September 18, 2000
"Grandfather, tell us a story," Celestia and Ilsa said, eyes lit with expectation and excitement.
"All right then, go bring your storybook" Pato said as he reached for his pipe.
"No!," both children exclaimed. Drawing a deep breath, Celestia continued more calmly. "Not one of those stories, grandfather. A real story. Tell us about when you were young."
"I see," Pato replied, pondering. "So be it then. I shall have to take you with me long back in time..."
"It was on the day of Honor, in the month of Summer Flame, that I decided to buy a wagon full of metals from Riverton and ship them to the remote island of Naera Mae. It was a dangerous journey, since it required passage through the Dark Woods. There, all is chaos and death lurks around every corner. Normal laws do not abide there, even gods can stand without power in that foul place. But like it or not, I had to pass through.
"My son, Ekman, my own blood, had just taken up adventuring. He was young and brave, which sometimes also meant foolish, taking unnecessary risks. I needed to get him the best equipment there was, to increase his chances of survival. Equipment like that does not come cheap, however, and I needed to take risks myself to get that kind of money. I had a smooth and pleasant journey up until the Dark Woods. The road that leads to them is too twisted and narrow to allow a covered wagon to pass, so I was preparing to hitch my freight while getting a mule to ferry the goods instead.
"Suddenly, I felt a pain in my arm and my right leg. My training had prepared me for pain, and I did not panic. I had become a master of all four classes, and knew how to react in combat. Looking down at my leg I saw an arrow embedded deep in the flesh. On pure combat reflexes, I chanted the spell of invisibility. Whomever was shooting at me would find me a harder target now. I moved a bit to the side while arrows whistled past and burried themselves at the spot I stood merely seconds ago. Taking cover behind a tree, I pulled out both arrows and threw a spell of healing upon myself, watching as my wounds stopped bleeding and then simply dissapeared.
"The element of surprise gone, and I still alive, my attackers were uncertain of what to do next. I caught a glimpse of them between the trees. Kobolds. Dirty, coward little creatures that do not understand the honor of a fair fight. Their tactics are to outnumber you twenty to one, or to set an ambush. Knowing who they were, I knew how to deal with them.
"I ran to my horse and wagon and galloped as fast as I could, away from the kobolds, back the way I had come. My attackers, seeing me flee, would curse their bad luck and wait for their next victim. I stopped just out of sight, however. I hid my wagon and horse and sneaked into the woods, heading towards the direction the arrows had come from.
"The bowmen were scattered in small groups, and I ended their lives before they even realized I was there. They made a strange sound as I plunged my dagger repeatedly into their backs, but were suddenly silent, dead. They did not have time to alert anyone of my presence. Having cleared the area of bowmen, I followed their tracks and found their main camp. I knew that if I could take out the leaders the rest of them would scatter like leaves to the four winds.
"The leaders were easy to spot - they were a head taller then the rest. It is common amongst kobolds that the tallest of their breed shall also lead them. They were four in number, and stayed close to each other. Sneaking in with stealth to kill swiftly, would not be an option. The tallest of them, a fellow called Gormak, would be a problem. He moved with deadly grace and the way he held his sword showed of expertise and knowledge of swordsmanship. When the four leaders moved to the outskirts of the camp to inspect the supply wagons, I decided that the time to strike is now.
"I rushed forward and targetted Gormok with my magnificent sword of ice. I summoned forth acid blasts that struck all four, eating away at their flesh. Three of them died as the corrosive acid reached their internal organs. Gormak however, was still standing. My own wounds were numerous, my magical energy almost emptied. I had to play my cards right now, or perish.
"With my last mana, I cast the plague upon Gormak. He chocked and uttered muffled noises and blisters started to cover his entire body. Taking advantage of his sudden pain and confusion, I fled behind one of the wagons. I took forth my best dagger and gripped it tightly. Using stealth I sneaked up behind his back and plunged the dagger deep, twisting the blade as I removed it. Gormak fell dead at my feet.
+ "Hearing a gasp, I looked up, straight into the eye of a kobold soldier. He had stood frozen, watching my battle with Gormak. As he realized I was looking at him, he threw down his weapons and started running, yelling at the top his lungs that their leaders were all dead. I quickly examined the corpse, but found no valuables. Only a map of sorts. Disappointed, I took the map and started walking back towards my horse and wagon. Behind me, I could see kobolds running off into the distance, abandoning camp..."
"And now, children, I believe it is time for bed," said Pato while laying down his pipe.
"Please grandfather!," Celestia begged. "Tell us more, we are not tired. Please grandfather.. You have not told us the entire story. What happened in the Dark Woods? What was the map? We want to know."
"Indeed I have not," Pato mused. He looked at Celestia, his heart melting at that pleading look of hers, like it always did. That girl always got her way in the end. "Very well, there is indeed more to tell," he said and started packing his pipe with fresh tabacco.
Pipe lit anew, Pato continued with his story.
"What happened in the Dark Woods, is a story of its own, too long to tell before sunrise. I shall tell you of the map, however. A far more interesting story, I believe." Pato looked at the children, searching for any sign of disappointment for leaving out the Dark Woods tale. He found none. The children sat eagerly awaiting his story of the map.
"The map children, was nothing less then directions to the lair of Zeksagmak, the ancient."
Both children jumped to their feet, eyes wide with fear. After the initial shocked silence, both exploded talking at the same time.
"Zeksagmak is a fairytale to frighten children!"
"Is he not only a legend?!"
"You are just trying to frighten us!"
Pato raised a hand, begging for silence. "Children," he said. "I assure you..".
"Grandfather!," Celestia broke in. "I am now thirteen. I do not believe in Zeksagmak any longer. I know it is just a tale to frighten children so that they behave. Eat your vegetables, or Zeksagmak will come. I've heard it hundreds of times. He does not exist." Ilsa, four years younger, nodded in agreement, even if not very certain.
"There is no need to be afraid of Zeksagmak, children. Here, within the walls of the City of Medievia, he cannot harm us. There is truth in the legend of Zeksagmak, this I assure you. I should know, for I have seen him. I have been scorched by his fire, and I still live to tell the tale." The children fell silent, as the meaning of Pato's words sunk in.
"Tell us," Celestia breathed, barely audible.
"Once back in the City of Medievia, I wasted no time. Clutching the map tightly to my breast, I made my way to the adventurers' guild. Seldom have I seen such a commotion as when I presented the map. Word spread quickly, and soon dragonhunters from across the realm made their way to the guild, to help conquer the lair of Zeksagmak. After many hours of planing and strategic discussions a band of one hundred heroes, led by the legendary Tharghan and Supirio, started marching towards the lair of Zeksagmak.
"I marched in the front line, pride warming my heart, and fear chilling my body. We made our way to the lair quickly, using the phase and summon spells. We made camp right outside the lair entrance and started our preparations. Everyone brought forth their finest equipment, and chanted their most powerful protective spells. When everyone was properly equipped and rested, we were to enter the lair.
"In the midst of preparing, the dragons took us by surprise. Two red dragons, driven crazy by the smell off all gold we carried, attacked. Before we had time to react, several of our heroes were barely clinging to life. Healers rushed forward tending to their mortal wounds. Warriors and thieves engaged the dragons in combat, striking from all directions. Mages summoned forth magic that tore bleeding holes in the scaled armor of both dragons.
"Before it even had started, the battle was over. The ground was drowned in dragonblood and all that was left of the dragons was only a mass of bleeding flesh. We suffered no losses. Our spirits were lifted high by this event. The power of one hundred heroes, working as one, surely can not be defeated. Blood still burning with battle lust, Tharghan raised his sword into the air, screaming a war cry. We all joined in and rushed down, into the lair...
"I had no idea the lair of a dragon could hold so many terrors. The seemed to never end, they kept coming no matter how many we slew. But our strength and numbers were too great for them. Everywhere we went, the walls were drenched with blood of fallen enemies. Deeper and deeper we ventured, killing everything in our way. Upon climbing down to the third level, we were facing two young dragon hatchlings. We realized that we were getting very close to the heart of the lair.
"Defeating the hatchlings, still no match for our army, we went forth more carefully. We sent out scouts, and after a moment they returned with news of Zeksagmak. He was resting in his lair, no more then two rooms away from where we stood. His rest must have been very deep, for he showed no signs of being aware of our presence.
"We now stood before the greatest challenge of all - a direct assault upon the mightiest dragon ever to live on the face of Medievia. As we were preparing to rush into the lair, to kill or be killed, Tharghan raised a hand, asking for silence.
"Heroes of the land," he said. "Thine deeds here today will be sung by the bards for many years to come. However, we still face the greatest challenge, before their songs are complete. I know many of you are determined to rush the dragon and kill it with our overwhelming numbers. This can not be done, though." Many heroes exchanged puzzled looks. Quite a few however, nodded in grim agreement. Tharghan continued.
"I have battled Zeksagmak before, and I barely escaped with my life. This dragon is like none you have faced before. If we simply rush into his lair, only seconds later we will be one hundred very dead heroes. Believe me, I know what I am talking about. Several months ago I led sixty heroes to their deaths, all dead merely seconds after we assaulted Zeksagmak. Were we to enter his lair, together, we shall die by his first breath, together. Therefore, we have devised another plan." Tharghan looked at Supirio and nodded.
"Supirio stood up, hands clasped behind his back, and looked at the heroes. He spoke. "Brothers, here is our plan.""
"I must say I did not expect such a bold move. Nor did I like it," Pato said.
"Children, are you familiar with the fireshield spell?" Both children nodded. In Medievia, magic was not uncommon. Many people walked the streets with the sanctuary or fireshield spell cast upon them.
"Then you know that from all damage done to a fireshielded person, half is reflected back upon the attacker." The children nodded, again. Satisfied, Pato continued.
"There is no strength in numbers," Supirio said.
"Have no such misconception. When it comes to Zeksagmak, larger numbers of attackers only means bigger piles of corpses when his breath falls upon us. Instead we shall do like this. Tharghan and I have fought Zeksagmak before, and thus we have had time to study him. We know he is very powerful, but our calculations show that his life-force does not exceed those of one hundred heroes. In fact, probably not over eighty either. We also noted that he never has used his breath when facing a single foe, he only breathes his fire if facing a group. Therefore, we have decided to send you in, one at a time, fireshielded."
"Supirio looked over the group of heroes. He had just sent them to their deaths, and they knew it. The faces he saw, were those of men preparing to die for a just cause.
"The reasons should be obvious. The damage Zeksagmak does upon you, shall be reflected back upon himself. He will not be able to survive all of us. In addition, he will not use his fire since we will engage him in one to one combat. That will give you time to throw two or three damaging spells upon him before your name will be sung in songs as one who bravely gave his life to save our people from the Dragon. Once his wounds have become mortal, those remaining will rush forward and kill the dragon in a last, grand offense. Those without families awaiting their return, shall venture first. You enter the lair when we call your name"
"A heavy silence fell upon the army.
"For Medievia," someone whispered, "and for the freedom and safety of our people".
"For Medievia!" echoed the others. Bringing forth quill and paper, those with loved ones awaiting started to write their letters of farewell, none expecting to live through the battle. Magically sending the letters to their destination, people stood up waiting with grim determination for their name to be called. The silence was louder then thunder in my ears. Not bearing the silence, a hero started singing, low at first, the song called "The final battle". More fell in, singing silently but from the heart. As voices rose, so did courage.
"The song fading, the first hero entered the lair of Zeksagmak. And thus, the slaughter began.
"Screams of death filled the cavern as hero after hero entered the lair, lasting only seconds against the power of Zeksagmak. More then thirty people had given their lives when the cavern suddenly became freezing cold and we all felt goose bumps upon our arms. A strange feeling seized me, as if someone just had walked over my grave. Those amongst us that were proficient in magic, especially necromancy, recognized the signs at once.
"Silence!" a mage said. "I sense the souls of our slain comrades in the room. They come in anger and sadness and find no rest after their deaths. They have something to tell us."
"Having said this, he cut himself and began drawing strange symbols upon the ground with his own blood, chanting powerful spells. I watched as the spirits of our slain materialized right before our eyes. Their bodies were broken and bleeding and they looked upon us with sadness and wrath. The voices from the grave sent shivers down my spine.
"We have died in vain," one of them said. "Our lives ended, for nothing. The dragon takes no damage from our fireshields. My children shall have no father, no stories will be sung. My blood is on your hands," he said and looked Tharghan and Supirio in the eyes.
"This cannot be!" Supirio boomed in rage. "I have not sacrificed people's lives in vain. They must be mistaken. The damage Zeksagmak takes from one individual might be too small to notice. You!" he said, pointing at a cleric hero. "You shall go in, and do nothing but heal yourself. When you are running low on magical energy to heal, flee, to save your life. Thine mission is to do nothing but look for damage done by your fireshield upon Zeksagmak."
"The hero nodded and started walking towards the lair. Ten seconds after, we heard his agonized cry of death.
"Despair not," the necromancer mage said. "He will come to us, even after death, and give us the information we need".
"Just as the mage said, the undead corpse of the cleric came to us.
"Mine death will save the rest of you from pointless slaughter. The dragon takes no damage from our shields, of this I am now certain. Our spell is too weak to affect him."
"Raising a cry of despair and fury, a teary-eyed veteran warrior stood up and ran towards Zeksagmak. His son had been amongst the first to die this day.
"Death to the dragon!," he shouted, foaming at the mouth.
"Avenge our brothers, let the dragonblood flow!"
"With a mighty war cry he flung himself at the dragon. All others hesitated but a second.
"Death to the dragon!," they all shouted and stormed the lair. Hell, had begun.
"Everything was chaos. We must have taken Zeksagmak totally by surprise. He must have expected us to come one by one. We fought him for a full minute before his dreaded breath came upon us. By a miracle, however, only forty or so of us died by his breath - the rest were not in the room when it came. Seconds before breathing, Zeksagmak lashed out with an enormous tail and sent most of us flying out of the room. While we were still struggling to get back on our feet he breathed, and everyone still left in the room died instantaneously.
"We knew that it took huge amounts of energy for him to breathe, and that he would not use his breath again until at least a full minute had passed. That is the time it takes for him to regenerate his breath. Realizing this we charged back into his lair, our desperation giving us strength.
"I have never seen mortals fight with such rage and fury before. All around me, brothers were dying. I was filled with berserker rage, striking at the dragon with such force that I thought my muscles would explode. My sword scattered dragonscales as were they nothing but frail glass. I fought for my life, but the power within me came from the knowledge that did we fail today, the dragon would spill the blood of our families and friends. I fought to avenge my slain comrades, lying broken and scattered by my feet. Never before have I fought this perfect, and never again will I be able to.
"The wounds we inflicted upon Zeksagmak would have ended the lives of ten other dragons. But he still stood. We saw as he inhaled, and we knew he would breathe in a matter of seconds. With our last strength we fell upon him, fighting like whirlwinds of chaos. Zeksagmak reeled in shock from the sudden bloodloss and with an earthshattering cry of pain, he fled the room. We stood staring at each other for seconds, panting, not really understanding we were still alive.
"The first to react were the clerics. The corpses of our fallen brothers were still fresh, their spirits still within their bodies. Bringing forth their heartstones, the clercs gave the slain back their life. Throwing the spell of bloodbath, we made the blood of the fallen heal our wounds and fully restore us. Zeksagmak was hurt, and we were not. Not any longer. We had the upper hand. Not giving him time to regenerate, to get energy for a breath, we quickly charged him again. To our surprise he retreated at once. Giving up an enraged bellow, he fled his lair all together.
"We thought we had him, we really did. We knew the pattern - enraged, the dragon would seek revenge, trying to attack our clantown and kill our families. We all climbed out of the lair and into the open, gathering close and awaiting for our wizards to cast the spell of transportation that would bring us to our homes before the dragon, to make a final stand against him.
"It was then he struck. No one saw it coming. Out of the dark skies he descended upon us and with a mighty roar unleashed his fire in our midst.
"The last thing I remember was the pain and the heat. Fire burned my flesh and I died screaming, as did all that had challenged Zeksagmak that day. I remember my last thoughts were a prayer to my creator and my hopes to meet him in his kingdom after my death. "Vryce, I await thee. Your true son am I. I hail you, now as I die. I pledge you my sword, and to no man I kneel. Ours, is the kingdom of steel." after what could have been an eternity, or merely a blink of an eye, a voice whispered in my head.
"Open thine eyes," it said. As I did, I saw beauty such as I had never seen before. I was standing in a grand hall, together with all my fallen comrades. Words lacked the power to describe the beauty of that place, I cannot describe it to you. And as if to match this beauty, a young man appeared, radiating with power and wisdom. I knew at once who was standing in front of me. The god Iskandar had blessed us with his presence. Surely this must mean that we had been chosen to the greatest honor a man can have - a life in Valhalla. I say Valhalla, for that is what I believe it is. Other men call it other things, and the wise ones of different faiths argue about its name and purpose. To me it is Valhalla - Kingdom of steel, where true heroes are granted entrance if they live a life and die in honor.
"Thine battle today had not gone unnoticed," Iskandar said, his voice soft as music yet strong as steel. "Thine battle today, has indeed earned you a place in this kingdom. Still, that time has yet to come." Iskandar paused, drawing a deep breath before continuing. "Zeksagmak's power on Medievia must not stay unchallenged. The gods wish him gone, yet cannot directly interfere with him. The nature of creation is such as that it must be left on it's own will. We tried to intervene with Zeksagmak's father, to punish him for his vile acts. We took him away from the world of living. But our actions had unforeseen and dire consequences. I can merely repeat that we can not - shall not - directly interfere any longer. My presence here today has been intensely discussed amongst the gods. We take a risk in doing what I now shall do."
"Raising his right hand, a white beam of light shot up towards the ceiling. "You shall return back to life, and thine spirits shall rejoin thine bodies. Zeksagmak has now grown in power. He has already found a new lair, his fourth in number. Let not his reign of terror go unchallenged."
"With those words he lowered his hand and the bright beam of light shone upon us, so blinding I had to close my eyes. When I opened them once again I was laying on the ground outside Zeksagmak's lair, as did the others.
"Such is my story, children, and I give you my word of honor - true it is." The children jerked, as if waking from a dream.
"Grandfather, did you do like Iskandar asked you, did you fight Zeksagmak again?" Celestia asked.
"No children, I did not," Pato said with sadness in his voice. "Yet has the lands of Medievia seen no hero courageous enough to lead us into the fourth lair of Zeksagmak. But when he comes, and when he does, I shall be there," Pato said and rose up. Sending the children to bed, Pato remained staring at the fire, lost in thought.
"Indeed I shall be there," Pato whispered into the fire. "For Valhalla awaits me. We shall meet once again, Zeksagmak... In victory...or death...