“The problem with being a hero, you see, is that you can never please everyone.”
Yezekiel Fitzagalmar III, High Wizard of the Nimbus Spires and Last Guardian of the Spheres, sat on a large, flat stone in an immense cavern, animatedly engaging his new friend in conversation. His voice echoed off the uneven stone walls, filling the underground expanse with a chorus of repeating words, and a wavering light flickered within the mirrored case of a nearby lamp, illuminating their tiny corner of the cave. Despite his companion’s amiable silence, Yez was enjoying the brief respite from his self-assigned task.
A lively monologue was the perfect way to prepare oneself for a quest.
“Folk will come to you with their problems and demand solutions,” he continued, smoothing down his ample mustaches with a gnarled hand. “They will invoke the names of their gods and expect immediate results, and when you eventually resolve their crises, they will never run out of things to complain about. Solved a crime? They’ll say you took too long. Exterminated a nest of monsters? They’ll say the collateral damage was too great. Deposed a king and set up a democratic government in its place? They’ll say the bureaucracy is overbearing and the taxes are too high.” He sighed and shook his head as if to clear away bad memories. “The fickleness of man never ceases to amaze me.”
Silence filled the cavern in response to his tirade—a typical reply from his newfound friend.
“Heroes are an overrated bunch, anyway,” he stated with authority, leaning back and resting his head against a boulder. “The only reason they’re considered heroes is because the public holds them in such high esteem—despite their complaints. Without the acclaim, they become regular people, ordinary men and women who have, nevertheless, somehow accomplished extraordinary things.”
His companion shuffled on his perch, watery eyes regarding him skeptically from the shadows.
“Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking,” Yez responded, waving a hand dismissively. “People can still be heroes even without the adulation of others. But here’s the dilemma.” He leaned forward conspiratorially, eyes narrowing to slits. “If a problem is solved before anyone knows about it, was there ever really a problem to begin with?”
This time, his companion let out a rumbling croak, the sound filling Yez with glee.
“Exactly!” he exclaimed, leaping to his feet and nearly tripping over his billowing grey robes. He thrust a bony finger into the air. “The answer, of course, is a resounding yes! You and I know that, but the regular folk? They simply go about their lives, believing that there was nothing wrong in the first place. Therefore, if the do-gooder who solved the problem is not a hero, we are compelled to come up with a new title: pre-hero, perhaps? Preventative hero? I rather like the moniker unknown hero, myself.”
Again, his companion let out a croak, then crawled out into the low light of Yez’s lamp. It was like a toad, only much fatter and much uglier, with a wide, wedge-shaped mouth and a forest of odd pustules on its back.
Yez smiled at the toad-thing and reached forward, patting it affectionately on the head. “Thank you for listening, my friend. May you always find—erm, whatever it is you eat—on your journey through life.”
With that, he hopped off the flat stone and landed lightly on a crumbling causeway carved into the natural rock. He snapped his fingers, causing the lamp to rise and hover above his head. Then, giving the toad-thing one last look, he turned to regard his true destination: the underground ruins of an ancient city, buried deep beneath an unexplored wilderness.
“Farewell, my friend,” he said, resting a hand on the bag of scrolls on his hip. “Now it is time for me to be the unknown hero.”
He started off, smiling when the creature let out a final, mournful croak that seemed to echo throughout the enormous cavern. The causeway beneath his feet had once been paved with brick, expertly laid in intricate patterns, but now it was little more than gravel that crunched beneath his boots.
Ahead, the city perched upon a large plateau like the bones of some ancient beast. Like the brick road, it had once been beautiful, with white stone walls and graceful towers that rose from terraces hewn into the rock itself. Now, it was a ruin. The stone was pocked and covered with dark grime and many of the towers had collapsed, making the city look old and broken. A massive bridge arched over a bottomless chasm, linking the causeway to the gates leading into the ruined markets beyond.
Yez hoped that the bridge was still sound. A tumble in the darkness would be a nasty beginning—and—ending to his quest, and would not make for a particularly interesting story.
Fortune seemed to smile on him, however, and he crossed the divide without incident, his careful footfalls taking him to the entrance of the underground city. There he paused, looking up at the towering walls and imagining how magnificent this place must have once been.
As he stood before the gates, Yez reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a small leather pouch. Tearing his eyes away from the intricate stonework, he tugged open the drawstrings and dropped the pouch’s contents into his palm: a ring of pure silver. It was a simple thing, a plain band that fit snugly on his index finger, but it was also one of his most valuable possessions.
Tucking the pouch back into his pocket, his slid the ring onto his finger and immediately felt a presence reach out and touch his soul.
You know I hate it when you keep me in there, a voice said peevishly in his mind. It’s dark and it smells terrible.
“You don’t have a nose,” Yez answered dryly, returning his attention to the ruins before him. “Nor eyes, for that matter. Why should you care?”
I’m a ring, not a coin, the voice replied indignantly. I’m supposed to be worn out in the open, not stuffed away like some trifle.
“You’re no trifle, Bernard,” Yez said, glancing back down at the silver band. “It’s precisely because you are so valuable that I must keep you hidden. It’s for your own protection.”
Bernard huffed. Need I remind you that I am more than six hundred years old? I’ve outlasted all my previous masters. Destroying a magic ring is not an easy feat—unless you have a volcano handy—and I am certainly no exception.
“Fair point,” Yez conceded, sighing. “My apologies, Bernard. Though, I admit, I’m not as concerned with your destruction as I am with simply losing you. An Infused Codex is a rare thing indeed, a treasure beyond price. Not to mention that I have grown rather fond of your company over the years.”
I’m flattered, the ring responded sarcastically. Then, it sighed, or at least gave the mental impression of a sigh. At any rate, I’m out now. What can I do to serve you, master?
Yez pointed at the city looming above him. “There’s no telling what secrets lie beyond those walls. I shall require your assistance in uncovering them.”
Bernard seemed to consider this. Ah. Khazafel. The home of a great wizard of the same name. It is an ancient place—it’s been abandoned for close to two thousand years. It was one of the greatest cities ever built—a wonder of human and magical engineering. The texts say that Khazafel’s city was something of a utopia, that it glowed with a magical light like the sun and flowed with pure water and even purer gold.
Yez stroked his mustaches. “And yet it fell all the same.”
The ring’s tone grew ominous. The lord of the city, Khazafel the Great, was a magic user whose power was surpassed only by his ambition. He sought to control everything, even the lives of the people who lived here. Eventually, he became so overbearing that the people rose up against him, storming his fortress while he slept and killing him in his bedclothes. Many died in the revolution. The rest simply left, abandoning this place for the metropolises of the surface.
“I see,” Yez replied distantly, his eyes studying the time-tarnished stonework. Bernard was a know-it-all and loved to pontificate about everything he knew. That was one of the reasons Yez preferred to keep him in the pouch while he traveled. Still, there were many advantages to having a magical encyclopedia connected to his brain, and so he pretended that the information was not something that he already knew.
Yez was silent as he examined the masonry, and somewhere in the vast cavern water dripped, a steady plop plop plop that echoed in the still, dank air.
Finally, Bernard broke the silence, his disembodied voice curious as it floated into Yez’s thoughts.
Why have we come here, master? It is such a dreary place. A place that is probably best left forgotten.
“Oh, I wouldn’t call it dreary,” Yez answered wryly. “It’s antiquated… misunderstood, like myself. As to why we’re here…” he trailed off, as if grasping for the right word. “Let’s just call it unfinished business. I have it on good authority that old Khazafel left one final artifact behind, a legacy of sorts that has withstood the test of time… until now.”
Bernard was quiet, as if waiting for more information. Then, impatiently, Care to elaborate?
Yez grinned down at the silver ring. “There is a power source here, a magical device that the wizard once used to sustain his utopia. It has lain dormant for thousands of years, but has now grown unstable. If we do not do something, it will likely explode, destroying not only this ruin of a city, but the entire planet as well, along with every living creature on its surface.”
Ah, the ring mused. I should have suspected. Yezekiel Fitzagalmar rarely troubles himself with something unless it has the capacity to destroy worlds.
Yez inclined his head. “Naturally.”
Still, Bernard added thoughtfully, I would tread carefully if I were you. Even in death, Khazafel the Great could prove dangerous. There is a reason this place remains unplundered.
“Anything I should be aware of?”
The ring gave the impression of a shrug. It’s hard to say. The records are vague on the matter. At any rate, I’m sure you can expect the usual—horrific monsters, traps and the like. Nothing you shouldn’t be able to handle yourself, of course.
“That’s comforting,” Yez replied, absently tapping on his satchel full of scrolls.
He took one final look at the outer walls, pondering everything his Infused Codex had told him. Then, taking a deep breath, he began down the path that would lead him into the city.
The broken gates of Khazafel yawned open and Yez strode inside, the city itself seeming to swallow him whole.
A wide boulevard stretched away from him, disappearing into the inky darkness beyond the light of his lamp. Large buildings crowded both sides of the street, their marbled façades cracked and decrepit and their windows black and dead. Stout columns, stained or moss-covered, lay strewn about like fallen trees, and everywhere he looked there were statues and plinths, many of them toppled or eroded beyond recognition. The district had a wild look, as if nature itself was reclaiming the stone. It reminded Yez of a graveyard, a dreadful place overgrown with weeds and thick with the stench of decay.
Snapping his fingers, he caused the mirrors in his floating lamp to adjust themselves, brightening the light and casting it farther, chasing away some of the gloom.
Ahead, he spotted a gigantic ziggurat rising up from the center of the city. It looked like an enormous pyramid, with silvered terraces and a pinnacle that glittered like an uncut diamond.
“Our destination?” Yez guessed, gesturing at the gaudy edifice.
Khazafel’s palace, Bernard confirmed. If the power source you seek is anywhere in the city, it is most likely there.
“Then that is where we must go.”
He started forward purposefully, striding past timeworn architecture of a long-forgotten age. Academia did not interest him, though he knew a half dozen scholars who would sell their own mother for a chance to study this place. No, he was interested in one thing, and one thing alone—preventing the end of this world.
About halfway to the ziggurat, Yez heard a noise coming from one of the crumbling buildings to his left. He stopped mid-step and listened, the hair on the back of his neck rising.
“I do not think that we are alone,” he murmured quietly.
Metal groaned and shrieked then spindly figures emerged from the darkness, slinking from darkened alleyways and shadowy alcoves. They lurched from their secret places, moving awkwardly like marionettes controlled by invisible strings, and as they came into the light of Yez’s lamp, he was able to see them more clearly.
“Automatons?” he asked, eying the machines with fascination.
The Guardians of Elith’Maar, Bernard corrected, his tone calm and collected as ever. Khazafel created them to keep the peace in his city, and to keep tomb raiders from pilfering his treasures.
“Wonderful,” Yez replied.
The Guardians were shaped in the rough approximation of men, though in truth they looked more like metallic skeletons than anything living. In place of flesh they had plated armor of a pale whitish alloy Yez had never seen before. Their faces were blank masks with glowing blue eyes set into deep sockets. For hands, each had a bludgeon and a serrated blade that looked like it could cut through bone. He counted twenty in total, along with a dozen spider-like contraptions about three feet tall.
“Well,” he muttered, reaching for one of the scrolls on his hip as the Guardians of Elith’Maar drew closer, “no one said that this was going to be easy.”
He unfurled the parchment, letting the light from his lamp fall on the scribbled runes thereon. The runes began to glow red, shimmering like starfire against a field of freshly fallen snow. He began to read, uttering words both ancient and powerful. The metal monstrosities closed in. But before they could attack, a globe of light enveloped Yez, surrounding him with a golden shield of shimmering luminescence. The automatons bumped against it and tried to pound their way through, but it held them at bay as surely as if it was a wall of solid steel.
He let the scroll fall to the ground, the runes fading to nothing as the magic left the parchment. Then, turning his attention to the confused Guardians, he smiled. “Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time for the real work to begin.”
Reaching into one of his many pockets, he pulled out a scepter of polished ironwood and dragonbone. It glittered darkly in his palm like a rod of obsidian. He held it out and pressed a button on its surface; it extended in both directions with a rasping hiss, becoming a staff as long as he was tall. A single, gleaming ruby was set on its top, and it began to glow a bright red.
“Bernard,” he asked casually, planting the staff in front of him and readying another scroll with his free hand, “how fast do you think I can destroy these things?”
Thirty-two of them? I’d wager no more than seven minutes… if they’re lucky.
“I’ll do it in five,” he replied, unfurling the second scroll.
Then he began to read.
Within seconds his spherical shield wavered and died, winking from existence and allowing the automatons to surge forward, metal joints grinding. They raised their blades, bludgeons, and spear-like legs to strike. But before they could fall upon him, Yez finished his spell and leapt into the air, his Boots of Leaping aiding his ascent. He flew over the Guardians like a sparrow, passing over their blank faces to land on a wall behind them, more than ten feet off the ground.
Laughing, Yez pointed his outstretched hand at the mass of golems and shot bolts of lightning at them, causing many to explode in a powerful display of pyrotechnics. Fire and chunks of broken stone shot into the air as the bolts hit, scattering fragments of dead Guardians and sending others sprawling to the ground. When the smoke cleared, more than half had been utterly destroyed by the spell. Those that had not been killed or knocked down charged at the wizard, bashing at the wall, using their hammer-like hands to bring down the already-unstable stones.
“Such a pretty spell,” Yez said wistfully. “But it doesn’t last very long, does it?”
Taking his staff in both hands, he jumped from the wall and landed in the midst of the Guardians. The ruby flared brightly as he began his attack, whirling and striking before the machines could react. His staff, which had magical properties of its own, tore through the armor plates like they were nothing more than paper, crippling arms and bashing in heads with the blunt force of a warhammer.
Lights began swirling around him, spreading out from the gemstone set in the weapon’s head. They formed into dozens of quarterstaffs, floating in the air around him and striking his enemies with physical force. Soon, Yez had an army all his own, with quarterstaffs of light spinning in the air as though they were wielded by ghosts.
The automatons held their own for a time, fighting with mechanical skill as they strove to break past the quarterstaffs to kill the madman at the center, but none managed to so much as touch him. Still more joined the fray, pouring out of inns and barracks where they had lain dormant for more than two thousand years, awakened now to fulfill their purpose in protecting their long-dead master and his city.
Every single one of them failed.
With a deft spin of his staff, Yez beheaded the last of the Guardians of Elith’Maar, sending its body clanging to the cobbles like a bag of old pots. By now, he was considerably winded, and he breathed heavily as he surveyed the carnage before him.
“How long… did that take?” he asked Bernard, lowering his staff and causing the lights to dissipate.
Six minutes and thirty-eight seconds, the ring replied smugly. You’re getting slow in your old age—respectfully, of course, master.
Yez grunted and wiped away a bead of sweat from the crown of his balding head.
Ahead, the ziggurat loomed like a sentinel above the city, silent and dispassionate. It appeared unfazed by Yez’s display of power, completely unimpressed by magic of any sort. Its former master was Khazafel the Great. All other wizards would pale in comparison, its stony expression seemed to say.
Smoothing out his moustaches, Yez took a deep breath and began his journey anew, striding purposefully up the street and toward the impassive ziggurat. With the Guardians dead, the city was still again. Yez’s footfalls echoed through the cavernous void.
“I’ll admit, I’m a little disappointed,” he remarked, drawing closer to the ziggurat’s base. “I thought Khazafel’s creations would present more of a challenge.”
And what, might I ask, did you expect? The ring sounded dubious.
“I supposed such a renowned wizard would be more extravagant in his defenses,” he replied. “If I were him, I would have made something that would strike fear into all those who opposed me; something fierce and, well… bigger than those contraptions we fought.”
As if on cue, a powerful rumbling began from somewhere deep beneath the plateau. Yez stopped in his tracks to listen, brows furrowing as the shaking of the ground began to rattle his bones.
He took a step back as the street cracked between him and the base of the ziggurat, a rift opening wide as a canyon in a matter of seconds. Dust and steam billowed out of the newly-formed pit, a hissing shriek louder even than the rumbling as buildings began to fall down all around him, and out of the darkness emerged a figure that seemed to be made from equal parts metal and stone. It looked like a mountain with legs, with enormous, jagged arms and glowing blue eyes set into a shapeless face. It towered more than fifty feet in the air.
Is that big enough for you? Bernard shouted in his mind.
“Yes,” Yez replied. “That’ll do just fine.”
A deafening roar shook the city as the giant raised a boulder-like fist to strike. Yez leapt backward to avoid being crushed and, floating through the air, landed on the roof of what remained of a two-story house. His lamp followed obediently, illuminating the giant as it smashed the spot where Yez had been a moment before. Boom. The fist left a crater in its wake, pulling away dirt and shattered chunks of rock from the street.
“Let’s try fire, shall we?” Yez muttered, shortening his staff by pressing the button and tucking the weapon safely away. Then, with a flourish he pulled out a slender bit of polished oak, a wand etched with a flowing red script.
The giant let out another roar and began lumbering toward his position, feet beating depressions into the stone. Yez raised the wand and he fired, aiming directly at the thing’s ironbound chest, sending gouts of searing flame into the air. They connected with a flash and a shower of sparks, scorching its body but otherwise doing no damage.
Cursing, Yez was forced to jump away again as the giant smashed into the house, reducing it to a pile of rubble. He flew, arcing up and to the side as the slow-moving guardian began tearing into the adjacent house as well.
“Fire’s no good,” he said, landing gently on the other side of the wide street. “Perhaps some magic missiles will soften up this brute.”
You might have more luck with a large hammer, Bernard offered, but Yez ignored the glib remark.
Putting away his wand, he extended a hand and began to mutter, reciting a spell that was both basic and strong. His fingertips began to crackle with energy as the giant turned away from its destruction to regard him angrily.
The words fell easily off his tongue. It was a spell he had known since his days as an apprentice. He had perfected it over the years, channeling his experience and skill to make it more powerful, and he often used it to devastating effect, destroying man and beast and structure alike.
When the spell was finished, white-hot projectiles leapt from his hand and flew toward the construct with incredible speed. Two dozen missiles in total. They broke upon its head, chest, and shoulders, impacting loudly and erupting in great bursts of light. The giant screamed and staggered, its heavy legs wading through the debris the way an ordinary man might wade through water. More buildings tumbled in its wake, but when the lights died and Yez’s vision cleared, the guardian was still standing, its rocky skin blackened and scarred… and its glowing eyes as bright as ever.
“Blast,” Yez spat as the giant took a thundering step forward. “I thought that might work.”
Like I said, Bernard chided. It takes a hammer to break a rock.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Yez sighed, reaching down and pulling a choice scroll from his satchel. “I was hoping to save this one. Though, I suppose now is as good a time as any to use it.” There was a hint of disappointment in his voice.
The giant bent down and scooped up a slab of stone that was as large as a horse, then flung it at Yez, forcing him to dive out of the way to avoid being flattened.
He managed to hang on to the scroll, and picked himself up quickly. His foe began moving toward his position once more.
Opening the parchment, he read aloud, pronouncing each syllable perfectly as he cast the spell. At first, nothing happened, and the giant continued thudding its way across the street. Then, a swirling cloud of mist began to materialize above its head, revealing a portal that gaped like an open mouth.
A huge golden fist fell through the opening like a punch thrown from the heavens. ‘The Fist of God’ it was called, a powerful spell meant to unleash maximum devastation. It fell directly on the head of the charging giant, connecting with its uneven surface with a resounding crack. The head broke in two, both halves falling to the ground as the fist continued downward, driving into its body and mercilessly rending both metal and stone. The giant collapsed in a heap, tumbling hard to the street and sending up an enormous cloud of dust as the Fist of God burst into a million glittering sparks.
Yez raised a hand to cover his eyes as the dust blew past, stinging his skin and ruffling his wispy white hair. When it settled, he lowered his hand and beheld the avalanche of broken rocks and twisted metal that was all that remained of the construct.
Once again, the city was still.
Well, that’s one way to do it, Bernard observed.
Yez harrumphed and began dusting off his robes. “In the absence of a large hammer, I thought that it was appropriate,” he said a tad defensively. “Besides, the results speak for themselves.”
I just wish my ears would stop ringing, Bernard complained.
“You don’t have any ears,” Yez reminded the magical ring, glancing down at where it rested on his finger. “Now, shall we be off? I admit, I’m growing rather weary of this place.”
Lead the way, Bernard answered dryly.
Dropping the empty scroll unceremoniously, Yez turned on his heel and once again made his way toward the ziggurat. The enormous building looked slightly less daunting than it had before, as if it was taken aback by the way Yez had dispatched the giant. Its exterior was cracked and overgrown with lichen, and its terraced surfaces crumbled like the rest of the city, worn down by centuries of neglect. The closer Yez got to the structure, the more of its imperfections he saw. Finally, he stood before its entrance, a pair of great stone doors that rose like sentinels barring his way.
“Khazafel seems to have been fond of the ostentatious” Yez mused, craning his neck to look up at the towering doors. They seemed to be carved from solid marble and had no discernable knocker or latch. A beautiful frieze adorned the outside, etched in low relief and depicting an adoring crowd worshiping at the feet of a man in flowing robes. “Humble, this man was.”
As he examined the doors, he noticed some text etched in a stonework scroll near the bottom. It was a language he did not recognize, an archaic collection of alien characters.
“Bernard, can you translate the inscriptions?” he asked, frowning as he tried to make sense of them.
Certainly, the ring replied. Hold me up to the stone.
Yez raised his open hand to the doors, though he wondered why such a thing was necessary. Bernard was a ring, after all. Perhaps it was merely his way of teasing Yez. He always insisted that he could hear and smell and see the world around him, but never explained how.
Infused Codices are such strange things, Yez thought idly.
Bernard’s voice hummed thoughtfully in his head for a time. Finally the disembodied voice spoke up, translating the message word for word.
The gates of my palace stand closed to all those who are strangers. Prove thyself a friend and the way shall be opened unto you. Bernard paused, then added, It is signed, ‘Khazafel the Great, Lord and Protector of the greatest city on Vel.’
“A riddle?” Yez asked.
So it would seem, Bernard replied. Apparently, there is a passphrase that you must speak for the doors to open. You must prove that you are a friend of Khazafel before you can gain access to his sanctum. I wonder what the code might be?
“An interesting quandary,” Yez replied, absently stroking his mustaches. “I feel like I’ve seen this somewhere before…. No matter. I believe that I have a simpler solution.”
Grinning, he placed a hand on one of the doors and began uttering a spell, stirring the magical energies within himself to fuel it. Red light blossomed beneath his palm like a flower, spreading across the stone to form a large glimmering symbol—a Rune of Eruption. He took a few steps back and to the side, then finished the spell by speaking the command word.
The rune exploded in a brilliant flash of light.
Stone cracked and the doors fractured, sending chips of rock flying in all directions through the flames, violently scoring the beautiful frieze. Yez had to avert his gaze to avoid being blinded. When it was over there was a large hole in the middle of the doors, large enough for him to walk through. The whole event lasted only a few seconds.
Your propensity for pyromania is a marvel to behold, master, Bernard observed.
“The simplest solutions are often the most effective.” Yez shrugged, brushing some of the grit off his sleeves. “It just so happens that blowing things up tends to yield the quickest results.”
With that, he strode through the breach and entered the ancient halls of Khazafel’s palace—an uninvited guest, and not a friend at all.
The ziggurat was an enormous square with smaller squares stacked on top of it. Inside, the corridors were glossy black marble, with gemstone lamps glowing dimly from sconces on the sloping walls. The place was bereft of furniture or decoration. Antechambers branched off from the main hall in all directions, shrouded in dust and gloom.
Fortunately, no Guardians of Elith’Maar or any other enemy accosted him on his way. The palace appeared utterly abandoned, devoid of any lifeform whatsoever.
“A grim place indeed,” Yez commented, his voice echoing off the bare, black walls. “It’s more akin to a mausoleum than a palace.”
So it is, Bernard agreed solemnly. Khazafel died many centuries ago, and this is his final resting place. A proud tomb for a proud man. This is a common theme in human history, no matter the planet.
Yez grunted in reply.
Eventually, he arrived in the center of the ziggurat, stepping into a sprawling atrium of floating lights and smooth mosaic tiles of varying shades of black set into the floor. The tiles were laid in a pattern, an undulating series of jagged angles all pointing to the center of the vaulted chamber. Above, a column of pulsing light shone down, illuminating the room and giving it an otherworldly cast.
Yez followed one of the shapes, making straight for the center of the room. He found only a single diamond-shaped tile at the point where the tiles converged. There was no pedestal, no prize to be seen. However, when his eyes moved upward, he understood where he needed to go next.
“It’s up there,” he declared, pointing toward the source of light high above his head. “The artifact is at the pinnacle.”
I think it is the pinnacle, Bernard put in.
“It makes sense,” Yez said, unable to suppress an approving smile. “What use does a powerful wizard have for stairs?”
The light entered through a wide, triangular shaft in the ceiling, which seemed to extend all the way to the top of the palace. He knew by looking at it that it was used for traveling between the levels of the structure, though there was no lift or elevator in sight. Flying is for birds and magic users, he thought, taking a deep breath of the musty air.
Yez squatted down and cast a simple levitation cantrip on his Boots of Leaping. This made them feel lighter and would allow him to float for a short period of time.
Straightening, he cracked his knuckles and tapped his heels together, prompting the cantrip to do its work. He began to rise, leaving the atrium for the terraces high above. Balconies and ledges dropped away, disappearing from view as he ascended toward the source of light at the ziggurat’s summit.
Finally, he arrived at the uppermost tier, a cross section of arching bridges just beneath the source of the radiance. The bridges formed something of a platform, with an iron-wrought balustrade ringing the outside, and it was upon this that Yez landed, his feet touching solid stone before the cantrip wore off.
He leaned out over the balustrade and peered down, eying the dark floor far beneath him. A fall from this height would certainly kill him, splattering his body like a grape crushed underfoot.
Grimacing, he turned his attention upward.
The power source was a nimbus of pulsating light that was difficult to look upon for long. Up close, he could tell that it was a floating sphere of the purest crystal, and that it seemed to house a strange energy within. It hung suspended just beneath the pinnacle of the ziggurat, a man-sized pyramid of rough-hewn diamond fastened to the stone. Flashes of red lightning spiderwebbed inside the globe of light, its pulses like the beating of a dying heart.
Yez could sense the power of the orb like it was a physical thing. It was expiring, there was no doubting that, but the energy contained was so strong that it made his knees feel weak.
“Khazafel, you old fool,” Yez whispered softly as he stared up at the orb. “Playing with that much power… it’s a wonder you were not burned to cinders along with every other person in your city.”
It is written that Khazafel considered himself something of a god, Bernard said, sounding completely unconcerned at the bomb looming above them. He swore that if his body were destroyed, his immortal soul would inflict his wrath upon the world in vengeance.
“A prophetic statement,” Yez replied, still transfixed by the swirling globe. “Though, probably not in the way he intended. His arrogance and stupidity would ultimately inflict his wrath upon this world, not his vengeful spirit. This power source… it’s so much stronger than I anticipated. It could have powered a thousand cities like this one and still had energy to spare.”
Hence, why you came here.
“Precisely. It must be disposed of.”
Yez followed the slope of one of the bridges and came to stand just beneath the massive globe. It throbbed with an intensity that threatened to break its thick crystalline casing. Hesitantly, he reached out to brush his fingertips against it, feeling the heat emanating from within. It was so hot it nearly seared his flesh from his bones, and he quickly yanked his hand away with a yelp of pain. Fortunately, the brief connection he made with the orb told him everything he needed to know.
The energy had indeed grown unstable, and it was soon going to burst forth like the last breath of a dying star. He was not certain when—a year perhaps? A month? Maybe even sooner than that. Of one thing he was sure—when it did explode, it would consume this entire planet in a fiery cataclysm of death and destruction.
As he walked back to the edge of the platform, Bernard spoke up.
I have to ask… what do you plan on doing, master? Surely an artifact of this magnitude cannot simply be defused.
“No,” Yez agreed, reaching for one of the few remaining scrolls in his satchel. “You are correct, it cannot. This thing is going to explode and there is nothing that any wizard in the universe can do about it.” He unfurled the scroll and gazed at the words written upon it, committing them to memory.
I presume you have a plan, then?
Yez smiled. “Of course.” With the words flowing through his mind, he turned his attention upward once more, at the golden orb with its flickering red tendrils. “We cannot disarm Khazafel’s legacy, but we can send it away so that it doesn’t hurt anyone. That, my friend, is the plan.”
He reached out a hand and pointed at the open space just beneath the orb. Then, he began to speak the words written upon the scroll.
The very air seemed to shimmer and bend, refracting the light like a two-dimensional prism. A swirling portal opened up, similar to that which summoned the Fist of God, and it split an area almost as wide as the ziggurat itself. There was a whoosh and a great gust of wind as the portal began to suck everything into itself. Yez’s robes whipped around his arms and legs and the scroll crumpled to ash in his hand, but he stood his ground against the gale, eyes fixed upon the city’s ancient power source.
Raising both of his hands high into the air, he made a pulling motion, willing the orb to move down into the portal. It shifted ever so slightly.
When finally it moved, its casing cracked and began to rupture, spilling searing rays of light in every direction. The volatile energy scored the stone walls and one nearly took off Yez’s head, but somehow he managed to push the device all the way through the magical portal without killing himself or the rest of the planet by further compromising the integrity of the casing.
Using the last of his strength, he cast a torrent of magic missiles and sent them hurtling in after the orb. The detonation caused an enormous explosion, a split-second of terrible, world-ending annihilation. Before it could spill back through the portal, Yez closed it with a swift gesture. The fiery cataclysm vanished with an ear-splitting snap.
The ziggurat was dark when Yez finally collapsed to the platform, exhausted from using too much magic. His old bones ached and when he moved his head, his stomach convulsed like he had eaten rotten meat.
You did it, master! Bernard cheered inside his head. Bravo!
Yez did not reply. Instead, he focused on not retching over the balustrade.
Khazafel’s legacy was now gone, banished to a black void between distant stars and detonated so that no living thing would have to suffer the ancient wizard’s wrath. Once again, Yez was the unknown hero, the man who had saved an unwitting planet and who would receive no praise or thanks. The path he had chosen was a lonely one, but it was the one that really mattered. He still served a higher purpose, even when all the other Guardians of the Spheres had fallen from grace. When all was said and done, it did not matter there would be no songs sung about him. His reward was making up for all his mistakes of the past, and that was all he needed.
Heroes were an overrated bunch, anyway.
The nausea finally cleared. Taking a deep breath, Yez got shakily to his feet, careful not to let his vertigo send him hurtling to ground far below.
Are you feeling all right, master? Bernard’s voice sounded genuinely concerned.
“Yes… just recovering from a bit of magic sickness,” he answered gruffly.
You never used to get this sick, the ring observed.
“I never used to be this old,” Yez replied dryly as he rubbed at a bruise on his rump. “Even so, I still got it… even after all these years.”
So you do.
Yez sighed, glancing up at the empty space where the orb had been. It was dark now—the only light in the entire palace coming from his ever-obedient floating lamp. He had a feeling that now that the last vestiges of Khazafel’s power were gone, the city would decay at an exponential rate, the ruins collapsing in on themselves like castles made from sand.
It was sad, really, but such was the way of these things.
What will you do now? Bernard asked, shaking him from his reverie.
“Return home,” he said simply, shrugging his thin shoulders. “I want nothing more than to sit in my bath, sip some mulled wine, and read a good book. That’ll do me good, I think—at least until the next emergency arises.”
I assume that it’s back in the pouch for me, then? Bernard sounded more than a little apprehensive.
Yez smiled as he bent down and cast another cantrip on his boots. “I think not,” he replied, regarding the silver band on his finger with amusement. “I should like to have some company while I travel. Say, have I ever told you about the time I beguiled two dragon brothers? Fascinating tale, that one.”
The magic ring listened amiably as he launched into the story, its pleasure apparent through the mental connection they shared.
Still smiling, Yez made his way to the balustrade and swung both his legs over the side. Then, tapping his heels together, he jumped into the darkness.