The darkness enveloped Arik like a swarm of ill-intentioned insects, stinging and biting at his flesh to ward him away from the evil fortress looming over him. He took a deep breath, focusing his energy on the task at hand, ignoring everything else as the fate of The Realm was now in his hands. He gripped the Claymore tighter in his hands as he stepped on to the wooden drawbridge spanning the abysmal chasm below.
Everything that had happened up this point seemed a blur to him, even with his heightened senses. His name was his to keep, but where he was from, who he called a friend, brother, lover and even his reason for being here eluded him.
The wood moaned in protest as he crossed it, his heavy armor shifted and clanked together as he progressed cautiously onward.
The sad remainder of the setting sun reached desperately toward him through the darkness, but was quickly dying behind the mountainous wastes all around him. Now was the time for action – darkness in this place meant certain death for him as the creatures of this place crawled over the craggy landscape at night.
He reached the gate at last. It opened to welcome him in, the chains clinked together as they retracted and pulled the metal grate upwards.
The fortress was black as the coming night, and as eerily empty. He trod carefully into the courtyard, his boots dug into the damp, decayed mud beneath him. Life dared not exist in this place – the creatures that called it home were mere shells of what may have been their mortal form, once.
He reached the large wooden door of the keep beyond the outer gate. Fresh blood stained the stone masonry beneath it to dissuade trespassers from going any further. Old bones littered the ground near the door, no doubt the final resting place of others as brave and foolish as himself.
He gripped the metal ring that served as the door’s handle and pulled hard. The door roared back at him as a rush of wind blew out of it, nearly knocking him to the ground. He stood firm and stepped inside as the initial rush of wind died away.
The door slammed shut suddenly, sealing him within. Darkness, as he knew it, was nothing compared to the utter absence of light in this place – save for a bright red light somewhere above him. He followed the light – the floor, pillars, and stairs that should exist in the room seem to be misplaced as he ascended into the darkness. The light drew closer and closer, growing brighter as he neared its source.
As he entered the room in which it was contained, it lashed out at him, blinding him for a moment. He shielded his eyes as an evil presence invaded him.
“I can sense you, mortal. Your existence disgusts me! You have traveled far for naught, and I shall make you suffer the pain of a thousand deaths for your intrusion into *my* Realm!”
The presence laughed manically at him as he crumbled to the floor, writhing in pain as the life is slowly drained from him.
“I have failed, and The Realm and all of its inhabitants will suffer and die because I was not strong enough.” He thought in despair. He fought to his last, but the attempt was pathetic and worthless. He was defeated, and The Realm along with him.
He awoke with a start. His heart pounded in his chest and cold sweat covered his body.
“Just a dream… all just a dream.” He said aloud to calm himself.
He took in his surroundings quickly, suddenly realizing that this is not where he had chosen to nap in solitude. He jumped up and went to draw his sword only to find that he was completely naked, stripped of all his belongings.
He looked down in shame at his exposed, dark-tanned skin, running a hand through his thick, black, wavy hair in embarrassment. He swiveled in place quickly in an attempt to spot any eager onlookers.
“Come out and show yourselves pranksters!” he shouted into the wind as he covered himself with his hands. Nobody answered. The sound of wind sifting through the grass and tickling the leaves of the vacant trees above him was the only reply. A small brook babbled somewhere nearby, traveling lazily through the strange wilderness.
Arik was a rogue knight, banished from his kingdom by order of the King who had taken a young wife in marriage against her will when his queen was murdered by a rival kingdom. He had been one of the King’s most trusted knights, and there was a great sense of honor and respect about him that other knights could only look at and envy.
That had been his ultimate downfall. He had seen the queen’s unhappiness and one day she had called out to him to save her, like a damsel in distress. He had pitied her, and as much as he loved the kingdom and dedicated himself to the duty of protecting it, he could not agree with his King’s unjust actions in forcing a young girl to marry him. So he made his decision. One night, he stole her away and they fled together into the night.
It didn’t take the king long to discover that his queen was not in the bedchamber as she was ordered to be at his calling, and when he called upon his best knights to find her Arik was nowhere to be found. They spent many days in hiding, watching and waiting until they were sure that the king no longer desired her.
Those days, though full of fear, were not without their share of other feelings. It didn’t take long for the queen to display her affection towards her hero. They fell in love, and spent those days not only hiding, but giving their hearts to each other.
That was why it had felt like a crushing blow to the heart when mere days later she was killed by a band of Waylayers along their travels. Travel along the main roads was suicide with the King’s men on patrol so they had no choice but to resort to the back roads used by brigands. He fought them off but it had not been enough. She was pierced through the stomach, and died in his arms after a few agonizing minutes.
He carried her body to a tree with a twisted trunk, wrapping around itself like two lovers in an embrace. He buried her there after kissing her pale skin one last time and weeping for her.
The days that followed had been a blur for him. We walked unceasingly, day and night, not daring, wanting, or able to rest. It was only when he collapsed at the base of a tree in a lightly-wooded area along his travels that he closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep, the very sleep that had brought him here.
He looked around desperately for some form of covering, eventually spotting the clothed corpse of an unfortunate traveler nearby.
“No disrespect, but I need your clothes more than you do, sir.”
He stripped the corpse of its clothing, adding ripped pants, worn sandals, and a torn tunic to his arsenal. He adjusted his new clothing as a glint nearby caught his eye – a sword, still held in the corpse’s right hand. He grabbed hold of the hilt, doing his best to avoid the corpse’s wide-eyed stare into the sky above as he pulled it from its death grip. He sheathed the small sword on his hip and checked his surroundings again to make sure he wasn’t the animal in some sort of trap.
A light-blue glow of some sort shone from behind a tree just ahead of him towards what he decides is south. He walked cautiously towards the light with a hand on his sword’s hilt. A small fog rolled off the top of a hill nearby where the light seemed to be coming from. As he drew nearer to the light, he saw that it was a focused beam - starting or ending he couldn’t be sure - at the top of the foggy hill. He traced the light upwards and found that it lead unceasingly into the sky above.
“What sorcery…?” he wondered aloud. As he approached the hill, a deep, booming sound emanates from the source of the light, masked heavily in the strange fog. A whispering sound like the wind pierced his ears, twisting and contorting like a voice attempting to speak to him.
Suddenly, the light grew brighter. A small ball of blue light slowly formed from the beam, enlarging to the size of his head, then severed itself from the beam and moved towards him.
He froze, not knowing what to do - never having been faced with a ball of light before. The ball of light floated towards him and came to a stop directly in front of him. He squinted into the source of the light as the air and trees around him seemed to dim in its presence.
To his shock and surprise, it addressed him, “Hello Arik. I suspect you have many questions. Ask, and I shall answer them.”
He looked around to make sure this isn’t some sort of trick or clever attempt at an ambush before he turned back and asked, “How do you know my name?”
“I know all that was, all that is, and all that is to be. It was written in the stars long before your existence.”
”Is this some sort of joke?” Arik thought to himself, curious by the uncommon manner of the answer. “Who are you… *what* are you?”
“I am many things; a death and a life, a guide and an obstacle, a hope and a folly. I am known as The Preserver.” The ball of light responded.
“What’s a Preserver?” Arik asked, befuddled.
“To explain this to you would be beyond your comprehension. Know simply that I mean you no ill-intent, and seek to help you in your predicament.”
“Where am I, exactly? This is not where I was before I fell into a deep sleep.”
“You are in a different realm. This realm exists in another time and place on another plane than the one you know.”
“Realm? Plane?” Arik wondered to himself. Whatever this being was it was quite the storyteller. His mind flooded with questions, but he tried to keep his questions as simple as possible for fear that the being would give another complex answer. “How did I get here?”
“You were torn from your plane from a force beyond my sight. I have detected a rift and was sent here to investigate the cause of its formation. You are a victim of its plane-altering properties. So was this one…” a small beam of light appeared from the ball, pointing at the corpse on the ground like an arrow.
“I should be thanking the gods for my fortune it appears…” he said. The ball of light said nothing and remained motionless. Realization dawned on Arik, and he added, “Hold a moment – you see everything and yet this force was beyond your seeing; a contradiction.”
“It would seem. The inhabitants of my realm use the flow of time to aid in their sight. This rift has caused a disruption in that flow, and our vision has become blurred.”
Arik tried to absorb all that was being said, but it was a far-fetched story. He searched for another simple question but found himself at the mercy of the being before him as he could not explain any of what was taking place around him.
“How do I return to my own ‘plane’?” he asked.
“Unknown… but your presence cannot be tolerated. I must find a way to send you back to your own plane before your presence had a dramatic impact on this realm.”
“So… what should I do?” Arik shrugged helplessly.
“I must discover the source of this rift and determine its cause. Although your presence will have an adverse effect on this realm, it is nothing in comparison to what my own could have if I were to reveal myself in this form. I am forced to conclude that we must work together. You must help me, and in return you will be helping yourself find a way back to your own plane.”
“If that is my only option then I am also forced to concur.” Arik responded.
“Then I impart upon you a gift. Use this to communicate with this form.”
A small flash pulsed from the ball of light and a smoky blue trail snaked its way into his hand. He held it out to inspect it as a tiny glass sphere formed within it. He held the ball up to his face, mesmerized as he gazed into the light and smoke contained within. It appeared as though a miniature version of the ball had formed in front of him, sealed in a bubble.
“I have seen a small town north of here. Follow the path north and you shall find it. I sense something has disturbed it. Further investigation my yield the answers we seek. Go, travel quickly and cautiously. Reveal nothing of what has occurred here to the inhabitants of this realm and do not expose your true identity to them. I shall remain here to conceal the effects of the rift as my abilities warrant. Farewell, distant traveler.”
With that the sphere re-entered the beam of light shrouded in fog and disappeared.
Arik took a deep breath, trying his best to absorb everything that had just occurred. He was in another place. The land, though bearing a resemblance to his own, seemed somehow… foreign. He began to feel as out of place as The Preserver had told him he was.
Resolved to his fate and out of questions to ask, he found the dirt road nearby leading north to the nearest town. He approached it, taking cover in the brush to ensure there are no Waylayers were waiting to ambush him. Once satisfied, he walked out onto the road, sword at the ready and continued north, away from the rift and deeper into the mysterious realm before him.