On February 1st, 2008, Sean Dahlberg aka me had his last day at Stray Bullet Games, LLC. And thus a chapter on the life of Ashen Temper ended. I have had the pleasure to work with some of the best people in the gaming industry and Shadowbane itself has been a part of my life for over eight years. Sam “Meridian” Johnson did me the honor of writing the following story, depicting the death of Ashen Temper in the world of Aerynth. Thank you, Sam!
– – – – – – – – – –
Aelfric found him in the Sanctorium, the hidden chamber deep beneath the dungeons of Cair Haldoran. The Templar marshal moved resolutely through the deepest catacombs, the cries of the sinful echoing from above, rivulets of dark blood pooling around the drains beneath his feet. The two Paragons that flanked the final stair moved to bar his way, golden Templar plate shining in dim torchlight. When they met Aelfric’s gaze their faces paled and they stepped back, their fiery swords undrawn. Aelfric crouched under the narrow arch and moved down the steps, so narrow he had to turn his shoulders.
Vollis heard the clank and stamp of armor coming down the stairs, and quickly rose to his feet, ending his prayers in mid sentence and dropping his prayer beads. The massive form of the half giant swept into the small space, and Vollis quickly moved into the Templar’s path, hands raised.
“Commander, no!” the confessor cried. “His Righteousness must not be disturbed during his communion with ““ “but the Templar batted him aside with one sweep of his massive arm, the armored gauntlet smashing St. Malorn’s first attendant into the wall. His nose broken, the confessor fell again to his knees as Aelfric swept past him. The brass door before him was massive and heavy, but could not resist the templar’s strength.
The instant the doors opened a wave of heat and cloying swept over Aelfric, making his eyes water. The chamber beyond was almost unbearably bright after the darkness of the dungeons. A thick haze of incense hung in the air, and burning braziers ringing the room exuded coils of reddish smoke. Mirrors on every wall reflected the light of the massive bonfire in the center of the round room, bathing everything in a golden light as bright as the sun. Aelfric could see barely the prostrate form of the living saint inside the arcane circles, the altar before him piled with offerings on golden plates. Bright as the room was, it was the figure in the center that made Aelfric cover his eyes. Tall and blinding, a column of flame that wreathed around a female form with eyes like the heart of the sun. That shining face looked up at him, beautiful and terrible, and for the first time he could remember, Aelfric was afraid.
At Aelfric’s intrusion a wind swept into the room, and several of the braziers went out. The thing in the fire vanished in a blinding flash and a shower of embers, leaving the room dim in her wake. Only then did Aelfric realize he had drawn his sword. He stood in the doorway, blinking the spots of light out of his eyes, when an agonized wail rose in the small room.
Malorn the Just, Living Saint and Kindler of the Sacred Flame, rose to his feet, trembling with rage. Clad only in a white shift and bathed in sweat, Malorn’s whole frame shook with rage as he turned to the door.
“HOW DARE YOU!” the master of the Temple shrieked. “You dare profane my communion with the blessed archon? I’ll strip the flesh from your bones, apostate! You’ll see your entrails burning before you before I’ve…” the threat was never finished. Malorn looked up into the half giant’s eyes, and suddenly the rage was replaced with worry.
By the saints and archons, it is worse than they whisper, Aelfric thought as he looked over Malorn’s thin frame and the black marks below his eyes. The saint’s hands were shaking. What is Uvoriel doing to him?
“What is it? I s-see grave news in your eyes, marshal. S… speak!” Aelfric ignored the slur in his master’s speech.
“Your Righteousness, I bring word from Mandemus the Merciful. Something has happened… It’s the Firebrand, blessed lord.”
“Ashen Temper?” the Living Saint almost spat out the name. The infamous missionary of the Flame had known many quarrels with his superiors, and his disregard for Holy Writ was matched only by the number of converts he brought screaming into the fold. “What war has he started this time?”
“No, Righteousness. He… is dead.”
Annoyance swept the hierarch’s face. “And? Seek him at a Tree is you need him. You dare interrupt the holiest of rites for this?”
“You do not understand, Righteousness. The Lord Temper is dead. Truly dead. He does not rise.”
“Nonsense! Search every Tree, or summon him ““ you’ll find him soon enough.”
“We have already tried, your grace. The summons go unheeded. They are not declined, merely… lost. No Tree has word of him. And we have found his body. It does not turn to ash. Mandemus has done the auguries. He is dead.”
Malorn’s eyes widened. “Pandarrion’s blessed grace!” he cried. “Can it be so? Has death retuned?” The living saint clutched his chest, face slack with shock. “Am I… mortal?”
“No, holiness. Mandemus slew a dozen of his lieutenants as soon as he learned the truth. All of them returned at the tree.” Malorn’s exaggerated relief was almost comical. Aelfric continued. “Whatever has happened, it has happened only to him. The rest of us endure.”
Finally the dignity Aelfric had known returned to Malorn’s eyes. The rage had brought it back. “Where was he found? How did this happen?”
“We still know very little, your Righteousness. He was found on Oblivion, near the Black Gate. Some marauders had happened on his body: his vestments were recognized when the thieves returned to the mainland. It is said that Lord Temper whispered something before he died, something of Pandarrion and The Sword.”
“The sword?” Malorn’s eyes gleamed. “I trust Mandemus has these wretches.”
“He does, blessed one.” Aelfric confirmed. “They are being brought here even now.”
“Good. I shall attend to their interrogation myself.” Malorn took two steps toward the door, then turned back to the altar. Radiant Goddess, holy flame, he thought, as Aelfric puzzled at the look on his master’s face. Wait for me, my love. I shall not be long.
And then the moment was over. Malorn spun on his heels and strode resolutely from the chamber. “VOLLIS!” he cried at the top of his lungs. “Bring my vestments! And prepare the instruments… we have work to do.”
* * *
The wind blew cold and sharp over the grey hills, howling in ravines that once were forest. Now the land was parched and cracked, barren as salted earth. In the near distance a massive pit scarred the land, a crater vast and so deep that it looked as though some beast had torn a bite out of the very earth itself. On the horizon came a gleam of light where the sun shone on the shattered fragments of Kierhaven.
Malorn, the gathered elders of the Temple, and several hundred honor guards stood atop a ridge overlooking the pit and Kierhaven beyond. A panoply of crimson, gold, and deepest black, their armor and vestments shone in the bright sun, wind stirring longs cloaks and the hems of cassocks. Over every chest a sash was drawn, black as the void.
Malorn stood in the center, flanked by Aelfric and Mandemus the Merciful, staring grimly at the stone before him. The monument was simple yet grand: a wide plinth, carved of reddish granite shot through with veins of deepest black. Golden plaques ringed its sides, deep letters glorifying the Cleansing Flame and immortalizing the deeds of the Temple’s brightest. Ashen Temper laid in state atop it, his face pale yet serene, atop a bier of wood brought all the way from a distant fragment of Aerynth. His vestments shone brighter even than the living saint’s.
The faces in the assembled crowd were frightening to behold. Some were sad, others grim in their composure. Some scowled and seethed, longing to kill something, to punish someone, anyone, for this terrible tragedy. Tears gleamed on some cheeks, for even Templars were not too proud to mourn. The assembled crowd was utterly silent. Then Malorn spoke, his voice cutting through the noisy wind like a blade.
“Here, my brothers, we gather this day in the sight of Pandarrion and all the Archons to honor this, his champion. We who have borne the heavy burden of His crusade have a new burden. We must bear the grief of his passing, and carry forth the memory of our brother until the ending of the world. We must…”
Just then a strange sound washed over the crowd. The very air seemed to ripple, and parted as if cut. Through the shining gap they came: elves, their armor gleaming, faces green as the sea or blue as ice. At the sight of them the ranks of the gathered mourners flew into motion; blades were drawn, shouts of surprise and rage rang out, and invocations to the saints and Archons rent the air.
“HOLD!” cried a voice like thunder. Several on both sides were flung to the ground with the shock of the sound, and the rest stood dazed. For a few seconds there was silence. Then a tall figure moved to the fore of the elvish line, hair shining like silver, his armor covered with flowing runes that shone like the stars. With a voice like music he spoke.
“We come in peace. Stay your swords.”
“Liar!” shouted Malorn, and the Temple ranks shouted and screamed as one. Even as the Templars charged, the elf lord spoke again, and his words carried over the din.
“We bring news of the fallen one! Slay us and you will never learn it!”
Aelfric stopped, his blade hanging in mid swing, less than a foot from the elf lord’s head. His brothers followed suit.
“What treachery is this?” Malorn shouted, his orator’s tone fierce and terrible. “Spare me your honeyed lies, elf ““ you have come to desecrate these ceremonies, and despoil the remains of our beloved bother!”
“Hold, fanatic!” shouted the elf. “This firebrand has long been our dire enemy. Yes, we have hated him since Aerynth was undone. But do you think we would not honor so worthy a foe, we who have known so much loss and death? What do you think we are, human?”
The crowd of Templars and confessors murmured angrily, but Malorn held up one had. Slowly the temple’s finest drew back.
“You said you brought news,” Malorn said, his voice stern with defiance. “Speak it, and be gone.”
“Our Eldest sensed something from across the Void, and we knew that something strange and terrible had happened,” the noble elf began. “We have since made many auguries, and have learned much.”
He paused. The Templars waited silently.
“This one passed into the Black beyond the Isle of Oblivion. There he fought, and there he was undone, staggering back to this world as his life left him. The wise know that even she who calls herself Lich Queen…”
At the name the elf paused and scowled, as though the words had a foul taste. Every elf looked likewise hateful.
“Even she was but a servant to… that which lurks beyond. Your brother passed beyond all life and light to fight it, and died in the thwarting of its schemes. There was one other of your kind who followed a similar quest, as you well know.”
At this a murmur rippled through the assembled host. Malorn’s ears picked out the whispered words, and felt the excitement rise. Shadowbane… sword of Cambruin! Did he find it? He spoke of a blade as he lay dying… The curse… all who bear it must die… can it be?
Malorn raised his hand again, and his servants fell silent.
“These are all of your tidings?” he asked, his voice still hard as steel.
“They are.” The elf lord answered. “And now, with your leave, we would honor our greatest foe.”
All eyes turned to Malorn. He frowned in anger, and his servants raised their weapons again. Then something changed: Malorn’s face softened, and the deep grief finally showed.
“Do what you must,” the living saint said. “and then begone. Be quick.”
And so the elf lords processed in all solemnity to the bier, leaving tokens at its base. Voices from their host sang a haunting dirge that stirred the souls of the dourest confessors. Finally the lord himself climbed the monument and laid a necklace of rubies an onyx on Ashen’s chest. The jewels burned with an inner light.
When the elves were done, Malorn’s eyes looked from the bier to the horizon. And he saw that others had come.
* * *
For hours they came, host after host, trooping up the tall hill beneath their fluttering banners. A bishop of the Holy Church, flanked by High Prelates, Crusaders, and Sentinels, consecrated the stone. Amazons came forward too, their faces grim as the great beasts that walked among them. Savage Northmen broke their axes and laid them at the foot of the stone. The noble lords of house Daenyr knelt in silence before the fallen one.
Centaurs, Dwarves, and motley clans of all races: they all trooped to the bier, one by one, and honored him. As the last moved back, the sky was crimson with the dusk.
Malorn climbed the plinth and looked down at the fallen warrior. At last, he continued his sermon and his blessing. His servants intoned the Litany of Faith, and the ceremony came near its end. Malorn moved to draw his blade.
“Wait!” came a voice across the assembled hordes. Countless heads turned.
A figure came out of the dusk, his homespun robes dark with ash. His hair was wild, and a tangled beard hung down to his chest. His feet were bare, and caked with blood. A ragged cord was coiled around his left hand, dull red and frayed.
“Begone, beggar!” Malorn shouted. “You’ve missed your chance. Now stand away!”
But then the stranger looked up, and met Malorn’s gaze. The living saint grew pale, and recoiled as if in horror. Malorn stepped backward, off of the stone.
Mandemus stepped forward to protect his master. “Who are you, stranger?” he called. “What have you done to His Righteousness?” Again the legions of the Temple stirred, like hounds straining at the slips. The haunted look in the stranger’s eyes stopped them in their tracks.
“I?” he asked, in a voice far firmer than his frail form implied. “I am but a humble hermit. I would honor him as all of you have. I have earned the right.”
“As for your master, I only remind him of distant days.” The hermit climbed up to the bier, and leaned over the body there. He spoke in a whisper that only Mandemus heard.
“Farewell, beloved squire, farewell.” The man whispered, shaking with emotion. “It should have been me… It should have been me.”
Mandemus stared at this strange man, baffled by him. And then he saw the humble hammer that hung at the hermit’s belt, and his eyes widened in wonder. The hermit whispered on.
“I failed you, as I failed our king. As I failed us all.” Hot tears fell on Ashen’s face. “Forgive me, and go in peace.”
The man rose and turned, climbing down from the monument. He walked away in the gathering dark without another word.
Malorn returned to the bier. At last he spoke.
“Behold, the host of mourners that is gathered here. Here flies a noble spirit, who has forever changed the face of this world. Epics shall be written of his deeds, and I shall not recount them here.”
The blazing sun touched the horizon.
“Of my friend I shall say but this. He was a master of this deadly game we play, our game of crowns and nations, wars and thrones. None ever played it better.
“And when he played… he played to crush.”
Malorn drew his sword, and held it skyward. Bright flames wreathed the blade, golden in the dimming light. The living saint thrust the sword into the bier, and the fire sprang up, a bonfire shining skyward.
Night had fallen. One by one, the assembled hosts drifted away into the darkness.
* * *
On the other side of the great crater two figures stood, gazing at the flame on the horizon. The taller of the two sighed and shook his head.
“So it is done,” said Meridian the Mad. “I never foresaw this.”
The bright eyes of the other turned quickly, pinning the tall man in their gaze.
“Done? You still know nothing scribbler.” He laughed in a mirthful voice. “Little in this world unfolds as we predict.”
“What does it mean, then Wanderer?” the chronicler asked. “Is this not the end?”
“No,” the elder replied, shaking his head. “There are no endings, only changes. This Age is over, but new one shall begin. Soon,” the old man said, sweeping his hand over the horizon, “all the tattered lands shall be swept clean, and a New Age shall begin. A change is coming.”
A moment passed in silence. Overhead the first stars began to shine. Finally the old man spoke again.
“May it be a better Age than this,” the old man said.
They stood there till the distant fire burned out. At last they turned and walked away. In the east the sky shown gold.
A new day had begun.