The story of Aemir

[Back to the Tales of the Third Age]

Chapter I

Aemir woke up. He was sweating. He didn't remember anything, but he was sure he had just had a nightmare, one of those which had been plaguing him lately. It seemed ages since he had last slept peacefully for more than a couple of days. Next to him, Sulmir was still deeply asleep, and he was even snoring slightly. He didn't seem to be the least bit worried, but then again, he was only six.

Aemir sat on his straw cot. Everything was quiet in the small tent: his parents were still asleep in the opposite corner, and the forest was very silent. Only from time to time did he hear an owl or a rustle of leaves. On a sudden impulse, the young boy stood up and, as silently as possible, made his way to the bear skin covering the entrance. The old guard dog raised his head at him, sniffing the air. Then he yawned and slumped back again, his tail swinging in happiness. Ruffling the mongrel's collar, Aemir kneeled and stared at the forest. Something was wrong.

He didn't know what, though. The air was cold, which was not uncommon in this country in early airseason. The sky was very clear, and stars shone on the shadowy shapes of the trees. Nothing moved around the tents. Aemir stood and walked to the cart. The stocky mare was there, resting, but he noticed nothing strange. Yet he knew deep in his heart that something was wrong.

Puzzled and not a bit reinsured, he walked back to his cot, careful not to wake his family, and lay down. Those last weeks had been tiring, and he hoped it was only exhaustion which made him feel ill-at-ease. He remembered leaving castle Kalinth a few days ago. They had passed a very agreeable sojourn in the old keep, and their show had been appreciated by the lords of the place. Aemir even remembered young Baron Darimer coming to congratulate him personally, offering him a small wooden flute. The young boy had instantly appreciated the lord, only ten years older than him, even though he sensed that something was wrong in the castle, and that dark shadows seemed to cover the baron's brother, Mervil.

Now they were on their way to legendary Aendhol, and Aemir had already dreamt much on the fabled beauties of the city. But he was no fool, and even though his parents tried to hide it from him and Sulmir, their show wouldn't last much more longer. Mother couldn't dance as she used to, and father's voice was trembling more and more every day, as his lung disease gained on him.

Sometimes Aemir wondered why his parents had had to wait for so long before they could have children, and to his inquiries his mother would only answer: "Galanhir made us wait until we were ready, and until you and your brother could be born". So Aemir and Sulmir followed their parents around the world, living from the shows they performed in every village, town or castle they encountered. But Aemir was 10 now, and he would soon be able to help his parents, and maybe this way the show would go on.

Forgetting his previous worries, the boy sank deeper into his fur blankets and prepared to sleep. Maybe if he had stayed awake a little bit longer, he would have seen the flashes of light through the tent's fabric, or he would have heard the rustles of feet on the grass.

But Aemir was already sleeping when the world collapsed around him. All of a sudden, the tent was on fire and huge shadows broke through the entrance, laughing insanely. His father tried to stand and take his sword, but a long spear pierced his throat before he could try to defend himself. Four shapes were in the room: three of them bulky warriors covered with thick furs, and a robed silhouette, far frailer than the others, but which seemed to command them.

Aemir's mother was sitting, calmly facing her death, her eyes intent on the attackers. One of them leaped to her and caught her hair, pulling her head in the light of a torch. He spoke in a harsh tongue:
- You think this is her? This old crone would be the mother?
- Don't be deceived by appearances," the robed figure answered, "She is the one we seek: in her blood is the key.
- Hmm, if you say so. Pah! Let's take her and see if she can be useful.
Sulmir, who had been silently trembling under his blankets, suddenly burst into tears, crying:
- Mother, no! Leave her! Mother!

Cursing, Aemir sprang from his bed and rushed at the attackers. They had almost forgotten the boys, and seemed startled by the sudden assault. Boiling with anger, Aemir threw himself at the one holding his mother, hammering his belly with his small fists. Turning to face the young boy, unbelieving, the big man smiled at his friends:
- Hey look at this: it seems the cub wants to protect her. Shall we kill him like his father?
But his mother, who had been freed by the assault, suddenly stood, her dagger in her hand:
- Hear me, Firelord. Whatever you planned to do to me, I will not comply to. Whoever you thought I was I will not be. Be gone and tell your dark mistress that you have failed.

Saying those words, she pushed the dagger inside her chest, a smile crossing her face as her last breath left her body. In the sudden confusion that followed, Aemir took his brother's hand and ran for the tent's entrance. Outside, the night was still calm. The guard dog and the mule had been both murdered, but Aemir almost did not see them. He was running as fast as he could, Sulmir trying to follow , running toward the relative safety of the thickest shadows of the forest. The boys entered deeper among the bushes and trees, their hearts hammering in their ears, fleeing the shouting hunting party who tried to follow their track.

The noise got distant, until eventually Aemir could not hear the attackers anymore. He collapsed on the ground, panting. There he lay for a while, his brother softly crying beside him. He hadn't understood why their tent had been attacked, and why the thieves seemed more interested in his mother than in the family's few belongings. But he knew deep in his heart that somehow Shezael had been behind this attack: he knew that from this day on, he would spend his life trying to take revenge from those who had destroyed his simple but happy existence, those who had taken his parents from him. Aemir knew that his fate was to fight Shezael and her minions until he wiped them from the world or died at arms.

And among the burning remains of the camp, a dark robed figure stood, looking straight toward where the boys hid, flames covering his whole body and the long-nailed fingers of a skeletal hand:
- You may have defeated us today, woman, but the Dark Queen's patience is eternal, and your sons still carry the blood which will lead us to victory, a blood that, one way or another, shall become mine.

Chapter II

Flames. Flames filling an eyesight, licking at beautiful curtains and fine furniture. Fire burning the skin. Smoke. Choke in a dense black smoke. Suddenly a strong hand, a worried face, blood running down sharp jaws, eyes crying from the dense fumes. The point of view changes, the flames remain. The lavish room is burning to ashes, bodies lie on the ground in pools of blood, the flames beginning to devour them. A woman is by the man: she’s hurt and worried too. Suddenly a night sky, high stone walls, and still the flames trying to burn them. Shouts all around, echoing on the walls. Quakes, the world shifting in and out of existence, going past at a tremendous speed. Then the walls give way to trees, the trees to grass. Fade away…

The seven suns rose over two chilled and frightened children. For what seemed hours they had listened to the shouts and distant footsteps of their pursuers, until only the natural sounds of the forest remained. Sulmir had eventually fallen asleep shortly before sunsrise, but Aemir could not forget the dreary nocturnal events, and the sense of fate that had befallen him as his past was crushed and his life broken.

Strangely enough, Aemir barely felt any pain. He felt empty, hollow, and the loving memories of his parents were slowly being consumed by the flames of hatred he was raising around his grief, and by the blood lust that festered within him, the thirst for the blood of a robed figure and its followers. Hatred gave him the strength to rise in the chilly morning. Everything seemed calm among the trees, but the young boy nonetheless sneaked out of the small thicket he had shared with his brother, letting him rest while he headed for the camp, to see what the attackers had left behind. It was not hard to find the cart, for a plume of black smoke rose over the treetops.

Stepping lightly on the undergrowth, all his senses keen on any sign from the attackers, Aemir entered the clearing his family had chosen to camp within an eternity ago. Everything was ashes: the wooden cart and parched leather had been burnt, together with everything they contained. Horrified, the boy recognized the charred bodies of his parents, and a single tear ran down his cheek: sorrow would come later.

Among the broken memories of his short childhood, Aemir only found a partly melted iron chest he did not recognise. He easily broke the damaged lid: inside were the scarce worthless jewellery his mother owned, fairly intact. Either the rogues had not seen the chest or they hadn’t come to plunder. The heat of the fire had damaged the bottom of the chest, and Aemir realised there was a double bottom.

His heart suddenly racing, he tore it apart. A single golden ring was hidden there, on which a piece of amber had been set, carved in the likeliness of two swords crossed in front of an oak.

Puzzled, the boy put the ring on, and shouted as several small sparks suddenly flashed from it. Incapable of bearing the heat, the boy threw the ring to the ground, and instinctually crouched, hoping no one had heard him. Something rolled under his feet, and he seized it. It was the little flute Baron Darimer had given him, miraculously spared by the fire.

At that very moment, a flock of raven suddenly soared from the surrounding trees, and Aemir snatched the ring before he began to run to his brother’s hiding place.

- What is it you’ve been holding all day long?
- Something which is none of your business.
- How can you know? Let me see it!
- Alright, but only for a second.

Aemir was reluctant to let go the ring, which fascinated him, all the more since he couldn’t wear it, but he could let Sulmir take a look at it.
- Pah! A ring? Those are girls’ things…
- See? I told you it wasn’t for you.
- Was it mother’s?
- I don’t know.. Now give it back to me!

To Aemir’s surprise, Sulmir had donned the ring, and even though it looked funny on his small fingers, no sparks had struck the young boy. Aemir suddenly felt a great longing for the ring, and he rushed at his brother:
- It is mine! Give it!
- But let me...

With a crystalline sound, the ring hit the ground. Aemir reached for it.
- You hit me!” Sulmir was nursing his cheek.
- You would not give it back.
- I was about to. You hit me!

Silently avoiding each other’s gaze, the boys resumed their walk under the declining light of the suns. By dusk they had reached the edge of the forest. They ate a few mushrooms and the late fireseason fruits, and spent the night under a blanket of thick branches, trying to keep their warmth.

The following days they walked through large meadows and fields, but saw no farm or village. At last they encountered the western road, and followed it for another day, before the high towers of Kalinth at last appeared on the eastern horizon, and for the first time since the slaughter, their spirits began to rise.

- You bring sad news, young Aemir, and be sure my sorrow for your parents is not feinted. It seems that Shezael’s influence has been growing lately, and even glorious Aendhol seems to be falling within her grasp. But in each dead flower is a seed, and so Reset sent you to us, and he has chosen you for a glorious fate. One day you will avenge your parents, and I hope you will do much to maintain the balance in this world.

Silent, Aemir was sitting in Baron Darimer’s private quarters, the young lord pacing the room around him.
- Yes one day you will do much, but for the moment you and your brother are under my protection, and I will welcome you in my land. May you find healing and comfort under the protection of Reset.
- I thank you Lord, but I don’t want to rest.. I want to fight those evils. I want to fight Shezael..
- Aemir, however brave you are, you still need some training before you can do so. Don’t let your fury blind you and revenge overtake you. And remember that you must not condemn the many for the deeds of the fiew, and that destroying evil would only bring havoc on this world.
- But you don’t understand! Those murderers only deserve death! We were innocent!

Darimer looked intently at the boy for a couple of seconds, then he turned around and looked on the view he had from the narrow windows. There he kept silent for a few minutes, before turning again to look at Aemir, looking sad although he was smiling:
- Now I understand how I was mistaken. I thought I saw Reset’s harmony behind you, but it is Galanhir’s light which brings this fire in your eyes. I don’t doubt your heart is pure, but be careful of not letting this hatred within you destroy what you once where.
Taking a deep breathe, the young baron of Kalinth resumed:
- I know a place where those chosen by the Lord of Light are welcome and given shelter, a place built by a man of compassion and generosity, a man I admire even though our opinions differ. Take some days to rest and get ready, then you and your brother will go to Lord Begethine… You will go to Sanctuary.

Chapter III

A grassy plain, a heaven-like landscape. Animals frolicking in the meadow, no sign of intelligent being. Then a shadow, faint at first, but growing quickly, stretching over the world as if trying to engulf it. A huge mass, blurry and shining, making it impossible to see what it could be, going down and down, the world in its shadow. Contact. Explosion. Chaos. Destruction. Havoc. The end of the world?

- My Lord, I wish to talk with you about our young Aemir. Every day blessed by our Lord brings to me new worries about his behaviour.
- I know, Tanarel, I know. I have also noticed how much he has changed lately.

Begethine was looking beyond the high walls of the keep, toward the new buildings which were quickly swallowing the broad road to the harbour. Sanctuary was growing so fast that there was not enough room inside the castle walls for all the good souls who seeked shelter. Even though new castle guards were being recruited every day, the Guardian of the Dawning Star was not sure he could protect all his people, should Shezael decide to strike at his new-born city, let alone if the danger came from within.
- He seems to be drifting farther and farther from his few friends, and even his brother looks frightened by him. His ring seems to draw most of his attention, as if he was trying to reach it. Could he be…
- I know this sigil, but it is not yet time for Aemir’s past to catch up on him.
- But my Lord, people are beginning to see the Dark Queen’s work in Aemir’s bitterness.
- Ah, Tanarel, why do they always bring things they don’t understand, things which frighten them under the merciless grasp of Shezael. I don’t know exactly what is going on in the boy’s mind, but there is no evil in it. I’m rather beginning to think that he could very well be the great warrior Galanhir promised us to at last defeat Evil and whoever might befriend it. Yet it is too soon for Aemir’s fate to be uncovered, and in order to settle those worries, I shall talk to the young man. Please send for him, Tanarel.
- As my Lord wishes.

With a stiff bow, the Captain of the guards left. Begethine looked away from the construction sites, thinking about what the future could be. Sometimes he wished Osidarta was still with him, for the ageless Wizard always seemed to have an answer. But he was on his own now, and he had built a powerful stronghold to protect all the good souls of the world. He still needed someone to strike his enemies, though, and if Aemir’s bravery and intelligence had to be Galanhir’s weapon, then it was the High-Priest’s role to forge the rough, red-hot steel.

* * *

- Cary! Cary? Don’t bother to hide, I’ll find you!
- Then you should first learn how to run faster!

Sulmir caught the flash of his friend disappearing in a dim corridor, as he instantly started after him. Sanctuary’s castle was really huge, and even though the boys were not granted permission to go very far from their aisle, it was still a big enough area for them to play in. Cary was indeed fast, but he was also noisy, and Sulmir had no difficulty following his footsteps in this calm morning.

The boy would be late for his history lesson, but he could not let Cary win this game. Unfortunately, he could not beat him on sheer speed, and soon enough, Sulmir was panting and he lost sight of his prey. It was time to be cunning, and Cary had more or less been heading toward the training room. Sulmir would run for the back entrance, hide there and wait for his friend to fall in his trap. Beaming, he took a shortcut to the large room. Somebody was there.

A knight in heavy armour was fighting demons. He was surrounded by six semi-bipedians creatures, short but stout, with piercing horns and sharp claws. The beasts were alternatively attacking the man, forcing him to defend with his heavy iron sword and his huge tower shield. The knight was close to exhaustion, and blood was trickling down his iron-clad limbs. But he was not ready to give up.

Fascinated, Sulmir crawled closer to watch the fight. He was not the least bit afraid, for the demons were there only for training, and would not really harm the fiery warrior. The boy gasped in surprise as he recognised him: it was his brother, Aemir.

Then surprise turned to pride as the knight suddenly attacked, slashing a demon across the chest before it could do anything. The creature’s body disappeared in a grey smoke, back to wherever he had been summoned from by Begethine’s magic. Aemir beheaded another creature before the four survivors gathered to attack together.

From his vantage point, Sulmir saw his brother plunge toward the closest beast, slashing at its legs while the three other demons lamentably crushed into one another. However strong those creatures were, they were still ridiculously stupid.

Aemir was quickly on his feet, and he finished the pathetic demons which had begun to bite at one another. Panting, he doffed his helmet. Then Cary entered and smiled at the warrior’s back.
- Aemir!

The boy began to run toward the heavy figure, and suddenly Sulmir’s blood chilled in his veins as he saw outrage distort his brother’s face. Aemir lifted his sword as he turned around, ready to hack at the new threat, and Sulmir jumped toward him.
- Nooo!

Horror fell on Cary as he realised the older boy was ready to kill him, but Sulmir’s clumsy catch set Aemir off balance and the warrior fell with a loud metallic noise. Filled with wrath, he looked at his brother, his eyes on fire, ready to strike him with his gauntleted fist.
- How dare you…?” Then his vision blurred and he blinked, as if surprised of being here. “Sulmir?”
- Are you mad? You could have killed Cary!

The boy was still shaking, but he tried to look brave. At a loss, Aemir eyed the ten years old children.
- I… What were you doing in the training hall anyway? This is a place for men, not boylings!

With that the young man left. Sulmir was deeply worried with his brother: he had been acting strangely ever since their parent’s death, but lately, the younger boy could not recognise him at all. And, furthermore, he could not say what was wrong with Aemir, who despised him as an infant and said he couldn’t understand anything. He could only watch his brother drift away from him, destroying what was left of their family.

- He would have killed me, you think?” Cary was still looking toward where Aemir had disappeared.
- He was not always like that..
- I won’t like him more for what he was.

Sulmir nodded. He sensed that his brother had come to some kind of limit, and that what would happen in the following days could very well changed both their fates.

* * *

- You sent for me, my Lord?” There was so much scorn on this last word, so much impertinence: Aemir couldn’t bear inaction, and he would not understand those who, like Begethine, were trying to save goodness rather than destroying evil.
- Aemir, are you happy here in this city?
- Why should I not be? You have been extremely kind toward me and my brother.
- The goal of this Sanctuary is to shelter those who follow our Lord, and give them what we can to ease their lives
- You for sure know what people need: a meal to eat and a wall behind which to hide!
- People do not come here to hide, they come because they share a dream of a world where everyone could leave in peace, a world without anger or hatred.
- I know this dream, I know this world, and it is not hidden within these cowardly walls.
- Wherever it is, I leave it to Galanhir, but what we need now, as darkness once again gathers at our gates, is a sparkle of hope.
- So give them one of your famous displays of magical fireworks!
- Aemir, what lies within your heart I cannot tell, this wound that pains you so much I cannot heal. You have to find your own answers, and they don’t lie in Sanctuary.
- So this is it? You welcome us, give us some shelter, and then you cast us out?
- Think what you will, but what you have been looking for during all those years is now waiting for you, and you should quell that fire inside you, before it burns you out.

Aemir was quaking:
- Very well, so if this is your opinion, then we shall leave the castle by tomorrow morning. I will warn Sulmir.
- You misunderstood me: this path is yours to follow only, and your brother will remain here, for he still has much to learn.
- Oh I will leave, Lord, but beware of the day when I come back to stir your people from your comforting illusions.

And Aemir left, the door banging behind him. Begethine turned to look at his growing city. May this day come quickly, because only you can now revive the flame in their heart, and lead our people to salvation.

Chapter IV

The night was calm. It was in fact so calm that it was immensely boring. It was in fact so boring that Gerach was quickly falling asleep. What was the use of this sentry stuff anyway? The camp was surrounded by a pointed log wall, and Garlech’s tribe was so famous for its cruelty that no one could dare to attack them, not even the so-called untamed Pegasus who was terrifying the lesser tribes. Anyway, Garlech wanted guards and sentries and patrols, and it was not very wise not to follow Garlech’s orders.

Then so it was. The sight of those pale boulders and scarce trees was uninteresting enough during the day, but at night they were only dark shadows on the starscape. The conditions were harsh in the highlands of Sulmak, and few were the animals to break the quietness of the night.

But suddenly a brush rustled in the neighbourhood, startling Gerach awake: probably a skinny, hungry rabbit, but chasing it would probably be more interesting than sitting idly, watching nothing. All his senses alert (which does not mean much for an orc), Gerach began to approach the thicket from which the sound had come. Anyone would know that this bush was the most obvious place to lay an ambush, but he was only an orc, whose life was suddenly taken by the quicksilver cut of a steel blade.

* * *

Maewyn could not find sleep. Even though over weeks she had become rather accustomed to the tiny cell she shared with her father and brother, something in the air seemed to cloud her thoughts, something worrying. She stirred and turned on her straw-cot, but to no avail: bliss would not come. Resigned, she got up and carefully stepped over her sleeping family, toward the narrow loophole which was their window. Rising on tiptoes, she peered between the dusty wooden planks. A flash of light on the ramparts, as if of a steel blade, struck her. Her heart pumping harder, her breathing faster, the young woman focused on the spot where she thought she had seen the feeble gleam of hope. Nothing stirred: has it been a dream?

* * *

Aemir swept his blade clean of the fouled orcish blood. He knew that at that very moment, his faithful warriors were cutting down the orc sentries all around the camp. The attack was definitely not going to be easy: they were so few, two scores at most. Young hotshots who had left Sanctuary with him, warriors he had freed from the orcs, brigands interested in plunder made up for his small war band, yet the list of orcish forts they had rampaged was already long, and just about to become a little longer. Above, the moon left the Dragon constellation: it was the expected time of attack.

Aemir and his four companions rose slowly, then ran for the wooden palisade of the orcish fort. Confidence had left it unguarded: confidence would be the ruin of the shadowspan. The cold air gave additional energy to the young fighters as they clambered up the pine posts. Inside the camp, nothing stirred. It was a circular area of hard-packed soil, eighty yards in diameter, filled with leather tents and wooden barracks. In its middle was a small tower, the only gathering of wood structured enough to be called a building. This was their target. But first, they had to do some cleaning.

One by one, the tents were visited by the war party, the orcs within killed ere they could snort. Aemir moved swiftly, never pausing to loot or to dwell on his victims, going through the tents with a methodical, cold-blooded determination. Unfortunately, some of his companions were interested in something more than merely fighting Evil: a sudden bang was heard from a nearby tent as one of them opened a trapped chest (confidence in one another was not an orcish quality). This explosion was just the signal madness awaited to come to the camp.

* * *

Strange sounds were coming from the camp. They were muffled, but clearly resembled the sound of weapons being unsheathed, of metal piercing flesh. Shadows stirred, bulky shadows, an armoured figure glinting in the moonlight, framed by two thinner shapes. Then a flash of light, a burst and disarray.

* * *

Among the tents, a silvery whirlwind was storming, and in its wake was a growing heap of green-skinned bodies: the Untamed Pegasus was at large. Around him, the other attackers were doing quite well, the lack of readiness of their opponents being their best advantage. It was only a matter of minutes before the small resistance offered by the half-clothed orcs was broken, and they began to flee, either outside their camp or toward their captain’s tower.

Aemir gathered his warriors, and was glad to see that only three of them were lightly wounded, the only casualty being the foolish chest-opener. The men beamed at their first, easy victory: sixty orcs had fallen, and more were to come. Together, they started toward the wooden tower.

* * *

The mysterious attackers were battling the orcs, in a comical fight of fierce, steeled warriors facing a band of bewildered, sleepy, barely clothed defenders. Maewyn followed the fight closely, oblivious of her brother who was trying to elbow her out of her vantage point. She most particularly followed the armoured figure, who moved with an impressive grace and speed, given the heavy burden it was carrying. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the fight stopped. Maewyn hugged her family as she realized who were the victors. Yet grunt were coming from the base of the tower below: the battle was not over yet.

* * *

Garlech looked in amazement at the young man who was easily, almost absent-mindedly disposing of his elite guards. He himself had barely had time to don his leather tunic, iron helmet, and wield his enruned scimitar. But now he was ready, and as the chief of this fort, he was obviously the strongest, as the young “Pegasus” would quickly learn. As his last guard fell, Garlech rushed, roaring with a war cry.

The first clash sent sparks and splinters as his sword met the knight’s wooden shield. Garlech snort as his opponent staggered. He pushed his advantage with a series of fast slashing blows the man barely parried. This victory would mean promotion among the orcish tribes, power and wealth. The man was now on his knees, his ruined shield tossed aside. Garlech lunged for the killing blow… and gazed incredulously at the sword which had cleanly pierced his chest. Vomiting blood, he fell among his fellow orcs.

* * *

Silence had come once again, after the death howl of what seemingly sounded like an orc, even though Maewyn did not want to believe too much, too easily. Then she heard steps climbing the narrow stairway to her cell and barely seconds later, the door crashed open, and she beheld her saviour.

He was a young man ostensibly a few years older than she. Strongly built, with a sharp face not altogether hard and fierce black eyes, he was clad in a steel full plate, protecting his whole body. His black hair was pasted to his dusty forehead, he was sweating heavily, covered with orcish blood. Yet Maewyn knew he had stolen her heart.

Chapter V

The voices of the dammed filled the hall as they screamed in agony. Twisted shadows ran along the walls, carrying their merciless duties. Springs of cold fire lit the rough grey stones, and the air hummed slightly of the pentagram-shaped runes of anti-magic. Simple people feared the endless torments of Hell, but their imagination could not even fathom what was going on in the Corridor of pain.

Since this was the only obvious way to the Firelord’s reception room, his servants were constantly remembered what awaited them should they fail to serve him, and the last thing Gorlesh wanted was to deceive his master. He had been only recently promoted to the title of Guardian of the plain, and he could swear one of the voice shouting for mercy was that of his predecessor. But the good news he brought ought to grant him some more time, even though he was quaking slightly as he reached the end of the corridor and presented himself before the demon door.

The wretched creature gave him a despising, sidelong glance, as if he should not remain here. Gorlesh had always hated those wicked demons Drago liked to gather around him, and which seemed to spend their time tricking the Firelord’s faithful servants. Nobody knew where they came from, yet the Hand of Darkness seemed to be very found of them and enjoyed their nasty jokes. Some even said that they were part of him and that he saw everything they saw. Thus they were protected from any form of harm, and obviously they knew it.

The demon door was a square yellowish thing three meters tall and two meters broad. Several eyes were scattered along its frame, and its huge, sharp-fanged mouth would open to let people in… or to swallow them. The thing was horrible, it stank, and Gorlesh definitely didn’t like the way it was looking at him, yet it let him through, cackling madly.

The room the demon entered was filled with black fumes, and hot beyond description. Lava eruptions from all around ceaselessly burst, threatening to burn him to the bones. In the middle of all this madness was a black throne made of cooled lava, on which countless faces were silently crying in pain. And sitting still on his throne was the robed figure of the Firelord.

As usual, Gorlesh was struck with awe as he gazed upon Shezael’s most powerful minion, a soul as filled with hatred and evil as any could be. The young demon had never seen the face of the Hand of Darkness, nor did he wish to see it, for dire was the fate of those who gazed upon it.

Gorlesh fell to his knees, patiently waiting for his lord to show some interest in him. After several long minutes, a red light flickered in the black hood of Drago’s ragged robe, as he acknowledged the Guardian’s presence.
- What shall bring you here, Gorlesh? You know my time is precious for the likes of you
- I bring news my Lord”, Gorlesh answered, and he quickly added “Good news.”
- And what might these news be?
- The trap is set: the Pegasus should fall into it within days now, and then he will be yours..

Gorlesh held back the want of shutting his eyes while waiting for Drago’s reaction. For once, he had nothing to fear, for pleasure, of all emotions, was heard in his master’s reply:
- This is indeed good news Gorlesh, news so good they could grant you another month as my Guardian of the Plains.” One month more to live, thought Gorlesh bitterly.
- I shall be pleased to serve you, my Lord, as long as it suits you, and continue to bring you news of our young princeling.

But Drago had already forgotten Gorlesh’s presence, and thus the demon quickly left the room, letting a sigh of relief escape him as he stepped through the demon door.

For he was still alive.

* * *

Aemir was gripping his sword’s hilt firmly as he lay flat and ready to spring. This orcish fort was the last of those frightening the newly founded dwarven settlements of Kraegor, yet it was the strongest, and by the time he arrived the wicked creatures would surely have been warned by the few survivors of his preceding raids. Not that Aemir cared the least bit about the dwarves, most of whom were mistaken in their belief in Reset, but Evil was Evil, and it was his crusade. Next to him, Brayac and Merlechi crouched too, intent of the signal from the raiders on the other side, waiting for the call for slaughter. Both were friends of the beginnings, when Aemir hunted alone, and they knew how to wield a sword, so he trusted them.

Soon enough, the second group would reach their vantage point from the opposite side, and Aemir would lead his last raid… before the fight against Shezael called him again. Suddenly, in the twilight, a bright speck of light flickered beyond the scarce torches of the camp, and eight hundred men sprang at once.

* * *

It had been too easy. It should have been the most difficult of the attacks, yet everything had gone smoothly and not a scratch had been dealt by the bewildered orcs. Now Aemir was hacking his way through the last line of defense, toward the keep were the orcish chieftain had taken refuge.

The few remaining guards fell like their comrades, without resistance. The door of the keep wasn’t even locked. There, standing in the middle of his treasury, quivering slightly from dread and anticipation, stood the orcish captain. He was weaponless.

Aemir gazed upon him with an eerie blend of pity and scorn, slowly raising his blade. The orc spoke before he could strike, in his raucous bark of a language:
- You might not want to kill me, young man: I have a most cherished present for you.

Aemir stopped, wondering what the beast could have to deal with him.
- And what could that be?
- Something you have been running after all your life. Your past.
- How strange that among all beings on earth, I shall come upon you, and you should know about my past. Don’t mistake me for a fool, this kind of talk will gain you no time.
- We have been studying you, Pegasus, we know a lot about you.. Hmm, let’s take this ring of yours for instance, do you have any idea of what it represents, hmm?

Aemir froze, feeling a sudden impulse to put on his ring, even though he still could not wear it.
- Well, it was my father’s, I…
- This is the sigil of the royal family of Valea: this bauble could lead you to your throne, King Aemir. Now this is worth a little present hmm?

At a loss for words, the young knight could only stare back. Because he knew. He did not know why, but he knew the orc was saying the truth, and the whole weight of his inheritance suddenly fell upon him. After a few seconds, he looked the confident orcish chief in the eyes:
- I thank you for your information, and indeed I will offer you something:” He lunged, wielding his sword. “A quick death”.

Chapter VI

The siege had been going on for two weeks. The armies of Valea were weakening, choking in Aemir’s grip, but still they held and beat all efforts from the attackers to breach into the keep, which seemed to be untakable.

What awaited Aemir when he first had come to his homeland was not exactly a warm welcome. The so-called king had received him icily, and Aemir had seen him on the verge of transgressing all laws of diplomacy and setting him to death. But some things even a king could not do. So Aemir had left, swearing to come back and retake what had been his by birth right, and he did not know any better language than the clash of weapons.

And here he was, destroying the very kingdom he was trying to save. The armies of Valea, weakened while most of their knights were away fighting Evil, had folded before Aemir’s host, which counted close to six thousand hard-trained warriors, folded so they could defend the keep until the bulk of their army came back from their campaigns. And Aemir was faced with a dilemma: attack too soon, and he might break his forces on too strong a defence; attack too late, and he would be crushed between the two armies.

Sitting around a time-smoothed wooden table in the captain’s hut were Aemir and his brother Sulmir, Maewyn’s father Teldran and a few grizzled veterans.
- It is not looking good at all”, said Brayac, a middle-aged tired-looking Sanctuarian. He was peering at the intendants’ reports. “Our army has been constantly growing, and the supply is not organized enough to feed six thousand mouths. I daresay we are victims of our own success, but given the current rate our food supplies are emptying, we will not last another week before the soldiers grow hungry, and decide that the spiritual bread of our crusade is not sufficient. Besides, despite our efforts to bury the dead, epidemics are beginning to spread across the camp.
- And this is not all”, added Merlechi, a broad bearded giant. “My scouts report that the Valean armies have gathered at last, and that by pushing their footmen to their limits they are about to enter the southern plains: it is only a matter of days now before we are trapped.

Aemir’s fist banged on the table:
- I can’t believe this! I can’t accept it! After having defeated Shezael’s minions all over the world, failing to retake what is rightfully mine, failing before other followers of Galanhir!

Carefully, Sulmir lay his hand on the knight’s shoulder:
- Face it brother, the walls of Valea stand too high and strong for us to break through them.

Aemir shook his brother’s hand away:
- And so? What do you suggest? Should we call on Begethine so that he sprouts us wings to fly over them?

Brayac’s face suddenly lit, crossed by a mischievous smile. Aemir turned his anger toward this incongruous attitude:
- What is it now, Brayac? What is so funny? Speak, man!
- Hmm, my Lord, your idea of wings might not be that bad.
- Have you gone insane?
- Well, obviously, attacking Agnor from above is both impossible and useless. No, I’d rather suggest we attack it from below.” Aemir’s interest was suddenly raised. His lieutenant pursued, now having everyone’s attention. “You see, Sanctuary’s library is full of very interesting books, among which is one talking about the history of Valea. Not the recent history, mind you, but what happened two thousand years ago, in the Second Age. We’re talking myths and legends here. As you probably know, Valea was founded by the family of Gwym, whose bloodline loses itself up to the beginning of times, some even say the First Age. They probably were the first to organize resistance against Shezael’s first legions, in the time when the Dark Queen was said to be roaming the world in person. Their battles are now forgotten, but legends recall the most decisive of them took place in a plain right in the middle of the mainland. They couldn’t defeat Shezael however, and barely managed to enclose some of her Evil in the depths of the world. And to protect this jail they chose to build a fortress of Good above it, a fortress they called Agnor.

Brayac’s audience was captivated, all but Aemir:
- Keep this story for when we are victorious: of what use is it now?
- I was coming to it: you see, even though all this was forgotten centuries ago, the Evil is still there, trapped deep below Agnor. And it is said that an entrance exists, which only a rightful heir of Valea could open. And it is almost certain that these tunnels lead up to the very heart of the keep!

Aemir burst in laughter:
- Aha, brilliant indeed! Merlechi, send scouts and our mages around the castle, find the entrance to these dungeons. Sulmir, gather five hundred of our elite troops, give them our best steeds. Bryac, prepare a new frontal assault on the castle we’ll use as a diversion, and if we succeed, the Agnoran defence will be trapped between us.

The rightful heir of Valea was beaming, with an almost boyish grin on his face, as he always was before action. If they had not known him better, his lieutenants wouldn’t have believed their eyes.

* * *

It took only a few hours for Merlechi’s scouts and mages to locate a strange grotto hidden in the undergrowth, and to pierce the magical seal hiding an opening in its walls, thanks to Aemir’s royal sigil. And as night crawled on the besieged castle, the heir and five hundred of his soldiers began to descend a narrow and steep stairway. First of them came the Untamed Pegasus himself, his torch piercing the deepening shadows. The stairway was carved in the socle of Frandum and it was entirely barren: not a single cobweb brushed the soldier’s heads.

For hours they walked down, so that Aemir began to wonder if Bryac’s legend was not really a legend, or Bryac simply a traitor. The darkness seemed indeed to be closing upon them when he suddenly stopped. Before him was a simple wooden door. His heart thumping, he pushed the panel, which wasn’t even closed. A gust of foul air filled the narrow corridor.

The room he entered was devoid of everything but dust, in heaps suggesting it might once have been furniture. Two wooden doors were piercing the stone walls, and a stairway stood in the middle, larger than the one they had come through. Aemir crossed to the door opposite the one they had entered, put his hand on the handle.

Pain. Coldness. Wicked voices whispering in his head: for one of the few times in his life, he felt fear, and started away from the door. Whatever was trapped inside he should take care of, but he first needed to take back his homeland.

The other door didn’t look more attractive: an eerie yellowish light glowed from beneath it, flickering. Carefully, Aemir pushed the wooden panel, walked inside. He had entered a kind of treasure room filled with gold and jewellery, and in its middle stood an ivory pedestal, bearing the strangest of sights: a golden sword was gleaming on it, hovering in mid-air, shining like a sun. Aemir didn’t need Bryac’s lore to recognize the Sunsword, a weapon of legends forged by his ancestors. Without hesitating, he seized the handle.

Warmth. Joy. Fire. The Light of Galanhir. He felt as If he had not really seen before, as if he had not really lived. The sword had no weight, it was not in his hand: it had become his hand. The top of the pedestal was carved in the likeliness of a griffin’s head. Oblivious to his ancestors, Aemir sliced it neatly with a swift stroke. The head fell, the cut as smooth as if it had been polished for days. Turning to face his men, the young knight found them on their knees, swearing allegiance to the one who had undoubtedly proved to be the son of Gwym. He had them stood and together they began to climb the broad stairway.

Hours again of hard climbing up the steps. Dawn had probably come, and the soldiers’ faces looked tired but intent, now that they were more than ever convinced of the rightfulness of their fight. Then at last they reached the top of the stairway. The two mages who had accompanied them immediately set to work on the charm protecting the exit, and barely an hour afterwards, they entered the residential hall.

Immediately, the alarm was rung, but it was already too late. Before reinforcements could arrive, they had taken possession of the lower level and secured the stairways, while Bryac’s army besieged the walls. And the soldiers of Agnor, who had been rejoicing of crushing Aemir’s army between their ramparts and their reinforcements, were in turn being trapped. Surrendering came quickly, and a triumphing Aemir was lead to the courtroom of his reconquered castle.

* * *

Drahamir was standing proudly in front of the king’s throne, his sword at his feet as an offering of peace.
- So Lord Aemir, your ways eventually proved convincing, and I am afraid I have got no option but to offer you this throne back.
- Indeed it’s a shame I had to force this sudden meekness out of you, Drahamir. Or should I call you uncle?
- Hmm, so you have learnt the truth after all, have you not?
- Oh I learnt everything alright: how you were born a bastard of my grandfather, how you coldly murdered your half brother, how you brutalized my mother, who was barely saved by a devoted friend, whom in turn I called father. I learnt all of this.
- Well I will not deny the truth, it would be pointless. I will not try to swerve the blade of Justice. I will only pray our Lord to be merciful with me.
- I would be most surprised if he did. Your so-called campaigns against Evil were an endless succession of failures. I am beginning to wonder how an army so weak could withstand my undefeated crusaders.
- They most certainly misjudged you and your aggressive intentions.

Aemir cackled, resisting the urge to spit an angry reply. Drahamir faced him coldly:
- I will not beg for your forgiveness.
- You wouldn’t receive it anyway. Guards! Lock him in the dungeons. Tomorrow, he shall be hung, and his head cast before our entry walls, as a signal to all those who would like to betray our Holy Lord.

Aemir watched the former king being carried away. A strange feeling had come over him, a feeling of accomplishment: for the first time since the death of his parents, he felt at peace.

Chapter VII

A warm fireseason night had descended upon the sleepy castle of Agnor. The guards were lazily walking the ramparts, confident none would attack them now that Aemir was king. The courtyard was devoid of the daytime bustle and no footsteps echoed on its cobblestones. Inside the keep, servants were asleep, taking what small rest they could before their chores caught up on them anew. Up in his chambers, lord Aemir was resting too, for once not overwhelmed by his holy task. It has been a week now since he had wedded Maelyn, and happiness had softened his torments, bringing back a serenity he had almost forgotten.

And deep below the king’s chamber, fate was at work. Brayac’s story was right in the fact that a powerful evil was indeed locked there. Traps and magical locks had been set, but even the strongest defence cannot overcome the slyness of treachery. And the late king of Valea, submitted to Shezael’s will, had begun to unwrap the cover of seclusion which had been laid on the dungeons, revealing at last what was inside. Still, the builders of the cells had foreseen that one of their own blood could one day turn from the path, and the last protection was that only an heir of Valea which would be entirely devoted to Galanhir could break the seal. A seal in the form of a griffin’s head. Deep, deep in the earth, a door creaked open…

An unholy light suddenly glowed in the darkness which had but only recently been pierced by Aemir’s Sunsword, and soft, almost silent footsteps began to whisper, rather than echo on the steps. A bubble of light walked up the endless stairways, slowly, so slowly. For hours it followed the curve of the stone staircase, up to where the starlight glowed.

* * *

Tremerk was probably one of the most trusted warriors who had helped Aemir retake his kingdom, that is why he was the new king and queen’s personal warden, and had the honourful duty of guarding their door at night. Strangely enough for someone so keen and full of awareness, he did not notice the door of the royal hall opening, he didn’t even hear the distinct squeak it let out for want of oiling. Strangely enough, he would not remember anything special about this night. Nobody would.

* * *

Aemir was dreaming. He was dreaming of Maelyn. No nightmares had been troubling him since he had taken back his kingdom, no more flames and cries, no more laughter and betrayal, no more vision of a huge form breaking the world in two.. His at last knowing the truth about his birth had brought an appeasing feeling in his mind. That, and his wedding. Aemir, as it sometimes happened, perfectly knew he was dreaming : the colours were too vivid, the room around him too blurry, but that was definitely not a reason to stop his dream.

He was making love with Maelyn, like he had never done before. Her body was so close to his, she was so present, her smell filled his nostrils and the bubble that was her was filling his mind. It was a form of intimacy he hadn’t imagined, as if they were sharing more than their bodies. A part of him wanted to forget this experience afterwards for fear of being disappointed with reality. He was… floating.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the room around was disappearing, everything around them closing in before vanishing: there was only Maelyn. She was pressing even closer to him, her nails scarring his back on the brink of pain. He was abandoning himself completely in her grasp, letting go…

Aemir woke up with a scream: sweat trickled down his naked body. A single drop sliding along his spine made him shiver in the warm air. A window was open in his bedroom, even though he was sure it had been closed when he went to sleep… with Maelyn. She was still sleeping, his scream had not woken her. She was curved in a foetal position, looking almost childish: nothing like his dream.. He got up and silently closed the window. He thought he spot a ghastly white figure floating away in the ward, but it had disappeared before he could focus on it. Trembling, he slumped back on his bed. He definitely hoped he would forget this dream now, for a second before he woke, Maelyn’s loving face had been filled with a look of pure hatred, and her violent embrace had taken the form of a death grip.

* * *

Down in the endless pits of Hell, a mad laughter was echoing in the halls of the Firelord. Drago was not exactly joyful, such emotions were beyond the Hand of Darkness, but it was as close to happiness as his twisted mind could go. The reason for his laughter was sitting languorously before his throne, patting her hair.
- It was definitely too easy to lure him, my Lord, you were right to assume he would not have any personal defense, given the formidable strength of his castle.
- You served me well, Lilith, as usual. The blood of the family of Gwym is at last in our grip. We will shape it, turn it into the most delicious embodification of Evil. This will be the end of goodness. Then it is only a matter of time before Reset’s followers succumb.
- My Lord, I can feel her within me already. Do you know what she will be called?
- For others, she will be Death. We will call her Vecna.

Chapter VIII

Peace did not last long for the inhabitants of Valea: it was a word unknown to their new king. The feeling of appeasing and serenity which had come over Aemir after he won back his homeland had vanished on the night of his dream, and once again the need to fight Evil was consuming him. He needed to burn and destroy Shezael's followers wherever they showed up, and images of his childhood begun haunting him again. Somehow, he would make them pay.

The trustworthy warriors who had accompanied the untamed Pegasus in his first battles once again took up their weapons, and to them were added the guards and defenders of Agnor, as well as thousands of volunteers from the kingdom itself. Moreover, Aemir's fame brought to him all those who wanted to fight Evil, whatever their reasons. The war-band of the beginning had grown up into a full-scaled army, whose might was whispered throughout the world.

The months that followed were a symphony of violence, the kingdom of Good laying havoc and fear upon all the evil souls of Frandum, destroying fortress after fortress, taking village after village. The conquests of Aemir were building up a kingdom so large it seemed threatening to engulf the whole world, which, of course, could not go unnoticed.

* * *

- So you have come at last, I was wondering when you would show up.
- I have been... delayed by certain urgent matters. But let us not waste more time.
- Very well.

Darimer turned to face his guest. Atermione was looking worried, a sight so rare it immediately put him on guard. Clad in colourful leaves which kept rustling despite the lack of draughts, the Mistress of the Elements was clutching her crescent amulet.
- We cannot afford to let Aemir continue his wars of conquest: most of the north has already fallen to him, and now he is threatening the west, marching toward the thin towers of Aendhol. Even though he has only attacked places corrupted by Shezael, we cannot let this continue: for the sake of the Balance, we cannot let Aendhol fall.” Atemrione sighed. “ I have a plan, Darimer, a plan to end all these wars, all this destruction, a plan to have the world breathe at last. It has been taking most of my time these last few years, and this could possibly be the last time we meet.” A deep feeling of foreboding filled Darimer as he heard these words. “Since Sentinel retired you are our only hope: you must not let Aemir destroy all we have worked so hard to build. You must not let him shatter the world.

* * *

The place was barely recognizable: weeds had grown among the rubble, the wind had scattered the ashes and the rain had washed away the rest. A thin fog was covering the surroundings, waiting for the suns to cast it away. Twenty years had passed and the terrified boy had grown into a king, yet his goal had not changed. Aemir was taken out of his remembrance by the sudden call of one of his officers:
- My Lord! An envoy of Kalinth requests an audience with you. What shall be your answer?

Aemir rose from the soft, unscathed grass.
- I will see him personnaly.

Aemir's army was camped along the Merchants Road, near the crossroads between the great cities of the area : Liriel to the north, Kalinth to the east and Aendhol to the south. Tens of thousands of his warriors were going about hundreds of wagons and tents, the smoke of campfires rising steadily from among them. The more Aemir looked upon his army, the more he realized it could in no way be compared with the warband he had been leading only a few years before. These men were truly pledged soldiers, trained hard and who had seen many a battle. His men were well-armed, they knew about war. This was the army of Galanhir, an army so vast Begethine wouldn't have dreamt it, the horde of faithful believers who would root Evil out of this world and shape it into a Kingdom of Good.

As he rode through to the east of his camp, Aemir spotted a convoy of wagons bearing the grey and orange livery of Kalinth, and in their lead was no one else but Baron Darimer himself. The young man Aemir had met when he was ten had grown into a composed, middle-aged ruler. Strands of grey had appeared in his black hair, matching the wrinkles on his face, yet his eyes still had the same fierce energy, the same devotion. In a way, he reminded Aemir of Begethine. The King of Valea was somewhat disgusted by that look of sympathy, that air of almighty wisdom: how could he have admired this man when he was a boy?

Darimer flinched as he gazed upon him, and Aemir repressed a smile of satisfaction: if the Baron had thought he would be the same naïve and malleable boy he had been when he sent him to Sanctuary, now was the time to change his mind.

* * *

The suns were high in the sky by the time Aemir walked out of the emissaries’ tent. A steady rumble of voices, laughs and metal clashes was coming from the camp as the army readied itself to resume its march towards Aendhol. The jewel of the west was now only five days march due south, and excitement was building up among the soldiers, as they thought about the riches of the place and the great evil which was rumoured to be growing within.

Most of the highest officers were thronging before the tent, awaiting the outcome of the meeting, feeling its importance: none of them had failed to recognize Baron Darimer, and his coming in person meant that the things which were at stake here were far beyond their understanding.

Aemir’s sharply cut face was even stonier than usual, his jaw clenched as he gazed upon his camp, his back to the tent he had just walked out of. He stood there for lengthy minutes, while the Kalinth embassy slowly packed and left along the eastern road, back to where they belonged. It was not until the dust left by the wagons had disappeared in the eastern horizon that Aemir turned back to his officers, who couldn’t wait anymore. One of them burst out:
- My Lord, the men are packed and ready! I suggest, if I may, that we resume our march right away: if we follow the mountain road due south, we will be in Aendhol by the end of the week.

A strange smile had come on Aemir’s face, and it was in an almost amused way that he answered:
- Let’s march indeed. To the east…

* * *

Chains barely unlocked from his wrists and ankles, his fine clothes torn and smeared with sooth, standing in the ruins of his audience hall, Darimer was as composed as ever. Aemir was pacing slowly around him, holding the flute he had been given so many years ago, before any of this happened.
- I’m sorry about the way my people treated you, Baron: a behaviour such as theirs should not go unpunished and I will see to it that they never again treat honourable people as they do with Shezael’s minions.” He turned to face Darimer. “Of course, they are very sensitive when people try to hinder them in their holy crusade.”

Darimer did not answer.

- Talking about apologies, Baron, I am also sorry about the harm done to your people and the destruction which has befallen your barony: I will see to it that the best craftsmen from Valea come here, together with gold to pay for the repairs. Of course, I hope that from now on, Kalinth and Agnor will work together to the great goal of cleaning this world of its evil.

Aemir was now very close to Darimer, looking him intently in the eyes:
- I don’t want war between us, Darimer: you forced me into this. Let’s now side together instead of battling each other. I give you back this flute as a token of my good will. Please accept this humble present.

Silence filled the hall as Aemir stopped to speak, handing the flute to Darimer. The Baron did not answer: a silvery glow suddenly surrounded him as he watched the instrument fixedly. With an echoing snap, the flute broke in two.

Chapter IX

The years following the sack of Kalinth were the most peaceful Aemir had ever enjoyed. Maewyn fell gravely ill, but eventually recovered, and soon afterward gave birth to a healthy son they called Weomir, in memory of Aemir’s betrayed father. The king spent days playing with the boy, but deep inside him, the thirst for evil blood had not abated. Even so, his army had suffered from the constant battles against Evil, then the wars to reconquer Valea, and the painful siege of Kalinth. Some of his soldiers had been doubtful of the rightfulness of an attack on a peaceful barony who was only trying to uphold freedom. Valea was also having a hard time recovering from the blows he himself had dealt to it, and drow attacks from their southern kingdom of Tan Lorak kept the Valean army at bay.

But soon enough, rumours came of a new Evil power, more powerful than the declining Tagran, and one day this power was unveiled. The kingdom of Kayla had been destroyed, its advanced civilization cast back to the jungle it had formerly conquered. All this because of a young woman, all this because of Vecna. And fifteen years after his half-victory in Kalinth, Aemir began to gather his army once again, ready to start a new crusade against this threat to all that was good. The timely victory of Sentinel on Tagran had given new hopes to the children of Light, new hopes of rousting Evil outside their world. Aemir rejoiced. Unfortunately, Vecna found him first.

After a difficult siege, Aemir’s daughter tricked the castle’s defence thanks to the royal blood in her veins, and burnt it to ashes. Aemir, Maewyn and their soon barely escaped, thanks to the sacrifice of Sulmir. In the rather peaceful life the royal family of Agnor had been leading, this was an earthquake. And on a cold sunny morning of Patchwall, Airseason 1651, Aemir and his close relatives had come back to the burnt remains of their ancestral home.

* * *

A cold wind blew over the ruins, scattering ash and dust alike, dispersing memories millennia old. Not a single wall stood erect in the vast field of rubble, nothing had been saved. Dwarves had said the foundations and dungeons were spared, and that it was still possible to rebuild the castle on its original grounds. But it could never be the same again. Aemir was kneeling in the ashes, praying Galanhir, praying for answers, praying for the strength to carry on. He who had been like a twig, getting stronger with each cut life had dealt to him, was about to let go: he was on the verge of breaking up.

A few meters away, Maewyn and Merlechi were discussing with an assembly of dwarven architects, laying the plans of the castle they wanted to rebuild, the castle they had to rebuild. A touching solidarity had gathered the funding for the reconstruction. The people of Valea, and of all the good kingdoms of the world had willingly contributed to the cause. Even Begethine had proposed help from Sanctuary which, for once, had pierced the stony shell of Aemir’s heart. Now Maewyn talked about a castle in the model of Sanctuary, large enough to shelter thousands of inhabitants, with a keep for their protection. Merlechi wanted thicker walls, higher towers and a larger moat. They were arguing, the dwarves trying to push them toward the most expensive design. Tiredly, Aemir came back toward them.

Maewyn smiled at him, showing him how large the servants quarters would be, for everyone to live better. The king barely listened to her.
- A garden”, he said. “Build an orchard, not a moat”. And he walked away

* * *

An immense crowd was gathered in the meadow: dwarves, elves of all kinds and countless humans, old or young, hopeful or grim, but altogether united in their common faith in Galanhir. Almost all of them were armed, with whatever could even remotely qualify as a weapon. To the front of the crowd, arrayed among the newly planted fruit trees, were warriors: footmen in chain mails, their spears and swords ready; light-armoured archers, their quivers filled; clerics in leather tunics and cloaks, clutching their ankhs; white-robed magicians, leaning on their staves; priests in plain garments, standing rigidly; the first lines of the assembly were made by a host of knights, clad in shiny armours, their oiled and polished blade in hand, point down.

And before them all, standing in the middle of the building site of his new castle, fully-armoured in an enchanted golden fullplate, his Sunsword sheathed in its scabbard, determination showing on his hard face was Aemir, Lord of Valea. In his hands was a white stone. The throng silenced as he bent to lay it in a foundation trench west of the castle grounds. Then he kneeled and prayed, before turning again toward them:
- People of the Light, my heart rejoices at seeing you all gathered here, as it does when I behold the promises of the new castle we are building. And it is to all of you that I owe it.

“You all know the Evil which destroyed Agnor, which shattered my people’s dream… My own daughter, curse the day she was conceived. And now I've learnt that Sanctuary shook, as Begethine and his son disappeared, probably dead. All of this because of the wicked plans of a single being. All of this because of Drago.” The crowd cheered. “You know I have devoted my life to fighting Evil, wherever it dwells, whatever its form. Far from being destroyed, this determination has been reinforced by the recent events which shook our world. Goodness has suffered, goodness is fragile. But Tagran is dead, and now the devils are leaderless. This is the time: I will teach you how to fight, I will teach you how to kill, I will teach you how to cleanse!

“I know you share my dream of a world where we could all live freely, without being afraid for our lives, without dreading for that of our children. Together, we will make it real. Together, we will rid the world of Evil!”. Roars acclaimed the king. “Follow me, my friends, follow me to the Pits of Hell. Follow me now, knights of Ordo Dei Optimae”.

Chapter X

Thirst for revenge is a force which can lead people to do some of the greatest things human nature is capable of, yet at the same time it is probably the one which causes most of the suffering which is their lot in our world.

To this Aemir was no exception. It was this thirst which made him rebuild his castle, on a more humane basis, and to gather the remains of his kingdom under its protective wing. It was this thirst which lead to the founding of Ordo Dei Optimae, an order which would soon be known as the sword and shield of Galanhir, defending good souls throughout the world.

And obviously, revenge drove Aemir as he gathered his armies for an attack on the Pits of Hell, into a mighty battle in which he eventually killed his accursed daughter, but which turned out to be only a half-success.

However terrible these events were, though, they could have been forgotten in the memories of men, who easily turn tales into myths and expect new heroes to replace legends of the past. All this could have been forgotten, if these events had not almost lead to the end of the world as we know it. These are the events which ended the Third Age.

* * *

Screams filled the air as wave upon wave of armoured crusaders crushed on the ramparts of Drago's castle. Demons were everywhere, countering any attempt to break over the high walls. Flying imps were pestering the knights, and the very burnt soil was a torture. And, worse than everything, the walls themselves seemed to be demons, jaws suddenly appearing where there had been only stones, engulfing a limb and burping noisily. And as he sat on his horse watching his army exhaust itself on the impregnable fortress, Aemir begun to measure the power he had dared defy.

The king of Valea had thought victory would follow the death of Vecna, that the leaderless demons would scatter on their desolated red plains, but it seemed the Firelord himself had decided to be involved and lead his armies. A dark cloud had spread from the demonic, castle, engulfing friends and foes, making the weakest among the remaining knights flee or even die with fright. But Aemir and his veterans had been through worse than this, and he gathered them, in cold half-hearted hours, until the mist dissipated. Ghosts had then assaulted them, as the armies of undead joined the demons, but elven magic and holy blessings had managed to repel them within the castle walls. Yet even so, the castle remained impregnable, and as time passed it seemed more and more obvious that they would eventually have to withdraw, and be defeated. Unless...

Aemir called for Merlechi, who was waiting close by, worry wrinkling his tough face.
- You sent for me, my Lord?", said he as he joined the Untamed Pegasus on his vantage point.
- Ah, Merlechi, what is our situation?
- We are still controlling the ground around the castle but all our tries to break through its walls have been defeated, and our advance stopped. Five battalions have already been lost, and three more are being glued along the walls. You know my opinion: it is obvious that we won't hold the position long enough for any kind of siege to be efficient." Pain was in the officer's face.
- I was afraid so, yet I may have an answer to this. All I need is more time
- I guess it would sound improper to ask what it could be, wouldn't it my Lord?
- You must trust me, Merlechi, I only need time. A couple of days I would say." Pain at abandoning his army perspired in Aemir's voice. "And in the meantime, I want you to replace me: you are the only one I can trust.
- As you command, so shall I obey, my Lord.
- Do you believe in myths, Merlechi?
- I believe they all contain a kind of truth which can give us wisdom.
- Then pray your legends be true. May the light shine on you.
- May it enlighten your path, my Lord.

* * *

Leaving the vantage point of the hill where his lieutenants were assembled, holding council with Merlechi, Aemir began to climb down toward the less crowded plains of Hell, farther from the screams of battle. Where he had to go he did not really know, but this was undoubtedly the best time to try his gamble, most of the demons being gathered in or around the castle. Now was probably the best time to see if the hours he had spent in Begethine's library, and among the ancient volumes of Agnor had had any worth. For as he thought about the possible ways to win this battle, and the war against all that is Evil, the Untamed Pegasus could find only one: the Orb of Destiny.

Rumours and legends ran about this artefact, which was said to be older than ages, older than times. Upon its origins, no two tales agreed, yet all of them said it held the power to reshape the world, and to forever destroy the powers of Evil which sickened it.

To be concluded...

[Back to the Tales of the Third Age]

Copyright 2008-2017 | Frandum