the same shard that was just in your hands.
Despite all he had experienced, Bergen wanted to laugh at the absurdity of what he was hearing. “Of course you are,” was all he could manage to say.
Your doubt is understandable. You are mortal; ignorant to the ways of greater beings. But as I said, mortal methods cannot save this angel.
Although his instincts warned him not to humor the delusion, his curiosity got the better of him. “How did all this happen?”
A simple question with a complicated answer. Long ago, the shard was a part of a crown, the crown that belonged to the god of gods. During events beyond your comprehension, the crown was destroyed. The shard is one of the few pieces that was spared, and it was retrieved and entrusted to the angelic being that now lies at your feet. For a thousand lifetimes he kept it safe. But I, the power inside the shard, imbued within it by its proximity to the god of gods, can be felt by other beings of divine origin. A demon detected our presence from across the sea of stars and came searching for the shard. While the angel prevailed against the demon, he did so at great cost. Now he bleeds because of me.
Bergen looked down at the shard as it “spoke” to him, a mixture of emotions running through his head. He then returned his gaze to the stranger, who looked even paler than before. Bergen’s defenses were lowering. He felt himself drawn to the shard and its tale, and he felt sadness and sympathy for the dying angel.
Soon the fires of his being will be extinguished. Only I can mend him, but not without your aid.
“Aid? I could barely bandage his wounds...”
That matters not. What I would ask requires little skill.
Bergen leaned closer to the shard, unable to take his attention away.
To save him, you must thrust me into his chest, directly into the center. I must reach the core of his being so that my power can fuse with his and restore the flame within his soul.
“Insanity,” Bergen mumbled. He was convinced that he had lost his grip on reality. In less than an hour he had watched a winged man fall from the sky, burning a hole in the ground that Bergen, a simple merchant, had fallen into, and now he found himself listening to a black shard, an inanimate object, as it projected a voice into his head that demanded Bergen to stab the winged man in the chest, all in order to heal him. “You want me to use you to stab him in the chest?” he asked the shard, voicing his skepticism and stretching each syllable so that it was easily noticed.
I acknowledge how outlandish this must sound. If there was another, simpler way, I would not ask this of you. If I could thrust myself, I surely would. But I am merely an instrument; one that can only be used by others. If you do not perform this task, the angel will die.
Guilt. Of all emotions, guilt was the one Bergen most responded to. Leaving his family for weeks at a time. Trading with Trolls that had killed fellow humans in cold blood. Guilt was ever present in Bergen’s heart, so despite his misgivings, he was loathe to add yet another failing to the list. Hands trembling, Bergen bent down and retrieved the shard. He held the black glass close to his face, the spire that was once a part of the crown of the god of gods. His body still aching from his fall and mind still reeling from everything else, he coughed and stroked his chin with his free hand. He had no desire to do this, but had no alternatives to offer. The guilt would not allow him to let someone die who could be helped. That certainly didn’t make him altruistic, but he reasoned that would hardly matter so long as the angel was saved.
Please hurry. His time is short.
“I know, I just...I just need a moment.” A bundle of nervous energy, Bergen slowly descended to his knees and took the instrument in both hands. Trembling, he lifted the spire above the chest of the angel, closed his eyes, and sighed heavily.
Open your eyes. He cannot afford for you to miss your mark.
He opened his eyes and lowered the shard into his lap. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he said, his voice shaking.
He will be forever in your debt for the great deed you are about to perform. I assure you.
Breathing deep and exhaling slowly, he brought the knife back over the angel’s chest. He realized that the longer he hesitated, the more difficult it would be. Gathering what little bravery he could manage, he lifted the dagger high above his head and brought it rushing back down. A heartbeat before the tip pierced the white skin of the angel, the angel’s eyes opened and met Bergen’s, and the merchant saw nothing but confusion and bewilderment. As the shard buried deep into the angel’s chest, those same eyes ballooned wide with terrified panic. The Angel brought his piercing gaze upon Bergen, and it bore deep into Bergen’s soul.
“What have you done?” the angel cried in agony as his body seized, the roar of his voice echoing throughout the cave.
“The shard said this was the only way to save you!” Bergen yelled, scrambling backwards on the ground like a sprawling crab.
“You condemn me! You condemn…yourself…this wor….”
The angel could say nothing more as he cried and quaked and twisted on the ground. Black, mucus drenched tendrils sprung suddenly from his chest, reaching up towards the ceiling of the cave. His veins erupted and his skin began to melt. Horrified, Bergen shot to his feet and clambered away. There was nowhere to go, no way up or out. He ran back to the other side of the pool and still there was nowhere to flee. Turning around, he saw the angel still thrashing, his body and wings covered in an oily sludge as if someone were melting a dark candle upon his body. Not knowing what to do, Bergen ducked behind a wide stalagmite and crouched low to the cave floor.
After several minutes, the screaming became a quiet gurgling before all noise eventually ceased. It was all Bergen could do to keep from looking out and seeing what remained of the angel. As if in answer to his curiosity, the silence was broken by deep, measured breathing. Praying that perhaps the angel had survived, he slid his head and eyes forward and saw nothing but a nightmare. The angel was gone. In its place was a hovering sphere of blackness. Another quick second revealed that it was not a sphere, but a coiled ball of a thousand writhing tentacles, twisting and looping and sliding, surrounded by spectral fog.
“I know you are with me.”
Bergen pulled back instantly and closed his eyes, wishing to be back home.
“Come into the light. Behold your creation.”
Eyes still closed, he did not see the black tentacle until it had already ensnared his leg. Ripping him backwards and around the perimeter of the room, it lifted him into the air so that he dangled precariously over the pool.
“Ah, there you are.”
The voice of the sphere was the same tone and cadence as the whisper of the shard, only grander, resonating like the rumble of thunder across the plains. It made his insides turn and he nearly wretched with fear.
“There, there, none of that. Not on my birthday.”
Knowing not what to do or say, and his head throbbing from hanging upside down, Bergen began repeating how sorry he was, over and over again.
“You have nothing to lament, dear one. His time was at an end. And because of you, his power and the power within the shard are now one within me.”
Noticing how red Bergen’s face was becoming, the tentacle tossed him into the air and caught him right side up, coiling around his body like a snake around prey.
“Hush now, and calm yourself. You have nothing to fear from me.”
“Please let me go...please.”
“No, I think not. We have much to discuss, you and I. I am new. I don’t know what form I should take. What name I should be called. Tell me, Bergen. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?”
As the question was asked, the tentacle’s grip tightened. Bergen felt shifts and snaps in his body, and he ground his teeth as he tried not to scream in pain. Breathing was nearly impossible.
“Please...” he begged.
The sphere simply laughed mockingly. “Please? Surely you can do better. Are you not a master of your trade? Perhaps you overestimate your skills of persuasion.”
“What do you want? I will give you whatever you ask if you let me go.”
“I would have thought you should hold back the world; make the customer work a little harder before offering them the prize. But perhaps I am better at the sale than you? After all, you were easily persuaded to stab an innocent in the chest.”
“I thought I was helping him! You deceived me, demon.”
“Demon? How hurtful.”
“Wicked, evil beast, let me go!” Anger burned inside Bergen. Between his pain, fear, confusion, and exhaustion, he was unable to control it.
For its part, the creature simply laughed. “How small and insignificant of you to speak in such a way. I am power incarnate. The moral dichotomies of good and evil mean nothing to me.” Without warning, the tentacle dropped Bergen into the water. Before he thought to kick and swim, it was around again, lifting him out of the water with ease. As Bergen was about to speak, it dropped him. This went on several times, and all the while the sphere was laughing. “It is only the small and weak who divide things into good and evil. Beings of power care not. They simply are, and simply do.”
The dipping stopped. Bergen spat water and coughed hoarsely until his lungs and throat were on fire. Another tentacle appeared and began to pet Bergen’s head, stroking his hair like one might stroke a small child.
“This concept of duality intrigues me. Tell me, Bergen, do the cultures of this world have tales of fell and wicked things?”
At first Bergen said nothing. Truly, he had no desire to converse any further with the beast, but he knew it would continue to torture him until it gained what it sought. And so Bergen thought back to some of the stories he would tell his children before bed. Thinking of them released a wave of despair. He hoped he would see them again.
“Do you have an answer?” the beast asked tersely.
“Yes, they do.”
“Very good. Now tell me this, which of these tales of despicable things fills you with the most dread? What force of darkness do you fear most?”
“What difference does it make?”
Bergen had an answer, but hesitated. As before, he had no desire to speak, but that was compounded by the fact that the demon was clearly in search of something. As if reading his mind, the grip of the tentacle tightened and the one stroking his hair stopped and instead lifted Bergen’s chin.
“It is not polite to ignore a very reasonable question. Answer me now, or perhaps I shall toss you back into the pool.”
When Bergen didn’t answer, the tentacle released him into the pool. Bergen waited to be lifted, but instead he felt the tentacle pushing him down. He tried to swim free, but failed, and the tentacle pinned him to the bottom and held him there. Exhausted, shattered, Bergen quickly lost the will to fight. Were it not for the overwhelming to desire to see his family again, he would have taken in as much water into his lungs as possible and ended it all there. Instead he tried to signal with his arms that he was running out of breath, and in return he was lifted out of the water.
“Feeling more loquacious?”
Panting heavily, Bergen answered as best he could manage. “The dwarves have a story about a creature they call the Ordruir. Its true form is a mystery because it instead takes the form of that which you want most, torturing you with its presence until you eventually go mad.”
The beast sneered. “Hardly seems terrifying. Why do you fear it?”
For a moment, the merchant thought again of his children, since his answer involved them. He hoped that maybe, when the beast was done with him, it would at least leave him in the cave, and from there he would be able to find a way out. Unrealistic as that seemed, hope was the only thing keeping him going.
“One day long ago, the Ordruir became bored with its normal trickery. As if suddenly becoming aware of its own strength and power, it yelled into the heavens and demanded an audience with the gods, taking the form of a great demon so as to intimidate them. Intrigued, they humored it and asked what it wanted. It then demanded that each of the gods swear their loyalty to it and name it their king. The gods laughed and turned their backs on the Ordruir, returning to their palace in the clouds. Outraged at their dismissal, the Ordruir leapt into the sky, arriving at their palace in a single bound. The palace had no guards, no alarm towers, for what did they have to fear. And so it was able to move stealthily through the corridors of their home like a shadow upon the wall. One by one it came to their lofts and estates, and one by one it ate every child of the gods. It then went to each god, and again demanded their fealty. When that god refused, the Ordruir’s face would twist and change. Once complete, the face of the god’s child would be protruding from the side of its skull like a parasitic twin. Confronted with such a heinous sight, each god conceded. And so it was that the Ordruir became king of the gods, and remained so until it was overthrown by a mortal hero.”
Deep, bellowing laughter filled the cave. “That is a villain worthy of fear.”
Silence filled the room. Bergen had no idea what the creature was thinking, or what was happening, but he said nothing. Eventually it was the beast that spoke.
“What is it about that story that makes you afraid? I know what the answer is, but I want to hear you say it.”
A rush of emotion washed over Bergen as he sighed out of anguish. “I love my children more than anything in this world. The thought of losing them to a demon is more than I can bear.”
Lowering his head, Bergen began to sob. He squeezed closed his eyes and again wished and prayed to be back home with his family.
“Open your eyes, Bergen. Open your eyes and gaze upon your fear.”
Bergen refused. He sobbed still, but kept his eyes firmly closed.
“Open your eyes,” said the voice again, only this time the voice was spoken by a mouth. He could feel its breath on his face as it spoke; hot, putrid air passing between lips and teeth. The stench made him gag. Wheezing and coughing, he was unable keep his eyes closed any longer.
There was no tentacle holding him, but a hand of molten rock, and the hand and arm were attached to a body, scaled and aflame, upon which was raised a thick, muscled neck several feet in diameter and even longer in length. The head that rested upon it was massive and arrow-shaped, bursting with horns and teeth. Worst of all was the face, the skull like eyes, nose and mouth glowing like embers in a forge.
And on either cheek, charred and grey, with lifeless eyes and mouths agape, the faces of Bergen’s son and daughter hung like they had been poorly stitched into the demon’s flesh.
“Please, I beg you…end this madness! Kill me now, or let me go, but make it end, please!”
The face retreated as if offended. “Kill you? You are my progenitor. Without your intervention, I would not be here.”
The beast brought its face to within inches of Bergen’s, its magma-like eyes burning into his own. “No, I will not kill you, father. I am the Ordruir, and together, you and I will accomplish extraordinary things. First, we will destroy this world and all who dwell upon it. Then, we will assault the palace of the gods. And then, when all the cosmos begs for our mercy…”
“We will become…King.”