Merry 13 days ’til Christmas, readers! Due to a dramatic turn of events and a twist of fate, today you’ll be treated to a High Fantasy tale by none other than Josh Hewitt. This guy ran the amazing Worlds End project, and now – after much bitching – he’s put words on screen for you people once again. Hewitt usually writes literary fiction, so this was kind of like feeding peanuts to someone with a nut allergy, but not only did he not swell up and die, he wrote one amazing story. You will love this. He wrestled with the genre, wrangled it, poked a little bit of fun at it and, boy, did he stick the landing.
by Josh Hewitt
The general was amazing with a knife.
The major watched him, that gigantic bear of a man, turn the small wooden object with one hand, while using the other to carve into it. The details the Major could see were beautiful–intricate and delicate and almost unreal all at the same time.
He didn’t want to stop the General–he could have stood in the General’s greatness all day and watched that man, that hero to so many poor souls, continue to put all of his focus on that small wooden trinket. He could have stood there and absorbed that moment for just a bit longer.
But he had a job to do.
“General. It’s time.”
The General looked at his work, showing just a faint smile, barely visible behind his large bushy beard. He then placed the object on the desk next to him and rose. He stood a good two feet taller than the Major, and a good deal heavier. He walked over and placed his thick cloak over his broad sholders.
“Your name is Azaral, correct?” The General’s voice bellowed out, that low growl that reminded Azaral of the sounds of the werecats howling in the light of the third moon. He nodded.
“And, you have children. Isn’t that correct, Azaral?”
The General smiled at him, a warm one. It was so odd to see such a look from him, Azaral thought. He had never met the General in person before this time, but he had heard the legends. He had heard the tales.
The greatest warrior the land had known. The one who would finally end the war. The one who would defeat the Kairn once and for all.
The champion the people had hungered for. Had prayed for.
Yet, with all the accolades, with all the stories and myths and legends that follow one such as the General, there were the other tales too. The ones Azaral would never breathe around the General, no matter how much ale he had drunk.
That he once slain an entire Kairn village by himself. Men, women, and children.
That he ate Kairn flesh.
That he had sold his soul to the dark lord Drammagus for invincibility in battle.
All those stories hit his mind, and all ran like frightened children from the light and warmth of his smile.
“Children are our most special treasures. They are the hope and light of the world. After old men like me have left here for the other realms, they will shape this world in ways we could never.” The General smiled and turned away.
“Hopefully, for the better.” he whispered.
Azaral saw the General reach for Nithguan, “The Northern Wind”, the largest battle axe anyone had ever seen. The enormous weapon glinted in the light of the lanterns surrounding them. Azaral could see the spells carved in the blade, letting the weapon chop through even the most enchanted armor. Nithguan was the General’s oldest companion. And there were nearly as many legends of it as there were of the General.
“We must do now what must be done. Though I dread to do it.” The General said, his voice low where only Azaral could hear. “Now is time for us to close this book.”
How long had the war gone on? Even Azaral knew that was an unanswerable question. For nobody could remember a time when they were not locked in battle with the Kairn. His grandfather, the oldest of his kin, had told him years ago remembering his grandfather talking about when his grandfather would tell of his grandfather recalling his grandfather referring to it as the “Millennial War”. But for many, many, far too many generations, it had been only known as the “Forever War”.
Now, on this day, it could be ending.
As they exited the General’s tent, he turned towards Azaral one more time.
“Your children? Boys?”
“One boy, strong. One girl.” The General smiled at Azaral’s answer.
Azaral knew better to ask if the General had children. It would have been a pointless question.
The General didn’t even have a name.
Azaral wondered what it had been like for him–growing up not as a child, but as a soldier. One of the “Children Of Forever”, the youth who had been born and bred from the greatest warriors and strategists they had known. Whose entire world had revolved around battle, the clash of iron and steel, the blood and flesh.
“Azaral, gather your men. And get the others to as well.”
Azaral just nodded.
Soon, they were all in line, ready to proceed to the death. Azaral looked at the General, surrounded by his troops. He could hear his men muttering silently under their breaths about the General’s warriors–those dark feys known only as the Nigh.
He felt a shiver run up his spine just thinking their names. How many times had he been told, as a child, to watch out in the dark of the forest?
“They’ll eat you alive, then use your skins as clothing. If you are lucky.”
Many, many years before they had stood with the Kairn. Nobody knew what it was that caused them to convert and follow the General. The most commonly accepted tale was that the General had killed their king, making himself their new ruler.
(There were other far more terrible and terrifying tales.)
“Today, we draw sword and axe and wood and iron to defeat our enemy,” The General spoke, his voice soft, yet each word almost broken with anticipation. “Today, we end our world, as we know it. What shall we build?”
“In the frozen lands of our home, in the snow, there is a saying that a village must be formed on the ashes of something else. For a new world to begin, an old world must die. Do we have it? Do we have what it takes to set ablaze our world?
“Can we destroy this war, this fight that we have known forever, that we have only known? Can we end it, and give our children, give our future, a fresh blanket of snow which to build? Which to shape?”
The General paced in front of the men, and caught their gaze. Soon, he bellowed loud, “We must! For our world! For our land! For our future! We must now strike the final blow to the Kairn. Today! Today, we start fire to destroy–for we know what will be raised again will be a better world!”
With his last words, he thrust his axe high, to much cheer and applause. Azaral himself felt his hand find the hilt of his blade, ready to fight.
Azaral saw the General’s chariot approach, eight cloven hoofed beasts pulling. In the lead was a dragon–fire leaping from his nose. Even as the sunlight cracked the darkness, the nose of the beast beamed bright as a torch. The General took his place in the chariot and held tight the reigns with one hand.
Zzazzn, the leader of the Nigh and the General‘s right hand fey, stood next to him on his transport. The Nigh were slight anyway, small of stature and lean of weight, but next to the General, he looked almost like a child. Azaral approached them both.
“Sir, we are ready.”
“The Nigh will fight to the death as always.” Zzazzn slithered. Azaral felt another chill just from hearing the voice.
“As it was meant to be.” The General held Nithguan high, and looked back at the troops.
“Friends, warriors, soldiers, protectors of this land and its future….TO THE NEW WORLD!”
With that, the General cracked the reigns, and his chariot raced off towards the Mountains of Suralim. Towards the home of the Smoke King and the Kairn.
The men raced with him, Azaral high on his steed, as they approached the land of their enemies. The Kairn were ready for battle that morning, sounding their horns and filling the air with a horrible sound. They were flanked by the men of Nigliman, the traitors who had sided with the Kairn. Around them were the wild beasts of the woods, the snakes and the raithelborn and the spiders and the yven.
Azaral looked to see their own forces, the men of the realm and the Nigh and the noble creatures of the world–lions and werecats and dragon and jeravons. They attacked the front lines of the enemy with ruthless abandon and righteous aggression.
Ahead of him, Azaral saw the General swing his mighty axe, lopping off head after head–with other body parts mixed in. He was more than a fighter, more than a soldier. The man who had been so patiently creating art that morning had become death incarnate. Azaral was struck by a mighty fear–a fear that all the stories he had heard, every single one of them, might actually be true.
“To me, Azaral!” He heard the General call after the first hour of battle. He fought and killed his way to the General’s side.
“You are the most skilled soldier I have ever seen.” Azaral said, while watching Zzazzn dispatch two Kairn with his small knives.
“I take such compliment with high regard, seeing your skill in battle.” Zzazzn hissed. “The General calls for you because of it.”
“We must make our way inside the stronghold, to the throne room of the Smoke King.” The General said. Azaral and Zzazzn acknowledged his command. They fought their way through the Kairn and the traitors, invading into the heart of the enemy, moving at a fast pace it was as if the winds of the east were pushing them. Finally they reached the stronghold.
Azaral looked around at the large wooden door that led into the darkest territory known. There were no windows, and the walls were tall and steep, with no stray mortar work to put a foot on and climb. He walked to Zzazzn.
“No way in. Only cracks in the door are too small for even you to fit in.”
“Shhh.” Zzazzn sneered. Then pointed to the door, where the General was standing, his hands folded in front of him. Azaral stood and watched as the General slid somehow stretching his body through the narrowest of cracks.
“By the sons of Nilioh.” he muttered once the General had gotten inside. He ran to the door and examined the crack the General had slipped through–it was less wide than his thumb.
He heard a loud clank, and then the snickering of Zzazzn.
“I suggest you move.” Zzazzn said, and Azaral scooted to the side, as the large wooden door suddenly crashed down, the chain holding it up had been split by Nithguan. The General stood, battling nearly a dozen soldiers, hewing their heads from their necks with ease. Zzazzn raced in with Azaral quickly in tow.
“How did he…”
“Nigh magik is powerful.”
So. He was a sorcerer too.
Azaral followed the General through the front guard, into the main keep. They met many foe, fighting furiously as they heard the battle rage outside. Soon, they faced the last obstacle–the notorious Razolon Guard, the most fearsome of the Kairn. They battled as they could, but it was the General who struck the final blow on most of the Guard. Soon, they walked into the final room.
There, sitting on his throne, was the Gray Man, the Living Ash. The Smoke King. A silver crown sat on his head, and around his neck was a long silver chain. Hanging on the chain was the gem Varlon, one of the three Simiron Stones. His hand clutched it and stroked it for a second.
The heat from the room was unbearable to Azaral, who loved the ice of the land and the winds that had fueled him.
“Smoke King! I challenge thee to end this war!” The General said, gripping Nithguan with both hands. The Smoke King chuckled.
“If it isn’t a Child of Forever come to challenge me.” The Smoke King cackled in a rasp, raising his sword. The flames leapt off of it. “Is this battle what you want? I know it isn’t so. You are too peaceful.”
“I be a man of war today, foul ruler.” The General held his gaze steady.
“Then, war it shall be.” The Smoke King jumped from his chair, floating across the room. The General held his hand out, signaling to Azaral and the Nigh to stay behind. They watched as the two combatants circled the room together.
Suddenly, the General moved as quick as a winking eye, swinging his blade at the Gray man. Nithguan flew through the King’s abdomen, which moved like a dark cloud, reforming as soon as the blade had passed.
“Not even your axe can harm me.” the King laughed. “And now you know your doom.”
The king struck out his sword, but the General easily parried it. The General laughed.
“Of course I knew your strength, Smoke man. I know your weakness too.” He sliced at the arm holding the sword, and watched as his axe went innocently through.
Then the sword hit the ground.
“Whatever he’s holding,” Azaral said to Zzazzn, “that part is solid.”
Zzazzn just nodded.
As the Smoke King was picking his sword back up, the General started chanting some words.
“What is he…” Before he could finish the sentence, Azaral watched as the Smoke King’s head flew across the room.
For no reason at all.
Zzazzn smiled as the General caught the chain holding the gem Varlon with the edge of his axe while the Smoke King‘s dead body hit the ground.
“Time froze. Except for him. Nigh magik.”
“Oh.” Azaral could only reply.
The young king sat in his court, surrounded by his subjects. His beautiful wife on his right, on his left was the older sister who had given the throne to him, who had passed on her birthright. In his hand, he held the final Simiron Stone, ready to be reunited with his two brothers.
And the war that had defined his fore-fathers, and those before that, had ended.
The General stood before the young king, his eye on the stone the man held.
“For you, my warrior, my protector–there is no honor too high to bestow upon you. No treasure too priceless.”
“I only ask to go.” The General replied. Azaral stood there, next to his king, in wonder. The king was offering any riches, any treasure. And all he was asking for was to leave?
“You wish to go? Well, if that’s your reward…”
“No. I wish to leave here. Leave these lands. I would have you use the Simiron Stones to open the doorway to the other worlds.”
“The last time the doorways were open, the Kairn slipped through. This is a very dangerous boon you ask. Why do you ask it of me?”
“I wish to go somewhere where I do not see the blood of my fallen brothers. Where I do not hear the screams of battle. I wish to go to a new world. One where I can no longer be the General. But something…someone new.”
“The last time..”
“I know. I know what I ask. But that is my reward. I wish to leave these lands and never return.”
The king looked at him, wary of the request. Then he heard the snakelike sounds from the childlike darkling next to him.
“The Nigh wish to go with our master. We wish to go with him to the new land.”
Suddenly, the King’s sister spoke.
“I wish to go too.” The voice belonged to the King’s sister.
“My brother, my dearest brother. I passed on the throne because I didn’t want to be queen during such a time. I didn’t want to be known as a queen of blood. Or of war. But now, I would wish to go with our General, to find something new to be a part of. If, of course, he would have me.”
“I would, m’lady. I would.”
The General walked up to the King and presented him with Nithguan. Then he looked to Azaral.
“For your daughter.” He held out the object he’d been carving the first moment they met. Azaral took it.
It was the most beautiful doll he had ever seen.
“She will love it, General.”
The ancient words were spoken, and the door opened to a new world, one of ice and snow like their homelands. The Nigh bounded through first, followed by the dragon with fire in his nose, anxious he was to follow his master. The General walked through, holding hands with the King’s Sister, the maiden.
When they were through and the portal had shut, the General surveyed around him. Suddenly, he heard Zzazzn speak to him.
“So, what will we do now?”
“I will do what I’ve always wanted to do.” The large man smiled. “I will make children happy. No longer shall I be known as the General. I shall be the Toymaker.”
“No, my love,” the King’s sister spoke. “You shall be known in this world by the tongue of our land, so we will never forget our past. No longer shall you be Varnisa Mordoni, the General. Now you will be Santa Claus.”