-THE LAST PALADIN-

0

The tormented sky brewed its thunder, churning and rumbling above the wasteland once called a kingdom. Beneath the brooding clouds a long figure trudged through the desolate fields of ash. Suddenly, thunder crashed and chaotic lightning bolts struck around the miserable wanderer, as if marking the ruinous earth the property of the storm.

The man himself was as wrecked and wretched as the land he traversed. He was a Paladin, his proud and shining plate mail reduced to a dull and dented mess of metal. A simple sword remained sheathed in his canard, handle worn from years of use, and a battered shield hung form his back. With one hand he guarded his face against the elements, with the other he desperately gripped his last hope: a flag. It was his inspiration for the determination required to continue the struggle. He held the ruined banner, clinging dearly to the final remnant of a glorious memory. The fabric depicting a golden ember on a bright blue background had faded to a ripped grey rag. In parallel, the valor and glory the symbol stood for had fallen to chaos and violence.

The golden ember represented the Brotherhood of Paladins, which had been everything to him. His friends, his family, his brothers, his fellow soldiers... were all gone. They lay dead, buried in a tomb of ash and corpses, accompanied only by dirges of thunder, the screams of their countrymen, and the howl of their executioner. The wanderer was the only Paladin who remained. That THING had taken all the others. It had taken everything. The beast consumed whole continents, decimated entire civilizations, stolen the gift of fire, and thrown the entire world into chaos. Yet it still pursued him. Endlessly. It hungered for that final Paladin, that last guardian of humanity. And there was nothing that could stand in its way.

1

Desolate and empty plains stretched out in all directions, coming to halt at a sudden wall of steep mountainous crags. The Paladin trekked onwards, pushing towards the only hope of shelter and saftey: the mountains. In the distance, a ruined watch tower abruptly collapsed, decadent chunks of structure raising huge clouds of dust and ash on impact with the ground. But the Paladin continued on. An entire city was dying behind him. The once glorious Caradyl, capital of honor, monument to freedom, collapsed in chaos. Twisted chunks of stone and wood crashed downwards, entire structures crumbling and disintegrating. The Paladin dared not look, for even the thought of such a wonder falling to pieces brought a tear to his eye. Only the banner urged him forward, faded rags flapping, giving him hope and purpose. He must reach those mountains.

A cruel and wicked wind filled the air, grasping at the Paladin, as if trying to push him away from the mountains. The man struggled against the strong wind, gasping his purpose tighter than ever. Sensing his resolve, the wind ceased, but it was a trick. Suddenly, a powerful gust wracked the plains like a dying cough, ripping the banner from the hand of the young paladin. The man desperately grasped for his tattered solace, but to no avail. The cruel wind almost seemed to laugh as it stole his final hope, whisking it away to be lost forever in the rubble and ash.

Failure. The sky finally wept, allowing rain to accompany the explosions of thunder and the lashes of lightning. The last tears of a world about to die, for there was no hope now. Nothing could stop the beast. The Paladin cried out in despair, but the cruel wind would not even let him have that consolation, drowning out his cries in a howl of victory and pleasure. The man rushed forward, seeking to dash his head against the rocks and be done with it. The wind screamed its laugher even louder at his despair. But just before he arrived at the slopes, something caught his eye: a blue glow of light. Entranced by the anomaly, the Paladin slowy walked towards its source: the mouth of a cave.

The banshee cry of the wind faded as the lonely knight slowly traversed deeper into the strange cavern. Soon the wasteland gale was barely audible, and only the ragged breathing of the man could be heard. The tunnel spiraled gently downwards; the blue light getting stronger and stronger as he descended. The tunnel abruptly leveled out and opened up into a small cave containing the most beautiful thing the Paladin had ever seen.

2

Glowing blue crystals emerged from the walls of the cavern. The secret location of the grotto combined with the beauty of the magical blue geodes, gave the space a sacred feel to it. Ever since the beast had taken the gift of fire, the only the withered rays of sunlight lit the way. But it wasn't the occult location or the hypnotizing blue light that made the grotto special. At the very center of the chamber, was a shallow pool of water, glowing teal because of the crystals beneath it. And rising our from the mystical pool was a single, solitary, beautiful yellow flower. It stood upright, spreading its petals outwards in beautiful and organic defiance of all chaos. The knight's breath was taken away, and his entire heart and soul was captured by the beauty and the elegance of the lone flower. Fitting, that the last flower would be found by the last Paladin.

The broken young man stood there for a while, his very being enraptured by the flower before him. Peace filled the silent grotto, which seemed a whole different world, separated from the one above.

Reality rushed back to the man, as a cacophony of rage exploded from above him. The beast. The lonely knight drew his blade, and slung his shield over his arm. He was filled with purpose and determination towards a single goal: defend the grotto, defend the golden flower. Tremors ran through the cave walls forcing small shards of stone to shower down on the lonely knight, but his resolve never wavered. The beast roared above, and surely the whole world echoed with its rage. It could not find its adversary, nothing had ever eluded it before but there was no trace of the last Paladin. So close to victory, but so far. Anger unseen by any mortal drowned every worldly fiber with a furious crash of sound and wrath. But something about the grotto guarded the lonely knight. There was no magic spell upon the cavern, no secret charm of protection placed on the hallowed space. Perhaps just the simple beauty of untainted nature was beyond the Beast's comprehension. The beast stormed off, determined to find humanities's last bastion. The earthquake of tremors and roars faded to the sacred silence of the grotto

3

The destruction above was almost forgotten as the Paladin was absorbed by the peaceful life of the grotto. At first he was hesitant to drink of the sacred water, but once the refreshing liquid cleansed his throat, his reservations evaporated. Comforted by the hallowed flower, the mystical glow of the crystals, and the isolation of the cave, the broken survivor began to heal. He slept much, drank from the pool, ran laps around the cavern to stay fit, and even left his solace to forage for sustenance(barely enough to survive). The loss of the gift of fire was forgotten for the sanctuary he inhabited was warm and comfortable. His spirits rose as his physical health peaked, and life had never been better. But over all, the Paladin cared for the flower. He watched it, revered it, guarded it, almost worshiped it. That flower was the last of its kind, a kindred spirit to the wanderer. The straight stem and defiant spread of petals inspired the man, and was the foundation of his very soul.

The weeks passed, and the happy life of the knight continued. Even when great storms of piercing thunder and rending lightning filled the sky, the man was unperturbed. His only concern was the safety of the flower. Only when the Paladin heard the Beast stomping overhead did his merriment cease. At those times, the man would draw his blade, shoulder his shield, and bolster his courage, determined to defend his last hope. Each time the Beast would rant and rage, but eventually he would leave, stalking elsewhere in search of his prey. And life was merry again. But such luxurious peace and isolation, didn't last forever.

It has been many months since the loss of the banner, and the knight lay resting by the flower, his head lying on a bundle of cloth serving as a pillow. Suddenly, the man was disturbed by the sound of footsteps. The Paladin leapt up, at first eager for an exchange of words, and a sharing of companionship, But such was not to be his lot in life, for the forms that rounded the bend were not desperate refugees, but cruel scavengers. These rough and rowdy bandits had been spared by the Beast, for they shared a kindred spirit of ruin and destruction. At the sight of a wayward traveler, they cried out in perverse joy, and rushed towards him in a vicious tide. However, all was not lost, for the Brotherhood has schooled the Paladin in the way of combat, and the art of blades. The man whipped out his trusty sword, and with deadly focus and steely purpose, came among his foes.

The man's rusty skills cost him with a wound to his leg, but all was forgotten as the dance of death truly began. His sword became a brutal lash of steel, singing with blood and violence. The untrained vagabonds buffeted him with blows, but to no avail. His sword weaved among them like the needle of the Fates, and struck like the scythe of Death. The brutal contest was over in moments, viscera and gore adorning the floor of the cave. The remaining ruffians desperately retreated up the winding tunnel, terrified of the Guardian of the Grotto.

Blue light shown down upon the sickly scene, painting the corpses with ethereal haloes. The clangor of battle and retreat had faded to the faint dripping noise of blood falling from the knight's sword. Seven men lay slain before him, butchered by his own hand. This was not the first battle he had seen, indeed, the man was a veteran of many such conflicts. But previously he had fought shoulder to shoulder with his companions, his countrymen. Now he fought alone. Even victory brought him no pleasure. How could it, when it had meant ending the precious lives of some of the last humans alive?

After a moment of silence the knight cleaned his blade, and sheathed it. Weariness came over him like a cloud, enveloping him, tempting him with the seductive offer of sleep and temporary amnesia. However, the man shook off the grasping fingers of sleep, and moved towards the corpses. In the Brotherhood, he had been taught to respect the bodies of the fallen, and that even the enemy should be given a proper burial.

Suddenly, horror filled the knight. He flung aside his tools of war with desperate speed and scrambled to the shallow pool in the center of the room. Tears filled his eyes and hope left his heart. He had not noticed until then, that during the melee, the flower had been obliterated. Whether by a armored foot, fallen body, or discarded weapon, the glorious monument was destroyed. Petals, their yellow color dulled orange with blood, floated lightly on the surface of the water. The water itself was no longer pure and clear, it was clouded with blood and mud. The light of the blue crystals below made the scene alien and terrifying. The stem lay shattered, the once perfect structure crushed and crumpled. It was gone. His hope was decimated once more. His soul emptied of everything except grief. It filled him up and dragged him down, deeper and deeper into the abyss of sadness. It devoured him, eating at the corners of his soul. And he was nothing more

Then rage flooded through him with a rush, revitalizing him and rekindling his soul in an explosion of wrath. THEY did this. Those vile vermin! They stole his hope, HIS hope. The fiends must pay. Three of the brigands had survived, he would hunt them down. The gentle calm of the grotto faded from knight's eyes, replaced with the burning bonfire of anger. He had no hope now, only revenge. The Avenger hastily grabbed his tools of death and quickly stalked out of the refuge. He didn't even look back as he left that last existing sanctuary, and began to trek up the cold and craggy slopes of the mountains.

4

Thus the the Great Pursuit began. The bandits continued on their way, searching for some weary traveler to waylay and slay. Unbeknownst to them, the Last Paladin hunted his pray. He went days with no sleep, gaining ground on his quarry every day. Revenge was his only thought, his only goal, his only consolation. He cared little for the Beast in the far distance, rushing at great speed towards the wanderer. They all ran together, each getting closer and closer to his target. No longer did the knight mourn the green hills and blue sky. No longer did he miss the joy of spending a night with his comrades, the luxury of a good meal, the wonder of a warm fire. The bleak range of mountains, stormy sky, freezing cold, and biting wind became his world. Anger became his only companion.

Endlessly he jumped across ravines, forded rapids, climbed cliffs, and sprinted through the foothills. Nothing would hinder him: not the horrid cold, not hunger, not weariness, not rain, not snow, NOTHING. And still he ran on, days blended together in a messy blur of fatigue and determination. Nothing drew his attention away from his course, not even the broken shaft of a tattered banner, protruding from a pile of stones. Revenge was his only focus.

Each day the environment grew more hostile. The air grew even colder and thickened with ash, making it hard to breath. Thick, dark, constant, clouds created an eternal night. Sudden avalanches nearly cause the knight's demise more than once, almost crushing him with giant boulders. Wind threatened to push him off cliffs, or cast him into ravines. What's more, his leg injury, not given the opportunity to heal and rest, got worse. Days turned to weeks, and weeks turn to months. The distance between the Paladin and his prey shortened and shortened until they were ludicrously close. But still the chase continued, seemingly without end.

Then one night he sensed it. He felt it, heard it, smelled it, longed for it with every fiber of his being. Fire. He felt drawn towards the comforting orange glow and the delicious smell of wood smoke coming from ahead. The man's eyes were accustomed to the dark, for thick clouds obscured the sun's light almost completely. Thus the simple campfire seemed to glow and gleam like the golden gates of Heaven. His rage forgotten in a moment of wonder, his dogged pace slowed to a stately walk. As if in a trance he wandered towards the light, yearning for it. His revelry was shattered by the screams.

5

Wrath returned to him as he charged towards the firelight. He was sure it was the brigands causing such evil, and he was not wrong. He must defend whoever made that fire. Such arts had been stolen by the beast, he must guard them. The last Guardian burst into the clearing. Thousands of sights, smells, feelings and sensations rushed through his head and body. The superb smell of crackling wood and rich smoke filled his nostrils, giving him energy and vigor. The fire gave him hope. If the beast could not wipe out this small resistance, there was hope to defeat it! At first the explosion of light blinded the knight, but then the scene became clear to him

The clearing was small, ringed by great tall pines standing as silent sentinels. In the center was a pile of burning and crackling tinder, ringed by some common stones. On the ground lay the body of a woman, surely slain due to the blood all around her. Near her lay a bandit moaning and clutching a broken arm. In front of the fire, their silhouettes stretched to epic proportions by the red light, a man grappled with the remaining two brigands.

He was young and fit, corded muscles barely hidden by his raggedy clothes. In one had he clutched a bloody bundle, while the other was curled into a fist. He desperately buffeted the two men with punches and kicks, but he was outnumbered and emancipated by lack of food. One of the fiends tripped the refugee, and they both advanced forward. Before they could close on him, the Paladin struck. With quick and vicious sword strokes he defeated the vermin. His blade sliced through leathery armor, skin, bone, and thick muscle with ease. Satisfaction should have filled him now that the time for revenge was at hand, but he just felt more empty. In a moment, no sounds were heard but the heavy breathing of the remaining combatants. The knight suddenly remembered the wounded brigand, and spun around only to find his final opponent long gone, escaped into the menacing forest of imposing pines.

Suddenly, the refugee collapsed to the ground, blood coming out from between his ribs. The Paladin rushed to tend his ally, but it was much too late, during the melee one of the bandits must have knifed him. It would have taken extraordinary endurance to continue the fight. The refugee desperately clasped at the armored bracers of the knight, face pale, a look of anguish on his face. But it was not the fear of death his eyes expressed. In his bloody hand he held the final tools of fire, broken. Then the fire went out and all was black.

6

Despair and depression claimed the last Paladin. Not even a simple campfire could stand against the Beast. And now fire would never be made again, the final tools were broken. No more light. All was darkness. The knight fell to his knees and cast off his armor, once piece at a time. Clad only in his shirt and trousers, he cried out, weeping and screaming at the world that had taken so much. The wind picked up, seeming to scream a banshee cry of pleasure at the sadness present.

The Paladin took out his sword, and held it out in front of him. All he had to do was sheath the sword in his heart, and the pain would be over. He would never have to run from the Beast again, never have to sleep under the dying stars, never have to struggle to survive in this broken world. He slowly brought the sword closer and closer to his chest, voices in his mind urged him to end it all. With a sudden rush he brought the sword into himself. A piercing cry stopped him just in time, the tip of the sword cut shallowly into his chest. He dropped the blade, blood running from his chest, and rushed towards the source.

Nestled in the hollow of a tree, was a very young girl, dirty and clad in muddy tatters. She must have been no more than two years old. Her tears cut tracks through the mud caked on her pudgy face and her short mousy brown hair was messy and unruly. At the sight of him she stopped. And then something remarkable happened. In a world of fear, hatred, chaos, and violence she did the most unexpected and wonderful thing: she gave him her trust. The child toddled unsteadily forward and hugged the surprised wanderer. Her short arms wrapped around his leg(that was all she could reach) and she cried into the thick material of his trousers. The knight's heart, hardened by weeks of yearning revenge, melted with love and compassion for this trusting little girl. He knelt down, smiled at her, and hugged her back. And they were at peace.

7

They sat there together, under the towering pines and the congealed sky, holding each other. Slowly they both fell into a deep and restful sleep. The child dreamed of apple pie. She remembered how her mother would make it for her on her birthday, and how sweet a single luxurious bite tasted. The knight's dreams were pleasant as well. At first his dreamed of his Paladin comrades back in Caradyl. They ate together, drank together, and laughed together. But by cruel fate his happy dreams were corrupted by terror and stolen away from him. The scene shifted to memories of combat with the bandits. Violence had never bothered the wanderer before, but images of bloody and mangled corpses filled his head. He cried out in the dream and tried to run from the dead, but they rose up and pursued him. "Why didn't you save us," called out the dead mother of the girl. "Why didn't you help us," screamed the deceased father. "Why did you murder us," cried a bandit. "Why did you mangle us?" "Why did you kill us?" "Why did you cripple us?" "Why?" "Why?" "Why?" He ran from the horde of dead, but their ranks only swelled. Everyone who he had seen die. To his utter horror, the corpses of his friends were present too, "Why did you fail the Brotherhood?" Death all around, death everywhere.

The knight woke up in a cold sweat, the little girl clung to his right elbow. He gently eased her off of his arm, and quietly walked over to his discarded sword. He picked it up, loathe to even touch the thing. He had been so proud to be knighted with it, so proud to wield it, carry it, and practice with it. It was this, once sacred object, that he know held with complete contempt and disgust. With an abrupt motion he snapped the blade over his knee, and threw the shards deeper into the forest with all his strength. They sailed through the air and disappeared into the trees. The violence was over.

Satisfaction and inner peace blossomed in side him, and he walked carefully back to the sleeping girl. He curled up next to her and wrapped his arms around her, keeping her safe and protected. He fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, no longer tortured by the corpses of the fallen. The pair slept for long hours, and it was dark when they awoke(due to the clouds). The little girl yawned sweetly, showing off her crooked baby teeth and looked at her caretaker with striking bottle green eyes. The knight watched her fondly, enjoying the complete innocence of the child. They sat there for a moment, still waking up and clutching each other. All of the sudden the child spoke up insistently, "Hungwey!" The knight grinned at the sweet mispronunciation and remembered that there were some supplies57 by the unlit campfire. He started off to grab them, but was paused by a heart-stopping pitiful plea, "Don't go!" He turned around and the toddler was standing there, staring at him, her eyes tearing up. He was deeply moved and went to her, picking her up in his arms. She buried her head in his shirt as her sniffles slowly died away.

The knight walked back over to the clearing, ripped off a strip of cloth, and blindfold the girl. He was determined that the child not be traumatized by the butchered corpses of her parents and their killers. She had fallen asleep on the walk over to the clearing and made no fuss. The knight set her down and turned the corner to face the morbid scene once more. It was doubly gruesome now that the scavengers of the forest had feasted upon the fallen overnight. On the ground he saw the shattered tools of fire and pocketed them without a thought. He moved quickly to get the supplies lying next to the dead mother, then, with a Paladin's Blessing of the Afterlife, he left the bloody morgue.

He returned to the girl, removed her blindfold, and draped her over the shoulder. He left the woods a new man. His sword was shattered, armor and shield abandoned, and his rage defeated. The tools of fire lay disassembled in his satchel, along with food, water, and cloth. He walked for a time even deeper into the freezing mountains before the girl awoke. The wanderer expected her to be sleepy and morose, but once again she surprised him. The girl leapt out of his arms and ran around in circles. Her energy and playfulness were contagious and soon they were playing tag under the brooding sky. They chatted, told stories, raced, and played games as they traveled across the mountains. Never had the knight smiled more, and laughed louder. The little one never seemed to tire or sadden. In fact her energy only grew. The only times where she was not bursting with joy were when she was worried over the Paladin. She once saw him mourning the shattered tools of fire which confused her. "Mowr," she insisted. "Mowr o' mounan." The girl also worried about his leg. The untended wound had taken a lot of strain in the pursuit, and had given the traveler a characteristic limp. The child fussed over the leg endlessly, even when the man told her it didn't hurt that bad. They both knew he was lying. But nevertheless, both were content and happy.

The "little one", as he had taken to calling her, was the most unique creature he had ever encountered. She was short with uneven teeth, messy hair, and she still had her baby fat. No one would have described the urchin as cherubic, but she had the most delightful personality. Her smile was heart warming, her giggle adorable. Her happiness and joy contagious and the knight felt like he was the luckiest man alive. Soon she began to call him "Papa."

8

The next few years passed speedily and joyously. Papa and his Little One traveled and played together. They found shelter in the winter, and played tag in the summer. Many times they had to hide from the beast as it patrolled for them, but the child never failed to find a place to hide. She had a remarkable and unexplainable talent for finding things. One day she stopped their walk and rushed into the woods. The knight charged after her, worried for her safety. He found her sitting beneath a tree, holding a strong thick walking stick in her hand. "For Papa," she said, grinning a toothy smile. Then she held up a small twig with a single green leaf at the end of it, "for me." The knight was delighted and they continued on their path with a pair of walking sticks. This greatly relieved the pain of the man's leg, and he was endlessly grateful.

The girl continued to surprise him, finding some edible berries(to high for her to reach), discovering a smooth river stone, unveiling a hidden shortcut. Once, in the ruins of a cottage, she even found a discarded sowing needle, which the knight used to make a set of shoddy robes for the pair. They spent three years thus, traveling, playing, talking, and occasionally hiding from the beast. Then everything changed.

The Paladin was sorting through his satchel, looking for the sowing needle to fix a rip in his sleeve, when he spotted something long forgotten: the tools of fire. His perpetual grin suddenly faded to mournful stare. If only they had the gift of fire again! If only... The little girl run up to him, worried. When she asked what's wrong he told her(without mentioning her parents, he would tell her when she was older) about the gift of fire. At first he feared that he had saddened her, but she was only confused. "Why don't you get another,"(her speaking was much improved). The man was shocked. Another? There are more! He eagerly asked for the location of such an item. The girl scrunched up her face in thought, as if accessing an old memory. "The mountain, it came from the mountain," she said with a sureness in her voice. The knight's memory was jogged and he recalled her when they first met, mentioning the mountain in slurred tones. So they travelled to a high hill that overlooked much of the land ahead. The girl thought for a while and finally pointed to the tallest, steepest, craggiest, and deadliest peak of them all: Mount Spineback.

Knowing that those tools could change everything, the duo set off with purpose, but not in sorrow. The little one ran around with her characteristic energy and charm, which soon distracted the man from the peril of their mission. He mused a lot on what gave the child so much happiness. She lived in a wrecked and ravaged world, with a dark sky and a deadly beast. There were no other people left, barely any food or clean water, and no animals or live plants(save the one green leaf at the end of her walking stick). He decided that she was happy because she was alive, and in her mind, the gift of life was one worth of endless celebration. And at that moment, the knight quite agreed.

9

Spineback was brutal. Icy winds constantly shoved at the travelers and a constant thunder storm combined with a blizzard raged above. Ear-splitting thunder exploded from the sky accompanied by stabs of blinding lightning and volleys of hail. The elements battered the weary pair as if they were besieging the ancient peak. The craggy landscape was inhospitable and deadly. Hidden ravines lay in wait for another clumsy traveler to devour, and unstable paths threatened a fall of thousands of feet. Nevertheless the duo persevered through the perilous battering. They hid their faces from the cold and trudged through the thick snow and hail, just focusing on the next step.

The mountain seemed to stretch up and up and up forever, like some ancient tower extending into the heavens. They could not the the end of Spineback for it was hidden in the clouds, so they had no concept of how far they had to go. Ice began to claim them, covering their robes, faces, and walking sticks. The biting gale cut right to the bone, chilling the spirit. It drowned out words and thoughts, conquering all. How could the gift of Fire be hidden in a place so devoid of warmth and comfort? Spineback was the epitome of suffering, the climax of difficulty. And little did they know, that close behind them was the Beast.

The days dragged on, each weary step was an achievement and each frozen breath a monument to humanity. The treacherous ascending path spiraled up and up around the demonic mountain. The group's spirit, typically light hearted and bright, was smothered and suffocated by Spineback. The atmosphere of the place weighted down on them, threatening to crush them and shatter their resolve. The feeling of impending doom was ever present, watching over them on their tired journey. A heavy blow was dealt when the girl realized that the small green leaf on her walking stick had withered to nothing. Her single tear was frozen, and borne far away by the wind.

Tortured weeks blended together as progress was made. The pair grew more and more miserable as they neared the ceiling of clouds. Thick hail pummeled them, threatening to knock them off the path to a deadly fall. Lighting nearly struck the man twice, making his hair stand up and his ears ring. The girl was almost carried away by an avalanche, but the Paladin saved her at the last moment. Finally, they entered the nebulous zone. All their sight was gone, obscured by the freezing clouds. Their labored breathing drew minimal results, and their plodding pace made little progress. After an hour of such torment, they were almost ready to give up, but just as their weariness overtook them, the clouds parted. They both sat down in a large balcony of stone and panted heavily for a few moments, and then they looked up. A glorious sight greeted them: the Sea of Clouds overlooked by a blazing red sun. Miles and miles of white waves churned and turned while rays of sunlight glared down. The wanderers had risen above the dark clouds covering the sun, and were basking in the beauty of light. For a long time they absorbed their surroundings on the Balcony, and their spirits were revitalized. Then a sudden disturbance brought them out of their revelry.

10

An object flew past the Paladin's head, imbedding itself in the snow bank behind him. It was a throwing knife. The knight looked up to see a man emerge from the clouds holding a pair of knives in one hand. The other arm hung at a strange angle, like it had been broken but never mended right. The knight's mind reeled, "It is the last bandit!" The man had tracked them for years, yearning for revenge. He had now cornered his prey. The Paladin stood up, raising his walking stick into position, and rushed at the attacker. The brigand threw his penultimate knife, but the knight dodged with ease, the weapon falling into the Sea of Clouds. The knight advanced on his opponent, striking out with his walking staff. The bandit barely parried, and had to retreat. It was soon evident that the scavenger was no match for the Paladin. The broken armed man retreated until his back was against the mountainside. The knight prepared for his final lunge, but the fiend was not out of tricks yet. The bandit threw his last dagger at the Paladin. With fantastic agility, the man dodged out of the projectile's path and slammed the thick oaken branch into the back of his opponent's head. There was a squelching CRUNCH, and the enemy fell to the snowy ground: dead.

The knight dropped his head and sat heavily next to the corpse. He was unharmed but the combat on Spineback had left him short of breath and for he few moments he did nothing but gasp. The bittersweet feeling of a violent victory was his only thought, as he mourned the loss of another life. At last, the meager oxygen satisfied him and he turned to his companion. She was bloody and dying, a dagger sticking out of her chest. With a cry of despair the crestfallen knight rushed to her aid, discarding his gore spattered weapon into the snow. In a panicked flurry he ripped a strip from the hem of his thick sleeve and began to tie a tourniquet. But it was too late, too much of the girl's life blood had ebbed out, turning the pure snow a bright red. Her breaths were ragged and shallow, blood leaked from the corner of her ragged lips. She coughed wretchedly, her punctured heart barely keeping her alive. Her bottle green eyes opened and looked up. And for one moment they connected to the eyes of the Paladin, their souls seemed to join, embracing in one infinite second. Then her eyes faded and she slumped over. With her last breath, she whispered, "Papa."

And the knight wept. He wept for the loss of his friend, his child. He wept for the broken tools of fire and the forgotten grotto. He wept for the crushed flower and the stolen banner. He wept for his fallen family and his ruined city. And he wept for the whole world. But he was not even allowed the simple comfort of flowing tears, for suddenly the broken wanderer was blasted by an icy wind that froze the tears to his cheeks. Thunder exploded above, lighting blasted a rock next to the Paladin, and pea sized hail began to fall. The sky blackened and the wind howled with carnal pleasure. The sonic boom of thunder cascaded around the knight's head, and the gale tried to push him over the edge. The Sea of Clouds boiled with wrath. The Beast had cornered its prey.

11

A thousand flechettes of ice blasted the Paladin, tearing through skin and cloth. The man cried out in pain and lunged for his staff, seeking any sort of protection from the monster. His hair stood on end as a bright explosion of lightning charred his staff into cinders, nearly taking off his hand. The knight made a split second decision. The only possible way to survive was to get the tools of fire. He had to head there. The man dashed up the final climb, his numb and bloody fingers scrabbling for handholds as he was battered with ice and wind and thunder. A gargantuan lightning strike shattered the sky, followed soon by a mammoth thunderclap deafening the wanderer. The Beast relentlessly struck at the mountain side, trying to obliterate the man. Each blow echoed throughout the stormy battlefield, ringing in the man's ears. Suddenly, an avalanche of snow cascaded around him, covering him with heavy power of ice and snow. A loose stone hit the man in the face, cutting his forehead and filling his right eye with blood. A heavy bolder followed, mangling his right hand and falling far below into the Sea of Clouds. The Beast howled with pleasure, sending the storm into a fever pitch. The wounded knight hung on to the clifface with one hand his broken fingers dangling from his other. Blood streamed down his face and oozed from many cuts and gashes all over his body.

It was over. All he had to do was let go, and his battered corpse would fall into the Sea of Clouds, never to be seen again. He began to unclench his fingers. The storm seemed to quiet, as if the Beast was holding its breath. The knight began to count down. 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1. 0. Just before he could let go, the Paladin felt something, it was a tickle it sensation on his neck. He looked down only to see the twig of the little girl, with its bright green leaf poking into his neck. And that was all he needed. With one mighty heave he pulled his tattered body up and over the final ledge, pulling himself onto the summit of Spineback Mountain. It was not despair that filled him now, or cold revenge, but a solid determination that glowed in every fiber of his being. He remembered the smile of his Brothers, the glow of the grotto, the waving of the banner, the shine of Caradyl, the smell of the flower, and most of all, the crooked smile of a young girl with bottle green eyes. And he was filled with fire. All of the ice clinging to his flesh and wounds melted and turned to steam. The snowy ground disintegrated around him, covering him in a shield of warm steam. The cool blue of his eyes changed to the warm red of flame. His hair, brown and normal flashed blond, then orange, than red as cinder. The air crackled around him, surrounding him with power and heat. And he became the fire. It burst through him, flowing through every vein and every crevice of his very being. He screamed from the sheer power he felt rushing through him. It was consuming him, burning through every cell. Through the haze of smoke and flame, the knight saw the Beast convulsing in pain as well. The hurricane outside had turned into a flaming tornado, roiling and recoiling on itself. The Beast and the man screamed together, one in pain and fear, the other in pain and determination. The Paladin flung himself at the Beast, knocking it out of the sky and holding it close to his burning body. The creature writhed and wriggled, trying to escape, but the man's grip had become iron. They fell through and through the Sea of Clouds, burning and screaming and dying together. Then they burst from the dark thunderheads, thousands of meters above the destroyed world. But as the duo burned up together, the knight saw what was happening. As the Beast shriveled and died the world below flourished and healed. Green burst up from the ground, curing the rot and ruin. Flowers blossomed and trees bloomed beneath them. Like an infection, the green spread throughout the land, bringing nature back to life all around them. The ground was fast approaching the pair, but that was not the end of their fall. The knight and the Beast fall continued into a deep crevice, a wound of the Earth that went far far far down. The pair were surrounded in darkness lit only by the purifying flame they both shared and suffered through. Below them a great underground lake was speeding towards them. In their final moments the Paladin thought only one thing, "Consume me." The fire burst through him, incinerating him and the Beast in an instant of unimaginable searing pain. Only ashes hit the water.

12

He was aware. He was everything. He saw and was and wasn't. Around him the endless crashing and swaying of every universe boomed around him. A thousand strange realities blinded and shocked him. Metal birds and giant warriors and lands of gold graced his eyes. He saw magic and death and war and peace. He saw his own dimension, rejuvenated and young, with a long life ahead of it. The wound of the Beast like a black scar, still healing. He made his way towards it, desperate to return to his home, but something stopped him. He pushed forward, struggling against this mighty force but to no avail. The wayward soul fell to its knees, screaming in agony at the universes around it. What then? Was it destined to slowly fade away? Was he meant to watch ifinity at work for eternity? He could see lives like flashes of light, burning bright, brighter, then fading, or going out entirley. On a whim, he reached out towards one such flame, flickering faintly with its last breaths. The soul of a dying man, trapped in a blindingly white room. He reached out to touch it, but as he did, it went out. Suddenly, reality shifted, as the Paladin's very essesence was sucked in by the vacuum of the loss. He felt is presence in this place fade and shift. His soul flowed into the unlit wick, and with an abrupt explosion of sound a light, it burst aflame. And the knight fell into his new reality. He was nothing, he was deaf, he was mute. He was mortal. He was born anew.

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. "Clear!" A jolt ran through the man's body, energizing every cell. Figures in white coats rushed around him, attending dials and displays showing graphs and numbers. The wanderer groggily analyzed his surroundings aware of a tube sticking in his arm. He was born anew although he certainly didn't feel that way. Voices washed over him, seemingly saying nonsense. "He is stabilizing." "I need a new IV over here!" "Get me 20 CCs stat!" Time seems to speed up as people rushed about him in comical fashion, poking, prodding, and testing his new form. The wanderer felt confused and unfocused, his memory that this body had ever held another soul shimmered and faded. Then time seemed to normalize. The man was alone in the white room, silent except for the BEEP BEEP BEEP of some machine and the TICK TICK TICK of some sort of device. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. The Paladin blinked the sleep out of his eyes and sat up. The door opened and a little girl rush into the room, hugging him violently. She had bright bottle green eyes, mousy hair, and a crooked smile. "Papa!"