The sands blow hollowly across the plains of time. Unseen by man an army was on the move, an army of darkness…….
Slowly over the course of centuries the truth has been eroded away within the courts of men, until few yet stand for the ways of El Elyon, the Creator of the beginning and He who foreknew that one day the end would come…….
Ayenathurim, a world poised on the edge of change. Chaos beckons as people fractured apart by ancient rivalries strive to hold on. The sounds of war echo on the wind, but who yet is able to stand in the gap for those who are blind to the signs of the times…………………the end, if so it must be, heralds the rise of heroes, even as monsters roar, and kings rise and fall. As Evil triumphs over the nations, even so it was foretold to come to pass and yet the end of darkness’s reign has already begun…….
I lifted the heavy burden of guilt from off the saddle horn and hooked it on a tree branch beside the path before I kneed my horse forward. My act of letting go of stolen goods wouldn’t help me against the vengefulness of my pursuers, but I felt better for it. Like I was free of an invisible weight.
The branches of trees off to the sides of the path tore my old homespun shirt as I descended down the trail at a rate of speed that far exceeded what was smart to do. At any moment I was sure I was going to experience my mount tumble from a broken leg, only for my own young life to then be extinguished moments later, as my head was cleaved off my shoulders by a Robian saber.
Miraculously my horse kept its footing and we put the steep downgrade of the hill behind us as we streaked out over the uneven terrain before us. The Masag River couldn’t be far.
Glancing back as I crested a rise in the terrain I beheld a terrible sight. It wasn’t Robian tribesmen behind me. They would have been bad enough, but the sight of the royal blue and yellow colors of Rollanic Knights meant far worse implications for me.
It was known that I had killed a man. Apparently a man of Rollanic origin. Was my father even now chasing me to my death?
There would be no quick death for me if I let myself get caught. Death would be slow in the coming and I would no doubt wish for it a thousand times over before it came.
It was a chase, but I kept the distance between me and my pursuers to a healthy gap. I had to, Rollanic horsemen were known for their prowess with archery from horseback.
The shrubby growth of my surroundings had gradually given way to larger shade trees. The river couldn’t be far. An arrow whizzed past me, then another and another.
The direness of our imminent arrival at the river and my possible escape into the Wastelands had brought an extra urgency to my pursuers. My horse neighed loudly and a quick glance revealed an arrow lodged deep into his rump. He began to stumble forward painfully at only half speed. I wasn’t going to make it!
More arrows came whizzing by all around me and I made a quick decision. I bailed out of the saddle and hit the ground running. Moments later the horse fell heavily off to the right of me with an arrow protruding from its neck.
I was unmindful of the stones beneath my bare feet as I ran headlong toward the river. I got my first glimpse of the river that was now the sum total of my only form of salvation.
I swept down the high walled muddy banks of the river’s sides until I was splashing forward into the shallows. The river got deeper than this, didn’t it?
I saw a faster moving current ahead and I waded for it as arrows started plunking into the water all around me. I inhaled deeply and dived forward into the fast current. I almost lost my breath as the strong current of the river slammed into me and dragged me downriver.
I didn’t dare come to the surface. My life depended on it, but it was hard to justify as my burning lungs felt as if I was about to die at any moment if I didn’t take a breath.
I couldn’t stand it any longer and I tried to come to the surface, but there was a problem with that as well. I couldn’t swim.
Instead of rising I sank further. In desperation I sank to the bottom and pushed off mightily. I vaulted toward the surface and gasped in much-needed air, but then, far too quickly, I sank below again. Again I struggled to get to the air above, only to sink.
I gave up and prepared to push off the bottom of the river again. My drawn up feet came down and I pushed with all my might, but I didn’t go up. In panic I glanced down in the murky water, but I could see nothing of my feet.
I didn’t need to see though to realize that my feet were stuck fast in the mud at the bottom of the river. I panicked in earnest then, but it did me no good. I was stuck fast.
My lungs were burning and in my delirious need for air I saw something move. Whatever it was, it was coming fast and it had teeth!
I fell over backward as teeth from the wide flaring jaws of a crocodile swiped at where I had just been standing upright. The green scaled beast started to beat its way past me to no doubt circle back to bite at me again.
In a desperate act of insanity I reached up and latched onto it as it swam overhead. My hands clasped onto the plate-like armor of the river predator’s back. Exerting all my strength I held on.
What was I doing?!!!
I was getting free! That was what I was doing!
Thinking was difficult, because my need for air was so vital, but the realization that I was no longer stuck fast to the river bottom gave me hope. The crocodile was performing somersaults and barrel rolls in its desperation to be rid of me.
In the struggle we crested the surface of the river and I let go and grabbed hold of a dead tree branch. Out of breath, but driven by fear, I hauled myself up out of the water onto the dead tree that had been uprooted by erosion along the shoreline.
There wasn’t much of a perch for my feet but I was out of the water and breathing. The unwelcome sight of the long snout coming clear of the water, along with its deep throated hiss, had me scrambling up the trunk of the fallen tree as fast as I could go.
Finally, I reached the bank of the river only to see my uncaring savior from a watery grave surge free of the water and head for me at a surprisingly quick pace. I scrambled up the deeply cut-in bank of the river. I slipped, but my foot found purchase on an old root. Shoving off, I muscled myself up and over the riverbank’s edge.
Glancing down I surveyed my disappointed savior, who grumpily turned tail and headed back to slip beneath the surface of the water. Quickly I glanced around for the riders from Rollanic, but they were nowhere to be seen.
I could see tracks along the far shore that headed off downriver. I’d given them the slip.
Shaking from a mixture of fatigue and excitement I got to my feet and turned to see my first ever glimpse of the Wastelands. A chill swept through me as I looked out into the desolate landscape before me.
Resolutely, I stepped forward towards some nearby sand dunes, whose shifting sands whispered ominously. Not even mounted Rollanic Knights would follow me into the Wastelands.Chapter Two
You’d think for essentially being a desert, the Wastelands would be warmer than this, I thought, as I hugged myself with my arms, stumbling along the shadow of yet one more overreaching dune of sand.
I was cold, hungry, and above all thirsty. The occurrence of all three were making life downright miserable, but at least I was alive.
I stopped my journey through the sand as my eyes took in the cornerstone work of an ancient dwelling half consumed by the desert. Beyond that lay another work of stone and another and more after that. I’d stumbled onto one of the ancient cities of the old kingdom!
What to do?
So little was known of the Wastelands or from the time before when the vast plain had been host to El Elyon’s chosen people, the Yesathurim. Idly, I wondered about the people who once made their home here, only to be kicked out because of disbelief in the Creator and the false worship of others. I had never even seen a Yesathurim for myself, although it was said that there was Yesathurim blood mixed in with the blood of both Kingdomers and Nicationers.
Looking now upon the ancient city that lay in stark ruin before me, I could not but feel sympathy for the people upon whom such calamity, deserved or not, had fallen.
“You do well, stranger, to have sympathy for the plight of others less fortunate than even your own poor self.”
My blood froze as the words spoke directly into my consciousness. I was sure that they had not been spoken audibly, but rather they had been spoken from within. How was that even possible?
Looking upon the scattered ruins I had the unreasoning fear that I had stumbled upon the home of a demon. What else could it be?
Stuttering slightly, my words hindered by cracked lips, I asked, “Who are you and how do you know what my situation is?
The words came once again from within and, as at the first, I could detect no threat in them, but only a calm sureness of spirit, “I am a sojourner come to find my way among the peoples of Ayenathurim. As to the condition of your place in life, well forgive me for stating the obvious, but you are alone and well within the borders of these once fair lands that now suffer under a curse that few wish to challenge by being here.”
“Where are you and why do I feel that you know exactly where I am?” I asked in fear.
“There is much for you to learn Rollan, but for the moment you will do well to last through the night. A word of warning. Go no further into the city, least of all stay within its dwellings, for they are a deceptive refuge. Go back a ways into the dunes, dig into the sands and you will be warm enough.”
I continued to look for a moment at the city before me in the gathering gloom of early night. Sure, it looked ominous enough, as any deserted and mostly destroyed city would, but there were intact dwellings that would likely still have furniture of some kind that I could break up and use to make a fire.
Despite all my reasoning for going into the city, I turned my back to it and made my way up the dune to my left, whose sands would most likely still be the warmest from the day. Reaching the top of the dune I began to dig into it.
I felt a bit like a venomous sand viper as I worked my way beneath the loose sand of the dunes outer surface. It was admittedly a lot warmer beneath the sand of the dune.
It got a lot darker then and the wind began to pick up. My eyes started to close as my body fell into a fatigued slumber, when a bloodcurdling howl ripped through the night air.
My eyes wide open I managed to turn my half buried head in the sand to look towards the city that had suddenly come alive. Large Evanik dogs were everywhere!
Evanik dogs were worse than any wolf could ever hope to be. Wolves had intelligence and while they were known to attack humans it was by no means an active thing on their part to do so. That wasn’t the case for the wild dogs of Evanik.
It was said that they were one of the leftover traces of the manipulations of creation done by the fallen Malachim of El Elyon. The stories were old and some truths were hard to substantiate, but it was said that all manner of twisted creations had arisen from the interference of the fallen Malachim into the natural order of the world’s original created kinds.
Some of these creations still existed; such as the giants, who lived in their stone fortresses, in the neighboring Nicationer Kingdom of Sapan. Other twisted creations had seemed to fade from the memories of men, such as the manipulations of men with the body of a horse and even lions. Many of the gods that the Nicationer Nations still worshiped were represented by these hybrid creatures of man and animal.
The Evanik dogs, although not as scary as some of the other creations of bygone days, were still a scourge in and of themselves. They killed for the joy of killing. They were known to run down entire flocks of sheep and goats instead of just taking down one or two, as a wolf would’ve done. Not to mention eating the shepherds along with the flock.
If I hadn’t heeded the advice of the words spoken to me from an unknown source I’d be torn into so many pieces by now that all that would’ve been left of me would have been shards of broken bone scattered in the sand.
I watched as the large dogs congregated in the ruins and picked fights with each other. One dog limped back from a scuffle and an entire pack of the dogs attacked the injured member, consuming it live. It was unnatural and terrifying to behold.
All of a sudden, with a flurry of high-pitched yips and howls, the packs holed up in the ruins of the old city dispersed and ran out into the dunes in every direction. I closed my eyes and silently prayed that I would remain hidden from them.
Surprisingly none of the mongrels seemed to pick up my trail, which left me blessedly undiscovered beneath the sand.
Time went by and my lips moved in a whisper, “Thank you,” I said into the darkness of the night.
“You’re welcome. Now get some sleep,” came the response from within, which, oddly enough, I was getting used to.
My eyes closed as if on command and I drifted off almost instantly into the realm of unconsciousness.
My eyes were gritty with sand and a general lack of moisture. It was a pain to open them, but I forced myself to. It was daylight.
Were the hounds back from their evening jaunt? I sure hoped so!
Feeling stiff and on the lean side, I eased out of the sand and carefully slipped down the side of the dune and began making my way away from the city. When I was out of sight of the forlorn ruins, I made my escape from certain death out to the greater unknown of the windswept plain devoid of larger sand dunes.
I’d escaped death for the moment, but if I didn’t get water soon I’d suffer death of a different kind.
“Over here,” came the response to my need.
I turned to the southeast, somehow sensing that was the direction of “over here.”
It wasn’t long, and yet it felt like a long time in coming, until I drew near the still figure of a man staring out over the desert to the south. As I came to a stop the man broke his focus on the southern horizon and gave me the full force of his gaze.
At once I felt completely overwhelmed by this man’s presence. Swallowing nervously, I waited to see what would become of me, because against such a man I would be helpless.
The strength of his enigmatically searching gaze gentled and he spoke in an audible voice for the first time, “So Rollan, what brings you to this place of lost dreams?”
I glanced down, thinking about what my answer should be. Something drove me to be honest with this man and in a stuttering voice I said, “I killed a man. A man of Rollanic.”
I glanced up then to see what my fate would be. Was this man of one of the Nicationer Nations?
Surely, if he was, he would even now pull free his sword to avenge the death of one of his own.
The large sword stayed by the man’s side though and slowly my eyes met the piercing intensity of the man’s brown eyed stare that seemed to gaze straight into my soul.
“Why Rollan?” he asked.
I felt the need to cry, but I was so dehydrated that I couldn’t even manage the evidence of my grief. “I was protecting my mother, at least I thought I was.”
I sank to my knees then in the sand, as the losses of my life piled up to a heaviness beyond my soul’s ability to bear. I asked, “Are you going to kill me now?”
Instead of answering the man knelt down and pressed a skin of water to my lips, which I began to drink in great gulps.
“No Rollan,” he finally said in answer to my question. “I’m going to give you life.”
I stopped drinking for a moment to stare into the man’s eyes and I asked, “Why?”
The man’s lips parted in a smile that had warmth to it, “It’s what I do.”
I drank some more, but then made myself stop. It wasn’t good to drink too much water too fast and I didn’t want to drink all of this man’s water. Already I respected him too much to do that. Akin to that thought was that I wanted this man to respect me, even as I wanted to please him.
I offered the skin of water back to him but he shook his head and rose back up to his feet, “Keep it Rollan. The day will be hot and you will need more.”
The man made as if to leave and I tottered up to my feet quickly, “Can I come with you?”
The man stared towards the southern horizon once more before again turning and probing me with his gaze. His gaze seemed to measure my inner worth and I could only wonder as to what he saw in me.
“Rollan, the journey before me is by no means an easy one. You are welcome to come, but know that it could lead to your death.”
I shrugged, “I would have been dead last night if it weren’t for you. My life is yours.”
“You pledge your life too easily young friend.”
“But I pledge it all the same,” I said resolutely.
The man’s large hand, that showed the scars of bygone battles, settled over my shoulder and squeezed, “I like your spirit Rollan. Come.”
He let go of me and started out toward the south and I hurried to keep up with his long stride, which I could almost match, but my energy was lacking. Seeming to read my mind, his hand dug into a side pouch and held out a handful of dried jerky which I gratefully took from him.
The man’s generosity in sharing with me was beyond anything I had ever experienced before by either Kingdomer or Nicationer.
“If I may, what is your name?” I asked hesitantly, around a mouthful of jerky.
“My name is Kurios, but you can call me Kuri,” he said.
Silence followed for a few brief moments before I felt the need to share in more depth who I was, “My full name is Rollan Artenor from the Kingdom of Smir……..”
Cutting me off he said, “Your name is no longer Rollan and it would be unwise of you to mention from where you come. Your name is now Benaiah.”
As my mind grappled with the knowledge that I had just been renamed I couldn’t resist asking, “Of what people are you from?”
“By birth I am of the Yesathurim lineage, but I’m not prejudiced as are some of my kindred. I call people from many lands my friends and have been close to many of them as if they were my brother.”
My mind reeled with the awareness that I stood within the presence of one of the mythical Yesathurim, El Elyon’s chosen people. Not only that, but it seemed that the man had adopted me.
Again, as if reading my mind, Kuri spoke, “You have a choice before you, Rollan. No one can take that from you. It is a divine gift from above. You are free to go or come along if you wish.”
For a brief moment I thought about stopping, but my feet kept going, perhaps even a little faster than before.
Kuri nodded positively, “Benaiah it is then.”
I felt a strange peace envelop me then. Almost as if I had been joined into a family of some kind.
“What does Benaiah mean?” I asked softly.
“El Elyon has built.”
I glanced at him in shock. Why would he give me such a name? Surely, I was not worth so much as to have a name that meant that?
“Everyone has worth in El Elyon’s eyes,” he looked at me then and said, “Even the life of the man you killed had worth. All life endowed with a spirit from the Creator has value.”
I swallowed and looked away from his gaze, “Why do you wish to have a self-confessed murderer tag along with you?”
He shrugged, “Name someone you know who is without sin.”
I couldn’t so I remained silent.
I needed to know something and he didn’t seem unwelcome to questions so I asked it, “What am I to you? I mean, I’m just a Kingdomer from the weakest of the seven kingdoms, while you’re of El Elyon’s own people. I’m not even a full blood Kingdomer at that. It would seem that I am unimportant and yet you have made me to feel that I am.”
His face turned to me and I relaxed upon the sight of his smile. Regarding me steadily for a moment he then said, “You have value to me Benaiah. I care not who your father or mother were, for you have chosen to follow me and that is enough.”
Confused, I shook my head. He’d given me an answer and yet I wasn’t satisfied with it. Something dawned on me then. This man truly didn’t seem to care that I was the product of a mixed union of two opposing blood lines. Knowing that made the invisible cord I felt binding myself to this man grow only stronger somehow and yet I was confused. What had I gotten involved in?
“What exactly have I chosen to help you do?” I asked, not feeling too good as to the sense behind my question.
“For a long time now there has been a war going on in the spiritual realm which has gone back and forth within the confines of mankind’s existence. I’ve come to bring an end to that war. A war in which the result is already known.”
I blinked repeatedly as my mind traced back over the words he’d just spoken. Suddenly I wondered about the wisdom of my joining up with this man. He spoke of things far above the life of a farm boy and yet, in a way I’d left the farm behind. What was I now?
“Don’t think too hard on it all, Benaiah. It’s really quite simple, the complexity comes in the application of the details, but if you know where you’re going there is no need to worry about the journey to get there.”
“Where am I going?”
“It’s not so much the where as the fact that I’ll keep you safe wherever we are.”
“I thought you said earlier that following you could lead to my death?” I asked in consternation.
“This is true, but it changes nothing of what I have said.”
“I’m confused,” I exclaimed out loud.
“That’s because you lack understanding, but cheer up Benaiah, with experience comes faith.”
“Faith in what?” I asked blankly.
“Faith in whatever El Elyon has purposed for you to do in life.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“And yet you will. It’s as simple as that and yet for some it is too much.”
I shook my head, “It’s as if you speak in riddles.”
“Tell me Benaiah, what is it that you are wanting of me to say?”
I debated on it and decided it all boiled down to one thing, “Can I trust you?”
“Yes, Benaiah. I never go back on my word. Does that satisfy you or do you need to know something more?”
I shook my head, “If I can trust you then I guess the rest of what I don’t know doesn’t matter.”
His hand reached out to pat my back warmly, even as his words rolled out authoritatively, “And thus faith is built.”