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To Rule Them All: Between Heaven and Hell.

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Wednesday, January 20th, Year 3019 of the Third Age (Steward’s Reckoning; Year Anno Domini 1200 by the Gregorian Calendar)

 

Beyond Space and Time

 

It was now that the Composers of the Great Music each began to play their chosen themes. Every one had own melody, their own chords and notes to add to the song being played, yet there was no discord between them; Every tune, every strain, every section of their combined work built towards a greater harmony, the sum of which would be infinitely more perfect than any individual part could ever possibly hope to be. 

 

And so the New Music of Creation began to play, all across the lands of Europa...

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The hammer and anvil rang without ceasing, as the Smith’s forge burned hot, hotter than it had in millennia, golden smoke pouring into the open sky above the workshop. The Smith himself was eager to work; long had it been since he had truly tested his skills at the forge, and he was intrigued by the ideas designs that he had found among this world’s Music. He was swift to familiarize himself with the materials and swifter still to begin crafting tools the likes of which had not been seen in an Age. The melody of the forge sang bright and clear, as the Smith made dreams and legends real, building tools for the world that had previously been found only in tale and myth.

 

The foes of Good had always feared such tools, those weapons and artifacts that took the strength to heroes and seemed to magnify them a multitude of times, and had always striven to make their own or steal and corrupt them. The Dark Lord, it was known, possessed several such tools, and the advantages that they provided many and vast: the fallen Palantir of Minas Morgul, and its counterpart in Isengard, which let Sauron and Saruman cast their sight far further than would otherwise be possible; the Rings of the Nazgul, which kept the Dark Lord’s greatest servants in his thrall and granted them a portion of his power; the three captured Dwarf Rings, poisonous to the minds and spirits of any who wore them, no doubt to play a future part in his schemes. 

 

The side of good, meanwhile, was bereft of such powers. The One Ring lay in their hands, but no one aware of its danger would dare try and use its power against its master. The Three Rings could only defend and preserve the realms of their wielders or to passively encourage those around them. Narsil lay shattered, and the handful of blades that could compare, although largely in the hands of the Free Peoples, were few and far between, and could not alone hold back the might of Sauron’s various thralls. 

 

What then could counter the powers of Sauron’s myriad of dark tools? In the music of the new world were found certain chords that provided potential answers, answers that the Smith now worked to bring into reality. The Dark Lord’s servants would have their Morgul-blades and Morgul-spells, but the Free Peoples would not be left without counters. One by one, the Smith’s hammer shaped swords of myth and fairy tale, blades whose names were already well known and would become legendary forever more.

 

Blades with names like Excalibur, Durendal, Joyeuse, Tizona and Colada.

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The wind whistled past her. The Dancer was swift, swifter than near any other in Creation, yet her progress was slow. The roads she walked here were far different than the ones of Arda: those paths, some of them ancient beyond reckoning, had become by virtue of their age and use quick to travel. Not so here, where even the oldest highways were poorly maintained and slow to walk upon.

 

She felt stifled. Relative to the free movement available to her in Arda, where she could spring forwards in great leaps with every step, here she felt as if she was sinking into the ground every time her feet touched the earth. And if she was moving slowly, than what did that say about the movement of those who did not come from the Land Beyond the Sea? They could not hope to do more than stumble and crawl along these pathways and roads, moving at the pace of snails. 

 

If this world was to resist the coming darkness, such conditions were unacceptable. The legions of Sauron marched swiftly over any terrain, never tiring, never hesitating. The armies of darkness, when driven by the whips of their masters, could move with speeds that few other forces could dare match. Coupled with the Dark Lord’s mastery of engineering (and thusly of roadbuilding), the Hordes of Mordor would be able to sweep over the land with terrifying speed, striking at their foes at the times and places of their choosing. The ability of the Forces of Evil to strike against the had been vastly increased, simply because their armies could travel further and faster, hitting their foes before they could properly muster or deploy.

 

It was such a basic matter, and yet such a critical one.  How would it be possible to counter their moves, when the Dark Lord’s hordes could move as far in a day as the armies of their opponents could move in three? The elves could have done so, but they were always few in number, and were now disoriented and ignorant of their surroundings. The great highways and road networks of Gondor were gone: now before Sauron’s might lay many peoples to oppose him, yes, but scattered across vast distances that were covered by pathways that barely deserved the name. 

 

And there lay the crux of the problem: Distances in this new world were magnified. A journey that may have taken a week or two in Arda would find itself stretched to a month or more here. The Kingdoms of Men in this world were not much further apart than those of Middle-earth had been, yet they were many times more isolated from each other, simply because the roads that should have connected them were in such a state of disrepair or didn’t exist in the first place. 

 

And so the Dancer, well, danced. And as she did so, a subtle thing happened. No mortal eye could see it, but those attuned to the Music of Creation would notice the valleys rising up, the hills lowering themselves, the highways levelling and straightening themselves. When she moved along the roads and paths and highways, they seemed to rise to meet her, clearing the route for her travels. The earth itself seemed inspired by her passage, bowing before her, paying homage to her dancing by readying itself to be trod upon. Every way she walked and danced made way for her, preparing a path before her.

 

Paths that thousands of others would soon walk upon...

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The babble was endless. The Dreamer’s looked out upon his domain in wonder, observing all the different tongues and languages of the new world. So many different ways to express the same ideas and concepts, so many ways for the wrong messages to be sent and the right ones to be lost. So much division because two different words had been given one meaning, because there was no singular tongue to use.

 

It seemed such a small thing, really. Surely enough interpreters and translators could be found so as to facilitate proper communication. But would that be enough? On a battlefield, with unknowable lives at stake, when mere moments could decide between life and death, so much could be lost because of a message that took too long to translate. The ability to communicate across the barriers of language could mean the difference between victory and defeat, between the salvation of the world and its destruction.

 

The Dark Lord did not have this problem. His thralls were uniform in tongue, the Black Speech of Melkor universal among them. Those that could not speak or lacked enough of a rational mind to listen had been made fluent in the language of pain: the whip and lash served as messenger among the legions of Mordor as much as the tongue and mouth did. A brutal solution to the problem of communication, true, but an effective one.

 

Meanwhile, the Free Peoples of this world were speakers of enough different tongues as to make large-scale coordination a potential nightmare. Most understood Latin, but only in the context of religious rituals, and in conversational and battlefield situations most turned to their mother tongues, which varied wildly from region to region: French and its various dialects, Spanish, German, Greek and a dozen other tongues all claimed dominance in some part of the continent. And of course, absolutely no one in Europe spoke Westron, never mind Quenya or Sindarin.

 

In his search for a solution, the Dreamer had struck solid gold. There was a way to unify speakers of every language of this world and the transplants from Arda, lying in wait to be found among this world’s own Music. The dissonance of language in this new world, the Dreamer had found, had come from a singular moment, a moment which had been undone before. The Spirit of the One in Heaven stood ready to be called upon. Tongues of flesh would always be divided. 

 

And so the Dreamer turned to Tongues of Fire...  

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She heard the moans and screams and tears of the wounded. The Healer watched those that tried to help. They were not as ignorant as might have been believed: while many mysteries of the body eluded them, many others had been answered, either in knowledge preserved from the ancient world or answered by their own experiences and experiments. They knew how to dress wounds, how to set broken bones, how to diagnose injuries. It was their tools that were so sorely limited, not their skills, and certainly not their desire to help. Still though, the Healing Arts of this new world were sorely limited.

 

Meanwhile, if one were to strictly define medical aid as ‘the ability to take an injured subject and make them able to physical labor again,’ the “Healing Arts” of Sauron were exponentially more advanced. There is a certain sociopathic benefit to treating one’s servants as disposable tools: you need not give them even the slightest bit of comfort when “healing” them. Amputating a limb with a superheated blade and replacing it with twisted pieces of metal, only keeping the patient alive through the liberal application of dark magic in the process, is to be considered a successful treatment. In fact, if they are left so psychologically broken that they are no longer capable of doing anything except screaming in agony and trying to kill things, then by the standards of Mordor your patient is to be considered healthier than when they first became injured.

 

The Healer was well aware of this. Attrition was and always would be one of the greatest tools of the Dark Lord. If the Free Peoples were to stand a chance, its effects would have to be mitigated. If wounding a man or making him ill removed him from the battlefield for months at a time, and even when they returned they were left severely weakened, while doing the same to an orc kept them out of the fight for only a few days and stood a chance of making them come back even more insane and fearsome, then the coming war could only possibly be lost.

 

The Healer noticed that they prayed, and prayed often. Often times out of desperation, certainly, but certainly not out of ignorance. There was only so much that could be done with their limited knowledge and primitive tools, and they knew it. Far, far too many times did they come before those that were beyond their help, that could only be left in the hands of God. They prayed because miracles were the only hope for some, and the only comfort they could give to others. 

 

And the Healer resolved that their prayers would not go unanswered. 

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The fields were silent this time of year. The Giver of Fruits looked out over empty plains, buried beneath snow and dead grass. The earth here was unyielding in its wealth: the far majority of this world’s inhabitants spent their whole lives toiling in these fields, coaxing what crops they could from the grounds. Their techniques and tools evolved only slowly; many, if not most, grew only enough to feed themselves and their families, and little more.

 

And now the darkness was coming. The effects that it would have on the ability of the earth to sustain life would be catastrophic. She had seen before how it made the land wither and die, how it spread icy coldness wherever it went, sealing up the fertility of the earth. She had seen the famine and starvation and sickness that had resulted, the whole nations that were defeated by empty stomachs long before they were beaten by force of arms. 

 

Under Sauron’s rule, the Forces of Evil did not face these problems. Innumerable slaves tilled the lands of the Lithlad and maintained the gigantic irrigation system based around the Sea of Nurnen, turning nearly three-quarters of Mordor into a vast breadbasket to feed his endless armies. When even that proved not enough, those that starved became part of the food supply, a unique advantage to the encouragement of cannibalism among the rank and file. 

 

It was therefore that the food supplies of Sauron’s armies were practically infinite, fueled by an untouchable agricultural region, slave labor, loot-and-plunder warfare doctrines and the practice of outright eating anyone considered weak. Meanwhile, European agriculture was an incredibly delicate thing, in many cases barely able to produce surpluses and quite vulnerable to the kinds of famines that Sauron’s conquests were known to spread.

 

The Giver of Fruits was unwilling to accept such an unbalance. A warm wind began to blow. It blew across fields and plains and forests and hills. It was like the breath of spring itself, bringing new life to that which had once been lifeless. For now, very little appeared to have changed, the cold of winter remaining the same as it had been before, even as the earth below was coaxed into far greater richness than ever before. 

 

But soon enough, spring would come...

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The crashing and roaring of the waves was quite familiar. The Sea had forever been untamable, its true face enough to fill anyone with fear and dread. Those who did not respect his power, that were arrogant enough to say that ‘I have mastered the oceans, and they bow to me alone,’ were quick to meet with his wrath: the hulks of innumerable sunken vessels strewn across every sea floor was testament to that. 

 

But those that acknowledged the power of the Sea, that knew how to work with him instead of against him, gained in a way a small portion of his power. The waterways made up the fastest and safest roads in this world, and hardy barriers as well; those that understood that grew wealthy from the trade that travelled the seas and rivers and lakes, and could always be assured that the same could shelter them in times of troubles. 

 

The Forces of Evil had never respected the waters; they had been enemies since the very creation of Arda, and that was not going to change here. Now that the shadow fell upon the shores of this new world, the Sea prepared to meet it. Every water of the world now stirred. Their fury would be more subdued than if the power of the Sea was fully unrestrained, perhaps, but their power was still a force to be reckoned with.

 

After all, it was written throughout this new world that Evil could not cross running water.

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But who would wield the blades? Who would walk the roads? Who would speak the words? Who would perform healing? Who would harvest the fruits? Who would guard the shores of the waters? The tools of victory would lay idle with none to wield them, so to whom would they be given? The Composers could not wield them themselves, certainly, as the fabric of reality, so torn and frayed already, could never survive such direct alteration; the fate of Beleriand was proof enough of that. And there were other duties to which they were to attend, duties just as important to the fate of the world... 

 

Regardless of the practical problems, the Composers were the stewards of Creation, not its masters. They did not rule existence as overlords, but rather shepherded and encouraged it as guardians. They were to give all the aid and guidance that they could to the world, certainly, but its destiny was to lay in its own hands, not theirs. To do otherwise would be to act against their very nature, to lay aside every oath they had ever sworn, to act as Melkor had done when he had first betrayed Creation. And so to help this world, they needed others to act in their place.

 

In the war to come, they needed Champions. 



Champagne, Kingdom of France

 

The very concept of a “Holy War” is a paradoxical one, especially in the context of Christianity. How is it that a faith that espoused the turning of the other cheek and the forgiveness of sins, the preached charity, love and mercy from every pulpit and said that the greatest commandment was to love one’s neighbor as oneself ever justify the very idea of war, which by its very nature stood as seemingly antithetical to everything that the Faith represented? 

 

Long had Christianity been trapped in an awkward position with regards to armed conflict. Ever since the Western Roman Empire had begun its final collapse in the 5th Century, war had been a simple fact of life across most of Europe. The Church struggled to reconcile its teachings of peace and forgiveness with the necessity of defending it members from marauding Vikings, raiders from the eastern steppes and the advance of the armies of Islam. Living a good Christian life necessitated not dying, and the Church, despite its espousal of the greatness of martyrdom, couldn’t exactly order its adherents not to defend their lives when under threat

 

A great oxymoron soon began to emerge out of the resulting chaos: the ideal of the Christian (pacifistic, merciful and charitable) Warrior (violent, ruthless and glory-seeking). The earliest Christian Kings, such as Clovis the Frank or Oswald of Northumbria, were violent and bloodthirsty men who saw little change in their personal attitudes towards violence pre-and-post conversion. Even Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor and viewed as the ultimate paragon of the Christian King, was primarily famous for his bloody wars of conquest against the Saxons.

 

Converting the Slavs, Germans and Scandanavians and thus religiously unifying the continent did little to stop the violence: the Barbarians had simply become civilized, and retained their desires to conquer, pillage and seek vengeance. Wars continued, albeit often on a more localized level, as ambition, pride and cruelty continued to manifest themselves among mankind.

 

Compounding the problem was the fact that, in an effort to attract pagan converts, the text of the Scriptures was often translated into the Slavic, Germanic or Scandanavian vernacular in a quite...liberal manner. Themes of war and violence became dominant in the versions of the Bible that were distributed among the ex-pagans: Christ is described as a Warrior, his death on the Cross a battle. Heaven becomes a form of Valhalla. The Apostles are interpreted as Thanes. Peter begs to fight to the death in the Garden of Gethsemane. Europe, despite its Christianization, remained a land of nearly constant war.

 

It thus became necessary to bridge the gap between the teachings of Christ and the cold, hard reality of an often brutally violent world, and that meant creating a coherent theology on when fighting, even fighting to the death, could be justified within a Christian framework. The Church Fathers such as Origen, Ambrose and Augustine had laid the bedrock for what would eventually become the doctrine of Just War: the merciful and kindly teachings of the Gospels were interpreted and defined as applying to the private citizen, not to states or realms. 

 

This meant that while the individual was to practice Christian teaching, living simply and loving his neighbor, there was no obligation for the state to do so. This was presented as having scriptural backing: John the Baptist advised soldiers to stay in the army (Luke 3:14); Christ told his followers to pay taxes to Caesar, which drew a clear distinction between political and spiritual obligations (Matthew 22:21); St Paul urges that the Christian community in Ephesus to maintain obedient to the state, telling them to ‘pray for kings and all that are in authority’ (1 Timothy 2:2). 

 

In fact, the very language of Scripture was used to reinforce the separation between the private and the public: the primary Latin translation of the Bible, St Jerome’s Vulgate, consistently and invariably translated the word ‘enemy’ as inimicus , a term which implied a personal enemy; the word for a public enemy or an enemy nation, hostis, never appears in the New Testament. The Old Testament, meanwhile, was chock full of stories of Holy War, ranging from the conquest of the Promised Land to the various wars of the Judges and Kings to the rebellion of the Maccabees. 

 

Further progress on the theory was made by the Church Fathers that combined Greco-Roman philosophy, which had already created many lines of thought justifying warfare within a ‘civil’ state, with Christian Theology. Ambrose of Milan, a former Imperial official, saw the state and the Church as inexorably linked: the wars of the state were to be considered non-sinful in the same way that the wars of the Old Testament Israelites had been. His protege, Augustine of Hippo, built the doctrine further, arguing that a war fought to bring peace was just, and writing in his work City of God that ‘the commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged war on the authority of God.’ 

 

Combined with the works of other contemporary and later theologians, a clear doctrine began to take shape. It was (in theory) perfectly acceptable for a good Christian could wage bloody war against his neighbors: A war fought for a just cause (generally meaning either the defense or recovery of a rightful possession), sanctioned by legitimate authority (the head of state or the head of the church) and fought by those motivated by right intent (those who were not fighting for personal reasons, but rather for the church/state) was not a sinful action. A faith that apparently espoused pacifism and mercy now had a mechanism by which it could declare war on any justifiable target. 

 

This doctrine would find its ultimate expression in the last years of the 11th Century, when Emperor Alexios I of the Eastern Roman Empire sent ambassadors westwards to ask for aid against the Seljuk Turks, who since the Battle of Manzikert had become ever more entrenched in Anatolia. Here would be the perfect example of a Just War: waged for a just cause (the recovery of Anatolia to its rightful rulers), sanctioned by legitimate authority (both the Eastern Roman Emperor and the Papacy) and fought by those motivated by right intent (or at least, so it was hoped). 

 

This ‘Call of the Cross’ would soon become a force like few others in Christendom. Ever since Pope Urban II had first made his legendary plea at Clermont in November of 1095, the legends of Crusader, Crusade and the Holy Land had grown without ceasing, spoken of in awe and wonder wherever followers of Christ could be found. Here, finally, the violent tendencies of the European could find justification: the urges of the former pagans of Europe to slaughter and loot had found an ‘acceptable’ outlet.

 

Oddly enough, that had never been the main intention: the primary goal of the Clermont speech, and in fact of the entirety of Urban II’s preaching tour through France in 1095-96, had been clerical reform; the summons to war to support the Byzantines and liberate the eastern churches had been something of an afterthought, just one of more than thirty decrees issued at Clermont; most of the others dealt with issues ecclesiatstical reorganization and discipline, such as the education of priests, simony, the end of clerical marriage and enforcement of celibacy and the prevention of secular investiture of Bishops, as well as advocating for a general peace between Christian rulers.

 

But the Papacy of the time had lacked the political influence and temporal power necessary to enforce such decrees: many of the monasteries and abbeys, ever more influential, had slowly become more and more autonomous, and local churches often found themselves falling into the orbits of the Kingly authorities instead of that in Rome. Throughout the 11th Century, the Church had found itself increasingly picking sides in various wars in order to increase its authority over the Kings of Christendom, hoping to gain the secular allies (and therefore the material leverage) that would enable the completion of the Church’s reforms: armies marching under Papal banners fought against Imperial Authority during the Investiture Contest in the 1070s and 1080s, and Norman lords conquered Sicily and England in the 1060s with Papal approval.

 

It was Pope Gregory VII, opponent Emperor Henry IV during the Investiture Contest and perhaps the greatest of the reforming Popes of the age, who had first called for the creation of a militia sancti Petri, a Militia of Saint Peter, to be recruited from all across Europe in order to form a Papal Army. By the end of his pontificate in 1085, Gregory offered any and all that fought for the Church’s causes the absolution of sins and the prospect of eternal salvation.

 

The Crusades therefore were to be the great instruments of the reformation movement, the ultimate way to permanently legitimize the authority of the Papacy over secular rulers and allow it to carry out the restoration of the Church to the pristine autonomy and spirituality it had held during the time of the Apostles. The facts that many of the most violent men on the continent would be spending several years being hundreds of miles away, allowing for the establishment of large-scale truces between the various lords of Europe (and thusly enabling the Church to present itself as the enforcer of peace within Christendom) only made the movement all the more appealing to the authorities in Rome.

 

The most important draw for the average Crusader, though, would be the journey itself. The concept of the pilgrimage had already been one of massive importance, long before the Crusades: Journeys to the great shrines of Christendom were not only commonplace, they were almost obligatory (in fact, pilgrimage was often assigned as penance for the Sacrament of Reconciliation). A completed pilgrimage was not only a badge of honor, it was also of nearly immeasurable spiritual value: to walk where the saints had walked was an experience almost indescribable to those that had not done so themselves.

 

Every year, hundreds of thousands of pious men, women and children made the difficult and often deadly pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome or the other Holy Places, such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the reported burial sight of St James the Apostle. Hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands of miracles were associated with such journeys, mostly healings but also visions and other kinds of apparitions. 



The Holy Land, of course, was the prime destination, as the pious of Christendom strove to trod where the savior himself had trod. Of course, with Palestine in Islamic hands, the journey had become all the more dangerous: tales of muslim crimes against pilgrims filled European hearts with wrath, and the desire to liberate the Holy Land resonated with the whole of the continent. To undertake such a trial, especially to the Holiest place in Christendom, held by an enemy power and in need of liberation, was to martyr oneself to Christ, to become holy in ways beyond imagining.

 

In the century since Clermont, hundreds of thousands of men from all across Christendom had left behind their lives in the west and made the arduous journey eastwards. Some were legitimate Holy Warriors, some were penitents seeking remission for their sins, some were seekers of fortune, fame and loot. Some found what they were looking for, others did not. A handful became legendary. Innumerable numbers of them simply faded into the annals of history, names and deeds forgotten. 

 

Regardless, the idea of the Crusade had become entrenched in the Christian psyche. The three great campaigns in the east were etched into the memories of the whole Christian world. Who did not know of the first march to the Holy Sepulcher, from the assembly at Nicaea to its miraculous delivery at the Siege of Antioch to the liberation of Jerusalem from the muslims? Who could forget the disasters of Edessa and Damascus, when betrayal and division had torn the Armies of Christ apart? Where among Christendom could be found those that could not recall the glories of Acre, Arsuf and Jaffa?

 

Crusading had captured the imagination of the West, becoming a cause that every member of the Christian world seemed to want to be part of. The names of the men who had fought in them had become the stuff of legend, the tales of their deeds used as inspiration for the whole of Christendom. The concept of Crusading spread to Europe’s other frontiers: the Christian Kings of Spain had begun to advance southwards, winning back lands that had been under muslim rule for centuries, while German knights marched northeast, fighting to convert or destroy the Baltic tribes, the last pagan holdouts on the continent. The idea of the Crusade had become a new pillar of the faith.

 

None of this is to say that the Crusades constituted a good pillar of the faith. As with any institution conceived and operated by human minds and hands, the flaws in the system quickly became many and varied. The legal and administrative mechanisms of Crusading lagged far behind their lofty ideals, and the simple logistics of moving so many soldiers, camp followers and pilgrims created a fertile bed for corruption to take root.

 

Put simply, while the spirit of the Crusader was nearly always ready and willing, the flesh (the political, organizational, economic and military apparatuses) was often, if not always, weak. Money for such journeys was constantly short, the taxes introduced to fund such expeditions rarely popular or effective. Oaths sworn to go east to Jerusalem were left unfulfilled, either by accident, poverty or active neglect. The legal privileges of those that went to the Holy Land were often vaguely defined and inconsistently enforced, leaving many would-be Holy Warriors too afraid of intrigue at home to depart on any expedition. 

 

Such was the nature of the nascent Fourth Crusade. The new Pontiff had been calling for a Crusade ever since his election in the first month of 1198, and had formally declared his intentions in August of that year. The proposed deadline for the expedition’s departure, March of 1199, came and went without so much as a peep from Christendom as a whole. The great monarchs of Europe, the Kings of England and France and the German Emperors, were too busy with their own feuds to care; there would be no repeat of the previous decade’s Crusade of Three Kings. 

 

The Papacy found more success among members of the lesser nobility: the charismatic speaker Fulk of Neuilly, well-renowned throughout the west for his piety and eloquence, became a quite effective preacher of the new Crusade, being the man who finally gained commitments from several major lords. They were by and large former allies of King Richard the Lionheart; with his death in April of 1199, they had become caught in a very awkward position between King John Lackland, who they invariably held quite low opinions of, and King Philip Augustus, who had they had spent most of the last decade fighting against. Taking the Cross proved itself a lucrative third option.

 

Thus did the key players of the coming Crusade come on to the stage. Their leaders were a trio of closely-related counts from near where the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt Rivers flowed into the sea: Count Theobald of Champagne, nephew to the King of France; Count Louis of Blois, nephew to the King of England; and Count Baldwin of Flanders, brother-in-law to Count Theobald. These were not some minor nobles looking to make names for themselves, but rather three of the most powerful and influential men in France: Baldwin especially was likely the richest man in Europe north of the Alps, having grown wealthy off of the wool trade that flowed through his lands, and combined with the other two could likely have challenged the military might of King Philip. 

 

So far, though, only the foundations of a Crusade had been laid. There was still much work to do before any sort of large expedition could be launched. It would take time for the Counts’ vassals to fall into line: in fact, Baldwin himself had yet to formally commit himself or his vassals to the cause. The logistics would be as nightmarish as ever: the usual shortfall of funds was to be expected (with the Three Counts expecting to nearly bankrupt themselves for the sake of the Crusade) as was the difficulties in coordinating the large-scale movement of so many men over such distances.  

 

Even which road to take would be a matter of contention. The overland route had become viewed as untenable due to the increasing hostility of the Byzantine Empire to westerners and the miserable fate of the great Frederick of Barbarossa in the previous Crusade. This meant taking the sea route, which was little less of a problem: The negotiations with the various Italian states moved slowly when they moved at all, an issue compounded by the Crusader’s lacking the funds to pay the prices the Italians were demanding. Not only that, but of all the maritime republics, it increasingly appeared that only Venice was both willing to aid the Crusaders (Genoa was largely hostile to anyone even tangentially associated with King Philip, with whom they had previously had less-than-satisfactory experiences) and able to do so (Pisa, Bari and the other, smaller states along the peninsula simply lacked enough ships for the expected scale of the expedition).

 

At least there was a clear strategy. The initial objective of the Crusade was to be the Nile Delta, with the goal of taking Alexandria and Cairo beyond. Conventional military wisdom with regards to the Holy Land identified Egypt as being the key to victory, a strategy that had been emphasized and enforced by the Lionheart during the previous Crusade: the wealthy and fertile lands were too much of a threat to leave in enemy hands, and would be a great boon to any future expeditions if they could be wrested away from the muslims.

 

But fate would ensure that the Crusaders would never reach Egypt.

 

Count Theobald dreamed of a great Hall, vast beyond imagining, sitting on the shore of an endless black sea and beneath a star-strewn sky, dark and silent as a tomb. Upon every wall were draped what seemed to be living tapestries, which endlessly unmade and remade themselves, breathing life into the scenes they portrayed. The Count of Champagne wandered the Hall, examining the art upon the walls. He fully recognized some of them (the Flood washing away the sinful world, while Noah’s Ark sailed away from the sinking; the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge being stolen, and the Garden of Eden being plunged into darkness; Lucifer’s rebellion against the Lord), found familiarity in a few others (a gigantic black dragon, the size of a mountain, being thrown down to the earth; Angels walking among men, aiding them in subtle ways; Prometheus being chained to the side of a mountain) and found the rest to be completely alien (a woman singing her way into hell? Three flaming jewels? A pair of siblings becoming married due to a curse?). 

 

Theobald. 

 

That voice, solemn and terrible and echoing throughout the entirety of the Hall, pulled the Count from his thoughts. Turning, Theobald saw who it was who had called his name: In the center of the vast Hall, seated upon a vast throne of cold, uncut rock sat a great, dark figure. An aura of unquestionable authority radiated from them, and their face was as if carved from stone, being as stern and dispassionate as a marble statue. 

 

Your Trial Is Coming.

 

One of the tapestries upon the wall unmade itself, the threads that composed it moving between the Count of Champagne and the figure upon the throne. There they rapidly wove themselves into a new and nightmarish scene. Theobald saw terrible monsters, twisted mockeries of men or beasts, slaughtering their way through any that opposed them. Around them, everything burned: homes, churches, the bodies of the living and the dead.

 

The Enemy’s Servants Will Soon Be Upon You.

 

The tapestry remade itself again. Now Theobald saw a great black tower, stretching impossibly tall towards the sky, the great pits around it belching smoke and fire. A vast army stood at its base, sheathed in hard, black armor and adorned with the mark of a White Hand. Upon the tower itself stood a white-robed man, cajoling the horde into fervor and fury. They raised their staff, and a great roar rose from the army as it marched out to war.

 

Their Evil Must Not Be Allowed To Take Root.

 

The scene shifted. Now the white-robed man stood before what appeared to be a council of noblemen. His style of speech was one of subtle and control, backed by what seemed to be unmatchable charisma and authority. As Theobald watched, the whole assembly came under the white-robed man’s sway, nodding along with his words, applauding his ideas, cheering at his propositions. 

 

Meet With The One You Call The Holy Father.

 

Another shift. Two great armies clashed, blood painting the ground red. On one side was raised the standard of the White Hand, and besides it a great many other banners, the marking of the Counties of Savoy, Provence and Toulouse flying high and proud, as were the symbols of the Cathar heretics besides them. The other army marched under the banner of the Cross and the Papal Keys, which were raised alongside the markings of a scores’ worth of the Italian City-States. 

 

Fulfill The Oath That You Have Sworn.

 

As the battle raged on, Theobald watched as he himself appeared on the field, the flag of Champagne fluttering proudly in the breeze behind him. Besides him rode Louis and Baldwin, the banners of Blois and Flanders raised high besides his own, the Cross of the Crusader displayed prominently on all three of their chests. As one, they raised their blades and charged towards the army flying the White Hand. 

 

Or You Will Be Destroyed.

 

The tapestry changed one last time, and it now showed the most terrible scene yet. Theobald saw his own castle being laid to waste, the gate and towers destroyed, the keep consumed by ravenous flames. The dead and dying were strewn all around, men and women and children alike, their faces frozen in expressions of terror and agony and despair. As he watched his home be destroyed, the Hall around him dissolved away, leaving Theobald floating alone in a black, cold void. 

 

It was then that the Count awoke screaming. He catapulted upright, flailing and thrashing and gasping for breath, his heart beating like a drum. There was someone else in his chamber, reaching for him, grabbing at him, crying out to him, and Theobald tumbled out of the bed and onto the floor, scrambling to stand and face his assailant. He turned to face his attacker...and came face-to-face with the fearful face of his wife, Blanche.

 

“Dearest?! What is it?! What happened!?” Blanche cried out, her hands raised in a placating gesture. It took a long, long moment for the Count of Champagne to calm himself. He took a deep breath, shuddering, his mind still filled with visions of horror and death. He was soaked in a cold sweat, and his breathing was shaky and slow. His wife didn’t look that much better: his screaming must have woken her.

 

“It’s...it was a nightmare, my love. Nothing more.” Theobald spoke slowly, raising his hands to clutch his face as he did so, cradling his head and trying to stop the flood of terrible images that seemed to have been burned into his mind’s eye. His wife did not seem convinced, a clear look of concern mixed with fear upon her face. But a moment later her expression shifted towards one of dumbfounded shock and confusion. She raised a shuddering finger towards her, her tone as she spoke one of awe.

 

“Th-Theobald. Theobald, look. Y-your hands.”

 

My hands? Slowly, the Count of Champagne lowered his hands away from his head. What he saw froze him in disbelieving shock. Vaguely, he became aware of the throbbing pain that was radiating from them, of the warm liquid that he had inadvertently smeared across his face, of his wife crossing herself and falling to her knees, weeping. The source of all three things rapidly became clear.

 

There were gaping holes in both of his palms, as if a pair nails had been driven clean through them.



Praha, Kingdom of Bohemia

 

There were times, occasionally, when the Holy Roman Empire almost managed to live up to its name. The later years of the reign of Emperor Henry VI, son of the already legendary Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, were almost such a time. His marriage to the widowed Queen of Sicily, Constance (and the throne of Sicily that came with said marriage), had given Henry the Italian trump card that his father had for so long lacked. Threatened with invasion from both north and south, the Papal-led Lombard League had finally bowed to German rule, bringing the whole of the peninsula under tighter imperial control than they had seen in centuries.

 

The Guelph faction, the main opposition to the strengthening of Imperial power in Germany, had been largely neutered after Barbarossa had crushed the revolt of their main leader, Henry the Lion, parcelling out his holdings in Saxony and Bavaria to various loyalists and leaving Henry’s surviving supporters squabbling amongst themselves for scraps. True, the aristocracy remained fearful of the ever-growing authority of the Imperial Throne, but leaderless, divided and weakened as they were there was little they could do to truly oppose the Emperor.

 

With the home front secured, Henry had prepared what would have been a masterstroke for the ages. By threatening the invasion of Greece via Sicily (a terrifying prospect to the Byzantines, who remembered well the campaigns of the Norman Sicilians a generation prior), Henry hoped to achieve the seemingly impossible: the two-fold liberation of Jerusalem from Muslim hands and reunification of the Eastern and Holy Roman Empires. 

 

The goal was to force the Byzantines to fund a new expedition to the Holy Land (the success of which which would in turn win enough influence with the Papacy to fully integrate Sicily into the Empire and crush whatever dissent remained among the German and Italian nobility to his rule) and to betroth his younger brother, Philip, to one of the daughters of Emperor Isaac II (who had no son, meaning that said daughter would have a chance of inheriting, thusly installing Philip on the Imperial Throne when she did so and placing the Hohenstaufen Dynasty in control of both Empires). 

 

Despite the sheer boldness, audacity and ambition of the plan, all of Henry’s efforts would come to naught. While the Byzantines did hand over a massive portion of their already-dwindling treasury to Henry to fund his crusade, and Isaac would give his second daughter’s hand to Philip, the plan would fall apart soon afterwards. Much of the nobility at home remained restive, especially after Henry began trying to institute Hereditary Succession for the Imperial Throne, endlessly delaying the departure of the Crusade. 

 

The movement of a massive German army though Italy on its way to the Holy Land bred further resentment and resistance, culminating in an open revolt in Sicily. This would prove to be the nail in the coffin for the Emperor’s ambitions: while negotiating with the rebels (who included his own wife), Henry would die suddenly, either having been poisoned or having caught malaria, depending on who you asked.

 

Cue the Succession Crisis. The Emperor left behind only one child, Frederick, an infant boy of three years. His mother, the boy’s regent, had passed away only a few months later, declaring the new Pope, Innocent III, to be the child’s guardian. With Sicily now effectively in the hands of their Papal ally, the Guelph cause was significantly strengthened, and they would only become bolder when the great Richard the Lionheart, King of England, had suggested that his nephew Otto of Brunswick, the son of the late rebel and Guelph leader Henry the Lion, take the throne, with military support for such a venture being heavily implied. 

 

With their rivals strengthened, unified behind a single leader and with a strong foreign backer, the allies of the Hohenstaufen dynasty feared the loss of the Imperial Throne to a Welf Emperor (and the retaliatory measures that such and Emperor would be expected to use against them), and responded accordingly. The Ghillibine faction quickly closed ranks around the deceased Emperor’s brother, Philip of Swabia, who had originally only hoped to ensure the election of his nephew, and pushed him to take the Crown. 

 

Soon there were two Holy Roman Emperors, neither of them fully legitimate: Philip’s supporters had held enough votes to elect him as Emperor, but Otto’s supporters refused to accept the result, and three months after the election they held their own conclave to elect Otto, as Philip had not yet been coronated. Both would be coronated soon afterwards, but neither of them did so by the legitimate process: Philip was crowned with the full regalia of the Emperor, but had not been in either Mainz or Aachen (the traditional location) and had not been crowned by the Archbishop of Cologne (the traditional authority); for Otto, it was simply the other way around, having been coronated in Aachen by the Archbishop of Cologne, but lacking the proper crown and sceptre of the Emperor. 

 

The battle lines were quickly drawn: Otto held less of Germany than Philip, being mainly confined to the north and northwest, but was backed wholly by the English (despite the death of King Richard; the new King, John, was eager to install a strong ally on the continent) and the Papacy (which held the allegiance of most of the Italian City-States, who wished to drive their German overlords back over the Alps). Philip held the rest of Germany and had managed to ally himself with King Philip of France, who had leapt at the chance to attack his English rival, with whom he still contested much of Normandy. The whole of Germany, if not the whole of central and western Europe, seemed ready to ignite.

 

This was not to say that every lord in the Holy Roman Empire and beyond was forced to choose between Guelph and Ghillibine. In fact, by exploiting the chaos descending around them, a man of sufficient wisdom, resources and determination could find themselves rising far and fast. Such a man could be found in Ottokar of the Premyslid dynasty, the Duke of Bohemia. He was a veteran of many power struggles similar to the one that now embroiled the Empire: for some 25 years after the abdication of his father Vladislaus in 1172, he had fought for control of the Duchy, first in support of his elder brother Bedrich and later (after Bedrich died in 1189) for himself, a battle which he had finally won in 1197, after driving out the last ducal pretender and convincing his younger brother Vladislaus to become subordinate to him as the Margrave of Moravia.

 

Ottokar’s reputation as a great warrior and cunning politician quickly made him a much sought-after ally in the war between the Guelphs and Ghillibines. When Philip of Swabia approached him seeking an alliance. Ottokar’s demands were simple: to be recognized as the hereditary King of Bohemia, a title which destroyed any illusion of him being Philip’s vassal. Unwilling to open a third front against his enemies, the Ghillibine Emperor had agreed to the terms.

 

And so it was the Ottokar Premysl was crowned as the first-ever hereditary King of Bohemia, discarding any pretense of being anything but an independent lord. He did little to aid his nominal ally Emperor Philip, and in fact conspired to betray him and join with the Guelphs, hoping for Papal recognition of his rule and title. Ottokar dreamed of a strong Kingdom of Bohemia, a land where he would no longer have to bow to any German overlord. Ottokar dreamed of greatness. 

 

His dreams this night would be different.

 

Booming laughter echoed out throughout Ottokar’s mindscape. It was impossible to miss the source: before the King of Bohemia stood an utter giant of a man, with muscles like leather straps wrapped around bones like tree trunks. He towered over Ottokar, easily twice the King’s height, and his whole body seemed to be alight with power: his eyes, especially, were like twin golden suns, framed by glowing hair and beard.

 

“King Ottokar of Bohemia, yes?”

 

Ottokar could only mutely nod to the overwhelming presence before him, blankly searching for a term to describe how he felt. Everything was...overly real, as if reality had been intensified dozens or hundreds of times over. The King of Bohemia felt as if he were aware of every little detail of the world around him, of every sight, sound and feeling, like he could easily count the number of hairs on his head or perfectly describe what kind of wood had been used to make his furniture. He was most aware of the being, of course, a fact that was only reinforced as the man (could they be described as a man?) continued to speak.

 

“You impress me, King Ottokar. While others dither and squabble, you act. You’re exactly the kind of man that I’m looking for.”

 

The scene around the King of Bohemia changed: suddenly he was no longer lying in his bed in Praha, but rather standing on a cold hillside, looking outwards into the distance. He should have recognized the lands before him. In fact he did recognize most of them: he was somewhere in eastern Moravia, within the lands that he had given to his brother to govern. But the entire eastern horizon was wrong: certainly, while much of Moravia was hill country (and a few peaks in the region could reasonably be given the title of mountain), there had never been an unbroken chain of dark and foreboding peaks, stretching both north and south without apparent end.

 

“War is coming. War unlike anything that this world has ever seen.”

 

A moment later, Ottokar found himself standing in the foothills of the mountains, overlooking what he easily recognized as being a typical Moravian village, like hundreds if not thousands of others scattered across his lands. That was when he first heard it: bloodcurdling howls and warcries, echoing down from the east. And when the King of Bohemia looked to the mountains to find their source, his blood ran cold at what he saw.

 

A horde of what could only be described as monsters or demons were descending down from the east: twisted men with sharpened fangs and bloodshot, red eyes, wielding weapons of every stripe; many were riding giant wolves that had teeth and claws like daggers and were snarling with feral rage; there were even giants among them, as tall as two or three men, wielding tree trunks like clubs or axes. They thundered down from the mountains, ravenous for blood and battle. 

 

The village was all but defenseless: certainly many of the men that lived there would have been trained in the art of war, but few would have had the proper equipment for battle, and even if they had been there would have been no way to prepare themselves for the onslaught to come. The slaughter that followed was as predictable as it was brutal. The word ‘massacre’ would have been a vast understatement: it was more like extermination.

 

Ottokar was not a young or naive man. He knew much of the horrors of war: decades worth of battle had shown him just how depraved man could be on the battlefield. He had seen many, many different kinds of death, provided by a very wide variety of tools. But as he watched the village burn, the King of Bohemia received an intimate education in just how incomplete his knowledge of violence truly was. The monstrous, inhuman acts that he witnessed went well beyond the normal horrors of war: the sheer indescribable brutality with which the creatures of the mountains wiped the village off the map was unlike anything that Ottokar had ever seen.

 

“Even now, this is happening wherever these mountains have appeared,” spoke the Giant, a bitter grimace crossing the mammoth ‘man’s’ face. “I would destroy them myself, if I could, but my full presence could be devastating to this world.” The giant’s frown deepened further as he turned to the King of Bohemia, reaching out his hand. “Which is why I’ve come to you.”

 

“How am I supposed to fight this?” spoke Ottokar, in a voice barely above a whisper. “How is anyone?”

 

“Not alone, certainly.”   The scene around the two changed again. Now they were high in the sky, standing upon the clouds and looking down upon the whole continent. The pit in Ottokar’s stomach deepened as he saw the full extent of the changes to the map: the Alps had grown dark and foreboding and twisted all the way northeast into Poland; the Carpathians had been shifted into a massive rectangle from the south of Dobruja west and north deep into Hungary and the southeastern border of Poland and back to the coast of the Euxine Sea, the peaks black and ashen; the mountains of Scandinavia, too, had become shadowy and fearful; A massive forest had covered a swath of Spain from central Castile nearly to the Straits of Gibraltar and reaching east and west towards Aragon and Portugal.

 

After a long moment, Ottokar and the giant descended closer to the ground, creating the impression that the ‘map’ before them had shrunk to focus on eastern Germany, especially the regions close to the new version of the Alps that had emerged. In particular, many of the lesser German and western Polish realms were glowing in gold: Bohemia and Moravia, of course, but also Austria, Silesia and Great Poland, among others. 

 

“You must raise the alarm among the peoples of Germany. Rally them in the face of the storm that’s coming. Prepare them for a war beyond all imagining.” 

 

“And what makes you think that I can?” asked Ottokar, still shuddering at what he had been shown. The Giant laughed in response, hearty and hale, while slapping a hand upon Ottokar’s shoulder while speaking again.

 

“You made yourself a King, with little strength but your own. You are courageous. Stong. Decisive. There are few other men in Germany with your spirit, and fewer still with the will and resources to act on it. If you do not lead, then who will?

 

A frown came to the face of the King of Bohemia as he processed these words, considering what he knew about the other local lords. After a moment of silence, the Giant continued.

 

“Would you prefer that I had gone to one of the ‘Emperors?’ You know as well as I do that those feuding fools would doom this whole land.”

 

Another long moment of silence followed, during which Ottokar considered that suggestion.The divisions within the Empire ran deep: if either of Philip or Otto started ranting about demonic armies coming out of the east, the other wouldn’t take it as a warning or call to action: they would use it as a source of ridicule and an excuse to escalate the war, painting the other as an obvious madman that needed to be deposed. 

 

That raised another question: how on earth was Ottokar to convince anyone of what he had been shown? As the King of Bohemia turned to ask the Giant as much, the golden figure turned away from him, looking for something which Ottokar could not see. With a grumble, they waved their massive hand, and the whole scene began to dissolve entirely. He spoke again as he left, his voice becoming more grim than before. 

 

“I must take my leave of you. Don’t worry: you’ll have a sign to convince others to listen to you. Heed this warning, King Ottokar of Bohemia. March east for war, at all haste. More hangs in the balance than you could possibly imagine.”

 

And with that, the Giant departed, his golden glow quickly fading away into the night. As Ottokar looked up at their departing back, though, something else caught his eye: at the very edge of his vision glowed a red fire, a tangible, hateful heat radiating off of it. The flame seemed to notice him, and as it did so it intensified, and soon a great fire was burning all around him, searing him, charring him...

 

And then he was awake again, the things that he had seen in his dream seared into his mind. Ottokar clutched at his head, groaning, trying to make sense of things. What had he been shown? Was it truly a vision of things to come? Or was it merely a product of his increasingly stressed and elderly mind? It had all been so real, yet was he willing to accept what he had been shown? To believe that demons and monsters walked the earth, and were trying to bring about the doom of mankind? 

 

It hadn’t felt like a dream, certainly, and his memories of it had stayed fresher than his normal dreams usually, or ever, did: those images usually flitted away from him quite quickly, leaving in their wake half-remembered, incoherent visions. These dreams, though, were still as clear to him as they had been when he had been asleep. What he had been shown seemed to have burned into his mind, appearing before him whenever he closed his eyes.

 

Groaning, the King of Bohemia sat up in bed, trying to stretch the stiffness out of his limbs. It was then that he became aware of a pulsating, burning pain in his side. The pain was somewhat familiar to him, similar, perhaps, to the various stab wounds that he had received throughout his long life and military career. Unconsciously, Ottokar reached down and touched his side, probing for a wound.

 

His hand came back covered in blood.



The Don River Basin, Cumania

 

Those that lived along the northern coast of the Euxine Sea were strong and hardy folk, descended from the nomads that had come out of the far east in preceding centuries. Their reputation for ferocity and tenacity was well known to their neighbors on all sides, from Kiev and Hungary in the west and north to Byzantium and Khwarazm in the south and east. These were no flatland barbarians, wild tribes that could be cowed by the mere showing of the steel of more civilized peoples. No, they were a mighty people, a nation under arms that stretched from the mouth of the Danube deep into the heart of Asia, albeit not one that could truly be called united.

 

In the language of the Rus and of Poland, they were called Polovtsy, a word derived from the the Slavic root meaning ‘blond,’ or perhaps ‘straw.’ Those that spoke German called them Folban, Vallani or Valwe: ‘Pale.’ In old Hungarian, they were Kun, nomads. In their own tongue, Kipchak-Turkic, they called themselves according to the name of their clans, of which there were nearly 40.

 

These clans, if they were ever united, may have been strong enough to bring all of Europe to heel beneath the hooves of their cavalry. But never did they crown a single King to rule over them: it was said of them that they only princes and royal families. The patriarchs and Khans of the various clans walked their own paths, some feuding with each other and others striking out against the Rus or the Hungarians or the Byzantines, their vast land never being more than a loose alignment between neighboring tribes.

 

Nevertheless, it was their tongue that was spoken all along the shores of the Euxine Sea, their faith (a mixture of Shamanism and Tengriism) that was practiced on the steppes, their banners and markings that flew in the eastern wind. They were respected and feared by all around them, those that could hiring them as mercenaries, the Kingdom of Georgia finding particular success in that regard, where tens of thousands had been granted land and arms in return for military service.

 

Among the more important and influential leaders of the Cumans was a certain Konchek, Chieftain of Tertoba Clan, the tribes that lived along the Don River. He was well respected as a leader and warrior, being the architect of one of the greatest victories of the Nomads over the armies of the Rus: the obliteration of the army of Prince Igor Svyatoslavich of Novgorod-Seversk at the Kayvala River, 15 years before. 

 

He had assembled one of the largest Cuman armies the world had ever seen to do so, mustering support from tribes as distant as the Crimea and the borderlands of Kiev for the battle. But besides driving the Novgorodians back, the victory had accomplished little: Prince Igor himself, their most valuable captive, had escaped, reaching safety in Donets and quickly rallied support from among both his own people and the other nearby Rus states, preventing the Cumans invading while their foes were in disarray.

 

Not that the Cumans could have exploited their victory anyways: Konchek’s mighty army had fractured quickly after the battle as the Khans debated how best to advance. Konchek himself had argued to strike in the west, towards Kiev, while his rivals Koza and Gzak had desired to move northeast against Novgorod-Seversk or Pereyaslav. In the end, each Khan had walked their own path, the great horde left divided in three, despite Konchek’s best efforts. 

 

Little had changed in the decade and a half since. The Cumans had remained divided, strong enough to threaten their neighbors but not strong enough to destroy them. They raided and razed the lands of the Rus, and the princes of the Rus could not hope to conquer the lands of the Cumans, but the dream of Konchek and the other Khans, the conquest of all of Russia, remained just that: a dream. 

 

This night, the Khan would have other dreams. As he slept peacefully, mind far from anything that might disturb his rest, forces far beyond him were at work. A great, flaming eye swept over his lands, searching for a new pawn to bring into the fold. A youthful spirit flitted across the steppes, looking for a Champion to counter the threat. All the while, Khan Konchek of the Tertoba Clan of the Cumans lay sleeping, waiting to be found.

 

And then, suddenly, he was no longer in his bed. 

 

There was a sudden jolt, as if he had awoken from a long dream, and Konchek found himself suddenly out in the middle of a great field. Startled, the Son of Otrok took in his surrounding. He was standing in a green plain of yawshan grass, that familiar covering of the steppes, that stretched without end far beyond the edge of his vision. Looking up, he saw that it was as light as midday, yet there was no sun in the sky. He turned his gaze to the ground, and at his feet the grass moved like waves in the ocean, the breeze blowing in his hair as it did the grass. So, too, could he feel his own hands as he felt his flesh, solid as it had ever been. He felt his tunic across his soldiers, the sandals on his feet, the warmth of summer on his skin. He could smell the familiar scent of the steppes, could taste the dust in the air. The Khan felt fully awake, and yet…

 

And yet, how could it not be a dream? It was winter in his lands, not summer. It was not so warm in the steppes this time of year, nor did the sun shine so brightly, nor were the fields so alive. And how could he have been brought to this place if it was not unreal? His senses could not be so deceived, could they? Where could he be standing but within his own thoughts, unless some evil spell had been weaved upon him?

 

“This is no evil spell, Konchek, son of Otrok, but you are right that I have brought you away from your home.”

 

Konchek whirled around at the answer to his thoughts, his body tensing. Behind him, where there had been nothing but the endless field a moment before, stood a woman, hands held up in a gesture of peace. She was simple yet beautiful in garb and appearance, with a green dress woven from what looked to be flowers beyond counting, and golden hair that shone like the sun. Her face seemed to slightly shift with each passing moment, so that Konchek could not quite discern her features, but a serene smile stayed fixed upon her.

 

Nodding to him, the woman continued: “Peace, Khan of the Tertoba Clan. For I am no foe of yours, and you are no foe of mine.”

 

“Who are you?” the Khan asked, suspicion in his voice, “and what have you done to me?”

 

The woman laughed slightly, taking a few steps towards him. “Who am I? I am the Ever-young, she who give the earth its fairness and youth. The flowers bloom and birds sing at my coming; I am she who brings the passing of winter and the emergence of spring. As to what I have done to you, I have only come before you to deliver a warning, which you may heed or you may not.”

 

“So you claim to be Eje, then? What proof have you of such a great claim?”

 

“When you have heard my message, I will leave for you my sign. But time is short, and there is much to be told. Will you listen?”

 

Konchek weighed his options. She was a Spirit, certainly, if she was appearing to him like this. The question was to whether she was one of Good or Evil. But in either case, he saw little that he could do. Wherever his Spirit had been brought, he doubted that he could leave without permission. His choice, then, had been made for him. All that he could do, it seemed, was to hope for the best.

 

“Alright," he said haltingly, his wariness dominating his tone, "I will hear your message, Spirit. Tell it quickly. But know that if you deceive me, you will regret doing so, no matter how powerful you are.”

 

The Woman smiled, and moved to stand before him. "I am no deceiver, Konchek. I am here to warn you of the one that is."   She reached out to him then, continuing to speak. “Take my hand for it is better for me to show you the coming danger than it is simply to tell of it.”

 

Konchek hesitated for a moment, before reaching out his own hand to grasp hers, seeing no other option. When he did so, the scenery around him changed. The first thing that he noticed was the smell that filled the air, of smoke and ash and blood. Next he heard the screams, of agony and fear, sounding out from all sides. Looking around, he saw that he was now standing in the center of a small village, most of it burning, and all around, he saw people, many of them maimed and bleeding, all fleeing in any direction they could. Their cries were ones of terror, and in their eyes he saw nothing but stark fear.

 

A moment later, Konchek saw why. Behind the fleeing crowds came into view a line of hideous and deformed men, their eyes red and wild, their faces and limbs grotesquely shaped, like they had been made as a vile mockery of men. They carried with them savage and twisted weapons of war, and they cut down any that they could reach, sounding and looking like wild beasts as they did. Some of them rode massive wolves, with mottled fur and teeth like daggers, running down those that tried in vain to flee, driving wicked spears into them or tearing them apart with their claws.

 

“What is this madness?” Konchek whispered, in both horror and awe.

 

The scene shifted, and the Khan now saw a line of men and women, bound in chains. The savage men were leading them, beating any that slowed in their march, finishing those that could go no further with the sword or the spear or the axe. The latter of these, Konchek saw, were left at the side of the road to rot if they were fortunate. If not, he saw the savages take knives and hatchets and cut apart the bodies. Some of the meat they threw to their wolves. The rest was kept for themselves.

 

“What is this evil you show me, woman?” Konchek said, his heart filling with fear, turning to the Woman, a terrified look upon his face.

 

“It is the evil of the Abhorred One” the Woman replied, her voice tinged with sadness. “He is the darkest of all the Black Spirits, master of all the twisted men and giants and even the one who rides the serpent. And now he has come into this world, to bring it to ruin. Soon, his hordes will march across this earth, burning down all that they find and slaughtering all those that would resist. And if they give mercy, then those that receive it shall wish for death.”

 

Another change. Now a different group of men and women, still bound and chained, still watched by the hideous ones. They were building a road, Konchek saw, one that wound through a scarred and burning landscape, and he could feel a hellish heat upon his face. As he looked upon them, he saw the people choking, their lungs filling with ash and dust. He was many collapse, unable to breath, and the savages watching them would beat them and prod them until they rose again or until they would rise no more. Those that perished were not cast aside, though: he saw them thrown into the path of the road, to be used as mortar for the stones.

 

“This may become the fate of all,” said the Woman, here voice thick with sorrow. “The Abhorred will enslave any that he does not put to the sword. All in the world, every last man, woman and child will be bound if the Dark One is not stopped. The whole earth will become choked in his ashes.”

 

One last time, the scene was shifted. Konchek’s heart fell even further, a knot of despair forming in his stomach. He recognized the lands before him: it was the River Don, where he had been born and raised. The Chieftain of the Tertoba could only watch as the lands of his home burned, as the broken bodies of his people were piled into the Don until the whole river ran red with the blood of Cumans. 

 

“And how do we stop this?” Konchek asked, fear filling his voice. “What may men, any men, do against such evil?”

 

“This is not a battle without hope,” she replied, smiling again, her face still full of sorrow. “The way to victory has been laid out, and the route, while dangerous, is not impossible. But the path will take time to walk: until then, the line must be held. That is the quest that I give you, Konchek, son of Otrok: to take up arms, and hold back the growing tide. Call all those that you know of to you; they may not listen, but you must speak anyways. Tell them of what I have shown you. Lead them against the shadow. That shall be your duty in these times. Others will walk the path to the Dark One’s destruction: you must aid in giving them a victory worth winning. But before you begin, I must give you a final warning.”

 

His surroundings changed again. He was back in the steppes now, and a cold wind blew through the night. Gazing into the darkness, Konchek saw a Black Spirit, and they were riding a black horse, with eyes red like blood. As he watched, the Black Spirit rode through the wilds, and in their wake he saw the grass behind him wither and die, and whenever they paused for more than a moment Konchek saw all sorts of worms and insects crawl from the ground at the feet of his mount, gnawing at its hooves and making the ground around them turn black.

 

“Not only in the sword is the shadow’s might,” the woman said, pointing out the rider. “He sends out his agents even now, to deceive any that they might find. They look for those that might be corrupted, might bow down and worship the dark. The Abhorred looks to consume their spirits, and twist them into slaves to his will. This one, among others, comes for your people. They seek one to use as a tool, a weapon to bring your people to their knees and enslave them forever to the dark.”

 

“And who is it that they seek? Who among my people would betray us to the dark?”

 

The Woman opened her mouth to speak, but then suddenly tensed, a wary look coming to her face. “I have lingered too long,” she said, a slight nervous tone to her voice. “His gaze is turning towards you. I must take my leave, before he places his vision upon you. Heed my message, Konchek. Before it is too late.”

 

“Wait!” Konchek called, reaching out to her, but the Woman was already gone. Not half a moment later, where she had been standing burst into orange flames, and the Khan of the Tertoba Clan felt as if his flesh was burning. As Konchek watched in horror, the flames took shape, and in the blink of an eye a great burning sphere was before him. Terrified, the Son of Otrok could do nothing as the shape morphed, and the heart of the sphere turned black as night, the fire becoming like a piercing eye, gazing into his soul. Paralyzed, Konchek began to scream as the eye grew larger, threatening to consume him, and in his mind he heard a terrible voice, whispering in a scream: I SEE YOU .

 

Konchek was still screaming when he opened his eyes and found himself sitting upright, back in his own bed. It took him a moment to realize that the burning eye was no longer before him. Panting, Konchek worked to calm himself, looking around at his surroundings. Yes, this was his dwelling, for there was his armor, there were his robes, and there his sword and shield. But something was different. It took a moment to place what, but then he realized that all around him, scattered about the tent, were wild flowers, of many hues and sizes, each and all in full bloom, even now in the cold of winter.

 

When you have heard my message, I will leave for you my sign. The woman’s words to him echoed in his mind. Standing, Konchek walked over and took one of the flowers in his hands, examining it. It was as green and healthy as any that he had ever seen, with not the slightest marking upon it. The Khan took a deep breath. She had been true in her claims, then. Eje the Earth Mother had come to him. And the message that he had been given was terrible indeed. Taking a deep breath, Konchek began to collect his thoughts.

 

At that moment, the flap of his tent was thrown open and into his room stormed his personal guard, a dozen men built like oxes and armed to the teeth. They were clearly expecting assassins and a battle: they waved their blades in the air, battlecries on their lips, searching the room for intruders.Startled, Konchek almost fell to the ground, stumbling slightly as he tried to maintain his balance. The commander of his guard took notice of him and spoke.

 

“My Lord, are you alright? We heard you screaming.”

 

The Khan paused before responding, still looking at the flower. The man spoke again.

 

“My Lord?”

 

Konchek turned to his captain, his face ashen. “No, my friend. No, I am not alright. Soon enough, none of us will be.”

 

The man stared after him, a questioning look on his face. Konchek sat down, the man’s eyes still on him. He continued to breath deeply, still trying to settle his thoughts.

 

“Send out riders,” The son of Otrok began finally, his breathing finally coming under control “Tonight, if possible. Send them to everyone, every last clan and hut. Summon them all. They are needed.”

 

“All of them, my Lord? Even the likes of Gzak and Koza? ”

 

“All of them, my brother. The Kor, the Liunesuk, the Berish, the Hotan...everyone. Before it is too late.”

 

The man nodded slowly, and he and his men turned and shuffled out of the tent. The Khan watched them go, listening to their question as they went. Then hunched over, his face in his hands, his mind trying to process the events that he had been shown. He breathed hard, his body shuddering. He felt the winter wind blowing through the open flap of his tent, and its cold felt deadlier, and eviler, than it ever had before.

 

For before, he had not known the evil that would come upon it.



Mount Athos, Greece, The Byzantine Empire

 

The Eastern Roman Empire, as it preferred to call itself, had seen better days. Since the fall of the Macedonian Dynasty in 1057, the heirs to the legacy of Rome had grown increasingly weaker, the frontiers growing ever closer to Constantinople itself. Sicily had been lost to the Normans under Robert Guiscard; The disaster of Manzikert had allowed the Turks to seize almost all of Anatolia, as well as thrown the line of succession into chaos with the capture of the Emperor himself, Romanos IV Diogenes, in turn leading to rampant corruption and civil strife taking root on the home front. 

 

The Komenoi Dynasty had stemmed the tide, for a time. Alexios I Komnenos had stabilized the western borders, driving the Normans out of the Balkans and obliterating a Pecheneg invasion across the Danube. He had also called the First Crusade, and with Latin help had regained a solid foothold for the Empire in western Anatolia and deeply fractured muslim power in the region (although Palestine and Syria would be claimed by the Latins themselves as independent states, which would have an often-turbulent relationship with Imperial power). His son and grandson, John II and Manuel, had continued his works, further reforming the Roman armies into a feared and professional fighting force. The Balkans had been brought to heel; Anatolia was well on its way to being fully reclaimed. The future had been bright.

 

If only Alexios II, the son of Manuel, had been born a decade, or even a half decade, earlier. When his father died in 1180, he was but a child of 10, and his mother Maria of Antioch had assumed the regency. She was a Latin, a princess of the Crusader State of Antioch, a fact that was not lost on her Greek subjects. Maria consolidated power in herself and her lover, a certain Alexios Komnenos, and ever more favored Latin merchants and mercenaries, increasingly curtailing the powers of the local nobles. 

 

It was not long before the Empress Dowager made enemies, her stepdaughter Maria Komene (a daughter of Manuel’s from his first marriage) chief among them. The leaders of the Greek aristocracy rallied to her cause, seeking to throw out their Latin overlords and restore their previous powers and privileges. Matters came to a head in the spring of 1182, when the Greek faction’s plot to assassinate Alexios was betrayed and most of their leaders were arrested. 

 

Maria Komene, however, found refuge at the Hagia Sophia, under the protection of the Patriarch of Constantinople. From there she sowed the seeds of a popular uprising, for the common people had grown to despise their Latin rulers, seen as favoring Venetian or Genoese merchants over the needs of their own people. When the Empress Dowager threatened to send in the army, the popular uprising began: for seven days and nights riots had rocked the city, as the Greek mob had ransacked anything belonging to the Latin faction, its allies or foreign merchants: much of the city was left in flames. 

 

Finally the Imperial Army arrived, and the rebels were forced to take shelter in the Hagia Sophia itself. It was here that the Latins would meet their downfall. They were unable to storm the narrow passages of the cathedral, and were forced to negotiate a settlement with the leaders of the uprising. The political fallout was a twofold disaster for the Komenoi Dynasty: their willingness to use military force even within the walls of the holiest church in the Empire destroyed whatever little popular support remained, while their inability to force the Greek faction to surrender painted them as militarily incompetent.

 

But the Greeks faction, with most of its leadership still imprisoned, was in no condition to take advantage. And so the stage was set for ambitious and cruel governor of Pontus, Andronikos Komnenos, grandson of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos through Isaac, the younger brother of Emperor John II. With both the Latin and Greek factions badly weakened, and the leadership of both also in complete disarray, the time was ripe for the military to seize control. Many of the armies greatest general defected to Andronikos’ cause, as did the far majority of the Imperial Navy. By the autumn of 1183, Andronikos was Emperor of Eastern Rome.

 

His solution to the rampant corruption and western influence present throughout the Empire’s bureaucracy was simple, largely viewed as the most pressing issue facing the Empire ruthless and effective: kill anyone corrupt or western. He started with the main Komenoi line, arranging the poisoning of Maria Komene and her husband, followed shortly afterwards by the execution of the Empress Dowager and the Child Emperor. Their deaths were only the beginning: seeking to purge all Latin influence throughout the Empire, Andronikos had thousands of westerners put to death, many of whom had done nothing worse than openly profess themselves to be Catholic. 

 

Open war with several of the Italian states followed, as the peoples of Italy looked to avenge their slaughtered countrymen (and protect their material assets within the Eastern Empire). The Norman Sicilians were chief among them, tearing a path through Albania and deep into Greece along the road to Constantinople itself. The crushing defeats in the Balkans only deepened the Emperor’s paranoia and violence: fearing collusion with the invaders, Andronikos ordered the execution of all prisoners, exiles and their families within the Empire, an act that finally provoked open revolt on the part of both the aristocracy and the people.

 

This was to be the end for Andronikos. Shortly afterwards he was captured while trying to flee Constantinople, and was handed over to the mob to be dealt with; he would die after three days of horrific torture at the hands of those that he had wronged, his body mangled beyond recognition by the time the ordeal was finished. The leader of the rebellion, Isaac, would be anointed as Emperor, as a descendent of one of the daughters of Alexios I Komnenos.

 

The new dynasty, the Angeloi, would not bring about a reversal of fortune for the Empire. Isaac began his reign with promise, delivering a crushing victory over the Norman Sicilians at Demetritzes within two months of taking the throne, but never again would he enjoy such success a military success. He proved particularly incompetent at sea: Isaac proved unable to retake the rebellious island of Cyprus, which combined with other failed operations in the eastern Medeterranean decimated the once-vaunted Imperial Navy.

 

On land he failed no better. The professional army of the Komenoi was long gone, replaced by expensive mercenary forces that the Empire could barely afford to pay. Oppressive taxes were levied across the Empire, taxes that inspired a massive rebellion among the Bulgarians and Vlachs. The Serbs and Bosnians had soon joined them, with the backing of the Kingdom of Hungary, which hoped to break Imperial hegemony over the Balkans.

 

Things were no better on the home front. For all of his insanity, Andronikos had at least managed to purge the Empire of corruption and court intrigues. Not so with Isaac. Nepotism, corruption and outright incompetence quickly became endemic through the Empire as the bureaucracy was handed over to unworthy favorites who had absolutely no business taking power, and soon what little money that was not being stolen by various corrupt administrators was being squandered on unnecessary building projects and expensive personal gifts. 

 

When Isaac was overthrown, blinded and imprisoned by his elder brother Alexios III in 1195, things somehow became worse. In trying to secure his position as Emperor, Alexios scattered what little money the Empire had left to the winds, and was forced to resort to plundering the old Imperial tombs at the Church of the Holy Apostates and instituting even heavier (and even less popular) taxes than those of his predecessors to pay the throne’s expenses.

 

With the home front now in shambles, the military situation only continued to worsen. The borders of the Empire at this point existed only on paper: Turks, Hungarians, and Bulgarians, among others, were all but free to cross into Roman territory unchecked, with Anatolia all but overrun in the east and raids penetrating as far as Greece in the west. Alexios’ attempt to strengthen the frontier defenses by granting further autonomy and privileges to the nobles along the border only emboldened them to ignore Imperial power and in some cases openly revolt. He could not afford to pay the mercenaries that the Empire had become reliant on for defense, and he lacked the diplomatic skill to settle matters without force. 

 

In short, the Eastern Roman Emperor was falling apart at the seams. Civil strife was constant, rebellion was everywhere, the treasury was bare, the leadership either corrupt or incompetent (and increasingly both), and while the list of foreign enemies seemed to grow longer by the day (and names on the list stronger and bolder by the hour), the list of potential allies was growing increasingly short, with the former friends of the Empire put off by its perceived weakness and continued arrogance. 

 

The Empire’s one remaining trump card was Constantinople itself. The City of the World’s Desire, despite decades of Imperial mismanagement, almost omnipresent corruption and repeated Civil Wars, remained perhaps the most prosperous and richest city in the world, the beating heart of trade and industry for a network of wealth stretching from Spain and Britain to the Indus River and from Scandinavia and the Rus to the Sahara desert. 

 

The city’s beauty and splendor, inherited from Ancient Rome, remained unspoiled, all of it defended by the invincible Theodosian Walls, which no foreign army had ever managed to breach. Even as the rest of the Empire fell to pieces, the capital remained largely untouched, as no one, no matter their ambition, dared march on the City with the intention of taking it by force. Only from within could the heart of the Eastern Roman Empire be taken.

 

Both the forces of Good and Evil were well aware of this. Whichever side swayed the Empire to their side would not only gain a massive advantage in the east (being able to dominate vast tracts of fertile land, passage between the Medeterranean and Euxine Seas and the main land routes between Europe and Asia), they would be almost impossible to dislodge, owing to the near-unassailable nature of Constantinople.

 

In this the Dark Lord had the advantage. Where in the Empire remained any good men to find? Under the Angeloi dynasty, those who held power were either those that had proven themselves almost blindly loyal to the Emperor (and were thusly corrupt or incompetent or both) or were ruthless and ambitious enough to openly defy him (and were thusly in open rebellion). Those that did not fit into these categories were in the best case quietly retired to positions without consequence, and in the worst imprisoned or executed. 

 

The whole Greek aristocracy was poisoned to its core by greed, ambition and nepotism. Even the Orthodox Church was not immune: the Patriarch of Constantinople, John X, was a close relative of the Empress Eusrophyne Doukaina Kamaterina, and often fell under her influence. He the Church an ally of Imperial power, even as it encroached ever further on his authority as Patriarch and became a perfect example of everything that the Church preached as being wrong with secular leadership. 

 

Which was why the Weaver, chosen to prepare the Empire for the war to come, had gone to Mount Athos instead. 

 

This was Holy Ground.The name of the peninsula and the mountain that sat astride it came from the pagans, named for the Giant that they said Poseidon had buried beneath it after the Gigantomachia, but in these days it was the Cross that stood above this land. The local legends claimed that the Virgin Mother had been going to Cyprus to visit with Lazarus when a storm had blown her ship off course and forced it to anchor near the port of Klement. It is said that Mary had gone ashore and, amazed by the beauty of the mountain, had blessed the land and asked that her Son make it into her garden. The tales say that a voice had answered her from heaven, saying:

"Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved.”

 

From that moment, the Mountain was a consecrated place to all those of the Orthodox Faith, the Garden of the Mother of God. Ever since, hundreds upon hundreds of monks and hermits had taken up residence here, seeking harmony with the Lord. It was a place without distraction from the outside world: In 885, the Byzantine Emperor Basil I declared Athos to be a place for monks and monks alone, where no farmers or cattle-breeders could dwell. Monastics came from as far as Egypt and the Rus to live here, seeking God.

 

Naturally, monasteries dotted the mountain, with names such as Xylorgou, St. Pantelimon, Xeropotamou, Vatopedi, and Konstamonitou. The newest among them was Hilandar, built on the ruins of ancient and abandoned Helandaris Monastery. The restoration had begun only two years before, but was still home to hundreds of Serbian monks, with many more expected to arrive in the coming years. The central church, that of the Entry of the Lady Theotokos into the Temple, was already complete, along with two towers and most of the monastic chambers. And it was here that the Weaver had found her Champion.

 

Among those that lived there was the new Monastery’s founder, a certain Sava of Serbia, who had been granted the land for the Monastery and been given its Charter by Emperor Alexios III Angelos. Once, Sava had been royalty: he had been born as Prince Rastko of Serbia, youngest son of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja. For a time, he had served as the Governor of Hum under his father, quickly gaining a reputation for being charitable, kind and fair. The signs of his truling were quick to appear: He had taken to asceticism at a young age, and he showed no interest in the accumulation of wealth, no love for the pursuit of fame and, indeed, no desire whatsoever for the throne of Serbia. Before two years had passed as Governor, he renounced his titles journeyed to Mount Athos to enter the monastic life.

 

Receiving the name Sava, the former Prince had found his life’s vocation. In no other task had he ever found so much fulfillment as he did in his studies, first at St. Pantelimon and later Vatopedi, and in no other place had he found such peace as he did meditating in his chambers. His father tried to persuade him to return to Serbia, but Sava would not be swayed, instead suggesting that his father, by then having passed his 80th year and having tired of ruling, abdicate the throne and join him in true Christian life.

 

On March 25, 1196, the aging Grand Prince took his son’s advice, passing the throne to his middle son Stefan at an assembly at Studenica, taking monastic vows the very next day (along with his wife, Ana). The elder Stefan remained at the monastery at Studenica for a year, being given the name Simeon, before joining Sava at Mount Athos in the autumn of 1197 , where he would be welcomed with open arms (Ana, granted the name Anastasia, retired to a different monastery, at Kursumlija).

 

Since then, father and son had worked together to return Hilandar to its previous glory, working with their hands and primitive tools to rebuild the walls and roofs and floors of the crumbling structures. Funding and help were easy to come by, at least: the younger Stefan, now Grand Prince of Serbia, was quick to offer money whenever he was asked, and a steady flow of new monks from Serbia flowed almost constantly, eager to follow the examples set by their former lieges.

 

Still, it was long and often grueling work, perhaps more fitting for paupers and peasants than for former royalty. Yet neither Sava nor Simeon made the slightest complaint, and in fact had rarely felt more fulfilled and joyful in their lives. Perhaps it was the Lord lightening their hearts for doing His work; perhaps it was the peace of mind that came from no longer having to deal with the machinations of nobles and lords; perhaps it was simple satisfaction at working, building, with their own hands, knowing that this was a thing done by themselves and not by their servants. Whatever the case, both former Grand Prince of Serbia and former Governor of Hum could be said to be totally at peace, and their lives were all the better for it.

 

Alas, their tranquility could not last forever. Simeon was, after all, nearing his 90th year, a fact that could not be disguised by any measure of good cheer and physical exercise. For close to a year, Sava had watched his father’s health slowly begin to deteriorate; the elder man, it seemed, had only held on so long by seeking peace both within himself and with God, and having found both with his son at Mount Athos he was ready for the Father to take him home. Finally, on the 13th of February, 1199, the first Grand Prince of Serbia had passed away peacefully, and was buried upon the mountain.

 

In the year since, Sava had spent his time further building both the monastery and the monastic order that would reside within, eager to see to it that his father’s legacy would not fade. Hilander had regained most of its former glory, with multiple towers and most of the monastic cells completed. Between working on the building itself, Sava had begun writing a monastic law for the Serbs residing on the mountain: the Karyes Typikon, a modified form of the Greek ascetic and solitary monastic law common to the neighboring monasteries. It was to be the first building block toward greater things: He dreamed of eventually building an autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church, free from Greek politics and machinations.

 

This particular night, the former Third Prince of Serbia’s dreams would take a far different turn.

 

Sava dreamed that he stood atop the highest tower of Hillander, looking out over his monastery and all its neighbors. He watched the world around him take form from nothingness, as strings and threads beyond number were woven together, consisting of all the colors of the rainbow and beyond, weaving a tapestry more beautiful and detailed than any mortal hand could ever hope to make or replicate. A thousand thousand stitches constructed every blade of grass, every pebble and mote of dirt, every detail of Mount Athos in a way that Sava’s waking mind could never have comprehended.

 

The whole mountain was burning. Threads of gold, orange and blood red were shaped into all-consuming flames that wove themselves through the rest of the tapestry, spreading out in all directions, while black and grey and ashen string being coiled and looped above them, formed into choking clouds of debris and smoke. Just ahead of the flames, the tapestry showed a vast army, the threads composing woven, unwoven and rewoven constantly as they moved forwards like an endless swarm of locusts, consuming all before them.

 

“What is this?” Sava whispered as he stared in horror at the scene being played out before him.

 

“A possibility.”

 

The monk whirled around. Sitting atop the tower before him was an unassuming blond woman in simple dress. She was not looking at him, instead focusing on the innumerable threads that lay in her hands. Her fingers moved with swiftness and dexterity that the human eye could not follow, weaving the strings together and into the tapestry around them. After a moment had passed, the woman looked up from her work. Even as she continued to weave, she spoke on.

 

“One that is dangerously close to coming to pass.”

 

“Who are you?” Sava asked, stepping back defensively, glancing around for anything which he could use to defend himself.

 

“I am but the one that weaves the tapestry of history,” the woman responded, her tone neutral “And sees that patterns that repeat themselves within the cloth.” 

 

“And what do you mean by that?” inquired the monk, nervousness creeping into his voice.

 

“Let me show you.” 

 

The woman set down her work at that. She reached to the ground and grabbed hold of the threads at her feet, taking firm grasp of them in her hands. Then she pulled, hard, and the entire tapestry came undone. The innumerable threads flew apart, and then, with a single gesture from the woman, flew back together, weaving themselves into a new tapestry in a matter of moments.

 

The scene they showed was somehow even more terrible than the last. A gigantic black tower stretched as high as any mountain towards the sky, topped by a terrible cauldron of red flame. All around and upon it stood twisted, monstrous creatures, from ashen-skinned giants the height ot three or four men to monstrous wolves with fangs like knives or daggers and stocky goblins and imps, armed and armored to the teeth, their numbers beyond reckoning. 

 

The sky was pitch dark , vast clouds of dust and ash blocking out any light that could have shown down from the heavens. The earth was like a barren, black desert that stretched towards every horizon, with not a single speck of plant life to be seen. Ashen, shadowy mountains rose up at the edge of the scene: one in particular spewed fire into the sky without end, choking black clouds pouring from its summit.

 

“Is this hell?” Sava asked, looking all around him in terror.

 

“No,” the woman replied, shaking her head, “But it is a land of unrestrained and endless evils. And it’s terrors are soon to come upon the whole world.”

 

The tapestry unmade and remade itself once more. Now Sava and the woman stood alone in a vast, empty hall, or perhaps a great cavern: only the floor of the chamber could be seen, whatever walls or ceiling there was being far beyond sight. In front of them, a new tapestry had woven itself. It showed what the former prince recognized as being a map of eastern Europe, utterly complete in its details, but one that had been drastically altered: the Alps had been vastly lengthened, curving northeast all the way into Poland.

 

The Carpathians, meanwhile had been reformed into a vast, three-sided rectangle, that stretched from southern Dobruja westwards almost to Slavonia, before making an abrupt turn northwards to the Polish border and then sharply turning back towards the Euxine Sea. The vast lands that had been bounded within were no longer the green, fertile plains of eastern Hungary and Transylvania, but rather the barren, volcanic hellscape that Sava had been shown previously. Said lands glowed faintly golden on the tapestry, drawing the monk’s attention. 

 

“It is called Mordor, and it is the fortress of the most terrible servant of the Enemy of Creation,” the woman spoke, indicating the map. “He plans to wage war on this whole world, and soon, so that he may conquer it and dominate it forever.” 

 

As the woman spoke, several images appeared on the map, each one in the shape of the creatures that she had shown the monk. As one, they moved outwards in all directions, descending out of the twisted Alps in the west and crossing over the reshaped Carpathians in the east. They were marching into Poland, into Hungary, into Germany, into Italy... the monsters of Hell were marching against mankind.

 

“Why are you showing this to me ?” Sava practically screamed, turning towards the woman with tears forming in his eyes. “I am but a humble monk. Surely there are others that need to hear this message!”

 

“There are, and others move to deliver it to them.” While the woman was speaking, more images appeared on the map: a priest in Italy, a bowman in Hungary, a soldier in eastern Germany and what looked like a beggar in Poland. 

 

She turned towards Sava as the images of men moved to fight those of monsters . “As for you…”

 

On the map, the whole coast of the Euxine Sea glowed gold. “The enemy is strong, stronger than any single nation upon this earth, but he is not invincible. He has fears of his own, especially here, in the east. He knows that having sea behind him makes him vulnerable. So he seeks to make it secure, and we seek to stop him.” 

 

The map resized itself, closing in on the Greek Empire. “There is another that has been sent to defend the northern coast. Your duties will be here.”

 

“What do you mean, duties? I am a monk , not a soldier,” Sava wailed, his voice pleading.  “Unless you are asking me to pray for the Empire, I fear that there will be very little that I can do. You should have gone to the Emperor or the Patriarch with this message, not come to me!”

 

“I came to you for a reason, Sava. It is not merely by force that the enemy has power.” 

 

The woman waved her hand, and the map disintegrated. The whole cavern disappeared, and in its place was woven a new scene. Sava recognized it from his own memories, as he had been in there as both a prince of Serbia and a monk of Mount Athos: It was the Imperial Court in Constantinople. It was just as he remembered it: opulent to the extreme, with dozens of schemers, flatterers and ambitious men lurking in its shadows. 

 

As he watched, a man in a pitch black cloak entered into the vast throne room, approaching the Emperor and Empress. Instantly, Sava knew that something was deeply wrong about them: even though he was not truly present, he could practically feel an aura of darkness, of dread, deception and even outright evil radiating off of the figure, their mere presence draining all the light and warmth from the room.

 

“The foe will not bother taking by force what he can have through deception and temptation. The ability of he and his servants to seduce those that would oppose him to his side is unrivaled. You know of the evil that has taken root throughout the Empire. How long do you think that the Angeloi will resist his offers, if he promises them the world?”

 

“They wouldn’t resist at all, would they?” the monk whispered in terror, watching as the dark figure spoke to Alexios, who was nodding along with whatever the shadowy one was saying. “They’d give in to their temptations in an instant.”

 

Sava was practically shaking as the implications sank in. He slumped to the ground, despair worming its way into his heart. The monk’s heart began to race, his mind nearly overwhelmed by all that he had been shown. The legions of Hell had been unleashed upon the earth, and already they were planning to wage war against the whole world, led by the demon that was second only to Satan himself. That by itself would have terrified Sava to his core. But now the whole Greek Empire was likely to soon fall under his sway? The former prince of Serbia was quite familiar with Scripture, and could not help but draw parallels to the Book of Revelation, to those that would take upon themselves the Mark of the Beast. Was he living in the End Times?

 

“Not yet.” Sava looked up, to see the woman smiling sadly down at him, reaching out her hand. “As I have said, the Enemy you face is not invincible. His plots can be foiled.” 

 

“What, by me?” Bitter laughter threatened to spill from Sava’s mouth. “As I have told you, more than once, I am but a monk . I am not the warrior that my father was; I have no skill at intrigue; I am a scholar and a laborer, nothing more. Whatever your plan is, I am not the man to carry it out!”

 

“No, you aren’t,” the woman responded, now kneeling down besides him. “Not by yourself.”

 

Around them, the scene changed yet again. Before them now stood several woven statues, each one a lifelike image of a man or woman. Above each one of them floated a name, some of which Sava recognized, some of which he did not: Niketas Choniates, Michael Doukas, Dobromir Chrysos, Manuel Kamzytes, John Kamateros, Kaloyan, among others. But it was the two that stood directly in front of him that were glowing golden. The monk instantly recognized both of them: his elder brother, Grand Prince Stefan of Serbia, and Stefan’s wife Eudokia, youngest daughter of Emperor Alexios III. 

 

Instantly, Sava understood. “You wish to install my brother on the Imperial Throne?” he asked the woman incredulously, to which she simply nodded. Sava had to admit, it made a certain amount of sense. Obviously, in light of the emergence of the legions of Hell, the corrupt, incompetent and possibly-soon-to-align-with-demons Angeloi could not be allowed to stay in power. If Alexios was to be deposed, Eudokia would be a potential successor; as the Emperor had no son, his daughters did all have tenuous claims on the throne.

 

And Stefan would certainly be a far more upright leader than anyone that arose out of the corruption and decadence of the Empire. The husbands of Alexios’ other daughters were staunch loyalists to the Emperor; to outright depose the entire Angeloi family would simply be opening a Pandora’ Box of scheming and intrigue like the previous changes in dynasty, most likely resulting in the installation of an equally unworthy Emperor on the throne, probably some ambitious and greedy warlord in the right place at the right time.

 

But if Stefan could be placed on the throne...Sava knew that his elder brother, their father’s chosen heir and the Grand Prince of Serbia, was an upright and pious man; in fact, the majority of resources that had been provided for Sava to build his monastery had come from Stefan, who had given them freely and without complaint. Further reinforcing the point, Stefan was an able warrior and skilled tactician, and had the full faith of the Serbian people. He was a more than worthy successor to their father, who had established Serbia’s independence: there were already those that whispered that Stefan would be the first to claim the title of ‘King of Serbia’. 

 

The problem, of course, was how to go about installing a Serbian Grand Prince upon the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire. Despite the rampant issues that the Imperial military possessed, it would still have more than enough strength to face Serbia in a war of conquest. The Balkan peoples were able to raid Greece and Thrace with near impunity, true, but for them to actually take and hold parts of the Empire, especially Contantinople, which would be necessary if Alexios was to be overthrown...

 

“How do you think that such a thing could be done?” the monk said, “My brother does not have the strength t-”

 

“Not if he fights alone, no,” the woman interrupted, her tone still one of placating neutrality. “That is why I came to you, and not him.”

 

The woman gestured at the other statues. “There are many within the Empire and on its borders that would oppose the Angeloi. But many among them would only do so for their own ambitions, and many others are too afraid to act. They need someone not only to unify them and inspire them, but to guide them, to keep them in the light as they battle against the Enemy’s servants.”

 

Now the woman stood, offering her hand once more to the monk. “That will be your duty: to rally these men not only to your brother’s banner, but to what is good and just. You must ensure that those that fight against the Enemy do not lose their way, that they do not sacrifice their souls in the name of victory.” 

 

The image around them shifted: now all the figures were standing as if ready for battle, a single banner flying above them. The woman continued to speak: “The evils of the Enemy can not prevail against a united front. There are many that will stand against the thralls of Evil, but it must be insured that they stand together. All must walk the path together, or they will fall one by one.”

 

When Sava hesitated to take her hand, she spoke on. “You have been called for a reason, Sava, for the same reason that the Father of All Things called you to this mountain. You are a pillar of faith, truth and light to the men of this monastery: I now ask you to be one to all the world. You, Sava of Mount Athos and Prince Rastko of Serbia, will be the one to guide the men of the Eastern Empire and beyond against the coming darkness. You have told me that you are but a monk: is it not a monk’s duty to aid those who come to him in their time of need?”

 

For the first time, a trace of emotion began entering into the woman’s voice: desperation. “I am not ordering you, or requesting you, to help me. I am begging you. Send messages to all those that I have shown you; rally them to the light. Guide them against the shadow. Help me save those who would save an Empire. Help me save those that would save the world .”

 

The mission Sava was being pleaded to take was a desperate one, he realized. The plan was to install his brother on the throne of an unstable and decadent Empire, using the tenuous-at-best claim of said brother’s oftentimes estranged wife. His backers were to be the aforementioned brother and a broad coalition of bickering and conspiring local nobles, each of whom would have their own plots and ambitions, whom he was supposed to somehow hold together and move towards a common goal. Their enemy was to be an entrenched Imperial authority that had previously shown itself to be quite violent in nature, potentially backed by the forces of Hell itself. All of this with possibly the whole world hanging in the balance. 

 

The monk turned to the woman, whose hand remained outstretched. Sava looked at the woman before him, who had always remained so composed and collected. He saw in her now the face of all those poor and destitute men and women that had come to his father’s court or his own when he had been Governor of Hum, begging for aid. He saw pleading eyes and trembling hands. He saw the kind of fear that only one pleading for their life can display. He saw a desperation that he couldn’t quite name, hidden away within her.

 

With that, Sava reached out and clasped the woman’s hand. 

 

Thank you, the woman whispered with a smile, serene and sincere. And with that, everything dissolved, and Sava found himself lying once more on his bed in the monastery. He was wide awake, as if he had not been woken from sleep but rather been returned from being transported somewhere. As he rose from his bed, trying to process his dream, he felt that something was...off. It did not take long for him to realize what it was.

 

As he looked down at himself, Sava saw not the roughspun tunic of a monk, but rather a woven cloak of many colors.



Near the Morgul Vale, Ithilien

 

It is the nature of the second son to be viewed as being the lesser when compared to their elder brother. By the simple virtue of having more years, the older sibling will typically find themselves possessing many qualities that the younger sibling either possesses in lesser quantities or lacks entirely. The senior will have had more time to establish their reputation among their peers, will have honed their strengths and skills for longer, will have the chance to hold office or title long before the junior.

 

Such was certainly the case of Faramir, second son of Denethor II, Steward of Gondor. He lived constantly in the shadow of his elder brother, Boromir, a shadow that was only larger and deeper for their father’s blatant favoritism of his eldest. Boromir was a man like one of the Kings of old, fearless and strong and unbeaten in battle. Faramir, meanwhile, possessed a gentler bearing, being a lover of lore and music, and his people, desperate for heroic warriors as the darkness had come ever nearer, had judged him accordingly to be the lesser. The favor of their father and the praises of their men were always directed first and foremost to Boromir, with Faramir being a distant second in their minds.

 

None of this is to say that Faramir was jealous of his brother, or that some great rivalry existed between them. Far from it: it did not seem possible to Faramir that anyone, least of all himself, could possibly rival Boromir, Captain of the White Tower. The Captain of the Ithilien Rangers was more than content with his own position. He defended his home with his own strengths and courage, of which he had both and in ample quantities. He did not fight to win glory or even approval for himself, but rather to protect what he loved.

 

How was he to fight on, then, when what he loved had seemingly vanished into thin air? 

 

The sudden storm and earthquake had been bad enough: the Rangers had been caught in the open when the skies had darkened and the earth had begun to shake, sparing them worst losses than if they had been somewhere like the refuge at Henneth Annun. At least they had not been left crushed or buried alive: the worst injuries were caused by debris blown in the wild winds. 

 

It was when the storm had broken and the quaking had stopped that Faramir and his men had realized just how desperate their situation had suddenly become. Trying to reorient themselves, the Rangers had soon noticed that half of the horizon had become unrecognizable. In particular, the half that remained was not the half that they desired to see: Mordor stood seemingly untouched outside of a few rockfalls, that dark land apparently more resistant to whatever fell magics had come down upon them. But Gondor, but home...home was gone, swept away in by the trembling earth and howling winds and endless hail, replaced with unfamiliar flatlands nearly as far as the eye could see, a dark and unfamiliar range of mountains just visible on the far horizon.

 

The courage of the men had failed at such a sight. The White Mountains, the Great River, the Tower of Ecthelion; such things had always given them the strength to continue the battle against the forces of Sauron, had always reminded them of what they were fighting for, of all that they would lose if they failed. Now the storm had seemingly blown it all away. With Mordor itself apparently unaffected, the minds of the men turned to dark thoughts, that Sauron may have called down some power beyond that of mortal men and remade the world to his vision, that they were now left alone in a world ruled by the Shadow.

 

And when their minds did not turn to darkness, they turned to utter confusion. Had Sauron not been permanently weakened by the loss of his Ring? If the Ring had indeed been found, why had the Enemy destroyed Gondor; had he not always endeavored to conquer it? And if the Dark Lord possessed the ability to destroy entire nations, why had he waited so long to use it? If there was a reason for his delay, then how had his power, whatever it was, missed the Rangers, who were few in numbers and practically on his own doorstep? 

 

The confusion only grew that night, as the stars had come out. Not a single constellation had been recognizable, which only raised even more questions. It implied that Mordor , or at least the Mountains of Shadow, had moved somewhere, but that begged the questions of how and why it had been moved. Faramir, for all his knowledge of lore and history, could think of no force short of the Valar or Melkor that would be capable of such a feat; and even if the Ainur were responsible for what had happened, that answer still left the question of why completely unanswered.

 

What Faramir did know was that he needed information, and not just answers to the questions that his men were asking. He needed to know what condition his men were in, especially with regards to their combat capability. He needed to know where around him the forces of the Enemy lay, and at what strength. The Captain of the Rangers of Ithilien refused to make any sort of command decision in ignorance. His brother or father might have been so bold, but he himself was not. Faramir needed answers to his questions. He was about to get at least some of them. 

 

Faramir had always had an interesting relationship with his dreams. It was his dream of the shards of Narsil and the accompanying riddle about Isildur’s Bane that had resulted in Boromir being sent north to Rivendell. Often he dreamed of Numenor of old, being haunted by the sight of the Land of the Gift drowning beneath the seas. Faramir had read many tales and much lore about the nature of dreams, of how they could give forewarning of dangers or comfort in times of loss.

 

After his dream of Imladris, though, he had never expected to have such a dream again.

 

The first thing that Faramir was aware of was the horn. In his dream, the second son of the Steward stood above the refuge of Henneth Annun, looking out over Ithilien and Mordor, when he first heard it. The horn blared throughout his mind, seeming to come from every direction at once, both far in the distance and intimately near. It was blown without ceasing, a great call to any who could hear it. 

 

Faramir soon found his own horn upon his belt, and without a moment’s hesitation he raised it to his lips and blew, answering the call that he had heard. Another great horn blast responded to his own, this time distinctly coming from the west. It’s distance had also become identifiable: it was some ways away, but approaching far faster than any rider, even one upon a Fell Beast, could have done so. Faramir turned to see who or what was blowing on the horn, and when he laid eyes upon them, he was utterly stunned by what he saw.

 

The rider appeared human, but they radiated power off of them like light from a bright lantern. He was a handsome man, a massive, ornately designed and built bow strung over one shoulder, a quiver of intricately crafted arrows over the other. In their hands they held the great horn that Faramir had heard, and they rode atop a horse that was as brilliant as new snowfall or glimmering silver.

 

“Hail, Ranger.” Orome, Vala of the Hunt, nodded to Faramir, who appeared ready to fall over from shock. “We must speak.”

 

The second son of the Steward’s mind was frozen in absolute shock, unable to process the sight before him on top of everything else that had come to pass over the course of the previous day. For a long moment, Faramir stood in a stupor, his jaw jumping but no sound coming out. Finally, as if his mind had decided to simply accept the insanity around him, he came out of his daze, kneeling before one of the Creators of Arda. 

 

“My Lord Orome.” He spoke hesitantly, unsure of how to properly address an Ainu. “I, uh…”

 

The Huntsman dismounted, gesturing for Faramir to stand while at the same time signalling for silence. “I have much to tell you, and little time to tell it in. Listen, and you will understand.” With a nod from Faramir (who had no idea how else he could have possibly reacted), the Vala continued.

 

“You’re right about the stars being wrong. Mordor has been sent to another world by powers beyond your comprehension, and you along with it. Fear not for Gondor: your home still stands, and there is a way for you to return to it. Fear neither for your brother, either: he walks this world, as does the rest of his Fellowship. But for the moment, none of that is your concern.”

 

The Vala pulled a map from his belt and laid it before himself and the Ranger. The lands that it showed were, for the most part, decidedly unfamiliar to Faramir: he recognized only Mordor, the Mountains of Mist and the Forest of Mirkwood, and only by their shape: all three were in completely incorrect places relative to each other, and the orientations of the Misty Mountains and of those of Shadow and Ash had been drastically altered. The rest was completely alien.

 

Orome gestured towards the west, to the vast plains that had taken Gondor’s place. “Sauron’s ambitions remain the same as they have always been: the conquest and subjugation of all things within his reach. Long did the Free Peoples, your kingdom first among them, hold him back. But it is not so here: while there are mighty nations willing to stand against the Dark Lord, they are not in the least prepared to do so.”

 

The Vala of the Hunt grimaced.  “They have never faced Trolls or wargs or Fell Beasts, never known the horrors that orcs and goblins are capable of; they have no idea of the terrors that Sauron can unleash. They simply aren’t ready to face the power of Mordor. That is why I’ve come to you.”

 

Orome turned to face the Ranger, his face still set in a deep frown. “This is your duty: to warn the people of this land of the danger that approaches, to train them in how to combat it and to encourage and inspire them in battle. You must go west: there you will meet the Lord of this land. His name is Emeric, Son of Bela, and he styles himself as the King of Hungary. You will know him when you see him.”

 

At that, the Vala went silent, waiting for Faramir to process what he had just been told. To the Captain’s credit, he had absorbed what the Huntsman had told him quite easily, if only because he was so stunned by what was happening that he had no ability to question it. Mordor had somehow been moved away from its place in Arda, carrying the Rangers of Ithilien with it in the process. The Enemy wished to continue his campaign of conquest regardless, and those that he now faced were completely unready to oppose him; Faramir and his men were to make them ready. 

 

All in all, the second son of the Steward, perhaps still in something akin to shock, found the duty presented to him acceptable, if not actively appealing. Faramir’s conscious mind might have still been utterly shocked at what was occurring, but the more subconscious and emotional parts, particularly his senses of compassion and duty of him were already accepting his new assignment. After all, he had sworn many oaths to oppose the enemy, and while he still breathed, he would protect all he could from their grasp. Of that he was sure, even in this new world gone mad, even if the conscious thought acknowledging as much had not yet crossed his mind. 

 

Recovering from his stupor somewhat, the coldly rational part of Faramir’s mind began to think of ways to perform the task set before him. He would need to rally the men, of course: at the very least, having a set duty to perform would distract them from their thoughts of dread and despair. His men did have plenty of confidence in him, at least: they would have followed him into the very fires of Mordor if he was willing to lead them there.

 

Still though, the second son of the Steward’s myriad doubts began to gnaw at him, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the Vala besides him. 

 

“I know that you are afraid, Ranger,” spoke the Vala of the Hunt, their face softening somewhat. “And you are right to be. There are so many unknowns, so much that has happened beyond your control. Your home and all that you have fought for lies beyond your reach, and I ask of you a duty that would challenge any of the Kings of Old.”

 

“But I say to you this: You are a Captain for a reason, Faramir son of Denethor, and it is not merely because of your father’s title,” Orome spoke on, laying a comforting hand on Faramir’s shoulder. “You are brave and wise and strong. Perhaps less so than your brother, or those of the legends that you grew up reading: I know that you certainly believe so. But that does not make you less worthy of this duty. Having less bravery or strength than your brother makes you neither a coward nor a weakling. You know that. The time has come for you to show it.”

 

With that, the Vala of the Hunt reached over his shoulder and unslung his bow, which seemed to shrink down to a normal size as he did so. “This land, your men...they will both need more than the son of Denethor or the brother of Boromir to see them through what is to come. It is time for you, Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show your quality.”

 

Orome pushed the weapon into Faramir’s hands without a further word. As the Ranger grasped the riser, he felt a certain power radiate from it, like all the forests and wild beasts of creation were lending the bow their strength. It was as if the bow was alive and waiting for the Captain of Gondor to command it. With a deep breath, Faramir accepted the weapon, cradling it like it was precious beyond reckoning (which, of course, it was). 

 

As Orome turned to mount his steed, a question struck Faramir, the kind of question that wouldn’t leave him alone until he had answered it.

 

“Um...my Lord…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“You said that there was a way to return to Gondor, correct?”

 

The Vala frowned briefly. “Do not concern yourself with that journey yet. Accomplish first the task that you have been given.” Upon seeing Faramir’s crestfallen expression, he reached out and placed a comforting hand on the Ranger’s shoulder. “But I assure you of this: Survive this war, and your way home will be revealed. If you yet stand when the battles are ended, you will see the White Tower with your own eyes once again.”

 

Then Orome patted the Captain’s shoulder, before turning his steed back towards the west. “Now go! With all haste! The Enemy is already turning his Eye towards you!” And with that, the Vala departed, blowing his horn as he went.

 

As the Huntsman departed, Faramir felt a creeping sense of dread pervade him, as if Orome’s presence had been keeping something terrible at bay. The Captain of the Rangers of Ithilien could feel the gaze of Evil turning towards him, and as he looked eastwards, back towards Mordor, he could have sworn that he saw the great fiery Eye of Sauron glaring at him, it sight piercing through the Mountains of Shadow to seek him out. It was then that he awoke, caked in cold sweat, his heart hammering in his chest. 

 

“Captain?”

 

Faramir looked towards the voice: it was one of his lieutenants, a certain Madril. The two had served together for years, seen each other at their highest heights and lowest lows. Never had the Captain seen his subordinate looking more haggard and hopeless than he did now, with almost vacant eyes and fearful, shaking limbs. With a deep frown, Faramir reached over and grasped his bow. As it had in his dream, the weapon seemed to hum at his touch. A sigh of relief escaped the son of the steward’s lips, and he stood from his bedroll without a second thought, beginning to strap on his armor and weapons.

 

“We need to move.”



Durin’s Tower, Zirakzigil, the Misty Mountains.

 

To say that the mountaintop lay in ruins would be an understatement. It would be more apt to say that the mountaintop had ceased to exist. The whole summit of the Silvertine had been obliterated, as if the ancient peak had spontaneously become a volcano and instantly erupted. What little of the top of the mountain hadn’t been shattered apart had been melted into slag, much of which still glowed an angry, menacing red.

 

Far above, the stars shone brightly, the clouds of the storm having been dissipated when the mountain had exploded. A thousand thousand points of light shone down from the night sky upon the shattered summit, bathing the hellish scene in a heavenly light. It illuminated the melted rocks and broken stones, piercing through snow and hail and smoke and darkest, blackest night.

 

And then, in an instant, the light seemed to sharpen. All the stars seemed to align, their glow combining into a single, solid ray coming down from the heavens.  All the light of the stars shone down on a single point atop what remained of the mountain, once hidden among the smoke and fire and rubble. It shone down on a torn and tattered robe, a cracked staff, a chipped sword, a broken body, lying amidst the ruins. And upon them all the stars in the heavens cast their light, illuminating the whole of their form.

 

The one that they shone upon was unmoving. Their blue eyes were open but unseeing, the light that had once been held within them extinguished. But the lights of the heavens continued to shine upon them, piercing through all the darkness upon the mountain peak. And then suddenly, without warning, it seemed as if one of the stars fell from the sky, and guided by its brothers and sisters in the heavens it drifted gently down upon the body on the summit. It passed within the being of broken flesh, which was still illuminated by the heavenly glow, entering.

 

A miracle followed.

 

The body twitched and spasmed, suddenly gasping for breath, as its awareness flooded back. The first thing that the man who had awakened upon the peak noticed was that they were cold. The cold was all around him, biting into his skin, his flesh, his very bones. Winds howled all around him, allowing the cold to cut through his naked body like knives of ice. There was, at least, one benefit to the cold: it dampened the sensation that followed. 

 

Pain shot through his body, dulled only by the all-encompassing cold. His body remembered his wounds, one by one, and one by one came from them pain anew. Flesh ached and burned; bones cracked and slipped. Even the slightest movement sent spasms of agony through his body, so he instead simply lay there upon the mountain, wounds bleeding and boiling and filling his existence with naught but pain, watching as the storm raged on.

 

But the stars continued to shine, their work not yet completed. The mangled form upon which the light was shining began to reform, bones knitting themselves back together, torn flesh sealing back up, blood and soot vanishing away, the broken body being made whole again. The staff and sword lying beside the man began to glow with the light of the heavens, the nicks and cracks vanishing.The healing light shone down, cleansing away all evil, every sign of injury disappearing. So too did the pain ebb away, the feelings of burning and tearing and piercing reduced to dull throbs as the stars shone on. 

 

Thoughts flooded the man’s mind, things that were memories and things that weren’t alike. Words that felt like they should be meaningful drifted through his thoughts, as old tasks dismissed and new ones assigned. Yet there was no confusion within his mind: He had forgotten much that he had thought that he knew and learned again much that he had forgotten, true, but so, too, had much clarity had come to him. Everything that he needed to know had been placed at his fingertips; The pathway forwards was cleared of all distractions; his new mission had been set. 

 

It was then that he heard the call of the Eagle. The great Hunter of the Skies soared down out of the night, landing majestically beside him, unafraid of the still burning fires upon the peak. Slowly but surely, the man stood, leaning heavily on his staff and sword for support. Carefully, the man lifted himself onto the back of the Eagle, seating himself upon it. The Windlord accepted their old friend, and with a mighty flap of their wings they took once more to the cold, dark skies.

 

And then they were off, headed northeast, towards where the war was about to begin. 



Near Aslo, Norway

 

A lone figure stood along the seaside, looking out over the waters. Not a man, certainly: although their appearance was mostly similar,  there was a certain radiance to them, a subtle glow that no human possessed. No, they were a child not of the Earth, or indeed even of any part of Arda that was open to mortal beings; Rather, they were one born of the Land Across the Sea, that place of paradise inaccessible to all but those that could sail upon the Straight Road.

 

But they had left that place behind long ago, and to it now they dared not return.

 

Instead, they had trod the coasts of the whole world, always looking west but never allowing themselves to make the journey. Long had they wandered the shores of the sea, long beyond the living memory of all but a very few, singing a low and mournful tune. Since the fall of Beleriand of old they had stood by the sea, singing their song of sorrow, the ages passing them by. 

 

In that time, Numenor had been raised out of the waters and thrown down back into them; Sauron had deceived nearly the whole world, rallying all manner of dark things before being overthrown by the Last Alliance; the Rings of Power had been forged, the One and Three and Seven and Nine, bringing fortune or disaster (more so the latter) to all who bore them; The realms in exile, Gondor and Arnor, had been founded, their powers waxing and waning with the times. All this had happened, and still the lone figure had walked along the shores of the sea, undisturbed, still singing their song of mourning.

 

Over time, the song had slowly been altered. The tune, certainly, remained one of loss and despair and grief, but as the seasons and years and ages had worn on, the words that were spoken changed. In the most distant mists of time, if the singer had had an audience, one would have heard the word Silmaril quite frequently. Over time, the word Feanor became more frequent, then Maedhros, Amrod and Amras, Celegorm, Caranthir and Curufin. These were joined later by Alqualonde, Doriath and Sirion.

 

In time, other terms became more frequent: Nerdanel. Dagor-nuin-Giliath, Dagor Bragollach, Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Elrond. Elros. On and on, without ceasing or even rest, the song continued, a verse sung for each word in turn before beginning once more. It was clear, even if one understood not a single word that was said, that this was a song of lamentation, crying out for what had been lost, for what could never be regained.

 

But today, for the first time since it had begun, for the first time in six-and-a-half millennia, the song had ceased. Today, there was only silence, as the figure on the shoreline gazed out over the western waters, frowning. A few hours before, a sudden storm had come upon them, freezing winds and crashing waves and rolling thunder mingling with their song. The figure had trudged on, ignoring the flashing lightning and blinding snow around them: they had experienced far worse in their time.  

 

And then the storm had ended, and when the figure could see again the tune which they had sung for eons gave way to shocked silence. They turned and looked upon the lands behind them, at the steep cliffs that hemmed in the waters below. In 6,500 years, they walked along every shore of Middle-earth, without exception, growing familiar with their lays. This land was not one he recognized. In their millennia of life, the figure had seen many, many things but this...this was a new experience.

 

The figure thought on this, wondering what could have possibly happened. They would soon receive an answer.

 

“Maglor. We must speak.”

 

At the sound of his name, which he had not heard for several millennia, the elven prince turned to see who had spoken it. Standing before him now was a somewhat small and timid looking woman, clothed in a simple, hooded grey cloak, her face one of care and concern, and her image blurred and came into focus with each moment, as if she were here in but a dream. Despite her humble appearances, though, the woman subtly radiated power, the air around her seeming to softly sing a song of mourning and lamentation that carried as much emotion in an instant as Maglor’s song had in six millennia.  Taking a deep breath, the last son of Feanor bowed low before her.

 

“Lady Nienna. If I may ask, what has brought you here? It must be serious indeed: I am unworthy of your presence, even as a mere projection, much less to speak to you.”

 

“I have been brought here by what I am always brought by,” the Vala of Mourning, Pity and Mercy responded, “I am here to bring comfort to the weary and the grieving, to soothe the pain and suffering of the world, however I may. And...I am here to bring healing to you, as well.”

 

The son of Feanor looked up at the Lady at those last few words, a tinge of confusion in his eyes. She looked back into his eyes with a look of pity, continuing as she did so.

 

“You have seen for yourself that the lays of the land have been remade, and as has happened before, when Beleriand and Numenor fell, much woe and death has been unleashed in the process. Two worlds have collided, and now the war of one is the war of both.”

 

The Lady of Compassion now signalled for Maglor to rise, continuing to speak as she did so.

 

“This whole world lies injured: I can not walk here myself without deepening the wounds; none of the Valar may. Our aid must be subtler: placing the right tools in the right hands at the right times. Some of us have chosen Champions to fight in our steads: I have chosen you to be mine, if you are willing. I wish for you to act in my name, to aid in the protection of this new world.”

 

At those words, a look of shock took up residence on Maglor’s face. No. No, this...this must be a mistake. No, he must have heard her wrong. Champion? Be her Champion? Him who had sworn the accursed Oath of Feanor to recover his father’s Silmarils, even if they were held by the hands of friend and kin? Him who had ignored the Prophecy of the North, foretelling the doom of the attempt? Him that had aided in the massacre of fellow elf not only once, but three times? Who had stolen the last of the Silmarils, which had rejected him, burning and scarring his hands when he had merely attempted to hold them? No, no, no, he was not worthy to so much as beg for the Vala’s forgiveness, much less serve them again. Surely, the Lady had not said what she had said. No, this must be a misunderstanding, and the fallen hero of the First Age began to say as much.

 

“I am sorry, my Lady, but you must be mistaken. I ca-”

 

“I have made no mistake.” Nienna’s voice her tone one of compassion and mercy. “This world needs heroes in this time, Champions and Warriors the likes of which have not been seen in this age. We cannot send those that have already passed out of the lands of the living: those doors have been shut even to us. But you, Maglor...you remain east of the Sea.”

 

The Vala offered her hand to the elf. “And so I offer you the chance to again be the hero that you once were. I offer you the chance to redeem the legacy of your house. I will not force it upon you: your path is yours alone to walk. But I beg that you at least consider this chance, if not for your sake then at least for mine.”

 

“My Lady,” Maglor began, swallowing hard. “I...I cannot. What you ask of me is impossible. My line, the line of my father...the stains of our crimes cannot be washed away. The blood of the Teleri, of Doriath and the Havens…it marks me still. If the weight of only one were upon me, then...then...perhaps. But all that I have done…”

 

They paused for a moment then, the only sounds in the air the crashing of the waves below. Then Nienna spoke again.

 

“I recall what you did, as you do,” she said slowly, fixing her eyes upon the Son of Feanor. “But you recall only your failings, your greatest mistakes. I recall your greatest victories: riding hard to your father’s aid at the Battle Under the Stars, cutting through all the Balrogs of Morgoth to save him. I recall you protecting your people from the assault of Glaurung, the Father of Dragons, when he attacked your lands, guarding their retreat to Himring. I recall you defending that city during the Battle of Sudden Flame, holding it even as Morgoth continued his endless onslaught. I recall your valor during the doomed campaign of the Union of Maedhros. You did many wonderful things, Maglor.”

 

“AND THEN I NEGATED THEM ALL!” Maglor screamed suddenly, his voice one of pain and self-loathing and utter despair. He stood up, his eyes wild and full of tears, his arms gesturing wildly.

 

“FOR EVERY GREAT DEED I DID, I COMMITTED TWICE AS MUCH EVIL! THRICE I SLAUGHTERED MY OWN KIN, THRICE ! AND IF THAT WAS NOT EVIL ENOUGH, I DID SO FOR  SUCH FOOLISH AND VILE REASONS: THERE WAS NO REASON ANY OF THE MASSACRES! NONE! NONE AT ALL! FOR THE SAKE OF AN OATH THAT SHOULD HAVE NEVER BEEN SWORN, A DROWNED MYSELF IN INNOCENT BLOOD!

 

Maglor looked towards the heavens and screamed, an agonizing wail that told of a pain beyond reckoning. Nienna watched in silence, a grieving look upon her face. The last son of Feanor continued.

 

AND WORSE YET?! I HAD EVERY CHANCE TO CHANGE! ” Maglor was almost hysterical now, he eyes wild, tearing at his hair. “I HEARD THE DOOM OF MANDOS! I KNEW THAT THE ACTS THAT WE COMMITTED AT ALQUALONDE WERE EVIL ONES! I WATCHED ALL MY BROTHERS DIE BECAUSE OF WHAT WE WERE DOING! AND YET I DID NOT CHANGE! EVEN AFTER CENTURIES HAD PASSED, I MADE THE SAME MISTAKES AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN! AND THEN!

 

At this, the Last Son of Feanor fell to his knees, panting. His whole body shuddered in grief, this mighty prince of elves shaking like a leaf. He was silent for a long time. Finally, in a voice that was only barely above a whisper, he spoke once more.

 

“And then...after everything I had done...after all the crimes I had committed... even then I still held to the Oath . After the War of Wrath, after we stood victorious over Morgoth...still, I...I killed my own kin. Me and my last living brother... all the others dead because of our crimes ...we entered into the camp of the Host of the West, slew those guarding the Silmarils that had been recovered and stole them for ourselves. And rightly, they rejected us for our evils.”

 

Maglor held out his hands then, showing them to Nienna. They were both covered in terrible burn scars, horrible red and black marks crisscrossing the flesh. He showed them to the Vala, his voice becoming even softer. The Elven Prince of the First Age lay crumpled upon the ground. He was a truly pitiful sight, shuddering and crying like a newborn babe, guilt and grief rolling off of him.

 

“These scars are testaments to my failings. I am...I am sorry, my Lady. I am truly flattered by your offer, but...I cannot be your Champion. Too much evil has been done by my hands for me to ever be called a ‘hero’ again. You must find another...whom the Silmarils would not burn. I am sorry, but these marks can never...will never...be healed.”

 

Maglor closed his eyes, his breathing deep, tears flowing down his cheeks. He turned his face away from the Nienna, unable to meet her gaze. His shame burned within him, deeper and hotter than it had in centuries. How dare he even speak to her, one of the Vala, much less scream and wail? He had lost the privilege to even kneel before her by the evil deeds that he had committed.

 

And yet here she was. Nienna the Compassionate curled her hands around his, gently grasping the maimed flesh. Even at her touch, perhaps the softest that could ever exist, Maglor flinched, stinging pain welling up from the wounds. Delicately, as if they might shatter in her hands, the Vala lifted Maglor’s hands up before her eyes. And then, as she had done a number of times beyond all reckoning, Nienna wept.

 

Like falling rain were her tears, a torrent of grief and pity that entire nations in mourning could not have matched. She wept for the victims of Maglor’s crimes, who could no longer weep for themselves. She wept for the other sons of Feanor, sworn to a cursed Oath that had led them to doom, all of whom had perished before they saw fully the error of their ways. She wept for Elrond, whom Maglor had raised as his own son and now found himself faced with a peril that he could not face alone. Above all, she wept for the elf before her, blind to the good within himself that still remained, trodding dangerously close to the fate of his final brother, Maedhros, who had thrown himself into a fiery chasm in despair.

 

And as the Vala wept, something extraordinary happened. Her tears fell upon the burned skin of the Son of Feanor, and wherever they fell the red and black scars began to fade away. The pain they caused, a fundamental part of Maglor’s existence for all these millennia, while not vanishing, was numbed. When the Lady released his hands, he could do little more than stare at them in dumbfounded amazement: The scars were still there, but instead of twisted flesh before him were but dull markings, like old cuts that had long since healed. He looked up at Nienna, eyes full of wonder. The Vala smiled at him, her tears still falling.

 

“These marks may not be healed,” Nienna whispered, eyes gleaming, “but they can fade, if only you allow them to. I have heard your lament, Maglor, your endless grief and mourning. It was a beautiful song, and it broke my heart to hear it.”

 

Nienna drew close, lowering herself to where Maglor knelt on the ground, their eyes meeting. She sighed, shaking her head.

 

“But with every verse you sung, you only worsened your wounds rather than let them close. So lost in your grief did you become that you never gave yourself the chance to heal. Do not misunderstand me: to mourn as you did for your evils was not an incorrect choice. If only a few were as remorseful as you for their misdeeds, the world would be a far brighter place. But to grieve a misdeed is only the first step in correcting it. You have wept long enough, and further grieving will not heal you, or any other; even my tears cannot make your scars fade any more than they have.”

 

“It is not the scars on my body I weep for, my Lady,” said the son of Feanor, shaking his head. “I weep for the scars that I inflicted upon others, and for those upon my very soul.”

 

“Nothing can be done for the former, Maglor,” spoke Nienna, a tremor in her voice. “No matter how much I wish that it were otherwise. But as for the latter...I do not deny that your wait in the Halls of Mandos will be long. The Doorsman of the Valar will ignore none of your crimes. But nor will he ignore any of your heroism. There is still time to add to the latter. The wounds upon your soul need not be left to bleed.”

 

She turned the elf to face her one last time, her eyes full of pity and grief.

 

“Please, Maglor. Your father died in anger, your brothers in wrath or mourning. The same fate need not befall you. No, nothing you can do can save the souls of your victims, but you can still save your own. Enough souls have become trapped in Namo’s Hall by inaction. I beg that you do not join them.”

 

Maglor swallowed hard, the weight of his conscious still crushing down on him. He spoke his thoughts, his voice continuing to tremble. “I don’t deserve another chance, my Lady. Not after all I have done.”

 

“Perhaps not,” Nienna spoke, a bittersweet smile coming to her lips. “But I am willing to give you one regardless. You need only to take it. Be my Champion. Redeem yourself. Redeem your line. Be the hero you always should have been.”

 

Maglor shook his head, the mighty son of Feanor quivering like a child. “My Lady. I...I wouldn’t know where to start.”

 

There was a sudden, thunderous roar, off to the north. The ancient elf knew that sound, and a pit formed in his stomach: a Long-worm of Angbad. They were lesser descendents of Glaurung, compared to some of his other spawn, but still a terrible foe to face: many of his horsemen had been had been slaughtered by them on the retreat to Himring during Dagor Bragollach, an event which had still provided many verses for Maglor’s song. 

 

Casting his gaze northwards, it did not take the son of Feanor long to set his eyes on the beast. It lived up to its name: the creature was a long, wingless worm, encased in an armor of silver-grey scales. For a moment, it paused, its serpentine head swivelling back and forth as if searching for something, before it through back its maw and unleashed a terrible roar, a hellish shriek that echoed through the black night. And then, with a swiftness that should have been impossible for something of its size, the monster was darting across the frozen landscape, roaring all the while. The pit in Maglor’s stomach only grew in size when he saw what had attracted the worm’s attention: a sizable city sat on the coast nearby. 

 

“You can start by driving off that worm,” Nienna said, indicating the city in the distance. “Protect those within that city. Save every life that you can from that monster’s fury. Certainly there can be no evil in such a task.”

 

The Vala grasped the hand of the elven prince, as a mother would an scared child. “And in the coming days, when the darkness comes again, when the people of that city and beyond are threatened by whatever monsters the forces of evil will hurl against them, protect them again. Defend them to your last breath. Be their hope. Be their light.”

 

At that, Nienna’s image began to fade away into the mist and clouds, one last whisper reaching the elf’s ears:

 

“Mourn no longer for those that you could not save, Maglor: act to save those that you still can.”

 

And then the last son of Feanor was alone once more.

 

No. No, he was not quite alone. That was not quite the correct word. He still had the company of his grief, of course, and that of his guilty conscious. There were the cold winds, the crashing of the waves against the shore. There was the worm darting towards the city, their cries carrying well in the clear night air. There were the cold, hard earth around him, and the stars above, and the few grasses and flowers that managed to survive even the dearth of winter.

 

And there was a chance. It was a chance given to him by a Vala herself, a chance to be her Champion, a chance to be a hero once more. A chance to show that the line of Feanor had not yet ended, nor had it been wholly lost in the darkness. A chance given to a mass murderer. To a thief. To a kinslayer. A chance given to a protector of his people. To an elf that had mourned all his crimes, without ceasing, for millennia. A chance to do good.

 

Maglor sprinted towards the city.



Rome, the Papal States

 

Lotario dei Conti di Segni, Pope Innocent III, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, and Servant of the Servants of God, was snoring rather loudly. The Holy Father needed his rest: The current affairs of Christendom were enough to tax the strength and will of any man. the Holy Roman Empire was spiralling ever-deeper into a War of Succession, England and France were at each other’s throats, the Cathar-aligned lords in Occitania were growing in strength, the Holy Land was under threat...and those were only the issues that were likely to cause major wars in the near future. 

 

A myriad of other, less military problems existed for the Church to face, each one potentially just as damaging to the mission of Christ: An increasingly worldly clergy. Corrupt abbots. Inefficient administration. Ineffective teaching of new priests. Growing heretical movements, especially in Occitania and Bosnia. Rulers that were increasingly opponents of the Church holding power in Norway, large parts of Germany and Italy and potentially even France, if King Philip’s marital situation could not be brought to order. Continued resistance to converting from the Baltic Tribes. All of this to be faced by a Papacy that was increasingly looked down on by the ever-more secular Kings of Europe.

 

In the months and years to come, Lotario dei Conti di Segni would look back on these days, envying his younger self, that man who had been free to believe that these so-called ‘crises’ would be the greatest threats that he would face. He would yearn for these days to come back, to return to the time before Dark Lords and monsters from nightmare, before Rings of Power and Wizards and all else that had now arrived from Arda. 

 

For the rest of his life, the Pope who had taken the name of Innocent III would remember the moment when the new Age of the world began. He would remember the vision that he had been shown, and the task that he had been given. He would remember all that would come after, every battle and trial that he would face. And he would remember how it all began: with a lone voice, calling out in the night. 

 

“Lotario.”

 

The most influential man in Christendom woke only partially, tossing and turning in his sheets, full consciousness easily eluding him. The voice that he heard was like one out of a dream, existing only at the very edge of his awareness, and Lotario made no real effort to identify it. Instead, he remained lying down, working to find a more comfortable posture and return to his state of rest. 

 

“Lotario!”

 

This time the voice had his full attention, as limited as that was in his state of partial wakefulness. It echoed through the night, called in a voice that resounded throughout the whole room, waiting for a response. Blearily, the Holy Father glanced around his chamber, searching for the voice’s source. The room was dark, with only the faintest of glows from the moon and stars coming through the curtained windows to provide illumination, but even in such dim light it was clear there was no one within the chamber who could have voiced the call.

 

Grumbling slightly, Lotario sat up, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. Surveying the room closer only confirmed his earlier observations: the chamber remained as empty as it had been before. The spiritual leader of the west stretched out his limbs, quietly groaning as he did so. He then stood from his bed, taking only a moment to steady himself before he walked to the chamber’s door.

 

The Pope poked his head out of the door, still only mostly awake. The guard besides the door turned to face him, bowing slightly as he did so.

 

“Your Holiness? Is something the matter?”

 

“Perhaps,” Lotario responded, speaking slowly, blinking sleep from his eyes. “Was somebody out here calling for me?”

 

The guard shook his head. “No, your Holiness.”

 

Lotario frowned for a moment, ponderous, before shaking his head, sighing. “I must have imagined it then.” He then turned to return to his chamber. “A good night to you, then.”

 

“Good night, your holiness.”

 

With that, the Pope returned to his room, quietly closing the door behind him. Immediately he moved to return to his bed, stumbling slightly in the dim light. Settling back atop his mattress, Lotario quickly began wrapping himself once more in his sheets and blankets, practically burying himself within them. Soon afterwards, he began to drift back into restful, peaceful slumber.

 

“Lotario!”

 

The Holy Father immediately snapped back to awareness. He shot bolt upright, throwing aside his covers in the process. Again, Lotario looked around the dark, empty room, searching for the source of the voice, and again he saw nothing. A feeling of apprehension crept into him as he stood from his bed, still scanning the chamber for intruders. He crossed to his door quickly, throwing it open and looking out into the hallway beyond.

 

“Your Holiness?”

 

Lotario looked at the guard besides the door, who was clearly startled at his sudden reemergence. 

 

“Who was calling me?”

 

The guard was taken aback, taking a half step backwards before he responded. “N-no one, your Holiness. No one called for you.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Yes, your Holiness. It’s been dead quiet. Is something the matter?”

 

Lotario frowned again, deeper than before. He looked around the hallway again: it remained stony silent, with only him and his guard present. Flickering torchlight bathed the hall in light, and there were few, if any, places for an intruder to hide themselves in. After a moment of deliberation, Lotario reached over and grabbed a torch from the wall, before turning to re-enter his chambers once more.

 

“Your Holiness?”

 

“Come with me for a moment. I…” with a gesture between a shrug and a shake of his head, Lotario returned to his chambers, the guard a few steps behind him.

 

The torch illuminated the whole room with an eerie yellow-orange light. Lotario began working his way around the room, searching for...well, he wasn’t sure what. The chambers remained as empty as they had ever been, and as quiet: there was clearly no intruder present, but that fact brought no comfort to the Holy Father. He was sure of what he had heard, yet there was nothing present in the chamber that could be the source of the voice. Either the stress of his vocation was starting to manifest as random voices, or...

 

“Your Holiness?” 

 

Lotario looked again to his guard, who had only become more and more bewildered as events had continued. “I…I thought...” 

 

He trailed off as something caught his eye. Atop the small altar that Lotario kept besides his bed lay his copy of the Holy Scriptures. It was open, and the light of the room seemed almost...drawn to it, its pages almost seeming to subtly glow. Silently, the Holy Father approached the Word of God, curious as to what lay there for him to see. He almost dropped his torch in shock upon seeing which page it had been opened to: the Good Book lay open to the third chapter of the First Book of Samuel. It lay open to the summoning of a prophet, by the Lord’s voice calling out to them in the night.

 

“Your Holiness? Are you...alright?”

 

Lotario took a long breath before responding. “I don’t know.” He faced the guard again, who’s expression had become one of deep worry, verging towards fear. The Holy Father reached out and placed his hands on the man’s shoulder, trying to lend to him what comfort he could. 

 

“But I’ll know soon.” Lotario sighed, patting the guard’s shoulder one last time. “Return to your post for now. There’s something that I must do. Alone.”

 

“Are you sure, your Holiness? I coul-”

 

“I am sure, my man. I’ll be alright.”

 

“As you will it.”

 

With that, the guard stepped back out of the room, closing the chamber door behind him. A long moment later, Lotario turned back towards the altar, an almost overwhelming feeling of apprehension closing in around him, nearly paralyzing him. A theory had formed in his mind, a theory that both exhilarated and terrified him, and a dreadful uncertainty was gnawing at him. As he had always done when such feelings had come over him, Lotario dei Conti di Segni knelt to pray. He closed his eyes, took a deep, slow breath, and then spoke the words that Samuel the Prophet had, all those eons ago.

 

“Here I am Lord. Speak, for your servant is listening.”

 

A brilliant light filled the whole room, brighter and hotter than the noonday sun. A great wind blew, like the cold breath of winter and a warm summer breeze at once, carrying with it an indescribable power, utterly authoritative and yet without the slightest hint of malice or evil. A moment later the voice that had been calling in the night spoke again, sounding out like a thousand thousand trumpets, and Lotario dei Conti di Segni threw himself upon the ground in a terrified bow, afraid to look upon what was behind him.

 

“Do not be afraid, Lotario. Lift your head: do not grovel before me, for I come to you now merely as a Messenger.”

 

At that, slowly, hesitantly, the Holy Father faced the self-proclaimed Angel. They certainly looked the part: they were a giant, the room seemingly bending and warping reality to allow them to fit within it; Their cloak looked to be made from the winds itself, constantly billowing and quivering, its hues changing from cool blues and whites to warm reds and yellows and back again in a constantly shifting pattern; their face was framed by a beard and hair composed of shockingly blue lightning, and their eyes were aglow like the sunset. The Pope knelt before them, scarcely daring to look upon them, as the Angel continued to speak. 

 

“Grave tidings do I bring you: this night has seen untold terrors be unleashed upon the world, the likes of which have it has never seen before. Many prayers has the One in Heaven heard this night, and you have been chosen as part of his answer. Come with me, so that I may show you your task.”

 

The Angel reached out their hand then, gesturing for Lotario to grasp it. Swallowing his fear, barely, the Bishop of Rome took a deep breath and grasped the offered hand. In an instant, Lotario’s chambers disappeared, and the Holy Father was flying, high and fast, like a bird freed from its cage. He clung to the Angel’s hand like a lifeline, terrified of falling, his eyes clenched shut in terror. Lotario felt only the wind rushing past him as he and the Angel soared over Italy, the Adriatic and Dalmatia and into Hungary, maintaining an ominous silence the whole while. Finally, they came to a stop, and the Angel, still holding Lotario aloft, spoke again.

 

“Look before you, and see the foe with your own eyes.”

 

Lotario did so, and instantly wished that he hadn’t. There before him was a great black wall, standing between the mountains of shadow and ash. It stood taller than almost any man-made structure that the Holy Father knew of: only the tallest and greatest cathedrals and basilicas could have possibly compared. The wall was as tall as twenty men, and forged of solid iron and black stone and steel. It’s towers were like great teeth anchored upon the dark peaks, their roots set deep into the unyielding stone.

 

Manning this wall were what could only be demons. Their stances were bent and their eyes full of malice; their faces were like wild boars, and their teeth like knives. A great multitude there were, all in arms with bows and swords and spears. Behind the wall were two great ramparts of stone, and upon them stood giants, chained to the wall. As Lotario watched, a great horn was blown, and the giants marched forth along the ramparts, and the walls parted, like the opening of a gate.

 

The Angel flew forward once again, the Holy Father still in tow, through the Black Gate and into the land of shadow beyond. It was a place that Lotario could describe only as Hell itself: All was covered in ash and dust, and searing heat was present in all places and times. No green grass grew, no breezes cooled the air, no springs or streams cut through the ashen ground. Smoke and fire filled the sky, and the air itself was poison; Lotario saw even the demons choking on the fell winds. And many demons there were; most small, with twisted faces and limbs and claws; some giant, as much as three men, crushing the lesser ones underfoot; some were twisted mockeries of beasts of burden.

 

But all this terror, all this horror, paled when compared against the Flaming Eye. Above all the horrors of the black lands it was perched, upon a dark metal tower as tall as any mountain in the world, watching all that passed below. It turned and looked over all the ashen lands, and when its gaze passed over Lotario, he felt something like the burning of a great fire, fueled by hatred. In appearance it seemed like the sun at its most terrible, searing all that it shone upon. The Holy Father looked upon it for but moments before he was forced in terror to turn, daring not to court the madness within its depths.

 

“This is the land of Mordor,” the Angel spoke, their voice grave and grim. “It is the home of an evil more terrible than any that your world has ever faced; an evil that now marches against the whole of mankind.”

 

The Angel pointed downwards, towards all the assembled monstrous legions, all the demons and giants and other twisted creatures. Then Lotario heard a terrible scream, a sound of pure hatred and malice that felt like a knife being driven into his very soul, forcing ice into his veins and freezing his heart and mind. Looking upwards, he saw a Black Spirit, faceless and in black robes, riding atop a terrible winged serpent, larger than any beast that he had ever seen. It raised its sword and pointed northwest, back towards the great Black Gate, and as one the whole demonic horde began to march.

 

Reality warped again, and now Lotario found himself back within his chambers. A heavily detailed map of what he recognized as being Europe and parts of North Africa and the Near East floated before him, but one where certain regions had been heavily distorted, almost to the point of being unrecognizable: the Carpathian mountains had been warped into peaks of shadow and ash, reshaped into a massive rectangle that bounded vast lands stretching far westwards from the Euxine Sea, with most of Hungary replaced by the hellscape that Lotario had been shown before; the Alps wound their way in a great arc northeast roughly along the eastern border of the Holy Roman Empire as far north as central Poland, and similar to the Carpathians had become dark and foreboding; the mountains of Scandinavia had become much the same, an air of grimness hovering above them-one peak, somehow less ominous than the rest, had appeared on the island of Zealand, in Denmark;  a vast, murky forest sprawled across much of Iberia, from the southeastern border of Leon eastwards nearly to Aragon in the north and as far southwards as the sea in the region of Granada. 

 

“Darkness descends upon you from all sides,” the Angel spoke, indicating the map: portraits of the monsters and demons that Lotario had been shown had appeared upon the canvas, situated wherever the distortions in the map occurred. Terror gripped at the Holy Father’s heart as the hellish legions moved to assail much of Christendom: the Spanish Kingdoms, Germany, Poland, Norway and Sweden, Italy, Hungary…

 

“Is this the end of days?” whimpered Lotario, despair creeping into his soul. What else could it have been? Were not all the legions of Hell descending upon mankind? Panic started to build within him, a panic that was headed off as the Angel spoke again.

 

“Not yet,” said the Messenger, as they layed a comforting hand on the Pope’s shoulder. “The one that you would call Lucifer has not yet been unleashed, and I and my kin will do all in our power to see that he remains imprisoned: the foe you face is, however, the most mighty and cunning of his lieutenants, and shall still be the greatest evil that this world will face until the true End of Days.”

 

The Angel grimaced at that, an uninterpretable look crossing their face as they did so. “But if this one is not held in check, those times may be upon you far sooner than planned. If his evil is allowed to run rampant, his master may be able to break his bonds.

 

They then turned to face Lotario, their face grave beyond reckoning. The Messenger spoke on: The Enemy must be opposed, at all costs. Or he will conquer and enslave the whole world.”

 

“And how am I meant to oppose this, then? What could any man do against...this?! What may men do against all the legions of Hell?”

 

“How were 12 men from Galilee meant to change the world?” spoke the Angel, their hands gesturing towards the Crucifix that Lotario kept hanging on his chamber wall. “How could David stand before Goliath? Is it not written that you will never be alone, even to the ending of the world? Keep your faith in the One in Heaven, Him who so loved this world as to give it his only begotten Son: He will not abandon His children.”

 

Lotario was silent for some time at that, his gaze fixed on the Crucifix that the Angel had indicated. It was a somewhat humble little thing, constructed mainly of bronze with a few highlights of gold or jewels set within. A reddish liquid dripped from the hands, feet and side of the Savior’s image, staining the cross upon which it was set. Drops fell upon the small altar above which the Crucifix had been set, the liquid pooling on the surface of the opened Bible below. 

 

The Holy Father crossed himself then, again kneeling upon the floor. He took a long time to center and calm himself, a time that the Angel courteously allowed him. Lotario whispered prayer after prayer to himself, working to bring himself back under control. The Messenger was right: their presence was proof enough that the Lord had not yet forsaken the world. When the Holy Father had convinced himself of that, he stood again, turning towards the Angel and waiting for the heavenly being to continue. 

 

“You will not be abandoned,” the Angel repeated as Lotario faced him, their voice much softer than before. “Even now is the Creator of All Things sending his servants to the aid of you and the whole world.”

 

As Lotario watched the map, several new images appeared, scattered widely: what the Holy Father recognized as soldiers in northern France, eastern Germany, in Hungary near where the twisted version of the Carpathians now extended, and one far to the east, on the northern coast of the Euxine Sea; there were a pair of Monks, one in Greece and another in the center of the Alps, the latter one dressed in purest white while the former was in the rags of a pauper; in Denmark stood a short man clad from head to toe in ornate and solid-looking armor; there were four others that looked somehow...angelic-one in Spain, near the northern bounds of the forest that now dominated the peninsula, two in the foothills of the Alps (one each on either side of the mountains) and the last in Norway, somewhere near Aslo.

 

“These are those that have been blessed by us and those that have faced this darkness before,” the Angel continued, “who will either be given our warning or have been fighting against this evil for years beyond living memory. They will be the first to hold the line, though not the last.”

 

Now the Angel turned towards the Holy Father, a grim look upon their face. “Send messages to every lord that you know of, to any person that might listen to you, warning them of what is to come. Tell them of the evil that has come upon the world.”

 

Then the Angel gestured once more to the map. “Then march north, with whatever men will follow you; rally as many others to the cause as you can along the way. You must reach Trento before the Feast of Saint Valentine, for it is in that city that you will find the key to the Salvation of this world.”

 

The image before Lotario changed again. Gone was the map, and in its place was a scene that he was decidedly unfamiliar with: a vast forest stood before him, its every feature beautiful beyond describing. Every tree and flower and blade of grass seemed to radiate with an indescribable, ethereal light, as if some hidden power within them was leaking out. There was a great city built within the trees, lit by silver lamps that burned other worldly flames and inhabited by a peoples that were clearly something more than human. 

 

The Angel gestured with their hand, and Lotario turned to see what they were indicating. A small crowd had gathered in some kind of pavilion or courtyard, surrounded by the almost angelic peoples of the forest. A woman of inhuman beauty, tall and with radiant golden hair was speaking to the assembly before her. Most of the gathering were the residents of the forest, but there were eight others that clearly stood out.

 

The first two, at a glance, were normal men, albeit ones that stood somewhat taller and with broader muscles than was average. Both, however, held themselves like military men, their bearings communicating an air of authority, resolve and strength. The first, standing at the head of the group, wore the gear of a skirmisher or scout: light leather armor, a light cloak, a quiver, bow and sword slung over his shoulder. The second, standing at the other man’s right hand, was equipped like a man-at-arms: he wore mail, augmented with heavier leathers than his companion, and a thick wooden shield was upon his back.

 

The next two members of the party were quite interesting. The first was short and stocky, barely coming up to the chests of the men but built like an ox, his limbs thick like tree branches. Heavy armor coated him from head to toe, and he carried a multitude of axes. The second was in many ways a foil to him: they appeared to be much like the angel-like peoples of the forest, tall and possessing a certain beauty to him, being surrounded by some kind of subtle aura. A great bow was his weapon, and he wore only the lightest of armor. 

 

The rest, four in all, looked like they were of no more than teen year, if not younger. They stood no higher than the chests of their companions (the axe-wielder excepted), and clearly lacked the build of any kind of warrior, possessing only slim muscles; similarly, while their posture was harder to describe, it was certainly not that of a soldier. Despite this, they carried the weapons and kit of war: shortswords, some very light armor and the equipment of camp followers (pots, pans, bedrolls and the like) in packs on their backs. 

 

There was one among the four children that somehow drew Lothario’s eye more than the rest. He was a fair-skinned lad, with curly brown hair and blue eyes. Said eyes were downcast, as the boy’s gaze was fixed at his own feet: on the whole, he seemed somewhat forlorn and depressed, and beneath his cloak he idly fiddled with something hanging from the chain around his neck.

 

“That one has taken up a most terrible cross,” the Angel whispered, “He bears with him the greatest hope that this world has against the Darkness to come.” 

 

“Soon enough, he must walk the long and miserable path to his Golgotha. But he is but a lamb, and the wolves will be many.” the Angel continued as the vision faded away and Lotario found himself within his chambers for the last time. “Already do they pursue him. You must reach him before the pack closes in. You MUST reach Trento before his foes do. It is in that place that he will be beset; the hounds will be upon him by the Feast of Saint Valentine. If the burden he bears is allowed to be ost, then this whole world will be doomed.”

 

The Holy Father nodded mutely, stunned into silence. A large part of him wanted to question exactly what he had been shown: where and what was the forest? Who were its inhabitants, and the fellowship that they seemed to be hosting? And who was this boy that the Angel said would save the world? What was the cross that he bore, the ‘greatest hope’, and what and where was the Golgotha that he was to take it to? All these questions and innumerably more swirled through his mind, but he stayed silent. Instead, he recalled the Scriptures, and those that doubted the Messengers that came from On High: Zechariah, struck mute; Jonah, swallowed up by the whale; Gideon, who tested Him. 

 

It was in that moment that the Vicar of Christ resolved that he would not be afraid. A Messenger of the Lord had come to him with a task from the Father on High: what else could he do but answer the call? Lotario dei Conti di Segni understood more than he ever had before that it was through faith that man was saved: it was his faith keeping his fears at bay, it was his faith giving him strength against the horrors that he had been shown, it was his faith that drove him to give his answer to the Angel before him.

 

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word. I will write letters to every Lord and Vassal in Christendom, telling them of what you have shown me. I will go to Trento, with any who will follow me, and I will arrive there before the Feast of Saint Valentine. As God wills it, it shall be done.”  

 

The Lord’s Messenger nodded, satisfied, before they spoke again. “Be wary, Lotario. I have sent you merely to your first battle of many, many to come. Once you have reached Trento, further truths will be revealed to you.”

 

With that, the Angel began to fade away into the night, still speaking as he did so. “For now, I say to this: You and all this world will be tested beyond all imagining. Keep your faith: it will be your greatest shield and sword. Shepherd your flock, in both body and soul, for it is not on the battlefield alone that the Enemy will face you. You are the Rock upon which we place our hopes: let no evil prevail against you.”

 

As the Messenger vanished into the night, their voice echoed one last time throughout the room. “ Above all, remember that YOU WILL NOT BE ALONE. No matter how dark the night, remember always that you do not face the shadow by yourself. For the One in Heaven is with you always, even to the end of the Age.”

 

And then they were gone, and the Servant of the Servants of God was once again by himself. Or rather, he once again appeared to be by himself: the Angels last words still sounded out in his mind, telling him that the Father in Heaven was by his side. A strange sense of warmth had settled over the Holy Father, as if a homely hearth had been lit somewhere within his very soul, holding back the cold that seemed so much deeper now that he knew of the terrible evils preparing to unleash themselves upon the world.

 

Lotario turned once more towards the small altar in his chambers, his gaze again falling upon the Crucifix that hung above it. Red liquid (blood, he realized) still coated the image of the Savior upon it, as it had in his vision. More blood had dripped onto the Bible that lay open below, but, miraculously, the text was not affected. Instead, red lines had been formed around certain parts of the text, highlighting them. Lotario looked down at the Scriptures, at the words that the Lord had willed him to see. In the weeks, months and years to come, they would become his creed, from which he would take his encouragement, his strength and his comfort.

 

The words before him were thus:

Arrogance and scorn have now become strong; it is a time of ruin and furious anger. 

Now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors. 

Remember the deeds of the Ancestors, which they did in their generations; and you will receive great honor and an everlasting name.

Was not Abraham faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?

Joseph in the time of his distress kept the commandment, and became lord of Egypt.

Phinehas our ancestor, because he was deeply zealous, received the covenant of everlasting priesthood.

Joshua because he fulfilled the command, became a judge in Israel.

Caleb, because he testified in the assembly, received an inheritance in the land.

David, because he was merciful, inherited the throne of the kingdom forever.

Elijah, because of great zeal for the law, was taken up into heaven.

Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael believed and were saved from the flame.

Daniel, because of his innocence, was delivered from the mouth of the lions.

And so observe, from generation to generation, that none who put their trust in Him will lack strength. 

Do not fear the words of sinners, for their splendor will turn into dung and worms.

Today they will be exalted, but tomorrow they will not be found, because they will have returned to the dust, and their plans will have perished.

My children, be courageous and grow strong in the law, for by it you will gain honor.*

*1 Maccabees Chapter 2, Verses 49-64.

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And so it was that the new Music of the world began to play, the chords of Earth and the strands displaced from Arda echoing out together throughout all of Creation, united into a new, singular theme. The Composers played their tunes, each working together to bring about the greater whole from the sum of their various parts. But only time would tell if the many melodies would harmonize, if the song they wished to play would be expressed, or if dissonance and chaos would consume the whole tune. For now, all that the Composers could do, and indeed all of Creation could do, was hope.

 

Hope and Pray.