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by Sahari
Rated: E · Chapter · Fantasy · #2261492
The Prologue for the story I'm writing
The Prophet Lorria wrote that the Darkness that froze men’s hearts could only enter the world when Light passed from it. The Lorric Purists and Traditionalists and even the Extremists all acknowledged this, for the village of Damville had seen the death of Lothoria’s first god-king. After a thousand years later the stain of his passing was still strong enough for a Lothor Prince to nearly die at the hands of his own Sword. But Tovar was a Keeper; the last of his faith. And here in this place where Darkness had entered the world, he felt the icy truth in his bones. His heart had frozen long ago.

“Please,” Tovar prayed quietly. The sound of armored steps hastened closer behind him. “If I act against Your holy will, stop this.”

Tovar knew when the Purist Knight finally entered the dark chamber, though his back was turned to the entrance. The sound of the steps stopped, and were replaced by the sound of scraping metal.

“Stand and face me,” the Purist demanded.

Tovar bit back his pained groans and obeyed, stepping forward to stand in the light of the Purist’s torch.

The Purist raised his light higher as he gaped at the old man. “Master?” he breathed hopefully, lowering his sword.

Tovar smiled. “It is good to see a familiar face, Karn.”

Karn knelt and bowed his head. “Surely I walk in the favor of the gods, for they have sent your spirit to guide me through the rest of my journey.”

“I am no spirit, Karn. I live.”

Karn raised his head for a closer look. “I see the truth of your words. But I do not understand how it can be.”

“Nothing can disrupt the will of heaven.” Tovar bent to help the younger man stand. “Not even berserkers.”

“Praises be to the gods of Heaven!” Karn hugged his old mentor. “For the Defender has spared you from the Dark One’s sword and the Scholar has brought us together again. Do you know what this place is?”

‘This place’ was a twelve-sided room. It was empty, save for the thick, black pillar rooted at its center. An extension of the jagged pieces of brælten jutting from the ceiling. It was a sacred place that marked the site of the Lady’s Landing. It was here that the goddess sacrificed herself to save the world from the unforgiving Darkness; here that she warned humanity of its second coming. Its sandy-red walls were engraved with hundreds of lines of spells that had been uttered in a thousand years of Keepers’ prayers. But their meanings had been forgotten. The magic was long gone from this place.

“We are beneath the Lady’s Fountain,” Tovar said.

“It is far more than that!” Karn sheathed his sword and moved around the room. He scraped his gloved fingers across the words in the wall, scowling as he read them. “After the Maronai fell we began to hear rumors that the Keepers had hidden a relic somewhere in the village. Those we questioned only claimed it to be a goblet that outshines the Seat of the Gods. No one would tell us where to find it.”

Tovar remembered how the Purists questioned mutants and he asked himself the same question that had driven him away from the Purist faith: how can something fueled by hatred be pleasing to the gods? He was glad that he had left the order but he envied the younger man’s fearless certainty. He envied the Purist’s joy in his faith.

Karn halted his inspection and turned back to Tovar. “Our brothers believed it all to be a falsehood, crafted by our enemies to lure the rest of us to our destruction. No one was willing to enter the Dark One’s presence to learn the truth. But the gods have chosen to honor the two of us to be the first ones in our order’s history to retrieve a piece of the Artifact!” Karn grabbed Tovar’s shoulder and the old man winced at his enthusiastic grip. “You were delivered from a berserker attack! With a message like that we could have doubled the strength of our order and purified this world within a generation. Why have you never returned?”

Tovar remembered how the Purists purified. He felt the violent rage stir in him and he prayed the Lady’s peace would keep him from it. “I am all that is left of my brothers.”

“Brother, our temple was ravaged sixteen years ago. Has it never occurred to you that we might have grown since then?” Karn laughed, not with mockery but with an honest mirth. “We were not all destroyed. You yourself had sent a small contingent away that same week. I remember we were so cross with you because we believed sermonizing was the work of priests, not Caeltar Knights. Yet you should see how the gods have rewarded our faithful service. The entire kingdom was shaken by the news of our citadel’s demise. Within a year, hundreds had come to join our cause. We’ve been able to rebuild and I’ve since learned that one cannot be a holy warrior unless he is a priest first. I know – ” Karn’s face froze in a contorted expression of glee. “Did I…” He glanced back to where Tovar had been kneeling and returned a confused gaze to his old mentor. “Were you praying when I arrived? To that… thing?”

“I told you,” Tovar said somberly. “I am the last of my brotherhood.”

Karn recoiled, his hand returning to his sword. “You’re a Keeper?”

Tovar sighed heavily. “I don’t know what I am anymore. After witnessing what the berserker had done, I was broken. And lost. I came here seeking answers. I wanted to understand why the Lady would allow her children to do such horrible things. If they were truly sent here to save this world – ”

“Mutants are creatures of Darkness! Their hearts cry out for the blood of innocents. They cannot help themselves in the evil they do. You taught me that.” The Purist’s words pierced Tovar like an accusation. “You taught me that the entering into and seeking the foul mysteries of the world was the surest way into the Black Hell. Yet when the Darkness threatened our world, instead of resting in the wisdom and peace of the Kings’ Light you turned your back on it and offered your services to the self same Darkness they’d spared you from. I don’t understand.”

“I no longer believed.” Tovar knew that Grey Dome Temple fell to a mutant not because of any innate ill-will but because of ignorance and fear. That was why he left the Purists. The only Darkness he’d found to threaten the world since then had been asleep in Damville. And he felt it waking over the years as the preternatural chill spread from his chest to the rest of his body. His only relief from it rested in the brælten pillar. That was all he knew now; that was why he’d stayed.

Karn shook his head, his disappointment nearly stifling in the dimly lit chamber. “I had thought your faith was stronger than that.”

The old man looked away. He’d betrayed one faith for another, and now he was about to do it again. He swallowed his doubts and chose his words carefully. “We may disagree on many things. But Keepers and Lorrics share in the teaching of the same basic principle: that the return of the world’s magic is the only thing that will save us from a second Darkness.”

“Your Lady caused the first Age of Darkness,” Karn interjected. “And she’s sent her twisted children to bring forth the next. Only the restoration of our holy King’s power will expel her influence from this world forever and bring about an age of peace.”

Tovar bit his tongue at hearing his words shouted back at him. He did not know whether they were truer than what the Keepers had preached against the Lothor Kings.

“You were a soldier once,” Karn continued, “on a holy mission to seek out the relics that had been scattered over a millennium ago. Now the assassination of the queen and the theft of the young Prince have emboldened mutants to rise from their hovels and terrorize humanity once more. The kingdom whispers of coming war and the people are afraid. These are the prophesied times. This matter will be settled for once and all but the Artifact must be reunited if we are to save humanity.

“The others refused to speak of its location.” Karn spoke gently as he sidled closer to Tovar. “But I believe that the gods have sent you here to recover what had been lost to the First. Tell me where this cup is. Help me find it and you may yet be allowed to enter into the House of the King.”

Tovar smiled ruefully. “It is too late for me.”

“It isn’t. the Lady’s children have not yet claimed yours. We will find the remaining relics and the Last Lothor will save this world from mutants – ”

“But it is too late for me,” Tovar said again.

Karn went still as Tovar’s veiled confession finally settled in his mind. Then he sprung back, stumbling into the pillar in his bid to put some distance between them.

“You are one of them.” Karn stepped away from the pillar as Tovar approached. He held a hand to his chest and moved his fingertips over his heart in a hasty rendition of the Lothor sigil, warding himself against the mutant.

“This is how the Lady saw fit to answer me,” Tovar said. “Please, don’t be frightened. I did not lead you here to cause you harm.”

Karn scoffed. “The Scholar led me here. He guided me thr–”

“Through dreams,” Tovar finished. “With brief glimpses of the cup, at first. Since then you’ve been given clear instructions on how to locate and navigate these tunnels. Was there ever anyone at the end of those tunnels?”

“It can’t be.” Karn shook his head. “No. You didn’t… You couldn’t…”

“Even here at the bottom of the world we hear of the great Purist who bears the name of the Sainted One. I knew that only one of your fervor would have the faith to brave coming here.”

“No,” Karn persisted. “Your kind cannot send dreams.”

Phantoms can.’ Tovar sent his thoughts into Karn’s mind to demonstrate just how much he was capable of.

In response, Karn lunged at Tovar. With the length of the torch pressed into the old man’s neck, he pinned Tovar against the wall. The contempt in his eyes carried with it the accusations of deception and torment.

Tovar struggled for breath. Karn was going to kill him and it took all of Tovar’s resolve not to throw him off. The young Purist was enraged, yes. But there was also fear, Tovar saw. So much fear built up in the last year as his mind had been haunted by thoughts designed to lure him here. Where the Lady’s dark power was strong enough to take hold of his mind and turn him against his faith. That was what he believed, anyway. What all Purists were taught. Yet he had come.

‘Please.’ Tovar finally managed to break through the thick fog of rage surrounding the Karn’s mind. ‘I want you to have it.’

Karn dropped his stranglehold on the old man. Tovar was able to suck in a large, grateful breath before Karn pressed the tip of his sword against Tovar’s robes, ready to gut the mutant in an instant. “Explain yourself.”

“Keepers are forbidden from removing the cup from the village,” Tovar said. He eyed the sword tip carefully as he rubbed at his throbbing throat. “I drew you here because I want you to take it. It should be returned to the royal family. I am no longer worthy of entering into his holy presence.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Karn lowered his weapon. “Where is it?”

Tovar took another few deep breaths before he sidestepped the angry Purist and his blade. He moved to the pillar and raised his palm to push against a spot that rested just above eye level. A brælten block protruded from the other side and the Keeper hurried to collect the simple, locked chest. He turned it upright, his blistered palms running over the smooth, stonemetal surface. That he could feel the warmth flowing from within was a figment of fancy. The inner walls of the chest were spelled to perfectly contain the power of the relic within.

With a cautious glance at Karn, who watched with a guilty curiosity, Tovar ran his fingers along the links of the thin chain around his neck until they closed around a small black key. After unlocking the chest, he lifted the lid with a shaky breath.

Red-orange light exploded around him as he heard Karn’s sharp intake of breath just over his shoulder. With it came a wave of heat. The old man felt the chill in his bones begin to melt from the strength of it but the spelled brælten case was all that kept the sacred chamber from heating up like a forge.

Vrim gala sou shee noe. Tovar sighed contentedly as he ran his finger over the raised words. They circled the rim in a long, slanted script and were made nearly invisible by the powerful glow. He remembered the first time he’d uttered the Keeper’s blessing, the gentle vibrations he felt the first time he gripped the cup’s outspread wings and used the Lady’s power to heal.

Charred edges were all that remained of the velvet fitting that had cradled the relic for the millennium it had spent dormant; the ruin discovered the night half his brothers fled. Since then, the heat the chalice bore was all the power the relic held for its Keepers: power enough to banish the chill of the Darkness with a simple touch.

“And you are certain this is the Saint’s Cup?” Karn asked. There was a noticeable degree of astonishment in his tone. “The one with which she will pour out the blessings and store up the wrath for the world?”

Tovar tightened his grip on the chest. The Winged Chalice was fashioned from the same stonemetal as the Lady’s Fountain. The only thing unharmed by its touch was water taken from the Lady’s Fountain. There was no logical reason to believe that it was created for a Lothor King, to be used as an instrument against the Lady and her children. But logic had little to do with faith. The chalice’s activation was the sign believers had spent centuries in prayer for. And if the Lothors were meant to have it…

“What else could it be?” he answered, turning towards the doorway as he gave the chest to the Purist.

“I don’t understand,” Karn said. “In the hands of a Lothor King, this will lead to the destruction of your kind. Why give it to me?”

Because after a thousand years, the Keeper reminded himself, none among the Lady’s children have been able to resist the lure of darkness. Because the beacon was triggered on the only night that a Lothor had set foot in Damville since the death of the First and no mutant had ever come to answer its call. The Winged Chalice had called out for its master these past fifteen years and the Lady’s Fountain had not healed anyone since. “I have failed my faith once,” the Keeper answered without turning. “I’ll not do it again.”

Karn gave a grateful nod, then reached into the case to caress his prize.

The sizzle of burning flesh, the shocked howl of a man in pain, the gentle thud then sharp tap of torch wood then stonemetal striking the stony floor; these sounds made Tovar pause and turn. Intense light and heat filled the Lady’s Chamber as the Winged Chalice bounced free of its fallen prison and slid to the base of the pillar.

Tovar shielded his eyes against the brilliant light. “I don’t understand.”

Karn clutched his injured hand at the core of his curled form. “Your mutant spells have twisted the cup with dark power!” he accused. He stumbled away from the chalice and stopped in the doorway, his eyes squeezed shut under a sweaty brow, his skin red with blistering patches. “You’ve cursed it!”

“No.” Tovar searched his mind for an answer. After the beacon had been activated, he’d been the only one among his brothers who’d been able to handle the relic without injury. At first the Keepers all thought it was because he was the chosen one. But nothing happened when he drank of the Fountain. It was a sign, the dissenters had suggested, that the activated chalice would not accept the touch of its master’s enemies and Tovar was the only one among them who’d ever served the Lothor gods.

But it had rejected Karn’s touch.

Tovar scooped up the chalice and held it. Its intense light dimmed. The air became breathable again and he felt warmth flood his entire body. Joy unspeakable took root in his heart and he knew that the Lothors could not be the masters of the Winged Chalice.

The Keeper shut the relic into its chest and rejoiced in the sound of the mechanized lock. He waited for the chill to resettle over him, but it didn’t. With a sense of renewed strength, he lifted the chest back into its veiled recess.

“What are you doing?” Karn took an angry step back into the chamber but came no further. “Give it to me!”

“If the Lothors were truly meant to have the chalice then their servants should be able to hold it. Even if only for a short time.” He offered a silent prayer to the Lady; thanking her for the revelation and begging forgiveness for his near betrayal. “The Winged Chalice belongs to the Lady’s children.”

“Give me the Cup, or die.”

Across the darkened chamber the Keeper saw that the Purist once again held a naked blade between them. “You don’t understand,” Tovar said. “The Darkness that threatens to devour this world is older than the mutant-middling conflict. The Lady didn’t send her children to destroy the world. She sent them to save it. This cup was made for her chosen champion.”

“The Saint’s Cup is a relic of the gods. Once the King has purified it, he will be able to reunite the Artifact and cleanse the world of your Lady and her Darkness.”

“Please,” the Keeper begged. “If you truly believe yourself an instrument against this world’s destruction, heed my words, I beseech you. The Lady does not hate humanity. Mutants are not the enemy that needs to be defeated. This war you spoke of – if it comes, there may not be a mutant left alive in the world to save it from Darkness. The Lady’s Champion will – ”

“It is clear that the evil of this place has already twisted your mind to its dark will. I won’t expect you to see sense.” Karn took a few more careful steps into the room. “For the service you’ve rendered to the Kings and our cause I will spare your life. But I’ll not leave here without that Cup.”

Tovar knew it was pointless to argue. That was why he had chosen Karn; the young Purist would not turn from his faith as the old Keeper had. He was supposed to keep Tovar from losing heart. He was supposed to insist on leaving with the cup. But Tovar had never expected the cup to reject him. And now there was no way out without bloodshed. “I am sorry – truly, I am. It was I who brought you here. But it was a mistake. Now we must both pay.”

While the space between them was still the length of two graves, the old man’s hand reached out and plucked the sword from the Purist’s grip. He turned the weapon on its owner and forced him back through the doorway. “I will not let you take it.”

Karn’s eyes darted between the hovering weapon and the old man. “You would damn yourself to the Black Hell?”

“My Lady’s power is greater than the wrath of the Lothors,” Tovar answered boldly.

“The order knows that I’ve been summoned here,” Karn spat, his desperation matched by the Keeper’s newfound determination. “If I do not return, they will search for me. When they discover that Damville still shelters mutants from the King they will burn the village and all it’s people. Your cursed Fountain will be dug up and tossed into the sea and your Dark Prince will never drink of its waters.”

The Keeper doubted the Purist’s words. Even Lothors fell to the Darkness that slumbered at the bottom of the world. No Purist, no matter how acclaimed, would dare even whisper of being drawn to it; much less boast of answering the call. Yet the world was changing. Mutants were growing bolder in their assaults on the rest of humanity and middlings were growing tired of being afraid. If Tovar killed this Purist, there was a chance that more would come. It was a small chance but if it proved true… He was only one man. If he fell in the defense of the Winged Chalice, there would be none left to keep it. The Lady’s Champion would never be found and the world would see its end in the second Age of Darkness.

The Keeper threw down the sword and retrieved the chest.

“And the key!” the Purist demanded.

Tovar removed the chain from his neck. But instead of handing them over, he shoved the key into the lock. Karn scooped up his sword and charged as Tovar opened the chest. The younger man struck blindly against the flash of light and the old man raised the chest in defense. The collision was jarring, running up the length of Tovar’s arms and throwing him to the ground. He recovered to find the sword shattered while the chest lay at his side, closed but unharmed.

Karn leapt onto Tovar. He grabbed the front of the old man’s robes and pressed the jagged stub of the shattered blade against the old man’s throat. Tovar felt the skin break; felt the wet warmth trickle down the side of his neck.

“What have you done?” Karn demanded.

Tovar grinned, triumphant. “I’ve locked the key inside. You’ll need a mutant to open it now.”

“Undo it.”

“I have failed my faith once.” Tovar spoke with more force and confidence than before. “I will not do it again.”

Karn shoved the old man away in frustration. He took up the chest to see if he could pry it open by force.

“I must await the one for whom it was created. If the Lady has not sent her Champion to me by the Lady’s Day, I will know that I hope in vain and I swear upon all the power of the heavens that I will deliver the chest to the King myself. Please,” Tovar begged, “just give me time.”

It was a gamble. Under no circumstances would a Purist ever allow themselves to be found in the same county as the Lady’s Fountain on Her day, let alone rummaging through the tunnels beneath it. But the Lady’s Day was a whole week away and Tovar knew that Karn could return with a small army of Purist Knights in a few days’ time.

The Purist sheathed what he could of his sword and collected what he couldn’t before retrieving his fallen torch. “There is an inn two days west of here: Caelton Camp. Do you know it?”

“I can find it,” Tovar said.

“If you aren’t there by sunset the day after your Unholy Day, we will come with fire and spades.” As Karn spoke, Tovar heard the thoughts he did not say; that the threatened fire and spade would come regardless.

After Karn left, Tovar fell to his knees at the base of the pillar. He was frightened for his faith, for the Lady’s Champion, for the world. It would take Karn some time to gather a faithful force. A few days, at least. That was more than enough time for Tovar to make himself scarce; to take the Winged Chalice into hiding and await the Lady’s Champion.

But what if the Champion never came?

The Winged Chalice could only have been triggered by the presence of the one for whom it had been created; the mutant the Lady chose to house her great power. It was meant to seek out its master, just as it had sought the refuge of the pillar after escaping the Purist’s touch. That magic hadn’t failed. But something must have gone wrong fifteen years ago. Something that had kept it bound to the secret chamber even after it had sensed its master. If the Chalice and the Champion would not be united on their own, Tovar would have to join them.

“Holy Mother,” he prayed, “I know that you’ve forbidden us from taking the Winged Chalice beyond this village. But now our enemies – your enemies – have learned of your plans and they will do everything in their power to stop it. I know that it is my unfaithfulness that has brought this misfortune, but I have not the strength to wait here another fifteen years. I have not the strength to wait another day. If you do not wish to see your children perish, if you still wish to see your will done through me, if you still wish to see this world saved then you must do everything in your power to take me to your Champion!”
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