by Seth Lindberg
1 - Return
Karel Royd lay under the blackened tree on the hill where he returned until the Arab found him. Pain wracked his weakened body. He thought briefly of duty, attempted to lift his broad blade from the damp earth, and then collapsed once again.
Ah well, he thought. Here is as good a place to die as anywhere else.
He watched helplessly as the Arab ascended the hill, stopped and stood a few feet away from him, grinning.
"You've come so quickly," he rumbled, faintly surprised.
"Well," said the Arab with a shrug, "I was happening by and thought to myself, 'What might be up there by this dead tree?'"
Karel rose to one elbow, "Please," he murmured, "I am a knight of the..." He paused. He couldn't for the life of him remember his position, or where he had just come from.
The Arab raised a plucked eyebrow, "Oh dear," he said, feigning concern. "Are you perhaps Sir Karel Royd?"
"I am," Karel said.
The Arab looked down the hill, then glanced back at Karel, "You're supposed to be dead, all of you." Karel raised an eyebrow as the Arab continued. "You, your companions, and the Margrave's son."
2 -Final Threshold
The manor lay on the outskirts of town. He barely fit into the Arab's battered Fiat, and enjoyed stretching his legs as he managed his way into it's ancient confines. At night, with the lights out, the manse looked like some gigantic black toad resting on the manicured lawns of the estate.
Although rested and healed, he found it too difficult to hold his blade while walking, so with difficulty he strapped it to his back. It had a name, he dimly recalled. Truth. Some blades name themselves, Karel knew. Some blades whispered their names to their owners, screamed it in battle. Truth was something he had called his blade, some reference to a time he no longer remembered. Some dim joke or philosophical point made in youth, no longer appropriate.
The Arab walked beside him, both excited and frightened. He slouched a bit, his turban tightly wound on his head, the headphones from a portable compact-disk player around his neck. The headphones tinnily blared bad house music mixed with the undulating cadences of middle-eastern singing. The tiny sounds jangled Karel's senses, but he had no energy to tell the Arab to turn it off.
The servants in the darkened manor looked appropriately surprised to see the giant and his wanderer escort. "Sir Karel!" said the butler, running over.
Karel turned, ducking as he walked into the archway, "Aye."
The butler had a long expression, sober. He'd served the Margrave for as long as anyone could remember. In older times he'd been happier, meddlesome, some would say. These days, he took on the quiet characteristics of his lord. "It has...been a long time. Thirteen months."
"Aye," said Karel, though it seemed to him only a few days since he left.
"A lot.." said the butler, "a lot has changed. But first, how fares the Margrave's son?"
Karel furrowed his brow, "I do not know," he said truthfully. "Dead, I suppose."
The butler looked ashen. "Terrible news," he breathed. "Perhaps the tales of a curse is correct."
"I do not know," said Karel, stonily. "I must see the Margrave immediately." He turned to walk. The Arab, though uninvited, strode with him, much to Karel's annoyance.
"Wait," said the butler, a pained look on the old man's face.
Karel turned, silently.
"It's about the woman you watched over, the artist."
Karel raised an eyebrow, remaining silent.
"She's...she died two months ago," the butler said quietly.
Karel felt suddenly weightless, dizzy. He turned slowly, uncomprehendingly. Who...who did this to her?" He heard his voice, it sounded like someone else's.
"Herself," the butler said faintly.
On a stone chair fashioned long before recorded time, in the darkened halls below the manor where no human had tread for centuries, the Margrave sat. Here he had stayed, locking deep within these catacombs long ago when his race fled this world in a time known as the Shattering, and here he waited when they returned, opening his doors, rejoining the world.
The Margrave's features did not betray age, save his long silvery hair, but his expression seemed steeped with ancient silence. All about him had the aura of some strange and noble elegance, especially his eyes, which were of such a dark blue they almost looked entirely black. He seemed especially distant on this night, while Karel spoke of what he could remember of the quest deep into Misted Lands, far from the firmaments of this world.
Karel's eyes strayed up to the Margrave's coat of arms. A splayed, two-headed eagle in silver on a green field. Only a slight difference from the crest of the Margrave's noble house. He shut his eyes and finished the tale, the little that he knew.
After what seemed like an eternity of silence in the cool chambers deep below, the Margrave rose and spoke. "Come closer, fuidir."
Karel did as he was told, hearing the echoes of his feet against the cold earth.
"Lift this chair, fuidir," the Margrave said softly.
Karel glanced over at the noble's beautiful features, then turned and grasped his arms around the ancient throne. With all of his effort, and all of his leverage, he could not lift the chair an inch.
Never before had he felt such wrath, never before had the proud giant's form trembled like now. Yet the Margrave stayed still, not moving to harm Karel. With eyes blazing with rage, the old noble uttered only, "Leave."
3 - The Road Back
"So what was your Oath, Blue?" said the Arab, shouting over the wind.
They drove down the autobahn in the tiny Fiat, top down. Karel had to duck to keep from getting blasted by the wind. Speeding along, they crested the hills, following a ribbon of taillights to the city ahead. "'Tis none of your concern, Arab."
Karel looked up, "Eh?"
"I'm Iranian, not Arab, though I do have an Arab name. Marid al-Rafi. 'Rebel to the exalted'. Quite fitting, actually." Marid smiled easily.
Karel grimaced and said nothing, watching the night pass by.
"You're a lot like your liege, you know that?" Marid paused, then said, "Well, ex-liege. Both so expressionless."
Karel glanced back, raising an eyebrow. Finally he said, "I'm sorry, Marid. I'm rude...I've been through a lot."
Marid smiled, "Apology accepted. Or excepted. Either way. But what I really want is the story. After all, think of all I've done for you so far."
Karel glanced over.
"Oh come now, you think I offered you a ride because I pitied you? Now spit it out."
Karel sighed. It didn't seem like to much to ask. "I swore an Oath to protect the Margrave's son, Tiberius." He watched the lights go by. They seemed all so dim.
"And your loss of strength means..." Marid said, his voice drifting off with the wind.
"He's dead," Karel said flatly.
"You willingly broke your Oath," Marid whispered, barely heard over the howling winds as the Fiat sped it's way into the city limits.
"You're a fucking fool, Karel."
"Don't get into this," the giant replied, a large hand raised to the row of horns on the top of his head. "I just want to see it."
"You're an outlaw here. This Pfaltzgravat stretches all the way south to the Kingdom of Bavaria. You should be going, you should already be gone, Karel."
He raised his head up and glanced at the door. Quietly he said, "I make my own choices in life."
The ruddy-cheeked man sighed, slumping. "Very well. This way." The smaller man led Karel deeper into the warehouse. "It's back here. I didn't know where to put it to keep it from my work." He sounded apologetic. Karel kept walking. He imagined Marid left behind, stewing in the front area with the diminutive man's surly helper. The thought made him smile faintly. "The thing should be in a fucking gallery, not with me. But you know how it is, no one wanted to go against her wishes, and she knew I could keep it for you."
"Here it is," the little man said. He turned, pulling the old blanket off of the painting. He had an expectant smile on his face.
Karel looked up, taking in the whole of the piece. It was a staggering triptych, unbalanced heavily to the point where the right painting was that of a landscape, the left painting all action, a blur of figures, vivid dripping red paint. The center painting portrayed a mixture of the two, clashing lines against the flat landscapes, sprayed blood. The phrase, "Love or lust?" was scrawled with heavy paint across the top of the middle painting.
In the left painting, Karel saw his own, abstracted image looking back, screaming with rage. He saw the ridges of horns on the top of his head. His sword, Truth, dipped in scarlet.
He heard the ruddy-faced workman behind him speaking, but for a moment all his attentions were focused on the picture. Karel was not a man of aesthetic pleasures, he was a creature of duty, but this...
"-such a perfect knight. It's fitting in a way, you have to admit it-"
...each brushstroke spoke of ache. If he had not known her style so well, guided her fragile ego and constantly reinforced her, spoke to her nights on end about the power of her artwork, he would not believe that such a fragile creature like Alicia could have made this.
"-had to fall, Karel. That's the problem with perfection."
Only one thing wrong with this, he thought as he tried to sort himself out. I never once showed her my true side. I shielded her from the Court, from this whole way of life. Not like the others who giddily introduced their mortal lovers, knowing they'd forget or not caring, wanting to show themselves as something more than what they saw them as, as if being a member of this ancient race that had hidden themselves amongst Humanity was some kind of badge or pledge...
"-so simple. There's just no way to go. No way, but down."
Karel turned to peer at the man. He felt so weak, not only physically but weak to his soul as well. He tried to bring his thoughts away from that travesty on canvas, back to the man he'd known, worked with, dealt with for so many years.
The old smith looked shocked, flushed. Raised a callused hand to Karel's blue face. "I..I don't think I've ever seen you cry, Karel." He said softly. "I don't know if I like it."
He blinked, confused. Me? he thought. "I never showed her this side of me," he whispered, thinking of his image on the painting. The phrase had a double meaning, he realized after he said it.
The old worker looked at him, his pug nose twitching. "Let's go, Karel," he said.
5 - Supreme Ordeal
"But I'm not a Turk," said Marid, annoyed now. "I'm Persian. I'm descended from a long line of conquerors, all the way back to Darius the Great." He shook his head. "I hate the bloody Turks as much as you do."
The club girl wrinkled her nose.
Germans, thought Marid bitterly. "At least let me buy you a drink, eh?" He glanced around the noisy club, looking for Karel. A good night of rest and partying was exactly what that uptight warrior needed. Stop dwelling on all his failures and go kiss life in the face.
"All right," said the girl. She was cute, blonde, with that same bland indifference that all Germans seemed to have.
Marid grinned, "Jaegermeister, right?" When she shook her head he said, "I thought all you guys liked Jaeger." He scanned the crowd. A tall man like him should be easy to spot. When she laughed he grinned back. See? he thought to himself. She's not so bad.
He could make her fall in love with him, if he wanted to. All it'd take was a little sorcery and a bit of doggerel poetry. But that'd be too easy, now wouldn't it? Where's the challenge in that?
He got whatever the girl ordered, and it tasted awful, like cough syrup. Apparently some new craze, an energy drink mixed with vodka. He frowned. Something didn't seem right tonight, but he couldn't put his finger on what. He remembered an immortal king dropping a sapphire in his lap after a tale around a campfire. Traveling with Bedouins across the Empty Quarter, fighting gigantic birds, wooing princesses in disguise...all lost now, long ago. This mortal world lived stronger every day, crushing the myth to bone powder. Remnants like he and Karel lived, picking their way through the wreckage, cataloguing the slow descent of an age of clever stories and magical lies into an abyss of truth and reality.
A half hour later and he'd heard the girl's life story and already forgotten it. It just seemed all too easy to him, no challenge, no joy. She had a firm, lithe body, but he'd had those before. He could imagine her, lying beneath him almost still, waiting for him to do all the work.
But after a few drinks, it didn't seem like the end of the world. The club was beginning to annoy him. "Come on," he said to her. "I need some fresh air."
They walked out of the dingy nightclub and into an alley. He saw figures in the darkness and tensed. Thugs, four or five of them, over a body. Karel, he thought, clenching his jaw. He let his vision blur a bit and focused on their true forms. They were hideous, all except the leader, blue-skinned and gigantic, with horns on his head like that of a ram. Damn, he thought. No way I can take them.
The largest one laughed, "Karel," he said sneering, "I've waited so long for this. We'll expel you from the kingdom, but expect us to take our time. It has to hurt, you see."
"Listen to me," he said. He had no time to explain, hated to do this in front of a mortal, but knew she'd forget this all in the morning. "It's a poem, by Rilke" She furrowed her brow and gazed up at him, her clear blue eyes clouded by alcohol. "He's one of your people's heroes." No time, he thought, if I screw each of the three parts up, Karel's lost, and so am I. He took a deep breath and repeated: "From seeing the bars, his gaze is so exhausted,
- that it no longer holds anything anymore.
- To him, the world is bars, a hundred thousand
- bars, and behind the bars, nothing.
The glamour, the force of myth left him and was shaped by the words of the poem. One of the figures down the way rose from the pummels and kicks directed at the fallen beast, Karel, to peer at him. Suddenly shadows lifted from the walls as he grasped the lines of magic for the alleyway in his fist. "Look out!" one of them called, "We're being attacked!"
In the air, around them, shadowy figures with glimmering blades darted about. Illusions, shades seen out of the corner of the eye. Imprisoning them, blocking them in. He had no time. "The soft gait of that lithe, rhythmic stride
- in cramped circles around the tiny spot
- is like a dance of energy around a point
- in which a great will stands stunned and numb.
Sounds of fluttering wings echoed through the alleyway. All his lies. He heard the thugs shouting and swiping into the shadows, heard the girl next to him screaming, stumbling back. "Sir Karel!" he heard one shout, "He's run off!" Yes, he thought, grinning. No time, no time. "You!" one of the thugs shouted at him, "You did this!" He charged, bloody axe in one hand. The creatures ember eyes and slavering jaws was a vision of Fear itself. "At times, the curtain of his vision
- slides aside, and a shape enters,
- slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders,
- reaches the heart, and dies."
Marid finished the bit of the doggerel and ducked, squealing like a girl as the blade nearly missed his head. He glanced back, hoping against all hope that the last bit of the weaving had worked. He watched the thug glance quickly around, looking for him as he stood only a metre or two away. Marid smiled. The thug turned to the girl and grasped her by the shoulders, "Where is he?!" the beast shouted.
Marid took off running down the alleyway, glancing back at the girl. Oh well, he thought. Guess she had a use after all.
He grabbed the prone Karel, still gasping and moaning. The giant lay in the alleyway, battered by blows both Mundane and Real. "Come on, we're invisible to them for only a little while longer." he breathed to Karel.
"It's the Gloaming," the large Knight muttered. "The darkest part of the night." He looked up, one eye bruised and swollen shut. "Leave me, friend."
"This is no time to get poetic," Marid said, grinning. "Quit your bitching before my work of Art fades." He pulled Karel up and looked back at the thugs scattered, swiping at shadows and looking down all exits. They beat it quickly for his Fiat.
6 - Approach to the Inmost Cave
I promised myself I wouldn't get involved, Marid thought bitterly. And here I am. He glowered to himself for a moment as he drove, the battered giant sprawled out in the rest of the car. Bleeding all over his leather seats. "Ugh," he mumbled, annoyed. He let the wind flow through his hair. He thought for a moment and shrugged. So what if he's in the story now? A charming, charismatic fellow like him would only liven it up a bit more. Keep it from being so grim.
"Now think, Marid," he whispered to the wind. He'd originally approached this by heading into the Mundane world, the world of reality. In a wasteland like that, the Margrave's forces would never look him..but they had. And when they did, his Real seeming had stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.
He'd been approaching this all wrong. Karel didn't need to hide in the modern world. He needed to press flesh with his kith and kin, drop into the dark, murky recesses of the world of the Real. A place filled with the Good Folk, dripping with dangers, drinks, pleasures of all sorts.
The UnterMarkt. It made so much sense.
The Fiat sped down the autobahn, back into the heart of the city.
It was hell getting Karel past the bored satyrs smoking cigarettes and guarding the one entrance to the UnterMarkt he knew. But worth it, just for the looks on their faces. The large man leaned on Marid heavily, limping along while refusing to leave his blade, Truth, behind. A knight and his pride, Marid thought, annoyed.
"What was that poem back there?" Karel asked out of the blue.
"In the fight?"
"Yeah. I heard you shouting a poem."
Marid winced. He never shouted. How vulgar. "It's called 'The Panther' by Ranier Maria Rilke."
"Oh? What's it about?"
"A beast in a cage, waiting for death."
Karel mumbled. His voice sounded distant. "Where are we going?" he asked, almost childlike.
"To a safe place."
"Where?" Karel asked again.
Marid sighed. "The UnterMarkt," he said.
"I can't go there," Karel said, suddenly panicking.
"You have to. There's no other place." There were, of course, but he'd already gone through hell to get Karel here, no sense in having some grim troll with his wits beaten out of him try to talk Marid out of it.
"That place is dangerous! It's filled with criminals! They'll have my head there within minutes!"
"No one will disturb you. I have connections." Marid tried to make his voice sound placating.
Karel mumbled again. They walked through the dark sewer tunnel, hearing the sound of the Metro somewhere far off. "I loved her, you know," he said.
"I know," said Marid, rolling his eyes.
"I never showed her my Real side," Karel said, defensively.
"I know," Marid said. "Her name was Alicia, right?"
"Yes," said Karel with a sigh.
Marid laughed suddenly. Karel glanced at him curiously. "Lovely name. It means 'truthful one', I believe. How. . . appropriate."
Karel glanced away, darkly. "You and names."
"Names have power, my friend. Never forget that!"
Karel had never been here, but had heard enough stories to know he felt unwanted. The place was as vast and as cramped as the legends made it out to be, and then some.
Hard to know how long they'd walked when they finally got to the heart of the UnterMarkt. What it was like, topside, whether it was day or night. Time had a way of bending backwards on itself down there, space a more immeasurable meaning.
The UnterMarkt stretched out through the mist of the pillared gallery, with booths and shacks crammed together like a tiny city. All kinds of creatures moved through, most cloaked to protect themselves from the constant cool temperatures and the occasional dripping water. The cloak Karel wore was meant more to conceal his features. Perhaps Marid was right, he could hide here for now until he figured out how to discover what happened to Alicia. A place to bide his time, unhindered.
As two guardsmen of the UnterMarkt passed by, their blue skin and strong features betraying their kinship with him, Karel bowed his head in what he hoped was deference and prayed silently to whatever gods would take the Oathless in. They passed his hunched form without question, and he smiled as he watched their proud strides away from him.
"We need to find a place to stay first," Marid said, "and then get a healer to look at you. After that, begin to see if we can recruit someone to help you." The dark-skinned man shook his head and thoughtfully pulled at his goatee. He turned to Karel, raising an eyebrow, "You wouldn't happen to have anything to barter, would you?"
7 - Tests, Allies, Enemies
It had seemed like a fortnight to him, it had to be several days at least that they'd been cooped up in the tiny room. Ever since he'd been healed he was ready to go out and face his destiny, whatever that destiny was. This waiting, this not moving, not confronting the situation infuriated him.
Alicia, he had to know what had happened to her. How she knew of his real form, what had made her commit suicide...the cryptic message on her last painting, her masterpiece. She'd felt betrayed by him, that was certain. He frowned. She wouldn't have understood the quests he went on, obviously didn't believe the excuses he made. In a way, he had sacrificed her to his sense of duty to the Margrave, to all he believed a Knight should be. He had chosen not to see whatever pain she was in.
He balled his hand into a fist, feeling his fingernails digging into his palms. Damn it all. He'd give up anything to have her back, even his Real form, all of it, all of the things that he'd placed so much of his identity into. Just for one moment, just to explain to her...
Voices outside of the door. He tensed, wishing he had a lighter blade than Truth to wield.
"-something I've heard about, however. It's been outlawed since forever and a half. Like Musing, you guide the artist, instill a sense of creativity, but instead of reaping the power of their vision, you push that power back into itself. It's dangerous, the burnout is high, but..."
The door opened, Marid entered with two cloaked figures. Karel recognized the first, a freckled, brown-haired man with a beard and goat horns, but wasn't sure where. The second, a long and thin woman in mud-spattered clothing was a mystery to him. Her features blended between mundane features and those of a ferret. Her eyes were dark, alive with excitement. Her tiny tufted black ears rested on top of her lightly-furred head. She sniffed the air, then grinned at Karel expectantly.
"Karel, meet your two saviours," said Marid, his voice bordering on the dramatic. "This is Hendrick," he said, pointing to the satyr. He turned to the woman, "And this, Ratcatcher."
Hendrick grinned. Not a good idea for someone with as rotting teeth has he. Ratcatcher curtseyed.
"Charmed," Karel rumbled, favoring Marid with a dubious look.
Hendrick wanted his payment in advance, the last of Karel's valuable possessions. The Ratcatcher refused compensation. "I find it too dreadfully ironic," she said, her nose twitching gleefully, "to have this damsel rescue a knight in distress."
8 - Crossing the First Threshold
"Here it is," the Ratcatcher said, walking down the pathway. "I'm going to go scout ahead, maybe look for a few treats."
Karel and Marid watched her slip down the path, her short blade shining in the moonlight. "Do you trust her?" Karel asked.
"Trust her? I'm not sure what of her stories is truth or fiction. All I know is my contacts say she's good, she's the best there is."
Karel grumbled. His blade, Truth, felt heavy strapped to his back. With the lighter rapier at his side he didn't need to carry his older blade, but stubbornly refused to go without it. Now, with the possibility of danger so close, he felt foolish being weighted down by it.
"At any rate," Marid said, "she's done a lot better than Hendrick did for us."
Karel glanced back at Marid. The dark-skinned man looked troubled in the moonlight. Karel frowned. "It doesn't matter. If half of what the Ratcatcher found is true, that is reward enough." He peered off in the direction the girl had gone. "This will all be over soon," he breathed.
Karel heard a sound of metal hitting flesh and bone and a sharp cry from Marid. He wheeled around, his nameless rapier already out. Standing over Marid's slumped form was a tall, muscular man in the garb of one of the knights of the Margrave. He had ram's horns curving to each side of the man's wide face.
"Einer," Karel said. Einer, ritter to the Margrave, a knight who had fought alongside of Karel on occasion, a knight he had at one time trained. The same knight who led the mongrels and thugs to cowardly attack him in that alley behind the club.
"Karel Royd," said Einer, stepping over Marid's prone form. "So good to see you again." He raised his axe up, hefting the wide blade in one hand. "I've been waiting for this, waiting for such a long time."
Karel glanced to the weapon, then back to Einer's face. "You need better hobbies, Einer."
Einer laughed hollowly. "Do you remember when you trained me? All those fucking values you instilled. Death before dishonor, chivalry, the rest of that rubbish?"
Karel moved slowly to one side, circling Einer while holding his long, thin blade out. He watched the other troll without speaking.
"A fat lot of good they've done me, let me tell you." Einer's eyes blazed. "I tried to be like you, I tried to rise in your shadow, and each time I was cut down! I asked myself what I could have been doing wrong. . . and . . . I realized, it wasn't me, no, it wasn't me at all. It was that system of honor, of virtues that you tried to instill in me. Just another bit of self-deception, a pack of lies. A tool the strong uses to keep the weak down. Tonight," Einer raised his axe. "Tonight I pay you back for it." He swung his axe in a broad arc towards Karel, screaming.
Karel ducked, ready. He jumped back and swung his rapier, which clashed against the haft of Einer's weapon. Damn, he thought. I'm swinging it like a larger blade. I can't make mistakes like this. He's stronger than me right now. I have to think.
Einer kept swinging wildly, using his brawn to his advantage. Karel kept jumping back and circling, making quick stabs with the rapier. He was cutting the younger troll, wearing him down.
Dodging, swinging, the two combatants struggled against each other over Marid's prone form.
Einer's axe finally hit home. Karel raised up his rapier to block the blow and he heard and felt the blade snap in his hands. He turned away, stumbling back with a broad cut from Einer's blade. Karel looked down and frowned. No time left. He glanced up and leapt at Einer, grabbing on to the haft of the other troll's axe with one hand and attempting to drive the broken blade into the knight.
Karel could feel the blade pierce flesh, could feel it hit and scrap against the troll's rib cage as he twisted away. If he had his old strength, he would have broken Einer's ribs with the blow. Einer roared and shoved Karel down with full force.
Karel lost the grip to his broken rapier. He used his other hand to push against Einer, to no avail. Einer threw him down, one hand on Karel's arm, the other hefting his axe for the killing blow.
This is it, thought Karel, panic rising through him. I can't believe it. It ends here. Einer stared down at him, a strange expression on his face as if trying to will himself to kill the older troll.
Karel looked up at him, his heart in his throat. He shook his head. It can't end here, he thought. It can't! It's not fair!
Einer paused, still staring down at him.
Hopelessness rose up in him. "If you're going to kill me," Karel said, defiance and pain ringing in his voice, "do it now! Don't hesitate!"
"I don't want to kill you," said Einer quietly.
"Then what do you want?"
"I want you to tell me that honor is a lie. Chivalry and nobility a sham."
"You're right!" Karel hissed wildly, "I lied to you! There is no honor! Nothing is true!"
Einer watched Karel's expression, holding him down.
"The only true judgement, Einer," Karel said angrily, "Is that of the strong and the weak. Honor is a conciet they use later to approve of their own actions. Only strength matters, Einer! Nothing else!"
Einer frowned, throwing Karel back down to the ground. He turned, his axe lowered, and began to stride arrogantly out of the clearing.
Bitterness and shame welled up inside the former knight. Karel rose, coughing, to his knees and watched his former student leave. "Einer!" he called out after him.
Einer turned, glancing back at the edge of the clearing.
"Why didn't you kill me?"
Einer paused, frowning. "I guess you taught me well, Karel. You always said to spare the weak and pathetic. And I have never seen one more fitting of that description until tonight." With that, he turned, leaving Karel and the prone Marid behind him.
Karel sat where he was, breathing heavily, his weakened body wracked with pain. After a long pause, another figure moved out of the shadows, a flash of moonlight reflected from a blade.
Karel glanced up. The Ratcatcher looked down upon him. "I just got here," she said quietly. "I was...formulating a long and complicated plan to save you two when that troll suddenly left." She smiled suddenly, then offered a paw to Karel. "Come," she said. "The old man is waiting."
Karel glanced at Marid. The Ratcatcher looked back, then shook her head. "Don't worry, I'll take care of him. I've, ah, developed a contingency plan just for this occasion."
9 - Meeting with the Mentor
Karel knelt in the darkness of the ancient chamber, shivering quietly. The Ratcatcher had left him to take care of Marid, leaving Karel alone with his pain and bitter memories. He pulled Truth from it's scabbard and clumsily put it in front of him, keeping his head bowed, as if reverent in this empty, darkened chamber. He waited, feeling cold, empty, bedraggled.
The look on Einer's face before he walked out of the cleaning. His memory of the painting, the pain that Alicia must have gone through. He shut his eyes tightly. Everything, all his dreams, shattered.
He put a hand to his eyes, the other arm clutching at his side, and began to quietly sob. It felt as if the shadows, the very emptiness of the room was trying to dissipate him, make him fade away.
He let a teardrop run down his face, then fall to the floor. As it hit the ground, he realized he was not alone.
"Rise, fuidir." said a voice behind him, softly.
Karel rose, as best as he could, and turned to the cloaked figure. "Margrave," he said reverently.
"You risk much coming back here," the Margrave said. "And you disobey my orders."
Karel lifted his chin, "I am no longer your vassal, Margrave."
"Then you are just a trespasser," the Margrave quietly replied.
"I have come to ask of your advice," Karel said.
"Aye. You see. . . your son Tiberius is still alive."
The Margrave looked up at him, raising a thin eyebrow. His deep blue eyes seemed like empty, soulless wells. "And what advice do you need from me?"
Karel looked away, unable to meet the Margrave in the eyes for long. "I need you to scrye. . . I need to know what happened in the far lands, the Misted Lands."
"You think I have that power, fuidir?" The Margrave turned, looking off into the shadows of the darkened catacombs. "If I had, I would have known of your failures before you returned. Perhaps I could have been able to foretell of your inabilities before you went on your fateful quest."
Karel looked at him. "No one has the power to look that deep into the Misted Lands," he said. "Nor to uncloud the fog it has placed in my memories."
"Then what would you wish me to do, fuidir?"
Karel pointed at his blade, Truth. "Hold it, read it. Scry on it. It remembers when I do not. And I must know, I have to understand why I broke the Oath to your son."
The Margrave merely glanced at the sword, and nodded. "Should I work this sorcery, it may destroy your blade, warrior."
Karel shrugged. "Truth has no use for me anymore."
10 - Refusal
Karel smiled as he walked into cramped room, "Marid," he said. "You're alive!"
"Hardly," Marid whimpered from underneath several threadbare blankets.
The large warrior chuckled, moving slowly across the room. "Are you still badly wounded?"
Marid sighed mournfully, "It only hurts when I laugh."
"Good, we have to get going soon."
Marid brightened, "Are we finally going to defeat the margrave's son and restore your honor?"
Karel looked away, "Fuck that. I'm getting out of this town, and if you're smart, you'll go too."
Marid rose in his bed and watched Karel, a sober look on his face. "Where will you go?"
"I don't know," Karel shrugged. The question faintly irritated him. Did it matter? "I hear there are many opportunities in Concordia."
"But," Marid said, running a hand through his hair, "if you go, you leave everything unresolved. You're running away from your problems. The story remains untold!"
You accuse me of cowardice, Karel thought blandly. Ah well. You know little of the truth of that. "It is not my story anymore," he said flatly.
Marid looked positively betrayed. "What do you mean?"
"The story of the perfect knight that fell from grace, it's told already, my part has ended in it. It was only a small bit, a carefully constructed weaving of Fate around a larger story. It was like a netting that drew me in. A netting for which I am now free."
Einer spared my life, but in a way he killed me, Karel thought. Killed a part of my that was dying slowly. He shut his eyes tightly, frowning. Immediately he saw visions from the dying sword, visions from the Margrave's sorcery. Images of the pain, the madness, the suffering. Karel dug his fingernails into the palm of his hand and gritted his teeth. He opened his eyes quickly, worried that Marid might see his terror or catch something unusual, ask questions, probe, unearth. But the wounded storyteller was lost in his own thoughts.
Marid shook his head. "This is awful. I gave up everything, I nearly died for you." He looked up, enraged. "I demand a story!"
Karel laughed, bitterly. He opened his mouth to say something, when the door opened. Heckardt burst in. "It's the Margrave's guardsmen. They've invaded the UnterMarkt! It's chaos! We have to run, before it's too late."
Karel looked back at Marid, "Come on," he said with a shrug.
11 - The Call to Adventure
The three rushed down an abandoned alleyway, vying quickly for one of the thousands of escape routes and tunnels that led away from the UnterMarkt. Around them they heard the sounds of chaos: shouts and commands barked, screams, crashing, the clang of weapons ringing against one another.
"This way," said Marid, out of breath. "No, wait - this way!" He turned and darted down a small set of stairs.
The stairs opened up to a small square. They skidded to a halt, glancing around them. Guardsmen with the Margrave's livery suddenly snarled, lowering long halberds and drawing sabres. "It's the criminal, Karel," of them barked.
They turned to run back, but saw their exit blocked. Karel sighed and glanced around for a weapon. "I hope you have a good poem, Marid," he muttered.
"This is bad," said Heckardt. "This is very bad."
"Halte!" a voice cried out.
Everyone stopped for a moment, tensed. A figure walked around the corner. Einer, dressed in armor with the Margrave's coat of arms. "Don't attack," Einer said. He walked up to Karel, sizing him up.
Marid stood off to one side. He blanched when he realized who Einer was.
Karel looked back, silent. He supressed an urge to madly grin. If only they knew. Oh, if only they knew.
"Karel Royd," he said.
"You know who we're looking for. Are you looking for the same? Perhaps to achieve vengeance for the downfall of your mortal lover? He's close by, you know. The Soothsayers say he's in the UnterMarkt. It's only a matter of time."
Karel just looked at him. He still wanted to grin.
"We should join up, fight side-by-side again, Karel. It'd do good for you. Get you in favor with the Margrave again. Sure, he'd probably still want you banished, but you'd get your honor back."
Karel laughed. "I'm not the Margrave's dog."
Einer narrowed his eyes. "I'm offering you a chance, you wretch. Be glad I don't kill you."
Karel reached forward, grabbing a surprised Einer by the throat. He lifted the large knight up by his throat, as Einer dropped his axe to grab at his neck, gagging. "I'm walking away, Einer." What a fool, he thought. Hating the system and still playing by it. If only he knew, if only he knew. "You can't stop me." He threw the knight down to the ground, and glanced around at the guardsmen present. "You fight me? Or do you do your duty?" The guardsmen glanced at each other.
Einer rose, rubbing his neck. "You want to leave, Karel, you leave. But go quickly. As soon as I am done, I am hunting you to the borders."
"I understand," Karel rumbled.
Einer turned to marshall the guardsmen, then began to walk away.
"Einer," said Karel.
Einer turned, looking back at Karel.
"Victory to the strong, eh?"
Einer looked at Karel for a moment, then nodded. He turned and strode arrogantly out of the square. Marid sighed when he left, then frowned. "Some day," he said. "Some day I'll have my revenge."
After the guardsmen were gone, a small figure dropped down from the rooftops, then rose. She dusted herself off, then turned to the three figures. "If you had stalled them only a few minutes more," she said, her whiskers twitching, "All my traps would have sprung, and I would have been able to save you."
Marid grinned, relieved. "The Ratcatcher!"
"I know a secret way out of the UnterMarkt," the Ratcatcher said. "It was told to me by a drunken ghost, but that's another tale entirely. Do you want to leave yet?"
12 - The Ordinary World
"I can't believe you're doing this," Marid said.
Karel frowned. "It's the last thing holding me down."
"It's beautiful. Disturbing, but beautiful."
They stood for a few moments, staring at the tryptich. The painting had a way of drawing all thoughts to it, of making people speak in soft, reverent tones around it.
The barren landscape, the destruction, the madness, the suffering.
The Misted Lands.
It was as if he could actually remember his experiences there. It was as if what had shattered him so completely, had destroyed the most noble of the Shining Host, the first-born son of the Margrave, and driven him to destructive rage, madness.
He felt lost. The thing made him weak, just standing nearby it.
Karel heard a gasp, and turned. The Ratcatcher stepped from the shadows, shivering. "I...I...I was going to die if I didn't see it," she explained weakly.
Karel sighed. "Come here," he said to her. "Help me take it off the walls."
The three figures pulled the tryptich off the walls and carried it off. They moved out of the workshop and took it nearby to a small field. Tall evergreen trees pierced the night. They walked through the grassy field, watching the occasional car pass by. In the distance, a ruined castle stood, nearby to that, several microwave towers and a billboard for Orangina.
In the center of the field, Karel stopped and they put the paintings down in a pile. Karel kneeled and lit the painting on fire with a lighter. The fire didn't take immediately but eventually it began burning steadily.
As it burned, the fire began to take on a life of it's own. Tendrils of flame seemed to waver, rise up and twist through the smoke, as if taking on a dance of it's own. He saw Marid's face in the flickering light, the twitch of the Ratcatcher's whiskers under the hood of her cloak. A look of joy on Marid's face. The Ratcatcher crying softly. Karel felt nothing.
He could sense it, sense the welling up, the potiential of Alicia's ability. As if some part of her soul had been caught in the triptych, released when burned. Everything around the fire was in sharper definition, the world more Real now than ever before.
You were only meant for the Ordinary world, Alicia. Random happenstance brought you into our world, and it overwhelmed you. It killed you.
Truth is dead, he thought to Alicia. Everything I ever hoped for and believed in has been destroyed or holds no meaning to me anymore.
But I can remember you, he thought. And in doing so, I can hope that maybe love doesn't have to die.
He stood there, until the fire finally died out and painting destroyed completely. When it was done, he picked up his two fallen companions, their faces struck with awe, pain, horror, and without much ado he threw them over his shoulder and walked back to town.