A Legend is Born
The green haze that had settled on the kingdom of Altenbyrne during the second month of the siege moved sluggishly in the breeze. It was just before dawn. The foreign army stirred outside the city wall in anticipation of the poisonous fog doing their dirty work.
Keenan shifted nervously, waiting for his summons. He was Altenbyrne’s gatekeeper, like his father before him, and only he could open the magical Gates of Exilium that allowed passage through the city wall. His services would be needed soon, as King Searle couldn’t put off an offensive for much longer. The Altenbyrne army had been pent up for weeks and was itching for a fight, despite being vastly outnumbered. Tension hung in the air almost thicker than the fog.
Sitting astride his steed at the head of his army, King Searle beckoned Keenan forward. Keenan took a deep breath and immediately regretted it. The chalky film that coated his tongue tasted of rot. For some, like Keenan, the more serious effects of the toxic air hadn’t yet taken hold. But for others, like his young son, simply breathing was becoming a chore.
King Searle met Keenan at the wall. He was an older man, though still fit, with tough, leathery skin. “It is time, gatekeeper,” he said.
Keenan stepped up to the stone and mortar. His eyes rolled back, and his lips moved as if they had their own free will. He spoke foreign words even he did not understand, perhaps sent by the gods themselves. A thin ribbon of light shaped like a great gateway wide enough for ten men riding abreast to pass through formed in the face of the Wall. The last words he spoke were the only ones in his native tongue: “Open the Gates of Exilium.” The stones within the light shimmered out of existence. With a nod to the king, he passed through the magical gate.
The darkness of predawn combined with the green haze to severely limit visibility. But while he couldn’t see the enemy camp he knew was crowding the riverbank, the enemy also couldn’t see the force creeping out to meet them. Surprise was the key. Keenan’s unit of one hundred men headed for the edge of the camp. As the gatekeeper, Keenan wouldn’t usually march out to battle, but if Altenbyrne didn’t win the day there would be no more use for gates anyway.
Keenan glanced back to see Altenbyrne’s barbarian allies from the kingdom’s western edge pour through the gates next. With each barbarian soldier standing several heads taller than a man and three times as thick, the disadvantage of numbers would hopefully be minimized. Keenan only wished there were more than a couple hundred of them. Even with the rest of King Searle’s army following the barbarians through Exilium, the numbers were still more lopsided than expected.
But now was not the time for idle wishes; they had reached the camp. Keenan’s heart beat frantically against his sternum. An enemy guard stumbled upon them, releasing a high-pitched whistle that sent the camp into a flurry before Keenan could strike him down. The early morning silence erupted into deafening chaos.
The enemy quickly regained their composure. Men fell with injuries so horrific that Keenan couldn’t process what he was seeing. One soldier wandered past looking for his severed hand, heedless of the battle raging around him. An enemy cut him down before Keenan could help. As Keenan fought forward, he tried desperately to shut out the wails of the dying and focus on where his blade would next land. There were too many of them. Most of Keenan’s unit fell within minutes.
An enemy soldier swung a sword at his head. Keenan parried, spun, and skewered his attacker. Another sword came from his right, and he batted it away. The onslaught was relentless. His arms seemed made of lead. His lungs felt bound in leather straps.
The enemy snorted like pigs as they fought. Locked in close combat, Keenan got his first look at their distorted faces. They lacked noses and lips, and their ears were mere slits on the sides of their heads. When they opened their mouths, black mesh stretched between their front teeth. They were the same creatures who had attacked Altenbyrne over a century ago. They had no name and had never tried to communicate, only conquer. After their defeat, the wall was built for protection against future invaders. Now to defeat the wall, the invaders brought the fog to which they seemed immune.
A battle ax whirled at his head. He arched backward and the ax barely missed his nose. Before he could straighten, his right side below his ribs erupted in fire. He dropped his sword and clutched at his side.
He felt the rough wooden shaft of a spear and his eyes fell on the snarling invader who held the other end. Keenan fell to his knees, suddenly cold and nauseous. The creature ripped his weapon free and turned to a new opponent. His carelessness told Keenan what he already knew: it was a mortal wound.
Blood gushing between his fingers, Keenan fell to his side. Another fallen warrior landed on top of him. And then another. And another, until he was buried beneath the dead and dying. He thought of his wife and son.
The pain slowly faded, as did his consciousness. The violent sounds of war grew muffled. As the warm blood of those piled above him flowed down his face, his eyes drifted shut. He couldn’t fight sleep any longer.
It was over.
* * * *
Keenan’s eyes blasted open. The weight of the dead bodies pinning him down was no longer crushing. A euphoric wave exploded through his chest. As he thrashed to free himself, the bodies tumbled and fell away. He reached for his wound and found a nasty purple scar in its place.
He breathed deep and looked around. The fighting had drifted toward the wall with Altenbyrne’s forces on the defensive. The barbarians fought to the north, plowing through the enemy and tossing their bodies aside like discarded trash. But even they were overwhelmed by the numbers. Before Keenan could move, a twisting, simmering sensation grabbed his gut and spread to his heart. His blood suddenly warmed. He collected a discarded sword and helmet and raced toward the melee. To protect Altenbyrne, he whispered the words that closed the Gates of Exilium.
Keenan’s arms felt strong and refreshed. With unnatural speed, he closed the distance. Some of the invaders turned to head him off, but Keenan wasn’t the same man they had tried to kill. He ducked and bobbed and spun almost without thought. His every thrust, his every swipe, was perfect and lethal. Not a single blade could get by his defenses, nor defend against him.
More and more invaders peeled away to meet him. He slaughtered them at will. Some of Searle’s men even stopped to watch. He didn’t acknowledge them as he charged headlong into the enemy, killing without mercy. He didn’t hear, or feel, or even tire.
The budding massacre shifted the other way. Keenan howled with delight. Even the barbarians paused to watch. He must have killed a hundred more invaders before he slowed just to soak in his triumph. His success grew contagious, sending King Searle’s men back into battle with renewed vigor.
Realizing the odds had drastically changed, the invaders swarmed over each other to retreat. King Searle lifted his sword, his face covered in blood. He thrust his weapon forward and cried, “Chaaaarge,” and his men gave chase.
Before Keenan could join them, King Searle waved him over. Keenan jammed his sword into the ground and knelt with bowed head.
“Rise up, gatekeeper,” King Searle ordered, his voice deep and authoritative.
Keenan rose with his head still bowed. “Your Majesty.”
“I am beyond impressed with your skills in battle.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Where did you come by them?”
Keenan tilted his head and thought hard before answering. “I do not know, Your Majesty. They just seemed to … come to me.”
“You have given us a great victory today. According to the histories, the last time these same invaders attacked the fighting reached the city and did extensive damage. I’d say my ancestors’ investment in building the wall was a worthy one, wouldn’t you?”
“I would. Even with their new fog weapon, they still failed.”
“Because of you, gatekeeper.”
Keenan shied away from the praise. “With the enemy defeated, the green fog should clear up soon, no?”
The king did not answer right away. He was gazing pensively at a green bulb with a twisting root lying in the dirt. It was called a costa fruit, a common weed and the bane of Altenbyrne farmers and gardeners. The invaders had brought them in by the wagonload. Keenan knew not what they wanted with the foul things. Since they were able to breathe poison, perhaps they could eat it too.
The king shook his head slowly. “I’m afraid it’s not that easy. This fog was created by their damned wizard.”
“A wizard? I hadn’t heard that. Then we must find him.”
“It’s no use. He sacrificed his life to create the fog in a foul ritual. The curse is irreversible.”
A thousand possibilities raced through Keenan’s mind, most of them bad. “Then we should flee to where the fog doesn’t reach. I will help you evacuate the cit—”
The king cut him off. “No. That will not work either. In the early days of the fog, we sent scouts past the enemy lines in search of clean air. Only one of them survived. He said there is no end to the fog, and deadly creatures hunt within it. There is nowhere to flee to.”
Keenan’s shoulders slouched. “But we have to do something. I hear of people already starting to succumb to the poison.”
“I have heard that as well.” King Searle put his hand on Keenan’s shoulder. “I will gather our best doctors and scientists and together we will find a cure. I will do anything to keep my people safe in the city. Anything.”
Keenan nodded. “How can I help?”
King Searle gave him a grim smile. “First, you can finish off the invaders.”
Keenan hesitated. “But … they’re already broken and fleeing. They’re no longer a threat.”
“That’s what our ancestors thought. I don’t want them coming back a third time.”
Keenan nodded. “Very well, Your Majesty.”
“Godspeed to you, Keenan. Once you have finished annihilating them, you may return to your family. I will come for you soon.”
“I believe I can make further use of your skills.”
“Anything you wish, Your Majesty.”
Keenan led King Searle’s army to slaughter hundreds—if not thousands—more that day.
* * * *
During the weeks after the war, the poisonous fog started taking lives. First, nearly all the animals of the kingdom died. Then some of the young and elderly. Keenan’s ten-year-old son, Crighton, was one of the victims. The day after his only child’s death, his grief-stricken wife took her own life when Keenan left her alone briefly to arrange Crighton’s funeral.
Within a week of their funeral, King Searle announced the development of a “miracle lifemask” that would stave off the effects of the poison fog. Keenan was too racked with sorrow to attend the announcement.
While staring at the wall and wondering what he had done to deserve such pain, two soldiers arrived on his front stoop. A royal carriage waited in the street, one of the few remaining horses in the kingdom wheezing slightly in the harness.
“What is it?” Keenan asked.
“The king would like to have a few words,” one of them answered.
“I am in mourning. I’m not fit to meet with the king today.”
“It’s not a request, sir,” the soldier replied.
Keenan sighed, pulled the door shut behind him, and followed them to the king’s carriage. A dozen or more soldiers were surrounding it. The door was already open, so Keenan climbed in.
King Searle sat in a plush seat with his arms crossed.
“To what do I owe this great honor, Your Majesty?”
“I wondered if you’d heard about the lifemasks I’ve created?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t get them done soon enough to save your son.”
Keenan stared down at his hands and said nothing.
“We developed them as quickly as we could. It pains me deeply that we lost so many before …”
“I know. I understand.”
“I am truly sorry for your loss, Keenan.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. I fear I may never fully recover.”
The king gripped Keenan’s shoulder in sympathy.
“Is this all you came to tell me, Your Majesty?”
King Searle’s forehead creased slightly. “Right to the point, eh? Very well. As we no longer have much use for gatekeepers, I have a proposition for you.”
The king smiled. “I’ve chosen you to enforce my laws within Altenbyrne. Your word will become the final judgement on all crimes committed within the kingdom. This is a good opportunity for you, Keenan. It’ll help you move past your tragedy.”
Keenan didn’t know how to answer, so he sat quietly.
“My army will become your peacekeeping force. You will use them to police the districts.”
Keenan lifted his eyes. “Why me?”
“I think you know. I will never forget the sight of you descending on the invaders like an avenging angel. You have a talent no man has ever displayed before. We need that talent to impose law and order. Besides, you can’t just sit around and mourn for the rest of your life.”
“It’s only been a week, Your Majesty.”
“I understand that. But I’m leaving for a while and I need you.”
“Leaving? Where are you going?”
“My family will be taking up residence in the north beyond the prison.”
“Outside the wall?”
The king nodded. “That is where we found the resources to make the lifemasks. The fog creatures don’t venture there. My castle is being built into the face of a mountain where I may monitor the lifemask factory I’m having constructed. That is where my family will dedicate our lives to finding a permanent solution to the deadly fog, no matter how many generations it takes.”
Keenan looked down and picked absently at his thumbnail. Finally, he raised his head to meet the king’s gaze. “If this is what you command, Your Majesty.”
“Then I cannot refuse.” Keenan had nothing else to live for anyway. “I will not fail you, Your Majesty.”
“I know you won’t, Keenan.” King Searle opened the carriage door and waved for Keenan to step outside. Once he did, King Searle followed, groaning and hobbling on stiff, tired knees. “Don’t ever get old,” he said as he straightened. The soldiers formed parallel lines on either side of Keenan and King Searle. The king unsheathed his sword. “Kneel before me, Keenan.”
Keenan did as commanded.
King Searle touched his blade to Keenan’s left shoulder. “Keenan, son of Toriac the gatekeeper.” He lifted the blade and touched his right shoulder. “From this day forward, you will be known as …” He paused and then smiled. “As the Angel of Justice.” His words hung heavy in the green haze. “Now, rise up, my Angel.”
Keenan stood tall and proud. He felt invincible.
King Searle regarded him for a moment and nodded approvingly. “As my Angel of Justice, you will have only two rules to govern you. First, you will enforce every law my family puts forward without question.”
“I can do that.”
“And second, you will never allow anyone, yourself included, to travel north of the prison walls or leave Altenbyrne under any circumstances, except by orders from me or my family. We must not be disturbed in our research. Is that understood?”
Keenan nodded. He had no interest in traveling outside the wall anyway. He looked back to his home and felt another wave of sadness.
The king followed his eyes. “Listen to me, Keenan. Justice never grieves. Is that understood?”
Keenan bowed his head in assent.
King Searle patted his shoulder and then climbed back into the carriage. He looked out before closing the door. “Do my work well, Keenan.”
A deep, lingering anger painted a scowl across Keenan’s face. He had spent weeks feeling helpless and impotent as the fog worked its vile curse. Though he had defeated the enemy, they had still succeeded in destroying nearly everything he loved. He would never forgive them, and he would never forget how hard King Searle was working to save his people. He used his rage to smother his grief. Then he locked eyes with the king.
“Is there something else, Keenan?”
Keenan’s mouth twisted with resolve. “There is no more Keenan. I am the Angel of Justice.”