To a world in darkness, came a thin line of light.
He blinked as the line grew wider and wider, silently and slowly. The line became a bar, then kept growing until he found himself looking at a rectangle of orange, flickering light with two dark shapes silhouetted against it, with a short flight of stairs descending below. Only then did he realize that someone had opened the door to his dark abode.
The voice seemed unbearably loud after the long unending silence of his dungeon, and he found himself hissing slightly at it, wishing that the owner of that deep, broad voice would go away and never return.
A moment passed before he understood the strange sounding words to be his own name. Another moment slid by before he could think of a response, clear his parched throat and rasp, “Who…you?”
He thought he heard sighs of relief coming from the men in the doorway. They climbed down the stairs then, with a third figure joining them at the rear, bearing a torch aloft. Even as the harsh radiance of it blinded him, bringing tears from his eyes, he somehow found it very, very hard to look away from it. The crackling, dancing ball of light on the end of the stick attracted his gaze the way a magnet would draw iron shavings closer to itself, promising something that he couldn’t name within its warm orange depths…
“Glad to see you’re still with us, Artyom.”
He blinked in confusion for a moment, thinking that the flame had spoken to him. With an almost superhuman effort he forced himself to look down and away from the light, and instead found himself looking at the faces of three different men. The first was down on one knee, not less than three, perhaps four feet away from him. He was clad in ornate metallic blue armor that fit his heavy, big-boned frame well, yet was half hidden under a dull green cloak. He had long blond locks and liquid brown eyes set in a broad scarred face with a broken nose. The second stranger stood a bit further back along with the last, nervously glancing here and there in the gloom as if looking for ghosts. This man was much smaller, and of a thinner, bookish stature with large square glasses perched on the bridge of his nose that he kept nudging in place every few seconds. He wore dun brown robes and had a pendant on his neck that caught and reflected the light of the torch. The last of the trio, the torchbearer, was a man of average height and substantial musculature, clad in form-fitting padded armor of grey and brown. His craggy, dark-haired face was a flat and calm, still pool.
The armored man spoke again, and Artyom found the sound of his voice strangely familiar. “How are you feeling? Can you stand?”
“I…feel…” Artyom paused, feeling something stir at the back of his mind, like a sleeping wolf being prodded awake. The words came to him accompanied by a smile that made his cracked lips hurt. “I feel like shit, sir.”
The armored man smiled for a brief instant, reaching out with one gloved hand to pat him gently on the shoulder. Something about the gesture brought the wolf inside to a state of half-awakening, with one eye open to the world.
“Noel…” The man with the glasses said, with a tone of warning behind the unfinished statement.
“It’s alright, Daric.” Noel snapped back. He turned to the prisoner then, with something that could have passed for regret written on his face. “I’m afraid we’ll have to dispense with the pleasantries for now. We have other places we must be, and time stands still for no one. So let me ask this; do you remember how and why you ended up here?”
Artyom stared at him, confusion and bewilderment coursing through him like blood. The wolf inside him raised its head off its paws, and began to growl.
Noel sighed. “Daric.”
Daric stepped forward until he stood beside his warrior companion. He began to trace a pattern of symbols in the air before him, and Artyom watched transfixed as the man’s long thin fingers drew sigils of a soft white radiance that hung in the air as if they were scrawled on some invisible paper. “Naam…serlis…cybel…Artyom,” Daric murmured under his breath. Once he drew the final symbol, he swiped at the entire set, arranged in a geometric circle, and it shot forward…
The wolf shot to its feet, barking like mad.
…slamming right into Artyom’s forehead and exploding with the heat of a white-hot iron poker.
He shrieked at the sudden pain, feeling the radiant magic working its way into his mind like the fingers of some lava golem, ripping through the gossamer fog that clouded his mind. Forcing him to remember, to recall…
When he came to, the three men were still there, eyeing him speculatively. He raised a hand to rub at his forehead, which seemed to sting and sizzle from the magic attack…and found himself looking at very thin arm shackled in chains.
“There’s the Volk I remember.” Noel nodded approvingly.
Artyom fixed him with a cold, furious glint in his eyes. In his mind’s eye, he saw a tall, imposing Noel Goering standing on a raised dais along with six other people in the same style of armor, an intense look of displeasure visible. “Hello to you too…Commander Noel Goering.”
The guard in the grey and brown leathers took a step forward, but the commander stopped him with a gesture. “Looks like the light script worked well. Too well I suppose, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
“What the fuck do you want?”
“I have a proposition for you, Artyom. A way for you to get out of this wretched place.”
Artyom blinked, then threw his head back and laughed as if he had just heard the world’s funniest joke. “That’s rich…coming from you. Really, I never knew you had such a sense of humour.”
Noel shook his head, his mien locked in a grim expression. “I’m serious.”
Artyom glared. “You do rememeber that you’re the guy who put me in here…right?”
“No, you put yourself here with your actions. I only made sure you stayed here.”
Artyom shrugged in a nonchalant, almost mocking way but said nothing. What’s the difference? The gesture seemed to state.
Noel sighed. “Look, what I ask of you is simple. Our queen, the Goddess of the Holy Light herself, is in grave danger of being…assassinated. We need someone of your skill and caliber to keep her safe until the end of the Dawn Festival. Should you agree to this, I will personally sign your release papers and you’ll walk out of here a free man in service of Her Radiance. If you do not agree though…well, you can look forward to rotting away here in the Oubliette, and you will die alone and unknown in this darkness. Which of these two paths do you prefer?”
“I prefer the third path; the one where I say fuck you, I kinda like it down here.” He raised his hands up behind his head and leaned back against the cool stone wall of the dungeon. “At least I won’t see your stupid face and be reminded of what being a ‘hero’ will cost you.”
“I see.” Noel slowly got to his feet then, looking suddenly very old and very tired. “It seems I have wasted both our time. I apologize for that.”
The commander turned and began to walk away, with Daric moving along just behind him. The guard stayed a moment to spare Artyom a look of sheer disgust which the prisoner replied in kind, before falling in line behind the two men. Artyom watched them go with a vague feeling of satisfaction mixed with equal part despair at the thought of the torchlight they took with them. When they reached the height of the stairs, he called out to the commander, “Hey. How long have I been here?”
Noel paused, turning halfway towards him. “By tomorrow, you would have lasted exactly four months. Impressive how you’ve managed to keep a bit of sanity for that long.”
The door was swung shut, banishing the light from the world of darkness.
The dreams came later, forming images of fire and blood out of the haphazard shards of memory that the mage had returned to him. He woke up more than once, covered in a slim sheen of cold sweat, only to find himself staring at a blank, silent, nothingness each time.
Damn that Noel, he quietly swore. Or perhaps he said those words out loud into the emptiness of the dungeon. He found it hard to say, and that bothered him for some reason.
Eventually, he forced his eyes shut to ignore the darkness, and tossed himself off the cliff of reality into an ocean of dreams.
“Hey, wake up.”
The warm rumbling voice dragged him back from the land of sleep to a world of stone bathed in light. A man stood over him, holding a ball of smooth, clear crystal imbued with a gentle blue glow in one hand. He had calm, keen green eyes set in an aged, wrinkled face with a full head of short grey hair. He wore a simple teal tunic over dark brown leather pants and had a matching pair of boots to complete the ensemble.
Declan Proudclad smiled. “Last I checked, yes.”
Artyom stared at him for moment. “If you’re here because N…I mean, Commander Goering sent you, the answer is still no.”
The old man shook his head. “Actually I had heard that the commander came here three days ago, and my curiosity got the better of me when I was informed that someone had been bold enough to outright refuse him. To gaze upon the face of the only man in the entire kingdom who was able to deflect the commander’s irresistible charm…that’s why I’m here.”
Artyom chuckled under his breath, though it sounded more like the rasp of a dying man. “Well, you’re looking at the brave fool. Does he meet your expectations?”
Declan studied him quietly. Then he shrugged. “Somewhat,” he answered.
“Thought as much.”
The old man proceeded to sit down on the floor, bringing his other hand out from behind his back while dropping the glow-crystal. On it rested a bowl of warm soup with sizable chunks of meat and vegetables floating in it. “I brought you some riso soup,” he announced.
A loud growl escaped from Artyom’s belly at the sight of food. “You trying to poison me, old man?”
“Perhaps.” Declan put the bowl to his lips, took a lengthy sip, then placed it on the ground between them. He licked a few stray drops off his bottom lip. “Perhaps not.”
Artyom narrowed his eyes. “And what if you took the antidote beforehand?”
“Then my family would be dead by now from the poisoned supper my daughter made.” He smiled. “Worry not, Artyom Volk. I am no friend of Goering, neither does he have any fondness for me. Of that much I can assure you.”
“Well in that case…” Artyom snatched up the bowl and bolted down the entirety of its contents. The old man watched him eat in silence, nodding in approval once he had licked it clean of soup and swallowed the last bit of meat. Artyom handed the empty wooden bowl back to him, and he promptly tossed it into a corner of the dungeon that the light of the crystal could not touch.
They sat in silence for some time, each observing the other with a cool, detached air. “You’re here for something else,” Artyom said eventually.
“What makes you say that?”
“Curious or no, our beloved queen’s bodyguard does not simply visit a prisoner with riso soup and friendly banter.”
Declan blinked, then erupted in a hearty laugh. “Indeed, my friend. You are very much correct.” He grinned for a moment, then dropped it for a grim and somber expression. “Yes, I came here for another reason. I came…to give you the same offer that Goering did.”
The elderly bodyguard held up a hand. “No, hear my bargain first. Then you can decide what you want.”
Artyom kept his mouth shut with a frown.
Declan closed his eyes, staying that way for what seemed like an eternity. Just as Artyom began to fear that the old man had fallen asleep, he spoke, “You are the second person to hear of this, and I wish that no one else should know about it. Her Radiance’s power…is fading.”
“Fading? What do you mean ‘fading’?”
“Just that. Her light is growing dimmer by the day.” Declan opened his eyes, and there was a certainty in its depths that sent a shiver down Artyom’s spine. “For now, no one has noticed this since the dimming comes and goes and she is often in her quarters. But the time it takes between dims is starting to reduce…drastically. And with the coming of the Dawn Festival, it won’t be long before someone finds out the truth.”
The old man looked away. “But I fear someone…or something…must already know this. Five days back, an umbreon attacked Her Radiance in her private garden.”
The prisoner’s eyes narrowed at that but he chose to say nothing about it.
“As I said, no one knows the mastermind behind the assassination, but with the queen’s power fading…it’s only a matter of time before the next attack happens, and we might not be so lucky then.”
“So you want more bodyguards.”
“In a manner of speaking.” Declan coughed. “But this time, we are not looking for mere protectors. We want sharp, intelligent and strong soldiers. We want people that can guard, fight and be able to follow the trail left by our assassin back to the source while we figure out the cause of the queen’s fading power. We want to bring back the Radiant Guard.”
“The Radiant Guard? But that’s just a bard’s tale told around campfires!”
The old man slowly got to his feet then, brushing at the creases of his pants. “Be that as it may. I offer you this, Artyom Volk; help me save Her Radiance or I kill you here and now so that a mind and body like yours does not go to waste. The choice…is yours to make.”