Ahead, the orcish fortress rose among the mountains. In the several months since Boar had been away, the orclings had been able to build it even higher. Boar counted dozens of spires rising from the black stone, a display of force that had never been possible before.
Boar sighed and urged his horse forward. It would take another hour to arrive, at minimum. It was an hour that he knew would be the longest hour of his life. Since his defeat at the Wizarding Academy, he had been slowly making his way back to his master. Every orc he met along the way had treated him with shame. No one would meet his eyes, and he couldn’t blame them. No females would mate with him, no orclings would allow him into their new fortresses. He had been forced to slay an elderly orc to obtain the horse that he now rode.
As he clopped through the front gates of the castle, he was met with a massive armed guard. Dozens of orcs, shielded by thick iron armor and armed with battle axes and spears. Behind them, the wooden doors of the main palace slowly swung open, allowing Ondernifam to stalk out. Boar swung down to the ground as Ondernifam walked up to him.
For a moment, Ondernifam held his gaze. The seconds stretched into an eternity, and Boar prepared himself for death. Slowly, Ondernifam reached up and placed an enormous paw on Boar’s shoulder.
“You fought well.” Ondernifam rumbled. “In the presence of Nubierd, by the Eternal Battlefield, I release you from your disgrace.” Boar knew that the shock on his face wasn’t concealed. “Master?”
“Come.” Ondernifam turned and gestured at the castle. “We have much to discuss. I suspect that you have not heard most of the news. I will need your steel by my side, failure or not.”
Boar nodded and followed as Ondernifam stomped back into the fortress. Boar was the second-most powerful orc in the Empire. People in such positions of power weren’t pardoned. Foot soldiers could recover from their disgrace, children could be forgiven. Generals who failed were slaughtered. That was how things worked. If Ondernifam was making an exception, things must have been terrible, indeed.
They reached the map room only a few minutes later. Though it appeared more or less the same, an enormous statue of a demon now stood in the middle of Distisil. Ondernifam sighed and slammed his hand into the statue, sending slivers of stone scattering across the room. Several nearby orclings grabbed stone tools and began chiseling a new statue, while Ondernifam snapped his jaw.
“We were betrayed.” Ondernifam snorted. “The Wizarding Academy had trapped a norigod beneath their soil. Nurichan is his name, with only the barest amount of mortal blood still keeping him from godhood. Theronsaid freed him, the two now rule over the Secondary Scorched Lands.”
Boar sighed. “I should have foreseen Theronsaid’s betrayal.”
“We needed him to take the Academy.” Ondernifam huffed. “There was nothing to be done.”
Boar nodded slowly. “So… What now?”
“I don’t know.” Ondernifam turned and roared at the other orcs that had filed into the rooms. They turned and scampered back out, and Ondernifam scraped his claws along the map, chipping away the hewn obsidian. “Without the realm mages, I do not know how we will proceed from one world to the next. We will lay waste to this world, but then we will have everything. How will we continue to grow?”
Boar slowly crossed his arms. “Are there any known survivors of the Academy? Did Nurichan spare any of the Realm Mages that we could capture from him?”
“No.” Ondernifam slammed a fist into a wall, splintering the stone. “He killed everyone except you. He destroyed the walls, the records, the archives. I have sent in many spies, and nearly all of them have died. We have failed. The Empire has failed.”
Boar slowly rubbed his eyes. There was one thought, one possibility…
“At the Academy, Theronsaid led me to two gates. The city of the gods and the city of the demons.”
“Astheris and Vorthis.” Ondernifam nodded. “What of them?”
“Perhaps the gods could help us.” Boar held up his hands. “The demons. They would be willing to help us cross the realms if we could but reach them.”
Ondernifam froze, then nodded slowly. “What do you know of the cities?”
Boar shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Astheris is ruled by the offspring of Persphone and Dararma.” Ondernifam rumbled. “He would not help us. Vorthis, though, is ruled by Zorcis, a demon that sprang from Nubierd’s chest. If we called upon Nubierd, perhaps we could enter the city and seek the favor of the great ones.”
“We would have to present a display of force unlike any other.” Boar frowned. A thought was rising in his mind. “We might…” He stopped himself. Ondernifam wouldn’t like that idea at all. “Never mind.”
Ondernifam frowned. “What?”
Boar shrugged. “Perhaps it would be wise to join forces with the infidel forces. There is a mighty sorceress, Sapphire, who wields the Eye of Hinchipol, along with many others who would like to see Nurichan dead.”
“I will join forces with the infidel troops when I have forsaken all aspects of orcish life and pride.” Ondernifam snarled. “I allow a few to join us in meaningless attacks, but I refuse to allow such as great a victory as this to be attributed to someone so weak.”
Boar frowned. If the demon was really as powerful as Ondernifam said, pride was nothing to be concerned about. “Nurichan has created a second Scorched Lands. How long will it be before he tries to kill us? We have to strike now if we want a chance of success.”
“Then take a legion of orcs and go kill him.” Ondernifam rumbled. “Pray for Nubierd’s blessing and go.”
“I do not think it will be enough.” Boar roared. “There is a demon living on our ground!”
“And we are orcs!” Ondernifam roared back. “Perhaps you do not see that!”
“What I see is that our actions have led to the rise of something impossible to defeat!” Boar balled his hands into fists.
The words hung in the air. Ondernifam’s eyes narrowed, and Boar took a deep breath. He didn’t know why he had said that. He didn’t know why he would have spoken such a thing. He had believed in the orcish assault on the Wizarding Academy. He had led the assault, and he hadn’t believed it to be anything but pure until Nurichan had risen from the ash. And yet… And yet, now, he believed that the attack had been wrong.
“Is that what you believe?” Ondernifam took a step forward. “You believe that we should not have attacked the Academy.”
“What is done is done.” Boar rumbled. “We have a demon to deal with. Nurichan must be stopped, and orcs can handle his demise.”
“That is not what you said.” Ondernifam shook his head. “You believe that we would have been better off if we had not laid waste to the structure.”
Boar shrugged. “If we had not attacked, more humans would still be alive, but they were never a significant threat. We could have wiped out the other human fortresses before attacking the Academy. The only problem was that there was no way of knowing.”
“Exactly.” Ondernifam nodded. “There was no way of knowing. Perhaps there are more demons or gods trapped under other human fortresses. Should we spare those as well?”
“We should take more precautions.” Boar nodded. “You are the greatest leader that the orcish empire has ever seen because you took precautions.”
“No.” Ondernifam rumbled. “I am the greatest leader that we’ve ever had because I saw our strength. I saw how strong we could truly be if we decided to stop fighting one another and start fighting the world. I could see where to place our strength in order to inflict maximum damage.”
“Right.” Boar nodded. “So how do we take down this norigod?”
“We destroy it!” Ondernifam turned and slammed a fist into Boar’s chest. Boar was thrown across the table, where his foot caught on the map and flipped him through the air. He landed against the back wall, his head cracking the stone.
“You’re acting irrationally!” Boar climbed back to his feet. “You’re not thinking!”
“I don’t have to think!” Ondernifam barred his claws and jumped up onto the table. “I’m an orc!”
Ondernifam’s skin blackened, and fire formed in his palms. Boar brought up his arms and cast a simple ward reversal spell. An instant later, fire and magic crashed against his arms, raging against his body. A moment passed, and the energy rebounded, striking Ondernifam in the chest. The mighty orcish leader was thrown backwards across the room, where he smashed through the obsidian wall.
Pure horror flooded Boar’s veins. He leapt across the table and slid up to the massive hole in the wall, which now overlooked a large courtyard that the orclings had constructed recently. Ondernifam lay on the ground, slowly climbing back to his feet, while dozens of orcs ran out of doorways and windows to see what happened.
Firethorns erupted from Ondernifam’s body, striking down a dozen nearby orcs. They hadn’t yet hit the ground before the leader jumped up into the air, cast along by blood magic. Boar brought up his fists. He didn’t want to fight his commander… But Ondernifam had to see sense.
He cast another ward spell, to help him survive whatever Ondernifam had to throw at him first. The mighty emperor smashed through the ward as if it was made from paper and slammed a fiery hand into Boar’s chest. Boar was blown through the opposite wall, where he found himself plummeting towards the ground. He caught a single glimpse of a rocky mountainside before he struck home, slamming into the dirt and gravel and plowing a massive furrow down the side of the steep slope.
Unable to regain his balance, Boar tumbled head over heels as he fell down the side of the mountain. Ondernifam landed nearby, bounding down the mountainside in practiced leaps. Fire erupted from every footfall, concussions shook the air.
Boar thrust out his hands, casting a stabilizing spell. He came up on his feet, steady, ready to fight. Until a fist caught him in the face, tossing him backwards into a nearby boulder. It split in two under the impact, and he desperately called on his magic.
A cocoon of fire wrapped around him, burning Ondernifam’s hands as the mighty leader landed next to him. Boar balled his fists and cast a spell, enhancing his arm muscles and allowing him to land a single strike on Ondernifam’s shoulder. It was like punching diamond, and pain flared through Boar’s hand as bones snapped.
Ondernifam didn’t hesitate, and head-butted Boar in the face. Boar’s skull cracked with a loud splat, knocking him to the ground. Boar swore and cast a healing spell, snapping his skull back in place around his brain before any permanent damage could be done. The time it took left him unguarded, and Ondernifam backhanded him down the mountainside once more.
When Boar landed, he felt more of his bones break into pieces, and he collapsed in a heap. The pain… It was nothing that words could describe. It clouded his mind, it made him drunk, it drew every last ounce of energy from his body. He could only whimper as Ondernifam stepped up next to him.
“In the presence of Nubierd, by the Eternal Battlefield, I cast you out.” Ondernifam’s voice was tight. “I withdraw the right to call yourself an orc. I send you into the wilderness. Live or die, you mean nothing to me.”
Boar gasped and cast a spell, setting a few of his bones back in place. “Please.”
“Go.” Ondernifam turned away. According to protocol, the master would kick dirt across the offender’s face. This time, though, Ondernifam paused. “You were my mighty right hand. If you ever seek a place in my castle again, I will allow you to enter as a rank soldier and work your way back upward, the proper way.” The mighty leader sighed. “The Second Scorched Lands are a minor inconvenience compared to other horrors this world holds. I will rule it all. And I will do it with or without you.”
Boar took a deep breath. “I will serve you with pride.”
“As I said, you will be allowed to re-enter.” Ondernifam took a deep breath. “Farewell, Boar.”
With that, Ondernifam kicked a nearby pile of dirt across Boar’s face and stomped off. Boar tried to pull himself back up, but collapsed back in a heap as his muscles began to twitch. The blood magic was requesting its pay, he was dying.
A vulture flew overhead, and Boar felt a tear slip down his face. He had forsaken Ondernifam once, then he had forsaken his second vow, and now he had forsaken Ondernifam once again. What options did he have, but to die after all?
The wind howled in Boar’s ears as he trudged across the plains. In the distance, a lone tower, cracked and ruined, rose from the thin grass. Boar drew his shawl around his shoulders a bit tighter and forced himself forward. The wind chilled him to the bone, he knew that if he didn’t find cover, he would wind up dead.
Of course, he should have died long ago. He should have died on that mountainside, when Ondernifam threw him out. He should have died a dozen times over since then, as his weakened form limped through orcish villages and outposts, but no one would even look at him long enough to slay him. He should have died a thousand times from wild beast attacks, but it seemed that even wild animals were too apathetic to care about feasting on his flesh. And now, as winter was beginning to set, he knew that even the weather would find him too horrible to kill. He was a monster, marked for the rest of his life.
Nearly an hour passed while he trudged towards the tower. As he drew near, he recognized it as a corner watchtower from an Istinis fortress. The bricks that lay scattered across the paltry grass certainly looked right, hewn from the red stone harvested from the edges of the Scorched Lands. The proper Scorched Lands, not the new dynasty of demons that rose from the middle of Distisil.
When Boar reached the edge of the fortress, he found a small wall merely feet high. It took every ounce of energy in his body simply to climb over the wall and shuffle to the edge of the tower. A small wooden door sat in the stone, and he took a deep breath.
Breaking through the rotten wood felt like smashing through a wall of granite. He stumbled into a small room at the base of a set of stairs. There, a dead human lay slumped over an empty chest. Boar sniffed the air and sighed. If he wasn’t mistaken, the chest had once contained salted meat, preserved food for the long winter. Now, all that was there was the human, dead no more than a single day.
Boar sat down and closed the splinters of the door, then grabbed the corpse. It was old, but what other choice did he have? Slowly, he bit down on the old meat, grimacing as the ever-so-slight hint of decay rose up into his nostrils. This was what he had come to? Eating the corpses of sentient beings because he couldn’t defeat a badger in a fight?
He was so hungry that he scraped every last ounce of flesh off the skeleton, tossed the bones into the chest, and slammed it shut tightly. With that, he collapsed in a heap next to the chest and took a deep breath. Maybe whatever killed the explorer would be back. Maybe it would kill him. Oh, what joy that would be! To end his existence, to join the Eternal Battlefield.
The door creaked in the wind as he closed his eyes. He was tired, so tired. He would sleep, and he would dream of death. Then, maybe, it would come.
Quite unfortunately, death failed to come. As Boar rose back to consciousness, his nostrils twitched. Blood. He smelled blood. He sat up, sniffing the air. It was there, just there. He was still in the tower, still lying next to the chest. The stench of decay and rot rose from inside the chest, but… There was something more.
Boar slowly turned to the staircase. There, on the stone steps, was blood. Not much, but it was there. Boar slowly stretched out his hand and wiped a finger across the blood, then brought it up to his lips. It was blood. Had something snuck past him? Was he that incompetent?
A thick drip echoed through the air, and the smell of blood filled his nose yet again. Something was bleeding. And, if he wasn’t mistaken, it was human blood. Almost not daring to believe it, he turned and stalked up the stairs, forcing one foot in front of another. One foot above the next, hauling his mass up and into the sky. The smell of blood grew stronger, the splashing noises grew louder.
When he reached the top, he found… A body. A man dressed in tight-fitting clothes that seemed unlike anything he had seen before. A simple wound on his chest left no doubt about his death, though what had killed him once more seemed unusual. Boar bent down and gave a soft sniff, seeking any hint of poison.
Nothing. All he could smell was blood. Fresh, potent blood. Blood from a body that had died only minutes earlier. He hadn’t killed it, he didn’t know anything about the man. And yet, his hunger gave in. His claws slid out, and he tore into the body with gusto. It took only moments to devour the body, bones and all. Tendons snapped and popped as he slurped up the nutrition.
When he finished, he sank back against the parapets that kept him from falling from the heights. From where he sat, he could see out across the prairie, to the endless western prairie. In the distance, he imagined that he saw the mountains that separated Istinis from Distisil. To the east…
To the east lay the Scorched Lands. Boar sighed and shifted his weight, peering out towards the blasted lands. It was evening, as the sun set behind him, allowing for perfect visibility of the fires that raged in the dark evening sky. A dragon’s roar echoed in the distance. If nothing else killed him, the Scorched Lands certainly would. It was why he went that way in the first place. All he had to do was reach it. And now… Now, he had the strength to get there.
Slowly, painfully, he forced himself to his feet. With every last ounce of energy in his body, he threw himself from the height of the tower, spreading his arms wide as he plummeted to the ground. The stones flashed up, the sharp stones that, with luck, would pierce his body and eliminate the need to make it to the Scorched Lands at all.
Boar awoke once more, in the same position as before. He lay slumped against the chest, which smelled even more rotten than before. He groaned as his stomach rumbled powerfully. Had the body on the top of the tower been an illusion? Had that just been a hallucination?
He licked his lips, tasting old blood on his skin. No. No, it hadn’t been a hallucination. So why was he alive? Why couldn’t he just die? He climbed to his feet and kicked the chest, watching as the wood split open and the rotten bones tumbled across the floor. The smell hit him, and he grimaced. It had had too much time to rot, it…
It had to have been at least three or four days. It had been… Three or four days? That didn’t make any sense. Had he been knocked unconscious? Was this a hallucination? His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he likely hadn’t eaten since his fall, regardless of what had happened.
A thud echoed through the stairwell from above. A series of thumps continued to resound powerfully, and a body tumbled down, landing in front of Boar. It was human, dressed in similar clothes as all the other. Tight-fitting pants made from a greenish cloth. A shirt that seemed made from fine silk. It was quite dead again, speared through the chest, just like the one before.
“What is this?” Boar rumbled. “What is this?”
The corpse didn’t answer, nor did anything else. Boar roared and turned away, stomping out of the tower and into the old courtyard. He tilted his head back and roared, daring the gods to answer. No one responded, and he let his head fall. Someone was feeding him. Maybe it was a god, maybe it was a witch with an elaborate system of spells. Maybe it was a demigod, maybe it was Ondernifam himself, trying to see how low Boar would stoop.
No, Boar wasn’t going to have any of it. Even as his stomach rumbled and raged, he turned to face the Scorched Lands. He had to escape. He had to leave. He was so close, so close to his goal!
Desperately, he put one foot in front of the other, launching himself across the grass. The blistering cold wind swept into his face, threatening to kill him simply from the cold. Stones rose up from the ground, threatening to stab him and make it impossible for him to run. He ignored it all and drew upon his blood magic. He would make it, and he would die. That was that! That was…
His vison began to blur, and he gasped as his lungs quit working. His legs turned to jelly, his arms became soft oatmeal. The ground slammed into his face, and even his vision began to grow dark. He swore and desperately called upon his body. No. No, he wanted to die! He wanted to…
His vision returned with a rush as he reappeared on the ground, next to the shattered chest. The rotten bones were gone, and his stomach ached with pain. A loud thump echoed through the air, and a body tumbled down the stairs, landing next to him. This one was a woman, a human with a wicked sneer across her face. Boar took a deep breath and tried to stand up, but found himself too weak.
He didn’t know what was keeping him there, but he knew that if he was to die, he would need his strength. Slowly, he leaned forward and took a bite out of the woman’s arm. Whoever was playing with him obviously didn’t want him dead. They could have killed him a dozen times over, and he would have thanked them profusely. No, they wanted him alive and weak. Which only meant that he would have to find a way to stay strong and escape.
Boar groaned as he rose back to consciousness. It was the seventeenth time that he had woken up. Sixteen times since entering the tower, he had fallen asleep, only to wake up to dead bodies ready for his consumption. Every time, after eating his meal, he did everything in his power to kill himself. Drawing on blood magic, smashing his head into the wall, stabbing himself, leaping from the top of the tower, nothing worked. Nothing helped. Every time, he would wake up, ready to try the whole thing over yet again.
With a loud thump, something echoed on the tower roof far above. This time, the body didn’t fall. This time, there was no blood. Boar groaned and forced himself to his feet. His stomach rumbled, and he sighed. Whoever was keeping him there wanted to make sure that he would eat whatever was placed in front of him.
Walking up the tower stairs was just as painful as it had ever been. This time, though, there was something different. The smell of blood wasn’t there. Instead, it was the smell of fear. The smell of urine, the smell of musk. The smell of something alive.
When Boar reached the top of the tower, he found the seventeenth human. The man wore the same clothes as they all had. The only difference was that he was alive. As Boar stomped into view, the man shrank back against the wall and glanced over the edge of the wall.
“So this was what they meant.” He babbled, though he was almost impossible to understand through a thick accent. “They told me I could fight for my freedom.”
“Please.” Boar rumbled. “Kill me. Kill me if you can.”
The man trembled. “I’ve never seen one of you. I thought you were all extinct. How can I kill you?”
Boar knelt down. The situation was growing ever-more bizarre. He just wanted it over. “Just do it.”
The man slowly held up his hand. He was shaking like a leaf, like a sapling in a hurricane. Strands of magic formed in his palms, though he obviously wasn’t practiced in its use. Finally, he snapped his fingers, releasing a pathetic blast of energy that struck Boar in his forehead. It didn’t even scratch Boar’s thick skin, and Boar roared.
“I told you to kill me!” Boar thundered. “I want to die!”
“I’m sorry!” The man stumbled backwards. “I don’t know what to do! I’m not a mage. No one learns-”
Pure rage flooded Boar’s veins. If the man couldn’t kill him, then what did Boar need him for? Boar stepped forward and slammed a fist into the man’s chest, snapping bones like paper. The stranger collapsed in a pile of blood. Fresh blood. Boar slowly knelt down and began licking at the man’s wounds, relishing the taste. It was the only semblance of joy that he could still find. Why couldn’t he die?
When he finished the meal, he felt the man’s energy flowing through his body. Lifeblood, consumed so soon after death, gave him a temporary burst of magic. He took a deep breath and climbed up on the stone wall, ready to launch himself yet again. Maybe now, he would have the extra energy needed to end his miserable life.
“Boar.” The voice echoed through the air as he took a deep breath. “Please. Stop this.”
Boar gnashed his teeth before slowly turning around. A human in a long, black coat stood there, eyes narrow and harsh, yet concerned.
“I know you.” Boar tried to put the pieces together. “Berathin. You fought by Sapphire and Franclin.”
“I did, yes.” Berathin inclined his head. “I’ve done a lot more than that, as well. I think you would be interested to hear my story.”
“Tell me when I’m dead.” Boar turned back to the empty space. In the distance, the fire of the Scorched Lands roared in the sky, inviting him to death.
“If you wish, I shall whisper the story to your corpse.” Berathin sighed. A fingersnap echoed sharply through the crisp winter sky, and Boar felt a rush of strange magic flow through his veins. A mist crawled up and out of his mouth, rushing off into the sky. “I have removed the protective spell that has kept you safe these last months. If you desire, throw yourself from the tower. The fall may kill you, and if it doesn’t, I shall allow you to crawl to the Scorched Lands and perish at the hands of the dragons and their priests.”
Boar took a deep breath. He could die. “Thank you.”
“I have one simple condition.” A force field sprang into existence around Boar’s body, preventing him from jumping in mid-conversation. “Consider listening to what I have to say. I will be at the base of the tower, where you have lain for so long. I will have a friend with me, a guide as you take the next steps in your new life. The choice is yours.”
“I want to die.” Boar snarled.
“You want to end your life.” Berathin countered. “Come with me, and I assure you, your life as you know it will be over.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But a new life will emerge. These are your choices. The Eternal Battlefield, or a life full of wonder and danger unlike anything you’ve felt before.”
With that, the force field vanished. Boar glanced back over his shoulder. Berathin was gone. So was the force field. So was the protective spell. Boar could die in peace.
It felt like a dream too good to be true. He could step out over the edge. He could fall into the darkness and join his ancestors. His disgrace would be forgotten. His exhaustion would be forgotten. He would be… Free.
And yet, that would come with time. All he wanted was to leave himself behind. If it was possible to do so, if there was a slight chance, didn’t he have to take it? Tears sprang into his eyes as the prospect filled his mind. He could be a new person. Free of his broken vows. Free of persecution. Free of shame.
It felt too good to be true. As his feet scampered down the stone stairs, he could barely breathe. Was it really possible? Was that… Was that in the cards? Could he really do it?
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found Berathin standing there, hands behind his cloaked back. The man gave a simple nod before turning and walking out through the broken door. Boar followed, anticipation in his chest. A tear slipped down his eye, and he took a deep breath. He couldn’t get his hopes up. What that what Berathin wanted? To give him false hope before casting the spell again and watching as Boar endlessly tried to kill himself over and over again?
Outside, another orc stood tall. A man that stood even taller than Boar himself, an orc with eyes that were soft and wide. An orc with tusks that had been sawn off at his mouth. An orc with a smile larger than that of an avian.
“Boar.” The orc rumbled, his voice deep and powerful. “You have no idea what an honor it is to meet you.”
“Who are you?” Boar snarled. He glanced at Berathin, who seemed impassive. “What is this? I don’t know either of you!”
“Not yet, you don’t.” The orc dipped his head. “Forgive me for not introducing myself. My name is Trinkin. You’ve already met Berathin. Both of us have been somewhat fascinated with you for some time now.”
Boar snarled. “What do you mean?” A thought struck him. “You’ve been keeping me alive since I was thrown out of Ondernifam’s palace!”
“We’ve been keeping you alive for a lot longer than that.” Trinkin crossed his eyes and sighed. “I cannot tell you what you need to hear. I can only show you.”
“Show me what?” Boar felt desperation returning to him. He just wanted to leave his life behind! He wanted to die! “Start!”
“When you were thrown across the realms by the Realm Mages, you were infused with more realm energy than anyone in Calsin had been infused with up until that point.” Trinkin rumbled. “Some of it is still held within you. It mingles with your blood, a foreign body that drives you mad.”
Boar snapped his jaw. “Then how do I get it out?”
“You won’t.” Berathin shrugged. “In fact, you never will, though you will often try. Your only way out is to foster it. Draw upon it, use its power for good.”
Boar snarled. “How do I do that?”
“Reach into your inmost parts.” Trinkin soothed. “Find your source of blood magic. Then dig deeper. Find an inner core that you’ve never found before. Look at a piece of your soul so enshrouded in darkness that you couldn’t possibly find it.”
“You don’t make sense!”
Trinkin sighed. “Though this won’t make sense at first… Try picturing a large metal sphere floating in the sky. Picture fire falling from it.”
Boar groaned and closed his eyes. It was an odd picture, but… What else could he do? The two of them could obviously prevent him from death. Slowly, he did his best to form the image in his head. What was the worst that could happen?
An explosion shook the ground, tossing him aside. His eyes snapped wide open in fear and horror. He was lying in the same fortress, though it was fully constructed, not a simple ruin. Soldiers rushed back and forth, not bothering to look at him. Fire roared nearby, consuming a large pile of bodies.
“Hey!” An aqahartis soldier glanced at him. “Why aren’t you in uniform?”
Boar stuttered. “I… Uh…”
A beam of light lanced down from the sky, melting the aqahartis into a pile of slag. Boar glanced up to see an enormous metal sphere hanging in the sky, just like Trinkin had said. It seemed made from gold and silver, studded with gemstones and crystals. Below the sphere hung a large ring, a platform upon which dozens of tiny figures rushed back and forth. Fire roared down from the platform, fireballs that killed soldiers and horses alike. Men burned in their armor, towers exploded under the stress of the explosions.
Before Boar could move, light pulsed across his vision yet again, and he reappeared in the ruins of the fortress. He took a deep breath, trying to process whatever he was seeing.
“You came from a world where dozens of countries warred against each other.” Berathin crossed his arms. “You now stand in a world where the orcs have succeeded in conquering the world. However, this was only made possible because a great warrior was brought from your own world and placed into this one. Previously, all countries had lived in peace and harmony, a far greater union than anything seen in your world.”
“Still more worlds remain.” Trinkin snarled. “The world you caught a glimpse of has been at constant war for a thousand years, to the point that no one knows the concept of peace at all.”
“Even still, it remains.” Boar nodded as he began to see their point. “Though the world is at war, it stays intact.”
“Unlike this world, which perishes even as we watch.” Berathin stepped forward. “May I tell you something, Boar?”
Boar nodded slowly. “Speak.”
“Right now, in this moment, you are about to found the greatest organization in all of history.” Berathin’s smile nearly split his face. “An organization that spans across both time and space.”
Trinkin nodded. “I will not be born for another thousand years, and not in this timeline.”
Berathin nodded as well. “I was born ten thousand years ago, in another realm entirely. Your work saved both of us. What you did… What you will do, will change the lives of billions.”
Boar closed his eyes. They were from the future… And the past. There were even more worlds, and those worlds were different from simple realms.
“I don’t…” Boar stuttered. “I don’t understand.”
“Worlds naturally remain in balance.” Berathin held up his hands. “Dark forms to challenge the light. Light forms to shine into the dark. That’s how things work. Issues begin to arise when the dark and the light start passing from one world to the next.” He took a step forward. “Boar, your fight, your battle, it isn’t with Ondernifam or Sapphire. You aren’t destined to defeat the orcish Empire, you aren’t destined to restore peace or lay waste to anything.”
“Your job is to maintain order.” Trinkin nodded. “Ensure that the timelines stay separate. Right now, you are the only individual in any of the worlds with the ability to leap from timeline to timeline. There will be more. Your second-in-command is developing her powers even as we speak, though she is still weak and frail. Seek her out. Find her. Become a shield for the realms, a suit of armor around all worlds to prevent catastrophes from happening in the future.”
Boar took a deep breath. Was any of this even real? “How do I do that?”
“Trust your instincts, Boar.” Berathin stepped forward and reached into a pocket of his dark coat. Slowly, he withdrew a small, black token that looked like a coin of some form. “And… Stick this on the side of your neck.”
Boar took the small token. He didn’t particularly trust the two individuals, but, once again, they could have killed him any time they wanted. Berathin literally had the power of life and death over him. Slowly, he reached up and placed the token on his throat. Tiny claws erupted from the coin and latched onto his skin, and he grimaced at the sting.
“What is this?” He rumbled.
“A memory scrambler.” Trinkin lowered his head. “In a moment, you’re going to black out. When you wake up, you won’t remember this conversation or anything that’s happened in the tower. All you’ll retain are fuzzy images and a vague feeling, deep in your gut, that something happened.”
“Act on those feelings, Boar.” Berathin’s voice was almost a whisper. “Please, don’t let us down.”
With that, energy began to pulse from the object on Boar’s neck. He didn’t even have a chance to scream before pain exploded through his body and light overtook him.
The stench of rotten meat filled Boar’s nostrils, and he quite painfully forced his eyes open. He was lying on his back, next to a chest. The same chest that he had stuffed the remains of the unfortunate explorer inside. He groaned and climbed to his feet, kicking at the wooden storage unit. It shattered, allowing the bones to clatter to the ground.
Was this what he had fallen to? Was this what he had become?
Slowly, he turned and leaned against the wall. Slightly decayed or not, the meal had refreshed him, he felt stronger than he had felt in months. All the better to climb with. He turned and began stomping up to the roof of the tower. He could throw himself from the heights. With luck, death would come for him before he reached the Scorched Lands, and save him the humiliation of dying to deadly air.
It took him mere minutes to reach the heights of the tower. A narrow ledge of stones was all that prevented him from jumping, it would be a trifle to step over the blockade. He took a deep breath and placed one foot on the edge, preparing himself.
This was it. The end of his life. The end of the misery and the pain. The end of his disgrace. The end…
The end. The end of his era of protection. His eyes flitted back open, and he inhaled sharply. His era of protection? Where had that thought come from? He shook his head, but the thought stayed. With it came a second thought… The thought of a girl.
A girl that he had to find. She was in trouble? No… She was weak. She was developing her power. He needed to find her! He couldn’t die yet. Even as the thoughts swirled through his mind, he closed his eyes and tried to block it all out. He didn’t know a girl! He didn’t know where these thoughts were coming from, but he didn’t want them.
A flash of light pulsed across the prairie. Boar turned to see a small, swirling portal of light forming in the courtyard of the ancient palace. Metal clanked through the air, and an armor-plated dwarven minotaur stomped through. Steam hissed from the creature’s joints, gemstones glowed with dozens of latent enchantments. Boar crouched down as a second, then a third stomped through. The dwarves were known to have minotaurs that served as mind-controlled slaves, but… Nothing like this.
With one final crash, a fourth heavily-armored automaton came stomping through the portal. It was a huge barrel-chested figure with a domed head, and stood half a dozen feet taller than any of the minotaurs. Six legs supported it, while two enormous arms gestured wildly. It took several long moments to figure out that it was a contraption that held a single dwarven driver inside the domed portion.
Boar slowly took a deep breath. He didn’t know what the dwarven machines were doing there, but he was quite certain that it was nothing good. He didn’t know where they came from, but he was quite certain that they were from another world, just like he was. And, as they turned to face him and began to fire crossbow bolts in his direction, he became quite certain that he would have to fight them.
He drew on his blood magic and leapt from the top of the tower, arcing down towards the creatures. Metal melted into slag under his fists, joints cracked and bones shattered. Several short minutes later, the dwarven contraptions lay in pieces, scattered across the prairie. His chest heaved with the effort, but… It felt good. It felt good to win, it felt good to lay waste to something. And, with that good feeling, came a certainty.
He had to find this girl. He didn’t know who she was or where to find her, but he had to find her. And after that, well… He would simply have to do what he did best.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.