Ra’yl: part one of four
Illustrations: Emily K.
The Light and the Dark.
These two forces have always existed in opposition to one another. Since time began, they have vied for dominance. Each always fighting to be superior to the other, neither realizing that the other was just as vital to the world.
They raged back and forth for centuries, eventually passing their dispute into the hearts and minds of mankind. And it was at this point that Fate decided she needed to take control of the situation before it grew out of hand.
And so it was that she guided the creation of the two swords, Ra’grathon for the Light and Kyar’tonis for the Dark. These swords were assigned to a Keeper. This Keeper was simply a normal human being who was destined to be the focus of his respective side.
She then gave to these Keepers a servant. This servant was called the Guardian, and his role was to protect and serve his master at all costs.
Now every Guardian has a story...
Whether for the Dark of the Light, it almost seems to be a requirement that each and every one of them have an interesting past, a tale to be told. If one were to attempt to record all of them, they would fill volumes, and each would be enough to spark a reader’s interest. Yet even among all these, there are some stories that stand out.
The story of the Guardian Ra’yl, however, is even stranger than most.
This story does not contain heavy conflicts, or high adventure. It is not about seeking the truth, nor is it about hiding from it. It does not feature anything that one would expect to make it a grand story to tell.
The only thing that makes his story different is that his was a story that was never supposed to happen...
* * * * *
It was a beautiful day. The sun shone high over the landscape, and the gently rolling hills betrayed no signs of human life. It was a perfect place to escape. A young man lay stretched out under the spreading leaves of an oak tree, relaxing in the shade from the afternoon sun. The clothes he wore were neat and pristine, and one could tell by the way they were tailored that he was one of the nobility. With his light, white long-sleeved shirt, under a carefully fitted green vest that no commoner could afford, he stood out. Likewise, his long, dark brown hair was carefully pulled back and tied together at the base of his neck, everything about him was well-kept. A tan-colored horse browsed in the grass nearby, his one companion on this short retreat.
He opened his deep blue eyes, wondering who it was who managed to catch him out here.
A young woman stood in front of him. A dark grey horse at her side. She was of average height, and slim. Her dirty-blonde hair hung loosely around her shoulders and curled about her face in front. The long magenta dress that she wore showed that she too was from the upper class, simply by how well it had been fitted to her form and the quality of the fabric, which, like the young man’s clothes, were far too fine for the common folk. Unlike him, however, her dress was plain enough that she could’ve blended with the lower classes with more ease. She stood with her hands on her hips, glaring down at him.
I should have known, he thought wearily.
Though who else would have thought to come out here?
“Here you are!” she said angrily.
Ra’yl didn’t move from his spot at the base of the tree. “Catherine, what are you doing out here?” he asked, trying and failing to keep the annoyance from his voice.
“What do you think?” she demanded in an annoyed tone of her own, “This is your big day, and here you are fooling around!”
“Oh, come now,” he scoffed, “it isn’t that important an occasion.”
“Not that important - ?!” She cut herself off, and took a moment to collect herself. Crossing her arms, she tilted her head to one side. “Just how often is it,” she asked, “that a girl’s best friend becomes the Keeper of Ra’grathon?”
He sighed and leaned forward. It was clear she wasn’t going to let up. Normally he enjoyed bantering with Catherine, she didn’t expect him to act like a lord or follow the proper rules all the time, but he wasn’t feeling up to the challenge today. He’d come out here, in fact, simply to get away from everyone for a bit. Although he did enjoy being around people, he had never liked being the center of attention.
“I told you already,” he muttered stubbornly, “it isn’t that important. He’s just bringing the sword over. There won’t be any ceremony or celebration or anything of the sort. It is simply a delivery.”
She frowned and shook her head, “It is important. Whether you think it is or not. What will this fellow think when he brings the sword Ra’grathon to hand it over to you, and you don’t even have the decency to be there to meet him?”
“Will you calm down, Catherine?” he chuckled, which earned him another angry glare, “you’re more worried about this than I am.”
“Well, it’s an honor!” she insisted.
He sat a moment, unable to think of a suitable reply, then resorted to changing the subject. “What are you doing here, anyway? I didn’t know your father had come for a visit.”
“We came here for this unimportant occasion,” she said, easily and stubbornly steering the topic back on course, “I really don’t think you realize how pivotal this is.”
“Pivotal?” he raised one eyebrow, “Please, Catherine. Odds are good I will just do what the last Keeper did. Hold on to the sword until I die, then it will pass on again to someone else.” In the entire history of Keepers, only a relatively small percentage of them had to actually participate in battle. Most of them lived up to their title of mere “keepers” of the sword.
“Fame without work, then,” she promptly replied.
“Right...” Ra’yl muttered, realizing he was fighting a losing battle. He climbed to his feet, and made another attempt to change the conversation. “I haven’t seen you in a while, how have things fared with you?”
“My father is trying to find me a husband,” she said offhandedly. Ra’yl reflected on that. It was almost an amusing thought. Her father, Brynn, wasn’t really the pushy sort. Ra’yl entertained a mental picture of him pleading with Catherine to marry the man he’d chosen.
He stifled his amusement as he walked towards his horse and asked, “is he having any luck?”
“Some,” she replied, “he’s found a man who might make a good match. He’s not very smart or good looking. But he’s kind enough. And he’s rich!”
That stopped him a moment, surprised by the careless nature of her tone. “Well, I suppose that is what matters,” he said, shrugging, and checking the straps to his saddle.
“More often than not,” she said brightly. Then after a moment, “Has it even crossed your mind that you will need to find a bride eventually?”
“Not really,” he said honestly without turning.
“Well, that doesn’t surprise me,” she said in a slightly mocking voice, “I don’t suppose you would ever have to worry about that though. I mean, with you being the Keeper of Ra’grathon, the noble ladies of the courts will be flocking be by your side.”
Ra’yl’s imagination was promptly filled with thoughts of most of the ‘noble ladies’ he had met and how they had acted. “Please, Catherine,” he said much more sternly than he meant to as he turned to look at her “don’t even joke about that!”
“You think I’m joking?” she smiled slyly, “they’ll be swooning at your feet soon.”
“Meh,” he pulled himself up into the horse’s saddle, “Let’s head back.”
“What?” she smiled triumphantly, “The importance of this occasion finally sinking in?”
"No," he grinned down at her, "I just want you to stop talking."
She seemed very taken aback by that, but before she could utter another word, he'd spurred his horse into a gallop back towards his own home.
She stared after him a moment, then with an annoyed huff, she grabbed the reins of her own horse to follow.
* * * * *
“Ah, here he comes.”
The woman standing on the balcony of the large manor house sighed in relief as she spotted a small cloud of dirt in the distance that signified a rider heading their way. The woman was very regal, and carried herself with her head held high, yet for a moment she had allowed concern to show through.
“You shouldn’t worry,” the mustached man standing beside her chuckled, “You know he would never intentionally miss this.”
“I know,” she said with a small smile, “especially when your daughter is around to drag him home.” She turned back into the house. “Thank you, by the way,” she went on softly, “For always being here for us. I didn’t know what to do when his father died.”
“No need for that, Grace,”the man replied, “I was happy to help. Your husband was a good man, and a close friend.”
“That means a lot, Brynn, it truly does.” she said without turning, then continued down to the main hall to meet her son as he came in.
It was a moment longer before the young man came rushing in the door, laughing to himself.
“Ra’yl!” Grace called in a scolding tone.
He jumped guiltily, and turned to look at her. Then he coughed and stood straight, trying his best to look serious. “Yes, mother?” he asked in a flat tone.
“Thank goodness you’ve returned, that man is here!”
“What?” his serious demeanor faded, and he looked anxious, “Already? I didn’t think he was due for some time yet.”
Grace shook her head a bit. She often had to remind herself that while her son had indeed grown into a young man, he still had something of a boyish nature about him.
Catherine came in the door behind him, looking windswept and cross. She had been riding hard to catch up. “You were asleep when I found you, Ra’yl,” she muttered, “Do you really think you still have a proper sense of what time it is?”
He shot her a glare as Grace hurried forward. “Now, now,” she said, trying to move Ra’yl along, “No harm’s been done yet. He’s only just arrived, and I told him I needed to fetch you, but don’t keep him waiting any longer!”
“Of course, of course,” the young man said. His tone was careless, but he smiled reassuringly at her, then followed Brynn to the sitting room where their guest was waiting.
* * * * *
The guest in question was another young man, though a bit older than Ra’yl. He was dressed plainly for traveling the roads, and his short brown hair was still rather unkempt from the journey. He was seated by a large fireplace, apparently resting, but he came to attention very quickly when they entered the room.
“Hello,” he said, “You must be Ra’yl.”
“Yes,” the young man returned a bit hesitantly, “I’m sorry if I kept you waiting.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the traveler said, waving a hand to dismiss it, “This is far more important than such petty concerns.” He leaned over to reach for an strangely long and thin sack he had propped up against the chair he now sat in, “I have something here for you.”
He stood and very gingerly withdrew a sword from within the fabric. It was a very simple, light weapon. The gold-colored hilt showed no signs of intricate design-work, and the lower part of it was simply wrapped in black cloth. At the center, a red stone was embedded into the metal. Yet despite its simple appearance, it contained a power that was felt simply upon viewing it.
Ra’yl openly stared. This could only be the sword Ra’grathon. Of course, that was what this man had come for, but somehow, seeing the fabled weapon laid out before him, it felt entirely unexpected and new.
The traveler looked down fondly at the sword and curled his hands around it protectively. “I must admit,” he said softly, “I was a bit surprised when my father’s will dictated that I bring this sword here and give it to you...”
Ra’yl took his eyes from the sword a moment to give the other man his full attention, startled somewhat by his hesitant tone. But then, who would want to part with such an item?
“...but...” the traveler drew in a breath, “I stand by his decision. He was very wise, he never would have done this were it not what Fate intended.” He carefully extended the sword, hilt-first, towards Ra’yl. “I will support you as this sword’s master, and as the true leader of the Light. Should the time ever come to fight, I will gladly fight by your side.”
Ra’yl hesitated a moment before reaching out to grasp the sword himself. He felt a wave of guilt wash over him that he had brushed off this moment earlier, especially seeing how sacred it was to this man before him.
He lifted the sword from the traveler’s hands and held it out a moment, to see how it felt. Then he lowered his arm and looked up. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.
What he did not notice during this entire scene however, was what lurked outside at that very moment.
A great black winged creature crouched on a wall top outside of the window, listening intently to every word.
The beast smiled a bit to itself when the sword changed hands, then lifted its feathered wings and silently flew away before any had even known of its presence.
* * * * *
The strange creature, however, was not the only concern of the new Keeper, though he could hardly know that at the time...
Although everything was going exactly as Fate had intended it, there was one small flaw that would confound everything.
This flaw was one man. A single individual.
He was a servant of the Dark. Loyal, but very frustrated by the Dark’s constant tendency to lose, and he got it into his head that something needed to be done to remedy that situation.
He went to a seer, and somehow managed to find one of the few that truly did have the gift of sight. And it was from this woman he learned information he was never meant to have. She was able to tell him that the Light and the Dark were to meet in battle again very soon.
While this information was certainly true, and almost seems harmless on the surface, what is “soon” to humanity and “soon” to Fate are two very different things. Fate did not intend for a meeting of the Light and Dark to happen for many years yet. This man, however, thought he had found the perfect opportunity to put the Dark ahead of the Light.
And so he went out, armed with his new knowledge, which he quickly put to use stirring all those who followed the Dark to prepare for war against the Light. He roamed the countryside like a twisted evangelist impassioning those who would listen, gathering all he could; werewolves, vampires, domovoi, and humans. Many of these were as resentful as he, and so it took little to convince them that the time was right to strike.
And it was because of this, because he rushed the start of the war, because it all began too soon, and because it pulled everything out of Fate’s control that the trouble all began.
Now, despite this man’s alignment, the blame for these troubles cannot be laid on the Dark itself. His actions were of one person, not of the entire movement, and in many ways, what he’d done had hurt the Dark just as much as it had hurt the Light. For while the Light’s problem would become a Keeper who was too young and inexperienced for battle, the Dark’s troubles were just the opposite. Their Keeper was old, far beyond his prime, for the sword Kyar’tonis had not yet passed on to the keeping of a new master.
Unfortunately, while all this took place months before young Ra’yl’s hand touched the sword, no one, not even the highest levels of power for the Light, came to hear of it until it was much too late.
* * * * *
It was a week after the sword Ra’grathon had come into Ra’yl’s possesion. The traveler who had brought it, a knight by the name of Maern, was still visiting. His home was a very long ride. Grace wouldn’t allow him to return immediately, she insisted that he stay to rest and to receive their hospitality in thanks for his services. Brynn and Catherine were still about as well. Grace had made certain that they’d remained.
There were no ceremonies or celebrations for the naming of a new Keeper It was simply seen as duty no matter how honorable it was, and a big to-do would only serve to point out to enemies his and the sword’s precise location. Yet his mother wished for everyone to remain together to mark the occasion in their own fashion. Grace had even invited relatives from surrounding lands and manors to come.
Ra’yl, however, had quickly grown tired of all the excitement and most days simply retreated to the study. Today was no different from any other. He sat at a small table, hunched over a book on history, reading what he could about the past acts of the Keepers and their followers.
He knew it all already, of course. Much of it was standard history for any student, and Ra’yl had been drilled in more than most, but now with the sword actually in his possession, it weighed more heavily on his mind. So, he continued looking through, hoping to learn from the mistakes and successes of Keepers of the past.
As he sat poring over the history books, a lean, angular man who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties stepped into the room behind Ra’yl. He was dressed very neatly, and his black hair was swept straight back. The look on his face was very self-important, yet there was a hint of uncertainty in his expression now.
“M’lord?” he queried as he came in.
“Yes, Variss?” Ra’yl asked distractedly, without turning.
Variss, advisor to the Keeper, came to full attention and stood as straight as he could, hands clasped firmly behind his back. “There is...ah...someone here to see you,” he said, trying to keep the hesitation from his voice.
“Well, show him in,” the young Keeper waved one hand somewhat impatiently.
The chancellor’s shoulders dropped a bit, and his face betrayed his worry even further. “I am afraid that is impossible, my lord.”
“Why?” Ra’yl half-turned over one shoulder. He was beginning to get irritated.
“Well...it’s a dragon...”
“WHAT?!” Now Ra’yl spun fully to face his advisor. A dragon? Here? To see him?
Dragons were hardly mere creatures of myth and legend, but that didn’t mean that humans saw much of them. Most humans lived out their lives without ever catching sight of one. They tended to shun human affairs for the most part and only liked to speak with leaders when they did enter human lands. It hardly occurred to Ra’yl to wonder why it was here, or what it wanted him for. The chance to meet a dragon was one very few people got to take. He hurried past Variss and down to the main hall.
As soon as he walked in he was overwhelmed by the creature’s presence. The main hall was as high as the roof - a little over two stories - and the beast’s head was brushing the ceiling. It was a sleek, serpentine creature in build, but its legs were much more powerful than a lizard’s, and held it upright rather than low to the earth. It was all black, and covered in fur, with purple orbs for eyes and large feathered wings perched on its back. It was sitting back, with its tail curled about its feet, and was looking around, taking in the room.
“It’s amazing..” Ra’yl whispered in awe.
“Indeed,” Variss muttered behind him, “but I’d like to know how it got in here.”
The creature’s head turned to one side, and it favored them with what appeared to be a sly smile, “I have my ways, chancellor.”
Ra’yl nearly jumped when the creature spoke. He knew dragons could talk, of course, but actually hearing one speak is an experience in itself. This dragon’s voice wasn’t as deep as he would have thought, but there was a growling purr to its tone which made it seem fitting.
The dragon climbed to its feet, and its great head swung down towards the young Keeper. “But there is little time for that now,” it said, “I am here for a matter of great importance. I need to speak with you, Ra’yl.”
“Ah, yes,” Ra’yl suddenly found himself much more uneasy being the focus of this creature’s attention.
The dragon lifted its head regally. “I am Chaerius Evk Ky’rell. I am the companion and advisor to the Keeper of Ra’grathon. Currently, Ra’grathon’s Keeper is you. I am here to offer you my services.” It bowed its head solemnly.
Ra’yl was completely thrown off by this proposal. A dragon was offering him its services? “I...I’m not sure I understand...” he said hesitantly, “You are the Keeper’s advisor? I had never heard anything like that from the histories.”
The dragon Chaerius looked up again. “Bah,” it said, waving a paw, which caused Ra’yl to step back a pace, “Your histories were written by humans. Their perspective is very skewed. Understandably so, I suppose, but it is not the whole truth. Fate charged me with the task of aiding the Light against the Darkness, and keeping you on the right path.” It leaned down towards him again, and softly said, “You must trust that my actions are in your best interest.”
“Trust a dragon?” Variss muttered in shock behind him. It wasn’t really a surprising reaction. Dragons were too remote from humans. While they were certainly awe-inspiring, there was an over-arcing fear of creatures of magic among humans. Dragons were often viewed as bringers of poor fortune, and a black dragon only made that worse. The somewhat strained relationship that humans and dragons had surely did not help matters.
Ra’yl, however, felt himself feeling very differently than his advisor on the matter. He stepped forward again, “If Fate has lead you here, I’ll listen.”
The dragon nodded, “Very good. I suppose you realize that I do not show myself to every Keeper who holds the sword. I only make myself known when the situation becomes dire, and I have come here now on a matter of utmost importance.”
The young Keeper expected for the creature to explain the problem, but instead it quickly asked, “Do you have Ra’grathon? Is it safe?”
The question surprised him. “Yes...it’s in my chambers. Wait here a moment, and I’ll go get it.”
He turned to leave, but Variss caught his arm before he could go through the doorway. “My lord, are you sure this is wise?” the other man asked, an edge of fear in his voice, “Having a dragon here under your roof is simply begging for disaster! These creatures care nothing for us, you cannot trust it!”
Ra’yl shook off the man’s hand, but smiled disarmingly at him, “you’re too superstitious, Variss, you always were. Calm down, everything will be fine.”
It only took him a moment to run and get the sword. He was relieved to find everything just as he’d left it when he returned to the main hall. He’d been a little afraid that Variss might have tried to do something drastic. Variss was a man of the Light, there was no doubting that. He had tremendous faith in humanity and in human achievements, but this brought with it an extreme distrust in anything that was inhuman.
Fortunately, the man in question was simply standing by a wall, and doing his level best to ignore the giant creature that sat in the center of the room. This was not an easy task, but he made a valiant effort.
He was no longer the only witness, however, and may not have been the entire time, as Ra’yl had been far too overwhelmed by the creature at first to notice much of his surroundings. However the dragon had attracted a bit of a crowd. None of them were here on the main floor with him, but were gathered behind the railings of the second floor, trying their best to remain out of sight, yet still see what was happening.
The dragon Chaerius paid no attention to Variss or to the crowd it had gathered. It gave one of its odd smiles again when Ra’yl returned. “Now, young Keeper,” it said almost as soon as he had walked into the room, “Take the sword in both hands and hold it out before you.”
“All right,” Ra’yl followed its direction without hesitation.
Now Variss stepped forward, shocked at Ra’yl’s calm acceptance of the dragon’s orders, “Hold on a moment, dragon! What is this all about? You’ve not even told us why you’ve come here, and yet we’re supposed to simply drop everything and obey your every command?!”
Ra’yl spoke up before the dragon had to. “Calm down, Variss,” he said in a reasonable tone, “This dragon has come here to help me, it’s already said as much.”
“‘He’,” the dragon broke in, “‘he’ not ‘it’” If Ra’yl didn’t know better he would’ve thought it - he - sounded a bit amused.
“I...am sorry, Lord Dragon,” he said hastily.
“And it’s ‘Chaerius’ if you please. Not ‘Lord Dragon’,” now the great beast was giving what sounded like a chuckle.
“Certainly...Chaerius,” the young man smiled a bit, though the huge creature still made him nervous, then turned back to Variss, “If Fate has sent him to help me, I believe we should trust him.”
Variss looked both unconvinced and furious. Ra’yl ignored him, turning back to the sword and holding it up, looking at it in confusion. “He does have a point though,” he said at last, “what is it that I’m doing exactly?”
“You are calling for help,” Chaerius said bluntly, which caused Ra’yl to yet again wonder what was happening. What would he need help for? “Give it a moment,” the dragon went on, “this comes the more naturally than most of the sword’s abilities. You will know how to do this yourself.”
For all he had defended Chaerius, Ra’yl had his doubts. What help could he call forth from a sword? But he was not one to argue with a dragon, so he held out the sword as he was told, and concentrated a moment on calling for help as the dragon had suggested.
For a moment, there was nothing, and he felt a bit silly standing here like that, but then in an instant, he realized he was approaching it wrong and he understood the proper method. It could only be described as an act of will, not of the mind, and he never could formulate it into words later. The sword became an extension of himself, and through it, he reached out and pulled back the help that he sought.
The sword’s stone suddenly began to glow a bright red in color. The light spread to surround the sword in flame-like tongues. Then, it burst away from him and gathered together like a great blazing fire. The light grew more intense, then began to take shape, and both contours and colors began to form. It was more than lights, it was becoming something real, something solid.
When the red light had faded, Ra’yl was shocked to see a living creature crouched before him. This creature looked like a man in many ways. He appeared to be older, not old, but one who had experienced much in his life, and his face was certainly hardened from that experience. He wore neat, well-fitted armor of gold and black, and he had a thick moustache under his nose. Besides all that, however, there were many things about him that were distinctly inhuman. His ears were much longer than any human’s and were pointed, and his hair was a bizarrely brilliant shade of red. Certainly no natural color. The thing that stood out most, however, and the thing that immediately caught Ra’yl’s attention, where the great pair of feathered wings the same bright color as his hair that were perched upon his back.
The winged man slowly opened his eyes as if he were just waking up, revealing that his eyes too, were red in color. He did not look up however, but bowed his head and stared at the floor. “Greetings, my master,” he said, gravely, “I am Jeric, Guardian of the Keeper of Ra’grathon. I am here to protect and to serve you.”
This was quite a bit more familiar to Ra’yl than Chaerius had been. The histories were filled with mentions of the Guardian, a creature of magic who had been created with the sole purpose of aiding the Keeper. Powerful and immortal, they were very effective tools to be used against the Dark, capable of doing things that a human Keeper couldn’t dream of accomplishing on his own.
“...well met, Jeric,” he said hesitantly, and when the other didn’t move, he added, “you may stand.” Jeric obviously had more experience than he did, it felt awkward giving such a powerful creature orders.
The Guardian climbed to his feet, and looked up for the first time. When he caught sight of Ra’yl, a look of surprise lit his face. “Good Fate, Chaerius,” he said softly, “he’s still just a boy.”
“I know,” Chaerius rumbled from behind him, his tone was almost a bit sad, “It could not be helped.”
Ra’yl felt a bit stung by that, but knew he couldn’t really argue the point. Instead he steered his frustration elsewhere, “What do you mean? What is it that’s going on?”
The black dragon nodded, “Listen well, both of you. The Dark is stirring. It has already begun to amass itself against us. This is long before Fate had intended it to happen.”
“Fools,” Jeric muttered.
“Yes,” Chaerius nodded his great head again, “I agree that they should’ve known better than to allow themselves to be so swayed. They are no different than we are in many ways, and they depend on Fate just as much, but everything has built up too much. The Dark’s followers are ready for a fight. There’ll be no stopping it at this point for either side.” He paused a moment, then looked hard at Ra’yl, “So you must begin to prepare yourselves to answer them, and quickly, else they’ll crush us before we’ve even begun.”
Ra’yl didn’t reply. He couldn’t. He’d had the sword for so little time, he’d hardly gotten a chance to get used to being the Keeper at all, and now a dragon appeared before him to tell him he was going to have to fight a war? He looked down at Ra’grathon in his hand He knew how to use a sword, but he was little more than adequate, no one would call his skills “good.” He had been exposed to battle and tactics as well (there was hardly a moment where someone wasn’t fighting) but he’d had so very little actual experience that it amounted to nothing.
It was Variss who spoke up as Ra’yl remained lost in his thoughts, “So, you simply plan to throw an unprepared boy like Ra’yl into the middle of all this?!”
Ra’yl looked up, getting a little annoyed at constantly being called ‘boy’. “Variss...” he began, intending to stop the other man from arguing with a dragon further.
“No!” Variss, cut him off, his face full of concern as he turned to Ra’yl, “I cannot allow this. You aren’t ready!”
While Ra’yl agreed, there was a large divide between what he could do, and what he must do.
It seemed, however, that Chaerius’ patience with the man had worn a bit thin. The dragon jumped forward, half-spreading his wings, and loomed over Variss, baring his sharp teeth. “Chancellor!” he roared, “You do not understand, and you cannot help! We have no time to think of such things! If we wait, you will all be dead! Leave us! We have much to discuss, and I have no time to let your stubborn attitude get in the way. Make yourself useful elsewhere, I will not have you getting in the way again!”
Variss stood frozen where he was for a moment, his face a picture of shock at the dragon’s violent reply. Then a defiant looked melted onto his face as he turned to leave. He was wiser than to disobey.
Jeric watched him go, then turned with a considering look. “Although I disagree with his outburst, the man had a point.”
“An annoying habit he has,” Ra’yl muttered.
Jeric looked over the young man before him for a moment, then stepped forward. “I am truly sorry for my actions earlier, my lord,” he said, fully addressing Ra’yl for the first time since he’d seen him, “My reaction and my words were entirely out of line. I hope you can forgive that, but this is the state of things. We have to prepare ourselves to face the Dark now. I’m not sure you’ve had the necessary experience. And, if all that Chaerius says is true, then you have little time to prepare. That would be difficult for anyone.”
“Indeed,” Chaerius put in as Ra’yl considered those words, “that is why you’re going to help him prepare, Jeric.”
The Guardian looked surprised, then concerned, “Chaerius, that could cause problems...”
“It cannot be helped,” the dragon said, echoing his earlier words, “This has gone beyond Fate’s control, and we must try to reign it all back in. You are the only one, Jeric, who has had some experience with that sword. Though you’ve never used Ra’grathon, you’ve witnessed its use many times. You’ve had a close connection to past Keepers and may know something of some help. You will train Ra’yl in the use of this sword.”
Jeric shifted uncomfortably. Something about this idea seemed to make Jeric very uncertain. Ra’yl wondered why that would be, the dragon’s words made perfect sense to him. What harm was there in the Guardian helping him understand the sword’s use?
What the young Keeper could not know, however, was that such a situation was exactly what the ones who had created all this had wanted to avoid. To even consider such an option was risky, and only to be used in desperate times. Unfortunately, things were indeed desperate.
In the past, the Keeper had been given more warning, years in most instances, to get used to Ra’grathon and how it worked, but it had always taken time, and Ra’yl had none. For the Guardian and Keeper to grow too close, however, could potentially be far worse. The two were set in very specific roles, and anything that might disrupt those roles was not to be tolerated. Bonds of any sort were discouraged. As closely as the Keeper and the Guardian worked, this had to be enforced by keeping the Guardian “in his place.” Jeric understood this very well, and to take on the role of “teacher” had the potential to disrupt the order that Fate had very carefully set in place. However, the risk had to be taken, or all of Fate’s work could be destroyed.
* * * * *
Yet while the young Keeper’s training began to take place, other matters were quickly unraveling outside of the anyone’s control.
Chancellor Variss quickly became resentful of Chaerius (a dragon of all things) usurping his place, and was growing increasingly more paranoid each passing day. He began researching old spells in an attempt to find a way to protect the Keeper himself. He spent hours in the library going over texts and trying to find some old charm or incantation that might do the trick, all the while muttering to himself that he could not “trust the young master to a dragon and a winged monster.”
He spent many days doing this, searching late into the night, almost obsessive about finding a way to both prove his worth and pull Ra’yl from the clutches of monsters.
...and finally, he stumbled across the answer.
In an ancient book that he’d had brought in from another library, he found a spell. A spell that declared itself specifically designed to provide protection to Fate’s chosen Keepers.
However, despite all of his honorable intentions, Variss was to be nearly as responsible for all that was to come as the Dark follower who had sparked things too soon.
And all the while, the Dark was gaining momentum. Their followers were growing exponentially every day, and sweeping the lands. As their numbers grew they were so ready to take on the Light that they gathered into armed gangs. The Dark’s leaders, their Keeper most notably, were forced to begin forming them into armies simply to keep them under control. And once they were thus formed, they had to be given something to do...
The Dark was centralized in a land far from where Ra’yl lived, and with the attention of the Light’s powers diverted to preparing for the coming onslaught, they didn’t notice that the onslaught had already arrived.
* * * * * *
Ra’yl gripped the hilt of the sword tightly and with a loud cry charged forward, brandishing the weapon before him.
Jeric didn’t move.
Two blades met with a sharp, quick, metallic sound, and parted just as quickly. The young Keeper took full advantage of his smaller build to dart away and move back in to attack again quickly.
The Guardian, however, was prepared for the blow, and blocked it, returning with one of his own. Ra’yl, jumped back, avoiding Jeric’s attack, then quickly brought up the sword to block as his teacher fluidly moved from one attack directly into a second.
The young man danced lightly to one side, then leapt forward, intent on landing a deciding strike to his opponent.
Just before his weapon struck, he felt a sharp blow to his left side, and was nearly knocked from his feet.
He stumbled a few steps away, and put one hand to his side, breathing hard from exertion. He looked up at Jeric, who was holding up his blunt practice blade and smirking. “I keep telling you, boy” he chuckled, “You’ve got good enough skills, but you need to stop leaving your left side open. Your enemies’ blades will be sharp. Remember that.”
Ra’yl coughed quietly, but it was mingled with a laugh. “I will, I will,” he said.
There was sound then, another soft cough, but this one sounded forced. Ra’yl looked up to see Variss waiting patiently to be noticed.
“My lord,” the chancellor said, “I wish to speak with you.” He looked over to Jeric meaningfully and added “privately.”
The young Keeper nodded, ignoring the distrusting tone of his advisor, “All right. We’ll continue another time, Jeric.”
The Gaurdian watched them leave. Once they’d both gone, he turned to a doorway behind him. “Have you been standing there long?” he asked, “you’ve awfully light feet, I didn’t notice you until just now.”
Catherine jumped a bit, then stepped hesitantly from behind the doorway. “I just...I just wanted to know how everything was going.”
Jeric’s face softened, and he smiled, “You’re worried?”
She nodded without hesitation.
He chuckled and shook his head, “You needn’t be. He makes mistakes, because he is still somewhat unsure of himself, but he’s got the ability, sure enough.”
The girl looked unconvinced, even skeptical, which only caused the Guardian to laugh again, “You doubt my word, do you?”
“Ra’yl’s just never been the sort to be much good at these things,” she said, smiling nervously.
Jeric, amused, played along with her joking nature, hoping to assuage her fears, “Oh, I see what you mean rightly enough. Clumsy as they come.”
She nodded, “I was just hoping you might be able to train him well enough not to fall upon his own sword.”
Jeric rubbed his scruffy chin thoughtfully, “It may be a bit of a stretch, but with my impressive skills, I might be able to manage that much.”
The girl fully laughed at his play-acting. “You do not act the way I expected a fabled Guardian to, sir,” she said.
“Trust me, my dear,” Jeric bowed to her and said in complete honesty, “it shocks me as well.”
She smiled, but her face darkened a bit. “Seriously though,” she softly said, “He will be okay, won’t he?”
“You must trust me when I say, my lady,” the Guardian said earnestly, “that I will see to it that he lives through this.”
* * * * *
Ra’yl winced a bit as the man placed the needle on his shoulder yet again, wondering how he’d let Variss talk him into this.
This man who was marking his skin wasn’t someone he knew, Variss had brought him here. At least he seemed to know what he was doing well enough.
Still, getting needles poked into his skin over and over hardly seemed like a bright idea.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting here, and part of him wanted nothing to do with the chancellor’s plans. Yet still he humored the man, hoping it would help to calm him some. “Are you sure this will help me?” he asked hesitantly.
“I told you already, my lord,” Variss said, almost impatiently, which only added to the young man’s growing irritation, “the specific terms of the spell were that this would provide protection for the Keeper.”
Ra’yl couldn’t see how being jabbed with a needle would protect him at all, spell or no, but he’d come too far to argue much at this point. He looked down over his right shoulder and could see the red design that the man was putting right into his skin, Yes, he certainly seemed to know what he was doing, it looked just as the image in the book pictured it.
As the man finished his work, and began cleaning Ra’yl’s shoulder carefully with a wet cloth, there came a flurry of steps from the hallway outside.
Both Variss and Ra’yl looked up, startled, as a young page came rushing in the room. “Urgent news, sirs!” he gasped, “A messenger just came! There’s a Dark army heading this way!”
Ra’yl didn’t hesitate to see what Variss was doing or to make sure the other man was finished with his arm, he even ignored the dull pain that still sat on his shoulder from the procedure. He jumped up and rushed past the boy, pulling his shirt back on as he ran. The Dark? Coming here? This is insane, I’ve only had the sword a few months!
As he was coming down the hallway to the main hall, he could hear an unfamiliar voice talking, and as he neared, it became easier to make out what it was saying. “...they’re claiming that they will crush all our forces before we even have a chance to retaliate.”
“That’s no small threat,” came Brynn’s voice sadly, “Even with all the recruitment we’ve been pouring on, their forces greatly outweigh ours right now.”
“And yet if they’re making such claims,” Ra’yl said, far more certainly than he felt as he came into the room. All those gathered in the room turned to stare at him as he finished, “then they obviously don’t see me as much of a threat.”
“No sir,” said the newcomer. (Possibly the messenger the page had spoken of?) “Their Keeper has been heard saying that he does not consider facing an inexperienced boy much of a challenge.”
Both Brynn and Jeric turned in unison to glare at the messenger, who took a step back, “Please! I was only repeating what I’ve heard!”
“No, this is a good thing,” Ra’yl said thoughtfully, “We might be able to use this to our advantage.”
Suddenly all eyes were on him. He felt the weight of them, waiting for him to make a decision. The room was far from full, but there were many people gathered here, nobles and leaders, likely brought by the messenger’s news. Half of them were hoping he would be the answer, that he would save them, the other half (he could tell by their faces) were waiting for him to fail, so they could take control. Chaerius was missing, however. He’d been gone a lot lately, information gathering, but Ra’yl wished the dragon were here now. Both for advice and to lend him some credibility.
“What do you mean, my lord?” Jeric asked.
Ra’yl took a deep breath, “Well, if they truly think so little of me, then they won’t be expecting much will they? They won’t read anything into our movements, especially if it fits into their view of me. As long as they keep insulting me, they won’t look too carefully at what I’m doing. I’m too inexperienced, right?” He looked around, growing a bit more confidant now that they all seemed to be listening to him, “Now think about it. Their big advantage right now is numbers, but if we could draw them into a small enough space, their numbers wouldn’t mean as much, so we should be able to hold our own. And if we could then kill their Keeper...”
“Then the Dark armies would lose their desire to fight, I see!” Brynn finished.
“But where could we find such a place?” one of the noblemen asked skeptically.
“I know one...” came a high, soft voice.
All eyes now turned as one to find the source. Catherine stood off to the side of the room and was holding one hand before her, looking very uncertain.
“What’s she doing here?” Variss demanded from behind Ra’yl.
The chancellor started forward, but the young Keeper held out one hand, halting him. “Leave it,” Ra’yl said sternly. Certainly women were rarely permitted into meetings such as these, but Ra’yl was hardly concerned with that at the moment. He needed help, and he wanted to hear what Catherine had to say. He had learned over the years that her ideas were generally good ones.
“What were you saying, my lady?” Jeric asked her.
She looked around uneasily, her face betraying that she knew she was out of place here. Then she took a breath and looked straight at Ra’yl. “The garrison at Kresh,” she said, forcing confidence into her voice, “that would fit your need, would it not?”
Before Ra’yl could reply, one of the other nobles spoke up. “Kresh?” he scoffed in a superior tone, “that place has been abandoned for over a century. It’s old and crumbling.”
Jeric turned to him, looking curious, “Abandoned, why?”
A gruff, scarred old man spoke up in a lecturing tone, “It was not very well placed, strategically, and therefore it was useless.”
“But then, that could help us a great deal, could it not?” Ra’yl said thoughtfully. Kresh. It hadn’t come to his mind immediately for all the reasons that had been mentioned. It was useless, and therefore had been forgotten, but Catherine was right. The more he thought about it, the better it all fit. He smiled at her, “After all, everyone knows it’s useless. Won’t the Dark merely think we are running there out of desperation?”
“If I remember correctly,” the knight Maern spoke up, “it’s placed in an old gorge, but one end was blocked off by a rock fall, so there’s only one entrance in.”
“Which is why it was abandoned,” still another man put in, “And yet, it’d be very hard to get a large force in there.”
“By Fate!” Jeric exclaimed, with wonder in his voice, “that may just work! Of course, this all needs some refining, yet it could truly work. Just a short time ago, I must confess, I was thinking it could not be done. But then, I suppose I’m more accustomed to thinking more head-on. Such plans were never my strength.”
“Well,” One of the nobles who’s spoked earlier, climbed to his feet from the seat he’d taken and clapped his hands together, “You’re certainly right, Guardian, when you say that this plan needs refining, and I, for one, would rather do so over a good drink. I suggest that we adjourn this meeting to somewhere more comfortable.”
It was Variss who led the way to another room where they could all settle and begin to prepare their plans.
When they’d all gone, Ra’yl gave a relieved sigh and let himself relax. The muscles over his entire body had been tensed since he’d walked into the room, and only noticed at that moment that he’d done it. He rubbed the arm below his aching shoulder gingerly.
He jumped. He’d thought everyone had left. Still, he knew that voice well enough. “Hmm?” he turned to face Catherine.
She looked at the floor, “I...I just...”
He stared at her a moment, confused. Such uncertainty was not like her. It made sense during the meeting when she was someplace she should not be, but he couldn’t recall a time she’d acted so nervous around him.
“What is it?” he asked, concerned.
“It’s just that I’m coming to understand,” she said softly, shaking her head, “what’s happening...I never thought I’d be involved with something like this...and it...it frightens me, I have to admit. I hate admitting it, but it’s true.” She looked up at him, and tried to force a smile, “And I’m seeing you. For once I’m really seeing you. No more silly games. You really are the Keeper for Ra’grathon. The leader of the Light....and yet to me, you’re still just Ra’yl.”
He smiled, “You can’t know how good it is to hear that.”
“I just wanted to say,” she went on, “please be careful...this is so dangerous...you could be - ...just...be careful...”
Without thinking, he stepped closer and wrapped his arms around her in a hug. “I will, Catherine.”
* * * * *
Over the next few weeks, the plan took shape. The surrounding noblemen who’d thrown their lot in with Ra’yl (for many, it was more due to proximity than true loyalty to the Light) gathered the troops that they could call together along with the recruits that had joined the Light by choice. They formed bands and began to target small groups of the Dark’s followers whenever such people came together, attacking and running before the skirmishes were even over.
The Dark’s followers quickly began to get frustrated by the movements of their seemingly cowardly enemy, and began to group more tightly together in the hopes of forming a large enough troop to fight back and strike down the Light. However, this was exactly what the Light was waiting for.
The Dark had called together all local supporters to a lot just on the outskirts of a city. Their intent was to organize there, and then march on a neighboring city, near which Ra’yl’s own home was actually located. It was one of the largest gatherings of the Dark thus far that was outside of the main army. However, they never got the chance to organize. The Light’s main forces attacked them almost before they realized what was happening.
This part in the plan was vital, of course. The Light couldn’t stray too far from the target area, but they needed to create enough of a disturbance to bring the Dark’s full army down upon them. They needed to let the Dark’s leaders know exactly where the Light’s Keeper was without drawing too much suspicion. That was the only way they’d be able to get at the Keeper.
Although far from being epic or historic in scale, this battle was a bit more intense than any of the previous meetings between the two sides. The Dark fought desperately against the surprise attack, and lives were lost on both sides before Ra’yl called the retreat.
Once the retreat had been sounded, however, the Light’s forces broke apart and scattered into the city. They had been planning for this ever since they’d gotten word that the Dark was gathering here, and many safe-houses had been set up throughout the city.
Ra’yl scrambled through the maze of streets with the young knight Maern and his guardian Jeric flanking him. It didn’t take him long to reach the small, plain inn that he had made into his headquarters in this city. There was nothing about this building that made it stand apart from any other, and it was hidden away on a side street, which to Ra’yl made it the perfect choice.
He ran inside, and after letting the other two pass, closed the door firmly behind them. Jeric immediately stationed himself just to the side of a window, staring out intently, looking for any signs of pursuit. He seemed almost oblivious to the rest of the room, but he needn’t have worried so much, after the surprise and ferocity of the Light’s attack, the Dark’s followers were content to let their enemy run, while they stayed behind and licked their wounds.
Ra’yl leaned up against a wall, breathing heavily from the run, his mind reeling with all that had happened and all he’d seen out there. It’d been the first time he’d truly been involved in warfare.
Maern, standing on the other side of him, let out a soft chuckle. Ra’yl turned to stare at the knight, who looked up with a small smile and said, “It appears to be working, my lord.”
“Yes,” said Jeric from his spot by the window, “I really think they believe that you’re running scared.”
“So,” Maern said, still laughing quietly, “It looks like we’ve got them where we want them.”
Ra’yl just nodded, not sure what humor it was that the knight was finding in the situation. He certainly hadn’t seen anything funny out there.
“Ra’yl!” Catherine’s voice demanded, “what happened to your arm?” He looked up as she strode into the room.
Most of the women (Grace included) who’d wanted to be a part of all this, had gone to Kresh ahead of them to prepare the old fortress for the coming of the army, and to be ready to treat any wounds. Yet there were some, like Catherine, had elected to stay with the forces themselves and tend to problems as they happened.
Ra’yl blinked at her in confusion. His arm? He looked down over his left shoulder and saw nothing there, then turned to his right. “Oh,” he said distantly, “That’s nothing, they didn’t even hit me, just tore the cloth a bit.”
Catherine raised one eyebrow, “Then why is your arm red?”
The young Keeper reached up to part the tear at his shoulder and see for himself. “That? It’s not a wound. Variss did that. Claimed it was for protection.”
“Protection?” she mused. Then, true to her nature, changed gears entirely, “Ra’yl? Are you sure you feel all right? You don’t look well.”
“Well enough,” he said softly, leveling himself upright and walking past her. The other leaders would be here soon. Once they were sure they weren’t followed, or had taken care of any pursuit, they were to come to this inn to prepare for their next stage. However, Ra’yl didn’t feel up to dealing with any of them just yet. He wanted to get away for a few moments.
He went through one room, and then through another door out into the stables attached to the side of the inn.
The air in the stables was musty, and the wood supporting it was old and scarred. No one was here, which made it perfect to the young man. He leaned against one of the stalls, put his head back and sighed.
He hadn’t come out here to think, just the opposite. He’d been doing more than enough thinking lately, about this war, and about the Light and the Dark. He just wanted a few moments where he didn’t have to have anything on his mind.
He stood there for some time, trying to make his mind completely blank, before he heard someone else entering.
He looked towards the entrance to see the dragon Chaerius walking into the stables. The dragon was now of a size that was only a bit larger than a horse, and so could fit into the stables very easily. It was the first time he’d seen the dragon appear so small. So that’s how he gets into places he shouldn’t be able to, Ra’yl thought, he just changes size.
He felt a little annoyed to have his solitude interrupted by the dragon. He hadn’t seen much of Chaerius lately, the dragon had always been off scouting around, and checking on the enemy’s movements. Some advisor, he thought in irritation. What right did he have to intrude now?
The dragon seemed just as surprised to see Ra’yl there. “Keeper,” he softly rumbled, “what are you doing out here? It isn’t safe.”
“Nowhere is safe,” the young man shrugged, “ I wanted to be here.”
Chaerius chuckled, “I suppose you’re right.” He walked past Ra’yl to a bed of straw which he eased himself onto, settling his body down and sighing in relief.
The young man watched with some interest, despite his annoyance. He hadn’t thought that a dragon would need to rest. Dragons were often viewed with such awe by humans that they were nearly raised to a god’s status in human minds. To see Chaerius like this, he suddenly seemed more real. Ra’yl felt himself relax a little at that realization.
The dragon looked up at him, “You look troubled. Is anything wrong?”
Ra’yl shook his head, “No. Nothing’s wrong. I am the Keeper. It’s my job to complete whatever tasks Fate gives to me.” That last he said more to convince himself than the one he spoke to.
Chaerius stretched his forepaws out before him, flexing his claws. “Even if those tasks are difficult to complete?” he asked.
“They aren’t any more than I can handle,” Ra’yl stubbornly replied. Chaerius didn’t say anything, and after a moment of silence between them, the young man felt compelled to go on, “It’s just...that a lot of men lost their lives today, and I am responsible for that.”
“You aren’t responsible for that,” the dragon softly said.
“Then who is?!” Ra’yl asked darkly, “I’ll not fool myself, I can’t lay blame for this on the enemy. I’m the one who ordered them out there, the one who ordered them to kill. It’s not as though I didn’t expect this. I knew exactly what would happen, exactly what that would mean, and I knew that I would have to be the one to bear that...it’s just a little more to take than I thought it would be.”
Chaerius pulled his forepaws back in and folded them beneath his body, wrapping his long tail around himself. “You were supposed to have more time,” the dragon said simply, “much more time. You were supposed to be able to prepare yourself much more, and not just physically. This is a great burden to bear. Fate never wanted this for you, she never expected you to try to adjust to it so quickly. So much is happening now, it’s difficult to keep it all sorted and keep ourselves focused. I think that you are handling yourself admirably in this situation.”
Had anyone else said that to him, Ra’yl would’ve dismissed them as merely patronizing him, but somehow, coming from this dragon, the words carried more weight, and his spirits were lifted a little. Still, it didn’t erase the enormity of the situation. “I’m sure you must’ve seen quite a lot of war in your time,” he ventured, “do you have any advice? Any way to make it easier?”
Chaerius shook his head, “I have certainly seen much war in my life, but it never gets easy. I’m sorry, if I knew the secret I would gladly share it with you.”
Again, Ra’yl found himself surprised that the dragon was admitting his fallibility. Somehow he’d expected the creature before him to know everything. And yet again it made Chaerius that much easier to talk to.
“I will say this, though,” Chaerius went on, “Fate would never have chosen you if she didn’t have the utmost confidence in your abilities. And for myself, the mere fact that their deaths move you is proof enough of your strength.”
As the young man was mulling this over, he heard someone enter the stables behind him from the same door he’d come through earlier. “Ah, Ra’yl,” it was Catherine’s voice again, and the young man felt his temper rising once more at yet another interuption, “this is where you went, I -”
She caught sight of the dragon stretched out on the straw and jumped. “Oh! Lord Dragon! I’m sorry, I didn’t -”
“It’s ‘Chaerius’, dear girl,” the dragon chuckled, “not ‘Lord Dragon’ and you weren’t interrupting anything, so there’s no need to apologize.”
She nodded carefully, then slowly turned to Ra’yl, “we were all getting worried when you walked off like that and didn’t return. I just wanted to find where you’d gone.”
“You don’t need to keep watch over me all the time!” he said harshly, regretting the words as soon as he’d said them.
Catherine seemed taken aback by that, but Chaerius was the one who spoke. “On the contrary,” the dragon said, “you are the Keeper. Which means that like it or not, you are the most important element, and thus you indeed do need to be watched at all times.” The dragon closed his eyes and smiled a bit, “I can certainly think of many far worse people to be watching over you than this young lady.”
Ra’yl’s active imagination suddenly pictured others trying to tail him: Brynn, trying to look casual, but trying so hard that he failed at it; Variss, following him right by his side rather than from a distance and looking detirmined; Jeric, trying hard to hide the big red wings that made him stand out. Despite himself, he actually smiled a bit, mulling over those images. “You have a good point, Chaerius,” he said, “I suppose that for the good of the Light, I can handle such attentions.”
“Handle such attentions?” Catherine momentarily forgot to be awed by Chaerius and fell back into her usual joking demeanor, “you think entirely to much of yourself, Ra’yl.”
“Am I thinking too much of myself if others agree?” he asked, spreading his hands. He marveled at how quickly his mood had changed, and despite the turmoil of his thoughts, he knew he really did not want to take it out on those before him. Somewhere in his mind he acknowledged that he wouldn’t be able to keep everyone safe and everything good during a war. If that was true, then he would simply do what little he could. It was the best he would get, and worrying over it would not change the situation. And if I don’t enjoy my time with these people while I have it, I will only be left with regrets.
“I think that that sword is going to your head,” Catherine laughed, tapping his forehead with one finger, “the others are starting to arrive, Ra’yl, and you need to be there.”
She turned and left, and Ra’yl shook his head and started to follow. Then he stopped and turned back. “Did you want me to have them meet out here so that you could take part as well?” he asked Chaerius.
The dragon shook his furry head and chuckled, “No thank you. I’m not very good at planning and strategy, and as long as you do not move the meeting, I have an excellent excuse to stay out of it. You go ahead, I plan on catching some rest.”
Ra’yl smiled, “Certainly. And thank you.” He turned and followed Catherine back into the inn. There was much yet to prepare for, he could not allow himself to dwell on such guilty thoughts. He could only follow the path that Fate had set out for him. Whatever happened, it would be enough.
* * * * *
The Light’s attack on the Dark outside the city did exactly what it was intended to. It gained the full attention of the Dark’s elite. They knew where the Light’s Keeper was, and they would have him cornered.
Ra’yl’s army for their part, followed the plan exactly. They fled before the Dark, and only just made it to the garrison at Kresh before the Dark caught them. Once there, they stood grimly watching and waiting, prepared as they’d ever be, as the Dark’s armies broke upon the narrow opening to the gorge. The mass of darklings, draclings, and human warriors moved towards the fortress in one body like some giant maddened creature.
When Chaerius descended from the sky to confirm that the Dark’s aged Keeper was with them, Ra’yl raised Ra’grathon high and sounded the attack.
The Dark had been so set on their “cowardly” enemies, so convinced that none could withstand their might, that they had fallen for the Light’s trick all the way. Although they were physically skilled and very capable, they were not mentally prepared for the ferocity of the battle that lay before them.
Unfortunately for them, the Light was.
Though the Light’s forces were much smaller, they could more than fill the width of the narrow gorge, and so, as the two sides met, each was able to stand and hold their ground.
The battle raged on throughout the day. The Light’s forces stalwartly defending the garrison behind them, from which they were constantly refreshed by those men and women who were unable to help in the fighting but had bravely volunteered to face this danger alongside their warriors. They pressed on waiting and hoping that their young Keeper would make good on his promise to hunt down and destroy the Dark’s Keeper, ending the battle before they were all destroyed.
The Dark’s Keeper, however, a seasoned warrior named Algrath, recognized the Light’s plan shortly before the battle began. After watching Chaerius fly nearby. he’d held back, putting together a strategy of his own, and waiting for the proper moment to implement it. Then, with some of his own warriors to clear and guard the way, he’d taken a few archers and climbed a ledge to the side of the gorge. Not too high up, just high enough to be out of the immediate sight of most of those on the field, and low enough that he could see those below him very clearly. He held the archers, searching for one specific target. He would turn the Light’s plan against them.
Standing with Algrath was a creature that looked very much like the Guardian Jeric. He was clean-shaven, with long silver hair and bright purple eyes. The wings that he held folded tightly to his back were more like clawed bat’s wings than bird’s wings like Jeric’s despite the pale blue feathers that adorned them. He was not an overly imposing figure on his own, yet something about the way he carried himself spoke volumes for his capabilities. This was Elrek, the Dark’s Guardian. He stood straight and still with his hands clasped behind his back, the very picture of a soldier awaiting command. He would take no part in the fighting until his master’s life was threatened or until he was ordered to do so. Such was a Guardian’s duty.
“I must admit,” Algrath spoke, as he watched the battle raging on below him, “They’ve done better than I expected. But in the end, it is useless. They cannot hold out here forever. Eventually we will wear them down.”
Elrek did not reply, and the Keeper did not appear to expect that he would.
The older man stared out at the battle, then narrowed his eyes as he caught sight of something. “At last,” he whispered. He leaned in close to one of the archers so that he could be heard over the din of fighting without having to shout, and he pointed out over the field to one who had unknowingly come too close. “When you get the shot,” he growled, “fire.”
* * * * *
Ra’yl fought on, searching through the masses of warriors and weapons for his target, completely unaware that his quarry had sighted him first. He drew back Ra’grathon, calling forth the sword’s power and as he swung it around, a great red blaze leapt up around the blade. Every thing it touched was engulfed by the fire. He used the sword’s power rarely for fear of hitting his own men, but the Dark’s forces seemed to keep collapsing in around him.
Exhaustion tore at him. The day seemed to drag on. They weren’t just fighting humans: wild beast-like werewolves slashed about with their claws and teeth; vampires would vanish only to reappear and attack from behind; and the cat-like Domovoi’s magic kept enemies confused and at bay. There had been no time summon creatures of the Light to meet them, and the darklings were proving to be a major and deadly factor in the battle.
The young Keeper would’ve fallen to them long ago if it hadn’t been for Jeric. The red-winged Guardian had stuck to Ra’yl’s side and wouldn’t let his charge out of his sight no matter how many Darklings tried to cut between them. The young man mentally took a moment to appreciate his Guardian. Ra’yl found he could not see him as an object the way everyone else could. Jeric had gone out of his way to train Ra’yl, to spend every moment watching over him and helping him, and now risking his life for the younger man’s safety. A part of his mind argued that such was the Guardian’s job, that Jeric could do little else, but in their time together, Ra’yl had seen who his Guardian truly was, that he was much more than an object. And though there was little he could do at the moment, he was grateful to have the older man by his side.
And it was just as he was musing all this, that the Dark’s Keeper spotted him from where the archers were perched, and everything came sharply into focus.
Jeric shouted something to him over the sounds of weapons crashing and harsh cries. He couldn’t hear what was said, but the Guardian was gesturing wildly, and he looked up to see that he was in a direct line from those up on a short ledge nearby. An archer was crouched with his bow raised, there were none in his path. Before Ra’yl had caught sight of him, he’d already released the arrow. There was no time for him to move.
Something heavy struck his right shoulder roughly, and sent him tumbling to the ground. The move was jarring, and pain shot through his arm, as he went tumbling to the side.
...but no arrow struck him.
Before he’d even regained his senses, he called the sword’s power and struck out all around him to keep enemies from taking advantage of the tumble. He scrambled to his feet, and then looked around him.
The move with the sword had caused most of the darklings who hadn’t been hit by it to leap back. He kept the fire around the sword as he cast about him searching. There! On the ground he saw a mass of red and gold. He charged towards it as the Dark’s warriors and even some of his own men parted to get away from the blaze around Ra’grathon.
He dropped to one knee beside Jeric, extinguishing the flame at last. The Guardian had a hand up to the arrow in the left side of his chest. It had found the spot between the breast plate of his armor and his shoulder, and was bleeding a surprising amount for the size of the wound. He was trying to climb to his feet. Ra’yl put a hand on his good shoulder. “Stay there,” The Keeper ordered sternly.
He stood, his eyes staring hard up at the ledge. The blaze leapt up around Ra’grathon once more. Another arrow was coming towards him, but as Ra’yl held out the sword before him, it burned down to nothing before hitting its target. Even the stone tip was caught up in the blaze, falling harmlessly to the ground.
The darklings began to close in once more. The young Keeper stood next to his fallen Guardian, sword ready, his eyes daring any of them to try.
* * * * *
Algrath raised one eyebrow in surprise as the Light’s Keeper stood defending the Guardian at his feet. This was entirely unexpected. “Hmm,” he did not turn to his own Guardian, but spoke to him nonetheless, “Elrek...”
That was all that was needed. With a curt “yes, sir,” Elrek’s wings snapped open. He leapt of the ledge, beating down his wings in one powerful stroke, sailing over the heads of the combatants towards his target. The darklings immediately began to clear out. Although Elrek rarely paid attention to them at all, they instinctively knew he was not to be crossed. He paid them no mind, likewise he did not head for, or even look at Ra’yl. The Keeper was not his concern, he would never attack Ra’grathon’s master without an explicit order, and even then he would be hard-pressed to do so. No, he intervened to finish the archer’s work...to leave the Light’s Keeper defenseless.
As he came down, his eyes trained on where Jeric crouched before him, someone got in the way. He was aware of the fierce blue eyes, and a bright flash of red before the searing pain of Ra’grathon’s fire forced him to beat his wings hard in an effort to halt his forward advance and move away from that source of heat.
He landed, holding one arm and one wing in front of him to protect himself. After a moment, he risked a look to find the Light’s Keeper standing still between himself and his target. The young man’s eyes blazing with anger as he stood to protect his Guardian.
Elrek found himself as baffled by this as his master had been. A Keeper protecting a Guardian was unheard of. What use was a Guardian when the Keeper was defending him? The Dark’s Guardian, in his confusion, now looked more carefully at the young man before him, actually seeing him for the first time, and what he saw surprised him even further. “It can’t...” he whispered in shock, “This? This boy is the Keeper?...How can he...”
“Stay where you are!” Ra’yl shouted furiously, cutting Elrek off from his thoughts, “your part in this is finished!”
This snapped Elrek out of his surprise and he regained his composure, recalling his place and his purpose. “Not yet,” he coldly replied, reaching down to touch the earth with his left hand. Ra’yl watched warily and suspiciously, but it was clear he didn’t know what it was that Elrek had planned. Blue light began to dance around his fingers.
A dagger flew into view, striking Elrek’s arm. He recoiled, clutching it and grimacing.
“My Lord!” Jeric gasped at Ra’yl, hand still raised from throwing the dagger, “Go now! If you can stop their Keeper, you can end this!”
The young man hesitated only a moment before nodding once and running towards the ledge.
Elrek watched him go, then climbed to his feet, still holding his arm. Jeric was struggling just to stand. The wound was a bad one. “Your fight is with me!” the Light’s Guardian blurted, “Leave the boy be, and come face me!”
Elrek turned to his foe, his face completely emotionless. “You should know me better than that, Jeric,” he said, “I would not attack a Keeper in such a fashion. And as for you.” He walked forward, looking down coldly, “You are already dead.”
* * * * *
Algrath took a step back as the young man charged towards where he stood, a sneer curling his lip. He should’ve expected that this wouldn’t work, Fate tended to like for the two Keepers to kill one another, not to work through a third party. Still, he had hoped that it would’ve been enough to injure and slow the boy.
He drew upon the power of Kyar’tonis, and the blade began to glow with a pale blue light, similar to the blaze around Ra’grathon. Only instead of immense heat, Kyar’tonis was a frigid void. The archers began fighting each other to get away as the two swords drew nearer to one another. Ra’yl showed no concern for the power of the other Keeper. He launched himself from the ground to grip the top of the ledge and pull himself up with ease. The exhaustion of the battle seemed to hardly effect him now, his own adrenaline was pushing him onward.
Algrath raised Kyar’tonis, then slashed it down straight before him. The blue light formed together into a wall. A barrier between them. Now, he should have enough time to prepare for -
The wall before him faded to purple, and then to a brilliant red, shattering as Ra’grathon came bursting through followed quickly by its master. The older Keeper was only just able to raise Kyar’tonis in time to meet his enemy’s blade.
They stood locked for a moment. “Well,” Algrath sneered, “it’s finally come down to the two of us. At long last, you’ve stopped running away. You think you can face me, boy?”
The young man did not reply, but his eyes narrowed further, and he pushed his blade forward, sending Algrath stumbling backwards. And yet, even as the Dark’s Keeper was thrown off balance, he was smiling to himself. He recognized the look on his opponent’s face very well. The young man before him was maddened by his anger. It was a state that made him particularly powerful and deadly, but at the same time made him blind to tactics, and lead him to foolish and risky actions for the sake of destroying his enemy. He isn’t thinking about what he’s doing, he’s relying solely on instinct, Algrath thought smugly, and that means that I have won.
He blocked Ra’grathon yet again, letting Kyar’tonis force back the dreadful heat of the enemy blade, and began to carefully observe his opponent’s movements and actions as they began to trade blows back and forth. Ra’yl seemed single-minded, his eyes never left Algrath, and he continued to force his enemy back with every strike, standing solidly when his attacks were returned. Algrath was being forced towards the edge, but he did not consider jumping down to the ground where there was more room. He didn’t need to. He’d already spotted the mistake his enemy kept making.
It’s his left side, he thought, he keeps leaving it open. Algrath was far beyond his prime, he was very aware of that. He’d been wondering for some time whether or not he could stand up to a stronger, faster, fresher enemy. Yet here was the chance to prove that with his age came experience, and that he was still worthy of wielding Kyar’tonis.
He picked his moment, then charged forward suddenly with a loud cry, driving the ancient blade hard into Ra’yl’s left side. He was rewarded with the sight of red staining the metal edge.
The two of them stood frozen for a moment, as though neither could believe what had just happened. Then, Ra’yl stumbled back, pulling himself free of Kyar’tonis, and clutching his wounded side.
“I wondered...” the Light’s Keeper said in a low voice, “how long it would take you to notice that flaw...”
Algrath slumped to his knees, and then crumpled to the ground, blood flowing out of the wound in his chest. He had been so intent, so focused on the small opening that Ra’yl had left, that he had risked everything in order to hit it...but his opponent had been ready for him.
“You have defeated yourself,” Ra’yl said, looking away wearily, “you thought you knew me, thought you understood so much. You didn’t even realize that I was never entirely the fool you took me for. All I had to do was act how you expected me to, and you fell for it. Your confidence betrayed you. And it is at an end.”
The young man was aware that his enemy was still alive, but he turned his back and jumped from the ledge down to the ground anyway. Had he simply finished the older man off, the story may have been at an end then and there, but he did not know of the danger there was in leaving him alive, and the young man was not a killer. Algrath’s wound was fatal, and far too serious for him to be a danger. Ra’yl had a more important matter to attend to.
The battle was more or less over. The Dark’s armies, though vast, were beginning to scatter. The fighting had slowed when the two Keepers had met, for each side instinctively knew that it was those two who were to decide the outcome of this conflict. That was what Fate had intended, and upon the Keeper’s death, the power of all those following him was diminished. While Keepers alone did not carry the battles, the Dark knew when their master fell that Fate had no intention of letting them win. So the field that Ra’yl walked across was far calmer, and far more empty than it had been just moments beforehand.
He hardly noticed, however. His sight was riveted on where Jeric lay hardly moving on the ground.
* * * * *
Chaerius circled over the battlefield, feeling relief wash over him as the Dark’s forces abandoned their effort. He’d always hated the actual battles the most out of these conflicts with the Dark. Though this was mostly because the dragons were discouraged from participating too much. Not that they were not allowed to act at all, but their main purpose was to act as Fate’s voice in a world she could not reach herself. The dragons were too powerful, too capable. Fate wanted the conflict in the hands of humans, who were so directly effected by the Light and the Dark where the dragons were not.
Still, it was very frustrating each time to sit by and do nothing. Merely picking off those on the fringe did not seem much like helping, and he was wary of using his magic to fight, since dragon attack spells were not very precise.
Though that never stopped Sadryn, he thought in irritation. The Dark’s dragon, a hulking monster who seemed to be in a constant state of anger made it a point to strafe the field with a blistering white destruction spell during each conflict. I think he killed as many of his own as ours, though I doubt it bothered him much, and so long as he doesn’t kill the Keeper, Fate cares nothing for it.
He spotted a few of the Dark’s stragglers harassing Maern below him, and folded his wings into a dive. Here was a good target to take his frustrations out on. He landed hard next to the knight, striking a dracling with one paw, and lashing out at a human fighter with his tail. He pulled back his head and let out a loud roar, opening his mouth wide to show the rows of sharp teeth lining his mouth.
The remaining fighters needed no further persuasion. They ran off.
Out of the corner of his eye, Chaerius saw Maern looking at him with a pale, frightened face. “Are you all right?” he asked without turning.
“Y-yes,” came the uncertain reply. Then after a moment, he tentatively asked, “They seem to be leaving, is it over then?”
The dragon nodded, “It is over. We’ve succeeded...somehow.”
Maren exhaled slowly. “I have to admit,” he said, “I never thought we would. Fate was right to choose Ra’yl. I should’ve known better than to question.”
Now Chaerius looked at his companion with a smirking smile.
“Still,” the knight went on cheerfully, “I’d imagine that spell of Variss’ helped him out too.”
“Spell?” Chaerius’ ears perked up in interest, “what spell is that?”
“Some protection spell, I suppose,” Maern said, “Ra’yl didn’t say much, just that it had to do with that weird mark on his shoulder.”
Chaerius’ blood ran cold. He couldn’t have -! The dragon rounded on the knight, and Maern stepped back a pace, startled by the reaction. “A mark?!” he demanded, “what did it look like?! Speak, man, quickly!”
“I-I’m not sure,” Maern stammered, “I didn’t get a good look. It...was a red mark on his shoulder...looked almost like a fire!”
Chearius recoiled, covering his head in frustration. His wings arced high over his head. “The fool!” he roared, “Didn’t he realize what he was doing?!”
The great wings beat down and the dragon took off into the sky winging quickly over the field, leaving a bewildered Maern behind him.
He had to find Ra’yl, and quickly. Maybe I can stop it! he thought desperately, Maybe It’s not too late! As long as Jeric is alive, it will all be well!
* * * * *
Ra’yl stayed as still as he could as his mother and Catherine fussed over him.
He’d pulled off the armor as soon as he’d entered the ancient garrison, and Grace had been waiting. Though she seemed worried about the wound in his side, she was far too glad to see him come back alive to scold him for it. Instead, she’d kept up a constant string of cheerful talking, perhaps to disguise her concern over it all.
Catherine, however, who had been right at Grace’s side from the start, did not say a word, silently helping the other woman patch him up.
Ra’yl did not speak much either, his thoughts were elsewhere. As soon as he’d reached the garrison, he demanded that the first available doctor should see to his Guardian, who he’d ordered carried from the field by those who were fit enough and willing enough to help.
Now he waited as patiently as he could, and almost as soon as his wound was bandaged, he stood, pulling his bloodstained shirt back over his head and strode from the room, ignoring the pain in his side. Despite how bad the wound looked, Algrath had not gotten much of him. The pain would stay with him, it had been inflicted by Kyar’tonis after all, but he would survive it.
He walked to another room, conscious that he was being trailed. It didn’t bother him. A bloodstained healer stood in the room looking grim. Ra’yl walked past the man to his patient.
Jeric lay stretched out on a pallet on the floor. He had been patched up as well as he could be, but he clearly was not doing well. Ra’yl dropped to a knee beside him. “I’m so glad to be able to talk to you again, my friend,” he said softly, smiling a bit, “I was worried that I’d never get the chance to properly thank you for saving my life.”
The Guardian looked up and returned the strained smile. “No, my lord,” he wheezed, “it is I who should thank you.”
“Whatever for?” Ra’yl asked, confused.
Jeric turned his head to look at the ceiling. “It is the fate of every Guardian to die in battle,” he said slowly, “We know from the start that we will be denied a peaceful death, and more often than not, we die while protecting our Keeper.”
He did not move his head, but his eyes moved back to Ra’yl, “I have served many Keepers during my duty as Guardian. Some I truly thought deserved death even as I defended them with my life. But you, my lord, have shown me kindness, which I have never known... Even Keepers who have confided everything who trusted me completely never went so far.” He paused, closing his eyes, “I must admit that I’d rather live, were I given the choice...but if I must die for my Keeper, I am honored to give my life protecting you... Thank you.”
Though he had only known Jeric for a short time, Ra’yl felt jarred at the thought of losing the Guardian now. He shook his head, feeling the sting of tears in his eyes, “Stop being so foolish. You shouldn’t be talking so much, you have to keep still.”
Jeric opened his eyes again, and he looked up at the young man. Then he smiled a bit. “Tears?” he asked, with each word his voice sounded weaker, “...forgive me for this selfish statement...m-my lord, but it is good to know ...that someone will mourn my death ...when I’ve gone. It’s...It’s more than most...Guardians can hope for...”
He looked up at Ra’yl a moment more, then he smiled a bit and closed his eyes. The young man stayed sitting, waiting and hoping for some sign. When the Guardian’s entire body relaxed, however, he knew it had ended.
Ra’yl’s shoulders dropped wearily, and he felt one of the tears slide down his face. “You helped me so much,” he said softly, “and I still don’t feel like I did anything for you...I hope...you at least find some peace.”
* * * * *
It was at this point, that Chaerius worked his way into the room. He shouldered past Catherine to come up just to the side of Ra’yl and when he saw what had happened, he felt a great sadness overcome him. A large part of his sadness was certainly for the loss of Jeric, who had served Fate faithfully and well since he had become Guardian, but it was also sadness over what was to come. What he knew he could not stop. Too late...I am too late to help him, he glanced back at Catherine, yet I think I am right on time.
Jeric’s body was suddenly engulfed in a brilliant red light.
Ra’yl jumped to his feet in surprise. As the light came together to form a spherical shape almost like a miniature sun, he backed away from it a few steps, favoring his right side a bit, though he didn’t seem to be aware that he was doing so. The people behind Chaerius seemed just as startled and were trying to stay out of the sphere’s way as well. The dragon however, didn’t move, for he had seen this many times before. He merely watched grimly, prepared to act.
The ball of light hovered where it was for a moment, then, just as Ra’yl was moving his head to one side, trying to get a better look at it, it flowed into a streamlined shape and shot itself directly at the young man.
The impact threw Ra’yl violently against the wall. He let out a yelp, but managed to stay on his feet, leaning heavily on the stone behind him.
Chaerius heard movement behind him, and extended one wing in front of Catherine as she started forward. “Stay back,” the dragon said softly, “You cannot help him now.”
Ra’yl did not appear to notice any of this. Chaerius doubted whether he were seeing or hearing anything properly at the moment. The young man was still putting most of his weight against the wall behind him, and he was staring down at the floor. His face contorted, and he looked ill. Then in a sudden movement, he stumbled forward two steps. He seemed to be having difficulty keeping his balance. He bent double and clutched the sides of his head, his eyes shut tight and his teeth clenched as if he were in some unimaginable pain. A low sound came from his throat, hoarse and uncertain, he appeared to be fighting against what was happening to him...but it did him no good.
The back of his shirt bulged out. Ra’yl struggled a moment more, then dropped his hands, fists clenched, and arched his back, at the same moment letting out a strange, strained cry as a pair of brilliant red feathered wings burst free from the cloth over his back.
As the cry faded and the new creature slumped his shoulders wearily letting the wings droop, all those looking could see how much he’d changed. His hair had altered to a brilliant red, and his ears were now long and pointed. He slowly opened his eyes, as if he were just waking from a long sleep, and revealed that his eyes too had changed color to the same unnaturally brilliant red.
Chaerius glanced over at Jeric’s body. The former Guardian, was indeed no longer a servant of Fate. His wings were now gone, his ears were small and round, and his hair was now sandy blonde. His eyes were closed, but Chaerius recalled that they had once been green, and imagined that they were again. The torch has been passed...but it should not have been. Fate never wanted this...
“My son!” Grace’s voice cried desperately, “what has been done to my son!”
She began to run towards him, trying to push her way past the dragon. He quickly moved, putting himself fully in her way, and arced his head over her, glaring down and baring his teeth. “I said stay back!” he growled menacingly, “He is not your son any longer! He belongs to Fate!”
Looking down at her shocked and tear-stained face, the dragon was filled with guilt and sadness, but there was nothing that could be done to help it. He did not enjoy treating her so harshly in a time such as this, but he needed to be sure that she did not attempt to speak to Ra’yl, and she needed to understand that her son was gone. It was better for her to grieve now than spend the rest of her life hoping and waiting for him.
Ultimately, though, he held her back for Ra’yl’s sake. When a human became a host for the Guardian, his memories were taken from him. He was not merely made to forget, for thoughts that were forgotten could be remembered again someday. The memories were actually removed so that there would be nothing there to recall later. These memories were then replaced with the memories of the actions of all the Guardians that had gone before him.
These accounts were incomplete, more like a mental history book than a first-person account of what had happened, but they did their job well enough of informing the Guardian on who and what he was. He would learn much from his own mind. However, these first few moments were the most vulnerable for a Guardian, for the moment of transition where the old memories left and the new ones were put into place depended greatly on the new Guardian’s confusion and disorientation. If Ra’yl were to see someone he cared about in those moments, it could remind him of who he’d been and cause him to hold tightly to his former memories, not letting them go.
And while retaining his memories might sound like a positive thing on the surface, it would mean he would recall two lifetimes simultaneously, and the uncertainty over which life was real and which path he desired would drive him insane.
Things were bad enough as it was. Chaerius did not need that on his conscience as well.
When he was satisfied that the woman before him would no longer defy him, he turned to face the new Guardian. Ra’yl stood with one hand to his face, his eyes closed and his expression full of confusion. The dragon stepped forward carefully, hoping that the fact that both memories recognized him would make the transition a bit easier on the young man. “Ra’yl,” he asked softly, “Do you know who I am?”
Ra’yl shook his head, in uncertainty, not in denial. “I...I’m not...” he began. Then he opened his eyes, realization dawning on him, “Yes...you are Chaerius, companion to the Keeper of Ra’grathon.”
“Correct,” Chaerius said, “and you are the Guardian on Light.” The young man before him nodded slowly as his new memories confirmed what the dragon was telling him. Chaerius went on, “You are confused still, and that’s normal. I imagine it will all end in a moment. Whatever bits of life remain with the Dark Keeper will leave him. Then the battle will truly be over, and at that point, you will return to Ra’grathon.”
“Yes...” Ra’yl said, thinking carefully over what he was being told.
The dragon looked at him pityingly and then said in an attempt to encourage him, “The next time you are called into the world, this confusion you feel will be gone. Don’t worry.”A soft red light, similar to the one that had surrounded Jeric when he was first summoned from the sword came around Ra’yl. “Good luck, Guardian.” Chaerius finished.
Catherine stepped up to where Chaerius still held his tail barring their way. She stared out blankly for a moment, then in a quick movement, she ducked under the tail,
and ran forward. The dragon had been so intent on Ra’yl he had only noticed her a moment too late.
She ran towards the new Guardian, one hand outstretched, “Ra’yl!” He started to turn at the sound of his name, but had barely begun to move before he vanished. Catherine’s fingers passed through empty air where Ra’yl’s hand had been a moment before.
Caught off-balance, she tumbled to the floor. Chaerius said nothing, he simply stared down at her. The girl knelt on the stone floor with her head bowed. “What...” she asked in a low voice, “what has happened to him? Where is Ra’yl?”
“Ra’yl is dead,” the dragon immediately replied in a cold voice, “The person you knew as Ra’yl no longer exists. The Guardian of Light took his body as a host, the creature you saw was the Guardian, nothing more.” Not entirely the truth, he thought to himself, yet not entirely a lie...
Catherine turned to look up at him and he found himself startled by her expression. He’d expected something akin to Grace’s reaction, the older woman was now being supported by Brynn, crying and sobbing for her loss. There were tears in this girl’s eyes true enough, but she was glaring up at him, not even attempting to hide her rage. He could see in her eyes that she didn’t believe him, or she just didn’t want to, but there was no fixing anything now. It only made him feel worse to see the spirit she had.
“You are angry?” he asked her pointedly.
She hesitated, and Chaerius got the impression that her anger had startled even her. Yet she replied with complete honesty, “Yes.”
“Good,” Chaerius said simply, “as am I.”
Catherine looked startled at this, but Chaerius paid her no more attention, instead, he focused his attention on another. “Chancellor!” he growled at a very pale Variss, “Step Forward!” He waited for the man to obey before speaking again. Here was an outlet for his frustrations. He would not hurt the man, no, Variss’ intentions had no doubt been honest. But someone had to pay for this. “You are the cause,” he said in a low, dangerous voice, “You are the one we have to thank for this loss. You and that mark you put on him.”
Variss looked very frightened, but confused, as though he couldn’t imagine that he’d done any wrong. At the mention of the mark, however, his face fell. “B-but the book said that that mark would provide protection for the Keeper!” he stammered desperately.
“Protection for the Keeper?!” Chaerius spat, “what do you think the Guardian does, Chancellor?! You were so desperate to be the one to save the day, that you paid no attention to what you were actually doing! And the mistakes that have been made as a result will effect the Light, and likely the Dark as well, for ages to come! Did you really believe you wouldn’t have to pay for that?”
Variss cringed. His face betrayed his fear, he was certain that he was about to die. Chaerius reared back his head, opening his mouth. A white light shone from out of his throat. The dragon dropped down, engulfing the man before him in a white blast.
When it had faded, Variss still stood where he was, completely unharmed, and somewhat bewildered. Chaerius smirked to himself, actually glad that humans didn’t know that dragons cast ALL spells from their mouths, not just destructive ones. Frightening the man like that was the least that the dragon wished to do to him, but it was well within his authority.
“I have bound you to the Fate of Ra’grathon!” he boomed, “you and your entire line! You will forever feel the need to be working in the interest of the Light, and no longer towards your own ends! Perhaps your decedents will have more foresight than you’ve shown.”
Variss stared dumbly, but Chaerius had already finished with him. The dragon turned to Catherine, who had stood and was watching what was happening. She was obviously somewhat intimidated by the dragon still, yet she showed no signs of backing down. “You, girl,” Chaerius said curtly, “I have a task for you as well. The Keeper is gone, there are none to watch over the sword, and despite the task I have just given him, I would not trust it in this man’s hands alone. I place Ra’grathon in your care. Watch over it until you find the person to whom you must pass it.” This was a bold move. The dragon’s decree effectively made Catherine the sword’s new Keeper. And while Fate did not give her the abilities that Keepers held, she would still have sway since she was, in effect, the leader of the Light.
Yet despite the honor the dragon had given her, Catherine looked distant. It was not enough to replace what she’d lost.
She nodded to Chaerius, accepting the duty, though it was clear from her expression that the power and prestige of the position were not what was on her mind. She would protect the sword for the sake of protecting the sword, and nothing more.
Chaerius nodded solemnly. “Our time here is done,” he said, “I have matters to attend to, and must depart, but I will never be far away.” This last he directed towards Variss. The magical bonds he’d placed on the man were relatively light, and easily broken. It would depend more on how much the man believed and feared him whether or not it would actually work.
Without any further words, Chaerius stalked past them all then and left. There was nothing more he could do for any of them. They would have to gather themselves and go back to their lives as best they were able, which would be hard for some. Though the battle was very short, much happened in that time.
Once free of the crumbling garrison, Chaerius spread his wings wide and launched himself into the sky. His work was not yet finished. He had one more person to speak with...
He flew a great distance, and it was well after dark before he landed on a deserted mountain top. It was not the location itself that he sought, but the solitude it offered. It was only in such a place that he would be able to reach the one he was searching for.
The dragon knew very little of Fate’s plans for the world, but he knew that she had not intended for Jeric to die so soon. Nor did she ever intend for Ra’yl to replace him. It was all a mess. Because of this mistake, the Light had a Guardian who was outside of Fate’s influence. Normally, her pull could keep them on course, like a branch caught up in a stream, but Ra’yl was completely out of the current. They had no control over him.
Chaerius lifted his head and called out “Fate! I need to speak with you!”
The night air was still for a few moments, then a light, musical voice drifted into his thoughts. “Chaerius, my servant. Why do you call so urgently?”
He turned his head to see a vision of a beautiful young woman next to him. This was Fate, though she did not always appear young and beautiful, Chaerius knew her well enough by now to recognize her in any form she chose. He was a little taken aback by her question, however, did she truly need to ask why he was calling for her? “You know the situation?” he queried.
She nodded soberly, “Yes, this is a terrible turn for everything. The Dark will see it as a blessing, of course, for they will now have the upper hand, but allowing either side to gain too much power is dangerous.”
“What about Ra’yl?” Chaerius spoke up almost stubbornly, “He’s served you faithfully, my lady. He even turned back the Dark from gaining the upper hand in this conflict. Surely you cannot simply toss him aside.”
If she noticed or cared about his tone, she didn’t show it, merely continuing in the same flat voice, “I will not shun him, dear Chaerius, he is now one of my Guardians after all, but my influence on him and his path are now next to nothing. I can neither help him nor harm him, and by association-”
“Your aid to the Light as a whole will diminish as well, I know,” Chaerius finished wearily.
“I will do what I can to keep the Dark stable,” Fate went on, “but my power has its limits. You know as well as I that the paths I set out are not absolute. Though I may guide a man towards the proper path, it is still his choice to take it. If their thoughts become too charged, there will be little I can do. You must be more careful from now on.”
Chaerius started to speak up again, but Fate had decided the conversation was at an end and vanished before he could say a word. Typical, the dragon thought, feeling slightly put-out, she sees things only as they will effect her plans for the world. I suppose that is proper for her, but there is a problem of a much smaller focus that needs to be addressed, and she will never have enough interest to do so.
The dragon hung his head. It was a very difficult thing to be a Keeper. It was demanding both physically and mentally. Even so, it was a far more difficult thing to be one of Fate’s Guardians.
...No one should have to endure being both...
EPILOGUE: Katherine's Duty
Written by: Lissibith
It was a strange word, she thought as she sat alone in her room, staring at the sword that used to be both less and much, much more to her. The red gem in the hilt glittered like a falling tear. It was funny, all the ways a weapon could take people from your life. It might be their weapon, leading them out to great and terrible deeds of war. It might be the one to take their lives, cutting open the seal of their flesh and draining their blood, red as that stone, onto the ground.
So many ways…
Catherine couldn’t hate the sword, any more than she could hate Variss, any more than she could hate Fate herself. Hating them would not make this sword weigh less in her hands. Hating them would not bring him back. She’d heard that said so often, in histories, in stories, in losses of her own of less import.
But that made it worse, didn’t it? He would come back. She ran two fingers over the limited tracery on the hilt, around the edge of the stone and down the grip then back to the jewel again. He would come back one day, when all of them were dead, and he wouldn’t remember any of them. He wouldn’t remember his victory over the dark. He wouldn’t remember his friends, who gathered around him despite the odds he faced. He wouldn’t remember a mother whose brightest moments were those when she was watching her son grow into the man she hoped he would be. And he wouldn’t remember…
Her fingers leapt from the stone as though it shocked her. He wouldn’t remember her. She missed him terribly, an ache that settled throughout her and over her like a heavy cloth. She would never be free of that weight. He had been her best friend. He had been one of the bright stars in her life. And now he lay before her, trapped in a sword, and in another person’s role. So much of what he’d done could now be undone. And here he lay, dormant in cold stone and steel.
They said to act as though he had died. They said it would be better to mourn him as dead and consider him as such. She thought his mother might be doing just that, though Catherine didn’t think a mother would ever get over the loss of a son in any form. Others were doing so also – slowly coming to grips with what had happened and working through the numbness of it all. She couldn’t though. She held the sword, held the role he should have fulfilled. It stayed with her all the time, a constant reminder of who she lost.
And it would stay with her, every hour. She had already decided that. It would not be put up, or kept away. It would go where she went, see what she saw. She could not call him forth, but she could keep him with her – the memory of him and the last vestiges of what he had been.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the sword.
That, at least, she could do.