People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
A Gift in Parting
Copyright 2000 Brandon Cope
Cool spring winds swept through the ancient city and carried away the lingering traces of a hard winter, but the change was greeted by vacant marketplaces, barren streets and empty parks.
Those inhabitants still left instead focused their attention on the massed army outside the formidable titanium city gates and encircling the ferro-concrete walls of the city. The vast legions stretched outwards to the distant hills, unmoved since they were revealed by the lifting of the previous morning's early mists.
Scattered defenders behind the wall's battlements looked on in silence, desperately clutching weapons in unsteady hands as they gazed out at the seemingly infinite force. Almost all of the city's population had fled to the neighboring lands, but most of the militia remained behind to defend the city, though they knew no reinforcements would be coming.
Lord Marex's mighty force, bolstered by his seemingly limitless Talents, had virtually destroyed the vast Imperial army; the few cities that remained free of his domination were unwilling to give
up even a fraction of their troops.
Marex had left his mountain exile only a few months earlier, but in that brief span his rapidly growing army had reduced to ruins all the cities that lay on his unwavering path to the capital. The Lords of each city knew the Empire was doomed and made plans to surrender to Marex if he seemed willing to accept it or flee if he were not. The Empire was already his; seizing the
capital was a mere formality.
Sheltered deep within the city stood the University, a granite structure which stood even when the metropolis itself was no more than a village of scattered wooden buildings. It's sole purpose was the research and training of the mind's inner powers.
So it came to pass that in a small, ordinary lecture hall inside the University, the plans for the final defense of the city, and thus that of the Empire, were being prepared. A half dozen people in unkempt robes of diverse colors stood around a worn oval mahogany table feverishly debating a course of action while others in white robes or military uniforms scurried about them on a myriad of tasks and errands.
A lone young man in nondescript clothing, a brown robe heaped at his feet, sat away from the group, leaning back in a chair with his eyes closed, his thoughts elsewhere. He seemed oblivious to the turmoil around him and likewise received the same degree of attention from the others. He listened to the events around him with a detached interest, but with some difficulty was able to hear what was being said at the table.
"The only Adepts remaining have Talents better suited for parlor tricks or the entertainment of children," stated a middle-aged woman wearing a faded blue robe with the emblem of First Advisor indifferently sewn to it. "All our Masters and other Adepts have been lost in futile attempts to stop Marex."
A very old man at the table slowly shook his head. "I thought there was no other choice after he found the Amulet. With such a powerful artifact he became more formidable than I had ever feared. Marex could not be allowed to possess it."
"None will dispute your reasoning, Elder," said the Steward, a slightly younger man, bald but with a full brown beard," We had no way of knowing how much he had developed his Talents in the two decades since he had been banished from here. He easily turned aside our early attempts to stop him, like a man swatting flies that annoy him. And since the Amulet transfers the Talents of any Adepts slain in its presence to its wearer, he became more powerful after each battle."
"The more we tried to stop him, the stronger he grew, and the weaker we became," echoed the Elder with a frail voice.
"All that is past. Now he returns to the University to show that nothing can stop him from the destiny he saw in a vision so many years ago, that he would become in time possess the greatest Talent on the planet, which filled his head with the longing for world domination," said the First Advisor angrily, her face flushing crimson.
"Now he returns to exact revenge on us for casting him out when he first attempted to fulfill that destiny," said the Steward, then added with a forced laugh, "Two decades to the day he was banished."
A third man glanced at the lone figure seated away from them, hesitated for a moment, then cautiously spoke. "There is still Jabel."
"Jabel?!" spat the woman with a humorless laugh. "He's more a symbol of our failure than a sign of our salvation. He's the most powerful Adept this University has ever seen, and he cannot use any of his power."
"Elana is regretably correct," nodded the Elder," Despite all our efforts, he has proven to be untrainable. Even when we attempt to draw on his Talents to augment ours, we can do nothing; it blocks our own abilities."
The discussion was abruptly stopped by a thunderous blast in the distance which shook the thick walls of the University, causing several people in the room to stagger. Sharp cracks of energy and projectile weapon fire immediately followed it, then quickly faded away. Those at the table were
motionless, their faces an ashen pale.
Several moments passed before a soldier in a disheveled uniform staggered into the hall, dust trailing from him.
Struggling to catch his breath, he gasped, "Lord Marex has smashed the gate ... and is on his way here."
The scholars at the table looked at each other in shock, unable to speak. In its thousand-year history, the city's defenses had never been breached, despite many sieges; Marex had accomplished the feat in less than a day.
Uncounted moments passed before a faint but decided voice broke the silence.
"I will stop him."
At first no one in the room was sure who had spoken. Slowly, though, all eyes turned to Jabel, who was now standing and wearing the brown robe of an Adept.
"There is nothing you can do to stop him," said Elana softly, her fervor spent," We have lost."
"You are wrong, First Advisor," said Jabel firmly, though he was neither certain of his plan nor very confident he could see it through. He walked over to the soldier and took one of the energy grenades still on his utility belt; the soldier did not object.
"I was given my Talent for a reason, and I intend to use it."
The Elder nodded slowly, as he began to realize Jabel's intentions. Jabel placed the grenade in his jacket pocket and walked out into the University courtyard, leaving the deathly silence of the room.
He sat on the rim of a dry fountain which had once been the proud centerpiece of the courtyard. As he waited to face Lord Marex, Jabel carefully considered what he was about to do, knowing there was no other way the city, and perhaps even the Empire, could be saved.
"Perhaps the plan will work", thought Jabel, "but it seems so obvious that surely Marex has considered it."
Jabel had long been considered an enigma, an Adept with incredible Talents but no ability to use it. Most others in the University had treated him with either contempt or pity.
Nothing had changed in the decade he had been here, after he was brought to the University shortly after his tenth birthday when all children were given the Test. Only faint images came to him from memories of his childhood in the country, when he was free to simply be a child before he arrived at the University heralded as the great child prodigy.
Jabel glanced up from his seat and gazed down the slowly winding path that ran from the courtyard to the city's front gate. Since the path ran north to south, the rising sun would not interfere with his vision. Or Marex's, unfortunately. Surprise, and the fact that Jabel's own Talents prevented his mind from being read, were his only assets.
In the distance, he made out a lone figure approaching. There was no surprise in this, as Marex was powerful enough to travel alone. He didn't need his army for conquest, using it more for convenience than out of necessity. Besides that, the conqueror's present task was of a very personal nature.
As the figure drew near, Jabel could tell that it was a sharp-featured man of some fifty years age, wearing a flowing green robe and walking with the slight aid of a simple oaken staff. When the Master stopped a few yards from Jabel, the Amulet, a wide bracelet of intertwined gold and platinum, without inscriptions, was clearly visible around his left wrist.
"I cannot allow you to continue," said Jabel flatly, showing more confidence than he really had. He was barely able to keep himself from visibly shaking.
"Jabel, the most useless Adept?" smirked Marex.
Jabel winced at the insult," You know of me?"
"There are few who do not know of the University's second greatest failure. So, you are all the Elder has left to send against me? He must indeed be desperate."
"I came of my own free will."
"Then you are more of a fool than I thought. Stand aside, since you cannot stop me. My destiny and vengeance await within the walls beyond you."
"You should be more careful of what you desire," said Jabel, pulling the grenade from his pocket," For you may not want what you receive."
Marex's restraint broke and he began laughing loudly," You are a madman and a fool. Did you think you could stop me so easily? Did you think that I could not defend myself against your feeble weapon?"
Jabel smiled faintly and triggered the energy grenade. In a horrifying instant, Marex realized he had been tricked; Jabel never made an effort to throw the grenade.
As Jabel vanished in the explosion's brilliant flash, Marex staggered back, not from the grenade's explosion, but the surge of Jabel's life force as it was drawn into the Amulet and fed to its wearer, even as Marex's fingers vainly tried to tear the artifact from his wrist.
As roar of the explosion died away and the surge ebbed, Marex perceived a faint voice in the back of his mind, quickly fading away into nothingness.
"Your destiny is now fulfilled, as is mine. May you enjoy my gift of power."
Marex slowly sank to his knees next to the dry fountain and screamed, his anguished voice echoing through the silent city.
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