Story by Jeremy Sung and Brian Stevenson
Written by Jeremy Sung
Art by Matt Cauley
The Old Miner
The Old Miner trudged down the gently sloping mineshaft. The others had laughed at him. “Old, worn, and broken down.” They would say this of the man and the ancient mine he worked. Yes, they laughed. That is until the first time he returned with the finest ore, raw gems and stone they had ever seen. Then they rushed to work the old mine themselves. Time and again they would return empty handed. Only The Old Miner had the knack they would say. Some even made the sign of protection when he would pass. They whispered that he was touched by the kobolds, or the rock sprites or some other fairy story bogeymen. Eventually they gave up, leaving him to work the "haunted" mine alone.
However, the stories they whispered did trouble him as they held a small knot of truth. There was something mystical about that old mine. It was as if something was guiding him to find new veins of ore, new caches of gems and rich quarries of marble and quartz. Often he would feel as if he were being watched, and turn only to find it was a random pile of rock, vaguely resembling the shape of a man-like creature. Once he had nearly been caught in a cave-in after carelessly delving too fast and too deep after a shining vein of platinum ore. He'd never tell a soul, but he was sure someone, or some thing, had pulled him out just in time as he awoke hours later, unharmed with a neat pile of ore next to him.
Whatever the reason, this mine had made him rich. He was sure this trip would be no different and there was only one man he would sell his materials to. The Old Miner set to work. He had a long day of work to do before bringing his haul to The Weaponsmith.
With a grunt, The Old Miner heaved the last sack of ore onto the heap in the center of the workshop. "That's all of it, Master Weaponsmith."
The Weaponsmith nodded and counted out the agreed upon sum of gold and handed it to the old man. "Thank you my friend.”
The Old Miner turned to go, but paused a moment. "Beggin' your pardon Master Smith, but somethin's been naggin' at me mind these past few months..."
The Weaponsmith frowned. This did not halt The Old Miner’s curiosity, "I been bringin' you all manner of ore, gem and stone and I seen your armory fill with all manner of weapons...." the old man paused, "...these past months each time I visit I’ve not seen your forge fires hot, nor any ash, nor slag or scrap. Yet the materials are gone and your armory is full. It’s like you take the raw stuff I bring you and turn it into weapons, easy as that."
The Weaponsmith grinned, "Well old friend, you didn't really think I could turn out an armory full of weapons every fortnight on my own did you?"
The Old Miner started to speak, but stopped. The two men shared a glance, eyes locked, and nodded almost imperceptibly. "Everyone needs some help I suppose. And everyone has secrets... I'll take my leave now Master Smith."
"Be well my friend, fates protect you..." and The Old Miner took his leave.
The day had been long. The Weaponsmith stood up and stretched his sore shoulders. The materials were arranged on the workshop floor just the way he had seen them in his dreams. Ore with ore, gems with gems, stone with stone. Placed in a pattern like a great gear or starburst. All he had to do was close up the workshop and head back to his small room in the citadel. Come morning he would return and the material would be gone. Replaced by another gleaming pile of the finest weapons he had ever seen.
Still he knew not the mysterious benefactors that all but did his work for him. There was never any slag or scrap left behind, yet there seemed to be some loss of material in the transformation. Perhaps that was the price the mysterious crafters required. More than fair, thought The Weaponsmith, as the weapons they left paid the cost of the materials many times over, leaving him both wealthy and renowned through the kingdom.
He doused the workshop lamps on his way to the door. Just as he turned to open the outer door, he felt the oddest sensation. An instant of both withering heat and bitter cold, followed by a pressure and release, like the last moments of holding your breath. He spun around and staggered slightly backwards. "Stranger!"
"Greetings, Master Weaponsmith. We meet again." Replied the shadowy figure.
The Weaponsmith first met The Stranger years ago. He had been arrogant, full of pride at his work, boasting that his were the finest blades in all the cosmos. Then one night The Stranger made his first appearance in The Weaponsmith's workshop. He asked The Smith to prove that his were not idle boasts and to create a blade that could serve one who walked the cosmic space ways. Challenging him to forge a blade capable of cleaving a path between good and evil. A Master Blade. The Weaponsmith laughed and brought forth his newest creation, a gaudy gilded blade, ornate and as arrogant as the man who forged it. The Stranger took it and in his grip the blade tarnished, cracked and finally crumbled.
So The Weaponsmith toiled. For many years he was consumed with proving his skill to this ‘Stranger’. Each blade he created was finer, cleaner and truer than the last, but time and again The Stranger would return and the blade would fail in that mysterious cosmic grip. Until one night, in his grief and exhaustion The Weaponsmith collapsed at his workbench. His dreams were strange, troubled. At daybreak he woke to find the flawed prototypes he had constructed replaced by a blade he knew would serve. The following night the Stranger appeared again. This time the Stranger gripped the new blade and smiled. It was indeed A Master Blade. The Stranger took the blade and The Weaponsmith, humbled, went on to truly master his craft.
Years had passed since the creation of The Master Blade. It seemed no surprise to The Stranger that The Master Smith was startled at his sudden appearance. He spoke in a steady otherworldly tone, "It appears you have been very busy in my absence. I did not think you would be able to craft anything to match The Master Blade. You are full of surprises, Master Smith."
The Stranger ran a clawed finger over the pile of ore arranged neatly on the workshop floor. "A strange way to store your supplies."
The Weaponsmith still recovering from his shock attempted to answer, "I... You see..."
Then the Stranger laughed. An honest, open laugh at odds with his grim visage.
"Fear not Master Smith, you have done no wrong. Indeed, you are but a link in a grand chain of events, a glyph in a pattern that has taken me years to see. You have brought power and protection to your people and served The Great Struggle admirably."
The Weaponsmith relaxed, feeling a great weight lift from his soul.
"Return to your home, Master Smith. I will stand vigil this night, that we may learn the source and the skill, which has filled your armory. Whoever they are they must wield great power to create such formidable weapons and I would learn of their place in The Great Struggle."
The Stranger sat still. Not still like a man, not even still like a stalking bush cat or great sand devil waiting for it's prey, but as still as to almost fade from perception. The workshop was dark as pitch the sun had long set and the moons had yet to rise. The Master Blade lay across his lap, blade winking and gleaming with cosmic energy. His eyes were closed but his senses were sharpened like no other being in known existence.
His eyes flashed open a moment before it happened.
The empty air above the pattern of ore, gems and stone laid out on the floor seemed to quiver, then crack like glass. The crack widened and a heavy shape dropped to the floor. It was followed by a second and third, each landing silently despite their squat bulk.
The Stranger stood and immediately the newcomers tensed, turning as one to face the unexpected intruder. Each one fell into a combat stance, with fists like hammers and grim weapons that seemed a part of their thick arms. The Stranger raised an open hand, hoping to placate the strange creatures, but the lead one lunged. The Stranger raised The Master Blade to parry the coming blow, but before it fell one of the creatures spoke. "Hold. He wields one of our blades, and to wield it names you friend to The Gearo."
"Friend I may be,” The Stranger lowered his sword, “though I would know who names me as such for merely holding this blade."
"We know you Stranger, servant of The Great Struggle,” replied the gleaming red figure. “Though you do not know us, perhaps the time has come to reveal our part in the grand pattern of the cosmos. We are The Weaponeers of the dimension of Monkaa. I am called Empyreus Rex, Ruler of Monkaa and Leader of The Gearo. War is coming to your world, and without the weapons we have been forging for your people, you are lost."
"I serve The Great Struggle. The balance and conflict that is the crucible for greatness. I'll not have you destroy that balance. I've seen the weapons you create. They are a match for my Master Blade and even in the hands of the righteous they are fearfully powerful." The Stranger’s hand tightened around the grip of his weapon.
Empyreus Rex laughed. The sound was like nothing The Stranger had ever heard, as if a thousand solid iron boulders were crashing down a mountainside. "Naïve Stranger, we have been fighting what you call ‘The Great Struggle’ since long before you took your first steps into the cosmos. Palidar! Explain to our new friend.”
The heavily silver armored member of the trio strode into the light, “Did we not gift you with your own Master Blade? It was but the first taste for your world. Do you think we are the only ones crafting weapons of such might? Every light casts a shadow, and our shadows have already seeded your worlds with darkness. We are not here to serve in your war, we are here to arm you that you might join us in ours."
Empyreus spoke once more, “Come Stranger, follow us and learn!”
For the first time in eons, The Stranger felt awe. He watched as the three figures leapt back into the rift they had ripped into the air. Reluctance gave way to curiosity. The Stranger sheathed his Master Blade, and dove into the unknown.
The Stranger floated and spun like a leaf in a gale, a mere idea in a maelstrom of possibilities. The Weaponeers had offered him an invitation to cross over to their realm, which they referred to as Monkaa. He learned that they were called The Gearo, builders and guardians on their home world and were seeking allies to join their cause. The Stranger agreed to the visit and followed them into the portal to their dimension. Their dimensional rifts were like nothing he had ever experienced. His own abilities to fold space and travel the breadth of his universe were practically instantaneous. But The Weaponeers' rifts pierced the very fabric of reality and seemed to temporarily suspend all rules of linear time and space.
Stretching his senses, he began to perceive what he soon realized were other universes. He saw a universe where diminutive Travelers crossed a cosmos of sentient machines and fearful amalgamated beasts. He saw universes of fantastic beings from the reaches of Outer Space, men as awe inspiring as they were alien. Canne'boid hordes, Armorvors, Ancient Astronauts; the worlds open to these Weaponeers and their Armories were limitless.
Then, in a flash of light, it was over. The Stranger blinked in the harsh glare of three alien suns and looked around. Huge crags rose from deep gorges, as if the very landscape were formed of great conflict. In the distance a vast jungle sprawled and the vague shapes of gigantic creatures lumbered in the murk. But what shook The Stranger to his very core was the pulse of raw power that emanated from the ground at his feet. The very fabric of this universe hummed with potential energy, each boulder and rock almost crying out to be formed into a tool of great power or a weapon of great destruction.
"Welcome to Monkaa, Stranger." He turned to see Empyreus Rex and his two companions. Unlike earlier whereas The Weaponeers had merely exuded power, here on their home world they threw off waves of force like miniature suns. "I trust the crossing wasn’t too much of a shock?"
The Stranger shook his head, "Your world teems with power, and you... you are the hands that can harness and wield that power. I see now why the weapons you forge are so formidable. The forces you can unleash..."
Empyreus chuckled. "You've only begun to see Monkaa, Stranger. Palidar! Accompany The Stranger that he might see more of our world without running afoul of anything too far beyond his abilities to master."
The Stranger turned to regard The Weaponeer General called Palidar. He was squat, like all Weaponeers and was armored head to toe. The eyes that glowed from the depths of the high helmet he wore looked as if they had seen much glory and much sorrow. "Empyreus, would it not be wise to stay together? The Vilhain often send scouts and saboteurs even this close to the capitol."
Again Empyreus laughed. "You worry too much old friend! Take this Crystal Gohlem and accompany The Stranger. Let him explore and satisfy his curiosity a bit before re-joining us at the capitol. I think I can handle anything The Vilhain can throw at me."
Empyreus slapped The Stranger on the back, staggering him slightly. "See our world Stranger! Your senses are sharp. You may reveal secrets that even we have yet to discover!"
The phantom image on the glass wall dispersed and Umbreus, Supreme Overlord of the Vilhain turned angrily. "So Empyreus thinks to bring an alien to our world? Yet another interloper to steal what is mine."
Without warning Umbreus turned and obliterated the wall with a punch from his spiked fist that split the very bedrock floor of his fortress and turned the molten lava beneath to steam.
"Brutok!" Umbreus shouted in a tone that was both commanding and petulant.
The shadows stirred and a powerful figure strode forth into the dim light.
"Ay, Lord Umbreus", the frightening figure replied.
"That arrogant pup Empyreus has seen fit to bring a outsider to our world! No doubt he thinks he can bolster his forces and deny me my birthright. All is mine, Brutok, The Power of Monkaa. This world. This universe. All universes. ALL IS MINE!"
Brutok waited. His master was clearly not done ranting, and Brutok knew not to disturb him. Beneath his lumbering brutish exterior, the War Marshall of the Vilhain hid cunning and battle savvy that not even Umbreus suspected.
"But Empyreus has once again proven what a naive imbecile he is. He has sent his bodyguards away with the outsider while he journeys alone back to the capitol. Take a force of Magma Gohlem to ambush the fool and bring him to me."
"Ay, Lord Umbreus. Brutok Obeys." Brutok bent down slightly and dragged his large fingers along the floor of the Great Hall. From the crags of broken stone and the flowing lava beneath crawled three creatures. These three resembled the Crystal Gohlem in the Gearo exploration party, but these three were made of molten magma. They formed ranks behind Brutok and followed him out of the chamber.
As the attack force made their exit, Umbreus reached for the helmet on a pedestal near his throne and placed it on his head, The Helm of Vilhain. Slumping down upon his throne and with a wave of his hand the volcanic glass wall reformed and the image of the The Stranger and his Gearo guides reappeared. “Yes, I know who you are. Why are you here, Stranger? And what exactly does my Star Brother hope to gain by your presence?”
The Stranger staggered slightly and fell to one knee as he stopped to rest at the crest of what seemed to be an entire cliff side made of the same metal that comprised Palidar’s armor. He had been hiking and exploring with Palidar and the silent Crystal Gohlem for hours and had only begun to take in the vastness that was Monkaa. As he stood, his ankle twisted awkwardly in the metal dust and he began to fall toward the sharp precipice. Suddenly the Crystal Gohlem was there, firmly but gently catching The Stranger and steadying him until he had his balance again.
"My thanks," said the Stranger. The Crystal Gohlem had no answer, merely cocking his head quizzically to the side before slowing nodding. On impulse, The Stranger placed his hand on the Gohlem's shoulder and nodded with a smile. After a moment the Gohlem copied The Stranger's gesture, the barest hint of a smile on its rough-hewn features. The Stranger laughed, and to his surprise the Crystal Gohlem did too, though it was a strange sound like a combination of wind chimes and pane glass breaking. Then the Crystal Gohlem raised a large hand and pointed to The Stranger's Master Blade. The Stranger unsheathed the sword, holding it out to the Gohlem to examine. The Gohlem then raised a hand and before the Stranger's astonished eyes a clear blue crystal energy blade blossomed from the Gohlem's fist. The Stranger sheathed the Master Blade and the Golem did likewise. The pair laughed again, this time in unison.
Palidar approached the duo, "Are you alright Stranger?"
"Yes, thanks to my new friend here," he answered.
"What happened, are you unwell?" asked Palidar.
"No, it's just that the inherent power of your world takes some getting used to. My senses are...finely tuned in my universe. It's taking some time to filter and sort through all the energies. It is..." he paused and then smiled. "...Wondrous."
Palidar nodded. "It is merely my home. Though I love it well, I often only see the strife and battle scars our long battle with The Vilhain have left. It does me good to be reminded of its majesty."
The Stranger glanced at the silent Crystal Gohlem. "He doesn't speak much does he?"
Palidar regarded the Gohlem. "He is still new to life, and has only just taken up the Gearo cause. He has yet to choose a specific life path. So for now, he simply observes and learns. "
This puzzled The Stranger, "He is a child then?"
The Gearo Commander considered this. "Hmm… something like that. It is...complicated. A seer or forgemage would be better suited to explain than an old warrior like me. Suffice it to say that a Weaponeer is not born a Gearo or Vilhain. Rather its journey through life shapes and forges it, honing its strengths and exposing its true nature. His journey has only just begun, but he has shown the curiosity and compassion of a true Gearo. He is also very brave, I would be proud should he choose to join my guard at the citadel."
The Stranger suddenly stiffened and then winced as if in great pain.
"We must go Palidar! Now!" He started down the path.
Palidar’s blue eyes glowed with surprise, "Stranger, What is it?"
The Stranger paused, though he felt great urgency. "Recall when I told you my senses were sharp, General? Well, I'm starting to get the measure of the life energies and signatures of your world and your people. I'm beginning to recognize unique life forces like yours, the Crystal Gohlem's...and that of Empyreus Rex."
The Stranger winced again. "Unless I'm greatly mistaken, what I sense now is that Empyreus is under attack and hard pressed. And though I've yet to encounter them, I assume it is..."
"…The Vilhain." Palidar stated grimly.
Empyreus frowned. He had taken a leisurely meandering path back on his way to the capital, taking full advantage of his momentary freedom from the responsibilities of ruler. Suddenly he saw something odd in a small grotto just off the main trail. It was a heartstone, one of the energy filled crystals that mysteriously appeared and formed the core of a growing Gohlem. They could appear anywhere in any material, be it quartz crystal, sandstone, obsidian or even molten magma, and would grow stronger and form the body of a Gohlem around them. However this one was in distress. It had formed within a cluster of stones, but a nearby spar of crystal had collapsed and landed on the heartstone, crushing it into the earth. It pulsed weakly in danger of expiring.
"This won't do," said Empyreus, as he climbed down to free the distressed stone. With a powerful heave he threw the broken spar clear and the heartstone almost immediately began pulsing healthily.
"How touching...sss...sss…" hissed a voice. Empyreus spun around to see a Magma Gohlem blocking his path back to the trail. "What a soft heart the Lord of the Gearo has...sss...sss…" said a second Magma Golem as he emerged from behind a large boulder. "Maybe we tear it out…sss...sss…" called a third from above the lip of the Grotto.
Empyreus grinned. "Well, this is unexpected. You three walk the path of the Vilhain and impede me from returning to my own path. I could use a bit of exercise."
The Magma Gohlems closed in. "Three against one? No fears, I like a challenge." With incredible speed he ducked the swipe of a flaming sword. Then he blasted its wielder across the grotto with a shot from his fist that had formed into a cannon. The other two Gohlems charged him and he leapt over them as they collided in a messy tangle of flaming limbs. "Is that the best you can do?" Empyreus said, still grinning.
That grin quickly faded when a large shadow fell across him. "Clumsy Gohlem! Need him alive! In one piece! Mostly!" thundered the mighty Brutok as he leapt into the grotto, landing with a ground-shattering rumble.
The Stranger practically flew down the trail, finally rounding the corner and leaping down into the grotto. The scene that greeted him was grim indeed. One Magma Gohlem shook it’s head as it stood up dazed. Two others had a hold on Empyreus and before the Stranger's eyes Brutok knocked the Lord of the Gearo unconscious with a brutal blow to the head. The Stranger let out a cry and ran towards the large green assailant.
"Bind him!" commanded Brutok pointing to The Stranger. The nearest Magma Gohlem raised its hands forming a web of energy like a great net, which it hurled at The Stranger. The Stranger raised the Master Blade reflexively and was shocked when the net parted beneath his swing. "Fool!" rumbled Brutok. Faster than The Stranger thought possible Brutok swung his newly morphed fist, wreathed in glowing energy spikes like a great mace. He knocked The Stranger off his feet, and into the grotto wall where he slid down in a dazed heap. The Magma Gohlem closed in when a blur of sparkling blue landed in front of the prone Stranger. As the Magma Gohlem swung a fist like a flaming mace down, the Crystal Gohlem wove a net of pure blue energy and hurled it, snaring the Magma Gohlem in a neat bundle.
"Brutok. Still Umbreus's dog I see," said Palidar as he landed in the grotto next to the Crystal Gohlem. The two remaining Magma Gohlem rushed the Gearo warriors, flaming energy blades forming in their fists. As one, Palidar and the Crystal Gohlem met them with glowing energy hammers around their fists, blazing like miniature suns. The flame swords sputtered and doused when they met the hammers. The Crystal Gohlem's opponent was struck square in the chest and fell to the ground reduced to a bubbling pool of magma. Palidar's challenger ducked his swing rolling past the old Gearo, only to be smashed into a puddle of molten goo as Palidar flipped backward with a double kick. The leap had put Palidar out of position as Brutok moved in. The Crystal Gohlem bravely stood his ground not willing to abandon the injured Stranger, clear blue crystal energy blade in his hand. But he was no match for Brutok. With a terrifying roar Brutok struck the Crystal Gohlem as he swung his sword, smashing him in a spray of jagged crystal shards.
"NO!" screamed Palidar, and with an anguished war cry leapt at his old rival.
"HA! Brutok break your playmate, Old Gearo?" mocked the brute.
"I'm the one you want, Vilhain! I’ll be your end!" shouted Palidar as he clashed with Brutok.
"This how it should be, Palidar!” his taunts continued, “This how will always be, Palidar! Strength for strength, power for power, skill for skill, until only mightiest remain!"
Palidar grimaced and with a mighty heave, he lifted Brutok over his head and hurled him across the grotto. Brutok twisted in mid air and landed deftly on his feet. His eyes blazed with battle lust as he prepared to lunge again at his nemesis.
"Master…sss! Gearo forces approach…sss...sss! We must flee!" The first Magma Gohlem had freed itself from its bonds and climbed the lip of the grotto. In the adjacent clearing, a gleaming host of Gearo warriors fast approached. Brutok turned toward the coming forces; he would take them all on.
Suddenly a dimensional rift tore open above him. "RETURN!" hissed the voice of Umbreus.
“NO! BRUTOK STAY! BRUTOK FIGHT!” roared the mighty mass of a figure.
“I COMMAND YOU TO RETURN!!” Violently the rift expanded, swallowing the still raging Vilhain General and his cowering minion.
"Next time, Vilhain," whispered Palidar grimly as he kneeled beside the fallen Empyreus.
"My Lord," he said gently as Empyreus stirred.
"Palidar... you're late for the party... I was having a great time with the Magma Gohlems, but that Brutok is a real gear grinder,” joked Empyreus as Palidar helped him up. "I'm fine old friend, see to The Stranger."
Palidar turned to see The Stranger kneeling sadly among the shattered remains of the Crystal Gohlem.
"He defended me," The Stranger said softly, "and he paid with his life."
Palidar gently searched among the crystal shards.
"Can he be saved?" asked The Stranger.
Palidar shook his head sadly as he lifted the Gohlem's heartstone, which had dimmed almost completely. "I fear not Stranger. His energies have been all but extinguished. Without a living heartstone a Weaponeer cannot be reforged."
"There is always hope old friend," said Empyreus, taking the heartstone in his hands. Then the Lord of the Gearo focused his own life energy into the fading heartstone and the grotto lit up like a thousand suns. When the light abated The Stranger looked at the heartstone and saw it glowing steadily. "The Forge Star shines forever, my friends," said Empyreus. Then he staggered and fell to one knee, dropping the heart stone, which The Stranger deftly caught. "It seems I've pushed my limits a bit too far this day. I might need some assistance making it back to the capital," laughed Empyreus.
"Always my Lord," said Palidar as he lifted Empyreus. The Stranger took the heartstone and as much of the shattered crystal as he could carry and followed Palidar and Empyreus up the trail.
The Capital of The Gearo was not at all what The Stranger expected. He had assumed it would be a magnificent castle overflowing with opulence and grandeur. It was grand, but only in its scale and solidity. Surrounded by a great wall of metal and stone, it housed thousands of Gearo warriors, smiths, clerics and Gohlem of all kind. There were no gaudy shows of wealth, but every brick, stone and rivet spoke of simple strength and honest craftsmanship. Great towers watched over the city within, each one made of the major elements of Monkaa. The Stranger recognized a tower built of the same mysterious metal that formed Palidar's armor. Another nearby tower, made of crystal sparkled in the fading sunlight. In the distance he saw towers of stone of various types. At the center of the city he beheld a large fortress made of the same bright red alloy that Empyreus's armor was fashioned from. It was that Citadel he, Palidar and Empyreus were headed toward.
Upon entering the great hall of The Citadel of The Gearo, they were greeted by a most unusual character.
"By the Forge Star! Lord Empyreus! Dear me, what a state you are in! Dear me!" fussed Ambro, Chamberlain of The Citadel. The Stranger regarded the chief administrator and noted his odd elongated head and torso and birdlike movements. "Palidar! How could you let your charge get battered so?" he scolded.
Before Palidar could reply, Empyreus cut in. "It's nothing Ambro, just a minor scuffle," wincing as he did so.
"Nonsense. You may be Lord of the Gearo but I know when you need to rest and heal in a dream forge. I served your father and so will I serve you, whether you like it or not!" With that Ambro and his Gohlem hustled Empyreus off.
Palidar chuckled. "He's like an old brush hen, that one," he whispered to The Stranger. "But there's steel in him, and beneath that foolish seeming exterior beats the heartstone of a true Gearo." Palidar turned to regard The Stranger, battered and dusty as he was after The Vilhain encounter. "Do you need aid, Stranger?"
The Stranger shook his head. "No my friend, I'd rather see to our fallen comrade," indicating the remains of the Crystal Gohlem.
Palidar nodded. "Then we will have to pay a visit to another old friend."
Palidar led The Stranger, still carrying the fragments of the Crystal Golem, to a tower of brilliant white marble at the rear of the fortress. Inside was a quiet sanctum, softly lit by glowstone globes. It was empty but for a single figure standing near a glowing pool fed by a gently bubbling fountain at its center.
"Stranger, this is High Cleric and Chronicler of The Gearo, Fandar Sun," said Palidar.
Fandar Sun, in his blue and lavender colored stone coverings, radiated serenity like nothing The Stranger had ever felt. "Welcome Stranger, to the life spring of The Gearo"
Palidar regarded the shards and heartstone in The Stranger’s arms, "Fandar, our comrade, this Crystal Gohlem bravely fell in battle with The Vilhain, Brutok.”
The Stranger interrupted, “He protected me. Can he be saved?"
Fandar Sun took the pulsing crystal heartstone from The Stranger. After a moment of concentration, he spoke. "Ah, this one was almost lost forever. However I sense Lord Empyreus's hand in this. He has again given of himself for one of his own," said the old cleric. "Fear not Stranger, The Forge Star protects. Your crystal friend shall be reborn," and with that Fandar Sun placed the crystal fragments and the heartstone into the glowing fountain where their glow lights merged and sparkled.
"This may take some time Stranger," said Fandar. "Palidar has duties he must attend to, but stay, sit with me. Drink of the fountain and heal your hurts. I will share with you The Chronicle of Monkaa. Share that you may better understand the world and the war you now find yourself in."
In the great chamber of the life spring Fandar Sun, High Cleric and Chronicler of The Gearo paused, took a breath, and began his tale...
The Great Gear turns. Ever has it turned and ever will it turn. Through war and peace, joy and tragedy, bounty and famine, life and death, forever will it turn. So it was many turns ago that the noble Kingdom of Light and the mighty Empire of Shadows found themselves at the threshold of peace. Long had they fought without a victor, for there can be no shadow without light nor light without shadows. It is their very nature to be at odds, so odd indeed it was to find the possibility of peace.
The Lord of Light and the Mistress of Shadow had, against all sense and nature found love. They believed their love could unite Kingdom and Empire and forge a new future for Monkaa. So arms were set aside and a new age began for this world. The culmination of this peace came with the birth of the first son of the Lord and his Lady. Prince Penumbrus was to be the first of the Sons of Shade, heir of the new Realm of Light and Shadow, a balance to the two opposing forces that would inherit the realm and forge a lasting peace. He was born precisely at twilight, just as the suns set and night was nigh, and Lord and Lady were overjoyed.
But while Penumbrus was born a healthy robust youngling, the Mistress of Shadow was yet weak and remained in the birth haze despite having already bore her child. The Lord of Light was confused and feared for his beloved, until the following dawn broke and the Mistress of Shadow bore a second son. Smaller and weaker than his older twin brother, the second son had mottled skin and crooked limbs, but his eyes shone bright and clear and the Lord and Lady loved both of their sons equally.
The Great Gear turned and the infants grew into fine young warriors. Penumbrus was everything the Lord and Lady had hoped for. Handsome and commanding, he was every bit the leader they needed him to be. His younger brother, though deformed, was a loyal and kind soul, and held no jealousy for his brother, for he knew his was not the path of leadership.
However, the melding of light and shadow is not so easily achieved. True, twin sons had been born. Both were inheritors of shadow and light, but could not have been more different. While the younger brother carried a bright shining soul under his dark, deformed exterior, the elder had a dark heart beneath his princely countenance. Penumbrus' heart was dark. Dark as darkest shadow. He was not content to inherit his parents’ kingdom, and hated his father, the Lord of Light. For though Lord and Lady ruled together, it was the nature of light to shine brightly, while shadow supported and strengthened from the margins. Penumbrus only saw this as his father greedily eclipsing his mother and the great power of Shadow. The joining of light and shadow was the dream of a fool. Equality was a useless compromise and the worst sort of weakness. Light must be broken by shadow, made to serve. And all, light or dark would serve Penumbrus once he ruled. Sadly the Lord and Lady knew not of the darkness in their elder son's heart. To all of Monkaa he was a shining beacon of hope, and the world dreamed of peace not knowing it would soon plunge into the darkest of nightmares.
So it was that the Lord of Light took his sons on a climb to the highest peak of Monkaa. At the peak he told his sons, "Look upon the majesty of our world. One day soon Penumbrus, you will rule Monkaa. It will be your burden to keep this hard won peace in our realm."
As the Lord of Light turned to speak to his younger son, Penumbrus whispered, "Sooner than you think, old fool", and he stabbed his father in the heart with the Blade of Shadow. Four times the blade struck and when the Lord of Light staggered to his knees. Penumbrus tore the Crown of Light from his father’s brow, taking his power. He hurled his younger brother into his dying father's arms and pushed them both off the peak. "Now Monkaa is mine!" he roared.
The bodies fell, finally crashing to a halt at the base of the mountain. The Lord of Light was mighty; some say the mightiest being on all of Monkaa. Even a blade to the heart might not have killed him, but as they fell he had turned and protected his younger son, using the last vestiges of his power to take the full impact of the fall. Before he struck the unyielding earth, the Lord whispered to his son, "...Empyreus, the fate of Monkaa is in your hands...you must resurrect the Light..." And so it was that young Empyreus rose from the protective grip of his dead father, dreams of peace as broken as his heart. He buried his father at the base of that great mountain, just as he buried all love for his brother.
The Great Gear turned and Penumbrus, now king, secured his rule over Monkaa. The Mistress of Shadows, heartbroken at the loss of her beloved husband and younger son, grew weak. It was not long before Penumbrus was able to create a soul siphon to drain the Lady's power like a leech, forcing her to slip into a suspended yet deathless state. Using the combined might of the Crown of Light and the Blade of Shadow, Penumbrus created Shade Demons to conquer the realm and enforce his will. With both the Crown of Light and the Blade of Shadow, Penumbrus alone could open rifts to other worlds and other realms, plundering and conquering. His power grew, so too grew his insatiable greed and soon no world was safe from him.
Penumbrus was not all-powerful, however. Though he possessed the Crown of Light, he could only control it with the support of the Blade of Shadow, and the Mistress of Shadow was the only being with the power of pure Shadow left on Monkaa. Penumbrus could drain her power endlessly, but he could not simply kill her and take the power as he had done with the crown. So Penumbrus hid his mother away, far and deep where none could ever find her. Her last words before he sealed her crypt haunted him. "My son, your father and I made a grievous error. Light and Shadow cannot be melded, not even through love. Each must exist for that is the balance and way of the cosmos. For what we dared we are cursed, and so too are all of our people..."
Soon Penumbrus discovered the meaning of his mother's words. Since the day the Lord of Light fell, no children had been born on Monkaa. Tales of strange pulsing stones and odd primitive beings born of the very elements of Monkaa abounded. These beings, called Gohlem were neither light nor shadow, good or evil, but grew and changed in a myriad of different ways. Some were drawn to Penumbrus and his power, but others wandered Monkaa choosing their own paths.
Many found their way to Empyreus. Stronger and harder after years in exile, but still generous and kind, Empyreus forged a brotherhood out of these new Gohlem. First among equals, he named his new clan The Gearo. Empyreus learned that the Gohlem had an elemental link to the very fabric of the world of Monkaa and could create tools and weapons of great power. The Gearo worked and trained and forged and when they were ready they marched against Penumbrus and his Shade Demon hordes. Many battles were fought, many lives lost and much destruction wrought. The former peoples of the Kingdom of Light and the Empire of Shadow gradually died out, all but replaced by the Gohlem. Empyreus and his Gearo pursued Penumbrus and his Shade Demons relentlessly. Finally the brothers faced each other, alone, in a blasted wasteland in the deepest part of the Sea of Sands.
Empyreus was brave and fought with righteous fury, but Penumbrus was ever the stronger and held the Crown of Light and the Blade of Shadow and his brother was no match for him. Finally, bloody and beaten, Empyreus lay at his brother's feet. "Fool! You are no better than our weakling father. All is MINE, and now I will burn you as I should have years ago." But as Penumbrus prepared to use the power of the Crown to destroy his brother, something wondrous happened. The Crown burned. It burned with the fury of a thousand suns. It burned Penumbrus. It burned his head and face, turning it into a ruin and a horror, the stuff of nightmares. He fell screaming and the crown rose in the air to settle on Empyreus' brow. Just as Penumbrus was the son of Shadow, Empyreus was the true son of Light. The Crown of Light had sensed a kindred spirit and merged with Empyreus, healing his deformities and wounds and sheathing him in a gleaming shell of bright crimson armor. Broken but undefeated Penumbrus hissed his hatred at his brother, "Whelp! You may have father's power now, but I am still the Lord of Shadows. You may have killed Penumbrus, but you will never defeat the Shadows! You will never defeat Umbreus!" And with that the creature that was once Penumbrus, now renamed Umbreus, turned and slashed open a dark rift with the Blade of Shadow and escaped into the darkness.
Empyreus and his surviving Gearo returned to the shattered remains of the Realm of Light and Shadow. He and his clan built the Citadel of The Gearo as a beacon to all Gohlem who would follow a path of right and good. Empyreus knew he would forever battle his brother to protect Monkaa and all the worlds beyond, for now he held the power of Light, just as Umbreus controlled the power of Shadow. So each time Umbreus opened a rift to conquer and plunder, Empyreus too opened a rift to arm and protect. Though Monkaa had changed, and it's denizens had changed, the battle of Light and Shadow, of good and evil continued. The Great Gear continued to turn and as it turned so were born the Weaponeers of Monkaa.
Fandar Sun paused. "So now you know the beginning of the Chronicle of Monkaa, Stranger.”
The Stranger contemplated this a moment. "That’s how the war between the Gearo and Vilhain began...".
Fandar Sun chuckled, "Oh my no. That's how the war between Empyreus and Umbreus began. I've yet to tell you of Brutok and the Cult of Vilhain, and how Umbreus came to be their Lord. But that is indeed a story for another day; best told by Palidar, last of the Paladins of Light. Right now, I think something else requires our attention."
Fandar Sun pointed to the life spring and The Stranger turned and saw a glittering hand rise from the gently bubbling waters...
The Stranger ran to the life spring and grasped the crystalline hand that emerged. With a heave he helped the powerful figure up out of the waters.
"Thank you my friend," said the Crystal Gohlem.
"You're alive! You can speak!" cried the stranger.
"Yes, I am reborn, thanks to you and Lord Empyreus."
The Stranger regarded his friend. Gone were the crude features of a simple Gohlem of Monkaa. Instead the Crystal Gohlem now wore a glittering crystal helm, similar to the one worn by Palidar. He was taller, more heavily armored, and the curiosity in his eyes was now joined by wisdom and strength.
"Ah, perfect timing!" Ambro, Chamberlain of the Gearo bustled into the chamber of the life spring. "Lord Empyreus has left the dream forge! He's good as new and would like to see all of you in the great hall! Come on! Don't keep him waiting!" And without waiting to see if they followed, Ambro bustled off the way he came. The Gohlem glanced at The Stranger and they shared a laugh.
"Well, you heard the Chamberlain!" said Fandar Sun, and off they went.
The greatest warriors and dignitaries of The Gearo were gathered in the great hall. At it's center was a great stone table in the shape of a gear. Empyreus beckoned The Stranger, "Come, sit." The Stranger recognized Empyreus, Palidar and Ambro amongst the warriors and worthies around the table.
"I see I'm not the only one who's feeling better," Empyreus said, noting the presence of the Crystal Gohlem standing behind The Stranger's chair.
"Thank you Lord Empyreus, I owe you and The Stranger my life," said the Gohlem.
Empyreus nodded, "I'm glad you've rejoined us, brother Gohlem. Welcome back." He turned to The Stranger. "Well, your first visit to Monkaa has certainly been exciting my friend!" he said.
"Indeed. I could stay forever in your realm and still not see all of its majesty. But I think it's time I returned to my world," The Stranger replied.
Empyreus smiled and then spoke slowly and deliberately, "You are always welcome in Monkaa, friend Stranger. I hope we can count you as an ally in the war to come. You've heard the chronicle and seen a glimpse of what Umbreus is capable of. He is as much a threat to your world as ours. In truth, he is a threat to all worlds... and despite our best efforts Umbreus and his dark Gohlem have learned the art of Weaponeering. He is now not only plundering other worlds but also arming bloodthirsty allies and recruiting ruthless armies. He means to bend the cosmos to his will. He must be opposed. Will you join us?"
The Stranger contemplated. He opened his vision fully and took in the full power and aura of Empyreus and The Gearo. Then he spoke. "Of course," said The Stranger, "It's high time I finally chose a side."
"My lord, I have a request..." interrupted the Crystal Gohlem, "...I owe a life debt to you and The Stranger and I wish to accompany him back to his world as a brother in arms."
Empyreus looked to The Stranger, "What say you?"
The Stranger nodded and replied, "I'd be honored to have my new friend, a true Gearo warrior, by my side. Thank you both."
Empyreus smiled. "Then it's agreed! I will open the rift tomorrow at dawn and then you and the Crystal Gohlem will depart. Tonight, you will be our guest! Ambro, prepare a feast! Let us show the Stranger a true Gearo celebration!”
The Weaponsmith unlocked the door to the workshop. It was quiet, much as he had left it a fortnight before when he last saw The Stranger. The pile of raw materials was gone, but nothing stood in its place. Puzzled, The Weaponsmith looked around the empty chamber. Suddenly the air in the center of the room seemed to quiver, then crack. Cases of weapons and tools fell through the rift and landed on the floor. The Weaponsmith was shocked but had no time to recover as the weapons were immediately followed by two figures.
"Hello Master Smith," The Stranger said grinning. The Weaponsmith turned his gaze to The Stranger's companion, a powerful glittering crystalline figure.
"Well met, Master Smith," the Crystal Gohlem said. The Weaponsmith stared in stunned silence.
"I found the source of your wondrous weapons, but perhaps you should sit down and catch your breath. I have quite a tale for you..." The Stranger said…