Late the previous night Atolibus had awakened with a cry, clutching his bedsheets reflexively.
“Gods’ eyes, every flaming time,” he said, breathing heavily. He sat silently for a few moments, taking stock in his situation.
The chambers themselves belied his nature – he lived in simple lodgings befitting commonfolk. His bed was made of stout simple oak with a cotton-wrapped feather mattress and pillow, with soft linen bedsheets. The walls of his room were mortar and stone, with wooden support beams running up the corners and in an X across the ceiling. The only thing at all that he had of personal wealth was a deep ebony chest in the north-eastern corner of his room,directly across from his bed, with an armoire on the opposite side. His bed itself was positioned in the center of the room on the north wall facing south. There was a weapon rack on the left side of the room that held a few pieces strictly for ornamentation. His own personal armor and sword were safely tucked away within the magical aether surrounding his person. An ancient spell, one of the very first he’d learned over a thousand years ago, allowed him to call them forth and return them in a flash.
“For the love of all that is good,” he said, “does it ever end?” The same dream had played out countless times over the past century, though it had been nearly every night for weeks running in recent days. He tried to relax himself into sleep again but almost as soon as he was there a knock at his heavy wooden door interrupted him. “What is it?” He tossed his bedsheets aside, stood up and summoned clothing without even thinking – undergarments and linen over clothes, all of it white and brown cotton.
“…you awake?” a small, feminine voice called from the other side. He smiled in approval as he recognized it’s owner. Lia. Without another word he strode to the door and opened it, laughing quietly as the person on the other side was abruptly deposited in his arms as she fell forward. Apparently she had been leaning on the door, pressing her face close to it so that she would be heard through the thick, age-hardened wood. A smile curved across the sharp features of her face.
“Methinks yes, milady,” he replied, chuckling to himself. Her short blonde hair rested with her head in one of his hands while the small of her back was supported in the other. He leaned down and kissed her lightly on the lips amidst her feigned protests.
“How uncouth, milord,” she said when her lips were free again. In seconds both of them were laughing as he gently stood her back up. “Really, though, those linens are so unbecoming of you, so… common.” The two of them had first met five years past, when Lia had come to Castle Lothanis looking for work. They’d struck something of a casual romance within the prior few months.
“Very funny,” he replied, folding his arms across his chest and affecting distaste. He looked down, right into her eyes – the same stare that had first caught her just months ago, almost painful in its intensity. “In truth I am a bit lost, milady.” She stepped forward and wrapped a supporting arm around his waist, gently caressing the side of his face with the other.
She thought him handsome but there was a coldness to his appearance that brought to mind long years of suffering and weariness. There was a severity to the planes and angles of his face, a sharpness that reminded her of a blade, and his appearance belied his age in ways she couldn’t even begin to understand. She herself was in her early forties, and though she was not unattractive she was already beginning to feel the weight of age starting to pull at her. Trying to comprehend the thousand odd years Atolibus had lived usually left her with little more than a confused expression on her face and a throbbing headache.
“You all right there, handsome?” she said, looking up into his eyes – at 6’4”, he stood nearly seven inches taller than the average man in the Ten Realms. He gave her something of a bitter smile, and she felt as if she’d been touched by an icy wind. Always so cold. “You look like you’ve just had a rough roll in the hay to me.” Her euphemisms always brought a smile and a twinkle to his eye – so used to speaking properly, it was refreshing to escape custom, however brief.
“Something of the like,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s over now, that’s what counts.” He wished he could say what it was he knew she wanted to hear, three words that seemed so easy and yet so difficult. Truth be told it simply wasn’t there, and he was almost certain she knew it. He thought himself seven times the fool for believing in the ridiculous manner of prophecy his late wife had left him with, but at the same time he couldn’t help but wonder. It had been nearly a hundred years to the day since they’d spoken in the realm of the dead, so far beyond the edges of the world.
“Well you can relax a bit, milord, because his majesty the King wishes a word with you in private,” she said, stroking his short silver hair slowly. “Says he needs you to retrieve something for him tomorrow morning. Such lack of decorum is scandalous.” A thought struck her as a smile lit her eyes – they did have a little time, time that could be put to good use in her opinion.
“…when did he say he wanted to see me?” he asked, echoing her thoughts. She smiled lasciviously and fell into his embrace.
Atolibus spent the following morning of the first day of the new year in preparation for his journey. While others in the castle were sleeping off drunken hazes after celebrating the night before, Atolibus was in the castle stables readying his current mount, Nightmare. She was the latest in a long line of prized mares and stallions, black like her forerunners.
“Easy, girl,” he whispered to her, brushing her down gently and patting her nose as she nuzzled his face. It had been a while since the horse had been ridden – indeed, she seemed to be growing somewhat fat on the king’s produce in the stables. “We’ll have you out in the open fields before long.” He tossed his saddle over the horse, strapped it down and vaulted up carefully onto his mount. She hardly ever noticed his weight – another bit of magic was usually in place that lightened her burden and reduced his apparent weight at the same time, armor and all. “That’s a girl.” He patted her head softly as he took the reins in hand, leading her out of the stables. A half dozen or so scent-hounds that shared a stall next to her barked happy farewells to him as he left.
His ride was a solitary one and rather quiet. Brenhel, a hundred miles north of the castle as the crow flew, was one of the easiest locations to get to from the castle in question. From Castle Lothanis, center-east in the realm, one could see mountain ranges to the south, a vast lake to the east, forests to the west, and lush grasslands to the north. As such, on that particularly cloudy midwinter day a gentle yet chillingly cold wind blew through the plains. He was right. I have needed a bit of a break. He found his foul mood bleeding out of him as a smile played across his face, and for a time he lost himself on the open plains, enjoying the winter sun and the chill in the air.
The road he traveled was extremely busy during the harvest season in mid autumn but scarcely used in the heart of winter. The temperature seemed to drop rapidly as he traveled further north, going from passably brisk to bone chilling in a matter of hours. He thought that it might have snowed in Brenhel – he could see the wispy clouds to the north that usually heralded its arrival.
He passed a few travelers on the road, men and women who took one look at him and hurried their pace a bit, and he passed a few small companies of knights from his castle, liveried in Lothanis black and gold, all of whom stopped to salute to their Lord Commander and speak briefly of recent events.
The route he was taking was not direct – it veered a goodly pace to the west before beginning to curve back to the east. After another couple of hours he passed near the two closest members of a ring of defensive towers that had long been abandoned, ominous black things that rose high into the sky and had stood silent for longer than most folk could remember.
“The world is vast, the lands are rich…” he began to sing softly to himself, an old tune from ages long past. The melody began on a light enough note, one that progressed rapidly from whimsy to melancholy. He let himself open to more of his magic as he sang, threading his voice with power that added layers of depth and tonal harmony. The rest of the song drifted to the surface of his mind as he began to sing in earnest.
The world is vast, the lands are rich.
There is wealth and splendor.
Children play and laugh and sing,
ne’er knowing their defender.
Six there are, no more, no less,
holding up the sky.
Take one down and lose them all -
watch the world die.
Yellow is the Earth that spreads beneath us,
supporting all that grows.
Green is the Air that fills our chest,
carrying all that blows.
Red for Fire and Blue for Water,
that which burns and that which churns.
Eternally at war they are,
each other they always spurn.
White is the Light that shines upon us,
warming our hearths and hearts.
Black is the Shadow that trails behind,
at times as one and at times apart.
He smiled with the recollection. A simple nursery rhyme written centuries ago, it was the first thing taught to any entrants of the Lothanis Magery. For those with the Gift, the inborn ability to touch the currents of magic that wove their way through the reality around them, the manner in which they wielded their power was surprisingly simple, deviating very little from the song. If only most of them would believe what they’re told from minute one instead of needing to be bludgeoned with it repeatedly, things would be ever so much simpler.
Self reflection sent his thoughts drifting further and further into the past, and images played across his mind, unbidden. A woman astride a white mare, a woman with dark brown hair and glittering blue eyes that seemed to be filled with a secret laughter every time he looked at them. Serena, my love. How long has it been? Tragedy followed, tragedy and blind rage as he watched her die in front of him, a scene that had haunted him for decades. Mad old fool, let it pass. It is but a shadow of the past. He brought his mind back to the present day and reoriented himself on the task at hand – his ride to Brenhel. His attention hadn’t been away for long – the sun had only moved slightly closer to dipping below sight. Nightmare had carried him forward, knowing the route that they traveled by heart.
“That’s a girl,” he whispered, patting her head and scratching her ear affectionately. She whinnied in positive response and he managed something of a grin. It was late afternoon, he realized, and he was only a little more than an hour away from the town at his slow pace – the sun was right on the horizon. “Almost there… won’t be long now.” He sped up his pace a bit, feeling something suddenly tug at the back of his mind. He knew he was getting close when the frequency of homes began to increase. He stopped momentarily, staring at the clearly impossible.
Standing on the side of the road was a relatively short female wrapped in a black woven robe made of what at first glance appeared to be satin, though he gathered it was slightly thicker owing to the cold.
“Milady?” he asked her, stopping Nightmare with a gentle shift in weight on her back. The woman drew back the hood of the robe and her face was laid bare before the sky for all to see. Atolibus’ silver eyes went wide at the sight as ten years worth of memories flooded his mind, memories he had to set aside with a brisk shake before he could find speech once more. Serena, my love. You told me there would be a woman, as yet unborn, that was for me and me alone. Laughter played across his thoughts, even as his face remained expressionless. I didn’t think you’d be quite so fucking obvious about it, though.
“Is everything all right?” she said in a high, clear voice as she cocked her head sideways.
“You look like someone I once knew,” Atolibus said.
Eyes the color of the deepest blue sky, her face held no lines or signs of age whatsoever. She possessed a lightly heart shaped countenance that he wouldn’t forget if he lived a hundred times his span of years. Atolibus thought her cloak served more purposes than simple protection from the cold – men would find her attractive… perhaps too attractive, given the right circumstances and enough distance between them and civilization. Her hair was a rich chocolate that shimmered with volume and vibrance. Her figure curved gracefully towards wide hips. She carried a stout oaken staff with her as well, one that looked more in the manner of a weapon than a walking stick.
His raiment, she noted, was something else altogether.
Elegant articulated plate enveloped him from the soles of his feet all of the way up to his neck, opening slightly in the front to give room for breathing. Though it bore the hue of rich gold the metal was of entirely unknown origin, light and flexible while maintaining enormous strength. A broad ankle-length black cloak was affixed around his shoulders and his neck. His sword, a white monster named Elysdeon, was strapped to his back with the hilt poking up into sight in a businesslike fashion. Delicate golden filigree wrapped up from the pommel around the hilt towards the crossguard, filigree that had the appearance of letters in a language long forgotten. The blade had the general appearance of a broadsword, if one were to stretch a broadsword to seven inches in width and four feet in length. The odd white metal rippled with pale ethereal light, seeming to drink it in and cast a subtle glow of its own. Not very practical, she thought to herself. Nor subtle. But considering his job, I suppose being immediately identifiable has its advantages.
“Are you sure everything is all right?” she said, head still cocked. “You seem a bit distracted, Lord Commander.” That answered that question straight off – she recognized him. Of course she does.
“Of a certainty,” he said. His mind was a disjointed tangle of threads, trying to put it all together. Laughter bubbled up from within, threatening to burst uncontrollably forth as he struggled to maintain his composure. “Sorry about that. It’s just that… has anyone ever told you that you look like someone else?” She shook her head.
“No,” she said simply. He hopped down from Nightmare, ostensibly to watch the sky, in reality to spend a moment longer taking in the beautiful young woman standing beside him. She smells like good clean soil and spring rains... More mental laughter. Gods’ eyes, woman. I can almost hear you laughing at me, even now. He mastered himself quickly, though a smile managed to force its way across his features.
“It is growing dark,” he said. “Do you not seek shelter? Winter here is cold, properly cold, and you’re further outside of Brenhel than I would consider safe, this far away from the capitol.”
“Aye,” she said. “My home is the small cottage you see behind us. I was merely enjoying the sunset – as are you, unless I miss my guess?” He looked over her shoulder for a moment and confirmed that there was indeed a dwelling there, a small stone affair that looked well kept and simple.
“Indeed,” he said, nodding softly. “I’m expected elsewhere, unfortunately. Duty calls.” He remounted and paused for a moment before continuing. “Would you grace me with a name if I asked for one?” She smiled somewhat meekly.
“Kristina,” she said. Atolibus caught himself smiling at her unabashedly. “I thank you for the honor, Lord Commander.” Supreme Lord Commander of the Armies and Regent to the throne, Atolibus never went unnoticed unless he was not in armor, which was rare outside of the castle on official business. Even some who would not have recognized the reigning king of the realm would have known Atolibus the moment they saw the golden armor and the white sword. “Didn’t you say you were going somewhere?” A light clicked on in his mind – indeed, and it grows darker by the minute.
Screams then, screams and the high pitched shrieking of powerful magic being wielded coming from due north. The young woman didn’t appear to have heard, but his physical senses were sharper than most even when he wasn’t employing magic to assist him.
“Find a safe place and stay there,” he said. It never ends. So much for the day off. With one tap of his heel he and Nightmare found themselves racing northward. He let his mind wander to the staff that she had borne as he rode - the crest he had seen engraved on it was a match to the drawing he had on the scroll the king had given him the night before.
“We meet again,” he said. It was Kristina, staring at him with her soft blue eyes. “I’m glad to see you’re all right. That was a mess, be glad you don’t live in the town proper.” He paused for a moment as he drew himself to his feet, dusting off his cloak even as he shot a glare at Nightmare. I swear she’s laughing at me when she neighs like that. It was then that he noted the young woman’s general state – dripping wet and soaked to the skin. “Did I miss something?”
“I was going to ask you the same question,” she said, consternation stamped across her features. “A wall of water came roaring down the road a few minutes ago, from where I could not possibly explain. The little stone cottage that stood behind me? Take a look.” He looked back over her shoulder and grimaced – the dwelling had been scattered in every direction, smashed to utter ruin by his magic as it ran its course.
“Ah,” he said. “That’s on me.” He paused for a moment, unable to meet the young woman’s eyes. “Sorry about that. I’m on my way back to the capitol as we speak, care to join me?”
“Are you certain?” she said, eyebrows raised. He slipped back into the saddle.
“Think nothing of it,” he said, extending a hand towards her. She took it and mounted behind him, her slender arms quickly wrapping around his waist. Her voice was directly in his ear, sending the hairs on his arms and neck quivering.
“Is something amiss?” she said quietly.
“You ask that question an awful lot,” he said, chuckling lightly. “Just the musings of a mad old fool. Why do you ask?”
“You just seem more than a touch preoccupied,” she said.
“Long day,” he said. He still bristled at what had happened in Brenhel. Killing Magus always brought memories bubbling to the surface, memories of blood and fire... images he would have preferred to lose over the course of centuries. “I spend more time buried in my thoughts than I care to admit, but you can rest assured that this old fool is fine otherwise. At any rate, let’s be about our business. We’ve the better part of ninety miles to travel between here and the capitol and I mean to cover that distance within a couple of hours.” At this, she seemed surprised – that much terrain in such a short amount of time, in the dark with two riders ahorse?
“You must have one hell of a mount to make such a journey,” she said. He nodded, smiling lightly. “Is it safe under cover of night? Aren’t you worried about broken limbs?” Atolibus shook his head.
“The land is flat and Nightmare knows the way by heart… I think it’s in her blood by now. I’ve always felt her line must have at least a touch of magic; they never miss a step,” he said. He must have been correct – no one would be foolish or insane enough to risk such a prized mount otherwise. “Hold on tight – this is going to be fast.” Just as she had time to hold him securely he uttered a sharp cry, and they were off.
Nightmare ate the distance between the ruined town and the capitol with a haste unmatched by any other line of steeds in the Ten Realms. She managed to clear half the distance in around an hour, showing no signs of tiring. ‘Consider it a holiday’, he says. If I’d simply opened a gateway then and there this would never have happened. He sighed heavily to himself. They’d ridden in silence as Atolibus’ mind drifted back to a dream, the same dream he’d had over and over again recently.
His sight was cloudy, as always. It was an old memory, one that stood over a century behind him. He stood in a somewhat blurry place, inside of some manner of pearlescent palace. A heavy silence was almost visible, such was its strength. A man in silver armor waited next to him while before him stood a scowling, pale faced individual and a woman in shimmering white robes. My goddess. My only.
“Serena…” he said, trying to force his way past the thick knot in his throat. He was already standing well beyond the point of no return for mortals. Only the fiber of his being, alone among men, allowed him to set foot where no other living creature dared tread.
He shook his head, trying to clear the confused, half understood character of the place out of his mind. Trying to tap his magic, moving, turning, thinking, all of it came in the gossamer manner of a dream, liquid and surreal. The realm of the dead did not care for his presence and it took all of his effort to maintain his footing.
“It is too late,” she said softly. Her words seemed to float straight to his mind – her mouth was not moving. “But not to worry. There is one to come, as yet unborn… she is for you and you for her, deny it though you will. The world will burn, the sky will break, and the Great Question will at last be settled ” Though she was smiling, there was a reticence to her tone that he hadn’t felt before. The words she’d given him rang and echoed with the weight of prophecy, reverberating throughout the realm and his mind, fading in and out of volume repeatedly.
“This is too soon,” he said. “Surely there must be something...” He trailed off from there, unable to continue.
“A hundred years hence and she who I have spoken of shall come to you in her own fashion,” Serena spoke aloud from her own lips, the words echoing strangely once more. All ready she could feel her essence being changed and soon she knew that she was to be woven into the fabric of the realm of the dead itself, unable to carry on their discourse. Forcing his mind through the cobwebs and fatigue, he gathered his wits.
“And what of Elvina, and the Magus?” he said, drawing up to his full height in a swordsman’s stance without a thought. She drew back a pace mentally. His grace had always caught her off guard no matter how many times she’d seen him day in and day out, living as man and wife for over ten years.
“The future is uncertain at best. She could pose a greater threat than you think to Syreal, and then again she could falter and be crushed by the inexorable grinding of time itself,” she said. “More than that I cannot say.” There was something of a quiescent smile on her face despite the fact that this farewell was to be their final one. She alone among mortals had known part of the truth of his existence, even if not the whole. “Until the end of time, my love. Remember that, if nothing else.”
He saw her begin to vanish as the fabric of the realm drew her into itself. He lunged for her, only to have her disappear a mere inch from his grasp. A guttural growl, spawned in the depths of his soul, built in his throat and escaped as a bestial howl of rage that encompassed the depths of the dead lands themselves for a few moments before settling. The world around him faded to blackness in moments, save a soft blue glow from beneath their feet.
After making a few futile efforts at talking, Kristina gave up – she couldn’t hear much over the sound of the wind rushing by and the pounding of hooves underfoot.
I can hear your thoughts, Atolibus’ voice rang clearly in her head. She was stunned by it – her ears had picked up nothing other than wind blowing past them. Sorry if I drifted off there, a bit preoccupied as you said. If you wish to communicate at speed simply think. A flood of memories washed into him, flashes of people and faces and castles and things he didn’t expect to see in the mind of one so fair and innocent seeming. Perhaps I was a touch vague. Picture that you are speaking to me with your voice.
Like this? She saw the slight tilt of his head directly in front of her as he nodded in the positive. I get it… what a chore, though. He laughed silently – she could feel his body rumble slightly. What? Did I say something funny?
No, no, it’s not that, it’s just that I’ve been doing this for so long; I hadn’t really thought about what really goes into it in centuries. It’s as natural to me as speaking or breathing.
Really? That much? You must do this a lot. At this she sensed a glimmer of the grim coldness she’d heard of.
More than I care to admit, actually. Unfortunately it’s easier for me to pry into someone’s mind than it is to get them to simply speak with me openly and honestly. Easier and more direct, generally. He sent her an image that she knew, one he’d seen as his mind brushed against hers – a lord’s manor under construction surrounded by the makings of a settlement or perhaps a small town, he couldn’t say which.
You… saw that? Hesitation there. She felt him shift as he nodded.
Just a glimpse as our minds first touched. I am curious, though… perhaps I shouldn’t ask – I don’t recognize the surroundings. Where is this? At this, her grip seemed to tighten around his waist. Perhaps that was the wrong question to ask.
I could show you… but do you really want to know? Her unease was palpable, and guilt stung him for a moment.
Only if you are comfortable, milady.
I’ll show you… you may not like it, but I’ll show you.
Images flooded his mind in a disjointed stream, images of a set of half finished wooden structures and a dark haired woman laughing even as tears rolled down her face. Men garbed in black robes and armor, bearing a crimson badge that set his blood boiling. For a few moments they poured out of the young brunette uncontrollably until Atolibus brought her to a stop.
“That face,” he said, voice flat. “I know that face. The woman in your memory. Who was she?”
“She was a friend,” Kristina said. “She came to us under the guise of friendship, anyhow.”