Chapter 1: The Darkness

“Remember me always.”

A voice whispered in his head as he awoke. Remember who?

The darkness was all-encompassing. It was comforting, like the warm glow of a fire on a cold winter night.

And yet there was treachery in it. Cold and disconcerting, a deathly quiet that threatened to entomb him in its icy chill.

How long had he been asleep? Where was he? Curiosity overcame him, but movement did not come easily. His slumber must have been long and deep; his muscles felt atrophied.

A vision flashed in his mind, a memory of days gone by. A boy standing under the cherry blossoms, eyes closed amidst a flurry of crimson petals. A lesson imparted. “The sword is forged in the mind first, the body second. A warrior’s mind is his most powerful weapon.”

His senses were coming back now. He could feel a chill, and something else he hadn’t realized until now. His backside was wet. He had a sudden fear: Am I awash in blood? Was it my own? He felt no pain, no sharp, cutting sensation that would seem to suggest a significant injury. Was it someone else’s? Cold stone and liquid. His sense of smell returned. The air was fetid. He felt sick to his stomach.

“Calm down and focus.” He opened his eyes.

Darkness. He squinted and stared out into the distance.

He stood up with great effort and began to survey his surroundings. There was the smallest sign of light, possibly coming from an opening above him. It was not much at all, just enough for him to make out faint details.

“Your parents are no more. Your mind may be in darkness today, but not forever. Talanoth is your home now, boy. Duty and honor will be your new companions.” An old man with wise eyes, gentle, but that had seen much death.

He reached out slowly to touch the objects, his first real movements. He was like a newborn; the entire world was different to him. Born in darkness, like a babe in a mother’s womb. Or was it king in an otherworldly tomb?

He went to the floor and felt around, trying to make sense of his surroundings. His hands touched several objects – a glove, a helmet, a dagger. Did they belong to him? No, these artifacts, whatever they were, belonged to more than one person. There were far too many of them lying around. He looked down at the wet floor. The liquid substance looked more like water now to his eyes.

Another memory. A boy holding a katana, training under a waterfall. “The spirit and the sword are one.” A commanding voice spoke above the roaring water. “If the spirit breaks, the sword breaks along with it. Let your spirit guide your hand and the sword will cut true.”

His eyes went to the floor. The stones were set in a pattern too deliberate to occur naturally. Instinctively, he dusted himself. His hand felt a mishmash of textures; cloth, chain links, leather, and cold steel. His chest was covered in a linked iron material. Leather straps secured the covering in place. He realized he was geared for battle, and that the armor he was wearing had been well worn, as if he had just fought in a large war. The cloth was tattered everywhere, the leather straps torn, the iron-link breastplate ravaged from what he could tell in the darkness.

He took a few more steps and realized his feet were bare. The cold cut into them. “Think! What am I doing in this place?” After that question came another one, surprising, a knot twisting in his gut.

“Who am I?”

He had a sudden, sinking realization. He could not recall his name, or what he had been doing before he got here, or of the events that had led to him being in the place he was in. He felt sick. His breathing was tight, his mouth open. He realized he had lost the ability to speak. “Calm down!” Panicking would not serve him in this situation.

“You have lost today because both mind and body are weak. Do not be afraid to be weak. Weakness does not lessen the man if he learns from it. It is through mastery of fears and weaknesses that a warrior is made. A sword becomes stronger in the forge, when it folds inward, unto itself.”

He took deliberate, deep breaths, slowing down the beating of his heart. He continued to walk around, although his feet were numb from the cold. He got down on the floor and started feeling for something he could use. Discarded pieces of armor, leather breeches, and what felt like a tunic. He felt around carefully, lest he pick up a blade edge-first. He seemed to have an exceptional grasp of weaponry. He could identify pieces of armor by touch alone. He knew exactly what each part did, the condition they were in, whether they were serviceable or not.

He found what he was looking for a few steps away; a pair of sandals that fit well. He placed them on his feet and heaved a sigh of relief. The pain from the cold subsided. He rummaged around, hoping now for something that could be used as a light source.

He found what he was looking for a little further away. Flint, steel and char-cloth that could be used for sparking a fire. A discarded torch lay next to it, presumably for the purpose of being lit. He took the flint and steel and began to strike, slowly and carefully. Getting the bits of tinder to fall on the char-cloth was a difficult task in the dark. Once he was certain bits of flint were on the cloth, he blew gently and saw the glow of his first fire. He heaved a sigh of relief. “Now let’s hope the torch works.” He took the smouldering char-cloth and draped it over the torch and stopped breathing.

In a flash of light, the torch came to life, illuminating his dark world for the first time. Shadows danced around his flickering light source as he tried to make out his surroundings. The first thing he noticed were the bodies. The floor was strewn with what appeared to be hundreds of bodies. It explained why he had such easy access to serviceable equipment.

Tears came to the boy’s eyes. “You must be able to look death in the eye without flinching. You are here because you have lost everything. Your parents, your homeland, yourself. There is nothing that binds you to this world. When you have nothing to lose, death has no power over you.”

He took a closer look at what he had thought were bodies – but there were no actual bodies, just empty pieces of armor. There was evidence of a great struggle, yes. The armor was just as ragged as his. There were weapons strewn around, edges were chipped, shields were pierced, pounded or scratched. The armor all looked the same, exactly like what he was wearing. He took things he could use — a travelling pack, some rope, and a few other useful items.

He quickly scanned the rest of the area. He appeared to be in a circular chamber. The room itself was about 300 feet in diameter. The ceiling was high, but could not have been more than thirty feet above him, made of the same stone he had been standing on. Braziers for the torches lined the walls. He went around and lit a few of them. The light danced around the room, illuminating the scene of a great battle. There was a sense of desolation, a melancholy death that hung about the chamber. A great battle had been waged, and for all apparent purposes, all traces of life had been wiped out. It was as if the darkness had consumed it, and left in its wake a grim reminder of what had been.

Despair took him as he realized he was the sole survivor of a conflict whose aim he knew not.

“Do not weep. There is no dishonor in slaying a man who has fought honorably. A blade that strikes with purpose wins over the blade with the weaker resolve. There is no shame in defeat, so long as the swordsman has been true to his purpose.”

He continued his exploration. It felt forbidden, like treading on the graves of the dead. He felt a sudden sense that he didn’t belong in this room full of nonexistent bodies, that he was disrupting the natural harmony of things.

A sudden terror took hold of him. While it was indeed a frightening prospect to be alone, a more dreadful thought was that he might not be. What great threat had eradicated the life that very obviously had populated this chamber? Whatever it was, now was not the time nor the place for contemplation. He needed to find a way out.

The light grew as he went around lighting torches, filling the chamber with a warm, diffuse glow. As he completed the circle, he found himself staring at a great oak door. It was shut, securely bolted to the side of the wall, preventing entrance to the chamber.

The bolt creaked, but it slid open easily. With the bolt off, he found it a small matter to push the door open. It swung outward slowly but surely. When the door was fully open, he found himself staring at the entrance to a great hallway. There were no signs of struggle outside. It was as if the battle that occurred in the circular chamber had begun and and ended inside the circular chamber. In the hallway, there was only silence.

He started to move forward again, guided by the lone torch. The fire flickered, casting shadows in the hallway. The stone walls seemed to grow in size, moving as if to entomb him. More tricks, he told himself. The air was cool outside the chamber.

A cool spring evening. A great beauty. A promise made under starry skies. A kiss, warm lips and a lover’s embrace.

“Remember me, always.”

Remember who?

Crossing the hallway felt like an eternity. With each step, his footsteps echoed and reverberated across the hallway. He looked back and realized that he must have walked a great distance. The chamber was now but a faint glow in the distance, the lit torches marking his entrypoint. He wished there were lights to guide him to his next destination as well.

“Sing to me again of the far off lands,” the boy insisted. “Why can I not stay with you? They tell me a warrior has no time for memories or love. That I only have duty, and my sword. But my mind keeps coming back to the day we met. I can think of nothing but you.”

At last, he reached the end of the hallway. A stone door greeted him. There was no bolt this time, but the door was less cooperative. He tried to push the door as hard as he could, but it did not budge. It loomed in front of him in silent defiance, mocking him, almost laughing in his face. He cast his torch upon it, trying to make sense of it all.

The door stood a good ten feet tall, with a great archway above. There were markings, symbols in a language he did not recognize. Doors this size normally had levers, machinery upon which they relied on to effect movement. He could find no evidence of such and the door stood before him, immovable as ever. He took a few steps and looked behind him at the hallway he had just crossed. The ceilings were high in this place. The hallway itself was about a hundred feet wide. He estimated that he had walked about a mile since leaving the chamber where he had awakened. He had wondered why there were braziers in the chamber, but none in the hallway.

There did not seem to be any other way to operate the door. His patience wore thin. He turned to the door once more, running his hands over the cold stone, trying to feel if there was anything he missed.

After a few moments of trying, he felt a rectangular, chest-level indentation in the stone. He ran his hands over it again, just to be sure he was not imagining it. It wasn’t visible by torchlight, but certainly discernible through touch. He took his right hand and tried pushing. Nothing. He tried both hands. Still no movement.

In desperation and frustration, he pounded at the space with his fist. The indentation moved slightly. Perhaps he was imagining it? He pounded on it again. This time the movement was greater. The indentation was getting deeper, more pronounced. He pounded with renewed gusto, excited that he was making progress where previously there had been none. The indentation grew even deeper. By the fifth or sixth blow, he heard something click into place. He heard the movement of gears above him, coming to life in a whirring frenzy of activity. After a few moments, he heard heavy movement.

“The Knights of House Talanoth have but one purpose. You lend your sword in defense of your House, of your King, and your brothers.” Commands uttered from on high. The knight knelt before his liege, boy no longer.

The door started moving. As he watched the door swing slowly outward, he had a brief flash of inspiration. He realized the spark had yielded him something of value. A name. His name? It was very familiar. It seemed to speak to him of memories from long ago, of things that he could not quite recall, but that called out to him. It was a start and it was something he could use for now.

“Mykall. My name is Mykall.”

“Mykall, my dear Mykall. My knight.” A memory, a face, the warm summer wind, and the scent of a woman. “What I give to you, I give to no one else.”

Mykall took a few steps beyond the open doorway. The air was fresh, cool and inviting. He reasoned that he must have stepped outside. His eyes strained to see his surroundings.

Everything was still dark, but not quite as dark as where he had come from. It must be nighttime, he decided. He looked up at the sky to get his bearings, and immediately noticed something very wrong.

The sky above him was pitch black.

There were no stars. No sign even, of the moon, in any state. Far above the night sky, the moon prince Tsukuyomi should have been exerting his influence over the tides, whether waxing, waning or coming out in full force. But none of the children of the light could be seen. In their place, an eerie looking light that glowed and shifted high above, its hues changing as it cast a pale glow over everything.

He heard the sound of crickets in the distance. Signs of life. The chill evening air made him cold. He was still soaked from lying on wet stone. He looked behind him at the place where he had been in and was startled. Without his realizing, the door had swung shut and he was staring at solid rock. He was standing on the side of a mountain and the door, if there ever had ever been one, was nowhere to be found.

He ran his hands over the rock to find an indentation of sorts, something that would indicate the presence of the door he was sure he had just passed through a short while ago, but there was no sign of it. He felt like he was going crazy. “Am I dreaming?” If he was, it was too vivid. He could recall events as they occurred clearly. He received input from all five senses.

It was a world he no longer understood.

What of the sky? How had the world changed so much? What had happened since he was last awake?

Full of questions, but happy to be alive, he decided to press on. He looked down the mountain at the land below. He saw tiny lights everywhere. The land was illuminated. A city perhaps? Closer to the mountain, past a small forest, there was a smaller, brightly lit area, perhaps a neighboring town. The breeze blew and Mykall wished he had taken a cloak with him from one of the empty suits of armor in the chamber earlier. His torch burned brightly still, but it would run out soon enough. Best keep moving, he decided. He pressed on and began his descent from the mountain.

“Remember me always.”

Try as hard as he could, he could not honor the promise.

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