Andante con poco Accelerando.
The tavern was the same as any other night; even from the outside, the noisy racket and clatter of the patrons could be heard. The bard gave a light hiccup as she drained the last few drops of ale from her glass, sliding it across the table to join its rapidly growing congregation of brethren. "Alright, alright, one more," she said with feigned reluctance. Despite her obvious intoxication, her voice was surprisingly clear. There was a roar from the boisterous crowd as she hoisted her thin frame up on the table; the barkeep's smile lessened a little as she set her muddy, travel-worn boots upon a chair. Paying him no mind, she unslung her instrument from her shoulder. After a few sour and dissonant chords, her slightly fogged mind remembered how to play the unusual contraption, and slowly, a flowing, lilting melody filled the room, piercing the murky din like a fresh breeze. The atmosphere settled into one of quiet, almost reverent, anticipation. She added several extra bars to the tune as she mentally stumbled about her drunken mind, finding all of the shards of the tale and quickly knitting them together as best she could. By now, there were few that hadn't heard this particular yarn, but it had quickly become a favorite - possibly because there were still those trying to pick out the truths from the typical bardic embellishments. The bard allowed herself a grin; she was one of the few people who knew for a fact that the whole thing was true. The last few notes of her prelude still hanging in the air in silent resonation, she began her tale.
Long ago, the gods, working in perfect union, created the world. With power unfathomable, they organized pieces of lifeless matter into plants and animals. The crowning act of their creation was to form a species based upon their own likeness, and with a small taste of their own intelligence and power. This was the dawn of mankind.
Satisfied with their creation, the Gods charged the race of men with the stewardship over their newly-formed realm, and departed to continue with their works. The years passed and turned to eons as men nurtured the seed of godly intelligence within them, tasting the power of creation as they learned to work with metal and stone. Though they were not without their struggles and imperfections, the human spirit continued to endure and to thrive even through hardships. A great empire was formed, and all was well in the land. Great libraries and universities were formed, ushering in a golden age of knowledge. A new field of study, alchemy, blossomed, bringing with it unprecedented possibilities.
The art of alchemy involved manipulating the properties of the natural elements of the earth. Though risky, the process brought forth incredible results, finally culminating in the creation of a new substance: titanium. The alchemical properties of this new material were perfected suited to slip between the cracks in the fabric of space-time. As its creators further experimented, they reached deep enough to discover the Netherealm, a dark dimension located between the planes of reality. Drawing upon the power of the Netherealm, alchemists began to learn how to wield this new energy, turning from scholars to mighty sorcerers and wizards.
With unforeseen power came fear, spreading like a plague through the empire as citizens watched the growing power of the magical force channeled from these demonic reaches. Fear led to contention, and eventually to war. Rifts formed, and the great kingdom of mankind began to split into different factions. As the war raged on, magic continued to play a key role, and its use as a tool of combat was perfected. There were those, however, who having tasted such power, craved more.
The method used at that time to draw energy from the Netherealm had reached its limit. Enough energy was lost during the transfer process that an effective cap was formed. This led to a new and dangerous technique - rather than pulling energy from the Netherealm into the mortal plane, one would pull sections of the realm itself through the channels into the physical world, allowing direct access to the power therein. These experiments, however, had unforeseen results. The evil contained in the world of demons seeped into the human realm, corrupting it and bringing forth monsters and abominations. Saturated in darkness, the world teetered on the brink of destruction.
Sensing such powerful energy from their creation, the gods returned to the world. They were shocked at what had become of their once peaceful planet. After a thorough analysis and a council among themselves, it was decided that race of mankind was beyond salvation. The world would have to be destroyed. With grim acceptance of what had to be done, they turned back to unleash their powers upon the world they had once formed.
The human spirit was not so quick to accept such a fate. Through the use of their newfound powers of magic, mankind had grown their own abilities to those to rival the gods. They didn't sit idly as fire began to rain from the skies - they resisted. A great war took place, changing the shape of the very world as titanic forces collided. Many years passed as the conflict raged. It was a eternal battle of perpetual hopelessness. Mankind could fight back the gods, but they were unable to destroy their immortal creators. In such a harsh, ongoing stalemate, it looked as if the world itself would simply be torn apart before either side won the conflict.
In desperation, mankind searched for a source of salvation. Somewhere within the eternal realms, someone heard their call - the mighty Overgod, creator of even the gods themselves. In His infinite wisdom, He looked upon the war-torn realm, and proposed a solution.The wrathful gods were sealed away, and mankind was preserved, in return for a sacred promise to never again delve into the forbidden powers of magic. The remaining titanium was destroyed, and with it, the dark arts were removed from the planet. The scars of corruption were etched deep into the planet, and would never be able to be fully purged, but despite this, peace returned to the realm. Humanity picked itself up and, under the watchful eye of their Savior, began to put back together the pieces of their lives. Though they vowed never to forget what had taken place, thousands of years passed, and history became legend and eventually myth.
"Only a select few still understand the whole truth, as preserved by the faithful historians of the Church of the Overgod. It is the responsibility of a priest of the Holy One to wisely preserve the balance - William! Brother William! Are you paying attention?"
William's head snapped up from where it had been slowly drifting to the surface of his desk. At the same time, his elbow slipped, sending a rush of parchment to the polished stone floor. His face flushed as, amid a few snickers hastily disguised as coughs, he hurried to reorganize the mess. Father Theris rubbed his temples for a moment, caught between irritation at having his lecture interrupted and pity at the bumbling young novice. He strode across the room, the gold-threaded hem of his white robe trailing along the ground, and crouched down to assist him.
"I-I'm so sorry, Father," stammered William, growing increasingly red as the senior priest assisted him. "I was helping Brother Paul with cleaning the Great Hall last night and -"
The Father's face was stony as he stood, his thin and aged frame still managing to tower several feet about the seated trainees. "Today's instruction...." He paused, looking around him at the young priests, who waited in silence. "...will conclude early today. Go on your way." The embarrassment of the moment was lost in the elation of being released from lecture early as the young students streamed from the chamber into the hallways of the marble chapel. Though they never truly had free time, being released early meant more time studying for the rigorous Trials, the final test before one became a full-fledged priest in the sight of the Overgod.
"A moment, William, if you don't mind," said Father Theris, catching him by the shoulder as he crammed scrolls into his case and turned for the door. William was several years younger than the average scholar at the Chapel of Light. Having been abandoned by his parents at a young age, he had been raised by the priests and clerics. Though he knew the scriptures, mantras, and history more thoroughly than any other priest in training, his naivety and occasional absent-mindedness prevented him from being among the best in the class. Pale at the thought of retribution for his actions, he followed the older priest to the great oaken desk in the corner. "I can't stand for having my class disrupted in such a manner," the Father began.
"It's all my fault-" William began. He was interrupted.
"I'm afraid that a punishment is in order."
William nodded gravely. "I understand, Father. I'll do whatever task you see fit."
Father Theris's face was expressionless. "In that case, I see it fit that you fetch the water for tonight's banquet. We will need at least five buckets. That ought to teach you diligence."
Normally William would have humbly accepted such a fitting punishment. However, he had already been given this same task as part of his assigned daily duties - by the very same person. "But Father, I've already-"
The instructor's face turned to a hint of a frown, though William thought that he caught a hint of a humorous glint in his eye. "Are you speaking back to me, Brother William?"
"No, Father," said William quickly, bowing his head submissively.
"Very good. That will be all." Theris turned away from his pupil, but added as an afterthought, "Oh, one more thing.
"The desks here are designed in such a way to prevent drowsiness. However, I do remember that a group of students several years ago discovered that by resting your elbow in the crevice near the right edge of the desk, a more comfortable position could be achieved without causing one to slip. Yes, the right edge. Crevice."
"But why are you telling me-"
"That will be all. Trouble me no longer, William."
With his thoughts still spinning, William gave a final bow of respect and hurried from the chamber, out into the grounds of the chapel.
It was a good thing that he hadn't been given additional tasks as punishment. With the Trial coming up in just a few short weeks, William had been so busy with his studies recently than many of his chores were starting to slip between the cracks. He was grateful that the evening instructional had ended early; this gave him time to hurry into town and retrieve the message waiting at the postal office. Such a high priority message should have been picked up as soon as it had arrived, but maneuvering through the crowded streets of Newhaven all the way to where the post office was located on the other side of town would have taken more time than he had available. With some luck, this extra time would allow him to retrieve the message and be back before the nighttime prayer session.
William thought that he felt the atmosphere grow noticeably worldlier as he stepped out the massive, gold pattern gates of the Chapel grounds. "It's a good thing that I'll be a priest soon," he thought to himself as he gave a friendly nod to the gatekeeper closing the doors behind him. "The Overgod has so many blessings that He can give to this people, but they have to be willing to accept it. Already, so many are turning away from the truth, not knowing what it is they're rejecting." He pulled his white novice's cloak around himself more tightly, not to block out the cold - for it was a warm, summer's evening - but to provide some thin layer of protection against the evils of the world.
Though the sun was still in the sky, a thin cover of clouds dimmed the contrast of the shadows as William made his way down the central road. The first few shops were starting to close for the evening, their owners carefully locking the doors behind them as they left for their evening drinks. As he passed the city square, however, a bustling from a nearby building broke the lazy atmosphere.
"I told you, I don't know what you're talking about! Get off my property!" A small crowd of onlookers had gathered around the entrance to what appeared to be a small home. An unshaven man stood in the doorway, glaring at the handful of guards who had disturbed his evening. One of the guards, marked by a feather in his steel helmet as the corporal, nodded in understanding, though his expression indicated that his patience was starting to wear thin.
"We understand your hesitation, but rest assured that this is just a pre-caution. We received report of illegal activity from in the premises, and are only seeking to preserve the peace of the city from the Black Arts. If you would please come with us for a brief interview, we will have you back before the evening is through. We appreciate your cooperation - "
"To the Nether with you and your 'investigation!' This is the forth time this season that you've dragged half the city off for your blasted interrogations! I haven't done any sort of magic, though if you keep this up, perhaps I'll have to - at this point, I doubt the Overgod Himself would object to me turning the lot of you to a bunch of slimy toads. Wouldn't make much of a difference, I dare say!"
William shook his head and pressed onward, allowing the commotion to continue behind him. This wasn't the first time he had seen such stirrings, and it he had no doubt that it certainly wouldn't be the last, but there was still no reason to worry. The secrets behind magic had long been lost. Every now and again there would be word that someone had managed to conjure up some small sparks to put a curse on their neighbor's crops, but the majority of these rumors were likely backed with no more truth than the myths spawned by bright-eyed children as they ran through the woods, their imaginations running wild. A small smile tugged at William's face as he recalled entertaining the priests with his own childlike insistence that he was going to one day assume the role of the High Priest, the leader over the entire Church. Such talk from a grown man would be considered blasphemy; the High Priest was chosen by the Overgod Himself, and was not a position over which people competed, despite it being such a great honor. From the mouth of a child, however, such notions were worthy only of a gentle laugh and a shake of the head. Still smiling, he hurried along his way.
The building of the postal service smelled strongly of the horses stabled outside its walls. Neighboring cities had initially scoffed at the High Priest's notion of a public service allowing the exchanging of messages and parcels, but the program had not only quickly flourished, it had soon been adopted in even distant parts of the land as they realized its usefulness both in diplomacy and in personal matters. Only a small portion of the building was accessible to the public; the majority of it was closed off behind the wooden counter, where a number of men were still hurriedly finishing up their sorting tasks so that they could return home for the evening. A single armored guard, looking rather bored, stood nearby, his eyes following a fly that had made its way into the building. He barely spared William a passing glance as he neared the counter.
"Excuse me." One of the men behind the counter looked up at William's call, straightened his dirt-covered clothes, and hustled forward. His eyes quickly took in William's clerical vestments, their white fabric shining from beneath his cloak.
"Ah, good evening, Brother. I apologize for the wait. Are you here to pick up a package, or to send an item?"
"I'm picking up a package for the High Priest." Despite it being such a menial task, William couldn't help but allow a hint of pride to creep into his voice. Even a menial task done in the name of the High Priest was nothing to scoff at. He withdrew the slightly crumpled note bearing the name and seal of the Church, as well as a brief description of the package. The letter not being sealed, William had taken a brief look himself at the description, curious as to what this important item might be, but it disappointingly only gave details of the bland wrapping and the estimated time that it had arrived in the city.
As expected, the small parcel was wrapped in several layers of thick parchment and bound together with twine. It was only about the size of a small book, though undoubtedly much of the bulk came from the crude wrappings. Despite its nondescript appearance, however, William felt an inexplicable sensation of awe as he retrieved the bundle and placed it reverently in his pack. Whatever this was, it was undoubtedly important. He gave a brief word of gratitude to the service worker and hurried out the door, suddenly anxious to give the package to its rightful owner.
The sun had now almost completely set, causing the flickering flames of the streetlights to cast dancing shadows along the walls. The streets were nearly empty, and were silent, save for the chirping of a few scarce crickets hidden away among scattered bales of hay, and the echoes of merriment floating from the occasional tavern. William moved quickly; he didn't run, not wanting to meaninglessly lose his composure, but some unknown sense of urgency caused him to feel the need to walk quickly. It wasn't until he several minutes away from the post office that he realized why this was so.
He was being followed.
Every once in a while, out of the corner of his eye, he would catch a hint of a patch of darkness amid the shadows, though it would always disappear if he turned for a closer look. He initially dismissed it as his eyes still adjusting to the growing darkness of the night, but after four or five such incidents, it was clear that this was no trick of the mind. Breathing deeply and trying to maintain calm, he further picked up his pace towards the Chapel.
As his speed increased, so too did the frequency with which he saw the shadowy figure. He realized that there must be more than one of them. What was more, they were now more focused on keeping up with him than with keeping hidden. No one else was around, anymore; the pubs of the downtown district were long behind him. Only a few high-class homes remained between him and his destination. He could make it. He paused for just a moment, and broke into a run. He could see the lights from the Chapel in the distance. The leather soles of his shoes beat against the cobblestone street as he turned a corner - right into the midst of a waiting group of figures, robed in a deep, dark crimson. Panicked, he turned back, but the following figures had now closed in behind him. He was trapped. His hand closed protectively on the bag containing the precious, unknown delivery. Shutting his eyes, he whispered a prayer to the Overgod as he heard his aggressors close in upon him. There was a sharp pain in the back of his head, and the world disappeared.