There she stood, poised at the threshold, poised in readiness. To come all this way just to hesitate at the manor’s gate, Kiran thought, even for a moment, seemed counter to her decisive nature. But this was no ordinary mission, nor her focus an ordinary man. Her two lieutenants stepped in closer, the late autumn leaves crunching underfoot.
“What a rubbish heap,” declared Mallor, the older of the two, regarding the coarse stone fence and rusted ironwork gate, then sniffing at the cool air with his aquiline nose and usual disdain, “Is this really the home of your hero, Captain?”
It was a fair question. Kiran took in the masonry, once elegant, now covered in mold and grime. It looked as if a strong kick could send blackened crumbling thatches to the slog of mud below.
All around them, an infestation of brittle, rotting ivy fluttered in the gathering wind. The clouds grew darker by the minute. A storm was coming.
“Something seems off,” Kiran agreed.
She turned her gaze to Lyra. The younger lieutenant brushed a curl of red hair from transfixed eyes and peered through the bars of the gate. Broken marble statues of knights and demons clawed at each other in exaggerated battle poses, playing out some operatic struggle amidst the tangles of creeping vines.
“I think it’s interesting. A place steeped in memory,” Lyra mused. “Can you feel it?”
“For a Hellrider?” replied Mallor. “It’s ignoble, this disrepair.”
“He wasn’t just a Hellrider,” insisted Lyra. “He was the youngest field commander in our history. He fought at the battle of Tristol. Led the charge at Red Hill. And his duel with Tholizar the Unbathed is legendary. There’s even a drinking song about it….”
Kiran cut off the first note with a raised hand.
“Our mission is clear,” Kiran said. “Travel to Darrow Estate, speak with Lord Kallinor, and retrieve the Imminent Light.”
“Indeed, let us speak with him,” said Mallor, “an old hermit who hasn’t been seen in years, most likely dead.”
“He had a niece living at Candlekeep until last winter,” countered Kiran. “Even without her, I think word of his death would have reached our order. He may be a recluse, but he’s still one of us. He will listen to what we have to say. I know it.”
“We’ve sacrificed crucial time to be here. You still think it’s worth it?”
The captain stopped and turned to face Mallor.
“Yes,” said Kiran, her voice taking on her calm but stern leader’s edge, “and we are guests here. Kallinor’s estate may have faded in grandeur, but honor does not lose its luster.”
She stopped for a moment to study the manor within the outer walls. A little unkept, perhaps, but still the home of a great man. Surely he would help them.
“He is everything Lyra says,” Kiran continued, “A man of righteousness. And the keeper of the only weapon that can save Elturel. So mind your manners, both of you, and mind your tongues.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Lyra.
Mallor gave a sigh. “Yes, Captain.”
Kiran put a hand on the ironwork and gave it a forceful shove. The hinges squealed in protest, the gate swung open, and thus the three knights advanced through the gate and along the short path, weaving around dead trees.
The country manor’s state of decay became more evident as they approached. The sagging roof was a sad patchwork of moss-covered shingles and gaping holes. As with the grounds, any trace of ornamentation was derelict and abandoned. And barely discernable, a faint voice from within the manor rose and fell, as if expounding an argument against some unheard antagonist.
“Someone’s home,” said Lyra.
They arrived at the manor’s stout front door. An erstwhile grand façade of stonework was now cracked and crumbled, having relented beneath merciless winters. A carved dragon held a corroded bronze knocker in its mouth. Kiran stepped forward, grasped the enormous ring and knocked.
The voice within fumbled abruptly and cursed as if startled. Echoes of the knocker gradually faded as the sound of footsteps approached.
“A house steward to send us on our way, you think?” said Mallor. “Doesn’t matter. Lord Kallinor wouldn’t have the staff. No one does. I heard it was lost in—”
A bolt slid with a loud clack, and the door swung open.
And there stood Lord Kallinor, leaning heavily on a burnished, ornate staff—the Imminent Light, right in front of them, ending all suspense on the matter.
“Oh,” was all Mallor could say.
Kiran assessed the man, her tall, oaken frame allowing her to meet his eye level. Bleary eyes returned her stare from beneath bushy eyebrows that matched his tangled gray beard. The full plate armor he wore—“Even at home?” thought Mallor—was battle worn and ill kept, as was his weathered face, scarred from long forgotten wounds, but freshly bruised as if from a recent fight. Even from a knight long retired, this was far from what she’d expected.
Kallinor nodded to the trio.
“Please excuse me. I was in my study, finishing a letter. How may I be of service?”
“Sir, we—” her voice caught in the chill autumn air. Worse than a junior cadet, she silently admonished herself. Embarrassing.
Nevertheless, Kiran still had her talent for instantly sizing up allies and opponents. She saw the hard lines at his brow, the calloused hands and corded muscles, and noted the opposing positions of his hands on the staff—relaxed, but ready to swing the weapon up hard. The staff itself was finely crafted of silvered oak and adorned with a headpiece centered around a large amethyst.
Kiran cleared her throat, righting herself.
“Sir, we are a delegation of Hellriders sent from the conclave at Candlekeep. We are here on a matter most urgent. May we come in?”
The old knight glanced back into his home and hesitated, a moment of indecision masking his expression. He turned back toward his visitors with a forced smile.
“Yes, yes, of course. Please do come in….” He stepped back and waved them inward.
Kallinor led them down a short hallway and into the manor’s great hall. The chamber was in a state of neglect, as if vacant for years. A large fireplace was set in the stone wall, though there was no firewood nor evidence of any recent fire. Bookcases filled with ancient tomes, small statuettes and other curios flanked the fireplace. Suits of armor, rusted and draped in cobwebs, stood cold and silent in the four corners of the room.
The most striking items of the hall were several enormous tapestries that covered the two longest walls, the once rich colors now muted beneath a thick layer of dust. Like the statues in the garden outside, these tapestries depicted armies of knights and hordes of demons clashing in terrific battles.
“My apologies for the state of things,” said Kallinor as he set about to straighten pillows on a divan and clear off chairs. “It has been some time since I’ve had guests.”
While their host awkwardly fumbled about the room, Lyra looked closely at a marble bust as Mallor examined a pair of crossed swords. Kiran studied the tapestries that filled the walls, her attention settling on a depiction she knew well from history.
Kallinor noted Kiran’s interest and moved over to admire it with her.
“Pivotal moments from a bygone time,” he said, gesturing to the image in front of her. “That one, of course, is The Ride.”
“Our order’s first major campaign on the plane of Avernus,” Kiran observed. “Taking the fight to the enemy.”
“As the enemy has returned in kind,” Kallinor commented, eyes seeming to partially clear in recollection. He nodded to the cavalry leader in the tapestry, an angel riding a golden mastodon into a hellish wasteland, surrounded by virtuous light. “Zariel, our general, since fallen to the influence of the Nine Hells.”
“There are those who say the archdevil Zariel still blames the Hellriders for the mission’s failure, and seeks her revenge,” the captain ventured.
Kallinor’s expression darkened. He motioned to other tapestries on the wall, changing the subject.
“And over there is the battle of Red Hill,” he said, “where I led a battalion of soldiers against Murok the Marauder. And that one,” he pointed to another, “was the march on Andur Castle. That’s me to the right, at the gate.” The two lieutenants gathered with their young captain to listen.
The captain was familiar with these representations, especially the character central to each battle—a young Kallinor, in his prime. In all, he wore the markings of a field commander and was leading a troop of soldiers into battle. And the largest, central tapestry depicted him holding aloft the Imminent Light.
“Is that—?” began Kiran, pointing to the largest tapestry.
“Uh, yes,” mumbled Kallinor, turning away and suddenly needing to straighten another pillow. “Yes, that is the event known as Kallinor’s Charge.”
“Where you used the Imminent Light,” prompted Mallor.
“You struck the staff upon the ground,” said Lyra, “and unleashed a burst of divine radiance that crashed over the demons like a wave and vanquished them!”
“The staff turned the tide of battle,” said Kiran quietly. “And saved the lives of many hundreds that day.”
Kallinor was silent, his eyes closed. Kiran took a deep breath. It was time.
“It is the staff that has brought us here, Lord Kallinor.”
“What?” he turned abruptly and looked at her with an alarmed expression.
“Sir… you once pledged, as have we, to defend the town of Elturel,” Kiran spoke with measured words. “Alas, we come to you in grave circumstances. The town has fallen to diabolical hordes. It has been taken by means of dark magic, wholly lifted and transported away. Elturel—our Elturel, is now imprisoned within Avernus.”
Kallinor’s eyes widened with growing dread. “The… entire town?”
The old man looked as if the air had been sucked from the room.
“It, it cannot be….”
“Even now, the Hellriders engage in desperate battle. The city is under siege, as are the very souls of its people.”
“We three,” said Mallor, stepping forward, “are among the last who remain. And we go forth to fight alongside our sisters and brothers in arms.”
“The final battle will be joined in Avernus,” added Kiran, leaning urgently towards Kallinor. “The Imminent Light is once again needed by the forces of light.”
“It is terrible news, indeed,” said the old man, shifting uncomfortably and backing away. “Just terrible. But I’m afraid the staff must remain with me.”
“Sir,” said Lyra. “We are honor sworn to protect the city from evil. Surely, the need has never been greater than now.”
“The staff carries a cost,” replied Kallinor. “A burden I cannot allow anyone else to bear.”
“Any burden needed shall be borne,” countered Kiran. “It is our duty.”
“This goes beyond duty,” said Kallinor, shaking his head.
“Duty is everything,” Kiran’s voice grew harder.
Kallinor turned and began pacing the room. “And what of our duty to all mortal beings? You do not understand….”
“There are near twenty thousand people in Elturel, and one in ten of those is a Hellrider,” objected Mallor. “You would condemn them all, soldiers and civilians, to unspeakable deaths?”
“There are things worse than death,” mumbled Kallinor, staring off into space.
Kiran couldn’t believe what she was hearing. What could have so broken his spirit? It was unbefitting of the man. And of all of them.
“Tales of this staff have inspired legends,” Lyra said. “It’s healing powers alone could save many lives….”
“The forces of darkness fear its power,” Kiran insisted. “For the sake of thousands of innocents, let us use that power now.”
“Power has a terrible price,” Kallinor stopped his pacing abruptly and turned to face Kiran. “To wield such might, this staff binds one’s soul to the Nine Hells!”
“An honorable soul is not so easily corrupted,” Kiran stated evenly.
“Did you not hear what I said?” the elder knight demanded.
“Did you?” Kiran felt the blood in her temple pulse. “No Hellrider would fall to such disgrace. Not after The Ride, not anymore.”
“I speak of an eternity of servitude to Zariel! And you spoke of her revenge? Then know it takes a great many forms.”
“I will gladly match steel against the worst the Hells have to offer!” said Kiran, her voice rising with zeal. “And I cannot leave this estate without the staff in my possession.”
“No! I will not allow the curse to spread!” shouted Kallinor, as he brought the staff down upon the stone floor. Its headpiece emitted a flash of dazzling light and a thunderclap shook the room. The blast staggered the three knights back a step.
The echo of the thunderclap faded and a moment of ringing silence followed. The stone tile beneath the staff was cracked and smoldering.
“Perhaps,” Lyra began hesitantly, “a little wine might help such discourse….”
Kallinor seemed disturbed by his own outburst, visibly struggling to compose himself. At last, he nodded. “Some wine… yes, of course. Forgive me. The road from Candlekeep is difficult. Allow me to fetch a proper vintage from the cellar….”
Kiran watched as Kallinor departed the room, every tap of the staff on the stone floor carrying the resonance of tightly coiled power. The object of her mission was so close.
Lyra turned to her captain. “So that bought us a few minutes. Did you believe that? About curses? And Zariel?”
“Well, look at this place!” Mallor gestured to the disheveled hall of relics. “His mind’s beyond reach. But the staff is still within our grasp. I say we take it by force.”
“Draw arms against a fellow knight?” Kiran shook her head. “I think not. His mind may be strained, but even an addled hermit deserves some professional courtesy.”
“Maybe there’s another way,” said Lyra. “This place is full of trinkets from his past. Proud memories. So, we find some curio from the past to aid our argument. Perhaps some relic from Kallinor’s Charge that might remind him of the duty he once felt upon that battlefield.”
Kiran and Mallor both glanced at the central tapestry, at the dozens of figures locked in infernal conflict.
“Not a bad idea,” said Mallor. “If we are to resolve this without bloodshed, we must appeal to his sense of honor.”
Kiran nodded. “I would never so disrespect a fellow knight as to ransack his home, but our need is great. Let us be quick….”
With the lieutenants following close behind, the captain began moving room to room.
A low hum, more like a buzz, grew in volume as they approached, then proceeded through the kitchen door with a soft creak. The ramshackle cupboards revealed no food. Only pots and pans which looked like they hadn’t been used in years. A strange film coated the walls and counter space in haphazard, amber splotches.
Then, something skittered away and retreated into the shadows, much too large to be a rat. Kiran could see the reflection of a carapace, metallic in finish. Another dark shape hovered across the ceiling and flew into the cupboard, too fast to get a good look. But the hint of insect-like talons was enough to make their skin crawl as the buzz persisted. Backing out as quietly as they could, the trio shut the door.
“I couldn’t mark them. Anyone?” asked Lyra.
“Hellwasps. Not of this world….” said Mallor, his face turning ashen.
Kiran stood for several seconds, trying to process what they’d seen, but then she abruptly turned to the corridor.
“Let’s go,” she said, motioning them forward. The team moved down the hall with growing trepidation.
The next doorway revealed an eerily disassembled bedchamber, its clothes strewn about. No blankets were upon the straw sleeping pallet, no bedding of any kind. But most disquieting were the walls of the bedchamber, adorned with strange sigils and glyphs. Some of them more recent than others, they could see as they entered. But all of them were scratched out in dried blood.
The markings looked like characters from the infernal tongue. As Kiran and the others stared at the runes, the whole room began to darken, until all they could see was the dried blood blazing in the darkness. A faint sound began, an echoing whisper barely perceptible. Someone, or some thing, was reading the words.
Kiran’s heart began to pound in her chest as she watched the runes burn brighter. She struggled against an unseen force that held in her place. All light seemed to flow toward the runes as the whisper grew to multiple whispers, ever louder. Finally, Kiran wrenched her gaze away from the fiery runes and dragged her companions out of the room, slamming the door shut behind them.
She staggered away from the door, gasping for breath as she looked at the others. Mallor and Lyra were breathing heavily and blinking rapidly, as if waking from a nightmare.
“This place is cursed,” spat Mallor.
“What now, Captain?” asked Lyra.
“What do you think?” Karin snapped. “We have a mission!”
Her two lieutenants nodded at her, as the captain expected. They were Hellriders, those who charge forward when all else lose their resolve. Righteous and true.
Reaching the end of the hall, Kiran pushed open the last door. Within was a small cluttered study that reeked of rancid lamp oil. A large, once ornate bookshelf stood against the window, blocking much of the daylight. Its shelves held various military texts and works of religious theory, including a worn copy of the Creed Resolute, their order’s most sacred tome.
At the center of the room was an old desk, whereupon sat a burning lamp, many feathered quill pens and bottles of ink. Countless sheets of parchment covered the desk, spilling onto and blanketing most of the floor.
Kiran picked up one of the sheets of parchment from the floor and read it.
I cannot expect you to forgive me, but I hope one day you will understand. Every use brings us closer to darkness. For the good of the world, it is my curse to bear alone. Let it be dragged to the void with me. Let me end it.
Your loving uncle
“It’s a letter to his niece… the one who died at Candlekeep last winter,” said the captain. Lyra and Mallor also picked up parchments.
“So is this one,” added Lyra. “And this one….”
Kiran rifled through stacks of more parchments.
Every single sheet was the same letter, word for word. She looked at the piles spread across the room. There were hundreds upon hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.
“We’re beyond insanity now,” muttered Mallor.
Kiran shook her head, at a loss, and let the letter in her hand drop.
“How dare you!”
All three knights turned to find Lord Kallinor standing at the doorway with a tray of cracked crystal goblets and a bottle of wine. With a primal roar of rage, Kallinor flung the tray and contents to the floor and took a step into the study.
“Ready yourselves,” Kiran whispered to her companions.
“Those letters are not for you!” he bellowed.
“Stand down, Sir!”
“I will not allow you to spread its evil outside this house,” Kallinor drew his longsword and held it parallel to the staff.
“Please,” Kiran put her hand on her sword hilt. “There is no need for you to die here.”
“Death is nothing next to the fate I chose!” Kallinor’s voice rose to thunder.
The old man drew himself up to his full height, seeming to tower over them for moment. Inky blackness clouded his eyes, until they were a demonic coal black. His skin took on a reddish hue and began to smolder. The trio stood mouth agape at the sight. Kiran drew her blade.
“I go willingly, to end it for all time,” the cursed knight declared in a booming baritone, “You shall not take that from me…!”
Kallinor sprung forward and swung.
Even with sword drawn, Kiran barely had time to block. The impact shook her arm to the shoulder. He was stronger than he looked, and much, much faster. Kiran heard Mallor and Lyra draw their weapons, and saw the staff’s gem glowing, likely imparting magical strength to the elder knight.
The training and instincts of battle took over. Swing, dodge, move. Without saying a word, all three knights moved into position around their opponent. Three against one would normally be quick enough work. But this was no ordinary knight. Kallinor moved with skill and purpose. The four combatants swung, parried, and moved in a dizzying dance. With sword in one hand and staff in the other, Kallinor was a whirling cyclone, a true threat.
On instinct, Kiran kicked the door open and began backing towards the great hall, where their numbers would prove more effective. Kallinor followed, with the two lieutenants pursuing him. All four continued exchanging sword blows as they moved up the corridor. Kiran kept engaged with her opponent closely, looking to allow one of her lieutenants to land a blow from behind. But the staff moved with unnatural speed to parry every attack while Kallinor relentlessly drove the young captain backward.
They emerged into the great hall. Kiran instantly cast her eyes about the room, looking for a tactical advantage. But something was wrong. It took her mind a moment to grasp what her field of vision was showing her. It was the tapestries, all around them.
To her horror, she realized that every soldier and demon depicted in every single tapestry had lowered their weapons and were now facing them. Their soulless eyes followed the knights from faded threads as if watching their fight move by move, waiting on the result.
Kiran returned her attention to Kallinor just in time to block another sword strike. She braced her foot against Kallinor’s chest plate and kicked him back, then swung her own sword high overhead and brought it down with all her strength. Kallinor blocked again with the staff, and steel rang out as it struck wood. Any normal wooden staff would have snapped like a dry branch under the powerful stroke, but this bore not a scratch.
Pivoting to his left flank, Kallinor unexpectedly swung low beneath Lyra’s sword, and then thrust between two plates of her armor. His blade bit deep into her midsection. Lyra crumbled to the floor, clutching her stomach as dark blood spurted between her fingers. Kiran moved to step protectively over her fallen comrade, but Kallinor had already shifted toward Mallor.
The two of them exchanged a fierce series of strikes. Kallinor burst forward with surprising speed, driving Mallor back several steps and then sweeping his sword aside with the staff. That was the elder knight’s opening. He swung his sword down and cleaved through armor plating, slicing away sinews of his opponent’s shoulder until the blade finally stopped, buried to the bone. Mallor collapsed to one knee, shocked eyes blinking back fathoms of pain.
But then Mallor looked up to his elder and closed a bare hand upon the blade, clutching the sword that was buried in his shoulder, preventing Kallinor from pulling it free.
“Captain!” Mallor shouted.
Kiran lunged forward at Kallinor to take advantage of the moment’s distraction. She launched herself, all or nothing, at the unarmored gap beneath his raised arm.
The gamble paid off. Her sword plunged deep and upward. Kallinor cried out as he staggered back. Kiran yanked her sword free and watched as Kallinor stumbled and fell, mortally struck. The staff clattered to the ground in front of her.
Fighting through exhaustion, Kiran assessed the situation. The other three were on the ground and all gravely wounded. Lyra was face down, unmoving. Mallor slumped slowly to the floor, blood gushing from the wreckage of what remained from his shoulder.
“Kiran…” Mallor struggled through clenched teeth, concentration wavering. “The staff can heal. Use it to, to….” His eyes rolled back into his head and he fell silent.
Kallinor, an expanding pool of blood around him, began crawling across the floor toward the staff, and the young captain standing over it. His outstretched fingers stopped inches from the staff and fell, trembling helplessly.
Kiran looked down at the staff at her feet. The single gemstone in its headpiece flickered and winked at her. She bent down and picked it up. The glow from the gem instantly overtook the chamber, bathing everything in an eerie, purple light. The captain could feel its energy surging through her body. And she could sense the energy of those surrounding her, failing by the second.
At that moment, she knew all the power in this world was hers to use. To save her friends, her city, and who knew how many others. She had only to reach out. But of this she was certain: she had to do it now.
Kallinor roused himself and strained to look upward, craning his neck to meet her gaze with black but beseeching eyes.
“Please,” he gurgled against the blood rising in his throat. “Once you use its power, there’s no going back. Let me… be the last….”
The old man’s eyes closed for the final time. His words echoed in Kiran’s mind as she finally understood that his eternal suffering, the fate he chose to spare others, was only just beginning.
The soldiers and demons on the tapestries now turned to Kiran, their vacant stares burning centuries of fervor and faith and hate at her through the fabric. The image of a Young Kallinor shifted into clarity as well, its eyes newly alit, pleading across the room from a far distance.
Now missing from the image, unseen in any tapestry, was the Imminent Light. Which made sense, Kiran thought. The object of her mission was no longer the stuff of legends. It was right there, gripped tightly in her hands.
And there she stood, poised at the threshold, poised in readiness. Lightning flashed in the distance, announcing the coming storm. Only the anxious silence of fading heartbeats remained, waiting for the peal of thunder, waiting on her next move.