Chapter 34: The Sudden Fall
There were very few cultists left alive, and those that were fled on the backs of injured wyverns. The castle continued its descent, and the companions were on the brink of exhaustion and death. Oszaren and Reverence went to Shale and Fillip, both of whom were bleeding heavily from necrotic wounds. They healed them as best they could, then sat back and caught their breaths.
Keelan walked over to Whisper in a daze, pressing a hand to his chest and healing himself. There were corpses of robed cultists and ogres littering the ground. The ogre deaths outnumbered them two-to-one.
The tabaxi knelt with his charred spellbook clutched tightly in his paws. The fiery wings in his back shuddered and retracted into him.
“What happened?” Keelan asked, wiping his tired eyes.
Whisper’s face was strained and anxious, and he did not look up from his paws. “If it tries to run, kill it,” he said through gritted teeth.
“If what tries to run?” Keelan asked. “Whisper, wh—”
The tabaxi curled forward in pain. “I BANISH YOU!” He hissed, dropping his book and reaching for a crystal inside his robes. He held the large, milky white crystal up and pressed it to his forehead, muttering under his breath. He was groaning in pain.
Keelan didn’t dare move any closer, but he drew his sword and held it up, ready for anything. He could sense an evil energy surging through the tabaxi, seeping out of him. The crystal in his hand began to glow hotly, and its interior filled with dark energy. It shook, as though ready to burst.
“I banish you,” Whisper said again in a dangerously soft voice.
The crystal vibrated violently. There was a moment’s pause, and then it exploded into a thousand shards. Keelan jumped back in surprise, but the evil energy seemed to fade. After another few moments of silence, the paladin said, “Are—are you okay?”
Whisper looked up, his eye oddly blank, and said, “I don’t know.”
They moved Shale and Fillip into the tower, where Aidra, who had been hiding inside, came to help. She rolled up two blankets and pushed them under their heads. “You defeated them,” the elf woman said in surprise.
Reverence shrugged wearily but said nothing.
She nodded in understanding. “I’ll keep an eye on them.” She pulled out a small leather bag full of goodberries and began mashing them.
The tiefling nodded and sunk to the floor, closing his eyes and letting the exhaustion sweep over him. Oszaren, however, excused himself and went out to the courtyard. “Whisper,” the half-elf said, eyeing him where he kneeled on the ground. Keelan had sheathed his blade. “Are you alright?”
“It’s trying to take over,” the tabaxi said.
Rezmir’s body lay near him, and he crawled towards it, reaching out a hand to pull the black mask from her face.
Like a sudden strike of a cobra, Rezmir’s hand shot up and clutched Whisper’s wrist, holding it firm. Beneath the mask, her slitted dragon eyes opened and stared. They all froze, and Whisper wrenched his arm free, hissing. Rezmir put an arm under her, clearly in pain. She stared, not at Whisper, but at Oszaren.
“You really don’t know what you are, do you?” She rasped.
Oszaren’s blade appeared in his hand at once. “What’s your point?”
“Let me say my piece.”
Oszaren’s sword lowered a fraction of an inch and he inclined his chin. “Say what you will.”
Then, Whisper’s paw was shooting forward, and he dug his claws into Rezmir’s face. “GET OUT!” The tabaxi screamed. “TAKE THIS ONE INSTEAD.”
Before Oszaren could object, flames spiralled around Whisper’s arm and shot into Rezmir, who struggled for a moment before her body, now glowing in the hot light, floated into the air. Whisper pulled back and they all watched the half-dragon’s black form straighten in midair, the flames now coalescing around her and forming into her shape.
Shale and Fillip woke to a strange noise outside.
“Take it easy,” Aidra said gently. “The goodberries helped revive you but you’re both seriously injured. I wouldn’t recommend…”
“What’s happening?” Shale demanded, dizziness hitting her as she got to her feet.
Reverence stood at the door, looking as though he’d just gotten to his feet. His skin was still pale and laced with black tendrils. He looked barely alive. “Rezmir. She’s—glowing.”
Shale ran out and heard Aidra call behind her, “Wait!”
Shale drew her bow at the floating figure of Rezmir, who was engulfed in red flames that didn’t seem to burn her. She released but her arrow shot wide as spectral wings burst from Rezmir’s form, flapped, and brought her a few more feet off the ground. An elated grin split across her dragon-esk face. “Ah,” she rasped, “Tiamat! I knew she’d come back for me!” Her blade appeared in her hand in a flash and she rammed an elbow into Whisper, who went sprawling across the courtyard and didn’t move. She then looked down at Oszaren. “The queen never told you what your fate would be, but I chose the better one!” She flapped her wings higher in the air.
Keelan ran after Whisper. Oszaren threw up his hands and a dark shadow crawled around his body, writhing and alive. Shale carefully held her arrow, waiting to strike. Reverence had raced around the wall and was scaling it, ready to strike at the airborne half-dragon. He paused, then jumped at her, wrapping his arms around her throat. Rezmir’s reddish glow flickered and she dropped a few feet before the wings reappeared. She clawed at the tiefling, and Shale took her chance to put an arrow in her torso. She grunted, and the magical light dimmed, barely holding her aloft.
Rezmir still looked at Oszaren through the shrouding shadows. “The sword the champion won…You and I can never rest.” Her grip on Reverence’s arms slackened. “You’ll never find rest… Is this really the deity you want to serve?”
From the shadows came Oszaren’s voice. “What do you mean?”
Whisper was crawling away to duck behind bits of broken stone. Keelan gripped his sword tightly in his hand and the divine light of his god seemed to radiate in his dark eyes, crackling along the blade. With a roar, the paladin charged. He kicked a boot into a fallen boulder and jumped, and the sword plummeted into Rezmir’s chest. She gasped and Reverence released her as her wings disappeared.
She fell to the stone and Keelan planted his foot on her chest, slowly sliding the blade free and flicking off bits of dark blood. She gasped again, still alive but barely breathing. Keelan placed the tip of his blade at her throat as her eyes slid shut.
“I think now—is your time for answers,” Reverence said, jumping off the wall and looking at Oszaren.
Oszaren’s hands lowered and the shadows around him fell. He stared at the half-dragon thoughtfully. He walked over, bent, and wrenched the black mask from her face with a grimace. The mask immediately remolded, losing its shape until it was flat with simple eye holes. Shale didn’t doubt that it would mold to the next wearer. The warlock, however, simply held it in his hand and continued to stare at Rezmir.
“Alright,” Oszaren said, “I’ll talk to her.”
Reverence nodded to Keelan, and the two of them heaved her up, leaning her against the wall. She coughed, and a bit of blood and spittle dribbled down her square jaw. “She won’t live for very long,” Keelan told the warlock as Reverence wrapped a length of rope around her wrists.
Shale very much doubted the half-dragon could stand, much less cast a spell. She stood a fair distance away with an arrow notched and ready.
Oszaren crouched in front of her, staring contemptuously. “I know when I’m beat,” Rezmir retched, nodding toward the mask. “Careful with that.”
“Whisper? Where are you hiding?” Oszaren called, and the tabaxi stepped almost immediately out of the tower looking wounded but alive, his fey owl perched on his shoulder. Oszaren held up the mask. “Take it.”
Whisper looked shocked and shook his furry head. “I don’t want it.”
Oszaren looked confused.
“Watch her,” Keelan growled to Reverence, then took the mask from Oszaren’s hand and dropped it on the ground. He stared at it for a moment, then lifted his sword and slammed it back down. The mask didn’t crack. It didn’t even dent. He tried again, but nothing happened. The paladin stepped closer and stomped on it with his boot in frustration.
“I’ve been defeated by a bunch of fools,” Rezmir hissed, watching them with disdain.
Keelan swiped it up and stuffed it in his bag, turning his sword back on her.
Oszaren pulled his gaze from where the mask disappeared and looked back at Rezmir, and their eyes met. “Now is the time for you to come clean,” he said dangerously. “Tell me everything you know.”
“If you tell me what you know, it might postpone your meeting her.”
The half-dragon studied him, her breathing pained. “Hear me, then. Perhaps you’ll decide the same as I did.”
Oszaren tilted his chin.
“I was once like you. I fought fervently for the Raven Queen—until I found out what she truly is, what she truly does to her…” she spat the word, “chosen. The sword and the champion are one. You’ve formed an eternal bond with the sword. You’re no longer mortal. The spirit is connected to the sword. Even in death, you will not find peace—always being a slave to the Queen. I tried to find a way out,” she coughed, which turned into a hacking fit, bringing up more blood from her mouth. “This is what I get,” she finally managed to say.
“It’s not a good deal,” Oszaren admitted, sounding troubled. “How did you end up with the Raven Queen?”
“Like you. I was searching for something of great power. I stumbled across it, picked it up—unknowingly—didn’t know what it was. Until I was tied to it.”
“And you think Tiamat was the better option.” It wasn’t a question, but Rezmir smiled, showing bloody teeth.
“Tiamat has given me the strength to disconnect myself from the Raven Queen. Tiamat’s spirit,” she seemed to lose her breath, and nearly fell into another coughing fit. “Her spirit sustains me.”
“So, what you’re saying is that,” Oszaren’s forehead creased, “when we die, our soul becomes part of the weapon?”
“Exactly,” Rezmir said, her eyes gleaming maliciously. “Now you see. The Queen is insane. The blades are evil,” she hissed, “we should destroy them.”
Oszaren straightened and stood. “I don’t think Tiamat is much better.”
“Tiamat,” she said, “knows the purity and power of dragons. She does not enslave. She frees.”
There was a silence, and Reverence said impatiently, “Alright, Oszaren—are you about done with this scum?”
Oszaren nodded slightly. “Yes. I think I am.” He looked at Rezmir for the last time and said, “You are alone in this.”
In one swift movement, the tiefling grabbed Rezmir’s head and twisted, hard. Shale could hear the neck break even where she stood, and she saw the body slump down. Oszaren summoned his blade and severed the head from the body. The scaly flesh around the blade turned to ash and there was an airy gasp as Rezmir’s essence floated up like a dark mist and was sucked into Oszaren’s blade. The sword next her body disappeared in a flash, and the rest of her body crumbled into ash.
Oszaren stared at his blade, then cleared his throat. “I guess there is one less of the chosen, now,” he said, and his blade flashed away.
He brushed through the ash with his boot and clanked against something metal. He picked it up and saw a pair of brass knuckles. He pocketed them with a shrug and turned to Whisper. “Can you help Reverence?”
Reverence looked surprised.
Whisper tilted his head at the monk, whose pale orange flesh was still tightly knit with darkened veins. Shale could still sense the undead aura around him, and became suddenly, uncomfortably aware of it again. The hairs on her neck stood. “I can’t. Not now,” Whisper said. “Maybe later.”
The tabaxi looked exhausted.
“What happened to you?” Keelan asked, putting a hand on the wizard’s shoulder, which he had to reach up to do. “I thought I was going to have to kill you.”
“I thought so too,” Whisper said, chuckling softly. “There was a dragon. A red dragon. It possessed me. I—I can’t speak draconic anymore.”
“Dragon?” Oszaren asked. “How?”
“It was in the book,” Whisper said quietly, clutching his paws in front of himself nervously.
Shale slung her bow over her shoulder and stepped closer to them, and Fillip stumbled out of the tower with Aidra to join them. “What book?” Keelan asked.
“My spellbook,” Whisper said.
“What’s happening?” Fillip asked wearily, showing almost no sign of his usual gusto. Aidra stayed back but listened.
“Whisper was possessed by a red dragon from his book,” Keelan provided.
“Oh, great,” Fillip said, sauntering nearer. He eyed them all in their haggard state and said, “I think we could all use some healing!” With that, he made a flourish in the air and a healing spirit in the shape of himself, but unclothed, appeared before them.
“Wonderful,” Shale said sarcastically, but stepped through the healing spirit anyway. A warmth filled her.
Aidra laughed nervously.
The castle, Shale noticed, was slowing its descent now. “We should check on Blagothkus,” she said, looking up at the tower. She realized it was strange they hadn’t heard from him.
“I’ll come with you,” Keelan offered, and Whisper trotted after them as they made for the tower.
They crossed over the scattered bodies of slain ogres. There were few dead cultists among them. Keelan shook his head sadly at the fallen stone giants. “They fought well,” the paladin said.
“Wait for us,” Reverence called, and the rest jogged through the door and up the blood-streaked stairs. The ever-burning blue flame still burned up the central column of the spiral stairs.
They reached the top of the tower and saw immediately that something was wrong. Blagothkus leaned against the transparent wall holding his gut. The front of his robe was soaked in blood and he wasn’t moving. The giant’s skin was pale and his eyes were open but unseeing. Keelan drew in a breath at once, and Shale knew there was nothing they could do for the giant. He was dead. “A necrotic wound,” Keelan said as they walked over to Blagothkus. She saw the black veins running along his skin now that they were closer. Keelan bent anyway and tried to heal him. Light filled his hand as he touched the wound, but he shook his head. An amulet hung around the giant’s neck, and Keelan glanced at it, then took it and stepped back to examine it.
The steering column was dripping in blood and its light was dim. Oszaren walked to it and placed a palm on the sphere. “I feel… anger and shame inside the castle.”
“Do you think it’s him?” Shale asked.
Oszaren was quiet for a moment, concentrating. “I think so. I can still feel the sadness from before, from his wife, but it’s far off now. Only he’s here.”
“Can you—move his spirit—to join his wife?” Reverence asked.
Oszaren looked at him blankly, then reached into his bag and took out a silver raven’s statue. Hesitantly, he touched it to the sphere and closed his eyes, his other hand on his chest. The snake tattoo around his forearm glowed green and shifted. He stayed like this for a full minute while the rest waited quietly.
Oszaren’s eyes closed and he concentrated, reaching out for the Raven Queen. He felt her presence drift into his mind, and a hollow female voice said, That’s our job. I’m glad you realize it now. In her voice, he could hear pleasure. Death is not the end. Spirits, souls, they lead a new life after this. Whether these two end up together… well, that is up for them to decide. I sense a lot of turmoil between them.
Watch over their souls, Oszaren whispered in his mind, and the presence faded. He opened his eyes and looked at his friends. “I did what I could,” he said.
“Can we bring the castle down?” Shale asked quietly. “I—I need to get off.”
Whisper used a spell to clear the blood from the column.
“We can’t forget the dragon beneath the castle,” Keelan pointed out. “This fight isn’t done yet.”
“I wouldn’t mind going to the beach when all of this is done,” Fillip sighed dreamily.
“I’ll try to bring it down,” Oszaren said, touching the runes on the sphere. Nothing happened, but he felt resistance. He shook his head. “I can’t control the castle. I just sense shame and anger. It won’t listen to me.”
“Try talking to it,” Keelan suggested.
Again, Oszaren closed his eyes, this time projecting his mind into the castle. Tell us where they’re keeping your children. We can save them.
The frustration boiled up, and the voice of Blagothkus came into his mind. It’s no use. It’s over. I failed.
You didn’t fail, the warlock told him. You have us. We can help them. We can save your legacy.
My legacy is nothing… I remember, now… I’m not the giant I thought I was…
What does that mean? Oszaren asked but received no response. We all have a chance at redemption. This is yours.
The rage and pain subsided somewhat, and the castle continued drifting Northward. Oszaren released the sphere and his hands dropped to his side.
In the silence, Shale looked around at the people she’d travelled with for the past half year and felt a sorrowful emptiness. “I think I’m done,” she said hopelessly. “I can’t go on. I,” her voice cracked, “I have nothing left in this fight.”
They all looked at her. “The cult—is still out there,” Reverence said. “We haven’t stopped Tiamat, only slowed her progress.”
“And we still have our promise to fulfill to Blagothkus, to find his family,” Oszaren said.
Shale’s shoulders fell and she said, “I need to rest.” With that, she descended the stairs of the tower, going down until she reached the lowest landing, then moving over to the curtained staircase that led to Rezmir’s chambers.
“Shale,” Keelan called.
She’d been so wrapped in her thoughts she hadn’t heard him following, even in his plated armour. She turned to look at him.
“You don’t have to be alone,” he said, somewhat awkwardly.
Whisper peeked around the stairs and stood next to Keelan, smiling in a very uncharacteristic way. There was something very different about the tabaxi. The darkness that had always been in him seemed to have gone. What was left was a naivety. He tilted his head, the ruby gem in place of his missing eye sparkling curiously. “We’re all friends,” he said.
Shale cleared her throat and blinked quickly. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” She gave a weak smile. “Alright, come on then.”
The three of them descended the smaller stairs, leaving the stench of ogre behind, and found the lavish room beneath. It was unscarred by the battle. The thick rugs and large bed looked incredibly inviting, but Shale moved first to the wardrobe and opened it, checking for traps. Keelan checked the rest of the room, sensing what she was doing. Inside the wardrobe, she found a leather cloak. She took it out and wrapped it around her shoulders curiously.
She looked at Whisper as the tabaxi bent and started a fire in the hearth. It flared up at once, crackling warmly. “Looks nice,” the tabaxi said lightly.
“Oszaren said he’d be first on watch,” Keelan told her, eyeing the bed, then sighing and planting himself next to one of the armchairs. He began unhooking his bracers but kept the breastplate on. They were still in the company of a dragon, after all, albeit a hiding one. Then, he settled in and Shale tossed him a blanket. Whisper had already curled up in front of the fire where the drake had been before. It seemed like ages ago, now, when they’d first landed on the castle tower atop wyverns. Shale crawled into the large bed and leaned into the thick pillows, looking over her friends. Their faces were peaceful, but battle-worn. She let her eyes drift closed, and a dreamless sleep swept over her.
“There’s something moving through the fog,” Oszaren whispered, waking them.
“What?” Keelan murmured sleepily.
“That’s nice,” Shale added groggily, then rolled over and went back to sleep. As she did, she heard Oszaren mutter, “Reverence didn’t care, either… Honestly, you people…”
Keelan’s sleep was filled with visions. He was thirteen. He was standing in the forest, and the scenes seemed to shift before him, fading in and out of memories. The trees rustled in the breeze, and he sat with his friends as they laughed. He stood with his old teacher, the elven prince. They were both mounted on horses. Then they were swinging wooden swords at one another, practicing their steps. He felt a calmness fill him and the dreams faded.
Then, he was standing in blackness. There was nothing except the sound of his own breathing. A wall of fire erupted in front of him, exploding in a burst of blinding light. He was encircled in flames that licked hundreds of feet in the air.
Some of the fire folded back into a hundred-foot tall figure, made entirely of the flames. The figure sat and a chair of fire appeared beneath it. It looked down at Keelan and spoke in a rumbling, primordial voice. “Well done, my little phoenix. These wizards have violated my name for too long. I trust in you. Go, now. Keep doing what you’re doing. Show the world the purifying power of our flame.” Our flame. Yes, Kossuth, Keelan thought. The flaming face seemed to smile, and the dream faded.
Oszaren woke Shale for her watch, and she climbed the stairs, wrapped in Rezmir’s leather cloak. She went up to the tower and peered out over the expansive courtyard, which was shrouded in fog. An unnatural chill filled the castle like a disease.
She jumped when she heard Aidra’s voice. She hadn’t noticed the elf was sleeping in the tower. “I can tell you’ve felt great loss,” she said and gave a sad smile.
“I have,” Shale admitted, feeling a lump in her throat.
“We all have,” she said quietly.
“Who did you lose?”
Aidra reached into her cloak and pulled out a large, crumpled brown feather. “This was Nero. I raised him, fought with him…”
Shale squinted at the elf and saw something she hadn’t noticed before. “You’re a follower of Gwaeron?”
Aidra dipped her head. “That blade you carry,” she pointed at Shale’s back, where her moonblade was sheathed, “Gwaeron must really trust you.”
“I thought I was worthy to carry it, once,” Shale told her, “but now I’m not so sure. I’m not the ranger I was.”
She seemed nervous, hopeful. “I’ve heard he can bring back the things we love.”
Shale reached into her pocket and pulled out the tied bit of fur she’d cut from Trigger’s tail. “You think he can bring back something that’s died?”
“I’ve heard of a place,” Aidra told her, tucking the feather away. “A small forest. The last resting place of Gwaeron. I planned to go there, before I was captured.”
Shale pressed the bit of fur to her chest, and the two rangers shared a look. “Will you take me there?”
“Of course,” Aidra said.
Shale looked back over the foggy courtyard, feeling suddenly hopeful. “Without my fox, I have nothing left to live for,” she said. “No one else to love.”
Aidra stepped away and returned to her bedroll. Shale stood and waited out her watch, then woke Fillip and went back to Rezmir’s chambers to sleep, allowing the warmth to take hold.
Oszaren’s sleep was not made for rest, either. He stood in a low-lit, familiar forest of dead trees. The sky was dotted with sparse stars, and there was a winding dirt path. Without thinking, he walked the path, and his steps seemed to bring him farther than they had before.
Ghostly apparitions passed him in a blur, half-formed and noiseless as they moved swiftly by, all headed in the same direction. His head snapped back and forth as he watched them. Ahead of him, the trees cleared, and a fortress appeared in the distance. Then, a new apparition stopped in front of him and formed into something solid.
The figure was tall, elven, wrinkled. He had a bald head, but in his pointed ears were jewels. He was cloaked in black, and at his belt was a dark flail. He looked Oszaren up and down, expressionless. “The Queen wants to see you,” he said. “Follow me.”
Oszaren didn’t recognize the elf but walked after him. As they continued toward the fortress, some of the ghosts crossed their path, but the elf paid them no mind. Some followed for a while, then drifted away. There were men and women of all ages. Some were elves, half-elves, humans, dwarves. People of every race and gender.
The elf noticed Oszaren staring at them and halted, “This is where the departed come to find their way. It is our job to guide them home.” He turned, then, and continued walking. “Come. Our Queen seeks an audience with her new champion. There will be tests.”
Oszaren finally found his voice. “That’s not very reassuring,” he said uncomfortably, the fortress looming closely now. “Who decides where the souls go?”
“The souls are all destined to be judged in the next plane. Every soul is tethered to the wheel. We’re born, we die,” he gestured to some of the souls surrounding the walls, and Oszaren noticed pale, ghostly umbilical cords hooked into the backs of their necks. The cords all came from the fortress. They were there for a moment, then flickered out of his vision. His glimpse of it was gone. “That is what ties us to the planes,” the elf explained. “It keeps the world tethered.”
They silently walked beside one another for a minute before they reached the massive black iron gates, which opened for them without prompt. The fortress itself was made of sharp, dangerous stones. It was not a welcoming sight. They came to a large door, and the elf threw it open and pointed inside. “In,” he commanded.
There was only inky blackness. Oszaren glanced at the elf uncertainly.
“This is where she’s called you,” he said.
Oszaren hesitantly touched the darkness with his hand and it instantly vanished. He retracted it, and it reappeared in front of him. “Where does this lead?” He asked.
“It leads to her.”
Steeling himself, he stepped through. He looked up and saw an entryway lit by pale, whiteish lanterns that seemed to burn without flame. Within, more spirits milled around. Now he could clearly see the cords hooked to the base of their heads, all converging upwards into the ceiling. He looked up and saw stairs to a second level. A few of the ghostly figures looked terrified or unsure as they drifted by. From the distance, he could hear wailing cries and mournful shouts.
The elf said, “This is where mortals go to die.”
“Why do all of them look so tormented?” Oszaren asked softly.
He sighed, drawing his black cloak closer to himself. “It’s not possible for mortals to know where they go when they die. Even you seeing this has caused your connection to fade.”
Oszaren looked up and saw a cord extending from his own spine and up into the ceiling. He grabbed for it and his hand passed through. It flickered, as though dying. “What happens if the cord is severed?”
“If the cord is broken, you are no longer part of the wheel. Without that, you cannot return to the astral sea when you die. You cannot be reborn.” The elf started up the stairs and Oszaren followed. “This is your first test. And as a champion of the Raven Queen, your cord will be broken.” They continued up the stairs with soft footfalls.
“What will happen with my soul when I die?” Oszaren finally asked.
The elf gave him a sideways look. “That is for the Raven Queen to decide.” At the top of the stairs, there was a door. He put a hand on it and turned to Oszaren. “If you go through this door, you will see her, but you will also lose your connection completely. This is your chance to turn back.” He warned.
Oszaren drew in a breath and stared at the door.
“The Queen has seen something in you,” the elf said. “She’s called you.”
“What happens if I don’t go in?” he finally asked.
The elf dipped his head. “She is not unmerciful. She understands this is a hard step for mortals to take. But know that if you do decide to enter, you will become stronger. As the Queen’s chosen, you will be greatly rewarded.”
“Where did Rezmir turn away?”
The elf smiled. “I say ‘when you go in, there’s no going back’, but that is not the case. One person has done just that, with the help of another, powerful god.”
Oszaren stared at him, then pressed his hand to the door, pushed it open, and stepped through.
More blackness. He took a few steps forward and could hear things moving in the darkness around him. A creature entered his vision: pale skin pulled taut over bone, sunken eyes, completely white and blind, and arms turned to sharp claws. It looked back at him, and he felt a sense of loss. Sudden regret pulled at his stomach as he felt himself moving into nothingness. Is this what his life had been leading to, all along? He’d always excelled, pushing himself to higher learning. First, he’d been a mercenary, fighting and serving others in wars that were not his. Then, a scholar, learning everything he could from the pages of books.
Now, he told himself, was his chance to fight for a nobler cause. For a calling higher than his own. He clenched his fists and kept walking, and the figure passed out of his vision. He felt himself pulled further along the path.
Now, he saw beady-eyed creatures, their backs hunched and pained, their skin brownish and decaying. One creature had a rope attached to a severed arm, and dragging at the end of the rope was its hand. He sensed incredible loneliness in them. To be immortal was to be without friends. There would be no connection for him to mortals if he carried on. He would be alone.
But, he could guard souls through their journeys. He could protect his friends from the darkness of the world. He would see them go through their mortal cycle, yes, but he would be there for many lifetimes. He could meet others. He could help them, too.
He continued forward, and the scene shifted.
Small, spiny creatures with leathery red skin and wide mouths filled with dozens of tiny sharp teeth were crawling about at his feet. They hissed and growled, moving in restless circles. He felt an overwhelming anger at the injustice of it all. He looked around and could suddenly see again the many souls passing through the dead forest around the fortress. Many were young. Some were clutching each other fearfully, looking desperately lost. If not for the mysterious gift the Queen had bestowed on him, he might’ve ended up like any of these souls, their lives shortened before their time. What separated him from them?
Nothing separated him from them. He was the same, if not for the Queen. She gave him his strength.
He pushed ahead.
He entered a large chamber. At the end was a throne with a woman seated at it. He approached, his footsteps echoing eerily in his wake. He reached the foot of the throne and saw the woman was pale, elven, and not fully there. When he tried to focus on aspects of her, they seemed to flitter away, then reform. At her feet was a writhing mass of black feathers, constantly churning as though trying to stretch out to her. On her lap, she held a sword, and Oszaren recognized it as Rezmir’s.
She inclined her head with a grim smile. “Congratulations, Oszaren,” the Queen’s voice was familiar and deep. “You’re one of mine, now. You now live to help with the turning of the wheel.” She shifted on her throne and more of her form fluttered, then reformed. “We deal in dark things. We must not latch onto the darkness itself, however. We are apart from it. You must remember that.”
He felt a tug on the back of his neck and looked up as his cord pulled away and vanished. He felt strange, but not unwell.
She spoke again. “My hexblades were once my greatest warriors. They protected me as I built my empire and formed myself a place amongst the other gods. They were, regrettably, wiped out. But, now,” she smiled again, “the first of them is back.”
“I’m the first?” Oszaren asked.
The Queen’s eyes flashed with a hint of darkness and her grip tightened on the hilt of Rezmir’s sword. “You are, now. The other betrayed me.” She held up the blade to him and said, “This is now yours.”
Oszaren stared. “I have one, already,” he managed to say.
“Take them both, and find the next who is worthy, and shares your desire to make the world better. This,” she held his gaze, “is your first task. There should always be three.”
The warlock took the sword and knelt at her feet, ignoring the churning mass of black wings, and turned his gaze back to hers. “Thank you, my lady.” He said humbly.
She seemed amused at his expression. “Do you have any more questions for me, Oszaren?”
This time, he didn’t hesitate. “What happened to our giant friend? There were two souls in the castle, but I think one left.”
She leaned back. The Raven Queen’s dark eyes seemed to look at something far off. She watched for a while, then returned. “One is trying to get to this place, but the other is—stuck.”
Oszaren dipped his head. “I will try to help.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Anything else?”
He thought. “What will happen when I die?”
“Your soul,” she said wistfully, “will go into the sword and live on. They were made from their previous owners. It’s the price we must pay for controlling the wheel, since we can’t be a part of it.”
“Will I be able to connect, and pass on the knowledge and skills I acquired during my life?”