Well, it turns out that I really suck at drawing after being years out of practice. Who could have guessed? So since my drawings aren't up to the task, I'll use my words instead. I really wanted to do this as a graphic novel, since I can show one story while telling another in that medium. But whatever. Here's this, and I'll have another up over the weekend, and then we'll see where it goes. Cheers!
The ape farmer runs through his cornfield, bending the weak stalks aside as gently as he can. Meager as it is, it is almost time to harvest, and the last thing he needs is a thief stealing what precious little is leftover once he’s set aside enough for taxes and next season’s seed corn.
“Oi! You there!” He shouts as he gains ground on the red hood in the distance. Something next to the hood is shining – the glare was what alerted him to the intruder’s presence in the first place.
“Hey! You can’t just – ” he stops short at the sight of black armor. The intruder has also stopped, standing in full view with a single row of bent and yellow-green cornstalks between them. A simple X-frame holds a poleaxe crossed against a pair of short-swords, overlaid with the tattered remains of a red cape that flutters beneath the intruder’s shoulder blades in the breeze. “Ho! Sorry, sir knight. I did not – ”
The farmer is brought up short again – the intruder has turned to face him, and now he can see that he is a she. The farmer falls to a knee, head bowed in genuflection. “My apologies again, battlemaiden. I did not see your blackened steel. Most passing soldiers stick to the road.”
“Why, yes,” the farmer replies, standing and dusting off his knees.
“Such hard work.” She releases the ear of corn, and it sways gently to nearly where it once was. The soldier looks at him appraisingly, and he is suddenly conscious of his threadbare clothes. But he is still a farmer, and he tries to stand proud, breathing deep into his barrel chest. “And your taxes to the crown?”
“No more than I can manage,” he says, measuring his words carefully. “Though, truth be told, not much less.” She cocks her head, and he averts his eyes.
“You are good to your King,” she says. “And you are good to your land. May lord and land also be good unto you.” The farmer takes a knee once more.
“Thank you, battlemaiden. You honor me with your kind words.” The soldier turns and walks away, passing gently between the stalks of struggling corn. She speaks over her shoulder as she fades from sight:
“Respect that honor. Pass on the kindnesses you receive to those who are less fortunate.”
The farmer rises and dusts his knees off once more. He turns around to head back to his house, and pauses. His eyes might be playing tricks on him, but he could swear that his corn is looking a little greener, standing a little taller.
The soldier walks West, due West. Leaving the farmer’s field behind, she passes through plains, deviating from her Westward trek only to step around small trees. Foothills rise in the North, and mountains behind them. The Sun rises behind her, stares straight down at her for a moment, and then leads her on into sunset.
She walks on into the night, coming to a thick forest. She passes near a cobbled road, giving it a wide berth. Her hood is down, her eyes alert: she senses the woodland creatures fleeing her presence, but her long ears do not hear so much as a rustling of leaves, save for the wind in the trees. She climbs surefooted over gnarled roots that rise nearly to her waist, gripping gently with the claws at her hands and the talons at her feet. She leaves the forest just before dawn, and sees the trees run away to the Northwest where they clothe the mountains. She draws up her hood with the rising of the Sun, and lets it chase her across the scrub plain.
She does not rest. She does not eat. She does not drink.
She walks West, due West.
At noon, the scrub has given way to desert. This far from civilization, she can let down her guard, and her hood. The wind blows through her short, black hair – and she stops.
Something is coming. Something frightened.
Her ears twitch as a keening wail rises from the desert ahead. From over the first of the dunes, a lone figure comes running on all fours: a goblin, small and furry, ears tucked back against her head and shrieking to wake the Devil. Her jackrabbit legs kick sand up into the air, her pack bounces and jostles upon her back.
The soldier bends down to grab the goblin by the scruff of the neck as she passes, careful not to let her claws tear through the terrified creature’s pelt. The goblin’s cry ends in a strangled rasp as her momentum is directed unexpectedly upward, and her eyes go wide.
The soldier turns herself, and turns the goblin to face her, holding her at eye level.
“What’s the rush,” the soldier asks calmly. The goblin swallows hard, considers for a moment, then points frantically to the West.
“EARTHWORMS,” she shouts.
The soldier sets the goblin down and smoothes out the fur on the nape of her neck.
“Yeah,” she says with disinterest, “You’ll have those out here.”
The soldier looks at the goblin for a moment. No doubt about it, the tiny creature sees her for what she is, and does not dare to look away as she smoothes out the fur on her tail. But curiosity percolates up from beneath her fear, and the soldier risks a question –
The goblin looks up at the soldier for a moment. No doubt about it, this is a glyphed knight of old – the black stone armor, all crescent moons and wicked talons; the moonsteel of her poleaxe, two gleaming crescents atop an ironwood haft. She does not dare look away as she smoothes out the fur on her tail. Yet she still draws breath, and so curiosity eventually overcomes her fear –
“So what brings you out here,” the soldier asks. The goblin pantomimes a curtsy, wearing only a waistcoat, her pack, and a pair of daggers on her belt.
“Hackard, at your service.” She looks back up at the glyphed knight. “Odd jobs and treasure hunting, that’s my game!” She grins, and reaches around into her pack. “As it happens, I could use the services of one such as you.” The goblin produces a sack of gold coins in her long fingers, her incisors shining in a goofy grin. “I pay in gold.”
The soldier plucks a coin from the bulging sack and raises it to her eye. There is the head of a crowned ape, and around the edge are stamped the words, IN GLOD WE TRUST.
“The mint misspelled ‘gold’,” the soldier says after a moment.
“No, they didn’t,” Hackard says, taking the coin back with her free left hand. “That’s the ape King’s name: Olihem Glod, son of Durf, grandson of Narm.” She shrugs, still holding the coin purse aloft. “The Glods have a load of funny names. But their coin is accepted anywhere the common tongue is spoken.”
“I see,” the soldier says. “And how does a goblin come by so much ape gold?” Hackard withdraws the bag of gold with a worried look, and waves a finger at the glyphed knight.
“Tell you what,” she says, suddenly smug, “You don’t question my wealth of undisclosed provenance, and I won’t question the first sky elf to walk the Earth in eight hundred years.” She pauses, and hoists the bag once more. “Deal?”
The soldier eyes the goblin with suspicion, then shrugs. “Deal.” She takes the bag of gold in her left hand, and shakes hands with the goblin with her right, then ties the bag of coins to her belt.
The pair head West, into the rising dunes.
The goblin trots beside the soldier on all fours, her shoulders rising barely above the sky elf’s knees. They crest the first dune, then the second, and soon they are beyond counting. Hackard looks this way and that; the elf’s gaze is fixed always upon the West.
After a time, the goblin speaks.
“So you’re my bodyguard, then?”
“I suppose so,” the soldier says impassively.
“So you’ll protect me from harm?”
The goblin rises on her hind legs and strokes her chin as she walks. “Will you kill on command?”
“No,” the soldier says flatly.
“Aww! Why not?”
“Protection and killing are not the same.”
“You can protect me by killing.”
“But I won’t.”
“Not even when necessary?”
The elf takes a few steps before answering. “Only then,” she replies at last.
“What if I just finish ‘em off?”
“Then we’re through.”
“Ugh! So boring!”
“If you say so,” the soldier says with a shrug.
“I thought you sky elves were all about the killing?”
The soldier wheels on the goblin, her eyes glowing red with fury. “We were.” The goblin stops in her tracks and takes a step back. “But now my people are no more,” the soldier continues, the fury fading from her eyes, “So I decide what sky elves are ‘all about’.” Her face settles back into impassivity, and the soldier walks West once again. After a beat, the goblin trots to catch up.
“Why the sudden change of heart?”
“You forget our deal,” the soldier reminds her with an upraised finger.
“But you answered all my other questions!”
“You can question our business arrangement. You can question my methods. You cannot question me.” The soldier stops walking after speaking, putting a hand in Hackard’s way. They stand in a trough between two dunes. “Hold up. You feel that?”
The sand shifts beneath their feet, and Hackard runs back to the East again, crying, “EARTHWORM!”
The earthworm rises, swift and silent, sand falling from between its segments as it encircles the elf. She reaches for her halberd and draws it out, holding it at the ready as the beast towers above her, its tail still buried even as its body is coiled around her. Its maw opens, saliva glistening on rows of jagged teeth, and the beast dives down as though to tie itself in a knot. The mouth easily accommodates even the massive glyphed knight, who does not flinch even as she is swallowed whole. The earthworm raises its head, peristaltic contractions rippling down its body, and closes its mouth.
Hackard peers over the dune at the earthworm, still reared up and swallowing its latest meal. The beast twitches, convulses, and utters a resounding call that shakes the very dunes:
A jagged point of ice pierces the earthworm’s flesh from the inside, and red blood pours from the wound. The icy halberd grows in girth as it leaves the worm’s body, and now chunky yellow bile begins to seep from the gash. Two glowing crescent moons emerge, buried deep within the ice, followed by an ironwood haft. A glyph glows blue upon the blade, seeming to burn from within the ice. As the elf’s armored hand emerges, her free hand grips the edge of the steaming, fleshy hole. She pulls herself free, drops her halberd on the sand, and flops down onto her back. The soldier is positively soaked in grossness, and Hackard almost retches as the smell wafts over her.
The elf rolls over to her elbows and knees, reaching for her halberd.
“Bleh,” she says, gore dripping from her face. She stands, her halberd at her side, and wipes some of the mess off the tattered tabard that reaches down to her diaphragm. The gesture strikes her as rather like trying to sweep away a dune with a dustbroom, and she quits with a shrug. The ice on her halberd has begun to melt in the sunlight, its glyph gone dark, and she turns to the beast.
Her eyes glow red once more, and a glyph of lifeblood glows upon her breastplate, just above where her tabard hangs in tatters. She places her left hand over the earthworm’s wound, and the jagged gash begins to close up.
The soldier wipes blood and bile from the healed wound, despite her own filthy condition. “Off you go, now,” she says, patting the massive segment. The earthworm sinks silently beneath the sand as the last bits of ice fall from the glyphed knight’s blade. As the earthworm disappears beneath the shifting sands, Hackard trots warily down from atop the dune.
“You’re letting it go? It tried to eat you!”
“And failed,” the soldier replies. “Turns out, I don’t taste so good.” Hackard walks up to the soldier on two legs as she puts away her halberd.
“I’d teach it a thing or two more, if I had that kind of power.”
“Lucky for her,” the soldier says, walking Westward once more, “You don’t.”
“Her? You know she’s female?”
“How can you tell?”
“I sense the lifeblood in all things.”
“Is that what your glyphs do?”
“Remember our deal,” the soldier says, raising a cautionary finger.
“Fine,” the goblin says, rolling her eyes. After a moment, she asks, “How do glyphs work?”
The soldier pauses to stare at the goblin. “Clever girl.” She resumes walking. “But hieroglyphics are not my field,” she says, lifting her chin. “Before I was ‘all about the killing,’ I raised and trained hawks. You’d have to talk to a hieromagus to find out the principles of hieromancy.”
“OK, so where do I find a hieromagus these days?”
The soldier spreads her hands and shrugs ever so slightly, an unsmiling but innocent look on her face.
They crest the dune, and walk on to the West.
As the Sun sets, Hackard pauses to cut up a cactus. She shaves off the needles with her obsidian dagger, and carefully saws at the base as she tips it over. Some water is lost, but there is plenty of moisture in the flesh of the plant, and the goblin soon catches up to the soldier as she eats her meal on the run.
Well into the night, the goblin sleeps on the sky elf’s back, resting in the X-frame holding the soldier’s weapons. With no competing light source, the Moon and stars shine radiant in the sky.
Day breaks again to see the soldier and the goblin trekking ever to the West. They walk in silence, the goblin breaking stride only to take a swallow or two from her canteen. The sands begin to give way to hard-packed Earth, and soon the rolling dunes are replaced with rocky crags and crevasses: they have made it out of the blighted desert, and into the badlands. The soldier walks ever onward; the goblin stops and shields her eyes from the harsh glare of the Sun.
“Whew! Finally!” She allows her shoulders to slump, and pants vigorously.
The soldier walks on, great mesas and weathered spires rising before her from the flaked and craggy surface, all bearing sedimentary stripes. She calls over her shoulder, “We’re just getting started.”
The goblin draws a sharp breath and pauses for thought, then resumes panting with a shrug and pads after the sky elf.
In the afternoon, a curious mesa looms: it appears to have been hollowed out, and it casts a striking, holey shadow toward them across the badlands.
The soldier crosses the apparent threshold of an entranceway, though no markings remain to distinguish it. The walls across from her and to her left have crumbled, and a pile of dust and rubble rises in the one remaining corner to her right. She walks with purpose, appearing to own the place, despite the dried worm gunk which has not yet been sandblasted off of her. Hackard follows, walking calmly but gazing in wonder at what must have been.
The sky elf stops at the foot of the rubble pile, her arms folded, tapping her chin in contemplation. After a moment, she reaches out with her right hand, aflame with frostfire: a glyph glows from a small jagged plate at the back of her hand, and a chunk of rubble the size of a carriage freezes together. She then reaches out with her left hand, and another glyph glows green: smoky tendrils reach out and grasp the icy boulder. The soldier then closes her left hand into a fist, and flings it back over her shoulder – the frosty mass is pulled free, and flies some hundred yards distant.
Hackard stares up at the glyphed knight as she scrutinizes her work, rubble tumbling in to fill the void left behind. “Neat trick,” the goblin says.
Without a word, the soldier repeats the process: freeze, fling; freeze, fling. Over and over, she fuses the decay of centuries into icy boulders with her right hand, and tosses the mass over her shoulder with a whip of the smoky green tendrils from her left. Soon, what was once a stairway is exposed, though now little more than a hole in the ground remains. The soldier steps to the edge, and drops inside.
Hackard stares down some dozen-odd yards along a narrow shaft of light, and sees the glyphed knight in a crouch atop another pile of rubble. The goblin spies handholds in the rough rock, and scrambles down the wall to follow. The room stretches beyond estimation into impenetrable darkness. As Hackard reaches the floor, the soldier is drawing her halberd.
“Hang on,” the goblin says, “I’ve got flares in my pack.”
“No need,” the soldier says, lighting the tip of her poleaxe with frostfire. She walks into the darkness, the makeshift torch casting flickering blue light for several yards around her. The goblin follows, trepidation staying her feet for some moments. At last, she sets one foot into the twilight between the column of sunlight and the circle of frostfire.
“So,” Hackard asks after catching up to the soldier, “Is this place what I think it is?”
The sky elf taps her temple, eyebrows raised. “That depends on what you think it is.” The moonsteel of her blade is gathering frost.
The goblin steps closer, reaching for the sky elf’s free left hand. “Is this… Kolrana Tha’gar? The fortress prison?”
“The very same,” she replies, taking Hackard’s hand. “Tell me, young goblin, how do you know the Castle of Great Change?”
“I heard this was where Deathsong kept her prisoners and forced them to toil under the lash of the undead.” Legends of an age long past pour through the goblin’s mind, tales of a war won only by the grace of the gods themselves.
“Not quite,” the soldier says. “The army of Mara’Na’Raya did indeed bring people here, but not for labor.” They come to a wall. The soldier lays a hand upon one worn stone, and presses. After a moment, her eyes glow dimly red, and she presses harder – the stone recedes into the wall, but nothing further happens. “Hmm. Busted.” With a flick of her left hand and a flash of green magic, the elf removes a chunk of the wall with her phantom arm. Another staircase is revealed, and they descend into further darkness. “Deathsong’s agents would literally drag anybody they could find to this place,” the elf continues, measuring out her words with slow care as they walk the well-worn steps. “The journey killed them without fail: at least two days in the desert without food, water, or rest. The corpses were still fresh on arrival, though. And so they were raised… and sent back out under Deathsong’s command to continue the cycle.”
They reach the foot of the staircase, and before them stands a large, intricately carved double door. “And what was your part in this operation,” Hackard asks at last.
The soldier turns to face the goblin – there is no anger in her face, but her eyes glow red. Backlit by the frostfire light, her face takes on an ominously remorseful countenance.
“All of it.” A beat passes before the soldier speaks again. “I set fire to the villages myself. With my own hand, I struck half their number dead. I raised the corpses on the spot, and bade them drag their living kin to this very door before us.” Memories of thatched-roof cottages blazing to the heavens; the screams of men, women, and children; the cries for mercy fading inevitably to pleas for water, and finally silence; these things flash upon the soldier’s memory in an unbidden flood. Her eyes narrow and dim, and she turns once again to the door.
“To,” the goblin asks, all raised hackles and wariness.
“Behold!” The soldier throws the doors wide upon a sacrificial chamber. The floor is festooned with countless faded stains radiating from a wide altar, and behind it stands a great crystal. It is shattered at the top, with dim shards scattered upon the floor, but it nevertheless glows with a powerful green. “The glyph crystal of assumption!”
The goblin scampers through the chamber, heedless of the death and history permeating the place. “The bastards! They wrecked it!”
The soldier lowers her halberd to the floor; the blue glyph of frostfire has faded, and now the green glyph of assumption glows. “Hardly,” she says, scraping the blade in a smoking green arc across the floor. “It is in many pieces, but no less potent for that.”
Hackard lifts a glowing shard carefully, with both hands. “What can you do with a piece of this thing?”
The soldier has traced an enormous semi-circle around the altar and the remnants of the glyph crystal. “Damned if I know,” she says.
“No matter,” says the goblin, picking shards up off the floor. “I’ll just gather all these up.”
“What for,” the soldier asks. She has completed her circle, and now bisects it between the altar and the crystal. Hackard is piling up shards upon the altar, next to her pack.
“What for? Just imagine!” The goblin spreads her hands before her in the gloomy green glow, gesturing at a panorama only she can see. “The glyph crystal of assumption, a relic of the war for Sagacia! On display in a museum for all to see – a magical artifact from eight centuries ago!” The soldier’s line takes her past the fantasizing goblin, and the elf nudges her out of the way. “Uff! What’cha doin’?” The soldier reaches the other side of her great circle, and draws a smaller one around where the line intersects it, completing a giant glyph of assumption which begins to glow its own dim, smoky green.
“What I came here to do,” the sky elf says, her glyph complete, raising her poleaxe above her head. The moonsteel flashes with a brighter green. “Destroying it.”
“NO!” The goblin shouts, leaping at the soldier as she thrusts her halberd downward; Hackard has unwittingly given herself precious distance at the moment of impact. The crystal shatters explosively as the light itself flies free of the stone. Hackard is thrown against the wall of the chamber with a grunt; the escaping magic has stricken her from the left side of her waist across to her right shoulder, and even from beneath her waistcoat, her formerly brown fur now glows a dim, pale green.
The soldier has also been knocked off her feet. All is soon swallowed by utter darkness.
A red eye opens, startled into blazing wakefulness. A second, groggy, then the eyes dim and fade. A thought forms – How long was I out?
There is no answering that question for certain.
The soldier raises her poleaxe and leans on it as she rises to her feet, lighting the blade with frostfire once again. Hackard rests her head against the wall and says, “Please don’t puke. Please, gods, let me not puke.” As the sky elf offers the goblin a hand up, her glyph of lifeblood flashes bright red.
“You’ll be fine,” the soldier says as the goblin rises to an uneasy stagger. “You’re just void-touched now, that’s all.”
The goblin dusts herself off, composes herself, and examines her new white stripe in the blue light. “Neat. Any interesting side effects?” The soldier walks back to the door as Hackard gathers her pack.
“No clue. Probably takes ten years off your life.” She steps into the stairway, leaving the goblin in darkness.
“Hey! Wait a damn second,” Hackard calls after her. The soldier stops at the second stair, looking blankly back at her goblin companion.
“Sorry. Are you quite ready?”
“Yeah,” the goblin says, re-shouldering her pack as they travel back up the stairway. “So what the Hell was that?”
“I suppose,” the soldier says after a moment’s consideration, “That was hieromancy.”
“You said you didn’t know hieromancy!”
“I don’t understand the principles of hieromancy,” the sky elf reminds her, stepping once more into the great chamber. “I only know my three glyphs. In fact, I’m trying to get rid of it once and for all.” The yellow shaft of sunlight glows dimly across the way. “I hope you weren’t fond of that rock.”
Hackard thinks as they near the pillar of daylight. “I still don’t see why you needed to destroy such a priceless relic.”
“Well, then I’ll have to break your heart at least twice more. Remember: no questioning.”
Hackard scrambles back up the wall, and the soldier draws her short-swords: one ironwood grip is at her left shoulder, the other at the right side of her waist. She plunges the black blades into the yielding stone, and hauls herself up the wall hand over hand, as it were.
“So where are the other two glyph crystals,” Hackard calls down into the hole.
“The glyph crystal of frostfire is in the Northern Tundra, I’m sure of that. As for the glyph crystal of lifeblood… let’s say that I’ve got a bearing on it.” The sky elf emerges from the hole as Hackard sits back on her haunches.
“How do you know where they are?”
“I can feel them,” she says, looking blankly at the goblin. She now appears merely dirty, dust having caked over most of the remaining worm guts. “Just as I can feel the blood in your veins or the sap of a tree.” The soldier rises to her feet and sheathes her swords.
“And if I decide not to help you destroy these ancient treasures?” The elf and the goblin regard each other coolly for a moment.
“Try and stop me,” the glyphed knight says at last.
“I’ll rescind your pay,” Hackard says threateningly. The soldier immediately unties the bag of gold and drops it at her feet.
“Take it,” the soldier says. “And while you’re at it, you can find your own way back through the blighted desert.” Hackard does a double-take between the discarded coin purse and the departing knight.
“Wait! Fine,” she cries, diving on the bag of gold. She runs after the sky elf, gold held high. “Keep the money! Just don’t tell any other goblins that I helped you wreck magic power crystals!”
They walk through the ancient doorway in the afternoon sunlight, the shifting sands looming in the distance. “Have it your way,” the soldier says. “None shall know how you helped the last sky elf destroy the vestiges of Deathsong’s power, bringing peace and prosperity to the land.”“Well,” Hackard drawls, “When you put it that way…”