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The Sentinel

Darkness but for the candle the man carries in his hand. His long robes make their swishing sounds as he walks barefoot along the damp cobblestone floor. At the end of the corridor, a hole and stairs. He can feel a strange power emanating from below as he takes to the stairs and heads downward, ever downward, in a circular path which leads to that place where natural light cannot go.

At the bottom of the stairs he comes to a door. A sturdy wood construction with iron hinges – its age apparent even in this dim light. He takes the key from his sash and puts it into the lock which hangs from a staple and hasp fastened tight to the door. The mechanism turns with an ease which surprises him, the ancient workings clicking and then releasing. He pulls the lock from the staple, moves the hasp back and pauses to take a deep breath. Once he enters, he knows he will never leave. This is his bargain. This is his fate. He reaches for the latch and lifts, the door releasing from its binding and swinging inward, silent. A cool breeze kisses his face and blows a wisp of silver hair in front of his eyes. He removes the key from the hole and lets it fall from his hand, it clanks on the stone flooring, but he keeps hold of the lock.

Entering the room, the candle’s light shimmers and casts dancing shadows on the stone walls. In the center of the room stands a table, a chair and a large rectangular mirror in an ornate metal frame. The man turns and shuts the door. Another staple and hash are mounted onto this side of the door. He works the latch into place and puts the lock through it. Exhaling he commits himself to this place, fastening the lock tight – the key left beyond the door.

He moves to the table. On it he sees an oil lamp, a stack of parchment, a quill and ink jar, a loaf of bread, a decanter, a flagon and a chalice. He lights the lamp and snuffs the candle. The lamp emits a strange inky green light, whether due to the oil or the wick, he does not know and it is not for him to divine. He lifts the flagon to his nose, water. He lifts the decanter, wine. He raises an eyebrow – and pours wine from the decanter into the chalice. The weight of the decanter seems unchanged as he places it back onto the table. He tears off a piece of bread and pops it into his mouth. It has a sour taste but he finds it pleasing. He sips from the chalice. Good wine, red, dark and dry.

From his robe he pulls a dagger, sharp and true. He places it on the table. There are some things a man should not see. Things he should not endure. Things too terrible to live with. A coolness envelopes him and the lamp’s flame shimmers in the wake of it. Technicalities are not yours alone.

He loosens his sash and removes his dark robes, placing them over the back of the chair. He wraps and works them into a position that will grant him some comfort from the hardness of the wood. He moves around to the front of the chair and sits. Another look around the room. Barren. Cold. Dark. It measures no more than a dozen paces across in any direction. He looks to the mirror and sees himself in the murky reflection. Distorted. There is a depth to the reflection, it does not sit on the face of the mirror but seems to dwell somewhere below. It reminds him of a childhood memory, looking at his feet beneath a shallow pool of water.

He takes the chalice in hand and sips more wine. It calms him. A wave of warmth travels down his body a sense of comfort washing over him. The hardest part of it is behind me. Resignation and acceptance – those were the hurdles to overcome.

From the table he takes a piece of parchment. It is sturdy and thick. It will drink of the ink. He places it onto the edge of the table near to him. He grabs hold of the quill and dips it into the ink. He runs the end of it over the lip of the jar removing excess. There must be a neatness to my work a tidy order of things. Their stories demand it. He commits the movement to muscle memory repeating the action several times more. All things set, all facets of his bargain thus met, he turns again to the mirror. How strange is mine own visage within this aged glass? The mirror is not tuned to tell the truth of this world – but of the other.

He inhales and exhales in a rhythmic way. At first concentrating on such simple matters and then releasing them. He looks on himself but sees the image fade away. His eyes do not concentrate on any of the reflected elements of the room but look toward something further off, unseen, searching. His eyes are unblinking. The focus of them diminishing, the light of the room fading fast.

Through the mirror now he sees a place. Green. Lush grasses. A high canopy of trees. He soars above them, like a bird. The sun burns bright over the landscape. Below he sees a man toiling at stone, picking away. A miner? His skin tanned, he sweats and swings.

Behind him a man on horseback chastises. “Bronze, your yields have been light, I demand an explanation.” He is a woodsman of a sort, yet he seems to be a taskmaster. He wears light armors colored in a manner that would conceal him in cover. He is carrying both sword and bow. The tan man shrugs and continues at his work. The real find here is that they speak the common tongue.

In his room, behind his mirror, the man’s hand moves across the page, chronicling all that he sees. Without thinking his hand moves from page to ink well, and back again, scratching words onto the parchment. Feeling the edge of the paper he reaches for another piece.

He is soaring again, higher – away from the men. Such a height in a clear sky gives him sight to see the whole of the area. There is a small village to the south and east. To the north and east a larger settlement, a town. Further north and to the west he spies a large estate. He wishes to be there and in an instant he arrives. It is a fortress of a sort. Well garrisoned. There are banners flying with bears painted upon them. A feudal house. The man scratches this discovery onto the page, making a map from what he sees. Further north there is isolation. Coldness. Snow and ice and mountainous terrain, but he feels a pull of ancient magic, a thing which he cannot comprehend but perhaps his master might. Something old dwells there, undying. Perhaps more than a thing, mayhaps a people. It is both foreign and familiar. It is the familiarity of it which frightens him – undying.

He looks to the far off West. Beyond the mountains there is a vast desert. He blinks and is there. Ancient temples dot the land below. An ancient people dwell there. A warrior caste. The air is dry and he feels himself wishing for more wine. But he must watch. He must chronicle. These folk seem native to the land, native to the world. They are hard. Etched of the sands that shape the rock via hot arid winds. Why do they not press on toward greener locales where the living is easier? Some of them also speak common – but their use of it is as hard and brittle as the land on which they eek their existence. He sees a woman appear from nothingness in the middle of the desert. She is not of their kind. She is not one of these desert dwellers. She looks lost. Frightened. She will be lucky to survive a night. Why has she come? How has she come? More etchings on paper. Questions asked and unanswered. How many more like her?

He cannot bear to watch her struggle and again flies off, this time to the south and the east. In the distance greenery and a vast cityscape. He moves off toward it. Another being appears to come from nothingness. Do my eyes betray me? Is the sight imperfect? It is a man. Like the woman in the desert he appear lost. A shimmering spark of energy recedes from where he has formed from nothingness. He wanders a moment, disoriented. He has dark hair and pale skin. He wears a beard. He arrives bearing a sword and shield. How strange.

A notation is made onto a piece of paper far off and distant from this reality. Another page gone. Another page lifted from the pile of blank parchment. More dipping of the quill into ink and the practiced tap, tap, tap on the rim of the reservoir that removes the excess.

The city. He thinks it, and is there – flying above it. Below him is the hustle and bustle of life. Craftsmen tend to their midday chores. Guards walk the streets sometimes stopping to mingle. Smoke wafts into the air from hearth, place and forge. A castle compound, surrounded by sentries. It has a grandeur fit for a king. Is this the capitol? Life, an abundance of it.

In an alleyway – another being forms from the ether. Another man, this one in robes. Sorcery? He has the look of a practitioner. No. Not sorcery of his own doing. He too seems confused. Disoriented. Unable to remain standing, he sits on the ground against a stone wall. His confusion now looks like fear. Lower, towards the man and then he is in that alley with him, in this proximity his other senses engage. He can smell the coal smoke of a nearby forge. Incredible.

The robed man breathes shallow breaths, his eyes darting about. He does not have the look of a wild man. His eyes are earnest, their gray conveying wisdom. This is not a man taken by madness. He is a man consumed in wonder and discovery. “Where? How? The portal?” He says these things aloud as if to make them real and tangible. To convince himself that he is not dreaming. The viewer probes deeper into the image before him, daring to eavesdrop on the thoughts of the robed man. The robed man’s mind is a jumble of ideas. Excitement and terror balanced on a scale that moves up and down as the robed man focuses on one or the other. He is a scholar. That thing which has brought him here has been a puzzle for some time. One thing is certain. This is not his world. He pushes out from the robed man’s mind. Focuses on that coal smoke smell and is drawn back into the alley.