Master Wei Chi was in the great hall, listening and occasionally speaking to the the South winds. The high domed chamber seemed to almost sing in harmony with the breeze, the nodding trees that lined the amphitheater dozing as if in lullaby.
His afternoon meditation was broken by the patter of a student’s footfalls. He begged forgiveness for the interruption and gave thanks for the communion with the winds, bowed twice and rose to his feet, turning to face a year seven male, Grelleck, the young boy’s face showed fear and shock. Something had happened.
“Master Wei, honored teacher, there are visitors in the Grove!”
The old monk scowled as the boy’s excitement chased away the last of the visiting winds, a rumble of wings went with it, starlings and an old owl. The boy scrunched his shoulders and winced. “Forgive me, Master.”
The old man suddenly headed towards the doors and Grelleck scrambled to follow, but Master Wei said, “Food for our guests. Quickly, now.” and heard the boy change direction behind him, heading for the cavern stairs. The monk moved upwards, a vast flight of polished maple risers inscribed with prayers of protection, harmony, peace, and reflection. He emerged from the underground grottoes and stepped into the mass of gardens and fields that surrounded the monastery.
Master Wei headed across the outer gardens, seeing students at work, or rest, he spoke to none of them.
The outer grove was a stand of cherry trees, flaming pink in the springtime breeze.
As he neared, he spoke a phrase in his native tongue and many dozens of spirit creatures suddenly sprang into view, clustered in the trees and throughout the ground cover of the old cherry stand.
He smiled to see them, calling out to them as friends and the birds, and squirrels, and rabbits and more, started chattering to him all at once, of two people come to the right place, the right grove, to petition for an audience with Master Wei.
No one was expected, and strangers in this part of the Emerald Hills are rare, as there is nothing but hostile monsters and miles of confusing-to-navigate, endlessly rolling green hills, dotted with the occasional cavern, cave or sinkhole, and teeming with clans of orcs and hobgoblins and many warring ogre tribes.
These two were not known to Master Wei, but they were very far from home. The dark skin and angular features of the Ashaarian people were hard to miss. Their dress was simple and functional, with minimal weaponry and few possessions.
The older one was very old, he saw, and was indeed sick with some wasting disease, but a fire lit his eyes and he looked ready to maybe take on a few orcs before he died.
The elder Ashaarian turned and spoke quietly to the boy, who then sat down where he was, and the elder Ashaarian stepped forward out of earshot of the young one and much to Master Wei’s surprise, spoke in the quick, clipped cadence of a long-time speaker of the monk’s native tongue, Rokugan.
“Honored Teacher and Wisest of the Ka, forgive my intrusion into your solitude and work, but I have come to you on the orders of a shadow thought long dead. He has shown me much that I wish I hadn’t seen, and sent me thousands of leagues to find your hidden sanctuary.” The man stopped and looked pained, and Master Wei stepped forward to place a steadying hand on his elbow, when the elder stranger whispered, in Common, “We are all lost if he ever finds the truth.” and then the elder swooned at that moment and Master Wei quickly asked permission, received a near-instantaneous answer of yes, and then eased the frail old man into a seated position against the trunk of an old cherry tree.
Master Wei returned his attention to the elder man and asked him softly in Rokugan for his name. The man’s eyes fluttered open and fought for focus but whatever burden he was carrying proved too much and he sank back into unconsciousness. The young one, watching nearby, rose and walked cautiously forward and said in Aqaba, the city-tongue of Akbar of Ashaaria, oft called The Shining City, “He never eats, and he sleeps too much. He is dying, but he won’t tell me why.”
Master Wei looked up at him and gave him a reassuring smile and spoke to him in Al’Ishi, the only northern Ashaarian language he knew, hoping the boy knew enough to get his meaning, and said “He is near to his end, it is true, but his winds still blow. Please rest, and let me tend to him.”
This seemed to placate the young boy because he smiled and nodded and replied in Al’Ishi “Many thanks. I would share salt with you and be honored to do so. Wet winds for your help.”
The frail old man was still unconscious, and a quick pass of the Master’s expert hands and eyes revealed that there was no hope. Comfort was all that could matter now. He used his own cloak as a blanket and rearranged the old man on the ground, and with a few words, asked the four Winds for a blessing to ease his passage.
The old monk’s mind then turned to this man in his care, and grappled with several questions: Firstly, how does an Ashaarian come to speak his native language when it was forbidden to teach it to non-natives? He was not known to Master Wei, nor had any of his spies in the many places of the Realms alerted him to such a man.
His mind turned to anyone who could have taught this man the language of his homeland, and thought of no one who would be in a position to reveal themselves so openly. No, there could be no one. Even if that were somehow possible, who would gain from it? Master Wei’s enemies were the perfect number. Zero. He thought. He quickly searched his mind, replaying details of battles past and found no flaw, no risen enemy to torment him or deceive him (again).
He frowned. Evil’s insidious persistence gave him a cold shiver.
The more he pondered this the more he began to worry that poor planning and shortsightedness had blinded him. Alarms started to ring in his mind and he thought, “Am I being deceived even now? If not treachery seen, then perhaps unseen? I have stayed and watched. I have watched and waited and it has been quiet. If not, then death and the next cycle, but I have seen no signs, no shadows of doom creeping in silently to strangle and blind us. No signs at all. Perhaps that in itself is the sign!”
Master Wei frowned and clamped a firm grip on that nonsense and pushed it away. Hard.
“It will not do to puzzle and brood,” he thought, “I need to act. Could this instead be an ally helping from afar? Unseen? Unspoken? There are a few of those I can think of who would, who could do this thing. Yes.”
He nodded unconsciously, and over across the grove the boy waiting worriedly for the fate of this old man saw this slight nod and felt better somehow, even though he had no idea why.
He returned to the old man and rummaged in a basket near his feet. He brought out a carved wooden box, opened the box and used the herbs inside to infuse a cold tea. After a few moments he eased the elderly man’s head up and got him to drink, the man’s eyes fluttered open and he drank greedily, using his own hand to tip the cup upwards, some of the tea spilling down across his chin and robes. The man lay back, gasping, wiped his hand across his mouth and spoke again in Rokugan.
“Ah, that was refreshing. Many gentle winds for your help, Honored Teacher.” He stopped again, panting slightly, still regaining his wind. With help from Master Wei he sat up a bit, and he wiped some drool from his mouth and said, “There is much we need to speak of and I haven’t much time. My name is Elder-Master Ikshir of the Quluthane and over there is my apprentice, Moham, and we have traveled from the Aqaba Conclave to speak with you. I’m afraid much of what I have to say will not be pleasant.” He stopped and took some more tea, smiling at the taste.
When it was silent again, Master Wei looked closely at this strange Druid from the South and waited for him to begin.
When Ikshir began he spoke in quick, low tones, the jumbled singsong of Rokugan, the native tongue of the Empire of Clu, and again the Master was struck at how eerie this man’s accent was. He spoke as if he had walked the dusty streets of Mishima personally! It was flawless, and that was what troubled him. It was too good, too perfect, no outsider would ever be able to develop a homegrown bent to his daily speech unless he was born there, unless he ate and slept there!
“Master Wei, I bring word to you from an ancient friend. He-who-was-Lord-Deshthen. He is coming. You cannot win. You cannot resist. You should compose your death poem soon.”
The monk looked away. A minute passed. “When?”
“Come the Plantings. A few weeks, perhaps.”
Master Wei turned away from Ikshir and stood. He then paced a few yards among the falling blossoms and the kami of the Grove started to reappear near him, their presence lending him strength as he felt the shock of this wash over him, testing his will.
Ikshir said, “He says he is called Dreadcircle now. He says he is the servant of the Unmaking.”
Master Wei snorted and almost laughed, an ugly short sound, and barked, “I know what he is now. I know whom he serves. I was there!”
The elder Asharrian took the last of his tea and leaned his head against the old tree. He said, very simply, “I am an old man now. I have walked the endless dune seas of my home and seen the shattered Pinnacles of the Anasazi. I once advised Rama Narali about improvements to the palace gardens and was honored for my knowledge and hard work. I am dead in a few hours, and there is nothing anyone can do. My part is over now.”
Master Wei kept his back to the old man and waited for Ikshir to continue, his mind racing.
Ikshir said, “When Moham was a baby his parents were savaged by the beasts of the Dune Seas and their caravan was lost. The boy was found only hours after the attack by some good folk, the Al’Ishi of T’Taan, whose swift horses carried him north to Akbar to deliver him into the care of the Holy Circle of Swords, as agreed by an ancient compact.
He was looked at by the Shining Light and deemed worthy to join the Quluthane, stewards of the sands, and we accepted his nomination.
When I carried him through the circle of our most holy and sacred place of worship, the ancient ring shook with a mighty tremor and all of my order were thrown down and badly shaken. When the violence finally stopped, the head of our order, a wise and ancient druid called Ahen’ichep’ukatt, suddenly cried out in a loud voice “The prophecy of the Codex has come true! The Llanyr is broken!”
We gasped as we stood and saw it was true. The ancient stone ring built by the first of the Quluthane was now slanted at a sharp angle and two of the plinths had sheared off and the lintel of the trilithon had dislodged and lay vertically resting against one of its supporting plinths. The Llanyr Aatma, sacred circle, was lifeless and our order had lost a vital link with our gods and with the rest of the Realms.
Our Arch Druid, Ahen’ichep’ukatt was looking at Moham with a most intense stare, and spoke again pointing at the boy and said “It is said in the Codex that when the Aatma is broken a child of the Faith will travel far from these lands to wake the Kala Jaandra, the Dawn Arrow, and the child will wrestle, and lose, with the many tentacles of the Void.”
Before any of the druids could erupt with questions, the Arch Druid continued, saying “I have heard from the Chaos Hunters that female twins have been taken into the Forge, as prophesized in the Codex! They are the umma’vekk, the Catalysts, and there is no mistaking that these are the end times, and the Void’s fell wrath will soon darken all the lands unless we prepare this boy!”
“The Arch Druid pulled Moham out of my arms and held him up for all to see He shouted, “We show the Beacon his true path or we are all lost! We must protect him at all costs!”
The Arch Druid handed Moham back to me and said to me in almost a whisper, “Keep him and train him quickly, Ikshir, for we don’t have much time, three decades, maybe less. Make him strong and smart and tell him nothing of his true destiny. Nothing must prevent him from waking the Arrow.”
Moham learned quickly and soon grew into a faithful follower and defender of our ways and our people. I told him nothing, as Arch Druid Ahen’ichep’ukatt instructed me, and 6 months ago we left Ashaaria on our trip, ostensibly to deliver a gift to you, Master Wei, from the Arch-Druid himself, and Moham was told that he was coming to study the domains of the northern realms, so different from our own.
Now we are here, and now you have been warned, Kala Jaandra, and now I can die knowing I played my small part in the defense of our home, our Drexlor.” Ikshir slumped a bit, his face draining of energy, and his demeanor visibly paled. But he still smiled at Master Wei, and he tried to take his hand.
Master Wei returned the smile and took Ikshir’s bony hand in both of his own. “I thank you for the warning, but I am not the Kala Jaandra of your prophecies. I am called the Prava’chaan, the Archer, or have you not read the second Kaand of the Codex?”
Ikshir’s eyes flew open. “How did y- , Only the most powerful of our order are allowed access to the holy kaands. It is not possible!”
Master Wei smiled and said “I am privy to secrets you could not dream of blessed defender. I am one of the Ka, and know my place in the grand cataclysm to come. Do not doubt me, for I have been to the outer realms and I have seen the face of evil incarnate.”
Ikshir, unable to rise to his feet, nodded his head in the most reverential manner he could manage and spoke humbly to Master Wei, begging his forgiveness and assuring him that he would do nothing to interfere with his dharma and did not mean to offend the wise, powerful and ancient monk.
Master Wei softly, “I will aim the Arrow true, blessed defender, but no man or god can predict where it will land.“ and the master smirked and said “He’s dwarven you know.”
Elder-Master Ikshir, 5th circle of Renewal, Aqaba-Quluthane, smiled back one last time at the kindly face of Master Chi and breathed his last in the Grove of Harmonious Reflection 436 miles inside the borders of the Emerald Hills of Gemseed.
In exactly 16 days the Monastery would be razed to the ground and Master Wei and his students murdered.
Only one survives.
A one-armed hill-dwarven student monk named Klemgathed Shalecott. The Dawn Arrow.
Fated to save the world, it all began here, in this place, with the Monastery in flames, his master and friends butchered and the face of a former paladin, now called Dreadcircle, etched in his mind.
Dreadcircle is a servant to Okotarg-the-Deformed, a necromancer of unmatched power, known to the world as The Unmaking, or The Void.
One day, The Dawn Arrow and The Void meet. For the first and last time.
27 years, 15 months, 2 weeks and 1 day later
The Undoing, The Master of the Void, the Scourge of Drexlor, Master of the Eld, once-Archwizard of the Veiled Tower of Gandahar, once-Elder Mage of the Regan Kingdom, once keyholder of the Shrouded Cloister, Okotarg Øk, and oft-called Okotarg-the-Deformed, the Dread Unmaking, was gripped in the throes of a howling roar of laughter, though his throne room rumbled and the walls of his citadel shook and the bellows of bloodthirsty fiends howled at his empire’s door. Tears streamed from his ancient eyes and he was doubled over, hands-on-knees, cackling and sniggering in a desperate struggle with the situation at hand. He was losing the fight and the stress of being trapped for so long had started to disintegrate his mental faculties and he could not help but laugh at the absurdity of the whole sorry mess.
The massive granite room shook again and a crack appeared in a nearby column, showering dust and small debris down onto the Void Master’s head. He suddenly sobered, and pulled himself up to his full stature, and shook his fists at the air, bellowing, “Howl, you fiends! Howl and harrow the earth! You’ll not have me!” He began to pace, a long purple-silver threaded carpet marked his steps, and the tower shook again, harder this time.
The ancient elf’s face was creased in rage. He was so close! Out of spite he considered the seven unfinished sigils on the wall of the Temple, below. He was supposed to be leading the damn army, not trapped here, and accepted that finishing the seven keys and beginning the invasion without him there was preferable to nearly eight-hundred years of work spoiled, and all for a fool dwarf! Pah! One-armed, and one-bloody-minded as well!
He spat, the black spittle landing on the decorative carpeting, where it lay for a moment or two, before beginning to twitch. In a minute the black glob had quadrupled in size, and was taking on a definite shape.
Okotarg rubbed his ancient hands and spoke aloud, invoking the ancient rules and protections of the necromancer’s trade, and spun lines of mathematical invocations to bind and energize the proxy. The lyrical drone of divinatory magic followed next, and the package was sealed with The Void’s personal sigil and the glob suddenly took the form on a tiny humanoid. It took a few small steps, leapt into flight and vanished from the visible spectrum.
The ancient arch-wizard cackled again. “Find the Key. Fly true!”
Outside, the fury of the Key and his army were beginning to take their toll on the colossal alien black slabs that made up the dizzying wall of the Citadel of the Void, which were three spikes ringed around a thick finger of stone, mottled with a luminescent purple mineral. The heights were incalculable here in the Void. This was Okotarg’s personal domain, a sub-harmonic of the Prime Drexlor, and its laws were mutable.
But the Army of the Key would not be assuaged. They did not fear the swirling purple and black vortex that dominated the “sky” here. They did not whisper in alarm at the endless grey plains of nothingness that seemed to comprise this entire plane. When the first swarms of rotting ghouls, some winged, came boiling out of the unearthly fortress, they did not run or cry aloud.
They were the Returned, 10000 spirits-of-warriors, bound by an ancient compact to serve the Key, a leader they called Moham-of-the-Rock. They would not be stopped. Not when the horrors of the ghouls’ paralytic bites dropped hundreds in the first minutes of battle. They would not be driven away. Not when the ghouls were stinking meat and the air was thick with the silent terror of shadow-fiends, and not when the last of the Citadel’s defenders; howling hordes of running zombies came like a sea of death.
They would not be broken.
The Key howled for victory and threw his dwindling army again at the endless walls of the Spires of Ur. There could be no victory without death. The Screaming Lands themselves would fall if it was commanded by the Dawn Arrow. Moham-the-Key, distracted as he was by the insanity of battle here in this unnatural place, could feel the dread power of the trapped Necromancer, leaching through his will, crumbling the edges, mixed with sharp stabbing pains to relent, submit, yield and find peace, and it was getting harder and harder to resist the constant barrage of psychic probing. He shifted his mental armor again, a desperate bid to keep out the onslaught from the Unmaking, and sent in his reserves, which were now only in the scant hundreds. They needed to clear the field, now, before the Unmaking decided to sally onto the field himself, and really make things interesting.
Moham looked again for the Archer, some clue or sign that he was watching, was protecting them all, but he saw nothing, just the endless grey plains of the Void’s dominion, the millions of undead who once waited here for a word from the Unmaking’s lips were long gone, hidden in five massive armies around the Realms, just waiting for the command to begin. If they failed here and if the Key breaks, and The Dawn Arrow fails, then everything that mattered to the Key and this army of men and women from Drexlor’s storied past would be lost to the machinations of the Void and his plans to destroy the world. “If only we could get inside”, the Key thought, “then the Arrow would fly true and I could stand by his side once again, and feel the old ways return, and find peace.” He almost let a smile touch his face, and in that moment his defense slipped just enough.
The phantasmal killer that was once a glob of spit, and who had been waiting, patiently, fulfilled its purpose, slipped past Mohab’s crumbling mental shields and the relentless painful strands of the Void’s will snaked inwards and the Key felt his mind crack and he knew that he was lost.
At that moment the relentless efforts of the Army of the Key overcame the stubborn, alien stone and the huge main gates of the Citadel of the Void broke into one-ton pieces and tumbled to the ground, to the roar of the ranks who now streamed into the unknown, songs of ancient kings on their lips and renewed vows of victory. Though they knew that the Key had fallen, and that their connection to this harmonic would quickly unravel, they vowed to honor the Key’s last request – to remove the head of Okotarg-the-Deformed before they were returned to the Flux, from which they were called so many years ago. How many years? None could say. The Army of the Key were not flesh and blood and had no concern with time. But Master Okotarg knew. Nearly 3 years these fiends had besieged his home and kept him here.
He heard the defenses fall and knew that it was time. Okotarg called upon the primal force of the universe that resided inside himself. It was not his. The All-father, Zendaya, lost it when he was forced to create the last of the gods, when his being shattered and Zendaya faded from the universe. The Force of Unmaking, the power to destroy…everything.
Used it to create an army so large even the dwarven juggernaut of the Feclan Empire could not stand up to its power. Used it to subvert and poison every standing circle used by the Canathane, and used it to create this very dimension where he now faced annihilation.
The Force of Unmaking answered one will. Its own. Okotarg had called on it again and again to destroy the besieging army but it would not answer him.
But now he felt the dread power swell within him, like poison into water, and the sick, horrible, wonderful, terrible feeling filled his essence and gave him the power to finish the final strokes of the seven Command sigils that would awaken the Army of the Dead Hand. He roared in Arcan, and felt the power flood from him, etching dweomer through time and space. The Command sigils flared into existence, and he felt the stored power of eight-hundred years gush out of him as water from a pipe, and he wept and cried and laughed aloud and felt the last of the Army of the Key winking out of existence and for a moment he considered the possibility of victory.
Then a tug at his inner mind. A reverberation in his core. He had felt it before.
Okotarg made a sound like an animal lost in a dark wood. A chundering, chuffing sound, short and curt, full of bass and growl.
Overhead, far above the silent grey plains and the colossal citadel, a spike of light appeared in the swirling vortex. It fractured, and grew, and fractured again and again, like a crack growing in ice. The brightening light started racing outwards at an ever quickening pace, and soon covered a quarter of the swirling skies.
It seemed to slow for a moment, and stop, momentarily.
Okotarg-the-Unmaking raced for his balcony window and looked up at the impossible scene. He howled in denial and he cast spell after dread spell at the splintering sky.
The scene held its breath for a moment longer, and then the sky split and fractured, like panes of glass falling, and the gloom was replaced with a blinding, dominating light, and the unearthly harmonics of the universal chord flooded the now-crumbling Unrealm, shouting power so loudly that Okotarg clapped his hands to his wrinkled ears and cried aloud in pain.
This was the Force of Making. There could be no doubt. The other half of Zendaya Allfather’s lost power, it had been found by Master Wei Chi and his adventuring group long in Drexlor’s turbulent past and had passed it, secretly, to the only surviving student of a massacre three decades gone.
The Force of Making had only one purpose. To reunite with its lost half and return Zendaya Allfather from oblivion. The sky was dominated by the shining, spreading, creation of the Force of Making. A single warrior appeared in the core of the light, one-armed, barefoot. He was grinning.
The Dawn Arrow had arrived.