November 15, 2003
Unbroken by Portilius
I see him, so tall and bold, so strong and debonair. He carries himself erect and proud, his sharp daggers and swords visibly arrayed to warn off any opportunists who wish to try their luck.
I step back.
He comes closer and smiles. "New here?" he asks.
I nod. I cannot do anything else.
"Iíll show you around," he says, smiling.
His word is good. I follow him and find a room where items appear magically, filling the floor with strange shapes.
"Take that," he says, pointing at an oddly shaped dagger on the floor.
I try to do as he says, but it vanishes in a puff of smoke before I can reach it. I step back in fear.
"Cycles," he mutters, smiling wryly. "Try that one instead."
I take the items he points out. Some are scarred, and some do not fit properly, but they are better than the scant garments I wore when I met him.
Satisfied, he leads me out into the city. Itís cold and dark, and something made of rock floats high overhead. He takes me through the crowds to a shimmering ... something in the air.
"A portal," he says. "Do as I do, and follow me. Mage!" He barks the last word and steps into the shimmering haze. He disappears, but nobody around seems to take any notice. They talk and laugh, ignoring me and living their lives. I follow my new friend and copy his speech.
Sunlight forces me to blink, and I take a moment before looking around.
"Welcome to the Mageís Quarter," he says, chuckling at my expression. "Walk with me for a while." He sets off over the courtyard, and I scurry after him. "We were beneath yonder castle," he says, waving a beringed hand at a monstrous edifice high in the sky.
I stare at it and am almost knocked down by a passing apprentice. It is huge, and the distance we had traveled with a mere tingle... Something white passes over my eyes. I can see it, and even shaking my head does not dislodge it.
"Easy there," he says. "Iíve cast a protective aura over you. You can still see, but your enemies will not be able to hurt you easily." He says more words, and my skin thrills with sensation as he casts more spells.
"Now, my apprentice thief," he says, smiling. "Do you see that man there?"
I look at the man he points at. I see the manís broom and his cheerful expression. I nod.
I stare. "Kill him?" I ask.
"You have your dagger," he tells me. "Kill the janitor. Stab him in the back."
Sweat makes my daggerís hilt slippery, and I draw it slowly. Take a life? That man, that janitor, is no threat. He even looks at me and nods familiarly before returning to his work.
"Kill him. Stab him in the back."
"Who are you to decide who to help and who should die?" I demand.
"I am an avatar," he replies. "I know what you need to know, and I know that you need to kill that janitor."
I do not understand. I look back to the janitor. He has turned away. That makes it easier. I walk forward, raising my dagger. I close my eyes and strike.
Something wet splashes on my hands. I open my eyes to see the janitor looking at me, his face surprised and pale. He weakly brings his broom up to defend himself, and my instincts take over.
I stab him again, this time in the chest, and he falls dead. I look at the corpse. I smell the blood.
"Good," the avatar says. "Weíll make a fine adventurer out of you."
"Adventurer?" I ask. My eyes remain on the corpse.
"Oh, these are just small beginnings, my friend," the avatar says. "Plenty more where he came from."
"More?" My voice breaks, but I feel no shame.
The avatar smiles and leans against a wall. He motions for me to stand with him, and together we watch the street. The white aura fades from in front of my eyes, and I feel strangely alone without it. I can still smell the blood. I feel sick.
A figure with a broom walks down the street. It is the man I just killed, and he nods familiarly at me.
"Plenty more," the avatar says. He taps the side of his nose. "Cycles," he adds. "Always cycles."
I feel no better for killing the same person for the second time, nor do I feel good about the next five janitors. The avatar leads me on a killing spree, but every time I kill someone, I see him again a few minutes later.
I look up from the corpse of a wizard, my daggerís wound showing in his back. The wizard walks down the street and steps over his own corpse, waving his staff irritably.
"Cycles," the avatar says, smiling.
I stab the wizard for the second time in as many minutes. I feel nothing but the impact.
More people fall to my blade, and strange creatures follow them. I take curious items from them, and the avatar tells me to wear certain of them. He teaches me what to attack and avoid, and he tells me where to go to learn my craft.
"Now?" I ask, standing over the corpse of a guardsman. He will be patrolling again in a few minutes.
"Now it is your turn to venture forth with others," the avatar says. "You cannot rely on me all the time. Talk to people and learn the world. Always remember the cycles."
I meet with other people, many as nervous as I am, and I join with them as we travel through a graveyard, killing anything and everything that gets in our way. We head off on the backs of dragons to find a place where wild creatures roam freely, and we leave a trail of red in our wake.
I lead my new friends up a mountain trail and look for more creatures to kill. The plains below are splattered with blood, but perhaps we will find something above.
I hear a growl from ahead. A wolf. I grab my dagger and smile. A fellow adventurer chants and casts a protective spell over me, though I yearn for the white aura the avatar had used.
We attack the wolf, but screams come from behind. Our clerics fall quickly to a pack of wolves that have ambushed us. I find myself whirling, trying to keep flashing fangs from my throat.
I weakly bring my daggers up to defend myself, but I fall, and my screams are silent.
I see the sky. Will I, as a corpse, always see the sky? Something is tugging on me, and I fear that the wolf is beginning to eat. My head rocks from side to side. I hear growling in the distance. Something bites, but the dead feel no pain.
The tugging stops. A face appears before my fading vision. The avatar Ė I see his sorrow. He is chanting something, holding something aloft, but his expression tells me more than I need to know. I stand before him, and he shakes his head.
"Too late," he says. "I am sorry. You are now a zombie, and there is only one recourse for you."
I try to speak, but my jaw hangs limp. Instead, I moan.
He walks away and heals my fellows, laying glowing hands on them. They smile at him, but they lean away from me. I stare at them, unable to do anything else.
"Iíll bring him back," the avatar says to my companions. "Wait here." He beckons to me, and I follow him down the path, falling and stumbling. My body is not my own, and I feel like a puppet instead of a living being.
He takes me behind a curtain of water. "This place is sacred to the gods," he says. "They are the only ones who can help. Pray to them."
I stare at him, and then think of a prayer I heard my mother use.
"Grant me strength, oh gods, that I may see your desires. Grant me health, oh gods, that I may do your work. Grant me love, oh gods, that I may seek you."
The avatar stops me. "Beautiful words," he says. "Mumbled, but beautiful. Just pray with your heart. You do not need words."
I do as he says, and I am reborn.
There is no way to describe it. I am whole once more, naked but living. My clothes and armor are beside me, and I wriggle into them, aware of the avatarís glowing hands. I see the rings of fire on his hand, but he does not explain them, and I do not ask. They do not hurt me, and that is my only concern.
"Cycles," he says, healing the last of my wounds. "Always cycles."
He leads me back to my fellows, and the slaughter begins once more. Creatures die, and I die, and we all return to life. Cycles Ė I see them. I cannot break them.
I am reborn, and the gods are now my masters. I train at the temple in the City of Medievia, the city below the floating castle, and I know of the love the gods have for us. I step out into the clear air, ready to adventure once more.
"Not really," I say, turning. I break into a smile.
The avatar smiles back at me. "Good to see you progressing," he says. "Iím just looking around for people who need help. Go your way in good health, and remember the cycles."
I smile and bow my head to him. The gods have blessed him with the chance to aid the uninitiated, and I fight down the envy I feel. I take one last look at him before I head off into the city. He no longer seems so big, but he is still friendly, and his rings of fire hold my attention.
My perspective has changed. I have seen strange things in strange places. I have seen other avatars, but this is the first time I have seen him since I started my career.
I see him again, and it is a day when I have returned to the temple to seek further instruction. I see him on the steps of the temple, and he looks weary. His armor shows fresh gouges, and his eyes seem somehow empty. His fingers are bereft of rings, and I frown.
I greet him, and he smiles, but it is a wan smile. "Just tired," he says.
I shrug, for it is his business, but I wonder about something. One of the prayers the archpriest taught me will show me how pure a personís soul is. I wait until he looks away, and I say the words.
I see filth, I see darkness, I see vile intentions. I recoil. His soul is the blackest sort, and I fear.
He hears my gasp and looks back. He sees my face and realizes what I have done. "I wouldnít worry about it," he says, giving me that wan smile. "I may be evil, but that doesnít always make someone a bad person."
I run into the temple and hide in an empty cell. How can this be? His soul was like that of a demon or devil. He was still helping people, yet he had the worst intentions. Was I to be a victim in some awful scheme?
I cower in the temple for days until the priests suggest that I go forth once more. The templars flanking them are enough of a hint, and I take the risk.
He is there on the steps again, looking somewhat healthier, but we do not speak.
I am not surprised to see him again. The wind blows the hem of my robes as I step from the mageís guild. He is instructing a novice once more, and he seems to be at his best strength once more. His rings of fire are back, and I see more jewelry on his person. His necklaces look expensive.
I walk past him and his trainee, not daring to look at them or to speak. I spent most of my career in the temple seeking out and fighting evil, and now I avoid facing it.
"Cycles," he says to the novice as I pass. He glances at me, but we do not speak.
I set off to destroy evil again.
He looks old. Grey streaks mar his hair, and I see many wrinkles on his face. He smiles at me in passing as I head to the summit of the mountain, but he is weary. His latest apprentice is by his side, someone who seeks rebirth as I do.
"Watch the cycle," he instructs his trainee.
I ask for rebirth, and I receive it. I do not look at him. I quaff a potion and return to the City of Medievia. All I can hear are his words. "Watch the cycle."
I take up my sword and armor, and I continue my cycle.
I turn from the applauding crowd to see him grinning at me. He and I are now the same. The blessing of the gods has made me an avatar. They have not taken that from him.
"I get by," I reply. I watch him warily.
He turns his back and walks away. The rings on his fingers flash brightly for a moment, but I only see the white of his hair. "Come with me, and I will explain," he says over his shoulder.
My hand remains near the hilt of my sword. He is old, and I am at my prime, but I still respect experience. I have my own rings of fire, and my own sharp blades and sturdy armor, yet he still seems spry and able to fight.
I follow him warily, but all he does is explain my new duties. He has trained many avatars in his time, he adds, his voice heavy with his years. He speaks, and I slowly relax, once more the novice.
We pause near the fountain beneath Castle Medievia. "Cycles," he says, smiling at me.
I cannot help myself. The old feelings and memories come back in a flood. "Did you ever just help people?" I demand. "Was there any other purpose in your actions?"
He stares at me for a while. "Pray once more, as you did before," he says. "You may understand."
I shake my head. I know of the filth below his gentle exterior, and I do not want to taste it again.
"Pray once more, just for me," he says. "Do it for the cycles." He peers into my eyes. "New here?" he asks.
His words touch me, but I do not know how. I chant the prayer, and the gods send the divination. I see gold, I see silver, and I see crystal. "Your soul is pure," I gasp.
"I may be good, but that doesnít always make someone a nice person," he says, smiling despite his years. "Cycles. Never forget them."
I hear too late. I visit his grave. He never told me his name, and I can see nothing on his headstone. I donít know whom he left his rings to, nor do I ask, but I have his most precious legacy.
"New here?" I ask.
The apprentice mage looks around in confusion. "What do I do?" he asks.
"Cycles," I say. "Always remember the cycles."
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