by Grant Smuts

The world knows the tale. When Rykisedek overtook the world, what was remembered was that when nothing but the embers of hope remained, a hero rose to reignite the will of men. Yet despite his valour and skill, the legend known as the Melancholy Saint led what was, in retrospect, a brief and troubled life.

The Impossible Emperor

In an abyss of time beyond recounting, the beast of the outer dark known as Rykisedek fell to the earth as a falling star, and his nature and form is recorded elsewhere.

The Impossible Emperor had created a flux of time that ensorcelled the western city, locking it away behind a boundary of nightmares and alternate perception. There the ritual began, the blood rites that devastated a nation, all facilitating a dark and unknown purpose. A century passed, with no one to challenge the spreading madness, chaos and decay that fell over the once sprawling civilizations of men, and the infectious insanity that spread outwards from the vault where he once lay dreaming.

King in the Murk

While Valharrow and the western reaches of the continent fell under the darkness of the Impossible Emperor’s shadow, the rest of the world fell into either a state of panic or attempted to ignore it as best they could.

One such land was Gehara.

Audren Vance was born in Gehara, the only child of Duke Keran, and from his earliest days he reported having strange dreams of vast alien cities. In particular, he often spoke of a strange ‘beast from the murk’, a vile, pallid creature, residing on a throne of bones, on a small island, surrounded by a black, ichorous lake, worshipped by strange nameless things that now and then emerged from the lake. His description of the creature – a thin, ghastly wraith with flowing, silvery hair, corresponded to many scholars’ visions of the monstrous entity known as the ‘Pallid King’. The locale he described – ‘a shore of ivory, surrounded by a lake of utter darkness’ – has been named Mirukor – ‘The Lost Sphere‘. Knowing what the visions portended, Duke Keran undertook a secret journey when Audren was far too young to remember. The rumour was that he had taken an important heirloom of his family and hidden it away in a sanctum within Mount Valanheim, for Audren to find when he came of age. The heirloom was none other than the Blade of Fading Light – a sword thought to be but a myth, a perspective encouraged by the many Lords who held it in unknowing company.

Sword of Fading Light - Copy
Most people never saw more than the hilt of this sword – an heirloom of the Vance family, the sword was never drawn, save in times of need or private ceremony in that most reticent of the noble houses.

Mastery of the Sword

Troubled by his son’s visions, Duke Keran turned down the offers of magical guilds and academies, afraid that his son might take an unwholesome interest in the arcane, long disdained by the Vance family. He chose the warrior’s path for his son, and Audren would find relief from his night-terrors in the discipline he received from the martial arts. Audren proved to be naturally gifted with the sword, and Keran would hire the finest weaponmasters from every nation and culture he could to teach his son. By his early twenties, Audren Vance was one of the world’s most accomplished swordsmen. It was at this time when Keran, believing in his son’s strength of heart and will would now set him on the course ordained for all heirs of the Vance family – the pilgrimage to Mount Valanheim, there to find the legacy of his family. Setting out with his family’s most trusted retainer, Valt of Triun Hil, he readied himself for adventure in the wide world beyond.

He never told his father that the nightmares persisted. Never mentioned that the relief he found in training with the sword only stilled the outward terror he expressed in his sleep. He had found strength enough to contain his fear, but not enough to dispel it.

The Mage of the Wilding Wall

Forsaking the easy path, Audren attempted the pilgrimage, yet found that the world about him was not as safe as Gehara seemed to pretend it was. It was the age of fear and whispers, of nightmares and wraiths, filled with monsters, waves of which radiated from the lands of bloody ritual to the west. Growing more and more sombre the further he proceeded from home. On the road through the villages to Valanheim, he saw the people, superstitious and frightened, yet helpless against the rising tide of horror that was slowly overtaking their world. Hungry and terrified, they stood little chance against the otherworldly invaders. They begged and pleaded for saviours in a darkened world.

Audren, his heart moved by pity, and well-acquainted with fear of the coming night, moved from village to village, lending his sword-arm against the monsters that darkened their doorsteps.

One fateful night, he found himself on a trail of a beast that had invaded a small, nameless village and destroyed it, leaving no survivors. Tracking the beast, he discovered it to be a mage – a Scholar of Cloudkeep, maddened by prolonged exposure to the Wilding Wall. Troubled, he confronted the mage and an immense battle burned down the surrounding forest. The mage, in addition to his magics, wielded a spear and a strange talisman that generated a steady stream of light. Despite this, Audren, through sheer skill, managed to gain the upper hand in their battle, but, not wishing to kill a man, hesitated from delivering the final blow. His hesitation cost his retainer Valt’s life, and the mage escaped.

The 53rd Mages’ Battalion

Grieving at the loss of his friend, Audren despaired, and thought of returning home when he met a small band of grim-faced hunters. They identified themselves as the last remaining members of the fallen city of Cloudrend’s 53rd Mages Battalion – a division of mages trained to hunt down those men and women who fell to the practice of dark magic. For the first time, Audren heard of the war men fought against the Impossible Emperor. He heard of The Cloudrend Underground, the League of the Gallant, and the House of Jing from far-east Sunara.

They were the bulwark against the madness of Rykisedek’s nightmare realm.

The 53rd, led by Yearne Halleth, believing in assisting the people who could not fight at all, had left the resistance to defend what people they could. Audren, wondering at their determination to fight what seemed like an endless war, wished to help Yearne, but she declined, stating that their prey was too dangerous.

The mage they sought was a man named Sheoul Dwyn, one who had been on the verge of becoming a Mage Walking Four Paths, but had been driven insane by spending too long beyond the Wilding Wall. His path since then had been tracked by the mages, and they discovered him to travelling to places of ancient magical resonance – first to the Austral Valley, then to Valenaya. They believed him to be collecting magical artefacts for an unknown purpose.

Predicting his course, they hoped to intercept him at Valanheim, where the Blade of Fading Light was meant to be hidden. Audren, realizing that the mage was after his family’s ancestral sword, decided to follow the battalion in secret.

Whispers of the Pale Being

As Audren neared the end of his pilgrimage to Valanheim, he was plagued by further visions of the Pallid King, seeing in the darkness the nighted shores of a distant realm of fancy and horror, a monstrous mass of flesh, bloating on ritual and the worship of the lesser ghastly horrors that cavorted in strange dances around it. As the pale god-thing at the centre of his vision took on a less grotesque, more humanoid shape, he saw its hand close around a spear of light in the depths, and it seemed to recognize his subconscious spying. In a mad moment, the Pallid King spoke something unintelligible to Audren, but the horror of it set him screaming.

by Jayce Janse van Vuuren
The Pallid King, haunting the nightmares of Audren. art by Jayce Janse van Rensburg

He woke to find Yearne looking down at him, angry that he had followed them, yet concerned at his state. Audren promised to aid them, revealing himself to be of House Vance, sharing the secret of the Sword of Fading Light. Yearne, skeptical of the sword’s existence, nonetheless promised to keep it a secret, but determined that it should be claimed by the 53rd battalion. Audren agreed.

After his brush with the Pallid King, however, Audren heard whispers when all was silent, dark mutterings when he was alone, as though someone, something, just out of the corner of his eye, was murmuring profane secrets under its breath.

The Sword of Fading Light

Audren and the 53rd ventured into the tunnels of Valanheim, and together braved many dangers. However, of Sheoul Dwyn, they found little sign. Disturbingly, they found what appeared to be circles of energy akin to the Wilding Wall on the path to the sanctum. They eventually found Sheoul Dwyn approaching the sanctum, and saw that his madness had gone far beyond mere exposure to the Wilding Wall. The man known as Sheoul Dwyn was lost, in his place was an avatar of the dreaming being, Rykisedek. Faced with the terror that threatened all the world, most of the 53rd fled the sanctum, leaving only Audren and Yearne and five others. Yearne led the charge, brandishing both sword and magic, with Audren beside her. The sanctum became a firestorm, and three of the mages died instantly. Yearne confronted Rykisedek’s avatar in a duel, while Audren retrieved the sword. Yearne was beaten back, but before she fell, Audren revealed the true nature of the Sword of Fading Light – a blade that could sever magic, a gift of a long-lost deity.

Sword of Fading Light
The sword of Fading Light, embedded in the ground of its old sanctum.

Audren cut through the spells of Rykisedek and drove the monster back, but not before catching a glimpse of the beast’s true form.
The Wilding Wall manifested in the sanctum, and Audren received horrible visions of the Pallid King, of his future, of the future of the world, and of a boy who would destroy everything.

Audren nursed Yearne back to health, and disappointed in the cowardice of her companions, she parted ways with the survivors of the 53rd, deciding that she needed to return to the Underground after all. Choosing to accompany Audren back to his home, they returned together to Gehara, where Audren planned to convince his father to join in the war against the Impossible Emperor, along with the news that the Sword of Fading Light could nullify the magic of Rykisidek.

But nothing would go the way they planned. Their bittersweet victory over the avatar was only the start of their troubles.

To be continued in ‘The Melancholy Saint’

Special thanks to Ernest Peter De Wet for the artwork.

Glossary

53rd Mages Battalion: A splinter group from the Underground. They dedicated themselves to protecting the common folk of the world, those unable to protect themselves. They numbered a hundred when they set out, but by the time they met Audren Vance, only twenty remained. The battalion-commander of the final iteration of the 53rd was Yearne Halleth.

Cloudkeep: The highest tier of Cloudrend’s Academy. Cloudkeep is a floating tower, hovering high above the city of Cloudrend, and was one of the few places to to escape the ravages of Rykisedek’s war unscathed. The scholars who make it to Cloudkeep are infamously eccentric.

Cloudrend: One of the major cities of the world and a rival city to Valharrow. Known as the City of Wonder, Cloudrend embraces magic and magical innovation, as opposed to the wary and suspicious traditions espoused by the city of Valharrow. Cloudrend was one of the cities most vehemently opposed to the institution of the Order of Saint Audren.

Gehara: The former homeland of Audren Vance. Gehara was known for its isolationist policies during the rise of Rykisedek.

Impossible Emperor: One of the epithets of Rykisedek, the dreaming beast from beyond the stars. His ‘Empire’, a place of darkness in which time and reality were in constant flux, spanned Valharrow and much of its westernmost holds, to the very northernmost tip of the Austral Valley. Rykisedek was also known as the Burning King, the Dreaming God and the Great Beast of Space and Time. While for a thousand years, he merely slept atop his spire, the hordes of beasts and monsters spawned by his presence ravaged much of the continent.

Mirukor: The Lost Sphere – a place spoken of in old folktales, a realm of the being known as the Pallid King, who often appears in the nightmares of mages. One image persists of Mirukor in every vision – there is a lake, as black as night, surrounding an island of ivory, on which a throne of bones stands at its centre. The Pallid King resides on the throne, a monstrous entity, who seems capable of changing his form, yet who often appears as a wraith, bearing a silver crown.

The lake seethes with monsters, all in worship of the Pallid King.

Sword of Fading Light: A legendary sword, said to be the link between the arcane and the mundane, blessed by a god of light and silence. It is thought to reside in the depths of Mount Valanheim.

The Underground: The unofficial resistance to the influence of Rykisedek. The Undeground, headed by the mages of Cloudrend, studied the Wilding Wall, trying to find a way to breach it. They persisted in their mission until the Awakening, when everything changed. The Underground also consisted of the League of the Gallant – the surviving order of knights from Valharrow, and the noble men of House Jing, from Sunara.

Valanheim: The Holy Mountain, said to have been blessed by a god of light and silence. Once a city lay in its caverns, but all that remains intact of it now is a temple. It is thought to be the resting place of a legendary sword.

Wilding Wall:  The barrier of reality that encompassed the western expanse of the continent, supposedly created by the dreams of Rykisedek. Prolonged exposure caused madness, and even temporary proximity caused nightmares.

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