“The High Council would never condone the absence of not only their king but the lord protector as well. You know this, Alwyn.” Borus Kalenthos stood defiantly against the cold of the night. Remnants of an ancient building lay sprawled out before them among fresh mounds of loose soil. The recently excavated site was a chilling reminder of a dark period in the history of the Ellandorians that witnessed a catastrophic loss of life across their entire world.
“Precisely - which is why they don’t need to know. The queen is perfectly capable of handling my duties with the Council.” Nemendes wore a grim face that was almost as dark as the seamless, black armor he wore. “I must see this threat with my own eyes.”
Lord Protector Borus Kalenthos released a long sigh. “Are you certain there’s no other way?”
“We must stop the corruption from the breach before it spreads any further.” The king, Borus’ oldest friend, glanced across the plaza at the company of men and women who awaited their return. “The Keepers of the Stone say there’s precious little time to waste – especially in endless debates with the Council. The time for action is now. Are you prepared?”
“You already know the answer to that. Is there even a slight chance the Keepers are mistaken?”
Alwyn gave Borus a sidelong glance. “Are you truly willing to take that risk? Remember, they dedicate their lives to understanding the Abyssal Stone, studying every nuance of it, every flicker of the flame.” He gave him a chiding smirk. “I also know you would have conducted your own research and drawn the same conclusion; otherwise, you wouldn't be here.”
He already knew the king spoke the truth but still needed to hear it from Alwyn’s lips. Borus shook his head lightly as he gazed upon the scholars milling about restlessly under the light of Ellandor’s brilliant blue moon. “I realize there are no other viable options.” He gestured toward the dig site. “I wanted to speak with you about High Councilor Sallus. I think he suspects our plan.”
The king shrugged. “As he should. Wouldn’t be particularly good at his job if he didn’t. He’ll get over it.”
“I’m concerned he won’t agree to let us pass through the portal.”
Alwyn released a short burst of laughter, causing Borus to straighten indignantly as the king spoke. “That’s your concern?” Alwyn appraised him with a sidelong glance. “There’s not a single person I know who could stop you going where you want. Certainly, none here.”
He could not help but grin at his friend’s words. Borus often took for granted that his considerable size and legendary strength was unmatched in all Ellandor. “This is true.”
“Of course, it is,” the king replied with that mischievous Nemendes grin Borus had come to know. “You did the research. Are you confident in what you found? Are you certain this is the path we must take?”
He grimaced as he searched for the right words. “The old Keeper, the one with the birthmark on his face…”
“Elias,” Alwyn offered.
“Yes, Elias. With my permission, he sifted through the ancient archives and confirmed the source.” Borus withdrew a folded piece of paper from a pouch on his hip and held it before the King. “The master archivist found the glyph combination for us. This is where we must go.”
Alwyn touched a glyph on his left bracer, causing a seamless helmet to fold upwards from the base of his neck and form around his entire head, covering his darkening visage. The covering also modulated his voice to one that could not be easily identified – even among family. “Seems the only option is to charge straight toward the heart and put an end to this. Let’s not keep the others waiting any longer.”
The two lifelong friends crossed the rocky plaza to rejoin the others. Borus spotted the impatient squint and long frown from Sallus as they strolled toward the new arrivals. High Councilor Onar appeared bored, most likely looking forward to breaking open some bottles of Braethian wine at the palace, Borus thought.
Sallus stepped forward, hands clasped behind his back. “Lord Protector? Are you going to explain why we’ve been summoned from our beds and brought out here in the middle of the night?”
Borus suppressed a smile as the short noble puffed out his chest indignantly. “This way, Councilors.”
He led them up a nearby set of marble steps cut into a steep hill to a flat circle of stone. At the summit rested a curious table of black metal, smooth as glass. A pedestal had been erected on one side of the table to display a rough-hewn, egg-shaped stone. An unnatural blue flame engulfed it, radiating an icy chill to the surrounding air. Borus nodded to the Keeper standing nearby.
Sallus and the others studied the Abyssal Stone from the other side of the table. The attendants who accompanied them to the site, and two scholars, remained at the bottom of the stairs. Their apprehension was evident as they focused their gazes on the dark artifact.
“Why has this dangerous relic been removed from the citadel?” Sallus demanded. Borus noticed the High Councilor had a bead of sweat forming on his brow as he glanced nervously between the burning stone and the lord protector.
Keeper Elias cleared his throat. “If I may.” Borus nodded for him to continue. “Something has corrupted the energy of the stone. We must quickly find the source before it spreads to our lands.” Borus noticed the man self-consciously hid a blackened hand beneath a sleeve of his thick, gray robe. It was not uncommon for Keepers who became complacent in their handling of it to lose fingers or more to the stone’s icy flames. “The voices we’ve always heard whispering to us have become nearly indecipherable and will only continue to worsen.”
Sallus frowned. “The voices?”
“Not in the sense that you or I have,” the Keeper explained. “When we, as Keepers, connect to the power of the stone, it speaks to us in the form of visions. It is our strong belief that the One Power communicates its intentions through them. These visions are written down and kept in the sacred archives. We have made many advancements from the knowledge the stone has imparted to us.”
Onar shook his head in disapproval. “Sounds like more superstitious nonsense to me,” he spat. “What concern is it of ours? Many on the High Council would see us done with this last vestige of the old ways.”
Elias paused before answering. “It matters because it upsets the balance of all the Realms. The Heart, known in the ancient tongue as Kohr, the confluence of all power, and the nexus of elemental energy, is being gravely afflicted by this corruption.” He paused to allow his words time to reach them. “We are all connected to the One Power. This poisoned well of energy could affect it in ways we could scarcely imagine, eventually causing irreparable harm to the fabric of our world - ending everything we know and love.”
“No,” Sallus retorted firmly, “if you mean to access the ancient portals, then I must object. Our people survived in peace on Ellandor for centuries, only because our predecessors refused to delve into the affairs of other realms.”
Borus already knew Sallus would oppose them. He was a strong opponent of the old ways - the time of the Travelers. “We must do something, regardless of risk. Whatever is causing the corruption is now threatening our world.”
“The relic, you mean,” Onar corrected him. “It threatens the stability of the Abyssal Stone. All else is conjecture. I would argue we no longer have any need for the stone. Centuries have passed since anything meaningful has come from it.”
The lord protector straightened, giving a stern glare to each councilor in turn. “Any other objections?”
Sallus glanced at the Twilight Vanguard as his lip curled up in disapproval. “I assume it would do little good. It appears your mind is already set to the task.”
“You still have the right to voice your concerns,” Borus offered. “Although, as you have astutely deduced, by my right as Lord Protector, I have enacted the Twilight Contingency Protocol for the security and protection of Ellandor. It was not without deep thought and consideration of all arguments that I do this. I have consulted with the King, the Keepers, and learned sages to arrive at the singular conclusion that this is the only logical path for Ellandor. At my command, these four warriors and I will pass through the portal to where the Keepers believe the corruption originatesand lead a scouting party to the source. If we can’t close the breach on-site, we’ll return with our findings and consult the Council for a solution...”
Stannis, the Vanguard leader, pounded a closed fist to his chest as he drew himself to attention before Borus, High Commander and Lord Protector. “We will not fail you.”
Onar lifted a hand bearing ornate rings, then absently waved it through the air in resignation. “Very well. See it done.”
The four warriors stood at the ready, prepared to carry out their quest. Borus noted that they had armed themselves with the best weapons and protections the architects of Ellandor had to offer. A powerful arsenal tuned to various Realms of Power, to be used only in the direst of times. He had hoped they would never be called upon in his lifetime.
King Nemendes, now included in their ranks, maintained his anonymity, clad in the same sleek armor as the others. It was forbidden to inquire about their true identities, which made it ideal for Alwyn to hide among them. The High Council tasked the Twilight Vanguard with protecting all of Ellandor and would never allow the king to travel to another world without support. Only the king and his lord protector were privy to the names of those soldiers who served them.
“This is absurd,” Sallus growled. “What do these soldiers know of being Travelers? They shall do naught but put us at more risk. Real risk. And if this was your intent, why was it not brought before the Council?”
Lord Protector Kalenthos met his gaze with calm resolve. “That will be your responsibility now. I expect the two of you to let the Council know what takes place here.”
“I will do no such thing. This duty falls to the king and the king alone.” The councilor’s face grew crimson with outrage.
“Why us?” Onar interrupted. His fat fingers tapped impatiently at his belt.
“Because I will be traveling with them, and someone must report everything that transpired. That duty falls to you.”
The wind whispering through the trees was deafening in the silence. The high councilors were, at last, at a loss for words.
Borus raised his hand, holding the document from the Keepers to get confirmation from Alwyn to proceed. His friend gave the nod, and he turned his attention to the dark, metal table. Waving his hand over the black surface brought it to life with a surge of power that illuminated rows of symbols in a language older than Ellandor. Borus began touching them in the order given to him by the Star Scriber.
“I beg you to stop this madness. You must at least have the authorization of the king!”
Tapping the last symbol caused them all to pulse as if waiting for more. Borus saw Sallus step toward him from the corner of his eye, then turned in time to watch as one of the Twilight Vanguard moved between them.
“Do not open that portal.”
“I understand your fear, Sallus, but we must boldly confront whatever is waiting on the other side of this portal -not cower from the phantoms of the mind. The decision has been made.”
King Nemendes stepped up to the black slab and placed his hand on the end panel, opposite where the Lord Protector put his. The air shimmered, raising the hair on Borus’ arms. A hole in the fabric of the world ripped open above the nearby circle of stone, revealing a dark scene full of rock and crimson skies beyond.
A metallic object struck the ground and rolled toward the portal. Borus recognized the glowing device as an attenuating orb. Crafted for the Twilight Vanguard, they were designed to release a surge of radiant energy drawn from the surrounding area to incapacitate large crowds. Borus knew the device was merely a non-lethal weapon, but there was no way to predict what it would do if mixed with the massive amount of power expended by the portal generator.
His head turned abruptly to the councilor. “What have you done?”
“What should have been done a long time ago. Destroy the portal.”
Borus watched as the unstable blue orb rolled closer to the tear between worlds. Tendrils of energy reached out toward the humming portal, which in turn seemed to stretch with its own red light to meet it. One of the Twilight Vanguard attempted to intercept the orb, kicking it away from the portal. It landed amidst the others, with the hum escalating while sparking dangerously with blue and red energy.
“Everyone, run,” the king shouted, preparing to dive for the screaming object that now lay at Onar’s feet.
Borus felt the building energy pull at his core. Something was terribly wrong. The orb was designed to draw a limited amount of energy from the radiant realm. However, it appeared to be siphoning energy directly from the portal – an unknown dark power, enhancing it far beyond its intended design, as well as capacity. There was no time to think, only act. The king’s safety was all that mattered.
Grabbing hold of Alwyn’s arm, Borus jerked him away from the pulsating orb and flung the king headlong through the portal using his considerable strength. There was no opportunity to save anyone else. The others either stood in shock, ran for their lives, or hollered warnings as the orb reached its limit. Leaping with all his might, the lord protector dove through after the king. Before he breached the portal, he felt the searing heat of the explosion, and the impact of an energy wave launched him through the air. Rock and other debris tore at his legs and back as he tumbled violently into the alien world. And then, all went dark.