The story of Sentinel

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Chapter I

The Balance. For some it is a meaningless, half-achieved concept. For others it is a dream of equality and justice. For a chosen few, it is the essence of the world. The northern ice cap is probably one of the most barren places in Frandum, yet even there, life follows the law of equilibrium, the law of existence. And in this coldest of deserts, in this place where the world seemed to end, the Balance had taken shape.

On the frozen plains echoed a scream.

* * *

- Did you see it?
- We saw only traces: it was gone long before we arrived.
- This is the fourth slaughter on my lands, and you dare tell me that the beast was not even glanced upon?
Anger clouded Teinart's face as he stared into the ranger's eyes. Seventy three of his people were dead, three farms laid to waste, and no villager dared go out after nightfall. He had set up patrols, but the beast always attacked where they were not. It could not last much longer, even if it meant he had to take care of the matter personaly.

* * *

The daylight was bleak over the ta‹ga, the Crimson Sun casting its blood-red light upon the fields of snow. Below it, Khesebedh was flirting with the horizon but the other suns had long since abandoned hope of warming this cold airseason day. The birch-trees were competing over their shadow's length, while among them, a small war band was advancing. Carefully.
Five they were, clad in thick fur and heavy iron armour, every single one of them bearing a bow, an axe and at least one other weapon. Their horned helmets were reflecting the pale sunslight, red like those of the fighting bull, while snowflakes and icicles mingled themselves in their thick blond hair and beard. They were driving a pony bearing food and spare weapons, and the more they advanced within the forest, the more the poor animal looked nervous. The hunters were at large. And beyond the cover of the trees, their quarry was watching them.

Not a word was whispered along the line, there was no need for speech. They were approaching the village of Eynok, the beast's latest slaughter. Once again, it had not been seen: it had left marks of sharp claws and teeth, some turfs of brown hair, but no survivor among those who had witnessed it. Riddles and clues which lead nowhere.
Yet the hardened inhabitants of the white desert had not yielded to the brute: they were hunting it. As it was hunting them. Suddenly the wood was filled by a deafening roar: the quarry had found the prey.

Instantly, the rangers gathered into a circle, back to back, readying their weapons. The youngest had a hard time controlling their fear, but within seconds the whole party was ready to fight. For their lives. Silence met their determined attitude.

Nothing stirred in the twilight, and even the birds had stopped chirping, as if they already knew what was going to happen. The hard breathing of the men turned into a thin white mist, almost frozen before it escaped their lungs. No draught, however small, blew within the forest. No scent. A flicker behind the bush. Two glaring yellow eyes. A yell, a leap. Madness. Madness and chaos.

It was a big beast, more than six feet tall, but with the general shape of a wolf. Yellowish, blood-stained claws ended two long and powerful forepaws. Muscles quivered under a thick brown fur and a sheer malevolence radiated from the tiny, gleaming eyes. It was death.
Two of the hunters were down ere the others could do anything, and a third fell while struggling with his axe. The other two released their arrows but the beast barely noticed the piercing shafts along its back. The hunters then took their axes and faced their foe, but it was too quick and in a matter of seconds, one more man was down.
The last hunter, neither the oldest nor the strongest, faced his death bravely. He was on his knees, nursing a wound on his right shoulder. The beast seemed to pause, lingering on its apparently easy victory.
Obviously it was not its best idea of the day: suddenly someone bolted from among the trees, and cut down the wolfish head with a lightning blow of his axe. There was no challenge, and thus there was no fight. The brute fell dead among its victims.

Recovering from the shock, the surviving hunter rose to thank his saviour, but he was already disappearing in the shadows, leaving almost no track in the hard-packed snow. The hunter only remembered a blurry, broad-shouldered frame wearing no other protection than bear skins. He had not seen the stranger's face, yet he knew he was not from the village.

As the Crimson Sun eventually joined his kin beyond the horizon, the woods were once again wrapped up in silence. The beast lay dead, its body already frozen, as was the case with those of its victims. The surviving hunter began the long way home, carrying the wolfish head as a trophy.
However, of this tale he would be the narrator because stories would only remember its hero, and the villagers would quickly spread his legend. It would soon be known that the frozen wastelands of the north were now sheltering someone to ward them against the dangers which awaited them: a sentinel.

Chapter II

A cold morning rose over the plains of Carleny, bringing little hope the snow could ever melt. And, howling faster than the wind, the rumor was covering the land, blowing from the White Peaks and over the taïga, from the sleeping Northernhelm to the fringes of Dostenia, where it had begun to penetrate the ageless forests. Meanwhile, in a small village near Sentinel's first appearance, history was accelerating.

* * *

Coming soon...

Chapter III

The mines were exhausted.

For thousands of years and as long as the dwarven memory could go back, the mines of Kraggen-Kor had been the source of wealth and power for the dwarven kingdom which had taken their name. Stories said the first dwarves had been born in the caves which were to be their home, and that the lonely mountain held endless riches for this industrious people. Yet the mines were now exhausted, and the dwarven strength was fading.

The unity of the dwarven nation had not gone through this trial unharmed, as more and more people came to the conclusion that the old ways, and the unrelenting faith in Galanhir should not outlive the kingdom, and that new creeds and new ways were as important to the dwarven survival as finding new veins of gold and mithril.

Few were the dwarves who had been convinced by Shezael's ways though, for it was so unlike their isolation and devotion for hard work, yet a vivid neutral community had grown while the mines pereclited, led by young dwarven lords who thought it was still time for the dwarves to emigrate, but that no future lay for them within Kraggen-Kor. Even so, tradition was too strong a principle for dwarves to shake it off that easily, and it took a catastrophe for their world to change.

* * *

The rays of the rising suns entered the cave, unable to give color to the basalt coffin which stood in its middle. Kneeling beside it, an old dwarf was lost in his thoughts.
Gilen, you who guided our people when our strength was yet to be proved, I now seek your council. Our mines are diminishing, our people is split, and where our path lay in this crisis, I do not know.

The latest events had been dire to Korum, king of the dwarves, as some of his closest counselors had sided with the rebellion of prince Gemin, leader of the converted. Accusing the king's lack of decision, they had challenged him to find a solution to the exhaustion of the mines, lest they should leave and dwarves should be split.

The faithful had seized this opportunity to suggest new delvings should be started, unlike any which had ever been done, gathering the whole strength of the dwarves to find new veins of metal in depths which had never been reached, oblivious to the priests' warning regarding the evils which dwelved deep beneath the mountain.

And Korum had been forced to accept this proposal, to save the dwarven ways of old and have things stay as they had always been in Kraggen-Kor, to protect the dwarven traditions and the criticized faith in Galanhir. Today, the delving would begin.

A heavy step took the king out of his reverie. Looking up, he saw a tall figure standing in the cave entrance, barely covered with a leather tunic which could not hide his broad chest and powerful arms. A giant axe was tied to his back, and a long, braided beard covered his large chin. If not for his height, he might have been mistaken for a dwarven warrior. Korum recognized him easily.

- You are the Sentinel, I should have thought so. They say the Sentinel always shows up when the pendulum of history is about to swing, and great decisions have to be taken. You are an ill omen.
- King Korum, if I come to you on this day, it is because of the great danger your people is about to face, a danger unlike any you and I have ever encountered." Sympathy was in the man's eyes, but the king failed to see it.
- Do you, a warrior, believe in the priests' fancies? Do you believe our folly will bring us death?
- Death and destruction, my Lord", sighed Sentinel. "Death and destruction."
- Yet dwarves were created by Galanhir forever to dwelve in the serene mountain of Kraggen-Kor, to draw strength from him in pillars of stones and to be fed by the veins of metal while the elves fed on the sap of trees. For thousands of years our kingdom has been united in these caves, and only our lord may guide us out of them. Our future lies where our existence has always been, and I believe the new dwelvings will bring us new resources to uphold our traditions.
- Then, with all due respect, the darkness of the mines has driven you blind... You do not know what you are about to unleash: Reset has sent me a vision, as he always does when a power is going to endanger the balance, and today, your miners are about to dig their own graves!
Truthfulness and wisdom, it seemed, were already out of the king's mind.
- Reset? You speak to me of this god who has never done anything for my people but instil doubt in their minds, preventing us from being united before our own fate? I do not believe in your god's powers, and I will not bend to him because Galanhir sent us a trial. Today the dwarves go back to the mines, and the glory of our people will be restored for the millenia to come!
- I am truly sorry for your people, if their leader has no more sense than to believe he should not change while the world is moving: your culture was once great, but time has passed, and no pickaxe will ever dwelve the past back into being: the future of your people lies not in Kraggen-Kor, as it lies not with a god who has abandoned you. I will stay among you to try and limit the extent of the catastrophe which is about to occur, but you are the only one who can save the dwarves.
- Our hospitality will not be contested and you may stay among us for as long as you desire, but I will ask you never to come back into my presence again, or to try and corrupt the minds of our people. History will prove me right, and you will have to find another king who may want to listen to your preaching of doom!

* * *

At first, the delving seemed to be unlucky, as nothing but rocks was found by the dwarven miners, who went even lower into the mountain, where the heat increased and the air became poisonous. Breathing helpers were used, relays were shortened, yet no result could be achieved but a few veins of poor copper and small quantities of silver. And as more and more dwarves died poisoned in the depths of the world, hope dwindled, and rebellion grew. Yet just when the converted were about to uproot the ancient dinasty of Gilen, a miracle occured.

Mithril! Mithril! The shout echoed along the tunnel borders, ascending the endless shaft of the delving, rising from the depths of Frandum up to the inhabited caves, thousands of feet above. Quickly, waves and waves of hopeful dwarves came to the top of the mines, waiting for the first nuggets of the precious metal to reach them, in a fervor which was quickly channeled by the priests of Galanhir and the old aristocracy.

The king was already standing on the larger elevator and it took several minutes to quell the mob and send the coded message requesting estimations regarding the new veins along the tin pipes which plunged into the tunnel. Everyone held their breath as they knew it would take minutes for the message to be relayed down to the excavation, and the answer to reach them. Yet after an eternity of fifteen minutes, still no answer came.

The dwarves which were crowded along the barriers lining the cliff leaned to try and peer into the mines, yet they only saw darkness. For minutes they remained breathless, waiting for news from the depths, until they saw a glow. With it came a faint draft of warm air, and puzzled expressions soon filled the bearded faces as such things had never before been witnessed by dwarves.

Ever so slowly, the light brightened as the air warmed, and the rocks colored orange. The glow focused into a point, which spread to flames, through which a dark shape was soon seen. This was the trigger panic awaited to invade the cave.

Dwarves began to run in all directions, trampling those who were unlucky enough to fall, pushing others over the barriers, in a general mess and chaos of what had once been a disciplined, civilized people. Helpless, the king's guards could only try and stay in the flood of the mob, when they were not running faster than the others. On his elevator platform, the king stared in disbelief at the havoc of his kingdom, and at the shape which was now hurling towards the top of the shaft, exploding fire in the cave. It was a fire demon.

A huge demon of blackness flew over the mines, pouring clouds of black smoke from the beating of its giant batlike wings, charring the ancestral columns through the flames that were his claws. No dwarf could withstand its might, and it was no dwarf who came forward to challenge it.

Leaping from rock to rock over the panicked mob, Sentinel rushed into the cave, his axe ready.

The beast bellowed its challenge, its roar pouring even more fear into the hearts of the dwarves. Five times taller than the human who challenged it, crowned in unholy flames, it looked unbeatable. The Sentinel stood facing it, unmoving, focused on every flinch, waiting for the proper moment to attack. Yet it was the balrog who started the fight.

In a breathe of burning air, it lunged towards the now-lonely warrior, who barely dodged the blow by plunging sideways. Sentinel was not unharmed: the flames had burnt his legs, and his feet were aching, yet he had no time to dwell on this first wound, as the demon plunged again.

This time the warrior was readier, and he managed to swing his axe into the beast's oustretched hands: it was as if he had tried to cut a heap of embers in two: his hands were burning, and the blade of his axe was red-hot and partially melted.

For minutes the fight went on, demon surrounding man, fire burning his skin, until all hope of victory was vain, and the Sentinel was almost exhausted, his skin red and aching, his axe a worthless lump of metal, his faith in his god failing. Until a cry echoed on the cavern walls.

Korum was standing on the edge of the precipice, clad in the mithril armor of the dwarven kings, holding the Axe of Gilen with outstretched arms. And for the last time of that Age, and of all ages to come, the voice of a dwarven king was heard in Kraggen-Kor:
- Leave it to me, Sentinel: it is but my folly which brought this doom upon my people, and only my sacrifice may save its remnants. I should have trusted you instead of clinging to traditions which were not fit for this time, thinking about grasping the future rather than not letting go of the past. I trust Gemin will correct my mistakes: I entrust him to lead our people to new and fertile mountains, be it under the guidance of Galanhir or of Reset. Flee now, for your part in this story has come to an end!

The fire demon had stood undecided, watching the new opponent, its flaming tail stitching in anticipation. Yet as silence fell again, it rushed to the shining dwarf, thinking him more worthy of his attention that the burnt warrior he was about to kill. But the dwarven king was ready, and with a precise blow, he threw the axe's blade into the demon's skull, piercing the ash-flesh.

Wounded, the beast roared, making the cave shake: the demon was not used to being resisted, and its first reflex was to flee into the depths whence it had come, its moans bearing a promise of revenge. Yet the monster was not the only victim of the blow, as Korum was leaning on his axe, panting. The burn was not lethal, but pain was on the king's face as he smiled on the stumbling form of the Sentinel:
- Death and destruction... The end of Kraggen-Kor has only been delayed, and the beast will lick its wounds before coming back. The dwarves cannot fight such a foe, and the time has come for exile. Gather my people, and help Gemin guide them: I have one last task to perform.

As the last dwarves left the cave, shielding their eyes from the suns they had not been accustomed to, Korum knelt again before the tomb of his ancestor, surrounded by a flow of magic which was focusing upon the Axe of Gilen, mumbling words of ancient dwarven lore. Slowly, his body shrivelled as his vital force was sent to the holy weapon, and while the king was weakening, a magical barrier was building up, forever sheltering the world from the threat the dwarves had unleashed.

When all was over, Gemin kneeled before the body, and gathered the two halves of the weapon, which had been shattered by the spell. He turned toward a bandaged Sentinel, and for the first time felt the burden which had been put onto his shoulders.
- What is your decision?", asked the warrior to the king.
- With Korum ended the golden age of the dwarves, and every hope of our people living on their own. The wounds dealt by the fire demon are nothing in comparision with what we have done to ourselves, and twine are the directions we now have to take.
"My cousin Kralon, heir to the throne, has chosen to try and uphold our traditions, in the faith of Galanhir. He has a dream about an island in the Dragon sea, where the rocks are filled with diamonds, and there he shall go, carrying half of our soul with him.
"As for us, who believe the future lies within Reset's cult, we are going to travel towards the icy mountains of Sulmak, where no mines have ever been dug. If we survive the orcs and their kin, we may yet bring a new vision into life for the ages to come.

The Sentinel looked upon Gemin:
- If it is so, then I shall be glad to accompany you in your journey.
- You will be most welcome, my friend.

The following day, two endless caravans left the mountain, one heading east towards the elven harbour of Dimeniel while the other followed the northern road towards Lean. Silence came back to the mountain of Kraggen-Kor, and the kingdom of the dwarves fell into oblivion. Eventually, drows would come in the neighbouring plains, founding the kingdom of Tan Lorak, yet no one has ever dared disturb the silence of Kraggen-Kor, lest the beast within the mountain should be unleashed.

To be continued...

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