As a brilliant moon rises we push the boat to the silvery desert shore. We put what provisions we can in packs and begin our journey towards the needle-sharp silhouettes of stark cliffs in the distance beneath a starry sky like I haven’t seen since the far North.
“We should make the wastes of Yrizang before they catch us on horseback.” says the Warlord.
“What we are doing out here?” I ask him.
“This is where the Master sent my inheritance.”
“He crafted a being out of dissident souls that will aid me in the last battle.”
“Yes. We are powerful in this world but the Master and the Paladin were of another kind.”
We set out at a tremendous pace although we are both armored and carrying burdens. By dawn, we have reached the end of the rolling dunes and are entering the jagged rocks of Yrizang where hardly even a tuft of hardy grass can be seen. Within an hour of sunrise, heat ripples all around the valley walls like an ascending chorus. As our steps echo from one dead valley to the next, the rocks change from brown, to white, to yellow, to red, and finally to endless reaches of bleached grey. The heights are swept by smoldering winds that would soon dry up ordinary men. The next day, we hear a clattering echo at the end of the dismal valley behind us. White pennants appear.
“Go!” shouts the Warlord.
We run for days, yet we cannot outrun the white horses behind us.
“The heat would have killed them by now.” a greater power keeps them alive. “He is here with them. My equal.”
I shudder at the thought of the shrouded gold palanquin we saw outside Siprali.
The terrain is so rough that divinely empowered horses are little faster than we are and yet they gain little by little. They are easily within sight when we reach the great faultline that marks the end of the world.
“Down this great chasm.” says the Warlord. “Every inch of land goes to die. Even where the Great City now sits one day long ahead.”
We find the narrowest point of the chasm we can and leap across it into an unimaginable continent.
Just then, the party of White Knights rides down from the other side. They stop at the chasm and stare at us.
There’s about twenty of them and all prepare their mounts for a great leap. Only half of them make it to the other side and we are waiting for them where they land cutting them down back into the abyss. Then we are thrown back by a crushingly powerful shockwave. Four knights remain and one stooped figure wearing an unblemished hooded white cloak. The Warlord flees up the unmarked slope of a jagged gray spire and I follow him. Our pursuers are forced to dismount as they chase us upwards. Three of them fall hopelessly far behind us as we climb but the cloaked figure and one of the knights are right behind us. Then I recognize him. Right on our heels is Edrak of Savisia who I fought on the cursed shores of Sirangulam. His youthful face now seems somehow twisted and grim.
Near the top of the spire, the Warlord finds a cave.
“Just as I thought!” he exclaims.
We rush out of the pounding white sun and into the welcoming blackness. Then a blinding light illuminates the cave. The cloaked figure has raised a white-gloved hand, the Grand Master Edrak is at its side.
“Run!” says the Warlord. They sprint far through the cave staying just ahead of the light.
Finally they reach a great chamber. The pursuers of the light soon catch up with them.
“You can go no further.” rasps the cloaked figure in a mild, lisping voice.
“There is one more chamber.” says the Warlord. “Follow me there if you dare.”
He turns and disappears through another hole in the wall behind them. In a streak of speed, the cloaked figure follows.
I am left alone with Edrak of Savisia. “This is it.” I tell him. “Well met.” as I extend my hammer towards him. The White Knight says, “No honor for you. You will be punished like a common criminal.”
“Very well.” I tell him with disappointment. “What happened to you?”
“We will never have our open world if we give you any reprieve. Now you die.”
Edrak lunges and our fight is joined.
In an even greater cavern, the Warlord and the Grand Equal face each other.
“I’ve spent a hundred years trying to figure out who you are.”
“I was born a hundred years ago.”
“The exact moment the neutrality of our plane was broken.”
“Yes. The heavens chose me to defeat you. And so I have sacrificed knowing this moment would come.”
Suddenly the robes begin to fall away and a deathly pale, muscular white knight stands there his eyes staring lifelessly. Then his limbs and features begin to fall away like fleshy leaves in a windless autumn. In moments, all that remains is a limbless, emaciated torso propped against the cave wall, with protruding ribs. Its eye sockets are empty, its head hairless, its ears just open holes in the side of its head. There is just a nondescript gap where its genitals would have been. It is the most frail and helpless creature the Warlord has ever seen and yet he is repulsed by some great power as he tries to go near it.
Its mouth strains to move.
“I am the Grand Equal.” It feebly rasps.
“You’ve gained power through weakness. You disgust me.” replies the Warlord.
“To be weak, to be equal is the greatest power. The strength of a few is no use against the many.”
“Nonsense, the weak are easily ruled, no matter how many they are.”
“Yet you have failed to rule the world.”
The Warlord charges but his knees try to buckle as he approaches the grotesque white torso. He can go no further. Equal indeed.
“When I was young.” continued the Grand Equal conversationally. “I would whip and scar myself and feel my power over others grow. One day, I sliced off the tip of a finger and had never felt such rapture. Every suffering after the last grew the power of Heaven within me. You cannot harm me now.”
“Do you know why I came here?”
“To seek out the demon’s old glory but he has long fled.”
“We’re true equals. I pity you. The universe created you to oppose me. But the demon already won his fight and upset the balance.”
The Warlord walked back into the shadows and somehow the Grand Equal could not perceive him anymore. He begins to screech and lash out with all his power.
I am locked in battle with Edrak. Rocks shatter around us as our savage blows deflect and go wild. I remember how long our battle lasted before and impulsively I lunge right at him while dropping my weapon. My sharp gauntlets close like a cage about his face. I assault his soul with all my might. But what I find there is unlike anything I’ve seen. The power of the Equal twists through his thoughts and agency like a lethal serpent. Edrak’s last experiences before being subsumed rush into my consciousness and threaten to engulf me. There is nothing left of the noble warrior I fought on the beach at dawn and that truth is worse than the final struggles of the other souls I’ve swallowed. He is slave forever to a perfect world that can never be. Somehow that is worse than becoming aware of a world that is dark and irredeemable.
Nevertheless his soul brims with pure will, even if much of it is not his own. I am hammered flat by a wave of resistance and nearly let go of him. I had thought myself callused within but the Grand Master’s strength opens up one gaping wound after another. With each strike I feel an experience keenly one last time before it turns gray. I reel in agony as he slashes straight to my core and suddenly I’m trapped trembling in that loft again as I hear the cries of my parents, my brother and sister, the angry crowd for hours while unable to do anything about it. I relive in a moment the years I spent in orphanages and workhouses cared for by no one. That unbearable eternity of fear and pain dominates my senses all at once. Then it all erupts from my wound right into Edrak’s soul making him recoil as he shares the agony that made me who I am. Who I was. It begins to ebb and I feel nothing.
The Grand Equal sees two slits of light open up in the darkness and he knows true fear. A huge mass moves in the dark and lurches toward him. He feels the adamantine rings of spells protecting his frail body crumble away as the beast grows near. Within his ring of light a vast and hideous head becomes visible, rears back and spits a stream of black venom straight at him. Only the swift command of his powers deflects this sudden attack in a hissing cloud of foul, molten smoke. The Warlord steps within the now-faint glow surrounding his Equal and says “The creature on the banners of my army was no myth, but my objective all along. A beast forged from the sacrificed souls of dispossessed men by the Master. After all these years, I have finally become worthy!”
“You are an enemy of Humanity, nothing more.”
The Warlord and the Grand Equal muster their powers and clash with all their might. The emaciated, limbless form of Heaven’s servant slouched against a sharp rock wall strives to hold back an enraged, hulking warrior piercing ever closer towards him with his wickedly barbed sword of enruned black steel that smolders red with rippling heat against layers of unseen resistance.
The Grand Equal begins to bite itself with his toothless gums until the gums are torn away and the bony remains of his jaw rip at his pallid, diseased flesh. Its power is redoubled. It throws the Warlord to the ground and tries to incinerate him with a column of blinding light that issues forth with a bass thrum.
“You cannot stop progress!” it screams triumphantly through its phlegmatic lungs.
Then, the jaws of the shadow dragon abruptly close around it.
The Grand Equal lashes out furiously within the jaws of its attacker with a crackling and sizzling of power. Its final weapon a long, prehensile tongue snakes out of its mouth.
“Call off your beast! Face me!” it cries out.
“You never faced us honorably.” replies the Warlord grimly. “No honor for you.” In one swift move he severs the Grand Equal’s tongue with the glassy blade mounted on his wrist. The convulsing pale torso gives one last despairing shriek, the stump of its tongue oozing a slow syrup of sickly ichor, its empty eye sockets somehow pleading before the shadow dragon’s jaws snap shut. A frantically writhing silhouette of incandescent light starts to slide down the shadow dragon’s long neck, its frantic agitations now smothered into silence. The Warlord can see the first tendrils of hungry, vengeful souls begin to feel out its defenses. With renewed fervor, a burst of light drives them away. The Warlord smiles grimly. It will take a long, agonizing time to wear down and digest his ultimate adversary and that suits him just fine.
I lay across the rubble-strewn cavern from Edrak of Savisia, trying to feel or remember who I am. Neither of us could prevail against the other, I know that much. Equals in strength. I remember the Warlord telling me something what now seems very long ago. “It has to resolve downward. Level by level.”
I hear a crunching footstep on a pile of shattered stone and manage to raise my head. It is the Warlord.
Edrak of Savisia manages to thrust the point of his sword into the ground and raise himself to one knee. I can now see my master is also nearly too weak to stand. A sense of urgency to intervene grows within me but I can barely move. As Edrak trembles with strain to rise, his face and the muscles of his neck gleaming with sweat, the Warlord wearily tosses an object at his feet that lands with a wet thump. The Grand Equal’s severed tongue.
The Grand Master crumples to the ground at once with a cry of total despair. He then seizes at the tongue and furiously sucks at its tip, his terror growing as not even one drop of succor is forthcoming. Only reality remains. Seized by waking nightmare, Edrak springs to his feet, still desperately clutching the ashen length of tongue to his chest like a child’s stuffed animal and runs for the exit of the cave and the endless desert waiting outside.
“Who knows how long he may last.” muses the Warlord.
I hear a great bulk move and I look up in awe to the mythical shadow dragon that has led me into battle many times.
“I must return to turn the tides in Sirangulam.” Says my Master. With that, he manages to climb onto the the Shadow Dragon’s back. With a gravelly screech, the great beast begins to slither towards the mouth of the cave. “Wait!” I plead, reaching out towards them. As the beast I fought under disappears down the stone corridor I also find the strength to rise and follow them. As I step into the blinding desert sun, the shadow dragon spreads its wings, lifts from the ledge with a burst of gray sand and flaps aloft over the mountaintop towards the north from which we came.
At a loss, I stumble back into the mouth of the cave and collapse.
It is the depth of night when I rise with some strength restored and in some ways it is just a curse. I can now reflect on my abandonment. What am I to do now? Walk all the way back? Then I remember there is one thing I can do. I prowl from the cave’s mouth and into the light of flickering stars that seem to hover within reach of my face like fireflies I remember from a final fragment I possess of my childhood. I go back until I find the last three White Knights who pursued us where they are encamped. I make no attempt at stealth and the one who stands watch quickly wakes his fellows.
All three draw their swords and confront me. I don’t even bother to wield my hammer as I walk right up to them. They are terrified but they rush me with everything they’ve got. I grab two of them by their faces and lift them off the ground. Rivulets of blood stream down from where my claws pierce their stretched skin. I have never tried to take in two souls at once and I don’t know what possesses me to try it. Yet I do it as the third White Knight crumples to the ground and weeps in a trembling heap screaming prayers to Saint Suryn that receive no answer. The slashing and tearing of two of them at once is far more than I can handle in my still weakened state and I can feel what’s left of me slipping away as I devour them…
The jaggedly spiked silhouette of the warrior stands over the dessicated corpses of three White Knights beneath swirls of stars. He falls to his hands and knees as his form begins to shift. His clawed gauntlets smoke with infernal heat as they become feet and his arms fuse into front legs. The wolf’s jaws that decorate his helmet visor come alive, elongate with sliding segments of black metal and close about his face. The eyes of the wolf mask ignite with the fire of hungry intent. Soon, the jagged metallic hunting beast lopes northward, leaps effortlessly across the chasm and traverses the wastes of Yrizang with impossible speed. By the time the sun rises, every stony valley changes in color again and soon the metallically panting beast is speeding across the dunes with sprays of sand with a slope-backed hyena stride and leaving the stony terrain behind. Already, it can smell the muted stirrings of souls very far away.
As the Warlord descends upon the battle at Sirangulam he sees below him the Coalition of the Ascendant divided into groups that attack each other now just as furiously as the trenches his half-starved men still strive to defend with hardly any fresh water to drink. Without the power of the Grand Equal, each part of the Coalition struggles for dominance. The brown skins viciously assault the pale skins. The fat attack the thin. The females attack every male. The crippled and diseased, even stripped of their powers try to savage the well. Men who lust after men take vengeance on men who desire women. The worshipers of far away Gods strive to cleanse their own army of nonbelievers. Then they subdivide and fight with even more intensity as the Shadow Dragon passes over them and shatters whatever remnants of their spell might remain.
Within the Dragon’s belly the bright light of the Grand Equal still shines. But it can only writhe in silent, impotent torment as it watches everything it ever lived and sacrificed for falling apart. The Warlord smiles grimly, yet smugly.
Wherever one faction of the Coalition starts to get the upper hand over another, the shadow dragon spits down a stream of its acid venom to keep the fight balanced. Then it swoops right over the trenches where the weary Dark Army huddles. The Warlord gestures towards the enemy with his barbed sword, shield ringed with spikes at his side. His harsh voice echoes across the battlefield. The Shadow Dragon rears back its head and gives out a screech like a sliding avalanche jagged gravel.
No matter how hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, the black-armored legions emerge from the trenches and begin to form up. Pikes, lances, and sarissas that have been used for little more than fortifications are snatched up wherever they can be found, no matter their condition. At first they must fight furiously for every square inch, but they gain the space to form into orderly square phalanxes that begin to roll effortlessly through the chaotic mass of the Ascendant. In spite of this new attack the Coalition forces remain locked in battle with each other and so the slaughter progresses for days until the already putrid no-man’s land is stacked with dunes of bloated corpses. It is even worse for them than Itlavalus, muses the Warlord to himself, and they have lost their leader. After more than a hundred years, he has fulfilled his task and wonders if Daulan Sekk has done the same.
Soon after, Sirangulam surrenders and they are spared, with a demoniac governor and a bureaucracy of veteran dark warriors now in charge.
With the spine of the heavenly forces shattered once and for all, the army of the man known as Eshlaru, as Kirnavir, as Yeleysh Issaraym, enters the borders of the Center Lands where they have always known him simply as the Warlord. As the dark legions near The City and the Shadow Dragon of mythical tales passes over the walls again, they are desperate to save themselves by surrendering as quickly as possible. The Warlord lands the Shadow Dragon outside the walls, mounts his black stallion and leads his forces through the City gates as they are opened. He had thought himself toughened and deadened in most ways, but he feels dizzy as he passes through a familiar gate he last departed through over a century before, alone and pursued by the city guard. Now he is master of the city that created him.
The next day, the Warlord walks alone into the cool marble interior of Saint Suryn’s temple. It is dark inside except for a few candles but the alabaster statue of the Paladin has almost a pale glow about it. For the first time, he gazes on the uncanny likeness of someone he knew long ago.
He traces a grooved scar on his bald head with one finger. “Your power gave these to me and marked me as who I am. I could not be here now without you.”
Without warning, the statue’s blank marble eyes become bottomless black portals that gaze straight into him. Tears of blood begin to stream down from them. There is a stony groan as her serene mouth twists into a grimace of agony and hatred. Her arm creaks as if to move.
After everything he has seen for so many years, the Warlord tumbles onto the floor and reflexively raises his arm to shield himself. All at once, he’s back in the dungeon in the Keep, being beaten, imprisoned, and chained. The glassy blade on his wrist begins to resonate as he relives his escape. The tone dies down as he comes to his senses and sees nothing more than a statue in front of him now. “Farewell.” He says, then carefully turns his back and leaves.
There is a sacred grove of trees surrounding the temple grounds, their leaves whispering like solemn chimes as dapples of sunlight ripple through them. Nearby are the memorials and tombs of legendary White Knights who died in service of the Lady, some of whom he had slain himself. Their monolithic images in hauberk and surcoat have nondescript faces and clasp their swords to their chests in repose. As the Warlord looks up he sees a black-cloaked figure, whose garment flows in the breeze as fluidly as the leaves.
“Dask.” a smooth tenor voice softly addresses him.
The Warlord falls to his knees and for awhile his mouth struggles to form words.
“Master.” he finally says. He chokes, trying to hold back tears. “That man died long ago.”
“No, no matter what you have have seen and the price you’ve paid, you have never stopped being him.”
The Warlord tries to collect himself but can say nothing.
“You have completed your task but your soul is not yet ready. There is another who will accompany me.”
“He is just a Wolf now, an eternally hungry hunter of souls. He tried to master the greater dark powers as a newly created lesser imp. That is what often happens. There is more presence there than a hate elemental possesses but not that much more.”
“I tried to warn him!”
“Your loyal follower is not completely gone. His essence remains. There is an even higher beauty than we can know as only ourselves. That is all he knows now. And I needed him to choose as he did. I will let him have some of your last, greatest adversaries in this world before I take him.”
“Master.” blurts the Warlord imploringly.
“You have unfinished business. A life you never lived.”
The Demon raises its hand and the Warlord clutches his face and head as he feels his skin smoldering. His heavy armor comes loose plate by plate and drops away from him. It feels as though a tremendous weight has fallen away. His grotesquely large and muscled torso starts to shrink until it reaches the proportions of an ordinary athletic young man. His scalp itches furiously as hair bursts forth all at once.
“Go and live, Dask. Until you are ready.”
“Until when?” the Warlord asks in a voice he has not heard come from him in a hundred years.
The robed figure shrugs. “We will both know.”
The Warlord finds himself staring at empty air where his Master stood just a moment before. Beside himself, he lingers for awhile. He tries to pick up one of his shoulder plates and can barely even move it. Still stunned, he runs his hands over his face, his head, and body. He nearly collapses as he sees a ghost of his reflection on a perfectly polished granite memorial. “Dask.” he says. Some time passes. He says it again. The sun starts to grow lower in the leaves the grove.
I leave the gates of the City again, a free man, on horseback this time and at my leisure. Before the sun sinks I am passing by small villages and verdant fields bordered with stands of sunflowers that cast long shadows. As last light fades, I come on a village by a creek with a watermill churning in a somnolent rhythm. I come to the tavern where my horse is taken to the stable. There is room enough for me tonight.
“Your name?” asks the Inkeeper.
“Dask.” I tell him.
“Is that all?” He asks.
“That’s all for now.”
He looks me up and down but sees a young man in workman’s clothes with clear blue eyes. I seem honest enough. I lay some coins on the counter and he asks me no more.
“That cask could use a mending. I’m a skilled cooper.” I tell him and heft my bag of tools into view.
“Take care of it in the morning before you go.” he replies and slides a small silver coin back at me.
I settle into the boisterous atmosphere of the inn as I down mugs of beer until my head spins and tear through ham shank taken sizzling and dripping right off the spit. I notice the eyes of one young village girl lingering on me and approach her though my hands are greasy and a stupid grin pasted on my face. It doesn’t seem to matter what comes out of my mouth, she is taken with me and I with her. As the night finally dies down, she quietly takes my hand and comes up to my room with me. I sleep all night for the first time in decades with her in my arms. The scent of garden flowers drifts through the window as the first rays strike them and the air is still cool. She’s still sleeping and I gaze adoringly on her peaceful face. I think I will stay here awhile. As I stir then, something near my hip pokes into me and I furrow my brow in confusion. I reach under the sheets impulsively and my hand finds the cold, jagged, glassy blade that changed me forever.