1997-09-23: End of the World
Lord Blackthorn woke that day with his mind made up.
As usual, he had stirred late, when the sun slanted through the closed balcony doors, streaming distorted through the glass. The room was still and hot, and he threw the covers off and draped a black robe across his shoulders. As usual, he noted how pale his skin was, and vowed to spend more time in the sunlight, and less hidden away in his laboratory.
As usual, the dreams had visited.
His morning visit to Lord British was also much like usual. As he rounded the corner to his liege's chamber, he heard the stentorian order:
“Out! OUT, I say! No phlebotomies for me!”
It was followed by a much affronted man of medicine storming out of the room, hastily stuffing jars of leeches back into his capacious bag. As the worthy doctor spotted Blackthorn there, he hastily straightened, sniffed with affronted pride, and walked past him with all the dignity he could muster. Blackthorn couldn't help but quirk an eyebrow in amusement.
“Can you believe it, Blackthorn?" Lord British said from the bed, reaching out a hand to greet his friend as he strode into the room. "Leeches! The man wanted to put leeches on me!”
“Not everyone has the advantage of your knowledge, milord,” Blackthorn said, settling into a chair next to the bed.
Lord British coughed as he laughed, and a wan smile crossed his bearded face. “I have not done so poorly, though, in bringing enlightenment to this land, have I?”
He lay in sweaty sheets, his chest uncovered and bare. His flesh was yellowed and his eyes red-rimmed. With each breath, his ribs surged up and settled down, as if his skin were stretched across them, tight as a drum.
“Speak not in that fashion, milord!" Blackthorn quickly said, a forced smile on his face. "You speak as if you were nearly dead.”
“Am I not?" Lord British said, a perverse twinkle in his eye. "Look at this, my friend, and let us speak plainly. Has any been able to discern the cause?”
He pointed at his chest, where a week before, a huge red finger had touched him, and the resultant contact had thrown him across the room. Most of his chest was covered in a large purplish bruise, and in the center, over the heart, a huge black boil pulsed, sluggishly rising and falling with every beat of Lord British 's weakening heart.
“No," Blackthorn said honestly, dropping all pretense. "Your heart groweth weaker each day, and whate'er the bile that fills that growth, it stings like acid. Yet already it flows somewhat within your veins. If your doctor had applied his leeches, I doubt not they would have died of it, with no benefit to you.”
Lord British let his head fall back on the pillows propped behind him. “So it ends," he whispered. "I admit, my friend, that I had held out some hope that you would have other words to say.”
Lord Blackthorn said nothing, his hand still clasping that of his friend and ruler.
“Yet still may we discover what this presages for Britannia," Lord British said, his voice gathering strength. "We must trick the daemon into showing his face.”
“As you said yesterday," Lord Blackthorn said smoothly. "And fear not, for I have a plan, which I can explain to thee.”
“Truly?" Lord British said eagerly. "Let us hear it, then!”
Blackthorn reached over to the night table next to the bed, and moved a flat wooden box onto the sheets. “Indeed," he said, opening the box and extracting the ivory and black pieces from within. "Shall we play a game of chess, milord?”
Their eyes met, and both thought back to an earlier night when similar words were uttered. Then Lord British smiled grimly. “A match for high stakes indeed," he whispered. "Let us indeed play a game.”
When Chuckles the jester passed by Lord British 's room later on, he saw the two men huddled over the chessboard, focused on the pieces and the miniature war they waged there. His eyes grew narrow and suspicious, but nothing seemed amiss, for often the two men played chess in a morning. He thought of going in to investigate, as the crystal round his neck urged him to do, but he was held back by the memory of other recent times he had come in to rooms where the two men were talking, and they had quickly fallen silent, unwilling to speak freely in his presence as they once had done.
Bah, leave them to their game, he said to himself silently. He is failing, and they must talk earnestly together, like old men talking of days gone by, as if to recapture the life they once had before it all dwindles away to black.
Quietly he proceeded along the hallway, reaching at last the silent chamber where the other critical patient lay abed. He opened the rough wooden door slowly, unheeding of the splinter caught in his flesh. As it bled a little, he brought it up to his mouth and sucked on it eagerly.
Inside, it was dark; no window let sunlight into the chamber. Candles shone steady, unshaken by drafts. And on the bed, Nystul lay, gaunt and gray, his once-full beard matted and unkempt, his eyes still open, staring into nothingness.
Chuckles moved to his side, ghosting over the flagstones. In the darkness, only his fevered eyes could be seen. Nystul 's breathing rasped the air, barely audible.
Like a small child, the jester lay his head across the withered old mage. He closed his febrile eyes and smiled, clutching the sheets between his hands.
“Soon," he whispered. "Soon, master, soon.”
An unearthly laugh filled the air, and one of Nystul 's hands moved to rest on the jester's head. And there they remained for a while, Chuckles soon sleeping on the chest of the comatose wizard, the wizard himself breathing in, breathing out.
Crowds gathered in the courtyard before Lord British 's castle to hear the words of the lord dressed in black who stood on the balcony so far above them. The crowd was less exuberant than it had been a week ago, when they gathered after Lord British 's proclamation of a scavenger hunt seeking crystal shards. This time they stood somber, dressed in somber clothes. Too many had had relatives die screaming in nightmares in the last week. Too many had had to chuck crystal shards in a lake, only to see dead fish rise to the surface the next day. Some were waiting for word from relatives struck by lightning and perhaps teleported to distant lands. All were suspicious. All were silent once a raucous trumpet cut through the air, scathingly loud.
A rumbling began in the courtyard, as bets were settled, rumors traded, and snorts of disbelief echoed around.
“We have one last hope of healing him. According to ancient manuscripts unearthed by Dryus Doost of the Mage's Council, it is possible that forgotten magic arts may be able to cure him of his malady...”
“And what be this malady?” yelled a voice from the crowd.
Blackthorn hesitated. “A wound taken when we were expelling the shards from our world," he admitted. "A daemonic wound.”
Sighs settled over the crowd like a shroud. Then the babble began to rise. 'E's possessed, kill him now... This is just a plot so you can take over... My sister knows a cure... What forgotten arts? What do we need to do?
“If we can gather the magical reagents needed for the spell, we may be able to restore his health. But time is short... if we fail to gather all six reagents before the sun sets tomorrow, I fear that our noble Lord British will have drawn his last breath...”
That was when the tomato hit his face. It was followed by turnips (which rather hurt), onions, a few melons which failed to get high enough, and various other produce. The crowd began to erupt in laughter as he gamely struggled on despite the cries of Down with Lord Blackthorn, give us Lord British , it's a coup, it's a plot, down with pastyface...!
“Listen to me, please!" he said desperately. "We need the six reagents! They must be somewhere, though none of our mages use them now in their magical arts!”
More fruit pelted him, and more laughter, and finally he withdrew from the balcony, his robe spattered with gooey mess.
The people in the courtyard gradually dispersed, some of the with firm purpose on their face, others gleeful that their lord was finally taking the throne, others arm in arm, still gleefully chuckling. Left behind was one small figure near where the cries of traitor began, near where the first fruit was launched. There stood Chuckles, a small grin on his face, tossing a tomato from hand to hand.
On the balcony, Lord Blackthorn also smiled, despite the spattered fruit he grimly wiped from his robe. His dreams were coming true, this time.
In the night the figure loomed immense and shadowy. It furtively opened the double doors of the balcony, and the night air quickly burst in, billowing curtains.
Lord British sat up in bed, his eyes wide. “Who--who's there?” he called out, his voice trembling. On his chest the boil sagged, black and blacker still by moonlight.
He stood, arm steadying him as he rose. He moved from furniture to wall, wall to curtain, curtain to doorsill, his every move aged and forlorn, creaking like a tired chair, tottering when he could not balance. When the moonlight washed over him, he flinched a moment, perhaps from the cold as the breezes rose.
Finally, he stood outside on the balcony. Below him were apple trees, the scent of their blossoms rising to his nostrils, full of promise. Past them, flowerbeds, and the mighty walls of his castle. Beyond them, the twinkling lights of the stores and homes and taverns of Britain, and the stars reflected in the moat, bobbing gently like small candles set afloat. The night was clear and sharp like a splash of cold water. All was tranquil, and the moon presided gracefully over a world asleep, content under its blanket of sky.
Lord British sagged against the marbled rail. His fingers caressed the cold stone, feeling the roughness where his hands had rested many a year. I have not done so badly, he thought idly to himself. It has been a good life.
He thought back to years gone by, when his realm consisted of a small land as yet surrounded by enemies. He thought back to Lord Robere and the fearful battle that stained a plain with blood and left behind a desert. He thought of nights playing chess, and of leaving crumbs for the mouse who lived in the hole in his wall.
Good indeed, he thought. It has been good indeed.
Then the figure moved out from the shadows behind him, an elongated object in its hand, raised to strike. Lord British , alerted by some sixth sense, turned just before it struck.
The struggle was brief, as the two grappled. “You--!” Lord British gasped.
“Give me that--!" "At last!” hissed the other figure.
Between they held the object, Lord British fell back, the other figure, cloaked and dark, pushed him every further back.
With a cry, Britannia's lord toppled from the balcony. Past the apple trees, onto the hard flagstones of the walkway two stories below. There was a wet smack when he landed.
An owl hooted, somewhere. A few moments later, the cloaked figure emerged from the castle proper, and knelt beside Lord British for a moment. Then he stood again, and darted off, back into the castle.
Then another figure came out, and likewise knelt beside the fallen ruler. Then he carefully gathered up the inert body, and carried it inside. The smell of apple blossoms was exquisite, and Britain slumbered on.
Lord Blackthorn: Milord? Canst thou hear me?
Lord Blackthorn: 'Twas difficult carrying thee back to thy bed... and thou art grievously wounded... please, awaken! Speak!
Lord Blackthorn: I fear the worst... when we planned to fake his death, little did we know that a true murderer would beat us to the deed... now the spell truly is our only hope.
GM 'Noname': You have three hours to locate the following six reagents. Call a GM once you have found all six reagents. The reagents you must find are: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and blah.
After three hours of futile searching:
Lord Blackthorn: Milord?
Lord Blackthorn: MILORD!
Lord Blackthorn: Oh no...
Guardian: HA HA HA! AND NOW WE CAN BEGIN OUR TASK...
Lord Blackthorn: What? Who--
Guardian: BEHOLD, PETTY LORD, AS MY SHADOWLORDS WALK AND DAEMONS SPAWN TO BURN THIS SHARD TO CINDERS...
Lord Blackthorn: Agh! No, back, deamon from beyond! Back--back, I abjure thee!
Guardian: A PITY YOU RESISTED MY BLANDISHMENTS IN THS UNIVERSE, BLACKTHORN. YOU MADE A WORTHY SERVANT IN OTHER WORLDS...Lord Blackthorn: AAAAAaaaaaa
Guardian: HA HA HA HA HA HA... THUS ENDETH THIS WORLD, ANOTHER VICTORY FOR ME, ANOTHER SHADOWLORD ABORNING. NOW IT IS TIME TO MOVE ON TO THE NEXT WORLD, THE NEXT PREY. THANKS TO YOU ALL FOR PARTICIPATING IN THIS TEST OF MY POWERS... WHEN NEXT WE MEET-- I WILL DEFEAT YOU AGAIN. THIS I PROMISE!