The Shroud

The Shroud

August 12, 2000

[fiction] - [story] - [fantasy]

On a hilltop in England, lashed by a cold wind and shadowed by the coming darkness, stood a circle of stones that had confounded men for ages. Amidst these stones stood two young men—one shivering, with trench coat clutched closely, the other too occupied by the horizon to notice the biting cold. In the distance, the sound of thunder heralded the coming storm; the sun fell towards the horizon, and storm clouds formed overhead. Unnoticed by both occupants, the wind outside of the stones was picking up; it remained relatively calm inside the perimeter.

At that moment, Steven O’Neil thought himself the most miserable person in the world. Frozen to the bone by the damp chill of this infernal country, he was not enjoying the first day of his European tour. He had wanted to travel during the spring; but his best friend and companion, Michael MacCahill, had managed to convince him that it would be better during the winter. Sometimes he could not figure out why he hung out with Michael. They were more different than alike. Steven liked to set a goal and pursue it strictly, whereas Michael liked to dabble at things, only keeping his attention pinned long enough to get the basics. when he moved on to some other pursuit that caught his fancy, most times Steven was dragged along on these quests. This tour of Europe had originally been his idea; but Michael had loved the idea and offered to plan it. That may have been a mistake, seeing how fascinated Michael was with ancient myths and the supernatural. Shivering again, Steven glared at his friend’s back and hoped that he, too, would get tired of standing in the chill wind.

Michael, however, was enjoying himself immensely as he contemplated the setting sun. Of course, he had the benefit of having lived most of his life on the Alberta plains, where winter temperatures were far below those he was now experiencing. He did not even notice that his Toronto born and raised friend was suffering from the chill wind, too absorbed was he in the coming event. To think that he, Michael MacCahill, would be able to stand amidst the ancient ruins of Stonehenge at sunset on the day of the winter solstice. From all he had studied of the ancient druid lore, this was said to be a time of power. The only thing more powerful would be if it was also a Lunar Eclipse. That would be too much to hope for, though; it had taken enough effort to be present on this day. Behind him he could hear his friend fervently praying to be taken somewhere with warm air and sunshine.

“Hey, Mike,” beseeched Steven, “could we please head back to the inn and a warm fireplace? My bone marrow is beginning to solidify, a storm is forming, and it’s getting dark real fast.”

Gazing up, Michael suddenly realized that there was indeed a storm forming directly overhead, and what a douzy! Black clouds swirled overhead in a vortex of incredible strength, driven by the swirling winds that lashed the perimeter of the stones. Glancing around, he noticed that they were not experiencing the same gale force winds inside the circle. Quickly, he looked toward the horizon to see the last of the sun’s fiery dome fall below the horizon—just as all hell broke loose.

“Oh, shit!” Steven swore just as a pillar of fiery lightning arced from the clouds to strike the standing stones of Stonehenge with fiery fury.

The discharge blasted both of them off their feet and sent a shock of power coursing through their bodies. Their skin tingled with the pulsing power of the now fiercely glowing stones. The air crackled with energy as another lightning strike blasted into the stones, this time to be redirected toward the stones in the centre of the circle. Between these stones a small glowing ball of rotating blue light began to form.

Staring in awe at the pure, elemental fury, both were rooted to the spot by paralysing fear, mingled with ecstasy. The lightning increased until it formed a curtain of cascading energy that fell from the clouds to embrace the stones. The whirling blue-white vortex in the centre continued to expand, as a dome of pure fire encompassed the perimeter. The very fabric of space and time warped as the coursing energy fed the growing rift, until finally it reached critical mass. The rift exploded in a blinding flash of mystic outpouring, flowing outwards and swallowing the last of the fire and lightning.

Peace descended upon the countryside; the lightning stopped and the wind died down. Overhead, the clouds began to disperse as the last of the light flickered from the circle of stones. The storm had came and gone with a suddenness uncommon at this time of the year. With its passing, two young tourists vanished without a trace.

He was floating in a blackness darker than space, a vortex of ink swirling toward a small point of light. Slowly, he spun toward that point; as it grew larger, he thought he could make out blurry shapes. Faster he flew towards the light; larger and larger it loomed, until it finally swallowed him and pulled him into a bright world that sent spears of pure pain stabbing into his mind.

Slowly, everything came into focus. Leaning over him was an unfamiliar man who was saying something to him. But the voice was distant and as vague as the surrounding shapes and colours. Something about a name. A name? Hadn’t he once had a name? A word drifted through his mind but escaped the grasp of his consciousness.

Suddenly, he burst into full consciousness and his senses sharpened. He sat there coughing for a while, his face dripping cold water. Michael. That was his name. How had he forgotten it? Looking around, he wondered how he came to be here? Around him stood tree-covered hills, leaves rustling in the warm spring breeze, basking in the warmth of the sun overhead. By the looks of it, he was sitting in the middle of a circle of stones, very much like those of Stonehenge, somewhere in the foothills. Above him loomed a majestic mountaintop, its peak covered with a sparkling white cap.

“A splash of water to the face always does the trick, I says,” drawled a heavily-accented voice from beside him. Turning around, he took in the sight of a strange man dressed in an old-fashioned tunic and pair of breeches. Beside him sat an empty bucket and a sputtering Steven, who looked like he had got a soaking as well.

“What the hell hit me?”

“Well…” The stranger gestured, pointing at Steven and several other bodies that were lying close by, “I would have to say that you and your friend here have been part of a particularly nasty magical rite. From the looks of these other fellows lying about, it was very nasty.”

“Hey, they’re all dead!” Steven yelped as he checked the closest body and quickly hurried to the others who were scattered around the interior of the circle.

“Yep,” the stranger drawled, “you’s were the only fella’s still breathin’ when I came upon ye. These other’ons were all stiff as you’re now see’in em.”

Shaking his head, Michael stared around him in wonder. The last thing he recalled was the storm at Stonehenge, and then blackness. Now, he was sitting here in a ring of circles almost exactly like Stonehenge, except that they were sitting atop a hill in the shadow of a mountain. Not only that, but the suns were high in the sky, and the temperature felt like late spring, not the winter he had just been experiencing. Suns? Glancing up again, Michael blinked to make sure he was seeing correctly. But both were still there—one burning a bright yellow, the other a dull green. Looking down at his wrist watch, he experienced another shock. It read 9:47 PM. As Michael was wondering this, Steven approached the stranger and cleared his throat.

“Ah….Sir?” Steven asked the stranger tentatively. “What is your name, and what were you doing here?”

“Ah, that be a long story,” the stranger murmured as he stretched his legs and sat back in the grass. “The short of it, though, is that my name is Caldred, and I happened along this band of summoners on my wanderings in the surrounding wilderness. They were undoubtedly trying to contact a higher power, and, from the looks of you two, I’d have to say they failed. Now that you know my name, might I be askin’ yours?”

“That’s Michael,” blurted Steven as he pointed, “and my name is Steven.”

“Well-met, Michael and Steven!” Caldred said gleefully as he forcefully slapped both boys on the back. “Since you have asked me how arrived here, I am curious to hear your story now.”

“I don’t know about Steven, here, but I’m not even entirely sure I know where ‘Here’ is. I mean, one minute we were standing in the middle of Stonehenge at dusk, when suddenly a fierce winter storm broke loose right above us. Next thing we, know lightning is raining down on us and a glowing energy rift of some kind is forming around us. After that, I guess I lost consciousness, because next thing I knew I was waking up here with a face full of cold water.”

“Yeah,” confirmed Steven, “that pretty much sums it up, all right.”

“So, you’re say’in that you’re not from around here, then?” asked Caldred, as he ran a finger through his well-trimmed beard and screwed his face up in an expression of deep thought.

“That’s right, sir,” Michael acknowledged as he drew Steven’s attention to the pair of suns in the sky. “In fact, this does not appear to be our world at all. We must have been transported here by the power of the storm.”

“You’re close,” nodded Caldred, “but not quite right. From all I’ve heard of these stones, they were originally built by a powerful magic-user to travel between worlds. The storm was not the cause of your being transported here. Rather, the storm was caused by the summoning of magic that empowered the circle. One thing puzzles me, though. It takes a lot of energy and skill to activate a circle and use it for travelling. Neither of you looks like a powerful mage. But then again, I’m no expert.”

“Neither of us is a mage, I can assure you of that!” Steven said emphatically as he gave Michael a piercing glare.

“Hmm, well, we have a mystery to ponder then. You two better hurry and take what you want from these fellows so we can leave before their friends show up.” Saying so, Caldred proceeded to pillage the bodies for valuables.

After several moments, both young men were outfitted with small backpacks stuffed with food and supplies including a pair of crowbars and a bundle of torches each. Steven found a midnight blue cloak and a polished oaken staff with a metal-studded bottom and a red ruby inset in the top. Michael had passed over the cloaks and other clothing. Instead, he had acquired an impressive collection of throwing knives from several of the bodies. He, too, had a small pack of food and supplies slung on his back, along with a cross-belted bandoleer of daggers that formed an X across his chest. Meanwhile, Caldred was busily dividing the pillaged coins up into three piles; pushing two of the piles towards the friends, he pocketed the third.

“Well, the road is that way,” Caldred said as he gestured towards a brown strip off in the distance, “We had best start walking. That is, if you boys are planning on accompanying me?”

Quickly, both young men fell in behind him as he headed through the field towards the road.

“So, tell us again about this robe you are trying to find.”

“Not a robe, Steven,” Caldred corrected as he kept a wary eye on Michael, who was juggling three knives as they walked, “A shroud. It was used to cover the last wizard-king during his burial; it is said to contain all his magical powers. With it, I will be able to cure diseases, illnesses, and prevent droughts.”

“That’s a noble goal,” Michael commented, as he added another knife to his act. “Most people would want that kind of power for selfish reasons. I think it’s great that you’re not like that.”

“Yeah,” smirked Caldred. “I’m not like that at all.”

“Hey, do you think we’ll make it through this pass by nightfall?” complained Steven. “If I have to spend another sleepless night outdoors in these hills listening to beasts howl, I’m gonna flip! What I wouldn’t give for a nice warm bed in a fire-warmed inn. I wouldn’t even mind if I had to share the bed with a few fleas.”

“I think you would reconsider that statement if you had ever felt a flee bite,” laughed Michael, as he spun the daggers behind his back and flipped them into the air. Although, he admitted to himself, I would almost take a bed, flees and all, if it were offered.

“I’d be careful if I were you,” warned Caldred as Michael added yet another knife to the whirling display in front of him. “If you slip and turn yourself into a pin cushion, you’ll hear no sympathy from me.”

“Don’t worry, man,” Michael said in a confident voice. “I’ve got everything under control.”

With that, he quickly flicked all five knives, one at a time as he caught them in his right hand, into a nearby tree, where they stuck halfway to their hilts. After retrieving and placing the knives in their various sheaths, he hurried to catch up with the others further along the trail.

After trudging along the trail for several more hours, the companions decided to set up camp and get some rest. After a few minutes of effort, they had a roaring fire going and a pot of stew simmering overtop it. Laying their weapons down on the ground, they leaned back against a fallen tree trunk to gaze at the stars.

“Wonder which one of those our world is orbiting around?” Steven wondered aloud.

“Are ye daft, man!” Caldred spurted his swig of water into the fire. “Worlds do not orbit around the stars. That’s where the Gods live. If they heard ye talking like that, they’d send a bolt of lightning a cracklin’ for ya.”

“How do you know the Gods live in the stars?” Steven asked.

“Because the priests say so, that’s how!”

“In our world, we have scientists who have proven that the stars are actually distant suns, with planets like our own orbiting about them.”

“Now there’s a load of bull if I ever heard it!”

Tuning out, as the conversation escalated into a serious debate, Michael stared into the night sky. Listening to the sounds of the forest highland, he wondered if he would ever see his family and neighbours again. Because he was the only one paying attention to the surroundings, he was the only one to observe several shapes skulking towards the edge of the firelight ring.

Reaching for the knives in the tops of his boots and diving to the side, he shouted a warning at his friends as five roughly dressed men charged into the clearing. Each carried a short sword that shone with the reflected light from the campfire; they wore no armour and stunk to the high heavens. Coming up from his roll, Michael released the knives and let his continuing momentum carry them towards his target. The first knife flew wide and grazed the shoulder of one of the attackers, causing him to curse and fall to the ground. The second flew true and struck the lead attacker in the stomach; clutching his abdomen, the brigand stumbled into the fire.

Caught by surprise, Steven barely had enough time to retrieve his staff before his attacker was upon him. The thug circled him cautiously, looking for an opening in Steven’s twirling staff. Swinging his sword, the bandit lunged at Steven’s head, only to fall off balance as his target ducked to the side. Not quick enough to evade Steven’s counter-attack, the man suffered a stunning blow to his back and went down.

Caldred, being totally surprised by the attack, was sprawled out on the ground in a wrestling match with his adversary. Back and forth they rolled until they encountered a slight slope that carried them away from the fire and into the darkness. Their grunts and cursing were the only indications that they were still struggling out of sight.

The bandit who had been nicked by Michael’s first knife was on his feet again and frothing at the mouth as he recklessly charged towards Michael with short sword raised. At the last moment, Michael spun away and grasped the man’s left arm in a lock; pivoting behind his opponent, he executed a crude flip that left the man face first on the ground, gasping for air. Quickly, he spun again and delivered a stunning spin kick to the man’s solar plexus, just as he was climbing to his feet. Again the bandit dropped to the ground, and the sickening crack of a broken neck declared that it was for good.

Meanwhile across the clearing, Steven was weaving his staff in a hypnotic pattern that was confusing his second attacker. As the bandit paused to look for an opening, Steven executed a perfect reverse turning-kick that caught the man in the side of the head. Continuing his circular motion he followed it up with a staff strike to the man’s knees. The top of the staff that contained the crystal was glowing blood red in the fire light. The instant that it connected with the bandit’s leg, it emitted a bright flash of energy that coursed up the man’s legs into his body. Convulsing with seizures, the bandit fell dead to the ground at the feet of a stunned and trembling Steven. Staring down at the staff in his hands, he imagined he could see the remains of some inner light fading from the crystal.

Steven’s first attacker had now regained his feet and was turning around to rush an unsuspecting target. Michael yelled a warning to his friend, whipped two daggers from their sheaths, and threw them in a single fluid motion. Steven, hearing the warning, instinctively spun around, sweeping his staff in an arc at chest level. The blow struck the falling bandit in the head as he toppled from the double impact of both of Michael’s daggers. The two stood staring at each other and the bodies scattered around the clearing in amazement.

“Damn, we’re good,” breathed Michael in awe.

Startled by a grunt from the edge of the clearing, both spun to confront the newest attacker, only to discover a dishevelled Caldred admiring the battleground.

“Quite the fancy fighting,” he commented approvingly as he took in the four still bodies. “Never would have took you two for warriors. Guess it just shows that I was lucky in my choice of companions.”

“Steven has studied Karate for a coupla years, and I’ve picked a few things up here and there,” Michael shrugged modestly.

“A few,” snorted Steven, “You’re the only one I know to have a beginner’s belt in several different martial arts, not to mention the year of boxing and fencing you studied. I think I recognised that tumble as one you were always showing off from your fling with gymnastics.”

“So I like to dabble,” defended Michael. “You’ll notice I’m getting pretty good with knife throwing. It’s more fun than studying textbooks like some people I know.”

“Yeah,” quipped Steven. “I bet your mom’ll be real happy to hear that. The last time she caught you practising, you put one of her good kitchen knives through the TV. I’m sure she would rather have you study chemistry or something.”

“Was it my fault I slipped on a pop can when I was aiming for the dart board?”

“Considering you were the one who put the pop can there in the first place, yeah, I’d say it was your fault. Not to mention the fact that the TV is on the opposite wall from the dart board.”

“Enough, already,” interceded Caldred. “Quit the bickering. Let us dispose of these carcasses so that we might get some rest.”

“How can you sleep after all of that?” Steven exclaimed in a voice that trailed off in the upper octaves.

“Lots of practise,” murmured Caldred as he sank down in his blankets. “Get used to it. These hills are filled with bandits, thieves and fortune seekers of every kind; and none of them is any friendlier than these were. Now get some rest. By the way, what is Karate?”

“Ah, it’s a form of advanced hand to hand combat,” explained Steven. “Sort of like boxing or wrestling, but with more moves and technique.”

“Interesting,” commented Caldred. “You’ll have to teach me some of those moves, they’re very impressive.”

Rolling over, he promptly went to sleep. Michael and Steven, however, were too wired to get any sleep, so they stayed up stoking the fire and discussing their surprising prowess in battle. Neither had ever been in too many fights, so they both supposed that they had never had the chance to test their skills. As the fire slowly burned down and their conversation wound to a close, exhaustion finally claimed them.

“Hey, Caldred,” called Michael as he clambered atop a rock that was barring his progress up the mountain pass. “How come you keep switching accents and lingoes? Sometimes you do it in the middle of sentences and even thoughts.”

“Well, ye see, m’laddie,” Caldred drawled in an exaggerated accent. “I was once being a minstrel and in that line ‘o duty, it be deemed an asset, don’tcha know.”

“That could get real irritating, real fast,” quipped Steven from further along the trail.

“Which is why I only save it for special occasions,” responded Caldred in a nonchalant tone. “Otherwise I might be waylaid by the side of the road more often.”

“I guess we’ll take that as an invitation, then,” growled a voice from the ledge above, as two attackers tackled Caldred and Michael to the ground.

Looking up, Steven had just enough time to see two men dropping right for him. Timing it just right, he spun his body and pivoted on one foot, bringing his other foot high into the air in a near perfect execution of a spin kick. His heavy boot caught the falling man in the side of his chest and sent him sprawling to the side and over the cliff. His screams could be heard for several seconds preceding a sickening crunching noise from the bottom. Continuing his spin, Steven swirled his staff to confront his more respectful second opponent.

Caldred was not doing as well; the man accosting him had already landed several blows to his chest that had cracked a few ribs. Kicking the man off him, he flipped to his feet and drew his sword with a metallic hiss. His attacker responded by swinging at him with a rough wooden club that looked like it had enough force to break a few more ribs. Bringing his sword up, Caldred managed to parry the blow, then executed a quick riposte. Surprisingly, the thug turned his blow with the side of his club, and grinned wickedly. While Caldred traded several more blows with his adversary, he observed Steven at the top of the trail, his staff a blur as he combined lightning fast kicks with circular staff strikes to drop two more opponents. Caldred was surprised by the force with which Steven struck with his staff; he could almost swear the Powerstone on the end of the staff flickered with each strike. But that was impossible. Only a mage could conjure the energy from such a weapon, and the young men came from a world that knew no magic.

Shaking off these distracting thoughts, he returned to the fight at hand. Feinting to his left and attempting a spin kick like the ones his new companions used, he managed to take the thug off guard. The thug threw his club wide to fend off an unexpected attack. Using this opening, Caldred rammed his sword home with all the force his beaten and bruised body could muster.

Dumbly, the thug stared down at the foot of steel protruding from his chest. With a last surprised look, the thug’s eyes rolled up in his head and his last breath hissed from his lungs. Pulling his sword free, Caldred stooped to wipe the blood from it on the man’s shirt. Turning around, he looked to see how Michael had fared.

Michael had just finished off the last of his three opponents and was clutching his bleeding side. As he limped over to see if Caldred was all right, he observed that Steven had been the only one to make it through the fight uninjured. Leaning on each other, Caldred and Michael slowly made their way towards where Steven was standing. They both noticed that he was intently examining his staff, as though it were some alien life form that he had never seen before.

“Stop staring stupidly at that blasted staff and give us a hand here!” Michael yelled caustically as he painfully settled himself on the ground near their packs. “We need medical attention right away, and, since you’re always bragging about your first aid courses, you get to patch us up.”

“I swear I could feel a pulse of energy from the staff every time I hit one of these guys.” Steven said wonderingly. “The staff felt a part of me, an extension of my mind and body.”

“Yeah, well, you can philosophise about it later,” grumped Michael, “Right now I want some pain killers.”

As Steven tended to them, Caldred pondered what he had seen during the fight and what Steven had told them after. Only a powerful mage could enact a Magestaff spell with little or no training; Steven didn’t even believe in magic, so how could he perform it? It could be that the staff is a powerful relic that can be used by anyone with a little talent. Yet if that were the case, I should be able to sense it from this range, thought Caldred as he accepted Steven’s ministrations.

“Hey, buddy, you really are good at this!” exclaimed Michael as he stretched his muscles. “I can’t feel any pain at all. It feels as though my side is as good as new.”

Caldred suddenly noticed that the ache of his broken ribs had also vanished, along with all the accumulated bumps and bruises of a week’s worth of hiking. Interesting. he thought. This deserves more study when I have the time. If the boy is this powerful untrained, imagine what he could do with a little bit of skill! He could become a threat if I don’t watch him carefully.

“Is this the place?” called Michael as he lifted his torch to illuminate an inscription on the wall off one of the catacombs.

Stepping closer and squinting, Caldred struggled to translate the ancient dialect into meaningful phrases. After several seconds he spoke. “Yes, this is definitely the place. From here we head down the left branch and turn right at the second intersection.”

Saying this, he proceeded to follow his own directions. Steven and Michael quickly followed him through the spacious corridors of this underground mausoleum. Turning right at the second intersection they came upon an iron-bound, wooden door. Each band of metal was covered with runic inscriptions of power. Steven shivered just to be this close to them; instinctively, he reached out before Caldred could stop him. But, instead of the deadly burst of energy that Caldred had expected, there came a glow from the door as it started to swing inwards.

Stepping back, Steven just shrugged at Caldred’s puzzled stare and indicated that he should go first. Reluctantly, Caldred agreed and stepped into the room, with the two companions close behind. The room was not big, measuring some twenty feet wide and fifteen feet long, with a ceiling that stretched off into the darkness. In the centre stood a large stone sarcophagus with gold and platinum enamelling. Along the left and right walls, a row of stone gargoyles stood, each sculpture captured in lifelike detail. On the back wall, a large tapestry, untouched by the centuries, depicted a large castle sitting atop a mountain.

Caldred hurried to the sarcophagus with his crowbar in hand and started to lift off the top, swearing all the while. “Would you two stop gawking and give me a hand over here?”

Coming over to help with their own crowbars, they quickly had the lid off and resting on the floor. Inside sat a coffin made entirely of untarnished silver; engraved in its surface was the bas-relief of a man’s face. Something about the face nagged at Michael as they worked to open the coffin. A breeze was started to stir up the dust that lay thickly about the floor.

Finally wrenching the coffin open, Caldred gave a startled cry of surprise. The corpse did not show a single sign of decay. If not for the deathly white pallor, it could be mistaken for one taking a nap. Atop the figure lay a shroud of midnight blue embroidered with golden runes of power. As Steven stared at them, he could see them dancing in his mind and hear the whispering voice that had plagued his dreams for several days now.

“The power is finally mine!” Caldred cried greedily as he snatched the shroud from the body. “Mine, all mine! Ha ha ha ha!” He laughed insanely as he tossed the shroud about his shoulders like a cape.

As Steven and Michael looked upon their suddenly transformed companion, they saw the greed and wickedness in his features and inwardly cringed. Caldred swung his hand towards the two and boomed in a loud voice,

“Foolish boys, now you will feel the full wrath of Caldred the Chaotic!”

He started to chant a verse that sent shivers through both of their spines. At the crescendo of the incantations, a new voice boomed through the chamber.

“Foolish knave,” the voice emanated from the now glowing corpse. “Seek not to use my power to thwart my heir and his protector!”

Startled, Caldred broke off his chanting and spun towards the coffin. “This can’t be. You’re dead, and I have the relic of your power about my shoulders.”

“Do you truly think that death can contain me?” replied the voice in a condescending tone. “I, the most powerful Wizard-King of Aberwynn? Death is merely a time of rest for me, until my spirit is reborn once again. And that time has finally come. For here stands my soul reincarnated, and on him do I bestow all my power and skill. To his chosen protector and friend, I give a gift no less powerful.”

The body and the silver coffin dissolved into pure energy that surrounded Michael and Steven. Caldred quickly looked away and shielded his eyes lest he be blinded. When the light dimmed, he turned around to behold two figures of power. From the ancient myths of a time gone by, two heroes were reborn in their full glory. For before him stood Steven, crowned in fire and wearing the robes of Lugh, last Wizard-King of Aberwynn. Beside him stood Michael, wearing the finely fashioned armour of Nauda, the companion of Lugh and the most skilled Warlord ever.

“And so it comes to pass, the greedy and grasping try to steal my power from the very hands of my heir.” Judged Steven in a voice filled with majesty and command. “You sought power and glory through the magic of my shroud? Fool! It has no power. All my magic is invested in my reincarnated soul. Behold!”

He raised his arms skyward and there came a rumbling from deep within the mountain. A wind began to swirl throughout the catacombs, clearing dust and debris as it went. The walls and statues began to ripple as though a heat wave had passed over them, and when it finally stopped Caldred beheld sparkling white walls untouched by the centuries.

“Illusion!” Caldred gasped. “It was all an illusion to fool intruders. The castle has lain here underground all these centuries and no one has known.”

“Underground no longer,” boomed Steven as he pointed towards a revealed window. “As you can see, my power has restored the castle to its mountaintop. Here my people will flock to banners of justice and freedom in this bleak and troubled world. Now, begone from my lands, and consider your exile just punishment for your presumption.”

When Caldred awoke, he found himself suddenly atop a small rise overlooking a grungy city that sprawled as far as the eye could see. Coughing in the foul, polluted air, he stumbled to his feet, wondering to what hell he could possibly have been sent. Rough hands grasped him suddenly and threw him to the ground. A young man holding a knife leaned down over him and pressed a knife to his throat.

“Give me all your money, ya freak,” the youth growled as he pressed the knife to Caldred’s throat while smirking at the two thugs to either side.

Knowing it was futile to struggle, Caldred reached down to his belt and removed his money pouch. Slowly, he emptied the bronze coins into the thief’s hands.

“This ain’t money!” the boy spat, “This’ll teach you to try and cheat me.”

With a deft motion, the youth slit Caldred’s throat ear to ear and laughed with his friends at their victims gurgled death cry. As his life quickly bled from him, to be swallowed by the earth, Caldred stared at the three young boys standing over him, gloating. All were wearing jackets embroidered with fiery blazons of red with the words “Red Wings” underneath.