Sister Ruth knelt penitently before the table, two long candles burning before her. Her hands clasped palm to palm in front of her plain-robed form. Her head bowed to pray to the Divine. In this small room, only a window shed the faint light of evening through its glass. Alone, the devout attempted conference with her savior.
Hair the color of the candlelight framed her youthful face. The skin of porcelain and features made beautiful by her Lord’s design. She concerned herself only with His will, living a quiet, peaceful life of service with the church. It had guided her to salvation. She gave praise in silent contemplation.
At first, Ruth thought the vision that appeared to her was a messenger from Him. A glowing, rounded leaf hung wide in the air, illuminated by moonlight. Though her breath held, her heart leaped to receive the touch of divinity. A reward for her loyalty and love.
And yet, a new shape formed before the glowing leaf. It was shrouded in darkness. Indistinct save for a rounded head and body. A man in billowing robes draped low to the floor before the candle-set table. Ruth felt its presence, powerful and ethereal. Dread gripped her heart.
“No peace. No rest.” whispered the shade before her.
Ruth’s hands quickly searched within the folds of the robe at her chest. She drew out a simple rosary with a gilded cross dangling from its circle of beads. She pressed the crucifix between her palms, closing her eyes to the vision. Her lips moved quickly, reciting prayers of protection against evil.
“Your God abandons you,” the shade spoke again, its voice a hiss.
She tried to close her mind to its words, the temptation laced within them. A deep draw of breath filled her lungs. Her God was a mighty God, an unknowable, incredible God. She would not falter. Her Faith would guard her.
“You were made for more,” it said next. “To rule, to be adored, to show this world the true path…Witness me…”
Sister Ruth only chanted her prayer. Still, she was only mortal, and the creature’s soft tone invaded her thoughts. She was beautiful. All the sisters said so. Many men in the villages and towns she missioned had begged her to recant her piety and marry them. She need only say ‘Yes.’
She refused them all. And yet, the apparition grasped hold of her weakness. It filled her mind with dreams. Gorgeous dresses adorned her, and the finest of jewels hung from her neck. They glittered in the brilliance of great halls where nobles frolicked. Knights bent their knees to her. These men swore fealty to her loveliness like no other woman in the land could compare.
Ruth fell into the dreams despite herself. The sensation of adulation overwhelmed her. Why shouldn’t she be a queen? She was woman: Bringer of Life. She could rule them all with a demure glance. She could sway the greatest men who ever lived to abandon their wives and bow before her.
Three knocks rang out on the great hall doors. The sounds drew her eye from the handsome man in fine silk that took her clean, soft hand. Hands that would never scrub floors or pots nor be pricked by needles mending clothes. She stared at the marble white doors, waiting. Would the knocks come again?
“Born to comfort.” whispered the shade. “All the world laid at your feet. You, alone, can rule them…”
Ruth smiled at the prince, who kissed her hand. His body bent low before her, and his other arm swept back behind him formally. She, the bringer of life, ruled him. She could feel his desire for her in his intense, black gaze. Those eyes, they unsettled her deep inside.
Three knocks rang out again. Ruth’s gaze slipped away.
“Enter,” she said regally.
“I wish I could, but the door remains closed to me.” A voice called from beyond the marble.
A thought flittered through her mind. She sat up straighter on her throne and lifted her chin.
“Knock, and the door shall be opened”
“Yes, well. That should be the case save for the malevolent energy barring my way, eh?” answered the mysterious voice.
“What do you mean?” asked Ruth, Queen of All. Her handsome prince rose to stand at her side, chest forward and shoulders back.
“Dismiss the jester, my lady. He interrupts this revel meant to celebrate you.”
Ruth looked over the shining hall before her. Fine lords and ladies frolicked about, unconcerned with the disruption. They dazzled her with their rhythmic twirling. Flowing gowns fluttered, and laughter filled the room.
“Away, Jester. We’ve no need of your folly now,” spoke Ruth.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. For a jester’s place among the court is paramount, his folly charms all. His wit brings greater truth to the wise.”
She glanced at her prince. He smiled down at her. “Our celebration is full of laughter, my beloved Queen. Tarry no more with this interloper.”
“Yes. Enough of you, interloper. Begone from my door!” demanded Ruth, her hands now clenching the arms of her ornate throne.
Everything was perfect, yet she felt a lingering unease.
“Now, you don’t really want that. What would He say?”
He. The tone of the word dictated importance, and it struck a chord within Ruth. She stiffened, and her almond-shaped eyes painted with coal grew wide. He. Her mind could not shake the word. She was reminded of other words, further descriptions of He. The Almighty. The Great ‘I am.' The Alpha and the Omega.
“Yes. He would be saddened if I dismissed you, who come on his behalf.” Ruth reasoned, looking back up at her winsome prince and his disturbing black eyes. “Let the fool enter.”
“My love, my beautiful star. He is but a jester. Surely, he need not-”
“Let him come, sweet prince,” said Ruth firmly.
The prince’s smile held venom behind his lips. Yet, he stepped down off the Queen’s rise at this end of the great hall and strode across the pristine floor. He reached the doors, grasping hold of pearled handles moored with polished brass. They were pulled, the two large halves of the portal creaking open.
Ruth sat up straighter, raising her head as high as she could to see. There, in the doorway, stood a man, not a Jester. He was older, with hair gray at the temples. He wore a simple green robe, left unbound and open to reveal a brown tunic. A black belt adorned with pouches circled him, and brown breeches tucked into black boots. This unknown man lifted a hand, wiggling its full complement of fingers.
“Hullo…Wonderful to be in the presence of such greatness. May I?” asked the green-frocked man in the doorway.
The prince sneered, his back to Ruth and expression unseen. Ruth raised a delicate hand, golden bracelets shifting down her wrist to mid-forearm. She beckoned.
“Come forward and be recognized.”
Eliden Theorycrafter lifted a booted foot, extending the leg forward past the prince. He tipped forward, rocking until his boot landed on the clean hall’s dancefloor. The rest of him was dragged with the leg until he stood upright again. A single step through the doorway, albeit comically so.
“My name is Eliden, Sister Ruth. I come on behalf of the One. He who grieves for you.”
Ruth’s breath caught in her chest. Her body tensed at the name he called her by. She narrowed her gaze upon this man. This upstart, pretending to be her fool.
“You will address the throne properly or be sent to the dungeons,” Ruth said, forcing her tone as even as she could. She didn’t like this man.
“My deepest apologies, erm…my lady,” said the man, walking forward once more. Her prince paralleled him, ever at his side as if to protect his queen.
The man went on. “He weeps for you. Your light, your love, stolen away by this…vile cur.” A hand swept toward her winsome prince. “He whispers sweet lies, for that is his way. His words bring only illusion. They are ash upon your tongue, fed by a black spoon. Even now, He calls out to you. Listen…”
“He has lost his claim upon my queen. Cast her aside. Alone,” said the prince then, looking to Ruth upon her throne. “He comes not when you call. He speaks not when you sit before him. I am here with you. Always.”
The flame-haired queen put on airs then, fixing Eliden with a cold stare. “My prince stands beside me, ever faithful.” Her words echoed the debonair noble. For a single moment, Ruth wondered why.
“Can’t you hear Him? Can you not feel his love? Taste it in the bread you eat? Feel it in the winds that cool your flesh? Every moment, every day, He has wrapped you up in all that He is.”
Eliden’s speech, though brief, drew a sharp intake from the queen. She had felt the wind. She had tasted the bread. Ruth remembered laughter around the simple, plain dining table.
The clink and clatter of spoons against bowls. The illusion broke for but a moment. Sister Ruth faced the dark apparition before her in that small, candlelit room. Her eyes wide with fear, she looked to the door where the green-robed man stood.
“Help me,” she said, a tear slipping from her left eye down the smooth contour of her
“Pray with me, Sister. Pray to the One who truly loves you,” begged Eliden, grasping the moment of clarity.
The illusion reasserted itself. The violinists in the corner of her great hall played a livelier tune. Her handsome prince brushed past Theorycrafter, approaching the throne. He stood at Ruth’s feet, bowing his head and smiling. A hand was raised, palm up.
“May I have this dance?”
She resisted only because of the tear. The wet sensation stayed on her cheek. Her fingers touched her face, searching for it but found only dry tender skin. Ruth was lost. A pleased smile graced her lovely face as she took hold of the hand offered her and rose from her throne.
“Sister, please. Listen to me. Don’t touch it. I beg you.” Eliden’s voice felt distant to her ears, though the man stood only ten or so paces behind her prince. The queen descended to the floor, gliding gracefully toward her dancing court. The prince walked at her side, so fine and fair. Her hand lay atop his.
“No temptation hath overtaken you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. Yet when you are tempted, he will provide a way out so you can endure it.”
Ruth could barely hear these words over the crescendo of strings. A fanciful song that inspired her entourage to twirl and step faster. She smiled at first, guided to spin round in her gorgeous gown. The soft fabric brushed against her skin, so gentle, so decadent. Soon, she danced with her winsome paramour. His hand on her hip and her hand at his shoulder. The others clasped. She gazed into his eyes.
“For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver…”
Eliden’s words came stronger then. Ruth stared into the heart of darkness. Her merry steps faltered, and her hands sprang away from the lovely prince. She stepped back, touching her fingers over her shocked mouth.
“It’s not real. It’s not…Oh, My God.”
The man in green robes stepped between her and the prince suddenly. His arms spread out wide, his chin raised.
The dream shattered all around Sister Ruth, falling away like a cut tapestry. She shuddered, her skin cold and clammy. Looking up at the man between her and the shade, Ruth noticed the overturned table. The candles burned on their sides, melting wax upon the stone floor.
“Oh, Lord. Forgive my weakness,” she whispered.
Aidan Oreland burst through the doorway, bracing himself in its frame. His brown eyes flicked from Sister Ruth to Eliden, who stared at the cloaked ghast. He started forward, unbinding the morning star from his belt.
It was Pasho Pyr who came next through the archway. “STOP!”
Aidan reeled back, looking to the girl with confusion etched upon his shadowed face. Pasho pushed from the doorway, laying her hands on Aidan to push him back.
“It's attached itself to him. Leave them. Tend to her,” explained Pasho. “Take her away from here.”
Aidan’s instincts to destroy evil warred with her logic. Yet he did as he was told and circled around the young mage to gather Sister Ruth. She sobbed as he guided her from the room, leaning into the man’s strong arms around her shoulders. Pasho, Eliden, and the shade were left alone.
“You think you’ve won, don’t you?” The handsome prince said with smug satisfaction.
Eliden stood before him, hands tucking into the pockets of his long, green coat. He smiled, shrugging idly. The great hall of Queen Ruth remained, yet it was empty of revelers and performers now. Only he and the prince remained.
“I measure not success the way you do,” said Theorycrafter.
“And yet, here you are at my mercy,” replied the winsome prince.
“Here I am.”
The hall fell away, revealing a battlefield of blackened earth. In the distance behind the prince, the Chroniclers tower burned, shattered, and toppled. Eliden locked his gaze upon the black-eyed man before him. Still, the scent of smoke and charred flesh assaulted his nose.
“How do you measure victory, mortal?” asked the prince, turning aside to force his opponent’s eye.
At the gates, Yaro Tai, the Red Wizard, lay in pieces. An arm here, a leg there. His head was torn from his neck and rested on its side facing Eliden, eyes wide and slack mouth open.
To the right of the once brilliant gate, Holnleigh, The Blue Healer, was pinned to a crumbled wall by a black spear. Her slender body hung limp, dripping red from her shoes. Eliden winced despite himself.
“Do you feel it? Crippling loss?” asked the prince again, smiling still. “Time is no enemy to you, a man of magic. And yet, you are all still vulnerable. Every. Last. One.” He swept a silk-clad limb over the carnage.
Grokthnar sat on the burnt ground nearby. His face looked pinched with grief and pain. Like a child, the hob was propped on his rump with legs splayed out. Between them, Pasho Pyr’s mangled corpse rested.
Though the hob lived, bleeding from deep, jagged wounds still; all fight had fled the great warrior. He shed heavy tears, sad grayish-green eyes staring at the battered girl’s body. Her aesilk rent, half her face flayed from her skull, hanging like torn fabric from her chin.
Grok’s sobs crushed Eliden’s resolve. He watched the giantkin grieve not only the broken woman but his dead rat lying limp in one great palm. Eliden trembled, looking away in shame. Far afield, Aidan Oreland was propped up like an inhuman banner. Black metal sabers dug through his body into the earth, holding his corpse upright.
“No peace. No rest. No hope” whispered the prince then.
“Naught but illusion,” said Theorycrafter, gritting his teeth.
“A vision…,” moaned the black-eyed man.
“A trick,” snapped the green wizard. “A vexation to sap my resolve. To weaken my spirit. Yet I am not weak, for He is ever with me.”
The world spun without bidding. Behind Eliden and the prince lay the Erudane Pegasi Knights. Their armor ripped open, and their bowels spilled out. Each string of entrails had been bound around Kalumdane, King of Erudane. He knelt in the dirt with the shaft of a spear through his face. One eye hung from its socket. The King was chained by the guts of his men like a slave.
Eliden’s fists clenched at his sides, yet he took a deep breath.
“A foolish choice. Kalumdane King sits upon his throne, very much alive. Balsephor was beaten back to the bloody gates of Hell.”
“ARE YOU SO CERTAIN?!” Boomed a familiar voice full of mirth and cruelty. Eliden spun about, looking up at the towering Archdemon standing before him. A gigantic humanoid of red skin and ancient brands. He stepped back, afraid.
“You’re not real. You were banished. The reaver sent you screaming to the depths!”
Balsephor threw back his horned head, wicked teeth displayed in a wide guffaw he released. The dread lord’s head lowered, laughter silenced. He stared down at Theorycrafter with scorn.
“Pompous human, who thinks my power so easily defeated. Look upon the chaos and death I bring to your beloved order.”
“It’s a lie! A lie, I say!” cried Eliden, backing away. His body shuddered, his mind breaking. “My future is not this…this…facsimile! YOU ARE NOT HERE!” He roared, stepping forward once. A hand shot forward from him, finger-pointing with great accusation.
The beast roared laughter again.
“It is I who slayed your friends. I, who tortured those you love. I sup on their anguish. I slake my thirst on their sorrow and feast on the delicious dessert of their final, crying moments as hungrily as I devoured their very souls.”
“GROOOOOOOOOOK!” screamed Theorycrafter, succumbing to the nightmare. “Help Me!”
The hob stayed where he sat, sniffling and moaning. A stout finger gently brushed along Munchy the sand rat’s soft back. He ignored Eliden’s calls for aid.
“It’s a dream..it’s a dream…it’s only a dream…” The besieged wizard repeated, sinking down to his knees. His arms curled around himself, his body rocking back and forth.
Again, the Archdemon laughed at his pain.
“Give in to me, Theorycrafter. Beg me to release you from this torment, and I shall grant you the honor of being my greatest feast.”
Eliden’s face poured sweat. His pulse pounded in his ears. Eliden found a certain logic in the dread lord’s offer through his unraveling mind. Dead, he would suffer no more. Not even in the afterlife if his soul was consumed. He would simply cease to exist. Never to feel, never to be ashamed, nor alone.
“Or…,” Balsephor offered, the demon’s tone softening with compassion. “...you could join me. I’m just spitballing here, of course,” it said. The beast relaxed its imposing stance over the distressed wizard. “I’d give you command of my legion.”
Eliden’s mind filled with a new vision forced over the horrid fate in front of him. An idyllic meadow of green grass and yellow flowers spread from his knees. His glistening, saline gaze followed the path of beauty down a sloping hill to a cottage of brown wood. Smoke lazily billowed from its stone chimney.
The indistinct shapes of children in summer clothes played around the house. Two boys chased each other with sticks, swinging them like swords. A girl sat in the grass; twisting wildflower stems together to form a crown. The sun shone down on this happy home from a cloudless, blue sky. It was perfect.
A greyish form heaved upward from behind the cottage, and Eliden gasped. His battered mind thought of danger, but the children looked up and squealed with delight. Grokthnar stretched toward the heavens, thick lips wide in a yawn. All three ran around the side of the house, cheering the Hob, who grinned.
The front door opened. Eliden watched a woman with a messy mop of brown hair waddle, very pregnant, from the depths. Instead of aesilk robes, her dress was pale blue and bound by a white, frilled apron. The sun reflected off the spectacles set on her nose. Eliden sobbed, clasping his hands over his mouth and chin.
He watched them all. His beloved friends. So happy. So safe. Grokthnar trundled around the cottage, children running about his massive, bare feet. Pasho held her swollen belly, bent forward and laughing. The Hob’s broad smile was so peaceful.
Eliden Theorycrafter knew the journey would end someday. Not that time meant anything to him. Still, all good things end one way or another. He’d often imagined Pasho might take his place. But a part of him wondered if the young mage might choose a simple life of family and love instead. He never pictured himself in these fanciful daydreams. Only them.
He was not built for settling down.
The children changed course, running in a line past Pasho away from Grok. Eliden could barely make out a tiny dot in the grass bounding ahead of them. It had to be Munchy. Grokko’s new friend now a family pet.
“You would give this to me?” Theorycrafter asked, lowering his hands from his face. “You would spare them if I submit to you?”
“More than spare them,” said Balsephor, its voice a conversational yet deep tenor. “You will be there to protect them. After all, they’re your family.”
The wizard’s brows furrowed. He didn’t understand until the little girl stopped chasing the sand rat and looked up the hill at him. She grinned and said something. Every face turned his way. Pasho stood still, gazing at him. Grokthnar threw one long, muscular arm up to wave frantically. The two boys dashed past their sister, little legs pumping to get them up the hill.
“I never wanted this…,” Eliden whispered. Yet his heart filled with joy. He could barely see them at this distance, just heads of brown and blonde hair in the green, green grass. He even looked behind him to make sure there wasn’t someone else, someone better coming for his children.
“You could have it…” whispered Balsephor, suspiciously sounding like the grave shade.
“I could…couldn’t I?” The wizard mumbled, turning back. His wet eyes locked, fascinated by the tiny arms and legs flailing toward him. His children. His wife. His best friends. His happy, peaceful home. His…abominable rat.
Despite himself, Eliden Theorycrafter opened his arms.
A small, moon-white flower with five unfurled petals floated into his view from his left. It was ethereal and gorgeous, glowing faintly with pure white light. Two pink filaments peeked up from the flower’s center. Its green stalk hung down below the bud, cut off at about six inches.
His brows furrowed. He focused on the floating flower. It didn’t make sense. Some magical effect had brought it. At first, his addled mind looked down the hill toward the pregnant Pasho; but she was casting no spell. Eliden’s mind wrapped around the flower, deducing and theorizing. Curiosity filled his thoughts.
The grave shade hissed.
Eliden reached for the flying flower, yet his hand pressed against something hidden. Some unseen force blocked him. The flower jerked backward as if it were frightened by his behavior. He tilted his head, more intrigued now.
“Be not afraid. I will not harm you,” said the green-frocked man gently. “I only want to understand you. How you got here.” And as he did so, his mind worked it out. Quickly, Eliden’s gaze brightened with knowledge…then grew hard with anger.
“Because here doesn’t EXIST,” he snarled, pushing back off his knees to rise. “It’s a fake. Another illusion to twist my mind. An illusion on top of an illusion on top of an illusion. This, the battlefield, and the great hall where I saved that woman from -you-!”
With a flutter of his coat-tails, Eliden turned on what had been Balsephor. What had been the handsome fairytale prince? and what was, in fact, the shade. He reached through each phantasm, snatching hold of the black cowled figure beneath.
“Tricky thing about mind forests, eh? Using a psychic link to sift through someone’s thoughts for details to manipulate requires an open connection and a connection is a road both can walk down. Like this!”
The illusion blurred. Like a cannonball fired, the meadow whooshed away. The world around him and the shade turned craggy and dark. Mountains loomed in bleak clouds. Jagged stone outcroppings whipped by along a path through a treacherous landscape.
It led to a foreboding castle in ruins, decimated by time and war. Lightning crashed, and thunder rolled. The vision swept through a broken courtyard filled with the bones of the dead. Husks of petrified trees looked like gruesome thorny claws sticking up from the ash.
Through shattered wooden doors, Eliden and the shade flew. They careened along a great hall floor and came to stop at the steps of a monarch’s rise, not unlike the one in Ruth’s vision. Where hers was bright and pristine, this was dark and dirty. A figure sat on a black throne before them. The shade struggled to break free of Eliden’s hold.
Whatever sat there was large, draped in a cloak that covered its body down to the ankles. Eliden could see black boots with bronze buckles peeking out. Though he didn’t release the apparition, his head turned so he could look upon the source of this attack. With no light piercing the hall, he could only make out a humanoid shape. Its abnormally long ears protruding from a mane of hair…or a hood…he really couldn’t say.
“Ohh, there you are. The big bad…,” said Eliden, squinting to try to see more clearly.
Glowing eyes, the color of spilled blood snapped open. As if the figure on the throne were resting and roused awake. Their reveal even made the seasoned Chronicler jump. Dread swarmed him.
“Here, I am…Chronicler.”
The robust, measured voice echoed. It resonated off the walls of the throne chamber as if its owner were not speaking at all. The words were projected into Eliden’s mind. The sheer force of this psychic imprint felt like the ocean swallowed him up. Eliden reeled, disoriented, and instantly let go of the shade.
He stumbled back into the small stone chamber where it all began. The apparition before him wailed, throwing back its head and spreading its limbs wide. The shroud covering it expanded with this motion, yet quite suddenly, it evaporated. Eliden shook his head as if he’d been struck and dazed, blinking rapidly.
“Are you alright?” asked Pasho, rushing to the man’s aid. She threw her arms around him in case he faltered, squeezing tight.
Theorycrafter regained his senses, taking a deep breath. He’d never felt such a powerful mind before. Calming, the wizard’s legs steadied. He looked at Pasho in the pale moonlight through the window where the shade had once been. Her cheeks were flushed red. He thought back to the dream of her but pushed such fantasy aside.
“Quite so. Quite so. Merely encountered what I assume to be the great evil here. I’ve not touched a mind so strong before. I must share this with Aidan and his church.”
Pasho huffed at him, refusing to let go. “You need to take a moment to rest. You’re unsteady, cold, and soaked in sweat. Hardly the right way to present yourself to the Holy See.”
“Am I?” Eliden inquired.
“Mm. I don’t know what happened to you when you faced off with it, but it was like you were asleep, standing up and mumbling to yourself. Like you were having a nightmare.”
“Psychic assault,” he explained. “It put us in dream states it could manipulate to tempt us away from our path. I know not what it wanted with Ruth, exactly. It offered me horror, then…”
Pasho leaned closer, her nose almost touching his cheek. “Then what?” She asked softly, resisting an urge to pet him, to soothe him.
“...joy. A joy I never knew I wanted in exchange for my soul.”
“But you didn’t give in.”
“...I almost did…” Theorycrafter admitted, a whispered secret shared only with her. “If not for some random disruption of the illusion, I might have.”
“What do you mean?” asked Pasho, trying to hold back the shiver his intimate tone had caused.
“A flower appeared. Just…appeared, floating in my dream. Pretty thing. I tried to touch it, but it stopped me like it was aware. Focusing on my curiosity freed me. It saved my soul.”
Pasho’s eyes widened, her blush deepening. Eliden broke free of her hold, shaking his arms and legs out. He took a few steps away and turned to look back at her. His smile was warm, despite the bedraggled state he was in.
“Let us be off. I shall wash up and make myself presentable; then we will confer with Aidan and his brethren. Where’s Grokthnar?”
Pasho squeaked, took a moment to clear her throat, then answered him. “Loitering outside the kitchens, the women keep feeding him and Munchy.”
Eliden chuckled, surprisingly not frustrated with the mention of the sand rat. He swept out of the room and into the hall, disappearing from sight.
“Come along, Pasho!” His voice rang.
Pasho Pyr pressed a hand to her chest, steadying her breath. She slid it between the folds of her aesilk robe. Slender fingers curled around the stalk of her Corpse Flower. The gift from Eginloch, the redcap faerie she’d met in the Ossuary. She kept it tucked against her chest safely now, yet…Eliden had seen it somehow when she tried to help him.
The young mage put her nose to the petals of the flower, inhaling its pleasant scent. She gazed over it at the doorway Eliden had walked through, her form swaying slightly. Perhaps the absurd, heroic wizard was on to something with his wild theories about a divine hand. What else could explain it?