© Rodney Cox
I can feel them coming; out there, beyond the periphery of the mountains. They come in force, almost a hundred in number, moving fast. In a few precious minutes they will be upon my citadel, and I will join them. And, then, things will be decided whether I prevail or fall.
As I stare out this window, questions rise out of the ocean of my mind and trouble me. I wonder how events could have led to this day. It seems almost inconceivable, my dear Manda. This had never been my intention and I feel as though my life has twisted out of shape. My vision had been so clear, so very clear.
I stand, wrapped in my power, letting it ripple over me. Ah, yes, the power. One can never get around that. It is there, bright, radiant, and utterly responsive. Power has shaped my life even as my life has been to shape power. I am inextricably linked with it. Perhaps it, more than anything, has brought me along this path, my destiny if you will. It's strange though, I never believed in destiny before.
Manda, my long departed wife, if you could look at what I've become; what would you think? Would you even recognize me? Whatever I am it started as a noble cause, a divine quest. I am tired. Leaning forward, I rest my hands on the stone sill, and close my eyes a moment. I fade, leaving the chamber empty, reappearing in my trophy room. Here is where I keep the memories of my past glories. Each piece is a stepping stone to power.
I pick up a staff, my first tool. How crude it seems to me now. It had been at the age of thirteen when I had presented my staff to my father, who was also my teacher. It had represented a year's work; shaping it by hand, the endowment of energy into it. I was proud of what I had done. It established me as a true mage.
"Have you finished your three days of fast and preparation?" my father had asked.
"Yes, I have." It was a time-honored tradition.
"Has the staff been properly constructed?"
"And is your heart pure? Is your will strong?"
"My heart is pure and my will is strong," I replied.
"Then let the binding begin."
He took me to the Ritual Chamber. My heart, although pure, was beating very fast. I was nervous. I wanted so much to be worthy of the power. Our footsteps echoed through the marble halls as we past the unblinking mage lights set along the wall. Using relaxation formulas, I tried to calm myself, although they didn’t seem to help much..
At last we entered the Ritual Chamber. I was familiar with its walls and mystical decorations thoroughly, for I had received my training here. Today, however the room seemed different and I wondered if I had ever been here before. There was an aura of power and antiquity that I never noticed since that day.
My father began the ceremony, his voice clean and strong. It was an old ritual of binding handed down from father to son since the beginning of memory. The staff that I had constructed would become a part of me. It would aid me in the channeling of arcane energy. As the words washed over me, I felt lifted up. I was becoming something more than I had been. Soon I would belong to an elite group of women and men that could make miracles happen. I was elated, as it had been a lifelong dream of mine to follow in my father’s footsteps.
As the ritual began to close, a soft light filled the room. It spun gently around us and gradually settled upon me and the staff I held. It then was absorbed by us. I felt a surge of power through me and had to close my eyes at the intensity as my legs felt weak and I fell to the ground, trembling. When I could stand, I was a mage. I can still vividly recall that day as though I were walking down that marble corridor now.
There are other staves here, most taken from the dead hands of rival opponents. Others, though, are all that remain of companions, friends fallen along the way. I grieve for them sometimes for they deserved to last longer. But what power builds up, it also consumes.
Holding my former staff, I remember back to the days before the Enemy descended upon us, when I was only an ordinary mage. Well, as ordinary as a wizard could be. I was moderately powerful, had few enemies, and possessed time to conduct my arcane research. It was a good life but there was always the need for more. More knowledge, more power, more control. It is a requisite for the role, this need for what is beyond oneself. This is not an unhealthy desire, for we all want a better life.
The need for control had been great. The world was full of wild magic that one had to tame to one's will. It required unity of body, mind, and spirit into a single blazing entity. The mage created ordered form from nothingness. Mine was a good life, yet still I had ambition.
I recalled the day I proposed to my Manda. It had been a lovely day, with clear skies and warm breezes. We had planned a picnic in the nearby forests and I had the engagement ring all ready.
A knock came at my door. I was in a moderate house in Taquala, an average port city, making my living performing magic for others who needed it. Even as I answered it, my enhanced senses informed me of the identity of the guest. It was, of course my Manda. Hurrying to answer, I soon found her at my threshold. She was radiant in a soft blue summer dress that accentuated her beautiful eyes. Everything about her was perfect, at least to me. But then I was in love.
"I heard that there was a young man seeking company on a picnic living here," she had said.
"You've come to the right place, beloved," I answered.
After gathering the basket of food and drink we sauntered to the stables where our horses were kept. I attempted to keep the conversation light so as not to arouse suspicion in her mind of my plans. Although I had always considered myself an adequate actor, I feared that Manda could sense my nervous excitement. Years later, she had confided that she had thought that it wasn't simply an ordinary picnic.
We rode at a leisurely pace out of town and into the forested hillsides. It was a perfect time. Our horses were well-mannered and the woods smelled delicious. We were surrounded by beauty. Even now, that memory still possesses a refreshing quality that is of great worth to me.
In this room are prizes of conquest. Items gathered through long years of conflict. They are more than physical things. Their meaning runs deep and is all tied together by one common thread: Myself. Individually they may be bright, or fanciful prized baubles. Together, however, they are the sum of my experience. They are the trials I have faced that have made me the man I am. Talgrim. Talgrim the Savior turned Talgrim the Destroyer.
One may wonder how one man may be a saver of life, and a giver of death. It is a question most complicated and one that I still ponder. How does one fall from such a lofty pinnacle into such a depthless abyss? Perhaps if I had understood that, men would not fear and despise me as they do. Perhaps my name would not be a curse.
Thinking this, I come upon the Skull. It is mammoth and takes up much of the room. This is the reason for all of it. Years ago a threat came to this world; powerful, ruthless, utterly alien. That had been an evil day, when the Enemy came upon us. I had been married for only a couple of years to my sweet Manda, and living in the capital city of Heireen. The sun had been blotted out at the behemoth shape of the Foe came into our skies. A sickness of body and spirit came over all who watched it fly above us. It has a strange shape that was difficult to comprehend. To look at it for long periods gave way to madness. It passed on into the West. Soon reports began to reach us of the devastation it wrought. Whole towns were being obliterated and those who managed to survive were all insane.
We were forced to grow and adapt, to learn new techniques. I was one of the first of the new Wardens, leading my colleagues to victory against the threat. It took many sacrifices, but in the end we emerged intact. But then we had to, for to lose would have meant the destruction of our world and the death of every living thing.
How do I describe the process that we undertook? First it was pain, all consuming. And of course there was the gaining of power. But it was more than that. It was a death. No longer were we the simple magic-users wandering the planet performing simple miracles. We became a part of a power far beyond the comprehension of most mages. One is broken down and built up using energy as a base component. It is both agonizing and exhilarating. The whole universe moves with you and you are reborn. The process forever removed us from the ranks of human.
Drastic, but quite necessary. Did I not want more than I had? And I got it. But it was wondered by the Elders whether we would be able to control this power awakened in us. It was cautioned that we might become as great a threat as the Enemy had. But I was not concerned, for was my life not one of control and order? I could never become the Chaos that visited our world.
Yes, I stand in this place of shadows contemplating the skull of humankind's greatest foe. It is said that death is the end, but I feel that it is only a change. The Enemy came, promising us death. This thing was the living embodiment of destruction. From this came a new breed of power, a new life if you will.
It was beautiful, rising up in combat against the foe, energy bursting from me like a phoenix newly awakened. I was power. Ah, it was, is, a glorious thing to command. This is what mankind has been searching for. Control. Control over self and environment. Perfect and serene as a falling flake of snow. This is what it is to be human. And yet there is a desire for more in me, a yearning for those secrets I do not have.
It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what of the Gods? Are they absolutely, ultimately corrupt? If so, what kind of universe do we live in? Manda, you would answer that the Gods were created with that power in mind, humans weren't. Maybe so, but then I remember returning home to find you gone, only a lifeless body remaining. How Incorruptible is that? How I wish you were here to ease my pain.
And have I been corrupted by power? I do not know. Ask any of those who are on their way to eliminate me. I can guess as to what the answer would be. Gods, they are such weak fools. Of course to them power corrupts, but they are not afraid to use it against me. They are blind. Who will take my place? Who will be the next Talgrim, the Great Doom, Talgrim the Destroyer? I have brought order to these people and have attempted to bring order to their minds as well. In doing so, I am the inevitable result of the process we undertook.
Maybe power does corrupt, but it is a small price to pay for the benefits. I control an Empire that I created. For I had a vision of how glorious the world could be and I had the power to bring that vision into being. And I have not been afraid to bring that vision to life. Of course, there have been those anarchical few who rejected my empire, but they have been dealt with. I find it strange that among them were the same Elders who gave the Wardens their power.
I pass on from my Foe to another relic. It is the bleached and polished skeleton of a man. An ordinary person, really, possessing neither great power nor dangerous cunning. One might say that he, like the rest of humanity, showed great misfortune. It was he that was responsible for the death of my sweet, loving Manda. He crept into our dwelling looking for prizes of power while I was busy with the Enemy.
In rage at turning up empty handed, he beat and raped her and eventually slit her throat. When I returned and found her body, I traced his location from his filthy psychic residue. Pitiful, wretched, a typical example of mankind. He had enjoyed his actions; his only regret was the wasted time it took to travel to my home. I enjoyed his last moments on earth. His death was slow, almost a year and painful beyond compare. Every day I smiled and almost felt sad when I finally sent him on his way.
Only then did I allow myself to mourn for my wife. I am not ashamed to admit that I wept. Then I cleansed her body with living flame and scattered her ashes over the Great Sea of Oes.
Historians mark that day as the time of my great change. When I became evil and mad with my own power. Perhaps, but I can remember the intoxication of using my powers after I first claimed them. Would that not indicate a previous inclination toward corruption? Or was it the anguish over the loss of a loved one, stolen despite my great power? Guilt over not being there maybe? Did this single pivotal event twist my soul or was it already bent? Questions, questions, enough to fill this chamber, and they might never be answered.
I move on in my examinations, feeling automatic defenses engage outside my citadel, and come upon a crown and scepter. They belonged at one time to a king, who would have been emperor. I had enjoyed gaining his confidence while I laid my own plans. It had been so wondrously simple. After all was I not Talgrim the Savior? Who would have thought that I could be anything else but full of goodness and self sacrifice? He was weak, not willing to use his power effectively. His views were too soft and not nearly broad enough.
I remember clearly the look of horror and betrayal on his face. At the time I had found it amusing and a pleasant thing. But sometimes his expression haunts my dreams. In them it is I who wear the mask of fear. A sign of a troubled soul? Perhaps. I have done much and now grow weary of it. Loneliness can be a terrible burden. I could have had companionship, spent much time in the company of others, conversing, teaching, or just visiting. I would have been less of a power than I am, and sometimes it seems that I acted wisely. But other times, when I am very tired, I have a longing to go forth in public without someone cringing or attacking out of blind anger.
Was my vision a just one? Was it an abuse of power? Does it really matter? Sometimes it does. The crown and scepter are a poignant example. The man who was to wear them was a friend of mine once. But he, unfortunately stood in my way of domination, so he was removed. It was necessary, but was it right? At the time I had no doubt, but every so often I wonder. But, if I had not initiated the vision, no doubt someone else would have. The Wardens have great power, enough to shape a dream.
Now I am the supreme ruler of this world and that will never change. Although there has always been resistance, it has never been very strong. The golden orbs that circulate the city reviewing the thoughts of my subjects insure that. Can they not see the greatness of my dream? Before the Enemy came this world was divided, chaotic. I have brought order to this place. One empire, one people. Are they so blind? What I have done I did for the good of the people. There were drastic measures taken in some cases, but they were needed. The Enemy itself taught us the value of drastic actions. And yet I feel that there is something that I am missing, an argument that I have passed over.
The forces that are coming against me are near. With a thought I dispatch my army. I do not pretend that it will stop them, but it will, at least, slow them down. And it will cause pain. In the army are the brothers and sisters of those who attack me, enslaved by my power and unable to show mercy to their relatives. I turn my attention back to my trophies. I grow weary of this place and allow myself to fade from it.
Only to appear in my Chamber of Silence. Here is where I meditate and seek to calm my mind. There are things I must think upon. When the Enemy came to us we came together and formed the Wardens. I recognized the importance that this unity of heart be preserved, so I began to plan my empire. I sit in my chair and relax.
A soft noise interrupts my peace. It is a servant of mine, but a special one. I learned that the body is a malleable thing. Working with a young woman, I gave her a special shape. Now she is, at least superficially, my Manda. I have grown fond of this servant for she eases my pain somewhat, especially during long lonely nights. But even still I search for the secret that will bring the real Manda back to me.
She brings me tea, which I take and grant her a smile. "Are we under attack my Lord?" she asks me. Then she comes and kneels at my feet. Softly she removes my slippers and caresses my feet.
I nod. "There is an army coming. Some of them fought with me against the Enemy. I don't know what they hope to accomplish. I am not unique. After me one of them will rise to take my place."
"Where have they come from my Lord?" Her touch is pleasing to me. It reminds me of my wife.
"They have traveled from around the world."
"It seems they have banded against you as this world did against the Enemy."
I stand and hit her with the back of my fist. There is a rage in me that cuts deep.
"How dare you compare me with the great Foe!" I shout at her. She lies on the ground, staring up into space. She is no more. I look upon her shattered body and a strange feeling wells up inside me. How could she say that I am anything like that thing that came to our world to devour us? I brought order, while it would have created utter chaos.
I hear the battle outside, and do not have too much time. I feel a frustration in my heart as I look down and see the face of my beloved Manda. My work was done too well, for I do not see a servant, but my wife. There is a grief in me for I have killed the one thing that meant happiness to me. No, it is only a servant made to look like her. But she is so much like her; the shape of the eyes, even the smell. As I watch, understanding slips into place. I have found the missing piece, and shudder in dread. I do not wish to face it.
The battle beyond grows louder. I need more time. Perhaps I know how the Foe felt when we rose against it. No! I reject that. I am not the Enemy. It seems they have banded against you as this world did against the Enemy.
I must admit to myself that it was true. How can this be? As I look upon the woman on the floor a thought comes to me. My attempt to bring order was an evil act even though it was inspired by goodwill. I have become a slave master and have failed to appreciate the value of free will. It is stronger than my vision of order. The people of this world have banded against another Enemy --- me. It is a hard thing to admit. I fall to my knees trying to grasp the implications of my actions. Then I abruptly fade.
Only to appear back in the Trophy Room before the skull of the Enemy.
"You are to blame!" I scream at the artifact. "If you had not come, I would not have been so powerful. My control would have been one of self rather than of my world. This is your fault, and I damn you."
I clench my fist and the skull shatters into a million fragments, mirroring my vision. It too had once been whole. A piece of flying bone upsets the scepter by the crown and it falls. I remember my friend and the pain I caused him. Not the Enemy, but myself and I can no longer blame my Foe. I must at last take responsibility for my actions.
The army is almost here. It is time for me to go. Yet I will not yield to them. I have come too far and have done too much. I will rise up with the power singing in me. Although I do not know how the battle will end, I will go forth. This may very well be the end of me. The vision had been very bright though. Perhaps if I survive, I can at last begin to make amends for the things I have done. Gone will be the Golden Orbs and the Behavior Police, who insure that lives are lived in discipline. I could start a new dream.
Before I go, I return to my Chamber of Silence and cleanse the servant's body with living fire, transporting her ashes over the Great Sea of Oes. Then I rise by my power passing through the stones of my citadel. I rise, like a phoenix into the sun drenched sky. My shields flare as my foes press the attack. I call upon the weather to rain down lightning. The ground trembles and splits upon my command. Power flows from me to kill. But, all the while, there are tears flowing from my face.
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