"Wait here, templar."
Gwydion took a moment to examine himself in the small mirror which hung on the near wall. His long hair was touseled and his clothing was in disarray. He had been roused in the dead of night, and had no time to properly prepare for an audience with the prophet. He had pulled on some breeches and his boots, slung the tabard of the Order over his underclothes, and snatched up his sword, buckling it to his hip on the way.
He was a handsome man, barely into his mid-twenties and in excellent physical condition. His face was strong, and framed by long dark blonde hair which hung down past his shoulders. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the amount of combat he had seen, it was unmarked by scars of any kind. His eyes were a piercing blue, intense and arresting.
Hurriedly he did what he could, raking his fingers through his hair and smoothing his clothes.
"This way, templar," said the guardsman, returning. "He will see you immediately."
Quickly he was ushered from the antechamber to the inner chambers.
The Chambers of the Prophet were softly lit with oil lamps. Within there was a general air of confusion as guardsman and officers rushed about, issuing reports and orders.
Gwydion had never visited the chambers of the prophet at night before. No-one had. The prophet, on those rare occasions when he summoned guests to his personal chambers, never admitted them after dark. It was a precedent that had not been broken in a thousand years.
Surely this is a matter of grave urgency, he thought.
Great Father Lyandorus Hyeth, prophet of the one true God, stood in the center of the room, surrounded by aides. He was an older man, well into his seventieth year, yet he was unmistakably healthy and vigorous. He looked like he had been roused from his sleeping chamber not long before Gwydion was, but did not appear flustered or harried. Instead, he seemed serious and determined.
His eyes locked with Gwydion's as he entered.
"Leave us," the prophet commanded.
There were hurried bows, and quickly the room emptied.
The prophet regarded Gwydion for a moment before speaking. "Gwydion, high templar of God." He gestured for the young knight to approach.
Swiftly Gwydion stepped forward. "Holy father," he said, kneeling respectfully.
"Rise my son," said the prophet, "I'm afraid we have no time for ceremony. Tragedy has struck. You have been told?"
Gwydion shook his head. "I was but recently roused from my bed, holy father."
The prophet sighed. "It is very serious, Gwydion. The great seal has been breached."
For a moment, Gwydion was not certain he had heard the prophet correctly. The great seal breached! "But that is impossible! The seal cannot be opened from the other side!"
"Yes, so it has always been thought" The prophet sighed, weary, and suddenly Gwydion saw the weight of the years pressing down on the man. "Evidently there was some treachery involved. But it is worse than simply a matter of something from the worlds beyond passing through the seal. The Icon has been taken."
The old man nodded. "It must be recovered, Gwydion. I don't have to tell you how important it is. How dangerous it can be in the wrong hands."
Gwydion nodded. The Icon was more than a relic. It was the greatest of the seven great artifacts. He knew well that it held unimaginable power.
The prophet laid a hand on his shoulder. "You must journey to the worlds beyond, and retrieve the Icon."
Gwydion was confused. "The worlds beyond?"
"Yes," said the prophet, nodding. "The Icon was taken there. I am sending you to bring it back."
Gwydion's mind was reeling. The worlds beyond! "But I know nothing of the worlds beyond, great father," he protested.
"You were schooled in the Order, Gwydion. You are as educated on their nature as any other. More than most. No man knows the ways of the worlds beyond. You are as prepared as you can be."
"But why me, father? I am not worthy of this."
The prophet gave him a somber look. "God has spoken, my son. We are not to question. He has gifted you with abilities beyond your knowledge. You were chosen before you were born."
Gwydion was overcome with a feeling of deep inadequacy. "But I am no scholar, father. I have only basic knowledge of what manner of things lie in the realms beyond. Surely I am an unworthy vessel for such a task. I am only a loyal soldier of God."
The prophet shook his head. "A soldier is what is needed, not a scholar."
"Then why not an army?" Gwydion insisted. "Surely one soldier is not equal to the task."
"Perhaps one man may prevail where a dozen armies would fail. I will not mislead you. The path ahead is perilous. But you have been selected and prepared for this task by God. Will you second-guess Him? Do not underestimate yourself. You are the finest blademaster the Order has ever produced. Was it not you who, not three years past, managed to cross the Jaggenoth Mountains and penetrate deep into enemy territory during the War of the Abominations? Did you not pass through the most inhospitable terrain during the deepest and bitterest part of winter, and enter a land where every man's hand was against you? And did you not face these conditions alone, and yet prevailed?"
Gwydion shook his head, unconvinced. "That was against the elements, and men. There are demons and worse in the worlds beyond, father."
"There is nothing beyond which cannot be overcome by faith in God, my son. Trust in him. He will provide a way. You have the gift of tongues, Gwydion. I have seen this."
That was true. All his life Gwydion had had the talent. He could understand languages as if he were born to them. There was no man nor beast which he could not understand. Yet this seemed a small gift indeed, in the face of the mission he was being asked to accept.
"Do not understimate its worth," said the prophet, reading the skepticism in Gwydion's eyes. "It is a divine talent, and will serve you better than you know."
"I... I fear, father," Gwydion said, casting his eyes down in shame. "I fear that I may fail. Your faiith in me is misplaced."
"God chose you, my son. My faith in him is not misplaced. But you must decide. Will you go? I cannot force you."
Gwydion looked up, then knelt again, drawing his sword. "I will serve my God," he declared, making an oath on his sword as was the custom. "I swear to it."
He stood again, and suddenly the doubt was gone from his eyes, replaced by determination. "How soon before I leave?"
"This very night. You will have one companion, a scholar called Theodric. You are familiar with the man?"
Gwydion shook his head. "I have not heard the name."
"No matter. He is a good man - I trust him. And he is very well versed in what little lore we possess of the lands beyond. He will aid you on your journey. I'm afraid he isn't a fighting man, however."
Gwydion nodded. "Then I shall protect him. How will we journey to the worlds beyond?"
"Through the great seal. We shall open it a second time tonight, and you will go through it." The prophet made his way to a nearby desk, and lifted a long object wrapped in fine cloth. "Give me your sword, Gwydion."
The young man was momentarily taken aback. "My sword?"
"Yes, you will not be needing it."
Gwydion unsheathed his sword slowly, and surrendered it. "I am to travel to the worlds beyond without a weapon?"
The prophet shook his head. "You will be armed with this." Carefully he unwrapped the long object. As the wrappings fell away, a magnificent two-handed sword was revealed.
Gwydion gasped. "Tylith-senshai!" he breathed in awe.
"Indeed," said the prophet. "It would have been a great blow if we had lost this tonight. Thank God in his mercy that we did not."
Tylith-senshai was another of the seven great artifacts. It was much more than a sword. It was said that its wielder could perform feats undreamed of.
The prophet held it forward. Gwydion stepped back, suddenly afraid. Only the pure in heart could touch Tylith-senshai. Its touch was death to anyone who was not worthy.
"It will serve you well," prompted the prophet, sensing Gwydion's nervousness.
Gently Gwydion took hold of the handle. A surge of energy coursed up his arms as his palms wrapped around the hilt. It was light, much lighter than a sword its size had a right to be.
"Here," indicated the prophet, turning the sword point-down so that Gwydion could see the pommel. Within the pommel was set a small clear crystal of curious workmanship, that appeared very like a compass. Within the crystal was a golden piece of metal. "This is the thummim. It will point towards the Icon."
Gwydion examined it for a moment. "But it is sitting there, limp, on the bottom."
"That is because the Icon is not on our world. When you enter the same reality as the Icon, this will guide you to it."
Gwydion looked up at the prophet. "Great father, who has taken the Icon?"
The prophet shook his head. "I have worked knowing after knowing, but those who came from the other side have covered their trail well. I cannot pierce their sorceries. We have only the spirits of our own dead to tell us what happened, and they are bound against revealing too much. I have only the vaguest of details. Come."
The prophet laid his hands on Gwydion's head. With a jolt, the prophet performed his miracle, working the clerical magic to form an image in Gwydion's mind.
With a jolt, Gwydion realized he was seeing through a dying man's eyes. There were demons - legions of them, tearing the man and others like him asunder. And... there was a man.
Or something that walked in the form of a man. There was something inhuman in beauty of the man's face, in the way he flowed rather than walked....
And then, just as suddenly, the vision was gone. But the memory remained - the imprint of the man's face. And Gwydion knew that this was the one who had taken the Icon.
"Great father," said Gwydion, "I must know everything."
* * *
The Inner Sanctum,
chamber of the Great Seal, was not nearly so grand as Gwydion had expected
it to be. In truth it was a fairly small room, only about twenty
paces across, oval in shape, and less than fifteen feet in height.
The walls and ceiling were of white marble, unmarred by windows or doors
(other than the entrance) and bare of ornamentation. Inscribed on
the floor was a curious pattern enclosed within a circle.
What exactly that pattern was Gwydion couldn't tell, because it, most of the floor, and a good part of the walls were covered with blood and human remains.
The gigantic iron double doors which had once sealed the room were now little more than twisted and misshapen metal. They had been torn from their hinges and flung forcibly out into the hallway beyond.
"There were two guardsman stationed within the room and two in the hall without," said the young captain, escorting him into the room. "Whatever killed them did it fast. The ones outside the room didn't make it ten yards down the hall before they were taken."
Gwydion entered the chamber, looking around. There were a few other guardsmen there, though exactly what they were doing was open to debate. Mostly they seemed to be waiting around, doing nothing. Behind them, hovering nevously, stood a skinny man with overlarge spectacles and a gigantic pack on his back.
Carefully Gwydion crossed the room, taking care in where he set his feet. The floor was a gruesome sight, strewn with blood, gore, and human body parts.
"That's Yendril," offered the young captain, noticing where Gwydion's attention lay, "one of the two guards who were stationed inside the chamber. There wasn't much left of him. So far, we haven't found anything larger than a thumb. Something tore him up pretty good Truth to tell, we're not really certain that it is Yendril. It's just that we found one of his rings. It could be Nessuth, the other guard."
"Perhaps it's both."
The other man shrugged. "Maybe. Don't think so though. There aren't enough pieces."
"Gwydion Talienvar?" asked the skinny man, darting forward and clasping Gwydion's hand firmly. "I am Theodric Aleskian. I believe I am to accompany you."
Gwydion nodded, looking the man over. "Well met." The prophet had been correct when he had said that this man was a scholar rather than a warrior. Theodric was a middle-aged man, possibly in his late thirties, with an overlarge nose (on which the spectacles were precariously perched) and short brown hair. He projected an air of awkwardness, as if he had never really gained control of his elongated limbs. He was tall, and Gwydion wondered with the enormous pack on his back whether the man might actually overbalance and go sprawling. "What's that on your back?" he asked.
Theodric was momentarily surprised. "My back? Oh, you mean the backpack. That's supplies. Provisions, in the main. You see, no-one is really certain whether there is consumable food in the universes beyond. It is known that humans can survive there, at least for a time. There are records of heroes journeying there in the past, and staying for some time. But it is unclear whether they found that the food there was edible or whether they simply brought stores along. Perhaps there is even some quality of the worlds beyond that enables mortals to exist without sustanence of any kind. There is quite some debate on the subject, really."
Gwydion nodded. "Better to be safe."
"Oh, unquestionably. Unquestionably." The tall man suddenly slipped on the blood-slickened floor, and he nearly did overbalance.
Gwydion caught hold of the man's robes, steadying him.
"Thank you, templar Talienvar," offered Theodric, looking embarrassed.
"Please call me Gwydion."
"Oh, forgive me." Theodric readjusted his spectacles, which had nearly tumbled from his face. "I see you carry something on your back as well."
Gwydion glanced back to where the hilt of Tylith-senshai jutted up over his left shoulder. Normally he wore his blade at his side, but the great sword was too long and he had ended up slinging it over his back. "Yes," he said, "it may prove useful as well."
He glanced around the room. "Where is the portal?"
"Actually," said Theodric, "you're standing on it."
Gwydion looked down. "The pattern?"
"How does it work?"
"Well, that's my field of expertise, actually." The tall man pulled off his pack, set it on the floor, and rifled through it quickly. A moment later he drew out a small blue piece of crystal. "This is the key. With it, I can unlock the seal and open the portal. Well, theoretically at least. It hasn't been done for ten thousand years."
"Can the portal be opened without the 'key'?"
Theodric shook his head. "No. It takes this key specifically. Without it, we won't be entering or returning from the worlds beyond."
Gwydion considered. "Where does the portal lead?"
"Unknown. Remember, no-one has used it in ten thousand years. The reports we have of those who used it are sketchy at best. We cannot even be certain which of the universes it leads to."
"Then there is no way to prepare for what lies beyond?"
Theodric shrugged. "I'm afraid not."
Gwydion sighed. "Well, there's no sense in delaying. The sooner we go the better. How long will it take you to open the portal?"
"Not long," assured the tall man. "Please, everyone, move back. Out of the circle please."
The remaining guardsman, the captain, and Gwydion all quickly stepped back.
Theodric examined the pattern for a moment, then walked to the center. He stooped, placing the crystal key on the floor, then stood, considering. After a moment he stepped back, then turned and stepped out of the circle.
He waited expectantly.
"Nothing's happening," said Gwydion after a long moment.
"Give it time."
Just when Gwydion was about to comment again, the crystal key shifted. Slowly, as though it were sinking into mud, the key began to sink into the floor.
"What the..." muttered the captain from behind Gwydion.
A moment later and the key had completely submerged. There was a moment of stillness.
"I'm not really certain that was supposed to happen," said Theodric. "I do hope we haven't lost the key."
With a roar, a streak of dazzlingly bright light erupted from the center of the pattern, and Gwydion reeled back, throwing his arm up to shield his eyes.
The light grew brighter still, and a wind was suddenly coming from it, blowing stiffly against them. "Is it supposed to do that?" asked Gwydion, yelling to be heard over the roar.
"Not sure," Theodric yelled back.
Gradually the dazzling light dimmed, until it was possible to look at it with the naked eye. A swirling vortex of white light had formed in the very center of the pattern.
"Is that the portal?" asked Gwydion. "How do we use it?"
"Just step through," yelled Theodric.
Gwydion stared at him. "Is it safe?"
Gwydion took hold of the scholar's arm and started forward. "Right then. Let's go!"
He paused, just in front of the portal, trying to see into its swirling depths, then stepped through.
* * *
Suddenly Gwydion was trapped in the middle of nowhere. He was blind. He was deaf. He was utterly alone.
And he was in excrutiating pain.
He reached out with arms, but they were not his arms. He flailed out with legs, but they were not his legs.
Where am I?
And the pain! He was slowly being ripped apart. His arm felt like it was being ripped from the socket. Slowly.
And suddenly, he knew. The portal was trapped! He may not have understood how it had been done, or how the trap functioned, but he realized it's effect.
He was experiencing first hand the death of another man!
No wonder they hadn't found the second guard's body! The intruders had taken it here, into the portal, to serve as a deathtrap for any who tried to follow.
Already he was beginning to lose awareness of self, beginning to merge with the spirit of the slain man. The pain of death was becoming more pronounced, more real.
Instinctively he knew that if he lost awareness of self, he would die for real.
I am Gwydion!
But he was Nessuth, being torn to pieces by demons from a nightmare. He could hear it. He could see it. He could smell it. He could feel it.
His struggle was in vain. Already the reality of Nessuth's demise was beginning to overide the reality of self.
No! No! No!
Gwydion realized he was going to die.
Then, just as the struggle for self was ending, and Gwydion had nearly abandoned himself to death, he found something deep within to hold onto. He was a servant of God!
And Gwydion began to pray.
Oh God, have mercy on me! Deliver me!
And his god answered. Immediately Gwydion felt a new surge of strength enter his being.
It was still difficult, but slowly Gwydion fought his way free of Nessuth, and that reality. He struggled as a man who is deep beneath the water struggles for air, striving for the surface.
The surface that was so close... so close... so very close...
And then Gwydion was free, and had broken the suface to another universe.
* * *
In the middle of a
vast, empty plain stood a wide black set of granite stairs that lead to
nowhere. Ten feet above the landing at the top of the stairs, a hole
opened in the fabric of space and time, and a man tumbled out.
It closed behind him.
Gwydion picked himself up unsteadily, then pitched forward headlong down the stairs. At the bottom he fell to his knees, vomiting.
After a moment his stomach stopped heaving. He glanced back the way he had come, to the top of the stairs. The landing was empty. I am alone! Theodric must have succumbed to the trap! Without him, how will I return?
"Well," said a feminine voice from behind him, "you're not exactly cut out for planar travel are you, cutter?"