Sins of the Lion

     I am the way into the doleful city,
        I am the way into eternal grief,
        I am the way to a forsaken race.

     Justice it was that moved my great creator;
        Divine omnipotence created me,
        And highest wisdom joined with primal love.

     Before me nothing but eternal things
        Were made, and I shall last eternally.
        Abandon every hope, all you who enter.

                                                        --Dante’s Inferno

The wizard sees without seeing.

He creates, where only nothingness can bear fruit. The ways of these near-gods are ancient and mysterious, certainly as every bit old as the cosmos themselves. There are conclaves in this world, those who need not be mentioned here, that espouse the notion of our universe being the result of a spell gone either conveniently right or horribly wrong. And yet, for all of their omniscience, their wisdom and the compulsion to do good, the ethos of shadow and light is ever beyond the wizard’s ability to comprehend. Like a squire that continually puzzles over what it means to be a knight of the realm, so true do wizards repeatedly cast their gift into the darkness of doubt.

What are they to do with their power while it is theirs? To what end?

Tellah was one such wizard – indeed, he still is. He, too, once fought to find an answer behind such an enigma and, for a little while, was well on his way to discovering it. But a wizard’s heart is no different than that of an ordinary man, and it takes no keen understanding of our universe to know how easily corruptible a man is when exposed to the proper set of elements.

Her name was Anna.

She hailed from Kaipo, daughter of a carpenter whom Tellah loved more than life itself. But premature and unexpected was often Death’s way with people, and with it came also Tellah’s inability to let go. There is nothing in this world or any other that is more helpless, irresponsible, or downright unforgiving than the wrath of a wizard. It was this wrath that had once threatened to uproot the innocent desert village, to alight the simple lean-tos and dim its lively faces with fire and death.

Anna, however, bore him a child. A smoldering concoction of emotions, Tellah attempted to better focus his skills as the elders had tried unsuccessfully to do right from the beginning. Humility, and patience, coupled with the joys fatherhood had bestowed upon him, gave him the strength he needed to endure. Never entirely able to relinquish his first love, however, he decided to name her after his mother. No harm would he let come to her, lest he bring himself and those around him to ruin all over again.

The heart of a man is such a miserable little thing.

Its way with the human condition is often winsome and chaotic, never able to be truly at ease with itself from one moment to the next. What rationale behind so broad a spectrum of emotion? Truly, how does one emotion flourish unless its corollary emotion was there to guide it? Love begetting hatred? No hope without despair? What is one without the other? What is one except the other?

For regular men, there is no catharsis, no resolution to the torment they bring upon themselves. But for a wizard chained to the very same wall, something far worse awaits them. Rage, after all, is a partition to the sorcerer’s mind. It becomes a power all its own, blocking his reservoir of innate potential, leaving false potential in its wake. And so it was that when Anna once more passed from his presence – this time the fault of a Damcyan prince – no force in all the cosmos would stop him from delivering justice.

Not even death itself . . .

* * *

“Don’t try and stop me!” he warned the others, not turning to face them. The all-consuming firestorm of his mind filled the crystalline chamber without warning, making a life of torment tangible in a heartbeat. “I’ll do what I can to hold him back, give you the time you need to escape.”

Cecil held a chainmail arm up to shield his eyes from the blinding light of the wizard. This was maddening, impossible! He had never witnessed a spell like Meteo before and he knew if he were foolish enough to linger in its wake, he would never see it again. Nonetheless . . .

“Tellah, don’t be foolish!” The emerald-haired Rydia lingered at his side as he called out, panting for breath but keeping an unsummoned kami of burden trained at the back of her mind. “That spell is unfocused. You won’t--”

“Do as I say!”

The paladin gave a start as the maelstrom of a mage whipped back around to face the party, spellweaver robes billowing. They were no longer looking into the gentle blue eyes of a sequined Mysidian. Savage orbs of seething cobalt were all they could find, all they could discern inside the commode where once a soul had been.

A scathing wash of ethereal hellfire started to creep across the walls of the inner sanctum then, blowing apart the distant pillars, vaporizing the nearby partitions, bringing all it came into contact with into catastrophic ruin. Golbez buckled beneath the all-encompassing assault, his ability to bear the full brunt of the spell faltering horribly. His magic barrier gave way at last then, throwing the voluminous tyrant clear off his feet and into the carnage. Tellah was swift to follow.

“Cecil!” Yang cried out from somewhere behind. “We have to go!”

This, Tellah could only barely make out as weakness subdued him, claimed him. All too late did the wizard start to realize the errors of his ways.

“How…foolish I’ve been…letting this anger consume me…”

With that, the Great Void . . . that which would come for us all one day . . . suddenly descended upon Tellah’s fiery form.

* * *

In the seconds that led up to this final, pivotal moment against Golbez, the mage’s mind was at once both the clearest it had ever been and, at the same time, at its most reckless. He had been the one. He had been the beast that had lain to waste all that he held most dear. Tellah had been in such control of himself up until that point. He’d given that reformed dark knight the guidance he had needed insofar as white magic and humility was concerned. He had forgiven that insufferable bard for his misgivings. He had humored them, comforted them, kept up the farce of being the very wisest and kindest to have ever come out of Mysidia.

But enough was enough.

The senseless loss of life. The endless hours of sitting, of planning, of doing nothing. Clinging to the fringes rather than diving into the fray. But no more! Someone had to knuckle down and stop this genocide. That someone was he. And if his own death was what it took to get the job done, all the better.


How it was, then, that he was able to stir from the well-deserved reward of eternity a short while later seemed beyond even Tellah’s ability to comprehend. Whatever the reason, the damage he had inflicted was considerable. A simple glance across his scorched and blackened form told him this. No fiber of his being had escaped the agony of the spell which time forgot. Not even the length of his snowy white beard was able to free itself the misery of experiencing Meteo firsthand, clinging as it was now in singed wisps of dark hair to his lower jaw.

Struggling against the pain in his joints, still mindful of the fact that Golbez and his cronies might have possibly survived the onslaught, he willed himself to find his feet. On the trip up, his eyes started to focus again upon hollowed bastion that surrounded him. Not the place he had left behind . . .

And yet, it was. Somehow.


Tellah took a careful step towards the threshold of the chamber, the way he remembered coming in with the rest of his friends. His hip complained from the effort, but he decided to limp it off. Astounding, thought he, with no small degree of satisfaction. The brand of sorcery must have been stronger than he had made it out to be. This tower had thrummed with artificial life before sorcery ripped it apart. Now, it was a fossil, standing skeletal in its stonework foundations as though neglected for centuries.

The wizard glowered for a moment. He felt cleansed, vindicated. Anna, along with so many others that had come and gone before him, had been avenged at last. Even Cecil, Kain, the others who had accompanied him for the ride were out of harm’s way now. The crystals would be safe now. Now . . .

His eyes turned curious. Where were they anyway?

A terrifying thought sent tremors through his system.

“Dear me…”

No! He wouldn’t believe it. He had given them more than enough prior warning. They had to have gotten out in time. He moved without thinking, running as fast as his enfeebled, spell-worn body would allow him. Maybe they were still here somewhere.

“Cecil?” His voice traveled across the blasted out walls of the spire in a confused wave, seeking purchase where none could be found – just a fading echo. “Hello? Kain! Rosa! Is anybody there?”

. . . is anybody there . . . is anybody there . . . is anybody . . .

Wrestling old age, fighting to keep his own growing suspicions at bay, Tellah moved from chamber to chamber, wheezing his way down one narrow stairwell after the other, calling out to his friends all the while. And all the while, his only reply was his own gravelly, grief-stricken voice getting deflected back at him.

After what seemed like forever, the hoarse but determined Mysidian lumbered out from the fortress threshold, mouth agape from the sight awaiting him. A bent, fire-scathed planet now took the place of the verdant hills and meadows that had been present mere moments ago. The roar of the distant sea and wail of the western current were no longer present either. In fact, there were no sounds of any kind – not anywhere! Only the rattle of exasperation coming from his lungs, and even that had begun to taper as fear and lethargy caught up.

“Was this my doing?” he asked himself. “Have I truly condemned this world with my own reckless spite?”

Tears started to sting his deep-set eyes as the gloomy horizon stabbed at his composure. All was gone, nothing but this smoldering, fruitless wasteland in its wake and no one to blame but himself. Bent now on wounded knee, gaunt face wracked by torment, he waited for sleep, for his power to return, just enough so he could end this pain himself.

His astute wizard ears perked just as he believed his despair could get no worse. Experience as a geomancer was suddenly telling him that another was close, beyond eyeshot but aware of his being here all the same. Too far away, he surmised, with no means of discerning whether it was friend, foe, or even human. Determination, however, was giving him the second wind he needed to find the answers to what was going on. He, at least, needed to know beyond the shadow of all doubt, that he was not responsible for destroying this world or his friends.

There would be no rest for him until he knew that much.

* * *

Barbariccia, great fiend of wind, had not always been known for her tempests and fiery disposition. Not at all. She was once a very fond accompaniment to wine and song, before the desire to be noticed got the better of her. Short skirts, hypnotic dances, and the voice of a woodwind made her loved and pined over by many both far and wide. If only the views of the few hadn’t gotten to her as much as they had…

“Spoony bard!”

There was little, however, in this world that Tellah despised more than some two-bit seneschal making a spectacle of themselves. Bards, dancers, songstresses…how many meaningless titles could one guild hold? How many faces?

The fools, always trying to breathe life into arts that were either dead or looking for a place to die. He had seen them on no less than several occasions on each day of his travels. Every town in the world was rife with them, freeing tankards of ale from respectable tavern hands or prancing around street corners for the coin of complete strangers. And there was always one or two of them in training somewhere, some otherwise sensible boy or girl who had had the misfortune of happening across these locusts in the middle of their act, poisoning them forever afterwards. Such an ugly cycle.

“Stop! Please!”

Should it have really come as a surprise, then, that any who knew Tellah best would expect such unbridled fury when finding his only daughter dead at the feet of such a craftsman?

“Shut up!”

Arms spread eagle, with chaotic energies gathering wildly across his torso, the Mysidian speared both fists toward the Damcyan prince just as a geyser of lightning magic left his fingertips. Edward screamed as the static charge launched him across the rubble that had once been his kingdom, slamming him into and over one of the half-standing pillars of the chamber.

And then, just as always, the pleading voices of those closest to Tellah passed like the flitting of flies below his boundless rage. These specters of the harp, these wrenches of the rote, this cancer on the face of humanity.

Every last one of them should have been killed to a man…

* * *

The wizard’s sandaled feet groaned as they plodded up over the featureless hillocks of rock, as though they wanted to somehow detach themselves from Tellah’s legs and take their chances alone. There was nothing to be seen or heard or experienced for several hours now: no worn footpaths; no birds or beasts foraging for food; nothing. Tellah started to feel his stomach complain. If despair didn’t make away with him soon, exposure undoubtedly would.

He couldn’t understand it. While it was true he had a difficult time of recalling spells every once in a while, his geomancy was second to none. He knew someone was around here in this sinkhole of a world. His sixth sense had never betrayed him. Indeed, their presence was practically on top of him now!

“I see you!” he screeched. His caterwauling, unfortunately, got him nowhere at all, so stagnant was the air around him. But Tellah didn’t care. This day was turning out to be bad enough without having to make a guessing game of finding some signs of civilization out here. He simply couldn’t find any balm for this anger. “You can’t escape me!”

He ambled down drunkenly over another grassless embankment, struggling to compose himself, to steady his restless mind…when harp strings began to play. They were close, somewhere down over the uneven slope ahead of him. Despite himself, the ashen man reacted. It was such a sad piece of music, an elegy almost. Tellah was nearly stirred to tears.


Then an aven screech from somewhere overhead jarred him, wrenching the wizard from his reverie and sending him scrambling for cover. A dozen or so feet above him, the spindly form of a blue-scaled dragon whelp descended. Appearing as every bit entranced over the music as Tellah had once been, the serpent paid him no mind. Just as quickly as the great winged beast appeared, so did it vanish. Tellah let the air escape from his lungs, unaware that he had been holding it in. Incredible. He hadn’t been that close to a dragon in decades.

Only, why was a serpent of all creatures letting itself be swayed by the melodies of a mortal?

Clearly, Tellah had taken leave of his senses. Otherwise he wouldn’t have broken into a crazed run down over the hill, looking for answers to the questions crashing around in his head. Winded from his workout, with sixty-year-old joints squeaking and popping beneath blackened flesh, he made himself scarce behind a ridge of granite. There, upon the sheltered precipice before him, the dream of a million nightmares unfolded:

Dragon’s blood and dragon’s teeth,
Whence only might and terror seethe,
But slay the beast, and feast of drake,
Within, the beast will surely wake…

Away to the dead world did the gangly-looking troubadour throw his words, his shoddy clothes rippling from desperate muscles beneath as they went about the gory task assigned to them. A fog of flies swarmed around his hunched over form, unnoticed as a sword worked to pierce the serpent perched suddenly beside him. Though grievous was the wound cut into the whelp’s hindquarter, it stood as unflinching as a statue.

The beating of its breast moved like that of a creature only near death, all knowledge of its fate either twisted by the bard’s magic or veiled already by the darkness of unbeing. Soon, after much laboring to penetrate the young dragon’s scaly carapace, it slumped upon the stony crag. Dead. A maze of taut tissue and spewing arteries parted in grim toil, until finally, the vagrant wrenched free what it was he had been looking for: its heart!

Tellah stood in stunned silence.

“Who goes there?!”

The wizard gave a start, more from the grating tone he was addressed with than being discovered. When singing, this scavenger’s voice was golden and could have stirred even the most hardened of souls into weeping. Now, it sounded akin to nails being scraped across a whetstone: abrasive; piercing; and cruel. Words betrayed him.

“What?” he said.

“Hmph.” With harp slung over his shoulder, the stranger sneered Tellah’s presence, eyes glazed over from the disembodied heart bleeding in his grasp. “If it’s food your after, you’d best look elsewhere. This dragon is mine. I’ll spare not a tendon for stragglers.”

“No,” Tellah managed, braving a half step towards him. “I was just . . . wondering what this place was.”

“The land where dragons come to die . . .” Pulling the plumed hat from his naked, membranous scalp, their eyes met at last. “And be born again.”

Shock, consternation, and sorrow suddenly assailed the wizard, for these feelings, and more besides, superimposed themselves upon Tellah’s already warped expression. The face looking back at him was pale, spotted with disease. The eyes were red and serpentine, looking angry and forlorn all at once. It was him! That van Muir prince, the one that had only recently been betrothed to his daughter, Anna!

But . . . what was he doing out here?

“You appear as though you’ve crossed paths with a dragon yourself,” he added, taking stock of the blackened lump of a spellcaster standing before him. “What’s your story?”

“I suppose, I’ve strayed from the path somewhat.” Tellah spoke with minced words as the wraith-like bard busied himself with a flint, trying to cook his gory morsel. “I’m not really sure, if you want to know the truth of it. Last thing I remembered, I was standing my ground against a sorcerer in that tower–” He gestured back the way he had come. “–and the next thing I know, all the land is dead. And I feel responsible somehow, I just can’t put my finger on it.”

“Fascinating,” said the dragon slayer, prodding at a slowly simmering kiln. “It’s a very interesting story, old timer. But alas, the skills of a bard are no longer in demand, not in this wretched place.”

There was the conscious effort on Tellah’s part to acknowledge the fact that this skeleton of a man apparently had no memory of the two of them ever having known each other. This, however, also seemed beyond his ability. For each moment that passed, he was learning something new. And it seemed as though the more he was learning, the less he was able to understand.

“I’m not sure I follow,” the Mysidian told him.

“You’re an unusual one, crispy.” The putrid black recess of the man’s mouth yawned wide, ripping a swath of boiled tissue up with his teeth. Brackish blood dribbled down over his chin when he spoke again. “It was a contagion, engineered by Mysidia. Everybody knows that. They had a very deep-seated hatred towards bards, minstrels, damn near everyone who sang for their supper. I was the only survivor and, well, as you can see, this was what it did to me. Very soon, all whom I knew and loved couldn’t stand the sight of me. Now, I keep company only with those I can charm. Strong diseases tend to think alike, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Mysidia did this?!”

It was unthinkable! Not only was wrath born out of wizardry against the code of a sorcerer, but the Mysidian Accord provided impunity to other kingdoms and cities, no matter what a person’s profession.

“I’m sorry, but . . . I find that hard to believe.”

The plague-ridden Edward chewed his meal as though it were still alive, reminded of the hatred sparked on that fated day back in Damcyan.

“The elders never acted alone,” he finally said. “That bastard mage Tellah coerced many of them, to his own ends I’d suspect. He was never overly fond of our kind.”

“I did?”

The bard’s eyes shrank with suspicion.

“I mean, he did?”

“What’s your name, old man?”

Tellah didn’t like the suddenly confrontational tone of an already caustic sounding voice, starting to inch back the way he had come. The twisted, gangrenous visage of a man he once knew rose swiftly to his feet, dripping dragon blood and moving as though ready to pounce.

“My . . . name?”

A smile then, toothless and sinister. “I trust you have one.”

The wizard shook his disheveled head. “It’s of no consequence, I assure you.”

He pulled the harp from his shoulder and began to play. “Then tell me what it is.”

The music had him mesmerized even before the second string had been plucked, and there was no resistance after that. If a dragon of all creatures could be lured so easily to its death, Tellah had but little recourse to do likewise. He shuddered to think of what this man would do to him once he discovered who he really was.

“Tellah,” he finally disclosed, grudgingly.

“So, you’re the son of a bitch who has it in for me, that had it in for all of my kind!”

“No, I didn’t!”

“Liar!” the bard growled, though each man knew it was indeed a difficult task to stray from the truth when under a Charm spell. “I know you too well to just let you slip from my fingers. I’m just going to have to teach you a lesson!”

The wizard tried to make his legs work, but they seemed rooted to the rock beneath him. If only there were still some hidden reserve of magic left to draw upon, he’d have easily been able to screen out these foul melodies or even blasted the wraith out of existence with an elemental bolt. What was the meaning of all this? What had befallen the Damcyan prince between now and when he had been left to recuperate in Troia? It made no sense at all.

“Edward, don’t do this! I thought we had gotten past these differences of ours.”

“How do you know my name?!”

Tellah blinked. Now he was ‘really’ confused.

“Edward . . . you and I–”

“Confounded spellcasters!” The contagion-faced minstrel pulled a set of twin throwing knives out from his boot heels, intent upon turning the perplexed looking wizard into a perplexed looking pincushion. “Reading minds and breaking lives. That’s all you’re good for.”

Freed now from his charmer’s trance, Tellah nonetheless felt paralyzed. He was too old to put up any kind of fight, too tired to make well on his escape, even too drained from his Meteo spell to mount any kind of defense. Stonefaced, and having to bear witness to the deaths of entirely too many of his friends as it was, the evil that was once known as Edward lunged. What was one more death in a place such as this? Indeed, what would this land be without one more death?

The next few moments that passed were a blur of movement for Tellah. Life passed before his reddened eyes in a cerulean tapestry: friends; enemies; meeting Anna; losing Anna; victory; defeat; finding Anna again; losing her again; earning distinction; earning scorn; dancing with death. They must have all had wings, so fast did they all flit across his field of vision. When he looked again, however, he discovered that it was not his life traversing his eyes at all.


But that of a great, blue wyvern.

No soft elvish ballad or heartfelt sonata was going to save the bard this time, not with the carcass of an innocent whelp laying just a little ways away from him. Screaming and thrashing, the diseased despot was no sooner ripped apart – arms flailing as he was thrown to and fro, trapped in its jagged maw, pouring crimson life all the while. The sounds of a hundred bones breaking all at once made Tellah draw back in fright as Edward’s body was catapulted into the nearby rockface. The wrath of a dragon, it appeared, far surpassed that of a frustrated mage, which said considerable.

“Goodness.” Was there no corner of this cursed earth that was unfettered by fury?

The dragon gathered its wings close around itself, sheltering both horned head and fallen offspring in the darkness therein. The wizard wasn’t so sure what he was supposed to be doing at this point, though lingering in the presence of a grief-stricken behemoth probably wasn’t the best course of action.

Dieur haloksa…fieur haloksa…

Poetry in motion, Tellah moved several cautious feet towards the mourning creature, reminding himself more times than he needed to of how treacherous a career move this was. He didn’t care, though. He knew well the pain of losing a child. It was agony that no mother or father should have to experience. Though the smattered clause or sentence he knew of draconian must have been coming out as gibberish, he at least hoped the tone of his voice was enough to convey his sympathy.

“Your loss, my loss…”

The winged, diaphanous mass shifted as he drew closer, rearing its elegant head to face him. Though its expression had been drawn tight with anguish, it neither roared at the mage nor bore hostility of any kind. Its oval eyes merely glistened in silent scrutiny.

“I feel what it is you are feeling,” Tellah added.

“And I, you,” the dragon replied, its throaty voice rumbling with restrained supremacy. Its grasp on the common tongue was nearly perfect. “You are mage, are you not?”

“I am.” So magnanimous a beast must have been able to sense Tellah’s own magical being beginning to return. He wished he had spent more of his years among dragonkind. “Or rather, I used to be.”

“I can sense you are a spiteful one,” the wyvern continued, trying to distract itself from its loss, “More so than any vessel to magic ought to be.”

The wizard had no way of responding to this.

“Nonetheless, even one with a fire as hot as your own should be among your own kind. Have you any place to go?”

* * *

Where deathfires swim, where krakens reign supreme, these places and more were once the domain of Cagnazzo. A mariner whose very heart pumped brine, the future fiend of Water awoke each day to the salty sprays and seagull sounds of a world waiting to be explored. Some would say it was this world that claimed his first life, while others are left to speculate as to how deeply his curiosity did him in.

Curiosity is among the most treacherous of human flaws, not only for the risk it entails but also for the fallacy that is discovery. There are some things in this world that simply do not wish to be known or explored by anyone, some souls that will do whatever is necessary to keep their secrets hidden.

Of course, some curiosities cannot be ignored. Round about the time Tellah had first run into the dark knight, the world was on the cusp of something very dark and destructive. A mage could sense such things very simply. A crystal changing hands in one corner of the globe was like a sudden realignment of perception in a wizard even thousands of miles away. Tellah knew much of Cecil’s quest even before the knight had opened his mouth to speak. There was confusion in that visored head of his, frustration, even fear. Oh yes. The wizard had been through much in his sixty years, and yet he could never entirely remove himself from that forsaken human milestone. Death. Failure. Being alone.

Fear took many forms, and this knight clearly radiated each and every one of them.

“It is through darkness,” he had once said to the Baron native, while en route to Damcyan, “That we either lose ourselves completely or discover ourselves anew. It seems you’ve achieved both.”

Tellah had even been there when the knight had cast to one side the shackles of his past life, being born anew in a light so pure that not even the blackest sackcloth night could penetrate it. And yet, that dark thread of his former self still lingered, like the final vestige of a tyrant’s stronghold, there to serve as a reminder to the darkness of days gone by. Even if one could so easily remove those parts of themselves that pained them, it was not so easy a task to atone for mistakes that pained others. One paladin could not undo the damage of souls dispatched through meaningless raids and violent blood feuds. Evil was ever a part of the knight now. It would never leave.

Evil. Truly, it is the greatest curiosity of all – easiest to navigate, hardest to ignore.

* * *

It had been many a tumultuous year since Tellah had been passenger aboard the scaly back of a dragon. And yet now, as he and his reticent protector took to the slate-gray skies, it could have just as easily been yesterday. The view from those great, heaving shoulders was overpowering, like that from an airship but more organic. The tempo of those beating wings, accordioning in and out in a steady, three-second cadence, gave the wizard a devil of a time to keep his legs secure around the beast. The rush of the wind…

Tellah stopped himself. No wind.

The only breeze either of them were getting came from the momentum of being propelled forward. It must have been a crucible of a task for this creature to keep itself aloft with no wind beneath its breast. Less than an hour into their trek, it was beginning to take its toll. Hacking and wheezing rumbled in the dragon’s chest, to the point in which Tellah was certain he would fall off.

“I will…” it rasped, voice croaking as though filtered through the jowls of a morgue toad. “…need to leave you at the next village we come across, I’m afraid. These skies are proving too much for flight for the both of us, even for my ilk.”

“I understand,” Tellah replied, clear and intelligible over the turbulence-free air. “Forgive my ignorance, but why is it these skies are as they are? Why are there no squalls, no tempests, no wind of any kind?”

“The elements…the elements have been disturbed.”

“The elements!”

Could he have possibly meant the crystals?

The lore of past ages came flooding back to him, so much so that Tellah had to will himself not to let go of the scaly hide beneath him. Though devices of undreamed of power and energy, each of the crystals required an asynchronous channel with the planet to keep their essence from fading. It was a law that was universal, one superceding the welfare of the most populous of villages, the most renown of kingdoms, even Mysidia itself. To disturb the ebb and flow of a crystal’s power was to invite death, for if even one were to ever lose its glow, so true would that element of the planet wither and die. Stagnant air. Sterile landscapes. Brackish water. It made for no wonder anymore.

Golbez, that bastard. His struggle for power and glory was killing the planet.

But then a horrible thought compounded all others. What if it was this imbalance that had caused others to turn on him, to forget him? He had seen it in Edward. Could it have happened to anyone else? Wait, he thought. Please!

Don’t cast me back amongst them.

“That walled city yonder,” came the dragon’s gaunt-sounding observation. “There. I’ll land us just beyond the city gates.”

“Hold!” said the wizard, suddenly frantic. “A moment!”

But they were already descending, and the wizard’s grasp increased fivefold. Tellah’s insides rose as they both fell, the once distant speck of white-gray getting larger and more pronounced. From the look of the crenelled towers and height of the war-torn ramparts, the kingdom was almost akin to Baron. Almost.

“Here we are then.” The cerulean steed gave several wide flaps of its wings, sending up a cloud of dust as he touched his charge down upon the city doorstep. “I’m understanding your hesitancy. You’re already beginning to unravel this realm’s mystery for yourself. But you must also savvy what kind of an effect the elements are having on me. I’m sorry for this.”

So am I, Tellah felt like saying. He felt so responsible now for this beast killing Edward. If only he could have come to this epiphany concerning the crystals sooner, maybe he might have been spared. He had only just begun to get used to the charmer’s company.

He shook his disheveled head. “You delivered me from death. You need not apologize. I only wish there were some way of returning the favor.”

The serpent craned its neck, appearing regal even in the overcast that eclipsed them. “Restore the order that once was, and I’ll consider the debt repaid.”

The wizard nodded. It only seemed fair.

“And might I inquire as to your name?”

The dragon’s eyes closed.

“It’s Kain.” Then, it was gone.

Tellah stood flummoxed for a moment as the great serpent dropped from sight. Had he truly heard correctly? Or had exposure to the elements begun to play tricks on his mind?

The vacant stares of those who had witnessed the scene from within the commons drew the wizard back towards his surroundings. With a deep breath, the wizard advanced.

Only with very hesitant steps could he bring himself to move in their midst. He had been to Baron on several occasions in the past, many times in some official capacity or other: envoy; guildmaster; ambassador; and, most recently, as Cecil’s consul and right-hand. This place had been a frequent target of artistic endeavors by the painters of Troia, who often employed a heavily stylized form of expression to give Baron life in their murals.

As it stood before him now, however, the kingdom of Baron appeared less as a vibrant mural than a colorless fresco with half of its stones missing. Both the castle and its surrounding township seemed as every bit old and decrepit as the tower of Zot was now. Every as he made the attempt to look inconspicuous, he found stragglers and pickpockets working the avenues: some in a less than subtle fashion; others watching from the shadows to ensure the work was being carried out without incident. Half of the clay and brick dwellings had either partially collapsed or vanished entirely.

And yet, a few skeletal townhomes didn’t seem to deter the vagabonds who had since taken up residence there. The clamor of domestic violence, the screech of unfortunate alley cats being hit with stray garbage from above, the harlots and cutthroats prowling the once proud street of a realm’s former majesty. And the stench! Could a world truly fall so far from grace in so short a time?

Tellah wanted to believe that the crystals’ lack of harmony was responsible for all of this, but somehow he wasn’t sure.

Ducking dross, sidestepping commotion, spurning the scattered streetwalker’s advance, the wizard at last passed through the portcullis of Baron castle – out of the dream and into the nightmare. None of the stronghold’s many braziers were lit. There were no vigilant guards with the Red Wings’ livery marching in any perfect lines. The fortress was as cold and lifeless as every other corner of this dead world. All he could find was a frail looking soldier guarding the main entrance, wearing tarnished black armor with no helmet. From the look of his scraggily gray hair and unshaven, weather-etched face, Tellah surmised he had been stationed at this post for quite a long time.

“I’m looking for…”

“The king?” The guard had an odd way of making conversation, not directly making eye contact and scratching at his neck as though allergic to spellcasters. His inquiry was delivered through only one of the several teeth that were still left in his head, making his tone sounding strangled and irregular. When he received no acknowledgment, he repeated, “For the king?”

“Uh, for Cecil.”

“For the king?” he said again.

“If that’s his name, yes.”

“King, busy.” Still scratching at the collar of his breastplate, he started pacing around the door as if it would get him extra credit. “Business for the king.”

“Well,” said Tellah, trying a different approach “He and I are colleagues. Is it possible I could speak with him?”


“On what?”

“On how much business king has.”

The snazzletoothed guard broke out into a fit of dry cackling, as though the hilarity of the in-joke was enough to put down a balor. Only when he ran out of air and start coughing his lungs out did he stop.

“Please,” the Mysidian tried again. “This is important. Could you tell him I need to speak with him as quickly as possible?”

The soldier, if it were still safe for Tellah to consider him as such, clucked his tongue before rolling both eyes and a stick finger heavenward. Confused, Tellah followed his eyes as they continued to ascend. Higher, higher still, looking at the sky now…


Tellah jumped.

“Right!” the gatekeeper croaked, unlatching the double doors behind him. “I go get king for you then. King see you. Be patient for the king.”

The wizard sighed. Evil dictators, plague-ridden bards, unfriendly locals, and now the village idiot. This was turning into the week of hell!

At around the same time the bumpkin of Baron went off to summon his lord, the carnal sounds of flesh on flesh were echoing through the dimly lit recesses of the castle’s most foreboding spire. The tower itself was a good fifteen stories in height, and yet the maids and porters who went about their duties on each and every floor could have heard their rapturous ruler a mile away. Up and up, through the darkened spiral stairwells, breaking through to faint torchlight across windowless stone corridors, was the king’s bedchamber. The casual passerby could have slipped a hasty peak in through their monarch’s keyhole, and their monarch would have been none the wiser.

Seconds later, their fast culminating ecstasy came to a screeching, growling climax.

“That…was fun,” came the breathless vixen’s reply.

Sweat glistened off of her naked, trembling form as she looked down upon the sculpted usurper of Baron. But his kohl-rimmed eyes appeared indifferent of their tryst, nothing more to him than a trip to the training grounds for him. Large, dark hands, which had been clutched like talons into her thighs a moment earlier, now brushed her to one side of the bed. His wrestler compact frame snapped taut as he rose to dress, dirty blond locks cascading down his back like an oily waterfall. The blond woman in his company seemed not to care.

“Tough guy, huh?” She stretched out upon their canopy bed, head propped up beneath her elbow. She made no effort to cover herself. “Then, why is it you always like me on top? You enjoyed yourself, and you know it.”

“That’s the idea,” he intoned, tying a robe around him.

“Okay,” she replied, “So, what happens now? Aren’t we supposed to chat or something?”

“We’re done.” He swiveled to face her, his scarred face giving off a steely glint in the candlelight. “Get dressed and go.”

“I know what your problem is.” Sitting upright, she swathed both arms around his shoulders – as though they were meant to be. “You’re afraid of settling down, aren’t you? Being a rightful ruler, taking a queen, having an heir. It terrifies you, doesn’t it?”

She was prying now, and the dark knight wasn’t enjoying it in the least. Usurpers did not ‘settle down’. Such a notion simply did not factor into the tenure of one who went around overthrowing kingdoms and annexing city-states to their own ends. He had learned a very long time ago, growing up in the backwash of Baron, that the only person he could count on was himself. That alone gave him the wherewithal to commandeer the Red Wings, to vanquish his enemies, to shape the realm as he saw fit. He would have no heir. He would take no queen. Concubines, he did not have an issue with. Truly, he had bedded many of the wenches in this castle at some point or other already.

Perhaps, this Rosa woman got the idea from the scattered occasion when he’d refer to her as ‘his’ queen, a ploy to enhance her performance for the evening.

“Get dressed,” he repeated, voice sharpened as if by a whetstone, “And go.”

“Your choice. Same time tomorrow evening, then?”

A knock sounded over the unlatched door, pushing it ajar before the dark knight could respond.

“King?” uttered a craven little voice from the hallway.

“Knock before you enter!”

The underling recoiled. Though the Red Wings’ most recent commander was no stranger to anger (indeed, the two were lifelong associates), some way of properly nursing the emotion seemed ever at arm’s reach of him. The idea of some other man, particularly his most whipped and broken right-hand, laying eyes upon Rosa in such a manner compounded his rage a thousandfold. With corded arms and venomous savagery, the dark knight accosted the elderly man roughly by the arm and shoved him out from the doorframe. His sultry concubine seemed not to care.

“I did knock, my king!” said the gangly-looking guard, sounding resolute even beneath the steely reproach of his superior. “I only came by to inform you that that necromancer out of the east has come to see you.”

Cecil stayed his anger momentarily. “How do you know it’s the necromancer?”

Not for the first time that night did the soldier grin knowingly. “It is Tellah, my king. His carnage precedes him. There is none in the realm more steeped in hatred than he is.”

The knight seemed taken aback for a moment. Scatterbrained though this devotee appeared on the outside, there were times when even he would demonstrate cunning beyond his many years. Cecil somehow sensed there was more to this underling of one week than he was letting on about.

“Well, he’s either incredibly smart or a relative of yours. Where is he?”

“Waiting, now, in your banquet hall…my king.” There was no small degree of spite in the guard’s expression as he spoke.

“Fine. Let us see what he wants then.”

There was scarce any light to be found in the great meeting hall as Tellah awaited his friend. All crests of the kingdom, trophies of war, declarations of fealty to Baron, were slaves to the darkness. Only the dim lattice of moonbeams spilled any radiance into the chamber, and even those seemed divided about granting the exhausted wizard any illumination. This seemed strange, in and of itself. On any given evening, a moon either shone or it didn’t. It shouldn’t have had any say in the matter.


Tellah made his quick way over to the vaulted windows. There, through the coiled, glassless apertures, he discovered in mere seconds that all was not right with that pale, celestial body. For one thing, it had grown larger – or maybe closer! It seemed all that was left of the western sky, so large and hideously foreboding. If he were standing on a parapet right now, he was quite sure he would have been able to reach out and touch it.

And…it was collapsing!

The heavens wept.

Indeed, the great globe was crumbling before his very eyes, vast, dusty crags coming apart and making a cloud of its gigantic hemispheres. The crystals couldn’t have possibly perpetrated this. It was inconceivable. What was happening?!

“Enjoying the view?”

Tellah swiveled as the robed paladin entered the room, a chalice of wine in each hand.

“Cecil!” The Mysidian could have broken into tears he was so happy to see him. “My boy, are you a sight for sore--”

“That’s close enough, mage.”

Tellah stopped. Mage?

“Have you forgotten what we had as well?” The charcoaled sorcerer should have been anticipating this, should have been expecting what kind of an effect a loss of magic equilibrium would create in the knight. But, now just as before, hope kept taking him off his guard. “When we fought the kraken together with that summoner girl? When we scaled Mount Ordeals for you to become a paladin? Do you remember at all?”

“You’re quite obviously delirious.” The dark knight’s robe trailed whispers across the floor as he moved to sit at his table. “Why else would you have chanced coming so close to my kingdom?”

He gestured with dark eyes to the south arm across from him. Reluctant, but distraught for answers, the wizard lowered himself into the chair he had just sat in, dismissing the wine left for him.

“Who,” he began, mincing words, “is it you think I am?”

“You are Tellah.” Cecil drained the jeweled cup at his side with a single flick of his wrist. “Archmage of Mysidia.”

So far, so good.

“And why do you think I’m here?”

The knight belched. “The way I see it, your task of expunging all bards of the realm has been finished. And now that it is, you’re in search of some other outlet for your fury. Isn’t that the real reason you’ve come to this place, to depose the ones who abuse what they have?”

The right names, but the wrong stories. Tellah mulled this over quietly, stirring the liquid in his cup but never drinking it. If what he remembered never happened…he started to speculate. No quest for the crystals meant Cecil had remained a dark knight. There’d have been no camaraderie between Kain and Cecil, no venturing out together for the Village of Mist and no encounter with Rydia (if, indeed, she was unfortunate enough to still be thriving in this horrible place). None of it would have occurred.

“No!” He drove a fist hard into the wood of the table, capsizing his chalice in the process. “That’s not why I’m here!”

The ground beneath them trembled, almost in concert with the wizard’s rage. It felt as though something very large and lethal had collided with the earth some distance away, sending out a shockwave strong enough to rattle the very spine of the world. Cecil seemed oblivious, reclining back upon the cushion of his seat.

“Why don’t you tell me the real reason you’re here then?”

“Because…I think I know why it is you’ve been acting the way you are. The world is in flux because the crystals were disturbed from their resting places. Golbez removed--”


The despoiler of Baron exploded with a rage of his own, knocking his cup, the wizard, the very table before them, completely off kilter. The reaction was almost a step in the right direction for Tellah, until he realized that their evening’s friendly dispute was about to become an all-out war.

“What do you know of that man! What has he been doing before I put him to the axe? Speak, or I’ll have your head!”

Tellah rose from the force of the knight’s tirade, undaunted. “He’s disturbed the crystals! That’s why I’ve come. I need your help in returning them to their pedestals where they belong, to put things back the way we remember them!”

“You senile old fool! The crystals don’t exist! You’re talking about a fairy tale, some drunken bard’s yarn. Stop wasting my time!”

“It is no fairy tale.” Controlled though the wizard’s tone was, he could once again feel impatience and anger boil to the surface. He could also feel his power flow back piecemeal, causing white lightnings to dance and coalesce around his frame, seeking release. “You ‘will’ remember us. One way or the other.”

Another tremor rocked the stone floor beneath them…

Tellah drew back an arm, about to let fly a static blast of elemental magic, when another kinetic surge of sorcery speared into him from out of the shadows. Each nerve in his body screamed pain as the rapidly moving energy chain planted him into a corner of the room. Only healing cantrips could he focus on, barely able to recognize the spellcaster as he moved into the moonlight – that idiot gatekeeper he had met some time earlier!

“That’s enough, Fu.”

Hearing thus, the lightning whip winked into nothing, dropping Tellah in a heap.

“Confine him for now. We’ll make away with him at first light.”

Conscious thought danced on the blade’s end of darkness as his attacker seized him. Several minutes flitted by in an eye’s blink, until the next thing he knew he was being carried roughly down the well of a spiral staircase. Cecil’s chamberlain used the time to berate his prisoner, flaunting both two-facedness as well as a ray of enfeeblement to keep Tellah docile. It was during these moments that he speculated silently to himself.

A world without crystals? A moon, whose orbit was decaying? Cecil killing Golbez? It was more than clear, now, that this was not the world he had left behind.

But then, what world could it have been?

“The king makes me do these things. I do them for the king.”

“You’re…a wizard.”

“More of a distant relative,” he replied, chuckling as if from some cryptic pun. His words were suddenly clearer and more guttural. “Cecil’s just not aware of how distant we are.”

The stairs finally leveled out onto a crooked landing, into a recess of the castle so cold and bereft of light that only the rats and spiders would occupy it. Architects often referred to such places as ‘oubliettes’, dungeons where derelicts and miscreants were thrown to be forgotten. A fate worse than death.

“You’re time will not pass quickly in this place,” said Fu, prying the reinforced wooden door ajar. “Thank the muses that you’ll have an eternity to wait before death.”

Tellah didn’t so much land in the cell of carrion as he flopped, so overwhelming was the wizard’s enfeeblement spell. It was just as well.

Maybe now, he could finally get some sleep.

* * *

Tellah never slept.

There was once a time when his toiling as a fledging mage could make him almost comatose with exhaustion, but much had happened between then and now. When a Meteo experiment led to the near-deaths of Mysidia’s most valued pyromancers, he experienced insomnia for the first time. When first he had tasted the pains and pleasures of falling in love, the sleepless nights turned into weeks. When his daughter had spirited herself off to elope with a bard, a couple of weeks became a month.

When she died, slumber was lost forever.

Scarmiglione, great fiend of earth, had days such as these. He, too, was a restless one, a flaw that his minions of rot seem to have inherited. How a soul degenerates from the salt of the earth to a puppet of death, however, none would dare hazard a guess. Now, one could believe that it might have something to do with his former life as a herbalist, always toiling within the dwarven depths of the world, fighting to make roots take to sterile earth, to make life blossom no matter the cost. Perhaps, failure to terra form was too much of an upset for him, or maybe, reason enough to refine his methods…

It is a known fact that all life is manipulated, just that it is more obvious with the dead. Who, then, is the trickster at fault for pulling ‘our’ strings? How much punishment will any one marionette stand before it finally breaks under the pressure?

How much indeed?

* * *

Another tremor…

Without warning, Tellah came to amidst the creeping death that surrounded him. He wasn’t quite sure how to explain it to himself. One moment, he was spread eagle on the ground, with dozens of hairy arachnids mounting him, nesting within the voluminous folds of his robe, making his skin crawl. And the next thing he knew, he was whipping himself about like a creature possessed, disentangling himself from the vermin as though free will had suddenly been given back to him. Why the change of heart, he wondered, flinging a whiskered rodent off into the corner by its tail. Had they some other use for him? Were they dead? The wizard prayed for the latter. It would serve them right, the shortsighted fools.

More tremors…

Why did that keep happening?

Tellah planted the thought down into a murky crevasse in the back of his mind. Elsewhere in his head, there was a sudden upsurge of life, the spark of his power returning. How long had he been out? Another meaningless question. What did it matter? With a simple sleight of hand, an orb of green hellfire leaped from his open palm, ripping a cacophonous hole through the cast-iron door and even cutting a sway through a section of mortar in the process. Where would he go? Once these fiends were behind him, what then? Where was there left to go?

What odds about it? He was powerful again. None would oppose him now.

The world quivered beneath his footsteps.

Legs corded, arms ensorcelled, Tellah made good on his escape. His magic seemed to run over, cracking and shooting up the subterranean spire ahead of him. Strange that there were no guards to impede his way, no knights to confront him, nothing so much as a mage to stop him dead in his tracks. He paid no mind to it. He had been taken off-guard by unexpected godsends before and he wasn’t about to make that mistake again. The wizard’s calves burned like his vigor, pumping furiously as he ascended back up into the bowels of the castle. He was already prepared, channeling potential into a wideband detect spell.

No life beyond the door. Tellah tore it open–


Heart skipping a beat, he staggered on the landing, almost cartwheeling back down from whence he had come. A raggedy gray form with no jawbone stood groaning beyond the frame, eyes white and empty, flesh putrid with decay. Tellah rebounded however, ready to vaporize the ghoul with the light of Holy.


It shuffled on down the corridor instead, not paying the wizard any mind.

Tellah blinked, confused. So then, who was responsible for these things? Why did they avoid him of all people? Necromancy was not an art known for being biased towards one victim over another. Why would any of them shirk a meal?

More meaningless questions.

The wizard flew, heedless of direction. All light beyond the windows had diminished by now. The moon was gone. Bad vibrations, however, continued with its assault upon Baron. What weak semblance of order there was before coming here had finally dissipated into anarchy. Down in the castle courtyard, Tellah could hear the clamor of chaos, mingled now with the starts and screams of a shellshocked populace.

Then he remembered. There was a passageway to Mysidia somewhere in this castle, one that only an archmage could seal and unseal at will. It was his ticket out of here, a means to salvation. He had to find it.

Keeping himself in motion, he started and stopped along each bend of the keep, mentally photographing all of its many nooks and crannies, looking for some path that was even half familiar. But with a pitch-black pall eclipsing the empty spaces, it became no easy expedition for him. If this didn’t make the going hazardous enough, he could still pick up on the many shambling, groaning horrors prowling the stronghold, looking for a late-night snack.

Groan…after ghoulish groan…and suddenly, a woman’s scream.

Tellah backpedaled for the briefest of seconds, trying to decide exactly what he should do. If she was even half as dark as the others he had encountered in this backwards world, it might have been just as well to leave her behind. For all Tellah knew, she could have been the very person who had caused the imbalance he was fighting to correct. Why should he lift a finger to protect any of them?

No! Oh god! Nooooooo!

Hearing her cry, Anna popped into his thoughts. Sighing, he broke into a run.

At every turn, the wizard’s steps became dogged by the nuances of feasting nightwalkers that he couldn’t see, tremulous aftershocks that he couldn’t place. Either seconds or minutes later, he was scaling yet another well of stairs, soaring up into the bowels of the northern spire. A putrid, visceral stench accosted him, almost before he could fully set his feet upon the third-story floor. He could no longer hear any cries for help, but they had definitely come from here. A luminescent hand held out to the dark corridor ahead told him this.

Blood – pouring out in pools along the chiseled stone crevasses, streaking and spotting the walls in a frantic, deathtrap fashion.

Bone – skulls, ribs, pelvic fragments, lying in heap after nightmarish heap before him, all flesh picked completely clean.

Tellah fought for a moment to comprehend the ruin that lay before him, when the dim sounds of snapping and slurping sounded from a nearby chamber door. Mollified though he was from the carnage, curiosity couldn’t help but get the best of him. Inch by nerve-shattering inch, he pushed the door open…

Light from his wizard hands gave a feral flicker inside as one or two of the creatures gazed up from their meal. On the bed before them was a stringy red mess of gristle and ligaments, tenderized and utterly featureless by the ravenous horde. The only features he could make out were those that rested near the head of the coverlet: a disembodied skullcap, still with a head of lovely blond hair clinging to it! Was this the woman who had been screeching for his aid earlier?

He turned his head and vomited.

“This was all your doing, necro-fiend!”

The wizard didn’t immediately turn his head up to acknowledge the familiar voice. He had begun to expect blame and unnecessary force against him by this time and, frankly, was beginning to tire from it. Savage volleys of magic flame and brimstone, however, he could not ignore, and he leaped to one side just as one of the destructive tides careened over his head. Cecil’s mage made use of both razored steel and hellacious meteorain strikes to beat back the wall of undead surrounding him. Bodies already void of life burned and exploded at his hands, but more seemed to generate out of their ruin.

“Small-minded fool!” Tellah bit back. “Can’t you see I’m in the same boat you are?”

Fu drove the tip of his blade through another zombie’s gullet, tearing the skull completely from its neck. “Why, then, do they avoid only you? Explain that!”

Tellah couldn’t.

“Where is the passageway to Mysidia? Tell me, and we’ll leave you be. All of us.”

“I’ll tell you nothing.” The mage flung the last of the twice-dead cadavers from his sword. “It will be of no use to you anyways. You’re time has come, archmage. Our suffering will now be yours.”

Arms dancing runes in empty space, Fu unleashed a torrent of mystic radiance that looked bright enough to disintegrate him. But Tellah’s limbs moved all the more faster, throwing up an anti-magic barrier at the last possible second. With the lethal energies licking and thrashing futilely against his shield, the wizard began to harness a different kind of power into his spell. Something quick, he mused, something difficult to anticipate. Time and patience were dwindling now, and he had neither to spare for games.

Omnia udu kyourae . . . kyouraem udu kaie . . .

Teeth clenched and muscles taut, Tellah forced both upended fists out through his shield, taking hold of the killer ray as though it were corporeal. With agonizing slowness, the spell began to grow cold and ropey between his callused fingers. Fu blinked.

“Mind over matter…matter over will…”

The barrier surrounding him shattered as he cracked the magic beam like a whip, sending his enemy flying overhead. The peal of stone on stone erupted from above, finally telling the Mysidian where these endless thunderclaps were coming from. Hitting the ground, he only barely escaped the path of a jagged hunk of space rock as it sheered the entire upper half of the turret away into the night.

Tellah grew so weary of this.

“I’m through with your hijinx,” he rasped, feeling the pull of weakness as magic once more drained from his being. “The passageway.”

But the Lunarian could only barely make the wizard out, one foot already in the grave from his flight through midair. Tellah grabbed him by the throat.


“Hmph,” said the mage. “You’ll get nothing more out of me.”

“Won’t I, now?”

So saying, the wizard pressed the spread fingers of both hands against Fu’s head and recited an incantation. Each one of them strained visibly against the mental tug-of-war, eyes quenched shut in concentration. One fighting to keep his secrets under lock and key, the other reaching out to pluck them free as though hanging from a vine. Probing synapse after synapse, unleashing one godless memory after the other, Tellah finally started to understand what was happening around him.

This Fu – FuSoYa – had been Lunarian once, before this string of cataclysmic events had started. And yet, all that these people had been telling him, about the non-existence of the crystals, was true! This mage before him now had never heard tell of them. These memories proved it. And yet, how was magic possible without them? He went deeper…

“Off with you!”

A spotted hand came up, already charged with a cloud of contagion. But instead of reeling back from the death touch, Tellah struck him. Not with a spell. Not with a discarded weapon. A hard right-hand across the face. The momentum was enough to fully knock him the rest of the way over the edge, all the way down into the eager clutches of madmen – madmen without a pulse.

Tellah told himself to turn away, yet his eyes remained forward.

The mage was swarmed in an instant, dozens of cold limbs coming down and ripping his garments to ribbons. He visibly strained to dismiss one spell while readying another, but the stenches had already begun to bite and rend the muscles from his arms. Then pain, blinding and swift and everywhere!

FuSoYa screamed…

Mottled, worm-ridden hands took hold of the loose folds along his abdomen, ripping a wide, gory trench into his torso. The sudden explosion of blood and naked viscera made them all the more determined to dismember and feed.

FuSoYa gurgled…

Arms came off, bursting at the joints. The mage’s coiled digestive tract unfurled with several vicious tugs, empting his chest cavity. From his vantage point, Tellah could even see the robed dark knight, wrenching and chewing at his former servant’s head until it broke completely away at the neckline.

All within eyeshot ran together like watercolors on a canvas. From his vantage point, Tellah watched. Seeing everything. Seeing nothing.

The night sky, weeping tears of fire…

Chunks of moon rock, tearing the kingdom of Baron asunder…

Bodies both living and dead, lusting, groping, devouring one another…

Hell on earth.

With quick reappraisal of the dead mage’s thoughts, Tellah moved to find the passageway, to flee these hellacious things, to escape all which he had become intimately familiar with.

* * *

Familiarity, it is said, breeds contempt.

Every last one of us, at some point or other, has allowed for our emotions to get in the way of rational judgment. Invariably, they let us down. Only the one called anger, blinding and scathing thought it might be, allows us to finish the things we start. Taken at the fray, it’s power becomes considerable: more the motivator than despair; more meaningful than happiness; more demanding of respect than any other force on earth.

About as much can be said for one lone outlaw to have once come out of Eblan. Broken by destitution, torn by a deep-seated resentment towards the wealthy and the indulgent, fury seemed to be his calling. So long and hot did the hatred consume him that one day, it became an extension of his being, whose scarring touch was eternal. Speak carefully of this one, for his name was once Rubicante, the fiend of everlasting fire.

Fire. One of the first spells Tellah came to master. Truly, his most special friend.

When it came down to it, when he looked back on it long and hard enough, he preferred it this way. Only when he was driven to the absolute limits of his ability did he feel complete, more than complete even. Pitted against vast, indomitable sky drakes, scaling the incalculable heights of Mount Ordeals to reclaim the spells he had misplaced, laying siege to power-hungry dictators with Meteo. These things and more, he lived for. These things and more brought to him the solace he so desperately sought. Not love. Not filial piety. Not the responsibilities of a sage. But inviting death, flirting with disaster, this was life. This was familiarity. And the closer to death it took him, the more alive he felt.

Only through this path of ruin could he truly find…himself.


The corridor ahead was much like the corridor he had left behind, bathed in a soothing green glow that was almost life-giving. Almost. Tellah’s stride had grown listless since Baron however, and indeed he had begun to speculate if he was turning into one of the maggoty minions that had consumed the Red Wing’s kingdom from the inside out. So hungry, he thought, I wish I had something to eat.

Staggering, with jittery hands groping at the colonnade for support, the wizard emerged at last in Mysidia. Magic teleportation, even for the most talented archmage, put such a terrible strain on one’s body and mind. Many who had ventured along such gateways often collapsed soon after the trip had ended. In Tellah’s current condition, he was fortunate enough to have even survived the voyage.

Was it truly so fortunate, a voice in his head asked.

He made for the door, reaching to open it before resting his head a moment in preparation. So much horror. When was a world no longer a world? If he pried this door open now, what possible perversions of reality could be out there waiting for him? Blacker mages, looking for some soul to enslave? Enchanters wanting to transmogrify him for their amusement? An illusionist perhaps, out to make life even worse than what it was with manifestations from out of his past?

Unlatching the lock, he stepped outside…

Everything was as he remembered it.

No dragons. No vengeful bards. No dead creatures pledging allegiance to him. As he walked, ever last flagstone in the ground beneath him was whole and undisturbed. Each townhouse, from the homes of others to dear old Matoya’s shop of magic wonders, was intact. It felt like his second homecoming, a safe harbor at last.

Where, then, were all his friends and well-wishers?

“Hello?” He stopped briefly at the inn, checking each floor and suite for signs of life. But no one. Even the register at the front desk was blank. “Is anyone here?”

He’d stop again at the magic shop and armory, only to find each similarly bereft of life. Each sword untouched on their racks. Each potion full and unopened on their shelves. How peculiar, he thought, that there should be so much silence in so merciless a realm. For a moment, he remained transfixed in the empty town square, wondering what he should be doing or where to be going, when he saw it. At the north end of town, standing four stories high, was the School of Magic, where many of his most difficult but memorable years had passed.

And from the distant corner window on its highest floor, a faint yellow glow flickered in and out.


Tellah didn’t think before acting, bolting for the house at top speed. The nostalgia of being back among his scholarly environs was lost upon the mage. Everything but the contents of that lone classroom seemed unimportant now. When at last he had made it, he found that it was the last possible individual he expected to find anywhere.

“Ah,” said the bearded man, sitting cozily beside his desk, fiddling with a glass filament. “There you are. I thought you’d never make it.”

He had come face-to-face…with himself!

“Take a seat, then,” he added, eyes back upon the device he was wrestling with. “I’ve been trying to get this lamp fixed forever now.”

“Why?” The wizard willed himself to sit and give his legs a spell. “Who…who are you?”

He ceased his tinkering and looked up yet again. “Well it’s rather obvious, isn’t it?”

Tellah blinked.

“As to the ‘why’, I’d have imagined that would have been as equally self-explanatory. Light and shadow, old friend.” With an instrument that appeared slightly larger than a set of tweezers, he bound the last of the severed wires in the tube with pinpoint precision. “Even in darkness, there has to be the smallest ray of hope to carry on the fight. Without it…”

He flicked the lantern on. The trembling of the earth stopped.

“…all falls into ruin.”

“Are…” the wizard stammered, genuinely impressed with his trick. “Are…are you a conjurer of some kind? Or a shapeshifter, reading my mind?”

His counterpart smiled, as if from a very old joke. “We’re the same person friend, you and I. We’ve traveled the same road, made the same friends and enemies, experienced all of it as one.”

“I find that hard to believe.” The edge of confrontation started to creep into Tellah’s voice. “My road pitted me against a warlord, had me fleeing from death at the hands of a renegade troubadour, watching…”

“…watching idly as zombies tore Baron out from under itself.”

Their words ran together as one. Tellah stared uncomprehending while this…‘other’ Tellah…only nodded and smiled knowingly.

“What’s happening to us, to…me?”

His hand gestured towards the right of the wizard’s chair, where a small glass cylinder rested quietly. Without asking, he handed it over.

“I’ll do what I can to light those dark places of your mind.” Ever so carefully, he laid the cylinder down over the dim glow of his kerosene light. “Though I should warn you that anger has its way of skirting the truth, no matter how obvious it may be.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Are you familiar with the tale of Mirrorkeep?”

Tellah scoffed. “A fool’s question. Every aspiring wizard gets told that story, even before they pick up a wand. Clerics get told similar tales to make sure they never stray from the path of righteousness. It’s nothing but a scare tactic to enforce order.”

“And you can still convince yourself of that, especially after all the terrors you’ve been witnessing of late?”

The Mysidian considered this. Mirrorkeep, if he could recall correctly, spoke of a plane of existence that mirrored one’s own, whereby the transgressions of a past life are made into outward reflections in the next. But those tales couldn’t have possibly been true?

Or could they have been?

“No,” he decreed. “Golbez removed the world’s crystals from their pedestals. That’s what caused this planet to wither, for its people to turn on each other.”

But even as he disclosed his own reasoning behind this chain of events, his healthier, more sagely looking self was shaking his head.

“But they haven’t any recollection of these crystals, now do they? That’s because this is a false realm, fueled by false potential. There is no balance, ergo no crystals to maintain it. Their own unwillingness to believe in the crystals reflects your own unwillingness to believe in Mirrorkeep. But it is quite real. You’ve no doubt learned by now.”

“It can’t be!” Death, while ever a welcome concept since coming to this place, was not something he could straightaway accept. Had he really perished at the hands of Meteo? Impossible! “I found Edward devouring dragon whelps in the mountains near Zot. His charm magic had become completely tainted!”

“Because you considered his kind a blight upon man. It’s only natural for Mirrorkeep to reflect that.”

“What about Cecil? He became a paladin!”

“Who used to be a dark knight. Must I really be explaining all of this to you?”

Neither of them said anything for a moment, for truly there was little that dead men could really say to one another. One seemed entirely too preoccupied with his own thoughts to be bothered with death, the other too preoccupied with death to be bothered with his own thoughts.

“So,” said Tellah, regarding his more well kempt doppelganger with more than a little suspicion, “This must have been roundabout the time when I fell asleep in class, because I don’t seem to recall this part of the Mirrorkeep tale. Who, or what, are you?”

“I am Tellah.”

I am Tellah, hence the question.”

“Perhaps,” said the light bearer, “you’d be better off sitting in my chair before you hear this. A drink may help to lighten the blow as well.”


Each wizard shifted spots as Tellah poured them both a midnight-blue beverage from a nearby waterskin. He eyed the drink suspiciously, recalling the time when he had nearly drank from the cup proffered to him by the Mirrorkeep Cecil.

“Indulge me,” he heard himself say. “If you can’t trust yourself, then who can you trust?”

With a smirk of true humor for once, the raggedy mage threw the cool blue liquid back. His head had already begun to swim.

“Lunarian wine.”

“Indeed. It is a special occasion, after all.”

Tellah hadn’t tasted such a vintage since he had been betrothed nearly thirty years ago, and so gestured for a second round. Tellah wasn’t about to deny him such a simple pleasure, not at such a pivotal life moment for the both of them.

“Do you recall what it was our maesters had taught us about thermatology, about alchemy, the principles of equal exchange?”

“You mean, the Conservation Theorem?” He decided he’d sip his second drink this time, savoring the moment. It had been too long. “The fact that nothing can be created without something of equal value being sacrificed, and vice versa?”

He nodded. “Yes. Well, Mirrorkeep has something of a similar law to it as well. The name of Tellah has been sullied by vice and must be redeemed, and in order to do that the anger within must be purged forever.”

“Well then,” Tellah replied, waving a singed sleeve about in a grandiose gesture. “That would answer my question. Edward represents my hatred of bards, Cecil my hatred of kings, Kain of dragoons, and let me guess. You would be my anger then, the vice that needs to be purged. Does that about cover it?”

“Not quite.”

The wizard tried to stay vigilant at this point, but the wine in his system was doing more than making him a bit tipsy. He very abruptly felt queasy, overrun with exhaustion…


“You. You are the way to this doleful city, this forsaken race. The way must be shut.”

Tellah’s glass slipped drunkenly from his fingers, shattering on the floor.


The travel-worn wizard fought to spring onto his other half but collapsed to the floor instead, paralyzed as though someone had removed his spine while he wasn’t looking. After all of this, after all he had been through, why like this? Why in this state?

“You…you can’t!”

“I’m not,” he said, sounding benign. “This is of your own free will. You know this. You’ve always known this. That’s the thing about anger, it is fleeting. Your path – our path – has had its share of tribulations, more so than anyone’s life ought to. There have been days when Tellah carried this burden of anger with great humility. Other times, it carried him, taking him into unfamiliar territory, territory that was always hostile…”

The Mysidian shade twitched and whimpered in supplication, beginning to fade from the light, from memory…

“But it has to end, now. If we allow for it to continue, it would devour Tellah from the inside out. Do not fret, old friend. Our friends are quite safe. They never would have come as far as they are now without you to drive them.”

“They…they live?”

The bearded cherub beamed. “Oh yes.”

For anyone else, comfort would have been a relative term so close to death. And yet having served his purpose, made valid in a time of despair, he felt the most peculiar sensation of peace, the likes of which would never be touched before or again. Somewhere, far from here, Edward was still resting soundlessly in the halls of Troia, Cecil was back in the arms of his beloved, and all was as it was supposed to be.

“I think,” said the shadow of Tellah, “I can finally go to sleep, now.”

And then, the lion within him finally did rest – dark, silent, complete.

For all time.

* * *

For all time.

An unimaginably long stretch of time to be away from this village, this hamlet that had meant the world and more to him. He walked quietly one last time down the starlit avenue, glittering now. It pulsated this time not with the rumble of fear but the soft, almost relaxing drone of well-being. Tellah was awestruck from the sight, but dismayed as well. Mirrorkeep. The realm would always endure, beyond his time, beyond the next life age of this earth, until the very hour which the last star in the heavens winked into nothingness.

Hatred outliving the hateful.

“My friends…” he whispered, somehow sensing that they were pitted against some force of hatred at that very moment. “Stay strong…”

Succor took him like a warm embrace, the likes of which no ancient spell could imbue him with. All the joyous memories of his life then – kissing his beloved on their wedding day, the birth of his daughter, making amends with Edward – came at him all at once. This would be his final spell, his final reprieve. He hoped none of them would make the same mistake he had, that they would make the most of life no matter what curves they were thrown.

“Keep hope close by…don’t give it up…”

Then finally, inevitably, his lifeforce ebbed and flowed, proffered thus to echo other cries. All that remained was the old man’s smile.


All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition

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