“THE FALL OF HALCYON”
“THE BEGINNING OF THE END”
It was just another boring day at court.
Person after person; complaint after complaint. They were good people, all of them, with valid reasons behind their visits. But it just never ended. And the training yard and the tavern were calling my name.
The handling of these affairs was interspersed with criminals upon whom my lord father was to pass judgement. At his preference, he didn’t see too many in sequence, for the weight of ending lives and imprisoning people weighed on the noble and good-hearted king.
My father, Orenthar, the 378th King of Halcyon, had just heard the disturbing case of a rich merchant lord who had sent two assassins to kill his brother. Both had failed, and his brother had discovered who sent them. He hadn’t murdered anyone. But he had tried.
“All murders are wrong, aye,” my father said. He was old and weakening, in those end-days, gray-haired and long-bearded, with bags under his eyes. His life had lasted nearly 5,000 years, which was long even by Halcyonian standards. But he was as proud and fierce as ever. “But it is a special rung of hell that’s reserved for this who would commit the sins of kinslaying and fratricide. You deserve to die for what you attempted to do, and you will, eventually… after a lifetime spent wasting away in the dungeons. Take him away.”
It was then that messenger burst through the door. He passed the convict as he entered the long, golden throne room of our royal castle.
“King Orengar, Prince Berengar,” the messenger said. He looked as if he’d been riding for days. “I bring urgent word from General Gareon.”
My father and I both sat forward in our chairs. In an instant, the malaise of court life evaporated. We had been awaiting the news desperately. After months of wild rumors and disturbing reports swirling about my uncle, we had sent Gareon to investigate three fortnights prior.
“Erstenar’s army is larger than ever imagined. 100,00 soldiers and beasts, strange experiments of all sorts, encamped around Crownsmark. They stretch for miles, my lords.”
“Gods…” my father said, his mouth agape. “My foolish brother means to start a war.”
“Additionally, my lord,” the messenger continued. “Our spies report that Erstenar’s experiments have become even stranger and more deranged. In his madness he has tired of simply augmenting men and animals. He now believes it to be possible to create life itself.”
“He plays at being a god? Is such sorcery not forbidden in the scrolls?” I asked.
“It is, Prince Berengar. Heresy. Our spies report that your uncle sleeps all day and labors through the night. In Lord Gareon’s opinion, he doesn’t intend to use his amassed army to wage war.”
“What do you mean?” my father asked.
“It’s there to keep you from bringing an army to stop him. Erstenar believes that seeing his work to completion is critical to the survival of Halcyon. To our evolution, as his couriers decree. He is convinced that the yield of his heretical inquiries could be the weapon we need against evil, to destroy any threat. That magical progress is the only thing that could take our kingdom to new heights.”
My father spat. “The raving lunatic who toys with demons and heretic blood magic as if they’re playthings believes he can stop evil?” My father’s voice was rising; he was angry now. “He who surrounds himself with it? I have half the mind to send Berengar raging down there with 12 legions of our best swords, just to bring my idiot brother’s head to me on a skewer.”
“Don’t let anger steer your judgment, father. The loss of life would be huge. And unnecessary.”
“Aye, I suppose we’ll need a smarter plan. Come now, both of you. To my chambers.”
“A GRIM MISSION”
It wasn’t always the case that my uncle Erstenar was a tinkerer with the dark arts and an enemy to the people of Halcyon.
In fact, he was my favorite uncle growing up.
The kind-hearted Conjurer of Crownsmark, they called him; the Good Duke of the West. He was skilled with spellcraft from the day he was born.
And even when he became obsessed with his experiments and expeditions into the unknowns of magical theory, it wasn’t all bad. Millennia ago, before I was born, he was the Halcyonian to uncover the secrets of space flight and craft our mighty vessels: Sleipnir, which belonged to my father, and Arion, which belonged to my uncle. Flying them was enough to drain half our crystals of their magical energy for years, so it was rarely done.
But by the time we convened in my father’s study? My uncle had to be stopped: before his army razed our lands, before he summoned a horde of unslayable demons, before he sunk half the kingdom into the sea. Or worse.
“My brother knows me well,” my father said. It was dark and warm in his book-lined study. “He expects that we’d send an army after him. It’s a solution I’ve been fond of in the past. But calling the banners would take weeks, and we must move faster. Instead, we’ll rely on stealth.”
Ah, yes, I remember thinking to myself. This is the part where he tells me I’m going to need to sneak past a horde of 100,00 demonic creations to murder my uncle.
Kinslaying. Fratricide. Unforgivable sins.
But in this case, necessary.
“Berengar, you’ll take Sleipnir and be upon them in mere hours. Fly low and in the cover of darkness. We’ll see if that old wizard Verenthar can come down from his roost to cast a fog over Crownsmark. With any luck, you’ll go undetected. Then…”
I could see the pain in my father’s eyes. He loved his brother.
“Gods, listen to me. A bigger hypocrite, you couldn’t find. Perhaps I’m the one that should rot in the dungeons.”
“It must be done, father. But what if it’s a trap? Certainly Erstenar has considered that we might use Sleipnir to fly right over his defenses. What if he means to draw me in?”
“He very well may. But there’s no time. We’ve waited far too long to deal with my brother’s dark deeds. I couldn’t bear to face the truth of it. Now, you must go. Whatever cruel scheme my brother has set for you, you’ll best him. That’s what you do, son; that is what our people do. The light…”
“Shall triumph over the dark,” I finished for him. “I’m just just not sure I can put the sword to my uncle’s flesh, father.”
“I know. I would feel the same, if I were you. But you must stop him, Berengar. Kill him, if it comes to that. He reckons with dark things, now, and something deep within my soul tells me that’s he too far gone. Any moment now his experiments could bring about our doom. He must be stopped.”
Within hours my father and I had spoken the ancient words that brought the engines of Sleipnir roaring to life. Our mighty spacecraft rested at the very peak of the tallest point in my father’s castle, the mighty Guardian’s Tower. It was gleaming silver, and shaped roughly like a giant hawk: two massive wings, curved like scythes, lined with magical engines, and the center body where the enormous power crystal, controls, cockpit, armory, and crew quarters were housed.
In the dull roar of the engines, basked in their pale blue glow, I said goodbye to my father.
I didn’t know it would be the last time I ever saw him.
“It is a grim mission that I send you on, my son.”
I nodded. What was there to say? My father didn’t want to kill his brother; nor did he want to send me, his only offspring, to do it for him.
“But a necessary one. My brother’s madness will doom us all, if you can’t stop him. I don’t know what evil it is that has grasped him and sent him careening into the dark. Just promise me you’ll try to reason with him, try to speak with him. He is our flesh and blood, Berengar. Try to win him back to the light before you draw your sword.”
“I will try, father. I shall not dream of the day the bard’s sing this tale, but I will stop him. For you. For Halcyon.”
“I believe in you, Berengar. There’s no one else who could do it. Expect perhaps me, in my prime,” Then my father smiled, and forced out a dry laugh.
“Oh, how cursed am I?” he asked to no one in particular. “That the greatest warrior in the kingdom is my only son? If your mother was alive, she’d have her spear up my ass for this.”
“If mother were here,” I replied, “she’d be the one taking Sleipnir to go and give uncle Erstenar his reckoning.”
“She never liked him much, did she?” My father laughed again.
“She certainly didn’t,” I responded. Sunset’s golden hues were beginning to blanket the tower.
“Nightfall grows near, Berengar. You should be going. Your infiltration must begin as soon as the darkness gives you cover.”
“I will return to you, father, after I have stopped my uncle’s madness. For our people, and for our kingdom. For mother and the ideals she died for.”
“I know you will, son. Now go. Your destiny awaits.”
“MANY STRANGE PLACES”
When I first glimpsed the hordes my uncle had gathered at his stronghold, Crownsmark, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Hundreds of thousands of… creatures. Men with three arms. Minotaurs. Massive, hulking men with only one eye. Lions with the heads of dragons. Skeleton-birds. Wolves that walked upright. Horse-sized cats that seemed to be made of pure shadow. A rhinoceros with a blood-red diamond tusk. And innumerable foul, disgusting creatures, that looked like humans with all the light sucked out of them.
The camp stretched out for miles. Dotted all throughout it were sinister magic crystals that glowed blood red, not the pale blue of the magic I knew. Man-made canals, which seemed to glow with their own strange red light, cut winding paths through the endless city of tents.
From Sleipnir’s cockpit I could hear the roar of the army gathered below. The air was thick with rain, and my vessel was battered by the wind – a massive storm summoned by my father’s sky mage. I flew high enough to conceal my ship, at a low enough speed to hide the engine’s blue glow.
Crownsmark was a giant castle, carved from an obsidian mountain: one of the oldest strongholds in the kingdom, and the original seat of power for the king. It was nigh impenetrable, with a wide moat encircling its towering, pitch-black walls.
As I drew near my uncle’s spacecraft, Arion, emerged from one of the castle’s tallest towers. It was nearly a twin of Sleipnir, except now its engines glowed red. It hurled itself from the tower at full speed – and then turned abruptly, flying skyward into the night.
Where are you going, uncle? I thought to myself. What could you want in space?
My uncle loved it up there in the dark of the void; I had flown with him many times; as often as the magical energy could be spared for us royals to have our fun. My uncle had always dreamed of voyaging out across the void to visit another planet, or another solar system.
But the ships weren’t capable of flying that far; the magical crystals they ran on would run out of energy before they could truly get anywhere. So we satiated our appetites with brief excursions into the great darkness. But it had been years since Sleipnir had seen flight.
It was only my uncle that could have piloted Arion. I knew I had to follow him.
So I did.
I shoved the control stick forward and Sleipnir purred to life, blasting off violently in pursuit of my fleeing uncle. I tracked him through the pouring rain, flying straight toward the stars. Within moments we left the planet behind and came bursting through the atmosphere.
That’s when I saw it: something unbelievable.
A fortress in space.
It was massive: a great gray disc, neither metal nor stone, sloping upward to be tallest in the center, glowing in a red ring around the outside.
At the center of the disc there was a tall tower that was basked in that same eerie red light.
From the top of the tower extruded a bright red crystal larger than I had ever seen, certainly bigger than one of the smaller keeps in my father’s castle, though most of its giant body was concealed by the bone-white tower. The jagged top of the crystal extended out from the top of the tower; a thin catwalk allowed access around the crystal, lined by a thick stone wall.
My uncle’s ship hurled toward it and quickly landed outside the tower’s main entrance.
As I watched him enter, the sheer magnitude of the space fortress took my breath away.
How has he done this? I asked myself. The resources and power it would have taken to build such a structure were unimaginable. But it was not the time for questions.
I launched Sleipnir toward the tower my uncle had disappeared to. Within moments I had landed the vessel. I whispered the sacred words that would allow me to breathe in space; the instruments aboard Sleipnir informed me that my uncle was using an enchantment to simulate gravity on his orbital stronghold. I walked out of my ship and into the darkness.
The tower loomed in front of me, silhouetted against my planet.
I felt something deep within myself: This was a mistake.
But it was too late to turn back.
I sighed, and then couldn’t help but laugh.
“Life,” said the ancient Halcyonian poet Verdenmar, “courses like a river through the valley of destiny; and along its flowing path you shall visit many strange places.”
I just hoped life would return me from this one.
“THE CONJURER OF CROWNSMARK”
Within the tower I climbed a spiral staircase that circled the crystal until I reached the very top, where its jagged crown protruded. The red light was almost blinding, and I could barely see the stars above.
In the distance, Halcyon still loomed. Green and blue and proud. I had been to space many times, but every time I glimpsed it from out there, it took my breath away. It was almost peaceful for a moment: the quiet of the space, the low hum of the crystal, and my planet. My kingdom. My home.
Then my uncle stepped out from the shadows and that peace disappeared. His hair, once full and golden, had turned gray and shriveled. His blue eyes now glowed red; his skin had turned colorless.
“You’re meddling in things you don’t understand, my foolish nephew.”
Gone was my uncle’s jubilant, warm voice. It had been replaced by a thin hiss that was mired in accusation and contempt.
He snapped his finger and his mighty sword Flameheart came flying to his hand. I reached for my sword, but as soon as I unsheathed it, he made a motion with his free hand and my blade went flying off into space.
“In my foolish brother’s arrogance, he’s waited too long,” he said. “Always underestimated the power of my craft, he did. I’m too powerful now for your brutish branch of the family tree to defeat, I’m afraid.”
My gut began to burn with anger.
“What has become of you, uncle? What have you done to yourself? And what is the purpose of all this?”
“Ah, yes, King Orenthar’s lapdog son, sent to clean up another criminal. Oh, if you could hear how the commoners talk of you, the spoiled son, in the taverns of Ravensport. We’ve all heard the stories, Berengar. I know how this is supposed to end. With your blade slitting my throat. But not today, my beloved nephew.”
With a quick motion of his hands, four glowing red ropes of energy appeared and, despite my desperate resistance, latched themselves to me. They pushed me back into the tower’s top parapet and attached themselves, securing me to the wall. I was bound completely motionless.
“What you are about to witness is a miracle, young one,” my uncle said as he turned to look at planet Halcyon.
I tried to speak, but my uncle was too quick.
With another click of his fingers, he used silencing magic to take my voice from me.
“Silence, fool. You must listen,” he said coldly before continuing.
“Since time immemorial the people of Halcyon have been stuck on that small, insignificant rock you see before you. We call ourselves the greatest kingdom to ever exist, the brightest flame to ever burn. We believe ourselves to live to a higher ideal…”
He turned to look at me again. His red eyes seemed to pierce my skin.
“Yet we know nothing, because we cannot leave here to see the rest of the grand, endless universe. There is so much power out there, Berengar. If only we hadn’t been so blind, so naive, for so long. When forbade blood magic, so long ago, we doomed ourselves to rot here. The first Halcyonians knew the power and usefulness of blood magic. We’ve simply forgotten.”
He paused for a moment, then took another long and lingering look at the planet. Daylight would be breaking there soon.
Then my uncle smiled a sinister sneer.
His body began to glow red; the giant crystal hummed louder.
He raised his legendary blade Flameheart and thrust it into the crystal.
The light flickered for a moment, then the sword and the crystal alike began to glow.
“We’ve been stuck… until now. Remember when you were young, you couldn’t understand why Sleipnir and Arion couldn’t fly forever? Why we couldn’t just soar endlessly, out here, pursuing our dreams? I’ve finally solved it, Berengar.”
“But that only pales in comparison to my true aim, nephew. If we are to win against evil, we need greater weapons… better warriors than these weak bodies can muster. The secret to the crystal undying, endless power, is the same as the very first secret: the recipe for that which sparked it all. The secret of life.”
“When I am done here, Berengar, we shall have the power to create life and fly endlessly. We shall take to the stars with an army stronger than anything you can imagine, child. The universe shall be ours. We shall trade one kingdom…”
“For an infinity of them. I knew you’d come, knew your father would send you. It’s the only solution he’s ever had. He’s a fool, Berengar, and he’s been unfit for the throne since him and I were boys. It’s what your grandfather believed, too, son. But you: you’re smart and fierce and brave, like the greatest champions in our long and proud line.”
The crystal’s hum grew louder with each passing second.
“Join me, nephew! We shall start a New Halcyon, among the stars, you and I. We’ll burn the old one down to finally free ourselves. To finally show the galaxy what we have always known: that Halcyon is the greatest kingdom to ever exist. It’s the right of our bloodline, my son.”
He smiled, and a for a fleeting second, I saw the kind uncle I once loved.
“What say you, Prince Berengar, Son of Orenthar, Heir to the Throne of Halcyon? Do you have the courage to take your kingdom to new heights?”
He clicked his fingers and my voice returned.
My body was on fire; my mind screaming. What madness is this?
The crystal’s hum was almost unbearable.
Speak, Berengar, I thought to myself. A thousand thoughts rushed to my head at once.
“I SHALL NOT STAND FOR THIS!” I roared. “You speak not of vanquishing evil but of tyranny and conquest! But it’s not too late. This can all stop in an instant, uncle. You’re not too far gone. We can wake up from this nightmare. Untie me, now!”
“Foolish boy,” Ersternar said in response.
He snapped his fingers, and as I tried to yell over him, my voice disappeared once more.
Then my uncle raised his hands and closed his eyes.
The tower shook.
The humming of the crystal was almost unbearable.
“We could have ruled together!” my uncle yelled.
“Once I’ve gained the powers of life-bringing, of power inexhaustible… we could have flown forever, my nephew. Just like you always wanted. And with the ability to create an immortal, undefeatable army, a perfect battalion of conquest and glory… the power to spread Halcyon’s ideals across the universe; to start a new kingdom with our royal blood! But now?”
“I’ll allow you to witness the greatest accomplishment in Halcyon’s history. And then I’ll end your pathetic and cowardly life.”
“THE KNIGHT OF THE VOID”
Red energy swirled around my uncle. The tower and the massive disc it rested upon were starting to come apart; massive chunks floated in space around us. I was helpless, immobile, and unable to speak.
My uncle grunted and groaned as the dark energy coursed through his body.
“You see, Berengar,” he screamed with spittle flying from his mouth, “the price for the power to create life… is great. Some would say too much. Cowards, like you and your father. Watered down versions of the kings of old is all you ever were: unwilling to sacrifice for what you believe in. But me?”
“I’m a hero. I’m something new. I know our Halcyonian ideals could save the universe. I’m doing what I must to spread them. Sacrificing for a greater good. I’m willing to suffer for what I believe in, nephew.”
With all my fury, all my rage, I burned against the ties that bound me, but I could not break them.
“The secret to life magic is simple, Berengar: you simply must make a trade. Bring enough souls to the gods of death, and they’ll grant you the most sacred knowledge of all. If you know how to listen to what they tell you, that is.”
I could say nothing in response. My muscles were on fire. Tears began to stream down my face.
My uncle began to whisper, quieter than I could hear, some kind of incantation.
Suddenly, the crystal exploded into a rainbow of colors; a thousand different hues and shades swirling around us in thin lines, like the strings of a bow. Then, like they were dancing, they reformed the crystal: it pulsed with light, the colors mixing and intermingling freely along its great body. There was a great, terrible silence. Then the crystal turned blood red once again and began to hum louder than ever.
My uncle was yelling, “Yes! Yes! It’s working! HALCYON FALLS, TO RISE AGAIN, STRONGER THAN BEFORE!”
There was a loud groaning; the top platform of the tower that we stood upon broke off and began floating through space like a disc tossed at the summer games. The top part of the crystal remained in tact, still glowing with blinding red, my uncle’s sword still jammed inside of it.
“There is no glory without great sacrifice, Berengar,” my uncle said, turning to look at me. “Remember that.”
Then my uncle screamed.
He began to glow, pure white; I could feel the heat radiating off of him.
“What!? NO! This wasn’t…. This cannot…,” he was panting and talking frantically. “The secret to creating life… is granted to those… who offer… AHHHH!!”
Then there was a bright flash, and he was gone: turned to dust.
Freedom of movement returned to my body; I felt my voice be restored, too. I leapt forward at the crystal, unsure of what I could do to stop it.
Then it happened: a great red ray of energy, giant enough to swallow whole castles entirely emerged from the remaining crystal and came flying at Halcyon. It arrived at the planet’s surface in the blink of an eye. The red beam hit the planet and consumed it; wrapped itself around it. I watched the only home I’d ever known become engulfed in dark energy. Then there was another flash; bright enough that I had to bring my arm up to shield my eyes.
My body shook with horror. I was too overwhelmed to scream.
When I opened my eyes, planet Halcyon was gone. A furious roar of darkness came flying at me then, like a black tidal wave emerging from the unbearable brightness; the negative inverse of life itself. It overwhelmed me, overwhelmed all, until there was only darkness.
When I awoke everything was still: I laid in the cold, hostile dark of space, upon the severed platform of my uncle’s tower. The crystal was gone. My uncle was gone. My home was gone; my family, my friends, my kingdom. Everything I had ever known.
The despair washed over me in waves, numbing my body and my mind. I laid there for what felt like hours, or even days. I wept, cursing my uncle and his lust for power, his madness, the taint within him that neither my father nor I had taken seriously enough to snuff out before it came to this. Before it all ended.
Even my uncle was unable to survive his own madness. I had a feeling that dying wasn’t part of his plan; that his experiment hadn’t gone according to his expectations.
Still, I could barely process the trauma, barely force the gears of mind to work to comprehend it at all.
Why has this happened?
Groggily, I sat up and looked around. There was something that had survived the blast.
Next to me laid my uncle’s sword, Flameheart. How was it not reduced to ash like its owner had been?
A pale blue glow emitted from it.
Then it spoke.
“H-h-hello? Is… is anyone there?”
“I am here,” I responded. My voice was muted and flat.
The voice continued. “I dreamt of destruction and ruin… I remember red skies and red blood, flowing through the darkness. I dreamt of terror and jealousy, of pride overflowing, of greed masquerading as ambition. I dreamt for a long, long time. But I’m here now, I think.”
“What are you?” I asked.
“What are you?” It responded.
“I am Berengar… I was a prince. I was trying to save my kingdom. Halcyon. But I failed.”
“Berengar? Yes, that’s right. I’ve seen you. In my dreams. I, then, am what your uncle wrought. He… didn’t understand.”
“Neither do I.”
“What your uncle intended to do was imbue his blade with the power to create life. The gift of the gods requires a vessel, you see, and no mortal body can hold it. Your uncle sought unending, self-renewing power. To create an army with. And to power your starships for all eternity.”
“He breathed life into me. Into the blade. He didn’t give me the power to create life. He gave me life.”
“I am alive; sentient; thinking, feeling, seeing. Just like you. When your uncle destroyed your planet, the souls of Halcyon… they became me. They are what gave me life. They live on inside me, Prince Berengar. In a way.”
I sighed, and tried to stand. Nothing made sense. My body was sore and tired. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. In the distance, though, I could see Sleipnir floating aimlessly through space. It was damaged, but seemed intact. I almost smiled at the sight of it.
“What will I do, though? I’m all that’s left.”
“We’re all that’s left. I can’t create life, but I think I can power your ship, Berengar.”
“I have no home to fly it to.”
“You’ve lost a kingdom, my prince,” the blade continued. “But gained another. A vast one. Your people spoke of keeping watch; of vigilance against the darkness. The vigil failed. But perhaps, in time, it can start again. Once you’re ready. The darkness won’t rest. But together, we can stop it. Why else would I be born? What else could possibly come close to making the sacrifice worth it?”
“It’s what my father would want,” I said, feeling something like a tiny hope rising among the despair. “But we are just two, against all this darkness.”
“T’is a grim place, this universe, full of pain and wretchedness and evil,” the sword said. “But even the darkest places can be illuminated if the fire burns strong enough. The flame is not extinguished, Berengar. It burns in you, and it shall grow stronger.”
Slowly, I climbed to my feet. My body ached.
“It burns in me, too,” said the sword. “I may have been birthed from your uncle’s evil magics, but my soul is as pure as the innocent Halcyonians who died to make me.”
I nodded and reached down to pick up the blade. I held it up. It glinted in the light of the stars.
“My uncle had a different name for you,” I said. “Before you were given the gift of life. But now, my friend, I shall call you Vigilkeeper. The flame that burns even in the darkest night.”
“And you, Prince Berengar? In the moments before I came to this world I saw a vision: a man, clad in light, wielding a great and mighty blade. The forces of darkness ran from him, and behind him, the denizens of the universe rejoiced. For he was a vanquisher of evil, a stalwart force against the encroaching dark, a warrior known across the universe… A Knight of the Void. And I know now that man was you. Will be you.”
“I want to believe you,” I replied. “But how can I? When I have failed? When I am broken?”
“A blade reforged is stronger than before, Berengar. But for now, let us go to Sleipnir. We must leave this place. Soon it will be infested and forsaken by the demons and dark forces with which your uncle reckoned. I do not know where we shall go. But we shall go together.”
“Aye, Vigilkeeper,” I said. “We shall go together. Come on then. Our destiny awaits.”