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King

The Mountaintop

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October 17, Year of the Falcon—

To understand a man in my position, you must first understand the value of rumor and gossip. Nothing, not wildfire or even the truth travels faster than gossip. I have seen wars rip nations apart, men and women butcher their kin, reputations scorched to cinders, and family ties irreparably damaged all over a little hearsay. And while the majority of it can be dismissed as blather, every so often, my birds bring me something of worth.

In a world of ever-evolving technology, mysticism, sorcery, gods, and demons, tales of heroism are the most common rabble to be found. Some are true, others little more than smoke and mirrors. You can imagine my skepticism when they told me of a man, old enough to be my grandfather, defending an entire village from the horrors of the Whispernight. And when their homes were reduced to ashes and splinters, he escorted the refugees to the safety of an outpost to the north of the Red City. They say he’d killed a thousand demons that night, some with his bare hands. If such a man existed, it was not sheer strength or skill that allowed him to complete such a task. It was his willpower, pure determination, and I always have use for such men.

I set out to find him, this mystery man, curious to see if he stood alongside his growing legend or beneath it. I was surprised to learn that the man no longer slept at the outpost, but had been delivered to the Red City by a shadow of mine, Nara Nightgaze. Her efforts both inside and beyond the Red City have proven invaluable, and I’ve yet to thank her for inadvertently assisting in this task.

I will do so when next we meet.

The nameless man is an interesting specimen, to say the least. From what little I can see through the sheets and layers of bandages, he is indeed quite old, yet his physique is chiseled and impeccable. He looks to stand quite tall, easily head and shoulder above my modest stature; both his feet, and nearly half his shin, dangling lifelessly over the edge of his medical cot. Quite the heavy man, as well, for even dressed in nothing more than compresses, the cot sags low to the ground with the density of his weight.

Ah, and I think he’s finally waking up. What an auspicious evening.

 

It was a moonless night, a swelling ocean of blues and blacks and purples, abundantly rich with starlight. Athyon sat across from the nameless man’s cot, deposited on a short, rickety stool near the room’s only window as he often was at least one night of the week these days. Across the desk of his lap, made broad by the bend of his left leg over the right, was his journal, and in his hand a quill. On the ledge of the window sat a small bottle of ink, nearly half depleted from use, and a candle beside it, though situated further away in the corner, as if to soften the light’s touch upon his features.

The nameless man had been in the Imperator’s custody for little under a month, every step of his long recovery judiciously overseen down to the very last detail. It had been a long, uneventful endeavor, filled with little change or progress, much his mounting displeasure. Bland though venture proved, it was nevertheless costly—time, currency, and man-power. But Athyon was a tenacious man if nothing else, and his persistence was paid in full as his case of study shifted, once, then twice, and finally grunted with consciousness.

“Good evening,” the Imperator said kindly, though he didn’t bother to look away from the page of his journal. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this, friend. Longer than you know,” he said, more to himself. The low scratch of quill against parchment served to highlight the studious nature of their current relationship, but the unveiled intrigue in his voice suggested something more. “I trust you’ve rested well enough this last month to, at the very least, engage in conversation?”

Edited by King

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Sleep, over many years and many wars fought, had become the one form of respite that the old knight had known. Relieved of the aches and pains that had come with age, of the memories that bespoke of his past failures and and the cost of success, and momentarily able to forget the life of battle that had led him to where he was, the old knight had long learned to block out dreams in favor of the shapeless black void that allowed him rest. For a few brief hours, nearly sixty years of battle ceased to be; sixty years of wounds, of heartaches and pains; for a brief few hours, Reinhard Paendrag, formerly known as the Dragon of Patia, ceased to be. All that existed was the comforting darkness. Or so it had been until the Whispernight. Now, the old man could no longer escape the dreams or the horrors he had seen.


And in these dreams, Reinhard fought.

 

Tasting the blood in his mouth, Reinhard felt his arms grow heavier as the scorched scent of unholy filth filled his nostrils. It had been days since he had slept, and black blood bathed the man from his head to his toes, obscuring the once pristine armor he wore. Bathed in the White God’s energy the Knight moved forward despite his exhaustion, carving a path through the horde that had beset the small village in which he had come to rest. Besaid, the locals had called it. Besieged, he had noticed. Swinging his hammer to the side, Reinhard caught another hellhound in the jaw, smelling the sickly scent of cooked flesh as the White God’s light burned its’ way through the beast. Looking at the small fist of citizens following close behind him, the old knight took a step forward… Only to be knocked off his feet as another of the creatures pounced at him.

 

With a roar of challenge, Reinhard let go of his hammer and closed his fist, striking at the side of the creature’s face as it attempted to close its’ jaw around his head. Connecting with a satisfying crunch, the knight’s fist ached as it impacted the creature’s leathery flesh. Grabbing at its’ neck with his gauntleted hand, the old knight began to chant the White God’s prayers even as claws raked at his neck and at his armor, tearing pieces of it away. Raising the metallic hand that had so long ago replaced the one he lost, the old man began to gather the light of the White God with it as its’ focus, causing the dormant runes that usually remained dark to light with holy fire. With a grunt the man shoved the metal hand into the beast’s stomach, hearing the sizzling scorch as the metal hand tore its’ way through demonic flash. Chanting louder, the air around the old knight shimmered in response until a shaft of blindingly white, fire-like substance speared the creature, quickly consuming its’ demonic flesh and illuminating the otherwise starless night.

 

Breathing deeply, Reinhard’s eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness once more as the last of the holy energy cascaded through his metallic hand. Sparing a glance at the last survivors of Besaid to be escorted out, the old man offered them a small smile and made as if to get up… Only to be wracked by by the pains that had begun taking him since the curse. With a gasp, the man arched his back as he began to seize and his insides began to burn. With a look at the women and children, the man forced himself to sit up with a gasp even as the pain threatened to overtake him. Steeling himself, the man pushed the pain back as the frightened faces of Besaid’s refugees crowded his mind. With a deep breath, the man gripped the handle of his hammer and slowly propped himself to his feet. He knew he could not fight the curse much longer. Death was inevitable, and his was coming soon.

 

But not that day.

 

Pushing himself to his feet, the old man fought to keep the pain from his face as he herded the women and children out toward the exit. He knew that the curse would overtake him. He knew that soon he would not be able to push through it. Every physiker and medic, magical and otherwise that he had visited, seemed astounded that he had not died half a decade ago… But none of them understood. His life was no longer his to give. Every scar, every wound he bore. Every time he spilled blood and protected life, he did so at the behest of the White God. His body, his every breath belonged to the being who had given him the strength to journey on after the loss of Elayne. The truth was, Reinhard hated the man that had failed his family for the sake of his nation. He hated that his zeal had lost him his family.

 

But the White God had provided him hope when hope was gone.

 

And in his name, no human soul would be lost that night.

 

Gripping his hammer tightly in his hand and picturing the tapestry of people whom he had failed in life, the man began to mutter once more… But not religious chants. Names this time. Elayne. Markus. Ilyssa. Ceol. Severin. Reinier. Zig. Marissia. Gaven. Lady Gabriela.

 

Elayne. Markus. Ilyssa. Ceol. Severin. Reinier. Zig. Marissia. Gaven. Lady Gabriela.

 

Like a frantic plea, the names of the friends and family members he had failed ripped themselves off his lips as tears dripped down his face, creating clear paths through his blood soaked skin. What was physical pain compared to the heart-rending sorrow that his failures had caused. He pushed the physical pain away, brushing it aside with contempt as as he spared a glance at the scared women and children standing behind him. He could die another day. Lifting his hammer over his head, Reinhard let out a bloodcurling scream as the holy light of his God engulfed his body. He had nothing left to give. Nothing left to live for. Great men were forged in fire… And it was the privilege of lesser men like him to light the flames.

 

“Stand back.” He said to the people behind him, not taking his eyes off of his target.

 

Turning his eyes to the horde ahead of himself, the man began to move forward with a limping gait, then to steady steps, and finally to a sprint as he charged the horde of evil beings that Whispernight had wrought upon the world. Pain faded away to an after thought, even as he felt tendrils, barbed tongues, talons and teeth tore away at his armor and flesh. Consciously, he knew what was happening to him. But he no longer cared. Not when demons tore at him, or when even his trusted hammer cracked. His body was broken, but the old man would not allow it to deter him. Reaching deeper inside of himself than ever before, Reinhard Paendrag opened his soul to the Holy Flame and unleashed salvation upon the damned lands. With a blast like a cannon wave upon wave of Holy Light left his body, striking both friend and foe alike. Moments passed in the now silent battlefield, and the man dropped to one knee. As the light left him, and consciousness threatened to follow, he looked around himself in horror of what he had done. Had his efforts been another failure. Was he just another monst-

 

His thoughts were interrupted as tiny hands gripped his sides, soft hands touched his face and attempted to pull him to his feet, and the voices of those he had sworn to save called out to him and urged him to his feet. Half-consciously, the man’s rust colored eyes surveyed the damage he had wrought to his enemies. Blinking blearily he noted himself to be surrounded by statues, but it hardly mattered.

 

After a lifetime of failure, he had done one thing right.

 

He had done one thing right at last…

 

Shaking his head, the man felt the dryness in his throat as the aches and pains of his body threatened to overtake him. For a moment, Reinhard was confused as he shifted restlessly in bed, trying to remember where he was or how he had come to be there. The last thing he remembered was leaving the outpost in search of any other villages that needed help despite the protests made by the surgeons. He remembered the biting cold of the snowstorm that had taken him, barely protected by the broken plates of his armor and all that remained of his hammer. He remembered his limbs, heavy with exhaustion, refusing to work, and he remembered Death finally coming for him… Only to be forestalled by something. Someone.

 

Blinking again, Reinhard forced himself to focus on his surroundings. Although small, the place was properly furnished and smelled of cleanliness. He could feel the fine bandages wrapped over his body, not coarse like the battlefield bandages he had grown accustomed to due to years of injuries… And he could hear the scratching of quill to parchment, soft and pensive. For a moment, the old knight considered that he may not necessarily be in friendly grounds. But if that were so, why care for his wounds. Twitching slightly, he was almost startled by the gentle tone of the man addressing him. His eyes rounded as the man spoke, his mind reeling with the information presented to him. He had been out for a month?

“Good evening, my… Lord.” Reinhard croaked, wincing inwardly at how hoarse he sounded. Pushing the pain aside the old man forced himself into a sitting position, taking note of the aches and pains both old and new that beset his frame. The old man squinted, eyes focusing on the voice’s source as he bowed his head in lieu of the formal bow that a man so finely dressed might’ve commanded otherwise. “It seems like it would be poor manners of me to refuse to after your hospitality. I am Reinhard Paendrag. At your service.” He said, clearing his throat in an attempt to rid himself of the roughened tone.

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They said he wouldn’t be able to move for at least another week. What kind of man is he?

Athyon’s surprise was clear as the starry night beyond the window, or at least it would have been were it not for the careful positioning of the slow-burning candle. The light flickered here and there, its soft glow dancing along the Imperator’s features in scarce illumination. His face seemed to appear and vanish in the skip of a heartbeat, leaving only a darkened silhouette to confirm the phantom’s existence. The scratch of his quill came to an abrupt halt, sharp, precise, and for a long moment they shared a calm, mutual silence. But it was not idle—Athyon was searching for something, remembering.

“Reinhard,” he finally said, reflective. “My, my, that’s a name I’ve not heard in quite some time. Meaning mighty and brave or strong judgment, yes?” Athyon tickled the underside of his clean-shaven chin with the downy end of the quill’s vayne, the motion slow and thoughtful. “Paendrag… perhaps a combination of paean, a song of joyful praise and exultation—or maybe, simply pain itself—and drag, a derivative of dragon.” The Imperator smiled a hidden, charmed smile. “Reinhard Paendrag,” he repeated for a second time. “Never has a more fitting name been bestowed upon a man.”

A few more scratches of ink punctuated the Imperator’s claim. “But please, there’s no need for such formality between us.” Finished with the thought, Athyon set his quill down for the first time. “In time, I may yet have earned the privilege to have you call me your lord.” He smiled again, this time as a stray wisp of light caressed the square of his jaw. It caught the corner of his full lips, the swell of his cheek, accentuating the expression. “But until that day, Athyon will do just fine, if you please.”

It was hardly an Imperator that there before the old, wounded knight, barely a man of daunting status or critical import. Athyon was little more than a scholarly mind at that moment, fueled by his rapidly growing intrigue and insatiable thirst for knowledge in lieu of any true sense of duty. He took up his quill, dipped it, and then started writing again.

“Now, it is readily apparent to me that you are a man of inhuman will and strength.” Athyon  gestured to the old knight in emphasis of his candid point. “It’s also been brought to my attention that you once served as a Knight of the Bloody Seer under the command of the Patian King, if I’m not mistaken.” Pausing, he tapped his lips with the end of the feather. “It seems a lot of Terrans, especially those of that fiend’s ilk, tend wash up on the East.” There was no bad blood between the man and the ruler of Patia, so to speak. “But, it would seem that was a great deal of time ago. You’ve been here for quite a while, and become something of a local hero.” Athyon smiled again, though the light did not catch it as it had before. “All the same, I’m curious of the events leading up to your departure from Patia. Do you no longer serve the the fiend?"

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For a moment, the old man wondered at the source of the voice that had addressed him even as his eyes adjusted to the artful umbrage that the lonesome candle provided in his rather generous confines. For all the years that the old man had carried his name, he had never once questioned what it might have meant. Dimly, the old man’s memories of a day so very long ago where he had been baptized under the Church of the White God’s light and had for the first time been given a name. A bitter chuckle escaped his lips as the man lauded him with praise, only serving to remind him of the dark blot of failures his life had been thus far. Shaking his head gently Reinhard attempted to clear his throat again as he swung his feet over the edge of the bed, feeling his bare soles meet the familiar feeling of cold stone. With a gasp, the man placed some of his weight against his legs and pushed himself into a tentative standing position…. Only to find himself sinking heavily once more against the bed with a grunt.

 

“I wouldn’t know what Reinhard derives from, my lo-- Athyon.” Reinhard corrected himself, forcing himself to his feet once more with a gasp. He knew the weakness that beset his body, a bittersweet mix of the ravages of time, the collection of scars and wounds that peppered his body both old and new, and the curse that had beset him for the past few years and even now ate at his insides, hastening the inevitable truth that all men in time faced. Setting all of it aside with a contemptuous brush from his mind, the old knight gingerly took a shaking step forward, following by yet another, and another still. He had always found comfort in pacing when he spoke.

 

“Reinhard was the name assigned to me by the Church of the White God after they took me in, branding me a new man and washing away the seventeen years I had spent as a street urchin. Paendrag did not come until much, much later when I was already a soldier. You see, a dragon and its’ servants had been terrorizing the town I was guarding… And they kidnapped my wife in order to lure me into a trap.” Turning his back toward the curious young man before him as if to hide the flash of pain that clouded his features as he lost himself into his past, Reinhard managed to keep his deep voice devoid of emotion as the secrets he had carried so long ripped themselves out of his chest. Gripping the stump from which his metallic hand attached to his wrist, the man continued his story even as the runes in the rough metallic began to bathe the room with their warm white light.

 

“And lure me they did. I fought desperately through its’ lair… Only to be greeted by the unseeing blue eyes of the head of the woman I once loved. In a pique of youthful fervor, I jumped at the dragon. It bit off my hand, and I cut off its’ head.” He said in clipped tones, unable to keep the age-old rage from his tone as he recalled his battle with the Adversary. “From his body, I fashioned my armor and hammer, and from that day forth they legitimized me as a noble and called me Paendrag, which was both a title and a jest. He who is pained by dragons, and he who slew the dragon. It was the first time I was awarded for the tapestry of failures set in my path.”

 

For a moment silence stretched as the man forced to take one step after the other and mulled the decisions that had brought him to his current predicament. He had given Patia over sixty years of his life. Sixty years of missing his family, of bloodshed, and of watching men he trained and worked with die before his eyes. Sixty years of serving the mad, cruel Black King in the name of duty and honor… Only to find that the Devil knew little of that when faced with love. Flashing a toothy smile as his rust colored eyes sought out the enshrouded figure, Reinhard shook his head.

“I am neither of inhuman will or strength. I am a vessel of the White God, and I am living on borrowed time.” He said quietly, placing his metal hand over his heart. “I have been cursed, and in truth I should have died a while back. All of my organs are failing, and I knew I was not long for this world. After failing Lady Gabriela, for whose protection I indeed left that Devil’s service, I was a man without purpose… Until I had heard of the event you all have called Whispernight. I am seventy-seven years old, Athyon. I have known nothing but a life of blood and failure.” He said raggedly, returning to his cot and sinking heavily against the soft plumage of his covers as he leaned forward and rested his forehead against the palm of his remaining hand.

 

“I am no hero. But great men are forged in fire, and it is the privilege of lesser men like me to light the flame.” He said softly, eyes bright with unshed tears as a ragged breath ripped his way out of his chest. “For the last few months, I have traveled from town to town, and I have vanquished as much of the plague that beset these lands as I could as I searched for an honorable death. I do not know how much time I have left-- Most men aren’t afforded that luxury. But so long as I draw breath, I will fight to protect those who cannot protect themselves. I have not led a worthwhile life. I have not been a good man. But I will end my life doing something worthwhile as soon as you give me leave.”

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Athyon listened to the disgraced knight's haunting tale with a keen understanding, a razor-thin margin between knowing and feeling, but inevitably remained unmoved by its sentimental worth. Among all his knowledge, savvy, and talent, love—being in love—was not a thing the Imperator knew intimately. He knew of lust, passion, obsession, duty, honor – they were his life, had been for more years than he cared to remember; more years than any could ever glean from his youthful face – and drank deep of their rivers, and all of the smaller tributaries that fed them. But the pain of loss that quivered Reinhard's voice, the spark of ancient rage, still hot and smoldering, that lilted his speech and curled his lips, the shame of failure that racked his back and shoulders like a cat o' nine tails and raked the sleep from his weary thoughts whenever he sought rest—these, Athyon knew nothing of, and secretly prayed to never share in this man's terrible sorrows.

But I will end my life doing something worthwhile as soon as you give me leave.

He hadn't realized he'd stopped writing until the overwhelming silence, now devoid of the soft rhythmic scratch of the quill against parchment, filled the space between them. Athyon looked the knight over once, twice, appraising his condition. The shadows seemed darker around his eyes now, impossibly so, and it might seem that the man before Reinhard was no so much as inspecting the status of his body as much as his soul. A broad stroke of candlelight illuminated the curve of his jaw, the corner of his mouth, revealing smile; satisfied. “The noblest ending,” he replied. “Fitting, even, were this another time. Were this your home, governed by your patron deity, the White God. But this is not then; this is not there; and there is only one god that governs these lands, my friends. One of many names, many faces, but his gift, he gives unto all living things.”

Death, one might instinctually reason. But it was not so. Death was not the ending many had come to believe it was, atheists and religious alike. Just as a child becomes a boy, and a boy a man, so too does life mature into something different (perhaps better, or worse; perhaps neither – but something irrefutably different, nonetheless). Death was merely the beginning of the next chapter, the continuation of the one's story on the long, strange road of existence. Or so the Book of Insight claims.

“Life,” he explained. “By the blood in your veins, his gift is life. No matter your beginnings, sir knight, you are a man of good stock and virtue. Your values, I can see, are of good quality. Your wit sharp, your resolve unbending; unbroken. Your back has been made strong by the weight of your failures, of which are no small matter to you, and your legs stronger still by your unwavering determination to carry them.” Setting his journal aside, uncertain whether the fresh ink had dried, the Imperator leaned back in his chair. The shadows thickened, like two whorling pools of bottomless darkness around his eyes – but they were still. “I am no knight, but in my tenure here I have come to know a great deal about them. I can say to you that the knights of carmine are unlike any others in the world. And do you know why?

Athyon looked away, glancing at the small candle burning slow on the windowsill. “They understand that the honorable dead serve no further purpose. That the crucified saint does not inspire as a living, breathing, speaking one does; that the martyr's service ends with his death; that one should not seek to die doing something worthwhile, but live doing it – live a long life, fruitful with honor and duty and camaraderie. We live in a time of marvelous technology and rapidly expanding magic,” he added nonchalantly, lazily gesturing out at the world beyond the small room. “A time of gods and heroes and devils and beasts; of titans, creators, destroyers, beginnings and end times. We live in a world where anything is possible, good knight.”

The Imperator's attention swiveled back toward Reinhard. He leaned forward in his seat, perching both hands beneath his chin. The candle's light curved over his face, revealing the shadowy figure to the man. The shadows had retreated entirely into his eyes, swallowed his irises whole; there was no color, no shimmer of the flame or softness of skylight—they were blacker than the void, the primordial dark. He was clean-shaven, lips full and sensual, his features handsomely sharp and chiseled and framed by short coils and waves of gold. And yet he was plain, simple in his own sort of way, by no way exotic as one might expect a man of such rank and status to be.

“Seventy-seven?” he scoffed. “My, what life you still have to live. You've not yet even experienced the extent of a full, single lifetime—and look at what you've accomplished, all the good that is credited to your name. Your White God would see you shackled to the old ways, bound to the mortality of an existence of the old world. The world has moved on, sir knight. There is more for you, Paendrag. More for you to accomplish, so says the god of this land.” Athyon's expression was flat, impassive. Not out of boredom, but respect. This was not some game, no dance of syllables or gamble of chance. It was Reinhard's life, one to be forgotten or exalted for all time. “If it is your wish to wither and die, to fall still atop a mountain of blood and gore in the heart of some great battle, then it shall be so. And when the last of your life has bled from your veins, we shall gather you up in great bundles of silk and cloth and bury you beneath the Ivory Spire where all our heroes are kept for you are a hero of this land and to its people. But if you see as I see, if you feel as I feel, if you would seek as I seek, I ask that you yet cling to this life and walk the path it has laid bare before you in these final days of yours.”

Surely, the knight did not believe his arrival in the Red City to be a coincidence.

Edited by King

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Rubbing his face, Reinhard sighed tiredly as he felt the coarse beard that had grown in his face during his period of convalescence. Beneath the beard, the man could feel the wrinkles that now lined his face and he wondered for the first time what sort of sight he must be presenting himself as. Once upon a time, Catching his reflection in the transparent window pane, Reinhard found himself surprised at how… Old he looked. He remembered the man he had been. He remembered the fierce, sharp lines his face once had. The unwieldy, unmanageable mane of red hair that had once adorned his now bald pate. Where scars and a comfortable layer of padding had been in his gut, he once had hard muscle and clear definition. But time passed, and he had grown old. In his wrinkles, he saw the tapestry of his lifetime written in his skin. In his scars, the old knight saw reminders of victories and failures… Lessons.

 

The old man eyed his metal hand for a moment, and sighed deeply as he forced himself to look at the young man before him once more as he spoke of the nature of his god. For nearly his whole life, he had found solace in the White God. After a youth of purposeless wandering, he had found solace in the pristine cloak of religion. His whole life, he had thrown himself arduously into his belief. He had missed namedays, laughter, and time with his family. Forsaken it all in the name of duty. Given the chance to redo his life? He’d have done no differently, but… Could it be that perhaps his duty was not done? That there was still a way he could serve? Sighing to himself, Reinhard forced his rust-colored eyes to meet the whorling pools of darkness that laid before him.

 

“Don’t you think I wish I could live longer, Athyon?” The man rasped tiredly, sighing once more as he leaned against the cold stone walls of his infirmary. “Don’t you think I wish I could live long enough to right my wrongs? To fix all that I’ve left broken? Athyon, I am not a man. I am a knight. That is who I am, throughout. That’s all I have ever been or wanted to be. Men bend and break. Men allow their failures to weight them down and stop them. I do not have that luxury, young man… But what I do have, is a short amount of life left I’d like to do something right. Not because I wish to prostate myself in a cross for the God, but because the people in the world still need me… And I am not sure how much I can give them, or how long I will be alive in order to give them what I do have.”

 

Lifting his head, the old warrior looked toward Athyon’s direction-- looked through Athyon-- as he saw the years of his youth. When he was younger, the Dragon of Patia had been another man altogether: He had never looked death in the eye and saw the possibility of it catching up with him. To the young, death often seemed like an abstract concept; death had been his enemy, something that try as it might he would always defy. In his youth, he had often proclaimed that the thread of his life had been made of steel. But now… Now that he felt a cold, creeping weight in his limbs he had not known. Now that he felt wounds he hadn’t even thought of in years... Now he knew a truth that once eluded him.

 

Death wasn’t an enemy; Rather, death was an old friend, a lover whose shoulder you brushed but were not so eager to brush up against once more. And the thread of his life? It wasn’t made out of steel.

 

It was a thread of gossamer.

 

Shaking his head, the old warrior looked at his current self-- Really looked. The years had passed, and in the fervent urging of the White God what had he done? He had saved a great many deal of people-- But in the end, he had lost the people he had loved. He had served a man whom he had long known to be a vile, despicable creature-- And he had slaughtered his enemies without questioning. Like a good soldier… In his zealotry, he had lost his love, his family. In victory, he had failed much. Could it be that he had exchanged one drug for another, as he allowed the religious fervor to overtake his once drug addled heart.

 

Reinhard had been a good soldier.

 

But it was time for Reinhard Paendrag to be a good man.

 

“I have… Weaved a tapestry of failures with my life. In the blind pursuit of a God that granted me power but not the wisdom to temper it with, I have served monsters and I have killed hundreds to protect thousands.” With rust colored eyes focused on Athyon, Reinhard pushed himself to his feet once more and began to walk, extending his hand toward the Imperator. Although clearly pained and tired, there was something else that had been growing behind the old man’s eyes: Determination. “I do not know how much of my candle yet burns, young man. I do not know how many times I will yet evade death. But if you insist there’s another path to walk, I will try to see it through your eyes. So help me see, Athyon. What lays beyond the White God? What do I have left?”

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Athyon inspected the hand before him with genuine curiosity, eyes pouring over the paw and all its finer details. When he took it into his palm in a shake of firm certainty, he felt a lifetime worth of deeds-- some honorable, some less so --in the hard edges, the callouses, the weathered flesh, and the tempered muscle and sinew beneath it all. The longer he held Reinhard’s hand, the less he felt in the company of a man and more in the shadow of a titan-- no, not a titan, but an idea, one that would transcend flesh and bone in time. But not yet.

“Allow me to be the first to welcome you to the fold, Ser Reinhard,” Athyon said, stepping further into the candlelight. The radiance illuminated all of his features to the knight, a striking young Genesarian born of one of its oldest bloodlines. And yet still his eyes remained empty chasms, two gateways to the infinity between stars. Neither light nor shadow existed in those eyes. “No longer the Dragon of Patia or the Wayward Knight, but as the Obelisk of our great cause, champion of the Faith that seeks to unite this divided nation into a single, mighty fist.”

Releasing Reinhard’s hand, Athyon turned and began gathering his journal, quill, and inkpot. “Unfortunately, my friend, I do not possess the power to show you that which you seek. The Lord Father, he awaits you in the beyond-- Sitra Ahkra.” The world surrounding them shuddered at the mention of it. “It is there that your ties to the White God shall be severed, and you, reborn anew.” The door to their chamber opened thereafter, and three figures shrouded and veiled in robes black as night poured in.

“These three shall inscribe upon your very essence the sigil required to pass the threshold,” Athyon explained grimly. “Simple as it may sound, the process places a great deal of stress on the very fibers of your existence. Painful does not begin to describe the torment you shall endure in those few seconds. If your determination should falter, your resolve waver even in the slightest, I am afraid you will not survive.” Then, with surely nod, the Lord Imperator smiled. “But, I suspect that shan’t be an issue for the likes of you.”

With his belongings in hand, Athyon made his way toward the room’s lone entrance. “I’ll return in the morning to see what has become of you, my friend. While I am not particularly religious”-- the status of the Lord Imperator’s faith, or lack thereof, was no secret. Yet it still drew a glance from one of the shadowy figures –-“you will be in my thoughts, Ser Reinhard. If for no other reason than enjoying your conversation, I hope to see you rise.”

And then he was gone, the door closing firmly behind him.

The three figures approached the knight together, side by side, the light of the candle danced away from their bodies, taking solace in the furthest corners. They spoke together, three distinct and very different voices blending into a single, cohesive voice. “Lie upon the cot once more, your eyes toward the ceiling, and brace for the pain that is to come. Scream if you desire, thrash if necessary, but know that it will not help.”

Six gloved hands emerged from their sleeves, waiting.

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