“I’m not going to bore you with the details of that night.  If you’re anything like me, every sound, sight, and smell will forever be a part of your memory.  The orcs came, they came by the hundreds, it seemed.  There was death, there was chaos, and then there was nothing left of our village.  You all remember.

My blood had been burning that night.  I know how you must remember me from those days, no, you don’t have to avert your eyes, I remember myself as well.  I can still see memories of how I used to be, although truthfully they seem alien, as if they belong to someone else and I’m merely a voyeur.  There was…yes, there was an anger within me.  A bottomless well of fiery hate whence I know not.  There was no special trigger or cause, but without fail it would bubble to the surface from time to time, and when it did no one was safe, not even you, my closest friends.

That night it consumed me as it never had before.  I-I am ashamed to tell you all that my thoughts when the raid began were not of concern for you or our village, but rather scorn and elation.  Scorn towards everyone I viewed as a coward for not engaging the enemy.  Elation, the joy of knowing that I could expel my wrath without consequence, that there was no limit to the blood I could spill as long as it came from underneath green skin!  True, I had never killed, or even truly fought before, but  I was young and thought myself to be invincible.

I rushed past the three of you without so much as a glance, my sword drawn as I screamed my way towards the two marauders nearest to us.  I imagined cutting through both of them in a dance of murder, spinning from one to the next, always slicing them one, two, three more times before they could react.

As you all know, things turned out quite differently.

The orc, seeing me for the untrained fool that I was, maneuvered left, brought up his scimitar, and drove it through me.  Any illusions of invincibility drained out of me that moment, carried by what felt like a river of my own blood.  I had never felt such pain.  I had never known such fear.  Yet strangely, I had never experienced such…relief.  Along with my delusions exited my rage.  Sounds became muffled, and my vision began to fade.  I was dying, terrified and alone, and going mad with the knowledge that only in my final moments did I understand that it was possible to live without hate.

When I came out of shock, the darkness of the pre dawn still covered what was once our village like a heavy woolen shawl, even the flickering flames seemed to be dulled by the quiet and the dark.  I felt only pain.  I was lying on my back, staring up at the night sky, my vision pulsing with each breath, as my wound made itself the center of my awareness.  There were probably sounds, moans of the dying, crackling embers, but I heard none of it.  I could only lay still, wishing for the end to arrive.

Then I did hear something.  A voice was speaking, a man’s voice.  Something blocked my vision.  I don’t know how long the shape had been bent over me.  My eyes tried to focus for what seemed like hours before I recognized what looked like a human face.  The mouth was moving, and I realized the words he spoke were meant for me.

‘…hear me elf?  Would you die here on this field, or would you choose to live again, a new life?’

‘Wh-who are-‘ each word was agony as I tried to makes sense of what must be some sort of fevered dream hallucination.

‘There is no time for questions,’ he interrupted, obviously annoyed. ‘You are on the edge, hovering between this realm and the next.  Don’t waste energy on words that amount to nothing more than noise.  Listen to me now, and listen well:  Three messengers will ask you if you would live.  I am the first.  So tell me now, would you live or would you die?’

Through the exhaustion and fatigue, I felt my head nodding, and tried to mouth the words to save my life.  That was the last memory I have of the battlefield.

 

 

I don’t know how long I drifted in and out of consciousness, but when I woke, it was night again, and I found myself on a grassy plateau, the night wind singing a cold and desolate song against my skin.

But I was not alone.  There were twelve of us, each bound at the wrists and ankles by hemp rope, on our knees facing west.  In front of us, a massive campfire danced and jumped, it’s flames licking against the night sky like a malevolent spirit.  A small tent was visible a few yards beyond that, in front of which we could see the shadowy figures of two men, seemingly talking to themselves.

I needed more information.  It was clear that I’d been captured, along with what I assumed were other members of our village, however the shadows beyond the fire didn’t have the build or manner of orcs.  I looked over my fellow hostages, hoping to find a familiar face, only to find that of the twelve of us, only myself and two others were from our village.  The rest were orcs!

Slavers! I thought.  Yet I had not heard of slavers coming this far west, and what I had heard of those who took slaves, they traveled in caravans, and would have more men and supplies than I saw before me.  Then again, I was not some world weary traveler, wise in the ways of our neighboring countries, so perhaps this is how slavers operated.  It gave me hope, as surely we twelve could, at some point, overpower two humans to escape, even bound as we were.  The question was, what happens after we escape?  Any respite I had felt from my rage while I bled out had passed, and I couldn’t honestly say whether given the chance, I would choose to slay my captors, or the orc prisoners who knelt beside me.

As I thought, I noticed the two men (and we could see now that they were indeed, two human men) were approaching, apparently finished with their secret talk.  By the light of the fire, I now saw that these could not possibly be slavers.  Each wore simple clothes.  Brown hooded cloaks covered plain tunics and pants.  One wore sandals while the other wore nothing on his feet.  They carried no weapons, and both seemed somewhat undernourished.

The taller one had black hair cropped short, and carried a black velvet bag in his left hand.  His companion had no hair whatsoever, his bar head shining in the flickering flame.  Both men walked past the fire and stood in front of us, looking the line of prisoners up and down before the bald man began to speak.

‘You are the dead,’ he began, his voice solid and immovable, and spoken with a quiet yet commanding volume that made the wind bow in silence.  ‘The winds of senseless carnage have left each of you at the threshold between this world and the next, and here you will decide whether or not you will move on to the next life.

Know that no matter which choice you make, your old existence is no more.  You will either be remade here, in servitude to the one true power, or you will find your place in the afterlife,’

At those words, I believed I had finally understood.  These men were clerics of some deity or another, and we were to join their nefarious cult or die (their God must surely serve evil, as the forces of good are not known for using the threat of death to find new converts).  I began to lose hope, for surely even life as a slave would be preferable to making a pact with some sort of underworld God!  Fear started to well up within me, as beads of sweat appeared on my forehead.

And yet, these men did not seem evil.  There emanated from them a power, that was certain, but for some reason it didn’t seem magical, or evil, or even good.  It spoke softly of something very ancient, very secret, and…peaceful.

‘Behind me, past the hills, lies Mount Zephyr.  At it’s peak, past several miles of treacherous ice-covered mountain passages, rests the temple of our order.  You will see my brother bears a bag, within which he holds blindfolds and herbal mixtures.  Should you choose the blindfold, you will follow us, blind and bound, up the mountain to the temple.  The only way to avoid falling to your death is to listen, both to the footfalls of your company, and the instincts in your heart.  Once at the temple, you will give the order five years of your life.  The order will take precedence over every aspect of your life.  Nothing will come before the order and it’s commands, not your family, not your gods, not yourselves.  You will exist to serve the one true power, and that is all you will know.  At the end of five years, should you survive, you will be free to leave of your own free will.

Should you choose the herbs, you will know death tonight.  The mixture will lull you into a gentle sleep, and you will travel painlessly into the next world, as if in a dream.  You will tell us beforehand of your preferred method of burial and any rites you wish performed to ease your passing, in accordance with whatever faith you may hold,’

It was strange to hear what I assumed was a religious fanatic speak of another’s faith with such a level of respect, but then, these cultists were undeniably strange to begin with.  My heart sank, and I accepted the fact of my imminent death, for surely that was preferable to life as a slave to a religious cult.  Just five years?  At the mercy of a cult, it seemed logical that that was more than enough time to either brainwash the weak minded, or drive those who resist to madness.  I would not surrender my  soul to that.  No, not my soul, I would not surrender my individuality, my very self.

And who are you, Saren?  What do you know of your self, that you would die here to preserve it?

At first I thought it was telepathy, a voice thrust into my very mind by the clerics who stood before me.   As I concentrated, however, I became distinctly aware that the voice had originated from within me, more than that, the voice was me.  Somehow, I was sure.  At that moment, it was the only thing in existence that I could be sure of at all.

I saw now that the flames of the campfire had turned blueish white, and was no longer belching smoke into the air.  The tall man was making his way up the line.  In front of each prisoner, he would kneel down, and quietly exchange words spoken too softly to be overheard.  The first two had taken the herbs, the third had been blindfolded.  Herbs, herbs, herbs, blindfold, herbs, herbs.  I saw our old friend Aesolith, just two places in front of me, take the herbs as he looked the tall man in the eyes, defiantly.  He would die with honor, unbending, and unbroken.  And yet, something felt wrong…

And who are you Saren?

The words ran over and again within me, and I realized the tall man had knelt beside me, the orc to my right having opted for the herbs.

‘Saren, it is time for you to choose,’ his voice was gentle and carried a touch of pity.  I realized that I had no idea which option I was going to take.  The initial sense of defiance had been deflated, as I began to doubt my own sense of self, or rather, I doubted that I had any knowledge of who I actually was.  I remembered what it felt like when we were young children, how complete and fulfilled I was in those days.  I remembered our lives having a purpose, and a reason, and that reason was to be children.  There was nothing more important than the art of play, the next time we could be together and create new experiences and adventures!  We took to our games and sports and imagination the determination and resolve because we knew somehow, that what we did was what we were meant to be doing.

And then something had happened.  The constant drumbeat of tradition and social conditioning had overpowered us, made us doubt ourselves.  Having friends was becoming less important than who those friends actually were.  Competition, which had been a free flowing river of inspiration, began to develop a memory outside the moment, and that memory gave birth to grudges and the idea of revenge.  Pride had turned from a source of celebration, into a zero sum game, often accompanied by shame.  At some point during that time, the hatred had crept in.

I began to identify myself not by living for the things I felt were right, but by deriding that which I could not stand.  I was defined in the negative, no strong outline of an individual, but rather a hazy set of dislikes, brought into semi relief by those ideas and things that drove me mad with rage.

Staring up at the tall man, I realized the only time I had felt at peace since childhood, was when I was sure I was about to die.  How many in our village had died now?  I had assumed you had all been killed, along with our families and friends.  So how could I now, having really lived only a few short childhood years before selfishly succumbing to fear and anger, throw away a chance to survive?  Was I really interested in making a statement, or dying with some sense of honor, or was I just frightened to find out who I really was?

‘I choose the blindfold’, I said, looking the tall man in the eyes.

The world went dark, and a glimmer of peace was born and died in my heart within the span of an instant, and I basked in that instant for what seemed like an eternity.  I don’t remember the bodies being buried, or the tent being packed up.  The next thing I knew, we were being yanked to our feet, and told to listen closely if we wanted to make it to the temple alive,”