A battle-worn warrior, DIRK, gazes up at a clear night sky. For the first time, in his 28 seasons of existence, he notices how the stars seem to pulsate with a life of their own. When he was a child, a weapons master told him that stars were pinholes in the curtain of night. But Dirk has come to realize that there is more to the twinkling stars than some childish notion. What he saws were worlds fighting for survival in the cold blackness of the void that is the night. It was a dire situation he, and his remaining brothers-at-arms, had come to know all too well. For at that very moment, they, themselves, were on the brink of destruction.
A grizzled veteran, COMMANDER ABLE, quickly makes his way towards Dirk. Even with battle gear and a full suit of armor, the commander moved with grace and agility. It was a testament to a life time of training and discipline. Upon reaching Dirk, the commander speaks with a firm voice. “Show me your stone, pup," he orders. To the commander, everyone under his command is a pup.
Dirk continues to stare up at the night sky as he speaks. “Have you seen the stars? How brightly they shine tonight.”
“Stars?” The commander huffs impatiently. “We don’t have time for star-gazing.”
“One star shines brighter than the rest,” Dirk claims in a dreamy tone.
The tired commander surrenders to Dirk’s starry-eyed fascination. He follows Dirk’s line of sight. “It is called the pilot star, if you must know," he declares.
“The pilot star,” Dirk echoes. “What a peculiar name.”
“The pilot star is the guardian of lost souls,” the commander continues. “For it guides all weary travelers to their final destination. That is to say, if you believe in that old wives’ tale,” the commander adds with a lighthearted chuckle. The commander’s expression suddenly hardens into a scowls—not out of anger, but out of a sense of uncompromising duty. “The men are past the point of exhaustion,” he states plainly. “We must make our stand here, while we still can.”
The commander nods to Dirk’s hand. “If you do hold the blood stone, it is good the Fates have chosen you. You are after all the fastest, and slyest of us all.” In truth, Dirk was the quickest and most cunning of his unit. That is why he was bestowed the name DIRK: a quick weapon of concealment. As a shadow warrior, Dirk was all about speed and stealth. His weapon of choice is a short sword. He wore light armor instead of a full plated body suit, and his skill with the bow and throwing knives were unparalleled.
Dirk clenches a small stone in his hand. He quickly pulls his eyes away from the stars while turning his back to the commander. “How fitting that the last shadow warrior in our unit would be chosen for this mission. Do you not see, commander? The blood-draw was rigged.” Dirk was referring to a draw that is usually relegated to settle disputes, or assign menial chores. But in dire times, a blood-draw is also used to choose one among them to make a final sacrifice.
“In all the time we have served together, have you ever known me to deceive anyone?” The commander asks.
Dirk takes measure of the commander at a glance. It is an ability he has developed from seasons of soldiering. For a man past his prime, the commander carried himself with such poise and confidence. He truly was an imposing figure. But more than that, Dirk knew that the commander is a man of honor, through and through, that fact was beyond questioning.
Dirk quickly shakes his head in response.
“I tell you now, pup. The draw was true,” the commander asserts.
“Then a mistake was made, commander,” Dirk insists.
“The hand of Fate never makes a mistake,” the commander counters.
Three heavily armored soldiers, HATCHET, RAPIER, and LANCE, gather close to Dirk and the commander. The other 133 battle-weary soldiers look on at a distance. They all stand at the mouth of a mountain pathway known as the road of the damned. For it is only during times of great peril that anyone comes to this mountain ridge to light the warning beacon.
Rapier, a young-snappy-man barely out of his teens, steps forward and addresses Dirk directly. “Stop stalling. Show us your stone, GRUNT.” While most would take offense to being called a grunt, the soldiers of the Allegiance took it as a sign of honor. A grunt is the lowest of lows; he is someone who is spat upon, stepped on, beaten and discarded. That is precisely what makes a grunt so dangerous, for a grunt is a man with nothing to lose. In a world of warriors, there are none tougher, harder, or braver than a soldier of the Fierce Allegiance. They are the most feared fighting force in all the 9 Realms. A scribe once wrote, upon seeing the Allegiance in battle, that “men of the Allegiance are not born, as other men are born; they are forged—much like swords and spears—for war.” Thus, to be called a grunt by one of these honored few is to be recognized as one of the absolute elite.
Reluctantly, Dirk turns around and faces his comrades. His jawline tightens as he reveals a blood red stone in his hand.
Commander Able holds up a small white stone for all to see. In response, each of the soldiers of the Allegiance shows their white stones. “We all made the oath, in deed and in blood,” the commander proclaims. He stares directly at Dirk. “The hand of Fate has decided, pup.”
The gathering of battle-weary soldiers graciously accept their allotted fate. Many return to their posts, mentally preparing themselves for battle, while others start to build a large bonfire.
Lance, a happy-go-lucky man with a quick smile, grasps Dirk’s shoulder with his heavily callused hand. “We’ll entertain the bastards here, while you enjoy your stroll through the mountains.” Lance gives Dirk a friendly punch to the shoulder before taking up his position in the battle formation.
Dirk turns to the 3 remaining men and offers them the blood stone. “Please. One of you. Take the stone. Let me stand for you on the line.”
Rapier laughs out loud as he walks towards the battle formation.
Dirk turns to Hatchet with pleading eyes. Hatchet is 10 seasons older than Dirk. This was to be his last quest. They all knew that Hatchet had a woman waiting for him, a woman he was to marry. “You have someone waiting for you, Hatchet,“ Dirk persists. “It must be you.”
Hatchet shakes his head at Dirk in bewilderment. “You really think any of us are going to make it out of this alive? We have all seen the coming Scourge. The dark minions are beyond counting.”
“If anyone has a chance, it is the one sent to light the beacon,” Dirk retorts. Dirk stands face to face with Hatchet. “Beyond the beacon, there is a pathway that leads to Klendar. Someone with something to live for could make it there.” Dirk glances over at the battle formation. “But to face the Scourge, head-on, is nothing short of suicide,” he hisses.
"What choice do we have?" Hatchet argues. "Most of us are unable to go any further."
"I'm giving you a choice," Dirk urges. "Take it!"
A curious smile touches Hatchet's lips as he peers down upon the blood stone in Dirk’s hand. “Never was much of a runner," he admits while gripping the hilt of his broadsword, sheathed in his side scabbard. "Now sword wielding. That is something I do quite well.”
Hatchet reaches out and closes Dirk’s hand around the blood stone. “If you make it to Klendar, find my woman. Tell her I died a true man of the Allegiance, sword in hand, surrounded by my brothers. I will wait for her, and you, in the other-life. We still have many stories to tell.” Without another word, Hatchet turns and takes his place in the battle formation.
A large bonfire rages behind the battle formation. Several soldiers light torches which they bring to the line. One soldier hands Commander Able a torch.
Lance is suddenly heard crying out. “Here they come!” Lance throws a torch down a dark ridge that leads to the mouth of the mountain pathway. The torch reveals a nightmarish swarm of armored Orcs, Goblins, Ghouls, and Mountain Trolls slowly creeping their way towards the Allegiance’s thin line of defenders.
Commander Able hands the torch to Dirk. “We’ll hold them off for as long as we can,” he states in an urgent tone. “Light the beacon. The 9 Realms must know what is coming.” The commander grips Dirk’s shoulder. “Are you up to the task?”
Dirk nods his head.
The commander squeezes Dirk’s shoulder. “Then say the words, soldier,” the commander adds.
Dirk is taken aback by what the commander had just called him. Never has the commander ever referred to him as anything but a pup let alone a soldier.
Dirk’s expression hardens with determination. “Ready and able, commander,” he responds in earnest. The phrase is an inside joke among Dirk’s unit that held a hidden caveat: “I would rather die than fail in my mission.”
The commander gives Dirk a quick smirk before making his way towards the battle formation. “Strike first! Strike hard! Strike true!” He barks.
On cue, the men of the Fierce Allegiance yell back their battle cry “Koomah-kai!”—which is an ancient Klendian word that means to the death.
Dirk sheds his travel pack, bow and arrows, and light body armor, letting them fall unceremoniously to the ground. The shadow warrior tucks the blood stone into his tunic pocket. He takes one last, lingering, look at his brave comrades before sprinting up the narrow mountain path. As he runs, he hears Commander Able’s piercing voice issuing battle commands.
An explosion of metal on metal, flesh on flesh, battle cries, and monstrous shrieks fill the air. The battle is ferocious and unrelenting. But with each step that Dirk takes, the fighting slowly subsides, until it is heard no more. Tears well-up in Dirk’s eyes. He makes a pledge as he runs up the narrow mountain path. “I swear by the Maker; you have not died in vain, my brothers.”
Suddenly, an inhuman ROAR—a sound that would put the worst nightmare to shame—rises up from behind Dirk like a demonic, pulsating wave of death and destruction. It was the Scourge, unleashed.
Dirk grits his teeth and pushes his body beyond its limits. In the back of his mind, he knew that it was only a matter of time before the dark minions overtook him. Goblins and Ghouls are wicked fast and dangerous. On cue, the scraping sounds of claws on stone, maddening shrieks and howls steadily grow louder, closer.
Dirk glances back as he runs, using his torch to light up the thick darkness behind him. What he sees is a writhing horror of fiends, gouging-clawing their way towards him.
Dirk is forced to zig and zag as arrows and daggers zip by his head. He skillfully twirls around and releases three throwing knives. The knives bring down three pursuing Ghouls. In one motion, Dirk draws his short sword and cuts down two Goblins lunging at him from behind. The shadow warrior uses every ounce of his skill and ability to slash, stab, and slice his way up the mountain path like a deadly whirling dervish. But for every enemy he kills, three more take its place.
Dirk breaches the crest of the mountain path with an endless swarm of monsters in hot pursuit. Up ahead is the beacon tower overlooking an ocean of dotted lights from the Realm of Klendar.
With a roaring torch in hand, Dirk darts towards the beacon tower. A dagger strikes Dirk’s leg causing him to stumble and drop his short sword. Dirk continues to drag-crawl his way to the beacon ladder. He manages to grasp the ladder with his free hand just as an arrow hits him on his side. The deadly bolt finds its way into Dirk’s vital organs.
Dirk crumbles to the ground on his knees. He spits out a mouthful of blood as he settles into a sitting position. His back presses against the beacon tower while he grips the flaming torch firmly in his hand. The nightmarish Scourge of fiends surrounds the shadow warrior. An enormous, monstrous Orc, THE DARK LORD, wades its way through the swarm of gruesome beasts to stand, triumphantly, before Dirk.
Beyond the swarm, Dirk spots the mountain path that winds its way down into a valley of lights: the Realm of Klenadar. At a light trot, he knew he could reach Klendar in 3 cycles. But Hatchet was right; none of them would make it out of this alive. The thought of thousands of people sleeping peacefully in their beds, unaware of the evil that is about to befall them, causes a fury to rise up from within the shadow warrior. Dirk takes out the blood red stone from his tunic pocket. While peering down upon the stone, the faces of his fallen brothers, men who had sacrificed themselves so that he could warn Klendar, flash before his eyes. Even in his weakened state, Dirk could not, would not fail them.
With a warrior’s resolve, Dirk grits his teeth and glares up at the Dark Lord, challenging the beast with his gaze. “You think you have won?” He hisses between clenched teeth. “Think again.”
In one final act of desperation, Dirk hurls his torch with all the strength he could muster. Dirk, the Dark Lord, and all the evil minions watch as the fiery torch flips through the air. It was an impossible throw, but miraculously the torch somehow bouces and ricochets its way into the middle of beacon. The beacon ignites into flames, lighting up the night sky with its brilliance. Moments later, bells are heard ringing out from Klendar, followed by the panicked voices of men preparing for battle.
The Dark Lord roars with rage.
Dirk peers up at the Dark Lord, triumphantly. “I am sorry to disappoint you, your Highness. But it seems the 9 Realms are preparing themselves to welcome you and your horde.” The shadow warrior leans back with a smile and gazes up at the stars etched upon the night sky. He sees the pilot star shining brightly down upon him, as though it were beckoning him. Just as death is about to claim him, Dirk utters his final words “guide me now, pilot star. Show me the way to my brothers.”