A man walks alone, nothing more than shadow amongst decay of a battle long lost. In his left hand is a spear, broken and cold. Like the man it is brittle and worn from his time in the dark. In his right hand there is nothing. His gifts are spent now, well before the end. Around him lie those he’d fought, laughed, and cried with countless times. Faces old and new litter the ground like the red leaves of fall. Their colors, crimson bursts mixed with mud, snow, and steel glowed amidst a steady rain. Bodies piled atop one another served as islands in this ocean while others bobbled in filth. They stare at him, the faces, eyes, and mouths agape in horror at the sight of death coming to claim his debt. Man does not die in peace, but deliverance.
A few stir, begging for help, yet none comes. It did not come for the poor man and will not for the broken. The man keeps walking. He dares not look at his reflection, merely a fleeting image marred across pools of vile water where the lost dwell. These holes dot the landscape like so many craters of the moon, carved from the earth not by gods but fire and metal. In spite of the silver sun no light shines here. Weapons, both whole and not, cover the ground like snowflakes. He lost his own weapon soon after the first clash, unwillingly taken by one of many who stood in his way that day.
The man keeps walking. Dark gray clouds hang overhead, a canopy, no, a thick blanket behind which the sun lies broken. Although a storm progresses overhead, he cannot hear it. His eyes bear witness to the aftermath of reckless hate, a storm of his own making. But still he cannot hear. Not the echoing thunder overhead nor the distant howling of wolves. Such things lie hidden under cool raindrops. Steady and disciplined, the plinking melody on his blood-soaked shirt is all he knows. The water does its part to scrub away the blood and grime, but it cannot remove what taints his heart. That darkness weighs like the vultures circling overhead, choosing their meal from the abundance below.
The man keeps walking. He cannot hear. His ripped cloak flutters in the wind. Called by some as too flashy for the coming battle, it’s yellow and green tint is jaded from the ravages of war. He’d worn it in the hopes it’d make him easier to see, easier for him to be found. A way to make things quick. A way for their game to end. Their laughter echoed like water in a cave, empty and belonging to the shadows. Their cries on the field, however, those rang with a repugnant intensity. Each raindrop bore a cry, each cry a tear. A hand reaches out and clasps his leg. The man continues on and it falls into the deep. He does not look back to see who it belongs to. He does not want to. Off in the distance, a crow sits atop a bashed skull, feeding on what used to be a face. But now there is nothing, and there will be nothing. Continuing his labored pace, the man is in a desperate search for something only he knows.
The man keeps walking. Wreckage and devastation stretch on for miles across broken ground. For days a struggle so great the history books would forget what took place here raged. Plain, forest, sky, and the stars thundered from beginning to end. Men and monsters fought side by side under his gaze. His words were theirs to drink, commands directives for which to die. They fought to change fate itself. A supreme effort in the face of utter calamity that drew too great a price. What good is life if it leads only to death? Those lucky enough to have died early drew the envy of their comrades. Few stood by the end, and even fewer lived enough to see it. What was now existed past the end, a brief fracture where endings and beginnings are the same. A place that neither souls innocent nor damned will enter, but only leave.
One such soul he happens across, a banner clasped tightly against the wind. The man calls out to him but cannot hear his own words. When he reaches out to clasp the banner-man’s shoulder, lightning flashes overhead. The man recoils in shock at the sight of a bowling ball-sized hole where the banner-man’s gut should be. His innards, or rather what’s left, hang like vines. Without so much as a brush of wind, the banner-man falls. Like thousands before and countless after, lost in darkness, embraced by the cold hands of death. The man watches a crow land atop the corpse and stare his way. Its head twitches as if daring him to move. When the man does not, the crow flies away.
“There you are,” a voice thunder’s from above. The man blinks for now he can hear. Lifting his weary eyes toward the sky, he sees another stranger in the air. At the sight of this newcomer’s vile expression, he clasps his spear so hard it shatters. A shard three inches long pierces his hand, protruding out the other side. The pain sharpens his senses, giving focus for what must be done. He tries to respond but manages a mere growl like a wild animal.
“I must say it took a while to find you. Been damn near three days since I showed up. After what, a week of this hell? I figured your people would’ve broke, but I’ll admit, you put up a hell of a fight. For that I honor you.”
Able to at last speak, the man’s words are no more than a croak. “You…Did you not fight alongside those who followed you? Those who drank your promises like water from golden lips?”
“Why bother when victory was assured from the beginning?”
To this, the man says nothing. Satisfied, his companion whispers, “Of course, if you had cast aside your pride, things might’ve turned out differently.”
Such a remark leaves the man, like his spear, shattered. Shattered, but not lost. How can he be when in sight of his goal, his mission? Strength returns to his limbs and he thrusts out a hand. In a flash of light an elegant sword appears, its blade the color of pure starlight and hilt a dark purple sash wrapped around plain wood. The blade, shaped like a katana, has three hooks built into its edge, reminders of the three oaths he took. The man takes hold of the weapon and assumes a fighting stance. Before him lies the chance to finally end this.
If his display is meant to intimidate his opponent, it does not. The man watches his opponent raise his left hand, and with a flick of the wrist, the rain stops. Four individuals, buried under many identical layers of cloth and wrappings, appear out of thin air.
“They aren’t ready,” the man whispers. “They’ll never be.”
“Have faith. Of course they aren’t now, but why?”
“I’m not having this argument with you again,” the man replies. Holding up his blade, he fights back a bout of nausea. The others all notice and one, the biggest, dives toward him.
From underneath his cloak eight chains emerge. Blades like festival streamers in the summer breeze flutter. The man leaps back as the blades give chase. Bones, flesh, and steel are crushed underfoot with every landing. The others above watch in silence, their interest purely that of observing his fighting style. Pressed backward again and again, the man finally cries out, “ENOUGH!”
Suddenly it is his opponent’s turn to jump back as the air grows still. He looks back toward his master, hoping that it might be his doing. The dread he sees confirms it to not be so. The man holds up his blade and mutters a chant under his breath. Golden light envelops his sword while a distant rumbling fills the sky. He spread his feet apart, sword in front. The light pulses with each word, growing brighter to match the rumblings rhythm. Having realized what, the man planned to do, the other cried out, “stop him!”
His followers rush forward, shadows engulfing everything but the man’s sword. A wave of fluorescent light blue magic bursts forth from the guard. So pure is this, the assailants look away lest they go blind. The void above parts to reveal a woman looming over them. Her body, an ebony color with lines of blue traced across it, vibrates with power. She looks down at him, her face obscured by a dazzling light, and the man smiles.
“You…YOU MADE ANOTHER ONE!”
“Of course. Or did you forget Bertrum?”
The man says Bertrum’s name with disdain. He chose to not play this card earlier at great cost. Now, at the end, he is determined to finish. Bertrum, rage overcoming reason, drops to the ground and charges. The man waits calmly, in total control now, for him to close the gap. In one quick motion he grabs the sword and cuts Bertrum across his face and chest. White blood splatters across the sky, the droplets scatter amidst the still downpour. His compatriots, paralyzed by fear, are knocked aside by the woman above. When all is said and done, the man flexes his right hand. The sword and woman both disappear.
The man looks down at Bertrum but quickly realizes that it isn’t him. In his place is the bannerman from earlier. Atop him sits the crow, head cocked to one side. Raindrops roll down his cheeks, hiding tears of frustration. No record of what occurred just now can be seen. It is as it is and will be. Falling to his knees, the man roars in agony to the heavens above.
The Second Age – Year 284