High Lord Gideon, Batai of Wordhaven, stood motionless on the emerald plains and glared up at the quickly graying sky. His stoic, aging face shown with the determination to hold his sense of dignity, even now as he faced the greatest peril of his life. But the small tendrils of sweat on his forehead betrayed his anxiety.
He knew his path would lead him to this; he’d even planned on it for decades. But all the years of forethought and dreams had failed to fully prepare him for the finality of his predicament, or for the unexpected feelings of remorse for betraying those who named him High Lord.
From behind him, Gideon felt the first chilled breezes of the storm of deliverance coming from the west. Even now, at this distance, its winds cut through his regal blue robe with ease, prickling his skin with the threat of vengeance to come. The storm’s multi-colored lightning bolts danced across the distant fields, taking aim, gauging the distance until they could reach him—a fragile white-haired man standing so solemnly with the Staff of Dei’lo at his side. He did not bother turning around.
Beneath the rumblings of distant thunder, he could just make out the sound of hundreds of people—the ranks of Guardians coming to retrieve the Pearl he had stolen from Wordhaven only hours before. But he knew they would not come in fury like a common mob, brandishing weapons of destruction and hate. They would come with no weapons at all, save their voices.
They were singing. The song was beautiful, heavenly. But in the Words Gideon could hear their rage, breathing down upon him in pulsing chords. And somehow he could hear their sorrow too.
Without warning, the High Lord sensed a presence around him, a living phasm so tremendous that he could not comprehend its depth or expanse. But within it resonated a power so beautifully alluring that he hardly noticed the hate that fueled it. His body shuddered involuntarily, despite the hundreds of times he’d felt its coming.
“Sink the staff into the earth, Lord Gideon…” The voice, so vile it seemed to dim the sky, whispered above the sounds of the storm and the song of the Guardians. “…and stand away.”
There was no face or body with the voice; there never had been. But its reality was sure in Gideon’s mind and heart—sure enough that he’d gradually given up everything Wordhaven and the Pearl could offer him for the chance to have what only the voice could promise—dominion over all, even—no, especially—over the Pearl itself.
Gideon paused a moment, silently debating one last time whether the path he had chosen was the one he really wanted. The people who pursued him were once his friends. Now they would feel nothing for him but an appalling hatred, or perhaps in their arrogance a sort of condescending pity. And the voice would certainly be no ally in the future. It meant to use Gideon as its puppet once the deed was done—he was hardly fool enough to believe otherwise. When this day ended, however, whatever baleful favors the voice demanded would prove irrelevant. Its insidious whispers would soon be silenced under the potent force of the Pearl, the supreme power that would reside in Gideon from this time on.
Only then would Gideon no longer be consigned to live in the shadow of the Pearl’s glory—ever the reflection of power but never its source. Then everyone—from the Lords of Wordhaven to the lowliest soundenor—would be forced to acknowledge what Gideon had come to realize for himself, that the Pearl was not their deliverer as it claimed…but rather their keeper.
The High Lord raised the staff high overhead and thrust it deep within the plain. The huge Pearl crowned at its end continued to glow, still as eerily silent as it had been all day, and seemingly oblivious to Gideon’s malice. Perhaps it is not so all-knowing after all, he mused smugly. Still, as he backed away some twenty paces, he was careful to keep his gaze averted from its glow.
“Now, lend me your mind,” the voice hissed in the wind. “Just as before—quickly.”
Obediently, Gideon closed his eyes and faced the thickening blanket of clouds overhead. Around his feet, dark shadows began to swirl. They slowly writhed their way up his legs and torso, filling his body and thoughts with an overwhelming oppression of dread mixed with ecstasy. His body trembled under the tingly flow of the rich darkness around him. The shadows slowly coiled around his neck like a snake, hesitating ever so slightly before slithering into his ears.
Instantly, his eyes flew open in horror, like the eyes of a child awakening from a nightmare, or the eyes of a man beholding the darkness of his own soul for the first time. He realized he had forgotten to breathe, and wondered for a moment whether he should, whether in releasing his breath he would uncontrollably utter the horrid Words that now spun raging in his mind. Cautiously he allowed his breath to escape, holding his lips tight to keep from speaking, and then quickly took in another. His robes now reeked with the fetor of death—the inevitable result of the formless one’s touch.
But the stench didn’t bother him. Nothing mattered now…now that he had the power of life and death in his thoughts. Now that he could destroy the world if he chose. The Words ripped through his mind, tearing slivers of his sanity, cursing the good within him wherever it hid. He felt himself severing inside, cleaving apart, as though the Words were blades and his soul a shroud of thin-spun cloth. He was overcome by the dominion of the Words, losing himself in the magnificent insanity of its pure malevolence. It no longer occurred to him to be afraid.
“High Lord Gideon, hail there!” A deep voice called from behind him as the singing suddenly ceased. “Stop where you are. You have taken the Staff of Dei’lo from its proper chambers. We know not your intentions in this matter, but many suspect them to be foul. In either case, the Pearl must be restored to Wordhaven. We come in force, High Lord. Turn and do not speak, and no harm will befall you. Return now, Batai, or the storm will consume you where you stand.”
“Never!” The High Lord turned on the Guardians, numbering in the hundreds before him, his eyes ablaze with an unearthly fury not fully his own. “You think me so easily moved by your petty storm. I shall soon show you who will be consumed! Damonoi shalon nietan richt!”
At Gideon’s Words, the storm cloud began to mutate. The lightning stopped, the wind subsided, and from its dark center a rain of acid began to fall.
Without hesitation, as though linked in heart and mind, the Guardians began to sing again. This time their song was different. It bore in its melodies a holy vengeance, like the rage of a son avenging the murder of his beloved father. The dark cloud churned and shifted once again, and coalesced into a tornado towering more than three hundred feet into the air. But there was no wind around it. It was as though all the wind of the Inherited Lands had been sucked into that one churning vortex, forcing all its fury into a cone of pure destruction. No sooner had it taken shape than it raced toward the Batai.
But Gideon had already turned his back on the throng. His mind was filled with other matters, other Words.
They tore at his heart, ripped through his thoughts, raping him of sanity. He felt he must speak them before they destroyed him altogether, before he lost the capacity to speak at all.
He outstretched his arms toward two horizons, and set his glare on the Pearl that yet rested so placidly, so meekly, atop the Staff. Even in the fury of his growing madness, he wondered why it did not speak; why it did nothing in its own defense. Perhaps what Abaddon said was true. Perhaps the Pearl was not so mighty as it claimed.
Drawing in the deepest breath of his life, he lifted his head, and yelled the Words that had ripped his mind away.
“Lusifen vadestro shon ak Jeo Perlein! Vadestro shon ak Jeo Perlein sic atros et accustros! Damonoi terradestro shon ak todras veot!”
The world fell silent as the Words echoed toward the East. Then the world was black. The vortex was gone. The people were gone. The plains had turned to nothing. Gideon closed his eyes and forced his breathing to slow—calming his thundering heart. The Words were gone now, expelled in the fury that had ravaged his sanity, and he felt a measure of peace returned to him.
After a moment, he opened his eyes, but saw only blackness. He felt suspended in a shapeless void, his Words having torn away the world—or having torn him away from it. He didn’t know which. There was no sound save the rasping of his own breath, and the incessant pounding of his heart.
Deep in his mind, he questioned whether by some chance he were dead. Perhaps the voice, the voice of Abaddon the Destroyer, had tricked him, convincing him that the Words he spoke to destroy the Pearl and draw all of its power into himself might actually have done nothing more than end his own life.
Or worse yet, the Words might have banished him to some netherworld existence, a place that is not a place.
Deep-stirring rage surged in Gideon as he thought of this. It would be just like the Destroyer to gain a victory through such deceit. But the High Lord wasn’t Abaddon’s true enemy; the Pearl was. So long as the Pearl lived, Abaddon would be forced into subjection to it. That vile spirit wanted the Pearl destroyed, probably even far more than even Gideon could conceive.
Then, quietly, gently, a light appeared within the void, looking like a distant star in the night sky. He focused on it, and his heart leapt in recognition. This was the power coming to him—the power Abaddon had promised in return for the Pearl’s destruction. The power of the Pearl itself.
The light began to move toward Gideon, slowly at first, then racing, faster and faster, growing ever brighter until it silently filled his whole world. As it drew nearer, he leaned forward and stared into its immeasurable brilliance. He wanted to see the power, the limitless power, coming to reside in him, coming to be his alone. It was just as the voice had promised, he assured himself. Just as Abaddon had said.
But as the light came close, it changed. What was a distant star took on the shape of a flaming sword, emblazoned with pure fire that burned hotter than even the world could bear. But there was something else. Gideon could see something more than the sword. Someone was holding it. Someone more brilliant than the sun, and far more terrible.
And that someone was coming…for him.