Screams and fire filled the dark, smoke-laden air. Flames crackled forth as lightning cast from the maw of a terrible, half-hidden beast. A sword shattered as glass against the creature, as cowards fled and hid from its fury. The monster rose, towering above all. Its image blotted out the sky, its roar threatening to sunder the heavens above while its claws tore the world beneath. Soon, all that would exist, all that would be, was the creature, standing alone amidst the destruction of all that had ever been. The beginning and the end. The teeth and the fire.
The man’s eyes opened. Above the bed he lay on was no dragon, no flames, no flying shards of metal from a shattered sword. Instead, his eyes beheld what at first appeared to be a partially clouded sky, with birds frozen in mid-flight and a horizon of distant mountains. A second thought, however, proved that the birds were not frozen, but that the entire ‘sky’ and nearby walls were but an incredibly detailed and lifelike painting.
Those same walls and ceiling had been blank metal at the start, but the man had long-since tired of such a view. Or lack thereof. Thus, he endeavored to learn painting, a skill he had lacked at the start of his imprisonment. An imprisonment that had begun thousands of years before his own physical birth, chronologically. Technically, he had now been alive for several times longer than the length of time that had passed back on Earth since he was born.
Time travel. Even he found it annoying. Much as it had aided him in avoiding the problems of his contemporary Dragon-Bonded, the king known as Arthur.
In any case, for the thousands of years since those first few decades, his prison cell had been painted with a new view every so often. Every landscape he painted was drawn from the man’s own memory, a perfect image from the days of his freedom.
Watching those still, motionless birds, the man contemplated for what seemed to be a few seconds. Soon, however, he realized that over an hour had passed. Such a thing hardly mattered, of course. In a place like this, with a life as long as he’d had, hours and seconds were hardly differentiated. For several thousand years, he had been locked in this place, imprisoned by the group who called themselves Gehenna. His capture and confinement was not simply part of their job, but the entire purpose of their existence. He was the reason they had been formed in the first place. Though they kept other prisoners, most were taken solely so that those who wanted them imprisoned would contribute resources toward funding and empowering Gehenna so they could continue to pay the incredible cost of keeping this man contained for so long.
He was their first prisoner, the reason they existed. He was the first. He was One. In their language, he was Ehn.
Tearing his gaze from the painted birds, the man known to the guards of this place as Ehn rose from his bed. His cell was quite large for what it was, essentially consisting of a metal room thirty feet long by twenty feet wide. In the countless years that had passed, the place could quite easily have become filled with rich, ornate furniture and trinkets, as had the cells of those he counted as his allies in this place. And, indeed, other rooms that Ehn considered his held countless measures of comfort and entertainment, ways of passing the time. But in his personal cell, this single room where he slept, nothing of the sort existed. The room was empty, save for his simple bed and a wardrobe that held his clothes. Part of the blank metal wall beside the wardrobe was reflective, a mirror he could use to examine himself after dressing.
He wanted no material distractions within his own room, nothing that would take focus away from his meditations and planning. Sitting in the middle of the room for hours at a time, contemplating existence itself with nothing but his own landscape painting to gaze upon, kept the man focused and clear-headed, able to look toward a future only he could see.
It was a future outside of this place. A future of conquest, achievement, and a legacy that would live on for eons. A future he had sought since the days of his first steps beyond the blood of the dragon that had transformed him. The dragon whose screams he could still hear, whose terrible claws and fire were still felt upon his skin whenever his eyes closed.
Moving from the simple bed to the wardrobe, the naked man drew out simple clothes of gray, cloth pants and a white, featureless shirt. He dressed in silence, feet remaining bare, before looking to himself in the mirror. He was not an especially tall man by what Earth-bound humans would think of as modern estimates. He stood only five foot, nine inches, though all of that was quite well muscled over so many lifetimes of battles and training. His skin had been pale during his life of freedom and had become even more so over the past millennia of imprisonment. Once, his hair and beard, both the color of brownish-rust, had once been fairly long and intricately braided. Over these years, he had taken to cutting both. Now, the hair of his head fell to just above his shoulders, while his beard was neatly trimmed and would not have seemed out of place on the streets of modern-day Earth. His eyes, a muddy brownish-green color, betrayed no real sense of the incredible power he held.
For a few moments, the man called Ehn took in the sight of himself in silence. He raised a hand to touch the part of his cheek that had once been heavily scarred. It was a wound that, like so many others, had faded after his growth into a full Dragon-Bonded. Healing was but one of the gifts of the creature that had wrought so much destruction upon the land. Gifts that he had gained after the death of…
Pushing the thought aside, the man turned from the mirror and strode away. This was not the time to dwell on memories of events long-since faded into oblivion. His eyes should not be locked to the past, but should remain fully set toward the future, to the eventual universe he had put so much of his blood and sweat toward. A universe of humanity, strong and victorious, standing as guardians and stewards for all living things. He saw humanity not as weapons to be used and directed, as the Seosten did, but as the warriors that would destroy the Fomorians, break the chains of slavery, and usher the universe into a new age.
Unfortunately, many people would die in the process of creating such a future. It was tragic, yet inevitable. For things to improve, for humanity to truly rise to the position he knew they were capable of, there would be much more suffering. His people, and the universe at large, would have to go through the crucible and have their imperfections, their flaws, burned away.
His people would rise, when the time came. And when it did, he would be there to lead them against a universe that would not understand their goals. Until then, he waited. He planned. He prepared. When the coming war came, when it was time for the ascension of humanity to its true place, as leaders and protectors of all who lived in the universe, he would be ready.
A nearly invisible door lay at the opposite end of the room, and it was there that Ehn strode toward. It opened at his approach, revealing a single gleaming silver figure, a robot who served as Ehn’s combination servant and guard. The guard he interacted with the most, anyway. This prison had been built to contain him, after all. There were more troops here, both of the living and artificial variety, than most could comprehend. Not that they were there to stop him directly. They would have failed at that anyway. No, the armies quartered here were intended to stop anyone from freeing him, or breaking the spells that kept him contained.
It was those spells that Gehenna relied on to keep him trapped here. Layer after layer of magic that prevented him from leaving this place. There wasn’t one single spell that accomplished the job, but many various overlapping effects. Some limited his power, some would cause bad things to happen if he tried to leave, others served as tethers to yank him back if he did leave, and still more would target any location he left to with more destruction than an entire city could hope to survive. Not that such an assault would be enough to end him for good, but it was thought that it may break him down to a level where he could be contained once more. But, of course, the strongest of the spells was the one which targeted his own magical immunity, allowing the rest to work in the first place. It was that spell which took the most power, forcing Gehenna to use the equivalent energy of several major planets to maintain it.
They took no chances when it came to keeping their first prisoner, the reason for their creation and continued existence, where he belonged. The level of power it took to maintain the spells that trapped him would have bankrupted entire planets were it not spread between many of them. They were Gehenna. Their purpose was to keep Ehn trapped in this place.
“Good morning, Weregeld,” Ehn quietly greeted the artificial construct with the name he had given him when the being had declined to provide one. He spoke in the language of his youth. Not that it truly mattered, as Weregeld would understand any of the three dozen languages the man could have spoken in. Many millennia before Gehenna had put him to work as guard in this place, Weregeld and the others of his kind, known as the Mevari, had been created by a now-almost extinct race called the Tseuckaviel. The Mevari were incredibly powerful cybernetic lifeforms, a single one capable of going toe-to-toe with multiple true Fomorians and their armies. That Gehenna would put one to work this way was unsurprising. A single Mevari could, after all, safely take multiple shots from a capital ship-grade laser cannon, was as strong as the mightiest of trolls, immune to any biological agents given their mechanical nature, never tired or grew hungry, was capable of reaching two hundred miles per hour at a sprint, had a metal body that resisted the effects of anything like acid or electricity, and a central power core that could run unaided for over ten thousand years while generating a constant null-magic field up to a few inches around them.
He was, in a way, both the perfect companion and perfect guard for Ehn. Or at least, the best that Gehenna could manage in a single being.
“Good morning, Prisoner One,” the Mevari spoke crisply. “Would you prefer to begin with daily news, breakfast, physical exercise, mental exercise, maintenance, or other business?”
Ehn considered that briefly. This was one way that he had invented to make the days, years, decades, and centuries not bleed into one another quite as much. He never began two days in a row the same way. His schedule for each day had to be different, just to avoid letting his mind stagnate. He kept similar meals separated by at least a month, as well as other measures that were intended to ensure he never lapsed into complacency.
“Which mental exercises are we up to?” the man asked, already slipping past the robot guard and into the larger hallway beyond. It was shaped like a U, with his cell at the bottom of said U while the corridor bent in either direction away from him.
“The effect of magic on universal physics as taught in modern Seosten academies, a history of the Jewish religion on Earth, the life of Rakshasan king Tulmien the fourteenth and how his death shaped their society for several centuries, and an examination of the racial tension between gray-striped Neunliens and their unstriped kin before the arrival and subsequent take-over of their society by the Seosten,” came the simple response. “And you wished to be reminded that your test on the two hundred and thirty-seven types of flora found within the Ophloin Depths on Catryol is in three days.”
“Later for that,” the man decided. He needed breakfast first before getting into such things. “We’ll do food first. No, news. Tell me the news on the way to the kitchen.” With that decided, he started along the U-shaped hall toward the left, passing several other doors on the way. There was no one else here, of course. Very few people ever visited him, unless there was a situation, or he sent for them. For the most part, Ehn could go years without speaking to another person beyond Weregeld.
Keeping pace with him, the silver humanoid construct briskly informed him of several important events within the universe. Some more important than others. But through it all, Ehn could tell the robot was keeping something back. He let that go on through reaching the kitchen and beginning to make his own food, knowing that the robot would eventually get to the point.
Only when he had asked the appropriate questions for the events that were already presented, and taken his seat with the prepared meal some twenty minutes later, did Weregeld finally pause in a pointed way. Though some would say that a robot couldn’t possibly be ‘nervous’, that was the distinct impression that was given.
“What is it?” Ehn asked calmly, cutting into his spiced meat without looking up. He knew what he would see, the silver-figure gazing at him intently, trying to gauge how he would react to what was about to be said.
“Ah, it’s one of your… projects, sir,” came the eventual response. “The necromancer who has been making his place on Earth for some time.”
“Merakeul? The one who calls himself Fah-Seur. Fossor.” Taking a bite and chewing thoughtfully, Ehn waited before prompting, “What about him?”
Again, there was a brief pause. If Ehn didn’t know better, he’d think the robot was afraid of being destroyed for giving bad news. Which was preposterous of course. He never killed the messenger. “It’s–he’s dead, sir. He was killed just yesterday, according to the reports we’ve received. I made certain to confirm it before bringing the news to you, and it is definitive. The one called Fossor has suffered true and final death.”
For a moment, Ehn didn’t react at all. He cut himself another piece of meat, chewing on that thoughtfully as he digested the news. Finally, the man spoke a single word, “Who?”
“Ah, the ahh, human girl,” Weregeld hurriedly explained. “The daughter of the Heretic he abducted, the one who helped return the memories of her mother’s rebellion against Crossroads. She–”
“Chambers?” The man turned slightly, his gaze taking in the silver figure directly as he spoke very carefully, making it clear that he expected no misinterpretations. “Felicity Chambers killed Merakeul?”
Again, there was a very brief pause, before the robot slowly confirmed, “That is correct.”
“Ah.” Turning back to his plate, Ehn resumed eating with a simple, “Good to know.”
When he said nothing else beyond that, Weregeld hesitantly asked, “This doesn’t upset you?” It was clear that he’d expected at least some kind of outward reaction. A very angry and potentially incredibly destructive outward reaction.
“Should it?” Ehn asked flatly, curious as to what his companion’s response would be. He knew what the robot, and by extension other members of Gehenna believed. But he was curious as to how much would be openly acknowledged. The guards here knew that their primary prisoner had far more power and influence than one should in his position, even if most didn’t actually understand the hows and whys of it. Which was intentional, of course. They couldn’t do their jobs if they were distracted by such information.
“It’s just–” Again the construct hesitated, seeming to consider its words. Or maybe it was getting orders from elsewhere. “You put a lot of work and energy into building Fossor as a potential weapon or ally in the future. It was, after all, upon your insistence and considerable calling of favors that Merakeul was imprisoned by Gehenna in the first place. You wanted him imprisoned and then allowed to escape for a reason. And now, after several thousand years of allowing him to run like that, he is… dead. All that effort and energy has been wasted.”
Ehn didn’t respond to that for the moment. Instead, he continued to eat, silently clearing his plate before straightening. As he took the dishes to the sink, the man casually spoke. “By that measure, I suppose one would think that this… Felicity Chambers has eliminated one enemy, only to gain another.” He washed the plate, glass, and utensils before turning to his companion/guard. “Is that what you’re asking, Weregeld? If I want to extend my influence to see the Chambers girl eliminated for such a transgression?”
“The thought had occurred, yes,” came the response. “All that energy and effort to ensure that the necromancer would be a tool for future use, wiped away by one young child. A certain measure of annoyance and retaliation would be understandable.”
Rather than speak to that right away, Ehn simply turned and began to walk out of the room, returning to the corridor. Together, the pair had strode almost all the way back to where his cell was before he finally responded. “You’re right, of course. I did put quite a lot of effort into putting Fossor into the previous Gehenna prison, and in ensuring his escape was not interrupted. The favors, the strength that had to be shown to ensure his growth into what he became, was not insignificant. For that to be wiped away, erased thousands of years later by a single, random girl? For my plans to be destroyed that easily, that would be quite the problem. I see why you would anticipate fury and retaliation.”
By that point, they had stopped in front of the door leading to what Ehn thought of as his classroom. Weregeld slowly asked, “But you are not reacting that way. Which would imply that none of that actually happened. Your efforts were not, in fact, wiped away. It would imply that you are not angry about your plans being hurt, because they weren’t hurt at all. Because–”
Ehn offered him a very faint smile, as the construct finally reached the proper conclusion. “Because I never intended for Merakeul to live forever. He served his purpose. He spent thousands of years gaining power, stretching his gift beyond what he ever could have reached without a little prodding. And now that he made his power as strong as possible, the man himself wasn’t needed. A vile, untamed beast like that is like a rabid wolf. You put such a thing down, you don’t try to use it.”
“You always intended for him to be killed by a human who could inherit his gift,” Weregeld realized. “Was it always that girl in particular, or…”
“There were several options,” came the simple response. “The older Chambers woman, for one. But I can work with the child as well, when the time comes. For the moment, let’s just say that if Felicity Chambers believes her life will become less complicated with the death of the necromancer, she is very much mistaken.”
Thousands of years earlier, by his own reckoning, the man had been the only person to stand at his cousin’s side and face the dragon head-on. While all others ran, the two of them had taken the monster alone. As his shield was burned to ashes and the other man’s sword shattered against that beast’s hide, the one who would become known as Ehn had driven his own sword into the wound. It was an act that had left his hand both horribly burned, and covered in the dragon’s blood that would make its mark on his future. And it opened the way for the beast to be killed by his far-stronger companion.
His champion and mentor had died that day. But, thinking back to that moment brought no tears or regrets, for Ehn knew that the other man would not have chosen any other way to end his life but to have killed a dragon in the process. For that was truly a death befitting the strongest of warriors.
And now, thinking of what was to come, the man formerly known as Wiglaf, cousin of Beowulf, smiled with quiet anticipation.