In the shade of a tall and twisted pear tree, Alistair sat upon an ancient stone bench. His distant eyes stared down into the pristine stony face of Cyril. While the stone head possessed blank empty eyes, the white stone still somehow managed to capture a heavenly face. Its expression was painful sorrowful. He wondered if it’d been the artist’s liberty to have given the ancient Goddess such an expression.
“And it’s such a beautiful spot,” Alistair muttered as he looked over the beautifully ornated stone brazier. Placed between two wide semi-moon benches, it would be a beautiful sightseeing location.
He looked to his left, where the remains of the statue had remained after he’d siphoned away its stored mana. Before he’d destroyed it to harvest the powerful and ancient mana, it’d depicted Cyril resting sorrowly under the largest pear tree Alistair had ever seen. It’d grown nearly forty-feet tall, it’s branches reached out over the benches. The statue had faced the dying sun as it slowly sunk on the horizon. The wind graced him gently, and with it came the smell of the sea.
He did not regret what he had done. Maybe it’d anger the ancient one that he had destroyed the sites. Before they understood the idols, they spent an untold amount of effort to erase what they believed were false idols. His followers had been rabid in their zeal to wipe away the other “false” beliefs. While Alistair had believed this was a great wrong, he’d been in desperate need of faith. As such, he’d encouraged it until the White Dragon Akyryss had razed half his city to the ground a few hundred years ago.
It was only once he’d fought her into a battle of attrition did he find out the statues were no false idols.
It had mattered little to him who the idol was, but with the very real threat of war with the dragons; they no longer officially destroyed the statues.
Alistair looked to the last basket of pears by his feet. It’d been the last batch of fruit harvested before he finished off the statue. Unlike the others, where the sites bore no actual food, the fruit tree had slowly begun to die. The fruits on its branches began to rot and left the entire party in shock. It’d been the first reported instance of something happening in the world after a statue had been destroyed.
The flame in the brazier had died.
The world had come in.
It was an odd sensation, feeling the collapse of the ancient spell. This had been an untouched location, far from any settlement. Only stumbled upon as Alistair had chased after a demon that found its way into the land of light. It had tried to reach the safe zone of the statue. Almost as if it could sense it. Even Alistair found it hard to break the rules within their grounds. He was lucky the demon did not make it in it.
They finally were able to confirm something today. The statues’ power diminished over time with each traveler. Another thing was that its power could sustain life. There was no magic that could create life, or sustain it. One could move mountains if they had enough mana. Create walls of rock and dirt. Change the weather, or call down death from above. All of these things required profound knowledge, and years of mana manipulation training.
But to create life? The closest thing to that was the Miasma that thrived in the north. And this only birthed monsters and demons.
Even as a God himself, Alistair still could not wield the power of life or death.
“Your Holy One,” A man approached from his left. “We’ve received several magical correspondences.”
“Could they not wait until we arrived back in the capital?” Alistair asked without looking from the statue’s mutilated body.
“One can wait, but one is from the Ambassador of Haven, a message from the White Dragon,” The man reported as he straightened his armor. “The others is from our spies within the Dragon Empire.”
“I’ll just hear all of them,” Alistair said as he got up and put the statue’s head under his arm. Alistair wore a luxurious golden robe, printed with a large sun on his back. It glinted in the dying sun as he passed the man.
“Yes!” The man perked up as another man, this one dressed in white robes, picked up the last basket. “From our Ambassador of Haven, he forwarded the White Dragon’s demands for the statue remains you’ve destroyed. Should anymore be destroyed, she will attack.”
Alistair sighed. He wondered if Akyryss had lost her insane demeanor. Before, she would just attack without provocation. In the last hundred years though, she’d been unnaturally tame in her antics.
(“I wonder if ruling over something had been the reason for that…”) Alistair thought to himself.
Haven was a rather new city. Once an outpost, it’d been taken from his kingdom by force. In an odd turn of events, she ended up taking the city under her wing rather than razing it to the ground. While the island had been a rather important asset, it served better to placate that insane dragon. Her unprovoked attacks had distilled into empty threats. It had proven that dragon’s loved to horde, and she treasured haven for some reason. Something, or someone, held her there, scared to abandon it.
“Fine,” Alistair waved his hand dismissively. “She can have the remains.”
“I hope you understand that means she knows you lied to her about throwing them in the sea,” The man said.
“I’m not concerned about that,” Alistair said.
“The next report is that the undead march on the Dragon Empire,” The man reported. “The Black Ones have been spotted, as well as the White Wolf.”
This stopped Alistair in his tracks. He turned and looked at the man with narrowed eyes. His silvery pupils constricted dangerously.
“Were they working together…?” Alistair asked
“Our agents believe they’re at odds with one another,” The man reported. “The wolf had intercepted a woman the undead were chasing.”
“And the Black Ones?” Alistair asked.
“The report detailed black skeletons matching the description of the warriors.” The man said. “We’re assuming it is the Black Ones after vetting through bestiaries.”
“We’ll have to prepare for Lahabiel then,” Alistair cursed. “He’s going to be a pain.”
“The next report is that the Northern Keep has fallen and Demons are flowing in from the Forbidden Forest,” The man reported. “The report also details clashes with the White Dragon’s spies, but they were minor. The report also details that the demons do not bother them, only our agents.”
Alistair noted the man’s expectant look. He was waiting for some piece of information that’d allow him insight into this phenomenon. He left him in the dark. He couldn’t confess that Akyryss was friendly with the demon race. She traded from the land of Light and Dark. She was neutral. While he didn’t like this position, it was better than having her as an enemy.
“Anything else?” Alistair asked.
“The last report was from our Bishop in Gulley’s Port of the Dragon Empire,” The man cleared his throat. “We don’t know the accuracy of this information, but he says a woman by the name of Cyril had arrived in the town. She has glowing golden eyes.”
Alistair visibly tensed up momentarily.
“Send a message back and ask for more information,” The God of Light ordered. “I also need the Bishop to remain on that woman’s good side. Have him find out who she is.”
“That may be… Hard,” The man said.
“And how may that be?” Alistair asked.
“The undead are marching on Gulley’s port, that was the last part of his message.” The man said, “We’ve already tried to hail him, but there’s something interfering with our spells. We haven’t been able to connect with him since the messages arrived an hour ago.”
The storm howled in Lord Gulley’s ears as he struggled to his feet. All around him was the wreckage of the Northern Gatehouse, and his men. Blood poured from the several large cuts across his face from the splintered wood. In a daze, he found the ruins of the gatehouse. Most of it had been spread out across the street below it – mixed in with the several new feet of snow that was dropped. The dark sky, faintly illuminated by the start of several fires from broken lanterns.
The snow rained upon the city like thousands of arrows. Visibility had dropped below twenty feet, and Lord Gulley felt cold… And he asked himself,
“How did this happen…?” He muttered.
It was just a blizzard. How had it destroyed so much? It wasn’t until he heard the portcullis rattle that he was shaken from his stupor. Below the wall, the gate had been blasted open. All that was left was the metal portcullis. A mass of darkness mulled around it. With the howling wind, he could only hear the sharp clinking of metal. Then a few guards were beside him. Bloodied and battered, mixed in with a few unscathed ones, they were quick to react and charged to their last barrier.
“Undead!” A faint shout cried out from there.
Then another shout. And another. The guards had been caught flat-footed by the storm’s intensity. But once death was on their doorstep, they reacted. The polemen were on the portcullis within seconds. Their spears quickly dispatched the mindless horde that began to pile on the metal gate.
“Bring pitch! Bring oil! Bring anything that burns!” The Gate-Captian appeared, his armor disheveled and blood iced his breastplate. “Burn the fucking lot!”
There was a mad scramble as most of the soldiers quickly dispersed from the gate. There had been barrels set up on the wall. Now most of them were on the street; their contents sprawled out. Soldiers hand filled whatever containers they could find by hand. They all buzzed, motivated by the unnatural monsters that clawed at the metal grate.
“Are you okay, my Lord?” The Gate-Captain asked Lord Gulley.
“I’m light-headed…” He replied.
Then Lord Gulley felt fingers comb across his head.
“You’re hurt bad!” The Gate-Captain yelled. “You guys! Get the lord to the Cathedral! Quick!”
Lord Gulley hadn’t noticed, but he was bleeding profusely from the back of his head. Bandages were quickly applied to him. The swirl of activity was too much for his aged mind to keep up with, even if he was a warrior. More guards were surrounding him as they sat him down.
“Don’t worry, M’lord,” One of the guards said. “We need you to sit down before you fall. Devan over there is gonna get a wagon to take you. Just wait a moment. You’ll be alright!”
The guard tried to comfort him. However, it pricked his pride. He was a Viscount and a warrior! He would have berated the guard if he hadn’t been so dazed. Even the howl of the wind had begun to drift away.
“Who is lifting the gate?!” Someone yelled.
To everyone’s shock, all the guards who hadn’t been prodding the undead had turned to horror to see the portcullis rise. The clinking of the grate was heard over the roar of the storm. Lord Gulley looked up to the top of the wall. There on the top, two balls of icy blue burned against the darkness.
And then the horde of undead stepped into the city.
The Cathedral’s plaza was clear. Illuminated by the hung lanterns. On the edges, the blizzard raged against whatever barrier had been erected. To Bishop Luis’s disbelief. Beside him stood that young white-haired maiden. She breathed with some effort as if she’d just had to jog, or maybe spare a little. It only took an observant pair of eyes to see it was her doing. He already tried to speak with her but it was no use. It was like she was in a trance.
Those two pools of molten gold swirled, and they were narrowed into two small slits as she stared into the blizzard. The air around her was unnaturally warm. The snow around her feet had melted away moments ago, and the Cathedral was comfortably warm. With the woman standing on the landing of his church, Bishop Luis decided he too should do his part. The time for questions would be for later.
Lady Priscilla was beside him with a chair and left a few apples for her to snack on top of it.
“Come,” Bishop Luis said. “Let us attend to the townsfolk.”
Bishop Luis nodded his head in parting to Cyril before he turned and headed inside. Priscilla looked conflicted with this and looked worriedly at the side of Cyril’s face. She contemplated planting a kiss on those supple cheeks. She decided not to after a few harrowing seconds and followed the Bishop. She decided it’d be best to leave her to her own devices for the moment.
The inside of the Cathedral was vast. Inside, most of the pews had been occupied with fearful women and children. Elders and the sick. The ones who couldn’t fight and their caretakers.
“This is not but less than a quarter of the population of the port,” Bishop Luis said as Priscilla stepped inside. He stood beside one of the pillars that held up the balcony above the door where the nobility sat during service. “The guards told me that most of the people believed they would be safer in their homes.”
“Are they?” Priscilla asked.
“Maybe they are,” Bishop Luis said. “Maybe they are not. I cannot see the future. Nor can I tell them what they should do. I could only offer counseling and healing for their souls. Come, let us help prep the food.”
“Yes,” Priscilla said.
Priscilla followed as Bishop Luis took the lead down the center of the Cathedral. It seemed like every person had tried to ask for blessing or assurances they’d be safe. With gentle hands, he blessed quickly. With gentle words, he assured them that the Cathedral was safe. It took more than ten minutes to reach the end of the hall and into a side passage for the church workers.
“Are we really safe?” Priscilla asked.
“Do you really want to know?” Bishop Luis asked back as they turned a corner. Other priests and church hands mulled up and down. They all were busy with the tens of duties that came with overlooking the scared crowd. Most of them brought out wine to ease everyone’s nerves.
“Yes,” Priscilla didn’t hesitate.
“No,” The Bishop confessed. “The Cathedral is not blessed, as this land doesn’t completely belong to the Lord of Light.”
“How so?” Priscilla squeezed her hand.
“This church is old. Older than Alistair himself,” Bishop Luis said as they rounded another corner and passed another flock of church hands. “Claiming a holy ground of another religion is not a simple thing. We’re not even sure if the previous deity had been the original builder. Each year, we unearth catacombs when we have to expand. To completely take over, we must remove all their religious idols – or so the ancient texts say.”
“Why didn’t the Church just build a new church to begin with?” Priscilla asked. “Wouldn’t it have been better?”
“It would have, but this Cathedral is apart of this city,” Bishop Luis said as they turned into the kitchens. “The truth is, Lord Gulley wanted us to take it over. We’re a big organization and we could afford to pay taxes. We had signed a long term contract before we knew what we were getting into. Since we’ve already paid for the land, and the Lord will not charge us for dealing with the Cathedral and its expansions, we stayed. Or rather, the higher-ups won’t allow us to move.”
“Sounds like a long of stupidity to me,” Priscilla said as Bishop Luis handed her a tray full of bowls before taking a tray himself. “Let us head back. Gretchen, have your husband and your son take the soup upstairs, please.”
“Right away!” Gretchen responded over her shoulder as she worked several pots.
“Of course it is,” Bishop Luis responded to Priscilla’s comment. “But Bishops are only in charge of the major cities. We are ‘grunts’ within the church. The actual higher-ups are called the Inquisition.”
“How come I hadn’t heard of this before?” Priscilla commented as she followed the Bishop back through the corridors.
“Because the Empire only tolerates us,” Bishop Luis said. “I’m sure they do not teach you much in the way of religion, other than the Emperor is a god.”
“They haven’t taught that in several years,” Priscilla said. “We recently gained a Theology course within the Academy. I’ve always wanted to join it…” Her voice grew smaller as the memories of her friends surfaced. She hadn’t done much of anything so they all could take classes together. Their schedules had been a mutant of compromises between the group.
“And why haven’t you?” The Bishop stopped, sensing the change in her voice.
Priscilla nearly bumped into him. She managed to stop and balanced the bowls to keep them from clattering to the floor. She looked up to him. He saw her eyes held a vastness he’d only seen in the old soldiers. Bishop Luis felt his heart soften when he saw it. He may not have been the best person, but like others, he believed a child’s eyes should be bright; full of naive hope and wonder.
“Because I wanted to be with my friends…” Priscilla said with a sobering quietness as she pushed past him and into the main hall.
Old bricks held underneath the weight of centuries. They still bore the signs of war. Genocide. Destruction. Not even moss had dared to grow within the forgotten tunnels of Gulley’s port. Commander Jogun did not know it by that name; he knew it by a much older name. A name long tarnished by the barbaric transgressions of humans and beastmen.
“Etheral Sands.” The draugr spat with a snarl.
Flanked by several Black Ones and the tens of undead, they marched near silently through the dry underground. Tunnels that’d been built with elven stone by the eastern dwarves. Etheral Sands had been one of the first cities where the two races could co-exist. It’d been beautiful when Commander Jogun had been alive. In fact, he had walked these very tunnels.
The anger in him had been bitter memories turned red.
He could still hear the laughter of children. The bustle of those annoying, but honest dwarves. The sweet singing of High Elves. He could no longer taste. No longer feel. The memories had turned to ash in his mouth regardless. The last time he’d been through, they were running for their lives. Running from the host of invading humans who, despite the city’s elite guards and magical powers, fell underneath the sheer numbers the humans threw at them.
He could see the phantoms of women and children. The old and the sick. He could not remember their individual faces, but he could still remember the fear that hung in the air. Thicker than the smoke that rose from the falling city. The tunnels they marched through now had been the emergency tunnel for dwarves. It’d been tunneled for when the sea eventually poured into their caverns. Only by the grace of the superior elven stones had it never collapsed anywhere. He had once complained about the cost of it.
Now he was happy they had built it so strong. Because now he was marching back into it to slaughter the invaders. As if the undead behind him could feel his anger, his hate, their eyes glowed a bright blue within the inky black tunnel.
Then, Commander Jogun had sensed it. The tunnel had a constant temperature to it. Cool and dry. Now the ambient temperature had begun to warm ever slightly. As they continued their advance, the tunnel began to change. There were bones. They were of the elves and dwarves who hadn’t made it. The ones who’d been injured. Marching past them, they finally began to find signs of life. Mold. Moss. Small critters.
Commander Jogun could feel the moisture on his leathery brown skin. Eventually, they came to the end of the tunnel. A light flickered through several holes in the mortar. Possibly from where the humans had tried to break through the stone. Maybe they had tried to expand. Whichever it was, it didn’t matter.
Jogun pressed his hand against the warm stone and uttered an incantation. The lines between the stones glowed a faint blue. Then, they died down. Two Black ones appeared at his sides and began to push the stones out. With each one, they clattered onto things. Wood and metal. Several bricks later, they had to pull them as they found themselves behind a large shelf. The light poured around its contents and once they had gotten down to their hips in height, they pushed it over.
The shelf clattered to the stone below and glass shattered, along with clay pots. The draugr had been the first through the opening. He kicked the shelving aside and found himself with a shocked audience. There were a few young human males, bulky and wide-eyed. There was an older man in white robes, adorned with a sun. The sun stolen from their God Madin. They had reached their target, and even better, found their most hated enemy.
The draugr gave a wicked grin and drew his weapon.
Priscilla and the Bishop passed out bowl after bowl of warm porridge. The silence between them had been filled with endless thanks. There had been praises for the Lord of Light’s grace. Priscilla found it ironic that the Lord of Light hadn’t intervened in the horrors that lived in Fable’s End. She found it ironic that Cyril had never mentioned much about any of the horrors they had seen on the way there.
The repetitiveness of this work had given her an unwelcomed moment to think. It was not hard to scoop the soup into the bowls and hand them over. Rather, it’d been easy with her training. Mages were a profession that was often known for its repetitive courses, training, and work. It was also a highly prized position. Mana was not a hard thing to grasp, but it was not also an easy thing to master.
Priscilla would have loved to use the moment of respite to plan. Think of what came next. However, she drew blank thoughts on the subject and found herself wondering if she’d live through the night. She wondered if they knew the danger they were all in. She wondered if she knew the extent of danger she was in.
“How are you, Lady Priscilla?” Bishop Luis appeared beside her.
She looked up, panicked by his sudden appearance.
“Pease, young one.” Bishop Luis smiled. “We’re done here.”
Priscilla looked down and found the large pot was nearly empty. The hall was no longer filled with the frantic pleas of serfs. It was now filled with a solemn peace to it as everyone delved into their meals. She wondered if they ate out of hunger, or fear.
“Come now, let us eat too,” Bishop Luis gestured to the small table in front of the altar at the very back of the cathedral.
The mass of tables with food and plates had been set up under the mural of Alistair. The people ate amongst the pews with their family and friends. Priscilla and the church’s hands had been segregated beyond the table before the altar. This was to keep the townsfolk from tearing into the supplies that’d been brought out for those who needed it. A few of the servants who had eaten at the beginning now walked amongst the pews. They carried bibles and read scriptures with those who wished counsel.
Priscilla was not a religious person in her mind. She found the sight touching though and sat down with the left-overs of her pot.
“Had Cyril been given food?” Priscilla asked.
“Of course,” Bishop Luis smiled. “She requested more fruits. She never touched her soup.”
“That’s good to hear,” Priscilla sighed. “She hasn’t eaten much since she woke up.”
“Not eating for a day will not harm her,” Bishop Luis said as the rest of the servants picked a different table to give them some privacy.
Priscilla’s expression tightened with amusement for a moment.
“What’s so funny about that?” Bishop Luis laughed.
“It’s nothing” Priscilla waved her hand dismissively.
“I know she’s not mortal,” Bishop Luis kept his amicable smile, her Priscilla’s face cramped up. “No mortal eyes glow like hers. Silver is the eyes of Gods. Red is the eyes of Devils. Gold, however, I have never heard of. Do not get me wrong, I hold no issues with Lady Cyril herself, but I am a nosy man by nature.”
“She’s…” Priscilla mulled over what to say. “Special.”
“Special indeed,” Bishop Luis nodded encouragingly. “How did you two meet? I see the way you look to her.”
“She saved me and my friends,” Priscilla said as she stared the man in the eyes protectively. “I don’t believe it’s any of–“
“Now, now. No need to be defensive.” Bishop Luis held up his hands while keeping that irritating smile on his lips. “The Light does not judge who you love. We only seek to be saved in our Lord’s eyes.”
“Cyril is an Angel,” Priscilla confessed.
“An Angel?” Bishop Luis kept that unassuming smile. A smile that bred trust.
“We woke her up at the top of Fable’s End after Prince Desmond’s expedition was attacked by… By the undead and these black tendrils…” Priscilla breath shuddered. “She walked us out of that horrible place and brought us back.”
“When was this?” Bishop Luis asked softly.
The rational part of Priscilla told her to shut up. Her heart demanded that someone hear her. Hear her torment – what she saw. And so, her heart won out and she laid it all out before him. He nodded his head along as she talked about how it all came to be. From her reason for signing up with the princes to the journey there. He laughed with her when she spoke up those honey-sweet times with her friends.
He held her hand when the words of death were uttered. He then rubbed her back as she spoke of the black death that rose around them. Of the undead that chased them. Of watching her friends die.
“I didn’t hesitate…” Priscilla said. “When I saw those… Things… Come at us, I fought back. I was calm. I remember that. I had fought against those things with everything I had. But my friends…”
“It is okay… You can stop if you like…” Bishop Luis comforted her.
“No… My friends… They hesitated and they had died because of it. ” Priscilla said in a detached manner. The horror had broken her past the point of tears. It had burned everything in her. She had been desensitized by it, or maybe she had compartmentalized it? She didn’t know. Only, it was easy to talk so long as she kept her breathing steady and her voice monotone.
“We ran up the side of a small bridge to a portal,” Priscilla said. “We didn’t know if it would kill us or vaporize us, but we went through.”
Then she spoke of the lake they found, and the wakening of Cyril. Of the wonders, she held in her home. With Bishop Luis’s soft prodding, she spoke about their trip down. And how she had slain the dragon. Bishop Luis noted the sudden affectionate tone that had steeped into her voice when she spoke of Cyril. The soft smile that had blossomed when she spoke of the snow games. The grin that replaced it when she spoke of that accidental kiss on the field.
There was no question of what the girl felt for that… Goddess.
Bishop Luis was sure of it now. The ancient tomes had spoken of what lived on the summit of Fable’s End. Cyril, the Creator. The City of High Elves. The tomes spoke of the war for that Goddess’s resting place. But never had anything mention that she had in fact still lived. They only spoke of her as if she was dead. The story had come to its end and Priscilla looked to the Bishop.
“I believe you love her,” Bishop Luis said.
“I know.” Priscilla nodded.
“You know?” Bishop Luis asked.
“I know it here,” Priscilla padded the top of her heart. “When we had kissed, I knew it. I may have not been meant for her, but I don’t care. She is the most wonderful person I’ve met.”
“I believe you may be suffering for what we refer to as ‘Knight-In-Shining Armor syndrome,” Bishop Luis said. “That is when someone saved falls in love with their savior. This may or may not be your mind trying to heal itself, but I will not tell you for certain. Just keep that in mind.”
Priscilla was about to say no, but then a scream broke the peace. Then the world descended into chaos.