Luther's Twisted Tale
Todd Jones &
8368 Orhan St.
Canton, Mi 48187
This story is a long time in the making. It is one of those tales that sits in the back of your mind, but never really gets flushed out nor put to paper. I started jotting down notes in the early nineties, but the idea never took root. If you had read some of the early drafts, you would have a better insight of why. So, like many ideas, it went on a shelf. When the winter of 2003 began rearing its head, a decade later, a coworker sent me a short story she was working on and it reminded me of this tale. Her writing style would work perfectly for this story, so I dusted off my notes and sent them to her. Needless to say, we started brain-storming and there you go.
Thanks to Marc Reichardt for getting me back into role-playing games in college; authors like Roger Zelazny, J.R.R Tolken and R.A. Salvatore for keeping me interested; and my wife for believing in me.
The Great Beast stirred. Its spirit filled with over a century of hatred toward the elf that had entrapped it in this prison of a pocket universe. The Great Beast let its slender fingers slip into its folds of its thick, black robe and touch the scar that marred its smooth charcoal skin. It cursed the name Lizander Ausberry as its finger traced along the scar that ran from the Great Beast’s lower right ribs to the base of its neck. The dull pain of the wound that Lizander's Ternanian blade made still festered. Revenge filled the Great Beast as memories of how Lizander Ausberry had hacked through its undead horde and followed it into the lower chambers of the sacred Ishirian palace.
The Great Beast remembered well the mislead contempt that the elf's cobalt eyes held and the passion in which Lizander's movements, as if the sword was an extension of his own body, cut into its flesh. They had fought for hours, and the Ternanian wielding elf thwarted the Great Beast’s magic. The elf’s movements seemed effortless as he drew strength from the Ternanian oar that embodied the blade. It was those damnable dark dwarves, the Duergar that must have shown Lizander the lost art of smelting Ternanian "Gift of the Gods" oar. What could Lizander have offered in trade for that knowledge?
Each cut, of that blade, bled more than mere flesh from the Great Beast’s essence. If it were not for the traitor in Lizander's party, the Great Beast may not have survived that day. For in that final moment, when Lizander Ausberry was poised over the Great Beast, Illes Cahn struck.
The Great Beast smiled at the remembrance of Illes’ blade as he thrust his sword deep into Lizander's side; a wound that would have instantly killed any other creature, but not Lizander. That damnable elf in a last act of defiance somehow tapped into the raw energy of the Ternanian blade and unleashed its power into the chamber. The polar fields of magic of the Great Beast and the Ternanian sword collided in a cataclysmic metamorphosis of power that not only drew the Great Beast into the sword, but also washed Lizander Ausberry with the foul magic of the Great Beast.
The Great Beast roared at the irony of Lizander’s act and the shocking realization that came over the elf when the true identity of the Great Beast was revealed. Its laughter rumbled like the long dormant volcanic eruption of the earth itself, filling the cavernous chamber of its prison.
The Great Beast felt the power mounting within it, albeit to slow for its liking. The prison was weakening and soon it would return to the material world of elves and men. It would build an army of undead Ishirian warriors that would spread across the land like a plaque, destroying those who had once stood against it. Even the dark dwarves would feel the Great Beasts thunder.
The Great Beast turned over its delicate hand and willed a small globe of scrying to appear. The globe instantly appeared and floated above its outstretched palm, filled with a swirling smoky mist. The Great Beast peered through vengeful crimson orbs into the crystal and the fog shrank from its few. The city of Embarcadero would not be saved this time, and its treacherous king would soon wish he had never met the Ishirian Empire.
The Great Beast flexed mentally, feeling the power within itself and sending it through the scrying crystal. Its presence moved independent of its body and pushed against the invisible barrier of the prison universe. The barrier pulsed with energy, resisting, as it had done a thousand times before, but this time was different, though. The barrier had grown weak against the persistent prodding of the Great Beast and it tore just a bit. The rift in its magical substance caused the Great Beast to push on. With much effort, its thoughts eventually broke through to the Material Plan. It would send out a calling and eventually someone would answer. Someone whose strength was familiar, yet easily distorted. Someone the Great Beast could manipulate like a puppet at the end of its finger. Someone who would help it get free…
* * *
Luther brought his long sword up just in time to block the serrated edge of the undead Lieutenant's scimitar. The sound of steel ringing against steel echoed off the marble walls of the ancient Ishirian chamber. Luther's long lavender cloak flowed with his graceful movements and his high, black boots carried him silently through a series of deft twists and turns that forced the undead Ishirian Lieutenant on his heels. He wondered how the rest of the king's men were fairing; they had lost so many taking the upper level of this cursed palace and were down to only a handful of Shadow's best men. The undead warriors were persistent, if nothing else. No sooner had he felled one, than another would spring up in its place. The sound of dying men filled the chamber and Luther looked past the undead creature to see his long time companion, Shadow fighting off two undead warriors of his own. The man was dressed in all black from his high-leather boots to his leather armor and moved with a natural grace that could not be learned. Luther had worked with the man on several occasions before the king hired them for this five year hunt for the Ishirian Blade of Ascension. The blood stained edge of the undead Ishirian's scimitar, brought Luther back to the danger at hand. Shadow could take care of himself. Luther would make the creature pay for the deaths of those in his party.
Luther stepped in, fainted left, and then shuffled in right, stabbing upward under the undead warrior chin with his main-gauche. Holding the creature's head in position, Luther brought the blade of his long sword round and turning the blade over at the last second to sever the creature's head, but found only the creature's blocking blade instead. This one was different than the others; his Ishirian leather armor looked as if it was newly constructed and possessed markings along the shoulders that shed a soft blue light and his curved blade's edge was serrated with similar marking along it.
Luther twisted his sword as he struck with a cross-slash and the undead Lieutenant's sword was sent wide. He followed the maneuver with a lung up the middle and executed a double-thrust into the undead creature's chest; a move that had served him well over the years. The red glowing orbs that filled the undead Ishirian Lieutenant's hallow eye sockets dimmed slightly, but the creature continued to stand.
Luther backed off and spat his defiance at the undead thing. Its eyes were brightening once again and they began to pulse in a soothing pattern. Luther took another step back and sunk deeper into the eyes of the creature. There was an image stuck in them; a depiction of a woman, young and vibrant, fleeing a great battle. Her face contorted in anguish and sorrow for the battle that raged around her. Then her face changed, the lines of anguish warped contorted into rage and sorrowful eyes, glared with revenge. It took all of Luther's strength to avert his gaze from those glowing orbs; and it was a good thing he had! The Lieutenant came in at him with a fury that Luther had never before seen. Sparks flew as sword rang against scimitar, and Luther found himself driven back and the strength in the creature's blows sent vibrations down his arm, nearly numbing his muscles. The undead Lieutenant's arms worked its blade in a tireless display of swordsmanship, forcing Luther on his heels. Luther knew he could not match the strength or persistence, so he had to find something in its pattern. Every swordsman had a flaw that could be exploited. He bided his time; ducking, parrying, shuffling just out of the creatures reach and studying the style. The programmed slash-slash-thrust combination reminded him of a variation of the ancient Darkanian style; broad slashes, designed to push the opponent on their heels, and followed by a straight thrust to skewer the off-balanced victim.
Luther's nimbleness of his elven side coupled with the strength of his human blood had always given Luther an advantage with the sword, but even he was beginning to tire. His sword felt heavy and his mind was slowing. Luther cursed at himself for missing another obvious opening.
“Powerful magic,” Luther whispered under his breath in a somber tone.
Luther ran through a series of low thrusts and high parries, but the creature kept up the attack. He dropped into a low crouch and came up under the undead warrior's defense, running his blade between the creature's ribs. Then realizing the creature was still moving, he put a foot up on the undead Lieutenant's hip and pushed himself backward into a roll, nearly losing his impaled sword in the creature's ribs.
Luther adjusted the plume in his foppish hat, more to regroup and relax than for any practical purpose, took a deep breath and waited for the undead creature to press the attack once again. He didn't have to wait long. The undead Lieutenant lunged in and Luther pivoted on the ball of his foot and parried with his blade. He countered another slash, by bringing his sword up and flowing with the creature's momentum. Luther counted the undead Lieutenant's moves in his head; another slash; another faint; then the anticipated thrust. He decided it was definitely and off-shoot of the Darkanian style. Luther side-stepped the blade and brought his long sword in line with the creature's exposed side. He stepped in close and pushed the tip of his blade under the creature's ribs, again, but this time aiming for its heart. The Lieutenant wailed its defiance and back-peddled, pulling itself from the impaling sword. Luther smiled and tipped his broad-brimmed hat at the Ishirian. The glowing orbs dimmed and Luther was met with the now familiar explosion of fine red powder as the undead Ishirian Lieutenant crumbled to the ground.
The sound of cheering men came to Luther's ears and when he looked around, similar clouds of red powder were falling throughout the chamber. Luther leaned up against one of the over two score griffon statues that lined the massive underground chamber and exhaled audibly in relief that the battle was over. He marveled at the statues and how the Ishirian artists had captured such life-like quality in the marble depictions of the eagle-like creatures. Each statue different in the position of their outstretched wings and powerful lion hind legs, yet they all shared the magnificence of the legendary creature's spring into flight.
"What could have brought such a curse to these people?" Luther questioned to himself, removing his broad brimmed hat and tapping it against his thigh. A fine auburn powder fell to the floor; remnants of the undead warriors that had guarded the treasure chamber.
"Dark Magic," said the familiar sullen voice of Shadow from behind him.
Luther looked side-long at his long-time companion and noticed the nervous darting of the man's eyes.
“I've never seen you so tense,” Luther said, motioning toward Shadows hands; the ends of his fingers and knuckles had turned white from the way he still clutched his sword hilt.
"You can feel it,” Shadow said softly, more to himself than Luther. “Like a cold blanket smothering the city."
“I feel it to,” Luther replied, turning his gaze back to the griffon statues.
"It's the Great Beast," Shadow said
"Don't start with that nonsense, again," Luther rolled his eyes.
"At the heart of every legend, is a gem of truth," Shadow stretched his arms out and waved at the chamber. "Is not the Ishirian treasure chamber but a legend?”
“Not a legend, but simply an opportunity to succeed where others have failed."
“Then where are the bodies of those who have failed?” Shadow began. “Where are the Ishirians, who built this place?”
"You honestly believe that a 'legendary' Great Beast wiped out an entire race?"
"It happens," Shadow replied, shrugging his shoulders.
"Believe in wives' tales if you wish,” Luther said, pushing back his long black hair and replacing his hat. "But, I believe in what I can see; what I can touch; and what I can taste.”
“Legendary is your skill at finding things that should stay lost.”
“Whatever,” Luther waved Shadow off. “The blackened heart of some king destroyed this place.”
“The Great Beast,” Shadow said, giving Luther a nudge with his elbow.
"I have seen many things over the years and none have suggested that the legend of the Great Beast was anything more than a story told to children."
"It was too easy," Shadow said in a sullen tone.
"Loosing nearly two-thirds of your men is your measure of easy?"
"Look on the bright side, most were the king's men.” Shadow gave Luther another nudge.
Luther liked Shadow, he didn't really know why; the man had gotten him into trouble everywhere they went and his humor was very low-brow. He was the kind of guy that once he got to know you, would do anything for you, especially if it meant breaking the law.
"Why the long face," Shadow said.
"Ever since we came to this place, my heart has ached for Mehlayne.”
"I never thought I'd see the day when you'd fall for a wench.”
“I have been away from her for far too long."
“That auburn witch must have cast a spell on y-"
"AUGH!" The agonizing scream filled the chamber and stifling the cheers. The circle of men that were gathered about one of the chests suddenly scattered. A man slumped to his knees, pieces of his face melting away as he tried to wipe a greenish liquid from it. His screams turned to gurgling cries and then he fell forward onto the chest and lay still.
"I thought you said they were all skilled thieves?" Luther said in his best impression of Shadow, nodding toward the group of men.
"Not skilled enough it appears," Shadow scowled, shaking his head.
"You best check the rest of those chests yourself or we won't have enough men to sail back with." Luther turned to look at Shadow, but he was already gone.
Thoughts of Mehlayne, the woman he had left behind five years ago to go on this quest, came flooding back to him. He could picture now, like the thousands of miles that separated them were nothing. Her auburn hair flowing to her shoulders as her emerald eyes that glistened of knowledge beyond her years. What would he say to her when he returned? How would he explain that the king had forced him to come?
"Ausssberrrryyy." A wispy voice floated on the air to Luther's ears, almost too soft to hear. Luther turned toward the statue he leaned against, the only one in the room without a chest at its base. He strained to listen, putting his ear to the statue.
"Ausssberrrryyy." The voice came again.
“What the-“ Luther whispered, looking about for Shadow who must surely be playing a joke on him. No, Shadow was across the room, examining one of the chests with a gaggle of men timidly watching him from a distance.
"Ausssberrrryyy." The voice called, again.
It couldn’t be a trick, Luther thought. The voice was so clear, as if it was right next to him or inside his head. He moved closer to the statue and examined the lower section of the pedestal. His skillful fingers found a small recess under on of the griffon’s claws and in one fluid motion he withdrew two slender metal picks and twisted them inside the recess. There was a soft click and the front of the pedestal flipped open to reveal a hidden shelf.
Luther knelt down and examined the contents. A thick leather bound tome rested next to one of the most exquisite curved sword he had ever seen. Arcane symbols were inscribed along it blade and its edge seemed to be impervious to time. Even the finest of swords, eventually lost their edge and dulled, but this scimitar looked as if it was just crafted. The hilt was wrought from the same stock as the blade, but with a bronze hue that was inlaid with four caricatures of heads. The faces were stacked one on top of the other with their open mouths forming a grip to wrap one's fingers around. The first caricature clearly depicted a face of elven persuasion; its features smooth and delicate with exquisite precision that shown even the miniscule folds of the elf’s pointy ears which peeked out of flowing hair that merged into the second head. The second face was much larger than the first, with rugged features and a mouth that opened wide enough to allow the girth of one's middle finger. It, as well as the third caricature, was clearly human, but the fourth was unmistakably Dwarven. Its long bushy beard flowed into a ball that capped off the bottom of the hilt.
Luther reached for the scimitar and voice came sharp into his mind. “Take it!” He tried to withdraw his hand, but it would not obey his command.
“Take it!” The voice said, again with such force that it moved Luther’s hand toward the sword.
His fingers wrapped around the blade and suddenly his apprehension faded away. The blade pulsed with energy that caused his fingers to tingle and ran up his arm. He sent the blade through several quick wrested maneuvers and a smile crept into his face. The blade was so light and moved as an extension of his arm. Luther tucked the sword safely between his belt and his hip and scooped up the tome. The broad beaming smiles and wide eyed expressions of the men who gathered around Shadow and the contents of one of the chests, told Luther that maybe this trip was worth the years after all. His hand reached under his cloak and subconsciously Luther’s fingers caressed the new found sword as he headed back to the ship. The others would spend hours gathering the treasure, but he had a sudden urge to get back to Embarcadero as quickly as possible.
* * *
Lord Zarnoth Ausberry leaned against one of the few remaining pillars of the outer Ishirian Palace, shaking his head at the razed city. How could he have been so blind in his youth, to allow such injustice to befall the Ishirian people. His hand, wrinkled and gnarled with age, rested on the hilt of the sword that hung from his belt. He no longer had the strength to wield the weapon as he once had, but he wore it anyway. For his part in the slaughter of the Ishirian people, he had been cursed that fated night when he entrapped the Great Beast. He was condemned to protect the Ishirian land forever and by doing so, keep the secret of the Great Beast secure from greedy hands. He was willing to accept this burden, but something was wrong. King Dvorkandar Gypsumite of the Duergar had promised that the Great Beast would never escape, but somehow it was. Zarnoth’s control over the undead Ishirian warriors was also fading, as if something was blocking his commands. It had been years since he had heard from the Duergar and Zarnoth suspected that the Ishirian messenger had not delivered any of his urgent requests for help. Something was seriously wrong.
Not more than a decade ago Lord Ausberry could have cut down twenty men with his sword and a journey into the bowel of the earth to seek out the Duergar would have been attempted But now, he could barely lift his own weight. Zarnoth's mind weighed heavy with the dismal outcome, if the Great Beast were to escape. Even the nexus of energy that coursed under Ishiria itself, could not hold the Great Beast’s prison or himself together for much longer.
Zarnoth had consulted every tome in the Ishirian’s extensive library and none shed a light on why such a rapid degradation of power was occurring. He struggled each day to keep a grasp on his humanity, for the Great Beast tugged at his conscious to take it from this place and set it free. Its promises became more forceful each day and soon, he feared, he would not be able to resist. Then hope came.
Zarnoth’s eyes followed the extravagantly dressed stranger as he gracefully made his way to the docks. Would his choice of letting the young half-elf take the sword out of the city come to haunt him? He could not make the journey to the Duergar kingdom in his condition and Luther was, after all, his blood. But how had the youth come to find this place, at this time of need? Zarnoth did not like the coincidence of their meeting after all this time. What other choice did he have? With the sword outside of Ishiria’s protection, Dvorkandar Gypsumite would feel its presence and come to Luther’s aid. If not, who would stand against the Great Beast…
* * *
Dvorkandar Gypsumite bolted upright in his bed. His thick dwarven skull slammed into the ceiling and the old king groaned. A clammy sweat seeped from his pours and collected in the heavy beard that covered his gravel hardened face. Dvorkandar threw his stout legs over the edge of the granite carved bed and mopped the sweat from his face and cleanly shaven head with a muscle ridden hand. The dwarf king had much on his mind of late, a troubling feeling that nagged at him like a splinter. He had a forbidden feeling that he had not felt in a long, long time. No, the king thought, it could not be who he thought. That threat was taken care, besides Zarnoth Ausberry would have contacted him if there was a problem. But who or what, then?
“Sire! Sire!” The anxious voice called, followed by a persistent pounding on the outside of the king’s door.
“What,” Dvorkandar grumbled, knowing it could be none other than Parkandor Gravelbeard, his Caption of the guard.
Dvorkandar flung open the door, “Spit it out, or leave me to by sleep.”
“It’s the…it’s the well!”
In the nearly five hundred years Dvorkandar had know Parkandor, he had never seen the dwarf so agitated.
“The well, sir. It’s…umm…stirring, again. Like…like-”
“-Someone is drawing from it,” Dvorkandar finished, his voice suddenly void of emotion.
“That’s impossible, isn’t it?”
The wrinkles on the king’s face mashed together in a scowl that displayed his concern clearer than words could. “The only creature strong enough to do that is,” Dvorkandar whispered to himself. “Is the Great–“ He let the words fade, not wishing to finish.
Parkandor nodded grimly, knowing what his king was thinking, but dreading to mention the name himself.
“Round up your best man,” Dvorkandar barked. “Send him to Ishiria to contact Lord Zarnoth Ausberry and find out what is going on.”
“Yes, sire,” Parkandor said, turning on his heels to leave.
“Wake the mage, I want to know where the sword is.”
“Yes, sir,” Parkandor said, moving as fast as his stout legs would carrying him.
Dvorkandar Gypsumite pulled on the end of his beard and cursed his foolish youthful actions those many years ago when the Ishirian princess asked for his help. He never should have shown them how to use the dark magic. The old king shook his head in deep contemplation and hoped his fears were unfounded. If the Great Beast was truly free, then he must find a way to stop it, once again…
Part 1 - Set Apart from the Rest
It was a cloudless day in Embarcadero, one of the largest cities along the coast of the Blackwater Sea. A city where one could spend years and never gaze upon all the splendors of the Noble Quarter, with its colossal libraries, extravagant architecture and sculpted fountains, or explore the full extent of the hollows that littered the Tradesman ward. The city was immense, nearly twenty times the size of the fortress whose ashes Embarcadero was built on two centuries ago. The secret to the bustling city's continued growth is its lucrative Merchant ward, which unlike other cities along the cost, prides itself in its very liberal market policies. Situated in the southwestern corner of Embarcadero, the Merchant ward caters to the demands of all walks of life, tastes and echelon.
The day was normal for early fall: clear, sunny and comfortably warm with a soft breeze that came off the sea. Children frolicked in the streets, clamoring over passersby at the first sign of coinage. Merchants shouted phrases such as; "Authentic Mammon Hollow relics.", "Guided tours of Embarcadero's splendors." and "Finest food in the Tradesman Quarter." The morning air smelled of cooked foods, exotic perfumes and musks all churned together and set free to meander throughout the city's streets. Dancers danced, musicians played, thespians acted out vignettes while foreigners gawked at the scenes, tossing copper to those of skill and scoffing at the rest. There was one person in the city, however, that did not find the day so intriguing. One who had shut himself up from the rest of the world in his private study above the Radiant Roadhouse.
Luther the Lustrous was not his normally optimistic, foolhardy self. Today, the Roadhouse was locked up, shutters closed tight and doors bolted. The upstairs drapes were drawn tight where Luther sat in his favorite chair near the fireplace, secure in the darkness. No illumination came from the fireplace and not a ray of light invaded the chamber from the outside world. This was the way he liked it more and more these days: dark and alone with his thoughts.
An acrid odor, from mold that had begun to grow on the multitude of tomes that lined the walls, filled Luther's lungs as he rose. His dark figure flowed to the writing table. His movements were smooth and measured as one accustomed to the dark. He knew the layout of the Roadhouse, as well as countless other buildings in the city. That was his job; to know things that others desired. And he was very good at his job.
Luther struck a flint, sparking a candle into life and the cobalt blue of his elven heritage eyes switched easily from the infrared spectrum. Blades hung about the fireplace and in showcases around the chamber. The assortment of daggers, knives and swords glistened as the flame flickered, sending eerie shadows dancing across the room. The light drained the room of its somberness, but Luther still felt a heavy weight on his mind.
Luther brushed forged deeds, falsified identification papers and other documents from the desk. The parchment's corners, once neatly stacked with their edges aligned, the way Luther found to be a necessity in all things that he performed, now lay scattered upon the otherwise spotless floor. He straightened a yellow rose that sat on top of his desk in an ornate enchanted vase; the crystal vase imbued with life-giving magic that kept the flower within forever in fresh bloom. Only the auburn-haired enchantress, Mehlayne, who had crafted it for him, dwarfed the vase's beauty in Luther's heart. He sighed deeply, knowing he should go to her, but fearing the results.
Luther pulled several blank parchments from the table's drawer and dipped his quill pen in the ink well that rested beside the vase.
Scholars have said that the line of "normality", the acceptable behavior and morals of one's character, is defined by the society in which one lives. I would contest that this line is not a line, in so much that a line is a direct path between two points, but rather a rolling pattern such as the waves across the sea. And to say that it is "normal" could only be a misnomer, for by what means of comparison do people base their assessment of normal. In a land of murderers, is it not normal to steal from one's brother and slay those who accuse you of the act? In a city of politicians, is it not normal to lie to one's family and condemn one's friends for not supporting you? I say that these things are not normal, but who am I to judge? This line of normality might be guided by society, but it stems from within each of us. For at times all people stray beyond this line, but overall they gather around it, to each their own line. What a person does may appear to be bizarre to some, but not so strange or even socially acceptable to others. People must use their own line of normality as a point of reference. I, on the other hand, have sailed far from my line by all but a few peoples' standards, including my own. I, Luther the Lustrous, have veered to the point that I can not see the horizon, nor utilize the stars, to plot my course. Now, I must look to others to ensure my safe return to port.
This delusion, if you will, might be better named a sickness or a curse, which came upon me quite suddenly. I would have assuredly noticed such a thing if it were not so. It was a deliberate misnavigation by another force, I am sure of now. I attribute the realization of this curse to my subconscious lashing out in what may be my last grasp to cling to my own identity.
I fear that I am no longer content with assuming one facade. The master of disguise is what they call me, but master I am no more. I hear the gossip that runs along the street like the vermin of the night. Do they think their words can escape my ears? I am not crazy as some would so easily believe, but rather enlightened. I am no longer a slave to the linear perceptions of events that transpire around me. Each day the segregation from my true self broadens. I look upon myself almost as one would a costume one might wear at a ball, but I fear I may not shed this façade so easily.
Each of my newfound personalities, for I can not conceive of there being only one, seems to be in continual conflict for ascension. One may come upon me when I wake in the morning and stay with me throughout the day, while another might spring up when I turn a corner in the bazaar, yet disappear when I round another bend. Each identity seems to be autonomous in thought, nature, and action, yet woven together somehow, if only subconsciously. I do not lose my train of thought when a change comes over me, but rather begin a new approach to the same task. A maiden's satchel being lifted would have once had me trouncing the ruffian in a public demonstration, thus awarding me the maiden's overwhelming gratitude. An illustrious game that has kept many of my nights warm with a woman’s gratitude. Now, thought, I have been known to drub a bandit in the name, of all things, justice. One moment I turn thieves over to the city guard and the next I find myself lifting pouches from unsuspecting travelers. Not that I have not lifted items from unsuspecting travelers in the past, but it is so petty an act that I gave it up in my youth. I grumble to myself in the city streets in languages I have never learned and hear voices in my head that I do not know. This internal turmoil of wills has left me drained and weak.
Am I insane? I can not answer on my own any longer, I must seek out others who can help. Mehlayne is the only one I can trust, but will she ever speak to me again? Time will tell and I fear I have no other choice. The lapses in my memory, thought process shifts that occur in mid-stream, actions that do not become me, at least the "me" that I once thought I was are too much for me to contain any longer.
Long hours I have spent in contemplation of my actions and my only conclusion is that I am rationally sane. How could I be anything other, since one who was truly insane would not consider themselves insane. Would they? I can not go on like this. I must go to Mehlayne-
"Please, stop!" The muffled yelps of a young boy swept upward from the street on a moist salt-laden breeze and touched Luther’s sensitive half-elven ears.
Luther made his way to the window and threw open the shudders. The evening sun assaulting his eyes as surely as the scene below assaulted his new found overly moral fiber .
"Please…stop…" Luther heard the lad plead between cane strikes. “It not be my fault!”
"I told you," The elderly man scolded as he brought the cane down on the back of the boy’s thighs. “To be careful with those potions or it would be your hide.”
It was none of his business, Luther knew, but deep inside an unusual persistence ate at him. The passersby, turned their heads and scurried away, seemingly self involved and not wanting to intervene even though they gave the boy half-concerned sidelong glances. A too common site, Luther thought.
The old man’s belittling voice grated on Luther and he heard his voice cry out, “Stay thy hand.”
The old man cocked his head upward and shook a fist toward Luther, “Mind yourself, es be none of yours business.”
Luther stared down at the man, a fire burning inside him. He watched as the old man turned back to the boy and slammed the cane across his hind legs, again. Why did observing this particular abusive act, in respect to the many previous acts of violence he had observed, lit such a feeling of shame within him? Shame that he felt for the boy, shame for the man, and shame for himself as he stood idle.
"Now look at them! Worthless!" The man gave the youth a reprieve as he pushed the shards of broken glass with his cane.
The boy cowered against the side of a building. The welts that ran the length of his forearms told the story that he was used to such activity, but they must have stung all the same.
"You incompetent…" With a final burst of rage, which infallibly signified the conclusion of the youth's beatings, the man hefted his cane over his head and swung it in a downward arch toward the boy. The lad's outstretched arm was little defense, being bruised and numb from repeated blows, but it sufficed in shielding his face from any permanent scarring. Luther glared incredulously at the passersby, watching as they kept to themselves with no more than a glance at the beaten youth. The passionate rage that had been brewing within him, swelled and boiled.
"Do you see the injustice?" The voice was strong and commanding, as one who had lead armies through many battles, and echoed inside Luther’s head. He clasped his hands to his ears, yet the voice continued. “It rampages through this city no less than a demon possessed juggernaut?” An image of a resplendent human appeared in his mind’s eye and he involuntarily squinted. The brightness of the figure, as if the sun shown off his polished plate mail armor, caused Luther’s mind to ache and the scowl of disdain on this figure’s face rang clearly through Luther's head.
“Move your limbs and stop this macabre of insanity,” The authoritative voice continued, biting deep into Luther's moral fiber and stirring him into action; forcing him into action.
Luther grasp the hilt of his sword and felt an energy course up his arm.
"Sir Hannibal Lockely, humph!" A deep, gravely voice began. “Leave the boy be.” An image of a stout figure, balding figure with a thick beard and rugged facial features that carried the deepest charcoal eyes Luther had ever seen, came to him. He could not guess how, but like the image, the name, “Dvorday Gypsumite” sprang to the forefront of his mind.
"At times yer righteousness bores me," another voice yawned in with a melodic tone, as if it has just awakened. Another face appeared in Luther’s minds and the name, “Ladish Sylvisteen” accompanied the voice. This bestowed a jovial sense of delicate poise and artful beauty. The elf’s smooth skin gave him a youthful nature, yet his sapphire blue eyes told of a mind that lived much beyond the mere visible years of his skin.
"All of you are giving me a headache,” a mighty voiced boomed in Luther’s head. “You best heed Broog the Mighty, slayer of giants, destroyer of tyrants-"
"There ye go again, 'destroyer of tyrants, defender of the weak –‘" Ladish mocked.
"Silence!" Hannibal ordered with such decisive force that nothing but silence could be given in reply.
Luther exhaled audibly, not realizing he had been holding his breath. The silence was shortly broken by the “WHACK” of the old man’s cane on the lad, again.
"Malice is afoot!" Sir Lockley proclaimed.
Luther clasped his hands to his ears and clamped his eyes shut, "Leeaavve meee alone!" The voices were in his head and could not be defeated so easily. His chest heaved, but could not draw sufficient strength to pull air into his lungs. The room spun and Luther reached out for the sill of the window. His legs buckled as the weight of the universe pressed in upon him. Luther’s mind recoiled at the rush of voices that sang out like a demonic cacophony of jumbled music. Luther felt himself falling and then his knees hit the wooden floor with a metal clank; the sound of heavy plate armor striking wood.
The world had changed. Luther’s head swayed limply, yet his eyes were sharp, staring out the window onto the street with enlightened clarity: the boy being beaten, a women's satchel being lifted at the far end of the street, a city watchman accepting a bribe at the corner. He would have assuredly observed these things before, but not in the same light. What once would have been deemed trivial acts not worthy of his direct attention, now left a sour taste that lingered in his mouth like poorly brewed ale. One man could not change a city, but one man and his faith can change the world. One stone at a time; one injustice at a time; one boy at a time. Luther felt his body rise from its knees and knew it was not of his own accord. Sir Hannibal Lockly had arrived. He stood in the aperture a beacon of righteousness donning a full set of plate mail armor and grasping a pearl white handled long sword.
The path less traveled has often been tread upon by such as the paladin Sir Hannibal Lockly. All beings regardless of their stations, positions, or beliefs have equal claim to compassion and justice in his eyes. Wisdom is the strength of honor and ability onto which Sir Lockly has pledged his faith to his deity. It is this faith and obsession to right the wrongs that plague the world that is a paladin's greatest strengths.
"Unhand the boy!" Hannibal called down, brandishing his sword at the man and casting him a look that dared him to raise the cane again.
"You filthy beas-"
“STOP!” Luther screamed and the long sword teetered in his grasp as a sharp pain ripped through Hannibal's, his, arm.
A thick fog clouded Luther's thoughts and he swore he heard the sound of a woman’s laughter over the other voices. He could see the world about him, but the scene was obscure like looking through a pool of water. Then he felt a delicate arm wrap around his shoulder and thrust him upward. A sudden image of Mehlayne came to mind, her auburn hair flowing at his side, but the hand was not hers and it felt cold as it touched his mind. Luther continued to fight, mentally grasping for the world he knew. He clawed his way through the fog and now could see the Radiant Roadhouse’s window sill, again. The hand that aided him slipped from his shoulder and faded away, pulling with it the image of Mehlayne and leaving him feeling drained. It was his window, his body, his mind. The fog lifted and he felt the sword slip from his grasp.
The Sword's keen edge and diamond encrusted pearl white hilt glistened from Luther’s armored hand. The Sword sparked as its blade dug deep into the cobblestone road below.
The voices dissipated, crawling into the recesses of Luther’s mind. A light haze, which Luther had grown accustomed to of late, was all that lingered in his thoughts. He stared out the window, a thick sweat dripping from his brow and his breath coming in short hard bursts.
“What just happened,” he said to himself, turning from the window and giving the street below one last glance. His eyes caught the hilt of his sword on the street.
“Funny,” he began, Luther’s face distorting with a perplexed expression. “How did that get down there?” He quickly went down to retrieve the sword, and noticed a peculiar emptiness about the street for this time of night. Strange he though, pulling the scimitar from where it was embedded in the cobblestone and sheathing the weapon. He felt tired, and decided he should get a good nights rest before seeing Mehlayne in the morning.
* * *
Luther the Lustrous flowed through the streets oblivious to the daily festival of panderers that worked the crowd. He felt refreshed; attributing it to the long, and much needed, dreamless sleep he got last night. He moved through the mass, nimbly avoiding the ever growing throng that swayed through the streets like an unwieldy beast. The ruffled sleeves of his silk shirt and pleated trousers fluttered in the warm breeze: a style that had not caught on in Embarcadero, but it was the latest fashion in Algathorn, one of the cities he had stopped at on his lengthy return trip from Ishiria.
A small hairy hand reached for the coin pouch that hung on the front of Luther's belt, while its mate pressed the dull point of a well used knife against his side. Luther instinctively spun round, taking hold of the knife bearing hand with firm fingers and driving his thumb into its backside. The knife fell from the pudgy little fingers, before Luther's even completed his spin. Children gasped as the lavender lining of Luther’s cloak shifting hue in the sun's morning rays as it fluttered behind him.
"Damn petty thieves," Luther whispered, wondering if he had been away so long that even the street vagrants had forgotten him?
Luther continued his graceful spin and folded the offending wrist back on itself, before giving it a sharp twist and releasing it. The dull crack and child-like Halfling cry confirmed that the thief would not be using that hand for some time. To the acute observer, Luther's movements were fluid and precise under his flamboyant garb: clothes that were chosen not only for their vibrant colors and soft fabric, but also for their ability to mask the wearer's movements under their flowing design. To Luther, however, his body moved of its own accord; a trained reflex from his chosen profession and nearly two decades of living in the crowded city.
Luther, however, was not the average city dweller. He liked standing out, some called it flaunting, but he liked to think of it as being trendy. He removed his foppish, wide-brimmed hat and with a flick of his wrist, sent the overly plumed piece twirling in the air. He nudged his hip out and the hat landed on the hilt of the scimitar, which hung securely on his belt. The background murmur of voices in his head were gone this morning when he woke and he was in high spirits. He ran his fingers through the front of his hair, straightening the curls in his shoulder length hair. Several vagrant strands caught hold of the diamond stud in his ear and he grimaced as he yanked the hair out.
What would he say to the Mehlayne, the only woman he had ever truly loved? How could he explain his disappearance five years? She would never understand how much he cared for her or how that love made him feel penned up inside. Spending the rest of his life with one woman had scared him, and the king’s forceful request had been his way out. Would she still have feelings for him? That was the reason, he rationalized, that it had taken him so long to seek Mehlayne out. They were the same questioned he had toiled over since he returned to the city and their answers he was afraid he might not that want to hear. Luther’s continued to the alchemy shop where he knew Mehlayne spent most of her time.
At least he was back in the great city and the grand opening of his new tavern, the Radiant Roadhouse, was a huge success. Luther began whistling a classic sea fairing tune and turned down one of the many alleyways that made up the labyrinth between the city's tightly situated shops. His high-cuffed, leather boots flexed with each step, making little sound other than the deliberate scuffing of their heels on the cobblestone. He snatched his hat and flicked his wrist to send the overly plumed flipped spinning in the air and landing on his head. It was a good day, he thought and rested a smooth, dexterous hand on the jeweled hilt his new found scimitar out of habit: the alleyways in the Dock Ward are treacherous to one who is not quick with the sword, even in broad daylight. The scimitar felt warm to his touch and he couldn’t help but smile when he thought of how nice it matched his outfit.
The deeper he traversed the winding passageways that connect the heart of the city, the darker it became. The buildings varied in shape and condition; some were decade old three story shops with living quarters and storage above, while others were crumbling monstrosities, whose purpose had long since been forgotten, that nearly blocking out the sun. Luther shook his head in disgust. The city had been such a splendid place in his childhood. But that was a long time ago and he had come far since then. Luther was renown for his flair for the dramatic and flamboyant nature. Over the years, prior to his sudden departure with Shadow, he had earned the reputation of one who could acquire certain goods or services that were out of reach for the law-abiding citizen.
Five years he had been gone, but his reputation as the front-man for the Wolfpack, a small highly skilled group of mercenaries, still floated through the right channels in the city. The Wolfpack's founder, Shadow, a devious sort named for his soft voice and mysterious nature, had been exiled from the prosperous city. He was a schemer that coupled his prowess in the arcane arts with his thieving abilities to gain a rather influential standing in Embarcadero; a standing which had led to the collapse of the Wolfpack. If there was an object that one fancied, all could be acquired, as long as ample funds were available. Luther always kept his ear in touch with all the right channels: and he would find you. He might appear as a lanky pointy-eared elf, a stocky dwarf or even a delicate human female, but whatever disguise he donned, Luther played them to perfection.
It had taken Luther tons of silver and almost a months to get the Radiant Roadhouse in shape for the grand opening. The Lasarians had practically run it into the ground and were happy to trade it as payment for information they used to blackmail Embarcadero's zoning commissioner. Luther had torn down some walls and opened up the upper level, converting the sparse decor that lent little interest to anyone but rodents, to his own personal living quarter of the night. With a little paint, good advertisements and a great cook, Luther was sure the place would bring new vitality to Buccaneer Street.
Luther weaved through the maze of alleyways with practiced precision. He crinkled up his nose at the putrid smell of garbage, that rotted next to the buildings. He moved down the street and the buildings blotted out the morning light. He continued on and the alley’s shadows grew longer and felt colder somehow. Luther knew the sund would appear again around another bend or two, but the darkness seemed unnatural thick. His half-elven eyes did not like change; it wasn’t dark enough for them to switch to infravision and they fogged over slightly, obscuring his vision, but not enough for Luther not to notice the movement of a small figure in the darker recesses of the alley.
Luther’s arm worked instinctively and the scimitar flashed out of its shealth. The small figure stepped back and Luther could see a hand fingering a heavy war hammer that hung at the stout man’s belt. The figure reached up with its other arm and threw back the cowl of its thick cloak. The pale skinned, bearded dwarven face that stared at him through age warn charcoal gray eyes took Luther by surprise.
Luther surmised from the dwarf’s cleanly shaven head, long, neatly cut beard, clean vested garb, yet defensive stance that the stranger must be from one of the ancient dwarven clans that rarely ventured to the service world.
“You carry the sword,” the stranger said in a deep, controlled dwarvish dialect, that made Luther wonder if the rock itself was speaking.
It had been a long time since Luther had spoken in the native dwarven tongue. He never really got the hang of its guttural inflections, it seemed strong a language for his flowing tongue, but he understood it well enough. He had heard of the Duergar in bard tales, but never thought he would ever come across one.
“We did not expect someone other than Lord Ausberry to be able to wield that dark thing,” the dwarf said, taking a tentative step forward. The stranger’s eyes were fixed on the scimitar as he moved closer. Luther noted that the dwarf’s movements were cautious and measured; taking special care to stay within the deepest recesses of the shadows and deliberately avoiding even the smallest amount of ambient light that filtered into the alley.
“Who is the ‘we’ you speak of?” Luther could tell that the dwarf’s tense posture was more from a nervous awe than any threatening mannerism. Luther instinctively took a step backward, eyeing the battle hammer and remember the tales of dwarven prowess in battle. “What is a Duergar dong in Embarcadero?“
The dwarf stopped moving and cocked his head and shot Luther an inquisitive eye squinching look. Then the dwarf shot Luther a gray toothed smile “Terribly sorry, sir,” the dwarf began, raising his hands, palm up in the universally accepted motion for peace. He straightened his four foot frame, puffed out his chest and stood at attention. “I am Darmalikon Gravelbeard, official messenger of King Dvorkandar Gypsumite, guardian of the Duergar and keeper of the well.”
Luther’s mind turned, yet nothing sprang to its forefront. “Luther,” he said, and he averted his eyes and glaced down at the sword, feeling somewhat embarrassed that he had drawn it.
“Well met,” the dwarf said, nodding his approval.
Luther eyed the dwarf sternly for a moment, then relaxed and sheathed his weapon, which suddenly felt cold in his hand. With his customary broad smile back in place, Luther said, “Good dwarf, you seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
“King Dvorkandar Gypsumite regrets that he could not meet with you who hold the sword directly.” Darmalikon stretched out his hand and offered a wax sealed parchment. “He sends this in his absence.”
Luther took the letter and turned it over in his hand, feeling the heavy thickness of the parchment. He studied the seal before slipping it into a deep pocket in the inner lining of his cloak. Luther had seen the seal before, but where?
Luther’s fingers touched the scimitar’s hilt and he felt a warm comforting feeling stretch up his hand. “You speak as one who knows much. What can you tell me of this swords origan?” Luther asked in his best dwarven tongue; the words struggling at first to come from his tongue, but quickly flowing freely.
“You speak the native Duergar well for a service dweller,” Darmalikon responded, wearing a perplexed expression.
“I know much Darmalikon Gravelbeard, son of Garbanor,” Luther said, the words coming to the forefront of his mind without thought.
It was now Darmalikon’s turn to take a step back and measure up Luther. The dwarf ran his hand over his chin and down his beard. “May I see the blade?”
Luther pulled the sword out of its sheath and its curved blade was straight and stout; a true example of dwarven craftsmanship with its short sword blade shinning with a dull glow that emanated from a series of engraved arcane symbols that ran the length of the blade.
“Do you not find it strange that what was a scimitar minutes earlier is now a dwarven battle sword?”
Luther’s mind swirled inside a fog that seeped up from nowhere and clouded his thoughts. “Perhaps you have been on the surface too long,” He heard himself say in a deep earthen tone. He sent the short sword through a series of short powerful thrusts and cross chop motions that were more fitting for confined space fighting than the wider streets of Embarcadero. “The Gypsumite forge has not made a finer blade.” A vivid picture of a stoutly muscled arm pounding the edge of a molten hot sword with a heavy smithing hammer, shot into his mind.
Darmalikon’s eyebrows raised in unison at Luther’s proclamation. “And how is it that on such as you knows so much of the Duergarian heritage?”
“Darmalikon Gravelbeard, you test my patience with your illusive tongue.” Luther felt himself falling, yet his body still held fast.
“Humph,” Darmalikon said, stroking his beard in thought as his inquisitive eyes scanned Luther’s squared shoulders and sudden rugged stance. The dwarf’s head cocked and he sniffed the air.
Luther, could feel the abrupt intensity in the air, as if a thick, unnatural essence, drifted near. Luther tried to move his arm, but it would not heed his call. His eyes locked with Darmalikon’s charcoal orbs and in unison they both spat, “Dzorliakon Magik.” The words formed in the back of his mind and another image, clear as if he had looked on the site himself, yet he knew he had not, came to him; he was in a dark passage with the weight of miles of earth pressing down on it, and a dim blue hue seeped through a rift in the earth. There were others in the room, there stocky figures glowing with the light of his infravision. They were, he was, Duergar and the term, “Dzorliakon”, was his people’s slang for the dark magic that came from that rift. He suddenly knew the story of the Duergar and how centuries ago they swore to guard the rift and protect it from power mongers who sought its control.
The air swirled about in the alley and small pieces of trash and ripped clothing were sucked into the center of a two dimensional shaped oval vortex, nearly six feet in diameter, appeared in front Darmalikon. The shape drew in on itself at the sides, becoming elliptical and spreading backward, giving itself depth. A low hum buzzed about them and then the sphere brightened enough to force Luther arm to instinctively raise to cover his eyes. When the shimmering blue hue subsided, four Ishirian Lieutenants stood in its place. Luther recognized the glowing markings along the shoulders of their leather armored and the curved serrated edged blades as the same as the undead creatures he had met in the Ishirian treasure chamber.
Luther tried to
focus, but he was falling faster now; his mind clutching at the image of the
alley as it faded into nothing. The deep gravely voice was back, this time
louder and the words, “I’ll handle this” echoed in his mind as he fell into an