Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 40

First, there was nothing. Not silence, not darkness. Nothing.

Then, there was a presence. A consciousness. It became aware of itself, but only in the loosest capacity. It was unsure of time because for it, time did not yet exist.

Then came the pain. The pain was endless. It was eternal. It was an entire universe and it was everything that ever was.

The presence felt the pain. It could not scream because it had no mouth. The pain brought with it a brightness. It could not shield its eyes from the brightness of pain because it had no eyes and it had nothing to shield them with.

Eventually the presence began to accept the pain. The pain, powerful as it was, became the standard on which the presence learned to base all else.

Once the pain was accepted, the presence grew. It could not move because there was nowhere to move to. It became more aware of itself. It developed a memory, a mind, and a voice.

At first its memory held nothing but the pain. The pain never rose, never fell, never wavered; it was difficult to judge time. But it felt the passage of time, whether it understood or not.

The presence began to think. It knew, somehow, that there was a time before the pain. Before the pain was nothingness. But even before the nothingness was something. It was unsure of just what could have been before the nothingness.

The nothingness knew that it had a name. It did not quite understand what a name was, but it knew that it had one. It had a name, a home, and a life.

What was life, it wondered? If it had life in the time before the nothingness, what did it have now? What would it have in the future? Future was still a difficult notion to accept. The pain would certainly be in the future. The pain was still there, as strong as ever. The pain was a constant reminder of the here and now.

A word, if it could be described as a word, flickered through the presence’s mind.


What was death? Was death like life? Did the presence have a death like it had a life?

Was the pain death? Or was the pain life?

The presence remembered a world. It did not yet understand what a world was. But the world was still out there, separate from the pain. The world was before the nothingness. Maybe the pain was life. Maybe the world was death.

The presence remembered fear. It feared pain, but now pain was all. Pain was eternal. What was there to fear about pain?

It also feared death. It had feared death, but it knew that it had experienced death. If it understood what death was, it would have questioned how one could remember death if death was what death is. But it did not yet understand death. Death had brought the pain, the presence remembered- but wasn’t there also pain before death?

The presence became more tolerant of the pain. If the presence did not focus on it, the pain did not exist. It was always there, but it did not exist.

Filtering out the pain, the presence began to hear without ears and smell without nose. The sounds and the smells were familiar. They triggered memories- actual, formed memories- that the presence knew to be from before the pain, before the nothingness.

The presence was in its home. Its home was gone- it somehow knew that- but the presence was there. The smells and sounds told the presence that it was hiding. It was hiding, in a safe place. People- what were people, it wondered- passed by its hiding place, unaware. It knew that the hiding place was safe. It could hide. It could crawl- it didn’t know what crawling was- into its safe place. The people would just pass by.

The presence remembered the hiding place. It knew that the hiding place was gone- it remembered a fire. It did not know what fire was- when it tried to remember, it felt only pain. The fire tried to destroy the hiding place. Yet here it was. The presence was safe. It would stay in the hiding place forever.

Time passed. The presence could recognize the passage of time now. The pain, although eternal and ever-present, was now the presence’s companion.

The presence already had companions, before the nothingness. Would they find him? Would they find him in his hiding place?

He could hear them coming. The hiding place began to fade. The pain was growing. The hiding place was leaving him. Someone was coming. The pain was growing.

He couldn’t hear or smell the hiding place anymore.

The pain was growing.

He was remembering his name. He was remembering his life.

The pain was growing.

He was being called. His friends were calling.

The pain was growing.

Artemis, wake up. 

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 39

Tarrow gathered his things, prepared himself for the day, and considered making his rounds.

He hadn’t done his daily morning rounds since the attack. The morning after the Dark One escaped, in fact, he had felt so weak, so powerless, he couldn’t bring himself to even deliver the message to the people that everything was safe. Luckily, Telstedler had been kind enough to go in his stead, but he just couldn’t help but feel like he had failed everyone. He could barely stand to look any of the people in the face- he doubted any of them knew what happened, and it was unlikely that anyone of Kellonville blamed him in any way, but that didn’t stop him from feeling it.

And now, what did he have to do? He had to not only admit to everyone how he had failed, but he also had to ask them to give up their own well-earned money in order to make up for his mistakes? He wanted to simply forget about it all.

But he couldn’t.

He had let two of his men get killed. No, more than that- he had let his king die. He had failed his entire country. If there was any hope of stopping Galex, if there was going to be any chance of freeing the nation of Eodon from tyranny, he had to do this. He had to set aside his pride and do what his predecessors deserved of him.

The first thing he did was go straight to the Rusted Drake. He didn’t even bother with pleasantries, and was only vaguely aware of Primm’s greeting as he swept up the stairs to Telstedler’s office. He hoped the mayor was in.

After a short knock, he heard the half-elf’s voice welcoming him. He stepped inside, where the neatly dressed owner of the tavern was seated at his desk, idly thumbing through a book.

“Hello, mayor,” said Tarrow, seating himself.

“Good morning, Tarrow,” came his reply, setting his book aside. “I would ask how you’re doing, but your disheveled appearance likely answers my question.”

Tarrow nodded, trying to find the words to ask what he needed.

Noting the pause, Telstedler spoke again. “Once again, I’d like to offer my condolences on the loss of your companions. The town is, of course, thankful for your aid, and we wish to help in any way we can.”

Tarrow took a deep breath. He could feel his face turning red. Well, more red than usual.

“I need that help, mayor.”

The half-elf’s eyebrow shot up, not expecting such a statement to come from Tarrow’s mouth. Without a word, he got up, locked the door to his office, and returned to his seat. His voice was quiet, comforting.

“Please, Tarrow, tell me what it is you need.”

Tarrow opened his mouth, and before he could stop, he was telling everything he could- about how he had failed everyone, about how he had found the Dark One’s hidden spellbooks, about the ritual of raising the dead, about the cost, and about how much pain the loss of Artemis and Grash had left him feeling. He wasn’t even looking Telstedler in the eye anymore- he was just staring into his hands and letting the emotion flow through his voice. For once, he felt like he wasn’t putting up an act. He really, truly needed help.

The mayor listened, silently, and only when the trystborn was finished did he make any movements.

“Tarrow, that was a lot to take in, but there is something I need to make clear,” he said. “I will offer as much money from the town’s coffers as I can, though I fear that alone will not be enough from what you described. I can gather the townsfolk and speak to them as well, but… you need to understand. The people here don’t like magic. Before you arrived, I wouldn’t have even acknowledged that it existed. If we go around telling everyone that they are contributing to fund a magic ritual- let alone the fact that their money is being used to bring two people back from the dead- not only will they not offer any help at all, but I have the feeling you, me, and all of your companions are going to be hanging from the oak tree by the pond. Do you understand?”

Tarrow’s eyes were wet. He rubbed them with his sleeve, and nodded.

“But Charles,” he said, looking the half-elf in the eye, “we can’t keep this a secret forever. We need to bring them back. People are going to notice.”

Telstedler stood up, his arms folded, and began pacing. He walked to the window, opened it, and looked outside. He took a few breaths of the crisp morning air, and, tapping his foot on the floor, he nodded.

“Alright. I know what we can do,” he said, closing the window and turning back around. “We know that this… Dark Fellow you chased off is still out there, correct?”

Tarrow nodded.

“Well,” he continued, “we won’t tell them that. At least, not completely. We also won’t tell them that your companions are being brought back from the dead. We tell them that you defeated the Dark Man, and we faked their deaths to trick any allies he may still have into thinking that he had succeeded, and you had to keep up the ruse for some time. But now, of course, the ruse has worked and there is no need to keep it going any longer. Understand?”

The plan didn’t sit well with Tarrow. He wanted, for once, to be honest, not to hide behind excuses. But at the same time, he knew the problems that would cause with the town’s acceptance of magic.

“Is there anyone in town that would understand?”

Telstedler sighed. “Maybe a few. I have the feeling Tyffina would understand. Maybe Oliver. Beyond that, I don’t know.”

Tarrow stood up. “I will only accept money from those who know the truth. If I am going to accept help, I have to be honest.”

The mayor approached him, and held out his hand. “I’ll gather who I can. Meet me back here this afternoon, and we’ll see what we can do.”

The trystborn shook his hand, and smiled genuinely.
Tarrow sat, his leg tapping nervously, in the small farmhouse. The weathered homeowner pulled up a chair, his forehead already covered in sweat from the early morning’s work.

“Now,” Krym said, his expression already annoyed, “tell me what it is that was so important that you had to interrupt me. The crops aren’t going to pick themselves.”

Tarrow glanced around, then back to Krym. “Is… Persephone around?”

The man’s expression looked even more irritated. “No. Is this about her?”

He shook his head. “No, no. I’d rather she not be here. I need to tell you something- something that is likely to make you want to throw me out of your home. I know full well your misgivings about me and my companions, and I know that the only way to improve our status is to be perfectly honest with you. After I tell you, if you wish, I will never bother you again. I give you my word.”

Tarrow noticed the slightest softening of Krym’s expression. “Very well,” he said, making an impatient gesture with his hand.

“Mr. Valdoorn, I spoke to you a few days ago about the death of my squire, Artemis Redsleeves. Another of our number, the noble draconian Grash Vesuvix was killed as well. They were killed while fighting a powerful enemy we know only as ‘the Dark One’. He was in charge of the operation that tricked Ben Arons into luring the people of Kellonville into a trap, and he attempted to kidnap a woman named Sibyla for reasons of which we are still unsure. As of right now, the Dark One is still on the loose. I am embarrassed to say that we failed in defeating him, and he has escaped.”

Krym rolled his eyes, but, afterwards, Tarrow couldn’t help but notice that he was still paying full attention.

“I am confident,” continued the Horselord, “that he will not return, at least not for now.”

“So,” said Krym, “why are you telling me this? Why are you telling me about how you failed to protect our town?”

Tarrow took a deep breath. “Because very soon, you are going to hear otherwise from Telstedler, as well as the rest of your townsfolk. The Dark One is a powerful enemy, and we know, as I am sure you know, that it would not be good for most townsfolk to know that such a dangerous person is still at large.”

He expected the man to chastise him for not only lying, but admitting his falsehoods to someone who would easily be able to expose him. But Krym said nothing.

“As I said,” continued Tarrow, “I know of your dislike for me and I know that, deep down, you are a rational man. You deserve to know the truth. Of course, that is not all I am going to tell you.”

Tarrow watched his body movement closely. Krym acted disinterested, but his small actions showed that he was paying full attention.

“As I said, the townsfolk will not be told that the Dark One escaped, and they will also be told that my two companions were not killed. They will be told that their deaths were faked in order to keep up a ruse, which is now being dropped.”

Krym shook his head. “But won’t people be confused when your friends are still dead?”

Tarrow tried to choose his words wisely. “We have discovered a magical ritual that, if successful, can restore life to the dead.”

The weathered man’s dry eyes went wide, and his face began to contort into one of disgust. But, just as suddenly as it came, the expression went.

He spoke softly. “Is such a thing possible?”

Tarrow shrugged. “I sincerely hope so.”

Krym moved his jaw around a bit, chewing on his tongue for a moment. “I can’t say I’m surprised. I’ve seen enough magic in my early years to not be surprised by much.”

The trystborn breathed a sigh of relief. If he was going to be violently removed from a building, that would have been the time.

“The last thing I wanted to tell you about is the cost. The ritual is going to be extremely costly. If it’s even possible, it’s going to take everything of value that we can find in order to perform-“

Krym interrupted him, standing, his expression turning to one of rage. “I knew it. You adventurers and your scams, you’ve only come to take our money and run. You aren’t going to get one copper from me and-“

Tarrow stood up, holding a hand out. “Forgive me for interrupting, sir. But I have not come to ask any money of you. I only came to be honest with you- more honest than I am going to be with anyone else. I know your opinion of me and your assumptions about my purpose here. Every copper that I take I am going to repay tenfold whenever I am able. My word may not mean much to you, but after losing my home, my family, and my friends, I am afraid it is all I have.”

His last statement seemed to have struck a chord within Krym, because his glare softened, and let out a breath. The two of them stood in silence for a moment. Then, without speaking, Krym turned around and left the room. Tarrow could hear him doing something behind a closed door, so he assumed their visit was done. He began towards the door when he heard Krym’s footsteps.

In his right hand, the man held a polished axe, gleaming in what little light hit it. He hefted it in both hands, approaching Tarrow in a direct line.

Immediately, Tarrow’s eyes danced around the room, assessing the windows for possibly points of exit, the chairs for improvised weapon potential, and even looking for nearby sacks of grain or pots of hot water he could throw for a distraction. His legs tightened and he got ready to dive out of the way, and his hands poised to grab whatever was in reach. His Horselord dagger was in his boot, but he resisted the urge to draw it.

As he readied his feet to roll sideways, Krym stopped.

“What exactly does that spell of yours take to cast?”

Tarrow was confused. If Krym was going to attack, why wasn’t he doing it? The trystborn stood awkwardly, his feet in mid-leap position.

“Anything, as far as I can tell,” he said, still ready to dodge. “As long as it holds value in the eyes of its owner.”

“Take this,” said the man, offering the haft to the Horselord in front of him.

Tarrow stared at it, and at him, with a bewildered look on his face.

“This axe is magical,” the man explained. “I found it long, long ago. If there’s a way to break it down and use it to fuel this ritual, then do it.”

The trystborn’s mouth hung half-open, and he tried to shake his head, his feet still paused in stride.

“I… I really didn’t mean to ask you to-“

“I’m not offering,” interrupted the man. “I don’t want you to take this. This is the axe I intended to use to kill my lying cheating bastard father. I’m only giving it to you because if you take it, and I find out you’re lying to me, then that means I get to kill you too.”

Tarrow was about to laugh, except there was no joke. Krym stood there, more serious than he’d ever seen him, the axe still held in his hand.

His hands slightly shaking, the Horselord put his hands on the simple-looking axe’s finely polished handle. He opened his mouth to speak, but Krym interrupted him again.

“Don’t thank me. Just go. And don’t return.”
Tarrow returned to the Rusted Drake that afternoon, and found the door locked for the first time since they’d arrived in Kellonville. After a few knocks, Primm slid open a shutter that Tarrow didn’t even know was there. Recognizing the trystborn’s face, the barkeep unlocked the door, let him in, and shut the door again. A loud click indicated it was locked.

The room was dim for the time of day, and Tarrow noticed all of the windows were shuttered. The tables were all pushed aside except for one in the middle, at which were seated Telstedler, Jael, Oliver and Opal Oakenspring, Tyffina Dacek, Malleck Grett, and the trystborn blacksmith Darvan Grimes. Fru’al, Sanna, and Jabean were present, of course, and Sibyla and her baby were seated as well, near the bar. Primm hobbled around to the back and busied himself.

Telstedler greeted Tarrow as he entered, and called the meeting to order. He did most of the talking- he explained to the few people he had gathered about the decision that he had decided was best. He told the truth- with some bits Tarrow provided when he didn’t understand the whole story- about the Dark One, about the deaths, about the ritual, and about the cover-up. Of course some of them were upset- Malleck Grett just didn’t seem to understand how it was possible to bring someone back from the dead, and the Oakensprings both agreed that the town should be told the truth as well- but Telstedler did his best to stress the gravity of telling hundreds of people about magic and walking dead and expecting them to take it lightly.

Once he felt everyone understood and was in agreement, Telstedler asked Fru’al to explain what exactly would be needed to complete the ritual. Sanna placed a hand on Tarrow’s shoulder, and gave him a warm smile. He was so afraid that nobody would be willing to help- and he still didn’t want them to have to- but when Fru’al was done talking, everyone at the table offered to give as much as they could.

He could barely believe it. They adjourned, and that night Telstedler arrived at the lodge with all of the valuables the town had contributed. Tarrow went to each house to thank them personally while Fru’al and Jabean readied the lodge for performing the ritual. Sanna, ever restless, began digging up the bodies of their friends.

Tarrow was more nervous than he had ever been. Even with all of this preparation, he didn’t know if it would work.

But he had hope.
He knew it would be some time before the ritual would be finished. He told his friends he needed to be alone- to gather his thoughts. He mounted his horse and rode off into the night, his cloak wrapped tightly around him as the night’s chill crept up on him.

Before long, he was back at the cave. He pulled out the spellbooks and placed them on the hard floor, just around the corner from where the decaying orc bodies still lay. He had gotten so used to the smell by now that he barely even noticed them.

He pored over the books for what felt like all night. Even the books that appeared to be in foreign languages to him began to make sense. He closed the book before him, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes.

He held his fist in front of him. He opened his eyes, and his fist was glowing with crackling black electricity.

“My gods,” he said out loud, in shock and awe. “What have I done?”

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 38

Fru’al Ronan sat at the common room table, barely believing his eyes and ears. When he had all but given up hope- even despite Tarrow’s crackpot ideas of “raising the dead”- another Horselord, one of his most well-trusted and reliable companions, showed up at his doorstep. Tarrow and Sanna were out doing… whatever it is they were doing, and he wondered how they would take this turn of events.

“Welcome back, Anar,” he said with a smile, his old eyes still taking in the strange man before him. His skin was ocean blue, with bands of grey the color of storm clouds forming simple patterns up his arms and torso. His eyes were like pools of molten silver, and above his head of neat grey hair floated strange symbols that Fru’al had never seen yet he felt like he recognized.

“Jabean,” the blue man softly corrected, expressionless.

“Yes, yes,” continued Fru’al, ignoring the correction. “Tell me- how is it that you are here? And… pardon my ignorance, but… what- who- what are you?”

Jabean smiled slightly, his eyes unblinking. “I am asurae. As I have always been, as I always will be.”

An asura! Fru’al’s gaze drifted up to the ceiling for a moment, recalling long-forgotten fragments of lore from his days learning magic and history. Asurae were, if he read correctly, the servants of noble deities given mortal form. Exceedingly rare, they were said to be reborn again and again for all eternity, each body fitted for the purpose the gods set before them. Some cultures worshipped them as gods themselves, believing their presence to be a great boon of luck to any whose paths they cross.

“Yes,” said the wizard, nodding. “I always wondered what sort of secrets Anar held. Nobody ever saw his face- except for Lainen, I imagine. Might I ask what you think brought you to be here?”

Anar- or Jabean- nodded. “I am where I am needed. It is my purpose.”

Fru’al remembered Anar never elaborating any more than was strictly necessary. He thought about pressing the issue, but he did not.

“I must ask,” continued Fru’al, “what happened after Evard and the rest of you left for the seat of Eodon? None of us ever learned. All we know is that you left… and then… Galex had our families…” he trailed off.

Jabean’s blank expression changed to one of sorrow. “I must apologize, brother,” he said, showing the first signs of emotion Fru’al had seen. “I can imagine the repercussions for our actions. In no way do I expect forgiveness, only understanding. It was a risk that we had to take. In its failure, I see how the alternative would have been preferable.”

Fru’al could feel his eyes stinging. He felt a brief rumble below the floor, and his nose caught a hint of brimstone in the air. But with serious mental effort, he fought off the visions for now.

The asura continued. “But in answering your question, I am regretful to say that I remember very little of our exploits. I remember leaving your camp, and I remember a bloody skirmish within the halls of Eodon. I remember being slain. It is not a pleasant memory.”

Fru’al nodded, and opened his mouth to change the subject, when he saw Jabean’s eyes close and the symbols over his head suddenly grew bright, glowing with a red hue that made the Marquis feel queasy, and on edge.

“I was slain by Sir Sealfrey,” Jabean finished, opening his eyes. The symbols returned to their dim, transparent state.

Fru’al’s eyes opened wide. “Sealfrey? Sir Sealfrey? Lainen’s closest friend? How is such a thing possible?”

“This I do not know. Had I learned it in my previous life, perhaps, but I do not believe I did. Once again, I apologize.”

Fru’al nodded and thanked his old friend for his commitment, but he still felt the pain of everyone that had been lost. Part of him, of course, did blame Anar and Evard and Syf and everyone else who had left on that suicide mission for Eodon castle. But his rational mind couldn’t blame them. In fact, he blamed himself for not being brave enough to accompany them. He always wondered, as he was sure Sanna and Tarrow and Grash and everyone else had wondered, whether they might have been successful if another Horselord or two had come along. There was no way to be sure, but Fru’al felt certain that if they had all banded together, like the unrivaled team they were meant to be, that they would have struck down the traitor in one fell swoop and retaken the throne in the name of Lainen the Betrayed.

“You cannot blame yourself,” said the asura, his featureless eyes seeming to peer into Fru’al’s very soul. “We each have our part to play in this story of life. Beings such as myself exist outside of time. I am often able to see my actions before I take them. Even if I know that such an act is to fail, that does not allow me to choose another. I am to play my role in the universe, whether I am to succeed or not. It does little to help the disappointment of a failure, but at least I can know in the end that I acted exactly as I should.”

The Marquis, his eyes feeling wet, nodded. It did no good to worry about what might have been- all who were dead were still dead, and nothing was going to change that.

“Unless…” he spoke out loud, unintentionally.

Jabean raised a dark eyebrow at the mage’s outburst.

Fru’al’s face went slightly red. “I- nevermind. I was just talking to myself.”

Once again the Marquis felt like Anar- Jabean- whoever- was reading his mind like a book. “Please, brother. Tell me what troubles you so.”

Fru’al took a deep breath. “I suppose I must start at the beginning,” he began.

He told Jabean of their difficulties coping with the loss of their status, their kingdom, and their families. Then he spoke of Artemis, who- despite his lack of skill- managed to help them survive an encounter with Galex’s men. He spoke of the many, many losses they had endured over the years, and the asura was dutifully patient with the old man. He told of this town, Kellonville, and their troubles with hags and orcs and dragons. Then Kefir, and his reveal. The Dark One. The Dark One. The Dark One and his unholy perversion of life. And how Tarrow had the gall to propose that he, Fru’al, use such magic to twist life and death to suit their needs.

Jabean was, through all of this, silent. Once Fru’al had finished, he spoke.

“You tell me that you refused Tarrow’s offer of magic, magic that might save your cause and allow good to triumph over evil.” He paused, possibly waiting for a response. Fru’al gave him none. “I feel I am to ask you to clarify your reasoning.”

Fru’al’s expression turned to one of mild disgust. “Must I lecture you about the teachings of the Ebony Raven as I did with the trystborn? Such a thing would be an abomination against my goddess, the sole arbiter of life and death. How am I the only one who sees this? Are you as desperate as Tarrow that you would ask a priest to sacrifice his faith for personal gain?”

Jabean shook his head in such a small gesture. “I do nothing of the sort. But I ask you- have you spoken with the Ebony Raven regarding your concerns?”

Fru’al opened his mouth to speak, and then paused. “I need not bother her with such an insult,” he said finally.

“Forgive me for accusing,” responded Jabean, still without a change in expression. “But does it not strike you as arrogant to assume you know the wishes of your goddess greater than she?”

Fru’al pursed his lips. He had no response. He could feel the blood rising to his face.

“I can tell that I am agitating you,” continued the asura. “I do not wish to do so, and I will pose only one more point. Fru’al, brother, I am asurae. Life, death, and rebirth are as natural to me as breathing is to one of your kind. Do you view me and my kind as an abomination?”

The Marquis blinked. He breathed deeply for a few moments. “No,” he answered. “Of course not. Your kind are said to be the direct servants of the divine themselves. But that is different.”

Jabean nodded. “Yes, it is different. But all I mean to do is urge you to speak with she who guides you on your path. If she denies permission, then you will know that you have made the right decision and you will gain favor in her eyes. If, however, she allows it, then you have brought one more realm of power over death into your goddess’ embrace.”

The asura was right. Fru’al stared at the table. It made so much sense when he said it. Yet thinking of Tarrow making the same statement made the mage want to bury his fist in the trystborn’s red face.

“Then I must pray,” he said, standing up from the table.
Fru’al entered into the trance of communion with his goddess. Some time later, he emerged, feeling slightly weak and disoriented. It was rarely easy for him to remember everything that happened until some time later- he was usually left with a general feeling of his goddess’ perception and small fragments of what she had told him.

This time, he knew that he had spoken with her, Tara Ghiless, the Ebony Raven, the Hand of Fate and Arbiter of All Life and Death. He remembered her commanding him to slay all un-dead creations of this necromancer, wherever he sees them- for they are the true mockeries of life that attempt to spit in the face of the Hand of Fate. But she told him that this ritual Tarrow had uncovered- the one capable of raising the dead to life- was no such mockery. She, being the judge of those that live and those that die, is in control of all living and dead, and any being she deems unworthy of life reborn is not given it. The ritual, she explained, is simply a means for mortals to glimpse her power.

Of course! How could he have been so foolish, so arrogant, to think that power existed, power within his grasp, that could usurp the Ebony Raven’s will? He ought to be punished for such a thought. Graciously, his goddess saw it fit to forgive him of such hubris.

She gave him warning, however. Such a task would be taxing- possibly beyond his ken or that of anyone in his life time. Even if he completes the ritual, it may not always work, as souls are not always willing to return.

As Fru’al sat, his mind racing as he gathered his recollection of his communion, he recalled asking her if it would be possible to raise his family, the Horselords slain by Sealfrey, or even his king Lainen. She told him that certain souls had passed, to a place she called the “beyond the silver lining”. To bring a soul back from the beyond could only be done by a god itself.

Content with the decision of his goddess, Fru’al found Tarrow, who had already met with Jabean while he was busy communing with the Ebony Raven. He and Tarrow spoke, apologies were shared by both sides, and the Marquis took the pages to study. After perusing their texts, however, he grew worried. The ritual was indeed complex- more intricate than any he had performed, without doubt- but the reagents required to join the soul, the body, and this “animus” the Necromancer spoke of were what shook the mage to his very core.

It hid its meaning through complicated arcane language, but as far as Fru’al could understand, the ritual required the expenditure of value. Not necessarily valuable objects or precious materials, like most rituals, or even magical unguents and powders like were required for most permanent magical bindings and artifact creation. No, this spell called for value. A ring representing the bound affection of two lovers, for example, was worth more than the sum of the materials of which it was composed. If such a ring, however, was given and then one of the lovers proved unfaithful, much of its value- at least in the terms of this spell- was lost. Valuable materials could be used, like silver and gold, but it was only valuable because of the people that valued it. If a king offered up a gold coin, it would be worth less than a starving peasant offering up its last piece of moldy bread. The requirements almost seemed to defeat themselves- if something was given willingly, it became less valuable than if it were taken.

The most valuable commodity, according to these notes before him, was blood- blood taken unwillingly. If one had no qualms about killing innocents, ritualistically sacrificing them for their own nefarious purposes, then this spell could be used to resurrect entire armies. That must have been how the Necromancer brought back the orcs- by capturing and slaying every innocent he came across.

The spell, particularly the way it considered value, struck Fru’al as feeling so… evil. But the Ebony Raven had given her permission. Even something evil, he had to remind himself, could be used for the purposes of good.

The ritual was made even more difficult by time. The more time that had passed since the time of death, the more reagents were required to perform it. If they were to try to revive Lainen, or any of their families, it would take far more than any of the Horselords were able to give. This must have been what the goddess had meant- it was beyond his power.

He studied the ritual for most of the night. He heard the other Horselords come and go, but he paid no attention. When morning came, he explained to Tarrow all that he had learned- but in the end, they still couldn’t proceed. They simply couldn’t come up with the materials.

Tarrow, upon learning this, simply nodded.

“I’ll have to ask the town for help,” he said, his tone somber. “It’s the only way.”

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 37

Tarrow rode his steed, in the early light of the dawn’s rays, as hard and as fast as he could back to Kellonville. He had the biggest smile on his face- despite the cold wind whipping into his eyes and through his hair- and every so often he would break into laughter, feeling freezing tears being whisked away by the breeze.

There was finally hope! They could bring back Artemis, and Grash, and who knows- he didn’t really understand most of the text or how the ritual was performed- maybe even Lainen himself could be brought back as well, once they slew Galex! They could dance on top of the traitor’s grave and all of their lost friends and family could join in!

Tarrow steered his horse towards a rocky outcropping off the path, driving the steed into an unnecessarily dramatic leap as the rider cried out with joy. He reached the town in record time, and rode through all of the streets cheering himself on, oblivious to the bewildered townsfolk he passed. In his mind, they were cheering him on, tossing him fruit, and congratulating him on the miraculous find.

He leapt off his horse as soon as he arrived at the lodge, not even bothering to take it to the stables. It would find its way, he reassured himself. He burst through the door, and inside, Sanna was already awake, but she didn’t even look up when he entered, still laughing to himself.

“Sanna,” he said happily, “I’ve found it! I’ve found the answer!”

She looked up at him, puzzled, her grief-stricken face refusing to do anything but frown.

“Look, it’s- oh, nevermind. I’ll tell you later!” He shook his head, the huge smile still across his face, and he bounded into the barracks, calling out Fru’al’s name. The Marquis was already awake as well, but he was sitting with his thick, musty spellbook in his lap, his eyes closed as he silently chanted his prayers to his goddess, intermingled with the mechanics for his prepared spells.

“Fru’al! I know never to disturb you during your spell preparation, but trust me, it can wait. I’ve found it.

The sage finished the phrase he was chanting, and his eyes opened. His face was slightly red- Tarrow wondered light-heartedly whether it was from crying or drinking. Probably both.

“And just what have you found,” said Fru’al, his voice dry, “that is this important?”

Tarrow danced across the room and held out the stack of papers, waiting for the praise and adoration to fall from the heavens. He imagined everyone in town crowding around, begging for the chance to touch his cloak, like some sort of modern-day messiah. He’d brush them off, tell them to form an orderly line, and he would be with them all in due time.

But Fru’al’s response was not immediately impressed.

“And what is this, exactly?”

Tarrow shoved the papers in his face again.

“Read it, o learned sage! I have, in my hand, instructions on how to bring back the dead.”

Fru’al took the papers and glanced down at them. His expression didn’t change at first. Then, his eyes opened wide, and his jaw dropped. Then, to Tarrow’s surprise, it turned to one of disgust.

“I sincerely hope that you are joking,” came the mage’s reply.

Tarrow was taken aback. “Excuse me? I have the answer to all of our problems- the ability to bring back our companions- and you tell me you hope I’m joking?”

Fru’al shook his head. “What, do you propose we turn our beloved friends into those un-dead horrors that rose from the river? I know that even at your most desperate you would not even suggest something like that.”

Tarrow snatched the papers back and glanced at them again, unsure, then back to Fru’al. “No, no. It’s not that at all. I mean… it does explain that too, I think, but no, it shows how to bring them back, exactly as they were in life. Body, soul, and animus.”

Tarrow didn’t know exactly what he was saying, considering he wasn’t able to read the ritual itself. But he knew it in his heart- it had to be what he was looking for.

Fru’al snorted. “And just where did you find these papers?”

The trystborn was about to proudly proclaim exactly where, and then he realized how it was going to sound. But he said it anyway. “In a hidden room where we fought the Dark One. It was his hidden lair or something. He took most of his notes, but these were left behind.”

The Marquis rolled his eyes. “Exactly what I thought. How do we know that this isn’t some sort of a trap left behind for us?”

Tarrow opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. Then opened it again. And closed it again. In the end, he came up with nothing he could say without sounding more foolish. So he spoke something foolish.

“I… I had a dream that led me to it.”

Fru’al stared at him with a deadpan expression.

Tarrow continued. “Look, you may not understand what I mean. If this is true, if this is real, we could actually bring back Artemis and Grash. It wouldn’t be hopeless anymore.”

Fru’al’s expression turned to one of disgust.

“And just what would that accomplish? Our friends died an honorable, heroic death fighting our enemy. You ask me to invalidate that completely. And besides- if such a thing were possible, which it isn’t- I refuse to even attempt such a thing.”

Tarrow couldn’t believe his ears. Was he the only one who cared about Artemis? About Grash? Did Fru’al care at all about stopping Galex?

“Tell me why,” he said in disbelief.

“You even have to ask why,” answered Fru’al incredulously. “Did you just meet me yesterday? Who is my goddess, Tarrow? Who do I owe all of my power and status to? Who watches over me every single day, and to whom do I pay tribute above all else?”

The trystborn pursed his lips. He didn’t even want to dignify that with an answer. He hadn’t even thought about Fru’al’s religious convictions- all he had thought about was bringing back Artemis and living as if he hadn’t gotten him killed.

Fru’al waited a moment for a reply, then continued on. “Even if that were possible, which, again, it isn’t, there is no way my goddess would view any such creation as anything but an abomination upon the earth. If I had any sense right now I would throw those papers in the fire and do all of us, Artemis and Grash included, a favor.”

Tarrow gritted his teeth, feeling anger rising from his feet to his face. He wanted to punch the old man right between his eyes right now. Maybe Fru’al wanted to punch him too. Maybe that’s what they needed- to beat each other nearly to death. Then they could go back to being friends again. Then Fru’al would realize that he was wrong and he’d read the stupid papers and bring Artemis and Grash to life.

Instead, he turned around and stormed out of the room. What was the foolish mage’s problem? He was just drunk. That had to be it. He was sneaking alcohol at every hour of the day lately. Later on he’d sober up, and then come crawling back and beg Tarrow to let him read the papers. Tarrow would even forgive him, of course. They would never again think back on the old man’s temporary insanity.

As he passed Sanna, still sitting in the common room, he paused, not facing her.

“Well,” he said to the air, “what do you think? Don’t even act like you didn’t hear.”

She didn’t appear to react. She was picking at her nails with her dagger.

“I don’t know,” came her response finally.

Tarrow shook his head, let out a frustrated grunt, and kicked the door open. He couldn’t stay here right now.
Before he knew was he was doing, he was at the temple of Azimuth. Luckily he had caught Jael before she had gone on her daily rounds. Ben Arons was out front, repairing a wooden shelf covered in flowers. He waved and greeted Tarrow, but the trystborn didn’t notice it soon enough to reply. As he barged into the temple, Jael was pulling on her warm cloak- she seemed surprised, but not at all bothered by his intrusion.

“Jael,” he said with a forced smile, trying to sound calm and collected. “Do you have a moment, or is the priestess busy?”

She looked around for a moment, then returned the smile, though hers was genuine. “Of course, Tarrow. What can I do for you?”

He pulled up a chair to the nearby table and gestured for her to sit with him. He took out the papers, and shuffled them in his hand, unsure of how to proceed.

“I know that, being a practitioner of faith, you are capable of performing… various… rituals beyond the scope of ordinary folk,” he said, hoping she knew what he meant, “right?”

She nodded uncertainly. “Azimuth does guide me in the ways of… what most people here would call miracles, but I am by no means as skilled as, say, your companion Fru’al.”

Tarrow resisted a sneer, and pushed the old doddard out of his mind. “Well, I wanted to show you something… and maybe… get your opinion on it. It’s a… magical ritual of considerable power.”

He handed her the bundle, and sat patiently as she read it. Her expression looked confused at first, then intrigued, then slightly terrified.

“Tarrow,” she began, her brow furrowed, “this can’t be real, can it?”

He leaned forward, nodding. “I believe it is. Tell me, can you perform this ritual?”

She opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it. She shook her head. “Look, I don’t know. Bringing back the dead? Is such a thing really a good idea, even if it is possible? Doesn’t it go against the order of nature?”

Tarrow brushed the notion aside. “Tell me anything that man does that isn’t against the order of nature. If man went along with nature completely, he’d crawl on all fours and live in trees. Fire- steel- commerce- everything that heralds civilization is against the order of nature. Not to say,” he said, catching her look of disgust, “that nature isn’t important. Of course it is. You have to understand me. There are times when man has to go against nature to survive.”

She looked into his eyes, but said nothing. She continued to read. He waited for her until she finished, his arms crossed.

“Tarrow,” she said again, setting the papers down neatly. “Even if I could perform this- even if I wanted to, which I honestly don’t know I do- it’s incredibly complex. The most intricate rituals my father passed down to me were for helping slow diseases and halting poison for a short time to find an antidote. Even if I could perform something this difficult… there’s the cost to consider.”

Tarrow began to roll his eyes. “Please don’t talk to me about taking away a heroic death from my allies. Fru’al already went over that.”

“No,” she continued, “I mean the cost. Did you even read what sort of reagents this calls for?”

Tarrow stared down at the page. He hadn’t even gotten that far in the ritual itself.

“I suppose I didn’t. What, does it require bat guano or a wisp of smoke? Or maybe a pearl of exquisite value?”

She shook her head. “Tarrow, this is going to take money. Lots and lots of money.”

He grabbed the papers and tried to skim through them.

“Not exactly money,” she added. “It requires… valuable things. Gems, gold, silver, I think. I don’t quite understand it, but it looks like it can take anything of value, but the amount it requires is staggering.”

Tarrow’s expression fell. He kept shifting through the papers, hoping to find something else.

“The only other way,” she finally continued, “is through the blood of an innocent, sentient creature, given without consent. I know you better than to expect you to kill someone just to get what you want. So, like I said, lots and lots of money.”

His fist slammed down on the table, right in the middle of the papers. His anger- at himself, mostly- was so great he barely noticed Jael’s look of shock. He had felt like he was so close, so near to having hope for their future again, he could almost taste it. And now it was gone. No- it was never there to begin with.

He sat there, staring at the papers on the table, for a short while. The priestess stayed with him.

“Thank you, Jael. I’m sorry for taking your time. Please don’t think less of me because of how I have been acting.”

She shook her head, smiling. “I would do nothing of the sort. I know how much he meant to you.”

He took her hand and smiled back.
That night, Tarrow lay in his bunk, pretending to be asleep. He hadn’t spoken to either of the other Horselords all day, but as of late such an occurrence was not unusual. For a moment he found himself remembering the days right before the Dark One attacked- it seemed like everything was going so well. Now, it felt like no matter what happened, it would never be that way again.

Fru’al was sound asleep, snoring loudly. Sanna lay in her bunk as well. Tarrow doubted that she was asleep, but he couldn’t wait any longer. He quietly rose, already dressed. He pulled on his boots, and crept out of the room. If Sanna was awake, she didn’t betray it. As he left the building, he snuck out to the stables, quietly retrieving his mount. Hidden in a pile of hay, he grabbed a pack filled to almost bursting with books, and he stole away in the dark of night.

Before long he was at the false wall. He crept through, finding the room exactly as he left it, the pile of debris in the middle of the teleportation circle. Placing his torch in a sconce on the wall, he sat against the wall and pulled out the Dark One’s books.

If Fru’al wouldn’t learn this ritual, Tarrow promised, then he’d learn to do it himself.

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 36

He opened his eyes for the first time as his body floated along in the river. His body did not yet need breath, so he took the moments to gather his consciousness.

His mind was a jumble of memories, from the past and from futures not yet realized. He remembered tending the orange orchard with Magdalene, he remembered climbing the infinite staircase by himself, and he got an image of stepping into a glowing crystal, followed by silence.

As always, it was difficult to place the memories. It was like looking at the piece of a thousand puzzles, all of which were missing vital pieces, none of which could make sense without seeing them all completed. Only when each puzzle was completed would it make a piece of the final puzzle- the riddle of life, the universe, and everything.

He could feel the life flowing through his body, and he could feel his chest begin to tighten. He had reached his destination- or, rather, he had reached the next stop on his never-ending journey.

Floating to the top of the water, his face was met by the cold morning air, and as he opened his mouth for the first time, he felt the sensation of the frigid air filling his lungs. A breeze caressed his bare, wet body, and he was amused by the freezing sensation. His body instinctively reacted to the cold, his arms wrapping around his torso, his teeth beginning to chatter against themselves. It was not an unfamiliar sensation, and although he could refer to it as “pain”, he knew that in time his body would grow used to the cold. It always took some time to adjust.

His bare feet moved slowly, sluggishly across the stony river’s edge, his slender form shivering involuntarily with each step. He was surprised at the apparent weakness of this form; his previous one was much more physically capable, if he recalled correctly. But no matter. He would learn this body’s strengths with time.

Across the horizon, he could see the sun’s rays rising to meet him. It wouldn’t be so cold for much longer.
He walked across the ground, following the past of the river, taking note of the plants and wildlife of the region. It looked familiar enough- without much difficulty he was able to find sustenance for this vessel. With night came the cold once more- feeling the fatigue of his limited form, he sought shelter in a copse of fallen trees. It was dark; the only light came from the dim symbols, pure emotions expressed through a language as old as time, floating slowly around his head. Still feeling the chill, he gathered some sticks, setting them in a small pile before him.

He held his blue hands out over the twigs, feeling a power running through him- not quite as natural as breathing, but as easily accomplished as trying not to breathe- and suddenly, the sticks beneath his hands were burning merrily, illuminating his tiny shelter and providing his young body much-needed warmth. He puzzled momentarily at his ability to do so- he would need to learn what else this body was capable of.

The following morning, he arose once again, his bare body still feeling the chill of the outdoors. He continued to follow the river until, finally, as this day neared its end, he could smoke from the fires of a settlement on the horizon. He knew there would be one eventually- civilization always cradles around water- and it was a welcome sight to his silver eyes.

As he neared the settlement, he came to a small building, a home with a thatched roof, built near to the edge of the river. Near the building, he saw a woman- a human, his past reminded him- near the water, a basket of linens at her side. She was dutifully scrubbing them, completely oblivious to him until his bare feet had brought him barely an arm’s reach away.

He paused in his tracks, and, extending a hand to the still-oblivious woman, he spoke- as far as he could recall- a greeting in the common tongue. Above his head, various symbols of greeting twinkled in the chill air.

The woman spun around, froze for a moment, her bulging eyes taking in his form, until she led out a terrified scream, dropped her belongings into the river, and scrambled away, running into her home, her hands flailing and her voice ringing across the cool autumn air. He wondered for a moment whether his greetings were out of date, or perhaps he remembered wrong.

Shortly after, another human, this one a burly male, came out from the home, holding a thick cudgel in his hands. The man approached him, calling out warnings, challenging him to back away and leave the property.

Clearly seeing the misunderstanding, he gestured to the man, apologizing for the confusion and asking forgiveness for approaching his property without invitation. The words were said eloquently, and correctly, and the sigils floating in the air triggered feelings of calm and reassurance. The man, now realizing the lack of ill intent, set down the cudgel and offered his own apologies. The man, looking up and down at the stranger, kindly offered him some cloths to cover himself up.

Ah, yes. He had forgotten about that. Most races are frightened by nudity in all forms. He took the man’s offer thankfully. If nothing else, the cloths would help keep him warm in the times to come.

Fastening a sheet around his waist and over his shoulder, he thanked the man and his still-apprehensive wife and bid them both farewell, vowing to repay the favor in kind some day. For the time being, he had to be on his way. His purpose was up ahead.
The sun was just making its way over the horizon when he finally reached the town. He passed a few more homes on the way, this time making sure not to make greetings unless the inhabitants extended hospitalities first- which none of them did. It did not bother him, of course, as he understood the ways of most beings, especially humans.

He entered the town proper, noting its level of technological advancement. His silver eyes scanned around, watching the footprints in the dirt, noting how people were avoiding his company and pointing at the glowing images that danced smoothly in the air above his head.

Noting the local tavern, and the general store, he assumed he had reached the town square. He closed his eyes, and his symbols went dim, as he felt back into the recesses of his memory. Memory was an interesting thing for him- he had so many, that spanned over all of eternity, yet not all of them were in the same order that most mortals see them. Perhaps he may be remembering a day from a thousand years ago as if it were yesterday, or perhaps he might be remembering a conversation he will have tomorrow. It was his task to keep them ordered and ensure they are used in their proper place.

And then, he saw it- in his memory- a house on top of a hill. Opening his eyes, his sigils began to glow once more and he put one bare foot in front of the other, following the path he knew he was going to take.

He crossed a bridge that spanned a small stream, and followed a path that followed that stream instead of the river. He passed a large wooden building, the loud noise of its industry creating lumber for the local townspeople. The path followed past a pond, where a few adolescent boys sat, sullen, tossing rocks into the water and talking among themselves.

He stepped up the hill he saw in his mind’s eye. At the top was a home- his home, he knew it would become- and he had reached where he needed to be. Behind the home was a stable, and in it were, he knew, four of the world’s strongest and smartest horses. He welcomed the sight, and with a friendly greeting from his symbols, the nearest of them bowed its head to him. He petted the gelding warmly, and with the same symbols bid it farewell for now.

He crossed around to the front of the building. A long wooden porch wrapped around it, and sitting on a wooden bench was an old man that he immediately recognized. As he approached the old man, his bare feet made the tiniest creaks on the wooden surface. He wished not to startle the aged wizard, as he had done with the woman by the river.

Tapping the old man gently on the shoulder, he spoke.

“Fru’al,” he said, his symbols going dim. He considered making them disappear but decided against it.

The old man stirred. From beneath his robes fell an empty bottle. He nudged the man again, a bit more forcefully this time.

“Fru’al,” he repeated, giving the mage’s shoulder one more firm shake.

The Marquis raised his head and opened his eyes, staring for a moment blankly through him as he awoke. Once the realization hit him, he jumped to his feet and grabbed at an ornate staff leaning nearby.

“What- who are- state your business!”

He simply stared at the old man, expressionless. His sigils were still visible, but transparent. His plain silver eyes did not move. The mage pointed the staff, which bore a carving of a raven- a symbol of the Ebony Goddess- at him, and the two stood, motionless, until it was clear he was not going to attack. Once the old man realized this, he relaxed his stance.

“Fru’al,” he said to the wizard, nodding. “I believe it has been a long time.”

Fru’al stared at him, his head cocked slowly. “Do I… know you?”

Ah, of course. Even if this old man was familiar with his immortal cycle of death and rebirth, he did not know this of his old companion.

“In a way, yes. My name…” He closed his eyes, feeling his body’s name as if it were not a decision, but a fact. “…Is Jabean. You knew me in a previous form. Long ago, I was known by another name, and another before that. And I will be known by other names in the future. Once, you and I were close companions under the leadership of our great king, Lainen Tarithal.”

Fru’al’s eyes opened wide, and he almost dropped his staff. Jabean could recognize the expressions crossing this man’s face- fear, and distrust, and apprehension, which melted away to become acceptance, and finally relief- the kind of relief felt by a man dying of thirst in the desert who, on the cusp of giving up hope, happens upon an oasis.

“But…” he stammered. “But… you… who-“

“You knew me,” interrupted Jabean, “as the sage Anar. I have returned to aid you in your quest.”

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 35

Tarrow Sharn was standing on a beach.

He looked down, and felt the fine, sugar-white sand caressing his bare feet. The sound of the waves had a soothing cantor, sometimes steady and rhythmic, sometimes wild and uncontrolled. His green eyes gazed out over the sea, and it spread out before him for eternity, wave after wave rolling in from the deep.

He was now moving, his body still but passing over the landscape. He was moving further from the sea, across the sand, moving independently of the topography- sometimes he would float over huge chasms in the sand, and other times his body would pass through dunes as if they were immaterial. He looked up at the sky, and in it, he saw billions and billions of stars, each staring down at him, each in its perfect place, each forming the perfectly ordered pinpricks that looked down on the earth every night.

His flight picked up speed, traveling now so fast that everything passed in a blur. The sands below him became a perfectly flat plane stretching out in every direction forever, and even the stars itself were getting so far from him be couldn’t see them anymore. After what felt like a thousand years he reached a point so far from anything else there was nothing to see except an endless expanse of perfectly flat ground and perfectly dark sky- as if someone had lost interest in creating the world and left this blank space of “world” behind.

His movement stopped abruptly, and he was standing upon this perfectly ordered, yet perfectly alien surface. It was the color of sand, yet had no shape or texture. Above him, the endless void had just enough color to render the word “absolute” inappropriate- Tarrow was reminded of the color of old, long-dry bloodstains or the color of the sea where it was so dark that even sunlight couldn’t reach it. It was that and other colors, colors he couldn’t identify and had no reason to be able to identify.

And then, off in the distance, a star appeared.

The star was purple, and despite its distance Tarrow felt like it was right beside him. He could feel a pull, as if it were another world reaching for invisible strings that controlled him, and the purple glow burned like a flaming eye on the featureless horizon.


The voice shook not only Tarrow, but the entire endless blank “world” space as well. He did not hear the words- he did not even feel the words- but rather he knew them, as if they were a part of his own soul or a part of his body since birth. He tried to speak, to ask what the words meant or to try and explain that he didn’t understand, but he couldn’t. He knew, like he knew the words, exactly what they meant and why he was here.

But he was terrified. He turned around to face away from the star. Even when he looked away, he could feel it. He could see it, through the back of his head, as if he were staring straight at it. He turned ever-so-slowly, until the light was just barely visible in the corner of his eye. Somehow, that made it less intimidating.

He was alone, of course. There was no other being, not here, not on the beach, not anywhere in this entire universe. He knew of that. Just him and this light.

The light stared, unblinking, unwavering. It didn’t need to repeat itself because it would wait for Tarrow’s response for all eternity, and he knew this.

He closed his eyes. He could still see the light. He took a deep breath. With it, he breathed in the light, and felt it course through his veins. He opened his mouth, and out came the words his entire body yearned to say.

“I accept.”
Tarrow’s eyes shot open. He was lying in his bunk, staring up at the empty bed above his. He had been dreaming. Except… this one felt different. He was on a beach… no, not a beach- some wide, flat space of… sand? He remembered a star. He remembered an agreement, some sort of a deal. He rubbed his eyes, trying to remember what it was. What had he agreed to? And why did this feel so familiar?

He sat up on the edge of the bed. It was the middle of the night. He looked across the barracks, and Fru’al and Sanna were both asleep. To catch Sanna during sleep was a rare occurrence, but the three of them had a rough past few days. He was glad she had finally decided to get some rest instead of keeping her own personal guard against whatever might come and kill them.

Feeling more awake than he had in a long time, Tarrow stretched his right arm, threw on some clothes, pulled his boots on, and got up. The hearth in the fireplace still had glowing embers deep within, so he figured it he still had some time before daybreak. He picked up a couple of the coals, rubbing them between his heat-resistant hands for warmth.

Pulling on his cloak, he stepped outside into the chill. He wandered over to the two mounds of loosely-packed dirt, each Lainened with a polished weapon, that sat on the eastern side of the hill, looking out towards the forest, and their home, Eodon. Tarrow stared at the graves for some time, his eyes feeling wet.

He spoke a quiet goodbye, not for the first time, to his companions and started walking back into the building.

The terms.

He suddenly remembered his dream, pausing mid-stride momentarily. He didn’t know why he remembered that, or even what it meant, but he realized that though he kept walking, he wasn’t walking to the building. Before he knew it, he was at the stables, untethering his horse. As he mounted, he looked north- he knew where he was going.

He… he had to go back.
He rode like the wind, and before long, he was nearing the hill where the witches’ cottage waited. Rather than climbing to the top, however, he followed the river where it cut through the hills, and found the cave where the Horselords- Talarin Needlemaker in tow- had escaped from the underground prison weeks earlier. He tied his horse to a rock outcropping, and, a torch in one hand to help navigate the dark stony steps, ascended into the cave mouth.

He followed the dank corridor, stopping only once to wonder what he would do if someone was here waiting for him. The only weapon he had brought with him was his Horselord dagger, which he held concealed in his offhand. But somehow, he knew he wouldn’t need it.

The stench of death greeted him long before he reached his destination. He saw an opening up ahead, and before it, a stain of long-dried blood, reminding him of the orc he had broken and beaten in order to learn the name “Dark One” for the first time. Beyond, he entered the dreaded room where the foul spellcaster had revealed himself- many orcs still lay dead on the ground, their bodies reeking the smell of decay. When Sanna and Fru’al had roused Tarrow and the three of them had taken their companions’ bodies back to town, they hadn’t even bothered checking the orcs for anything valuable. It just wasn’t worth it.

Tarrow saw one large pool of blood, its creator gone. He let out a deep sigh as he looked at the point of Grash’s last stand, wishing that he could have been there when his companion fell. If only he could have done more. If he hadn’t been so careless, if he had kept the group from splitting up, maybe they wouldn’t have…

He saw another puddle of blood, once again missing its owner. It was in front of the door, the broken door that Sanna said the Dark One had fled through, before Artemis smashed it to give chase. He knelt beside this pool, feeling the tears pour down his face.
He remembered the day that they had met. This young boy, so eager to help, so eager to do his best, had agreed to spend the most grueling years of his life following around this ragtag bunch of exiles. Maybe he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Tarrow wondered- if he had told Artemis that he would some day be killed chasing off an unknown enemy, would he still have joined? Or, if Tarrow hadn’t offered to make him his squire, would the boy still be alive today?

Tarrow stood up, the tears flowing freely. He punched the remains of the wooden door with his fist, again and again and again, feeling the skin on his knuckles split and seeing the blood leaving red marks on the wooden surface. He threw his torch down on the ground.

Why did he come here? Tarrow had no idea. Did he just come to weep over his dead companions, as he had done so much over the last few days? He had spoken his peace over them when they were buried, with Jael and Telstedler and even Krym Valdoorn witnessing. Was that enough?

No, he thought. It wasn’t enough. He knew that despite the tragedy, such a showy eulogy was as much for his benefit as it was for the memory of his fallen friends. His ever-vain personality wanted the attention, and would take it whenever he could.

He stood up. “I’m sorry,” he said out loud. “I’m sorry to both of you. I’m sorry for where I brought you both… please forgive me, my closest friends.”

He wiped the tears from his face, and tore a scrap of his cloak off to wrap around his bleeding fist. He bent down to pick up his torch from the doorway.

And he noticed something.

He wasn’t sure what it was, but he stepped into the tiny room. Sanna had found Sibyla and her baby here, bound and gagged. It was where the Dark One had run to, and where Artemis was killed. Tarrow had first seen this room when they fought the witches, and it looked like an old office or something. But now… what was it he noticed?

It was the wall. It was flat, and it visibly showed texture, like any other wall. But it also reminded Tarrow of the flat ground in his dream. It was missing… something that made it look real.

Without thinking, he threw the torch at the wall. He expected it to ricochet back, and he half readied his main hand to try to catch it in case it did.

But it didn’t.

The room around him suddenly went dark- except there was still a light, something illuminating the room, as if there was a torch behind something so he couldn’t quite see where it was coming from. The wall in front of him was still dark, but all of the other walls could still be seen.

His eyes wide open, he gripped his dagger in his left hand, and with his right he slowly inched forward, his fingers extended. His mind kept expecting his fingers to touch something solid, but they didn’t. He suddenly lost sight of his hand, and then his arm, and, taking a deep breath, he leapt through the wall.

As he landed, dagger ready to strike, he looked around. His torch lay on the ground, burning as ever. On one side of the room was a cot, neat and undisturbed. On the other was a small row of bookcases, half full of books, half empty with papers strewn about as if someone had hastily grabbed what they could. And in the center of the room, near where the torch had landed, was a large intricate circle painted on the floor.

Tarrow recognized the circle- not from what it was, but from legends he had been told. He had read stories of powerful archmages crafting circles of teleportation- magical runes created with special inks and infused with extremely powerful rituals. If this was what he thought it was, this would allow someone to instantly travel between this location and… somewhere else.

Who could have made such a thing? All Tarrow knew about magic like this was that it was said to be beyond the power of mortals today. There were remnants of such magic in Eodon- he recalled having seen similar-styled images at various locations in Lainen’s castle, in fact- but all of the magic infused in them was long gone, or so he was told. Was the Dark One really so powerful?

Picking up the torch, Tarrow was careful not to step into the circle. But then… as he turned away from it, he kept finding himself glancing back in its direction. He told himself that he was afraid someone might come back from the other side- did these even work that way? He didn’t know. But deep down, he was… curious…

Throwing caution to the wind, he gripped his torch tightly, and his dagger even tighter.

And he stepped into the circle.
There was a rushing sound, like a waterfall passing through his ears, and he felt a tug coming from behind his navel. Suddenly he was dizzy, and he fell onto the hard stone floor, rolling quickly to keep himself from landing on his torch or his blade.

As he reoriented himself, he realized he was not in the same room- he was in a small room, with stone floors and one wooden wall, featureless except for the similar symbol inscribed on the floor. One side of the room opened into a small cave, and following the wooden wall, Tarrow realized that on the other side was a large metal chain and cuff- like one would expect to use to chain up a guard dog, but several times bigger- affixed firmly to the wall. A pile of filthy hay lie rotting on the floor, and a bucket was empty except for maggots crawling through the remains of something that was probably food for the chain’s prisoner.

On the far side of the cave, however, the cave was wide open. Walking to the opening, Tarrow saw a vast mountain range, one he did not recognize, in front of a pink and purple sky. He was once again reminded momentarily of his dream, except he could see the stars, and the sun peeking from beyond the mountains. As he stared dumbstruck at the elegant landscape before him, he took a step, and almost fell to his death.

He caught himself at the last moment, teetering on the edge of the cave. Looking down, he saw that the opening was a sheer drop, high above the ground, with no stable surfaces in sight- whoever used this room must have had some way to fly. Stepping back away from the edge of the cliff, he caught his breath, feeling his heart pounding in his chest.

Once he had calmed down, he took one more gaze out at the vista before heading back to the teleportation circle. This time, he noticed, a fair distance from his vantage point, an empty valley he had originally assumed to be a natural crag between the mountains. As he looked, though, he realized it was a massive square- as if a shooting star had crashed upon the earth, leaving a perfectly square crater in its wake. Considering its likely distance from him, Tarrow figured it had to be the size of a city, if not larger. What could have caused such a thing?

Shaking his head, he turned away from the mountains, and, after taking a deep breath, stepped once again back into the circle, hoping for dear life that it worked both ways.

In an instant, he was back in the cave near Kellonville, slightly less shaken since he knew what to expect. He stepped off the circle, and, not quite sure how such a contraption worked, looked around the room for something to block its use. Not quite sure what to do, he grabbed the cot, turned it over, and tossed it onto the circle. The cot did not vanish, which came as a relief, so Tarrow grabbed the papers off of one of the empty bookcases, and tipped it over on top of the cot. Seeing similar results, he grabbed everything off of the rest of the bookcases, and before long he had a pile of them all sitting in a big messy stack in the middle of the circle. Tarrow hoped that would keep someone from coming from the other side.

Taking a moment to look at the books and papers, he tried to decipher what he could and set some aside to show to Fru’al. A few of the papers, amid a stack of what appeared to be notes about magical theory, caught Tarrow’s eye.

He wasn’t able to decipher all of it, but he read what he could. It talked of a “body”, a “soul”, and an “animus”. The three, as far as Tarrow could tell, were separate things that all existed in a living creature. Each could be manipulated, however, with the right magical forces. By manipulating two of the three, certain effects could be produced- by controlling the body and soul, a spellcaster could coax information from a corpse, by speaking to the body and retrieving information from the knowledge of the dead. By manipulating the soul and the animus, but with no body, it was possible to create a sort of… shadow, from the dead’s personality. Tarrow had heard stories of what people called “ghosts”- malevolent spirits that wished to cause pain and exact revenge for whatever unfinished business they had left over from their time alive. Nothing had ever been proven, of course, and such tales were regarded as little more than folk tales used to scare children. By using magic to connect the body and the animus, without a soul, you were left with an animated corpse, or remains of a corpse, capable of following rudimentary orders.

Tarrow, of course, recognized this last description. The rotting skeletons that had come out of the river were bodies that were given an animus- being without a soul, they had no mind and carried out whatever task the Dark One gave them. Since most of combat is meant to debilitate and demoralize your opponent through pain and fatigue, these beings- without any of the limitations living creatures have- became formidable adversaries.

But as Tarrow reached the bottom of the page, his hands began to shake. He knew that this is what brought him here. Whether he was brought by that dream, or some sort of a pact or whatever it was he had imagined, this is what he came for.

At the bottom, scrawled in more recent script than the rest, explained that the writer had, after many years of trial and error, devised a way of reuniting all three- the body, the soul, and the animus- through the use of an extremely complicated and advanced ritual.

On the following pages, despite not being able to understand the magical script, Tarrow knew what he had found. It explained how the Dark One had brought back the orc scourge. And it explained how the Horselords would get their revenge.

A way to bring back the dead.

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 34

Sanna sat on the roof of the lodge, her Horselord dagger between her fingers. She passed it back and forth between each hand, each digit idly thumbing the blade, the edhel mentally measuring its weight, its balance, its size, and the smoothness of the metal. She occasionally looked out over the town before her, not looking at anything in particular.

It had been two days. Two days since the Dark One slipped through her fingers. Two days since their number, already a meager five, was reduced to three.

What were they supposed to do? How were they going to exact revenge on a king, backed by an army feared the world over, with three knights? Even if they were the best fighters in the world- as much as Sanna would have liked to believe it, she couldn’t make such a claim in good conscience- they still couldn’t accomplish what they needed to do. Even with five it would have been impossible. But at least with five, it felt more like a reachable dream than a fool’s fantasy.

Sanna put away her dagger and she shifted her gaze towards the fishing pond. Tarrow was sitting against the willow tree, his right arm still in a sling, with his journal open. He looked to be reading, rather than writing, with a wistful look in his eyes. Sanna had said barely a word to him or to Fru’al since the battle, and neither of them had done much more.

As Sanna stared, her body feeling drained of all emotion, she saw priestess Jael approach the trystborn’s reading spot, a covered basket in hand. The human sat down next to him, and they began talking. Sanna figured she could probably figure out what they were saying if she wanted. But she didn’t.

She sat up, taking a deep breath. She didn’t like sitting still in a time like this, but she had spent the previous day on the movie, riding Sorroweth around the countryside as fast as he could go, her bow in hand, ready to kill anything that came near her. But moving was no more therapeutic than sitting still.

As the day grew late, Sanna let her mind rest while she brushed Sorroweth, but then she kept seeing Artemis and Grash’s steeds, and it made the task difficult. She bid her loyal mount goodnight, rested her forehead against his for a moment, and headed back inside the lodge.

Fru’al and Tarrow were sitting in the common room, drinks nearby, though so far untouched. They sat in silence- neither looked up as she entered. She set herself down in her chair, and joined the quiet meeting. They each sat for some time, nobody making eye contact, and nobody speaking, until Sanna broke the silence.

“What do we do now?”

Her two companions lethargically turned their heads to face her, confused looks on their faces.

Fru’al replied, “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” said Sanna, “how do we advance? Our number is now down to three. How do we retake Eodon with only three Horselords?”

“You act,” said Tarrow, breaking his silence, “as if we could have retaken Eodon with five.”

Sanna kicked the table, perhaps a bit more forcefully than she intended. “You know what I mean. We’ve been trying to get revenge on Galex for the past three years, and our plight has only led to more and more wasted lives. What is our plan? How are we supposed to get revenge now?”

Fru’al, his eyes full of fearful tears, sat forward in his chair. “Maybe we aren’t meant to get revenge. Maybe we were supposed to die.”

Sanna rolled her eyes. “Some knight you are.”

“Well, what do you propose,” said the Marquis, “that we go charging into the seat of power and kill any that stand in our way? The rest of the Horselords tried that, and what did it get us? Tell me what it got us, Sanna.”

Sanna pursed her lips, folding her arms. “You know what it got us.”

Fru’al was standing, his voice raised. “Tell me what it got us. I want to hear it from you if you’re going to criticize my knighthood.”

“It got your loved ones killed,” said the edhel dryly.

“Yes. It got my loved ones killed. And Tarrow’s. And the families of every one of our companions. Not all of us were as ‘lucky’ as you were to have your family killed by someone else’s transgressions.”

Sanna’s eyes burned. “You think I consider that luck?” She stood up, slamming a fist down on the table. “My family was killed by the orc scourge, and you know that. And now you are proposing that we are to abandon our goal- which, in my mind, includes exterminating orcs once again. For all we know, Galex is the one behind their reappearance.”

“We don’t know anything about Galex’s connection, Sanna,” said Tarrow, shaking his head.

Sanna took a deep breath, and sat back down. “You’re right. We don’t. But we know that Galex is our enemy, and we know that he used their invasion to his advantage. And now, just days ago, we aided and abetted the one responsible for their resurgence. Where does that put us?”

Fru’al, also sitting, shook his head. “I don’t know. But we have to keep our goal as simple as we can. Either we try and stop Galex, or we try and stop orcs. Our numbers are so small right now, I don’t know how either is possible.”

“Then we need to figure out what allies we have,” pleaded Sanna. “If any.”

Tarrow shook his head too. “I don’t know if we have any. Kellonville is the first place we’ve come to that has taken us in, let alone been sympathetic to our cause. And at this point, I don’t even know if we can trust anyone, after… you know.”

“So you tell me,” she pointed at the trystborn, “How exactly are we supposed to move forward? Or would you rather play some songs and read some books? I’d suppose that might end this war.”

Tarrow’s mouth hung open, involuntarily speechless in the first time Sanna could remember. Fru’al interjected in his defense, the old man’s eyes wet.

“Sanna, how can you be this hostile? We just lost two of our own. Maybe we need some time to-“

“Some time?” She stood up, her hands flat on the surface before her. “All of the time in the world will mean us nothing if all we do is run. We have to attack. I couldn’t help but notice you did barely any of the sort during that battle. Did you squander your spells looking up girls’ dresses, or maybe you simply didn’t wish to burden yourself with dirtying your hands?”

Fru’al’s red face was one of absolute shock and embarrassment. “I- I never- How dare you!

“Or how about you, Master Strategist?” Her gaze was once upon the trystborn. “Did your days of carousing and making friends with the townsfolk help us once an actual threat was near? Where were you and your infinite plans when Artemis and Grash really needed you?”

Tarrow glared at her, once again silent. Sanna knew she was being too harsh. But it was too late- the floodgates had been opened.

“I have worked so hard to remain vigilant,” she said, holding back her own tears. “I have depended on both of you, and on Grash and Artemis, for my life many times over. And now, they are both dead, and the two of you are too spineless to know when to advance and when to run.”

She kicked her chair over, and turned around to leave. But the sound of Tarrow’s chair scraping against the floor made her halt.

“Hold your tongue, edhel,” came the trystborn’s voice, more commanding than she had heard it in a long time.

“You speak to a superior officer,” he continued.

Sanna turned to face him, her face red with anger. “What does it matter now? Eodon is finished. Galex has won. At least that’s what you two seem to think. It appears the sacrifice of our companions was for noth-”

Sanna was cut short when Tarrow, quick as lightning, leapt over the table and pinned her to the wall, his good arm against her throat.

I repeat,” he said through gritted teeth, “you speak to a superior officer. No subordinate of mine is going to accuse me of not caring about my king and my kingdom.”

Sanna tried to wrestle herself free, and Fru’al rushed over to break them up- but Tarrow, with an expression of pain on his face, held the old wizard away with his injured arm. Tarrow, locking eyes with her, released her, letting her fall to the ground.

As Sanna scrambled to right herself, Tarrow was beside her, kneeling, holding his hand out, tears streaming down his red cheeks.

“Sanna,” he said, helping her up, “you know that I cared about Artemis and Grash. I have cared about each and every one of our number that has been lost. If you honestly doubt that, then I accuse you of never having truly known me.”

Sanna rubbed her throat, feeling it difficult to speak. Of course she knew, and of course she trusted Tarrow to give his life for her like he would have done for any Horselord. When she was able, she choked out a few words.

“Is this all we do, Tarrow” she began, feeling burning tears on her own smooth face, “bring death and destruction to everyone who cares for us?”

He put his arms around her, and held her head to his chest. Fru’al put his hand on her shoulder. The three of them wept.

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 33

The rain was still coming down, as it had for days. The Rusted Drake was mostly empty- the usual patrons wouldn’t arrive until sunset, and until then, Fru’al sat, staring at the cold, dark hearth, listening faintly to the patter of droplets hitting the ground outside.

He slowly raised his flagon to his mouth, and breathed through his nose, feeling the aroma of the frothy brew in his nostrils. But he got no enjoyment from it. Nor did he savor the taste as the ale filled his mouth, and rushed down his throat.

After draining the cup, the aged man set it softly upon the worn wooden table, and without thinking his free hand gestured for another. His gaze still sat on the fireplace, filled with charred wood, ashes, and the bodies of his grandchildren-

A loud thunk made him jerk his head- just another flagon of drink being set beside him. Coming out of his trance, he handed the server- wondering whatever happened to Talarin- a silver coin, the smooth metal glinting slightly from the tavern’s lit torches.

What was he thinking about? Oh, right. He was remembering the events of the past few days. The Dark One, Sibyla, the battle with the orcs… Artemis… Grash…

He had seen it all. His lack of foresight- his comfort with daily life in Kellonville- had resulted in poor spell selection. He had seen no need to prepare anything useful in combat- small things, to make the day more enjoyable, took up the space in his mind reserved for his magic. He was so desperate for a place to live, he actually let himself believe that there would be no more strife, no more danger. When danger arrived, he had to resort to transforming his spells on the fly- multiple utility spells were torn apart and combined to form one fireball, and the rest of his minor illusions were twisted into bolts of magical force. When the Dark One finally showed himself, he was little more than a feeble old man with a fancy stick.

Was this what Marquis Fru’al Ronan, the Northwarden of Eodon, had become? Was this fitting of the foremost follower of the Ebony Goddess? Did he even deserve to be called a knight after his failure?
Because of his inability to contribute, Grash, chosen Paladin of Detroia, fell before an orc’s blade. And mere moments later, Artemis- the poor boy, who deserved none of this, a farmhand caught up in the plight of a few exiled knights- was struck dead by the Dark One’s own impure magic. Wounded, the foul Necromancer responsible for raising the orc scourge fled, vanishing into thin air.

That ability concerned Fru’al. Sanna, an edhel, had the natural ability to Step once every short while, anywhere she was able to see. The Dark One seemed to do it at will, and after slaying the poor squire Artemis, he was gone. There was no exit in sight, yet he was gone.

And two of the Horselords were dead. Tarrow, unconscious at the time of their deaths, took the news stoically. Sanna, heavily wounded but alive, searched the small room to where the Dark One had fled, and although the foul spellcaster was nowhere to be found, Sibyla and her child were there, alive- bound, battered, and terrified, but alive.

It was still raining when the survivors, Tarrow, Sanna, Fru’al, and Sibyla, returned to Kellonville, the bodies of the heroes in tow. Priestess Jael had done all she could to mend their broken bones, but the deepest wounds were not physical. None of them slept that night. Sanna took up her usual lookout, despite the rain, on top of the lodge. Tarrow retired to his bunk, but the Marquis knew better than to expect him to sleep. Fru’al, knowing his duty, to his companions and to his goddess, got to work preparing their bodies for burial.

He washed their wounds as best as he could. Grash was simple- he had been impaled through his midsection more than once, and his scales needed to be polished. Artemis… poor Artemis… had taken the brunt of the Dark One’s foul magic head-on. Fru’al did his best. He wished there was more he could do to allow his allies to view him, but it simply wasn’t possible.

After cleaning them and dressing them, he performed consecration rights on their bodies, bestowing the blessing of the Ebony Raven on their lifeless forms. They would remain as they were, without rot or decay, for a short time longer. It was the least that befitted two of the last Horselords of Eodon.

It would be some time before they could be buried. As per burial law in Eodon, no body- especially heroes that gave their lives in battle- were to be buried until the ground was dry. It was difficult, but the knights had kept to this law, out of respect, even during their days in the wilderness, carrying the bodies of fallen Horselords as long as was necessary until it was acceptable. For now, Fru’al stored the remains of Grash and Artemis in the lodge’s workshop. An unceremonious place for a burial shroud, but necessary.

Sitting in the tavern, Fru’al found himself wondering, not for the first time, if such law still existed under the False King Galex’s rule. He couldn’t help but imagine his wife, his sons, his daughters, his grandchildren being shoved into a wet grave, the rains flooding the pit with mud, worms and leeches burrowing into decaying flesh as the lifeless bodies sank into the mire-

“I said no thank you,” he blurted out, jumping up and looking around nervously. What few patrons were in the Rusted Drake barely noticed his outburst. He rubbed his forehead, which was covered in a thin sheen of sweat. His latest drink, untouched, had begun to go warm. He sat back down, reached for his drink, and felt a rumble below his feet.

“No,” he whispered. “Not now. Not here.”

The ground rumbled once more. He looked at the other patrons, to see if they were reacting. But instead of reacting to the shaking floor, they were all staring straight at him, their eyes burning with fire. Sores and tears began to form on their flesh, and they were all drifting, without moving their legs, towards him. Behind them, red light poured in through the windows.

The patrons got closer and closer, their skin bubbling and burning. They all began to scream, crying out for Fru’al to save them, to kill them, to kill himself. The sage stared on in horror, and as each of them collapsed into burning piles of charred bones and liquid flesh, the walls of the tavern began to buckle, exploding outward. Beyond them was not the rainy town of Kellonville, but rather the fiery cracked landscape of Fru’al’s worst nightmare. The ground opened and swallowed up the tortured souls that walked across it. People everywhere fell to the ground, tearing at their skin as spiders and lizards ate them from the inside out. The sun, a sneering face of hatred and spite, shot down beams of burning light at any who dared look up at it. The sky spewed droplets of blood and gore as if it were rain.

Fru’al sat in his chair, frozen in place, as the remains of the tavern burned around him. At the edge of his vision, disappearing into the haze, titanic horrors beyond description skulked, each one’s tentacled visage capable of driving a man insane. Fiendish vultures, black with ash and with glowing red eyes that saw straight through his flesh, swarmed around him. As they neared, he saw that each one held in its talons the head of a human- humans that Fru’al recognized. The head of his beloved wife, Mara, dangled in front of him, blood dripping from its neck. His grandson, Kenneth, flew past in a beast’s clutches, his blank expression following Fru’al’s gaze. All of his family and friends he had lost floated here, in this chaos world, in constant torment and terror. Fru’al was forced to sit, transfixed, as they called out to him.

They called out his name. They begged him to free them. They threw accusations and hatred at him. Fru’al tried to scream, he tried to plead, he tried to run. But he could not. Even if he could move, he knew he would never escape this.

This nightmare was always with him. It was with him the day he learned of his family’s death at the hands of the traitor king. It was with him every time one of their number was lost. Whenever his thoughts drifted towards home or family, it returned, pulling him into this dimension of pain and misery. It was always at the edge of his consciousness. If he ever lost focus, it would return. The screams of his children would return. They blamed him for what had happened. He blamed himself for what had happened. As he sat there, in his tavern chair, the flagon of drink boiling away in his hand, he heard their screams again, and again, and again.

Tears streamed down his face. He begged his family to return. He begged his family to leave him. He begged the Goddess to take his life and put him out of his misery. As always, the Goddess refused. The flames crept closer, closer, closer. The flames reached his feet, and he felt himself burning. He smelled his own searing flesh. He watched his robes become nothing but cinders, and he felt it as the flame crept up his legs. It reached his chest, and pierced through to his heart. His beard caught fire and filled his vision with smoke. He cried out, again and again, and again.

Through the smoke, he saw them. Grash and Artemis. Grash, with the hole in his chest. Artemis, with his face split in half. Their hungry eyes pierced Fru’al’s very soul. They came to devour his flesh along with the birds.

Before he was fully engulfed, he threw the flagon as hard as he could.

In the tavern, it hit the mantle above the hearth and shattered. All of the patrons turned to look at him, and a terrified wench crept over to clean up the mess. Fru’al looked around, tears streaming down his embarrassed face.

Everything was normal. The people were normal citizens of Kellonville. Behind the bar, Primm had a concerned look on his face, but didn’t leave his spot. Through the window Fru’al could see that it was still raining.

Coughing and mumbling something about being ill, he stood up, tossed a couple more coins on the table, and walked out.