Death had come. He could feel the soft stirring of its Angel’s wings. He stood- legs quaking, one arm wrapped around a splintering fence- at the edge of a chasm, where a slight breeze dried the blood on his face. He felt no remorse, only pain and confusion. The hole before him waited, the empty mouth of the world ready to swallow him down. The pain would end. He was tired, so very tired- tired of the fight, tired of trying to hold his wounded body together. Death would bring relief. A sigh sent red droplets out into the air. He would let go. He would slip down into the silence…

     “You cannot die here, Harata.” The voice of his Tormentor came strong and firm.

     The man who spoke had come to him unannounced. Harata had been lying in a field, lost in reverie, when the first of the blades had struck his flesh, drawing blood. He’d turned to fight, to defend himself, but had found nothing against which to battle. No one faced him, there was nothing to be seen for miles around, save for the natural world. How he’d even come to be in that place, Harata could not remember. Another blade cut into him, this time ripping through muscle, leaving pain and fear in its wake. Harata heard the voice for the first time then, though still he could see nothing but grass and distant trees.

     “Run, Harata. Run and I will chase you. Run or stand- either way will be the same.”

     Still, Harata attempted to find the source of the attacks. Try as he might, he could find nothing.  He used every lesson he’d ever learned, every sense he’d honed, and yet another unseen blade sliced out of the air. It was then that he ran.

     He fled, harried and chased, through golden fields and dark forests, across vast oceans and over mountains. Time seemed to compress. Though he traveled vast distances, it seemed to him now that he’d only been running for minutes. This was impossible, he knew, but his pain-muddled mind cared not to puzzle out the reason for his confusion. Nine times the swords had struck him, each blow more deadly than the last, until he came to the place he stood now- just outside a pasture. He could hear the sheep in the distance. Had his nostrils not been full of his own blood, he’d even have smelled the animals that grazed just out of view.

     His body had been torn to pieces. The wounds were mortal. His legs finally buckled beneath him. Everything was red.

     “Wake up,” the Tormentor commanded. “Stop dying.”

     Stop dying? The absurdity of the command shocked Harata into consciousness. Stop dying… it was probably the last thing he wanted to do. Below him, in the gorge, was warmth and peace. Up here was nothing but blood and pain. Stop dying… Stop… dying… Stop… something…

     “Get up. Now. Your weakness will damn the world.”

     I’m weak? Harata held up pieces of his ruined body, showed his bloodied hands.  Weak?

     “It’s… impossible…” He managed to sputter, calling on his last reserves of strength, showering the grass below with red.

     “Why ‘impossible’?”

     “Look…” Again he offered up the tattered organs spilling from his open wounds. The shock of pain that followed caused him to scream. It subsided slowly, throbbing back into his raw, exposed nerves. “How?” He whispered.

     “How does one live? Just go on breathing- in, out, in, out.”

     It denied all logic. Death was the only option, and for that Harata felt no shame. Everything dies, even the most powerful among men. He’d been wounded to the point of no return. He’d done his best to survive, but in the end had failed. An impotent rage began to stir within his breast. This man besets me on all sides, carves me up with puppet swords, and now stands here telling me not to die?

     The heat of his anger began to fill him, pulsing through the knots of his arms and legs. It rushed into his head, beating in time to his heart, which somehow wouldn’t stop. Suddenly, fury was the only feeling within what seemed to be his empty shell. Harata felt himself standing.

     “Why did you do this to me?” He screamed the words, feeling fire rolling from his tongue.

     “I came to wake you up.”

     “You’re crazy! You ambush me, stab me with swords that I can’t see and you don’t hold, you chase me here… How can you tell me not to die? Why did you take my life if you wanted me to survive? It’s not like I have a choice now!”

     “You don’t have to die,” the Tormentor stated calmly. “Look at yourself.”

     Harata looked. His breath came in sharply as his eyes met his torn and bloodstained clothes. Beneath them, his body was once again whole. There were ill-knit pinkish scars where his wounds had been. The pain had ceased, he realized, and he was filled with wonderment.

     “What- what happened?”

     “You are awake.”

     “No. I must be dreaming. Why are you doing this to me?”

     “You must understand your world.”

     Harata was silent. This guy is nuts. He stared hard at the man before him- if he really was a man at all. He wore long robes of heavy black material. The frayed edges of his hood shadowed a face that was also covered entirely in black cloth, obscuring the features of the insane man who’d chased and attempted to murder him.

     “Nine Clans have torn the world asunder, as you have been torn. It must be made whole, as you have been.”

     “Look, mister, I don’t know-”

     “The time of the Legend has come. The Clans must unite, or all the world is doomed.”

     The Legend?  “Qa Haran has returned?”

     “Qa Haran is dead. The Clanless of this age is someone else. You.”

     “What!? I’m not Clanless! I’m-”

     “Oh, aren’t you? Regardless, you no longer bear your Clan upon your name. As to why, you’ll have to learn that on your own.”

     Harata fell silent again, unable to make sense of what he was being told. The ancient prophecy which became the Legend of Diasminion claimed that one day the Clanless would return to Qian Ra and unite each Order, saving the world from catastrophe. Everyone assumed the Legend referred to the return of Qa Haran, the Ancient One- the only known Clanless Diasminian. How can I be…?

     He could remember his childhood. Vague, fuzzy memories of his mother and sister played often in his mind. They’d lived on a plantation in the west somewhere, in a tiny one-room shanty. If he concentrated very hard, he could almost recall his father, a tall man who’d held him tightly just before he walked off with two strangers, never to be seen again. It was about a year after that when Harata left his home.

     On the morning he was to depart, his mother held him close. The sun had not yet risen, and she smelled of sleep. He recalled that she’d been trying to smile, but the tracks of tears shone on her face.

     “I had a dream about you,” she’d told him softly. “You have to go away for now, but you’ll have a better life.”

     “I don’t want another life. I wanna stay here- with you.”

     “You only say that because you don’t understand the life you have. Be brave, Harata. Someday, you’ll be glad this happened.”

     He’d started crying then, and his sobs continued long after he’d been shut in the trunk of a shiny black sedan. It was hot and stuffy. The ride was hours long. He awoke in Mianuus, where some strangers loaded him gently into a box with a blanket, food and water. One of the men stuffed an envelope into his pocket. The rest of his journey was a blur, until he roused to sunshine pouring into the open crate. He gazed for the first time on his new home. He was five years old.

     “I’m not Clanless. I’m Dauern. You made a mistake.”

     “There’s no mistake. You must accept this. If you fail, the entire world will perish.”

     Harata heaved a sigh. “What’s going on?”

     “The world is pulling in on itself, full of Negative Force. The practices of Diasminion are to blame.”

     “Negative Force? What, like evil?”

     “Not evil. Energy. All things hold both Positive Force, which emits, and Negative Force, which draws inward. A balance must be maintained, or the lack of stability causes eventual destruction. Over time, people have shifted inward, looking only to themselves. Too many years of this have passed.”

 

“So, what should I do about it?”

     “Diasminion’s Champions have been born. You must find them and together complete your Task.”

     “Find them? How? There are millions of people-”

     “There will be signs. You will know a Champion from an ordinary person. You will feel the presence of a Champion, even if you cannot see him. Rest assured, you will make no mistakes.”

     “So, say that I do somehow manage to find them? What then? What is this so-called ‘Task’?”

     “For that you must descend the world. Consult the Guardians.”

     The situation seemed more and more impossible with each passing second. Harata fought the urge to scream, to jump on the black-clad man and attempt to beat him senseless.

     “What does that even mean?” He pleaded.

     The black-clad Tormentor only chuckled. “Our time together is at its end. Here, take this.” He handed Harata a ring- a simple gold band set with a white stone.

     “What is it?”

     “That? It is a reminder, nothing more. It wouldn’t do to have you forget this incident. I’d have gone through so much trouble for nothing.”

     “You’d have…” Harata trailed off, furious.

     The man turned away.

     “Wait! Who are you?”

     “You will know me well enough in time.” With those fading words, the man walked off.

     Harata watched him go, emotions swirling- fear, anger, curiosity, frustration. He clenched his fist around the ring that he’d been given.

     “I’m not awake,” he whispered, screwing his eyes shut. “I’m not awake… this isn’t real.” He repeated the words like a mantra, gaining volume until his voice was a wail.

 

     He opened his eyes slowly to the soft, pink light of dawn. Birds were calling outside, and the scent of the dirt floor wafted to him in the gentle cross-breeze from the pane-less windows. The rough feel of the straw-filled mattress, the light coarse blanket, the criss-crossing rafters overhead- all were reassuringly familiar. A dream.

     Yet something wasn’t right. Shaken from the violence he’d endured in his sleep, Harata felt edgy. Just get up. You’ll feel better after a while, he told himself.

     His hand felt strange. Still clenched tightly, it felt as though it really was holding something. Tentatively, he relaxed his fingers. Shock and dismay filled him.

     Glinting softly in the light of dawn was a simple ring- a gold band with a white stone.