The Tale of Captain Johne

by Michael D Hilborn

(Note: The original form of this story can be found here at Michael D Hilborn's homepage. It includes art, music and fantastic atmosphere.)

"Over the ages, comets, fiery nebulae, have torn through our skies as harbingers of impending doom. They appeared just before the emergence of the Dark Lord Mondain. They heralded the reign of the Enchantress Minax, and they foretold the impending danger of the hellborn Exodus. . . Now, while we live in the midst of peace and enlightenment, the comets have begun again."
--excerpt from Celestial Britannia Sir John, The Lycaeum circa 137

The Eve of the Summer Solstice

Only two of us survived the journey that began under Britannia's sky.

 And now I am alone.


We hoist our sails for Britain tomorrow, and not a day too soon. We have been harbored far too long in Lost Hope Bay, and I have begun to see why these waters have earned their name. A man's spirit dwindles here. Perhaps that is why the streets of this town overflow with the poor and the homeless. The Town of Sacrifice, they call Minoc, and rightly so.

 But I should not complain. Over a dozen folk have booked passage on my frigate, the Ararat, and all are eager to reach Britain by the summer's solstice--the beginning of the Great Council and its festivities. They are mostly nondescript folk, save for the reclusive wizard, Sutek, who spends most of his nights studying the skies. 'Tis an honor to ferry a mage as young and respected as he.

 I am eager to arrive in Britain as well. Even with the repairs from the Ararat's encounter with the sea serpent, I was able to save enough gold to purchase the ring that I will give Faulina. I can imagine the night when I will propose. She and I on the bow of this ship. The ring in my palm. I on my knee. The moons of the summer solstice igniting the stars above us.

"My name is Johne, Captain Johne."

 A simple introduction, but I have used it since the day I first purchased the Ararat and took her to the seas, just as I used it for the man who waited patiently in the glow of a street lamp. He was tall, and despite the swells of his shirt and sleeves, his face betrayed him as a slender fellow just as his clothes betrayed his taste. Green and yellow laced his shirt, and a stained, orange cap topped his straw-colored hair. I reached the end of the gangplank and made the appearance of scrutinizing him.

 "My first mate tells me thou hast need of a ship," I said.

 He removed his cap, and accompanied his greeting with a glorious and practiced bow. "Well met, Captain Johne. I am Astarol, a humble minstrel who ventures from town to town. Only last month did I travel from Yew where I entertained the courts of Judge Dryden. Now, after spending many weeks performing for the poor and wretched, I seek passage to Britain, and I have heard that thy glorious vessel can take me there."

 "'Tis rather late to be asking for passage," I said. "We set sail in the morn, and my ship is full as it is. But I have pity for a man who is willing to pay his price. What dost thou have to offer?"

 Astarol grinned, and a mandolin, which had been concealed in the darkness, appeared in his hands. He strummed a slow, solemn tune as he spoke, "Alas! I bequeathed most of my gold to the mission at the southern end of town. I have only my stories and songs to give thee." The pace of the mandolin quickened. "But such wondrous stories and songs they are! Hear how the stranger from the strange land enlightened the darkness that was the Triad of Evil! Hear the tale of the mad mage Erstam, who rebelled against Lord British and sailed his people off the edge of the world! And finally, hear my own tale, of how I was imprisoned in the great dungeon Hythloth. Hear how I escaped with the aid of the Great Earth Serpent whom I encountered in the depths!"

 From behind me came a low, dulcet voice. "'Tis doubtful that thou wert imprisoned in Hythloth, now that the dungeons are sealed."

 I turned my attention to Faulina, who observed us from the edge of the ship, illuminated by the magical light of her yew staff. Raven hair cascaded beneath a tiara of emeralds, and her blue eyes shown brilliantly against her almond skin.

 Astarol dropped to one knee, nearly crushing the mandolin with his bow. "Thou art correct, my Lady," he said. "I have never been to Hythloth, nor have I ever met the Great Earth Serpent. But can you fault a man for his self-adulation when he stands before a woman whose beauty glows as soft and fierce as the moongates?"

 Faulina laughed and spoke to me. "This one is welcome aboard our ship. I think that I will enjoy his company." She left, the glow of her staff fading as she returned to our cabin. I watched the darkness where she once stood, then noticed Astarol regarding me with an amused twinkle in his eye. I could not help but laugh. "As the lady says, thou art welcome aboard. But thou shalt entertain my crew and our passengers morning, noon, and night. Is that clear?"

 "Of course, my Captain," Astarol said, slinging the mandolin over his shoulder. Together, we strode up the plank. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders as if I were an old friend, "I cannot thank thee enough. A compassionate soul such as I would not have lasted much longer in this town. Had I given any more gold to the homeless, I would have become a pauper myself." He glanced back at the dark rooftops of Minoc, a rueful smile on his lips. "Love and compassion," he chuckled. "It tends to drain the purse."

 I thought of Faulina and the ring I bought her. "Aye," I laughed. "That it does."


We set sail this morning and by early afternoon, the mountainous crags surrounding Minoc were lost to the southern horizon. Our going has been slow, for the winds have been frugal today, even when Faulina summoned them with her magic. I would implore Sutek to raise his will against the weather, but he has already paid his passage, and it would not be fair to ask any more of his services.

 I must admit that I had my doubts about Astarol, but thus far, the minstrel has kept his end of our bargain. He is a good man, a friendly one, and kind, especially with the few children on board. Faulina enjoys his company as well. If the three of us could be together for some time, I think we could become vast friends.

Evening had fallen by the time we rounded the northeastern coast of the Isle of Deeds. Faulina and I stood alone on the bow of the Ararat, the glow of her staff surrounding us, the melody of Astarol's mandolin faint from Ararat's stern.

 "'The Dream of Lady Nann,'" Faulina whispered, listening to the minstrel's tune. "It has been many years since I heard that song." She smiled. "Our passengers spent the afternoon dancing to his pipes. Even those who took ill from the sea forgot about their sickness. He has a way with people."

 "A way with the ladies, thou dost mean," roared a warrior who strode up to us. Red braids and a beard burned beneath the shadows of his helm. The surcoat covering his suit of chain mail blazed with a fiery orange. He stopped, towering over us with a menacing frown. His muscles rippled as he crossed his arms and then, slowly, he released a forlorn sigh. "I have never faced a foe such as he," he muttered. He glared at Faulina, his eyebrows coalescing above his bulbous nose. "'Tis thy fault, I suppose. Ever since Johne found thee, I have not had need to worry about competition. I suppose that I am out of practice." The air shook with the thunderclap of his snort. "Bah! As if porting that mage, Sutek, is not bad enough. A quiet one, he is, and a quiet mage is a deadly mage. There are rumors he was born in the Abyss itself. And the folk of Minoc, they spoke of him opening the dungeon Covetous with a single word!" He peered darkly at the enigmatic mage, a faint figure who stood separated from the folks clustered around Astarol. "Does he do naught but count the stars?"

 "He was certainly not born in the Abyss, Nosfentre," Faulina chided. "He is the student of Lord Shalineth, overseer of the Lycaeum, and a good friend of Sir John, the astronomer."

 "Meaningless names to me," Nosfentre grumbled. "Perhaps thou shouldst tell Astarol. I am sure he could make something out of it."

 "Art thou envious of the minstrel, Nosfentre?" I asked.

 "At least the stories I tell are true!" Nosfentre puffed his cheeks in exasperation. "Great Earth Serpent, indeed! I wager the man would shriek if he saw so much as a snake. Yet he has the ladies believing he's Lord British himself!" Then he winked at me and pointed at Faulina. "Watch thy back, Johne. He's likely to steal her away."

 I laughed. "I do not need to watch my back, Nosfentre. I have thee to do it for me. Just as I always have. That blade of thine hath saved me more than once."

 "Aye, 'tis true." He withdrew his broad sword from its scabbard. The dark, violet jewel in the sword's hilt glittered in the moonlight. "'Tis a good blade," he said, as he sheathed it. He appraised us with solemn eyes. "Given to me by good friends. A shame the three of us shall have to part company when we arrive in Britain." He clasped his hand on my shoulder, the closest Nosfentre ever came to embrace. "I wish thee both good health and safe journeys when I leave."

 "Do not worry about us," Faulina said tenderly. "We are proud that thou hast been asked to join Lord Blackthorn's regime."

 "Pride is not a virtue," Nosfentre said with a smile.

 "No, but honor is," she replied. "And it is the highest honor to serve in Blackthorn's company. His desire to uphold the virtues in Britannia is known to all. Since thou dost refuse to take pride in that, allow us to do it for you."

 Such was our laughter that my two companions did not notice when I cut my own mirth short. The mage Sutek had found his way to the bow, and for once, his vision lay not on the stars, but on the three of us. Briefly, our gazes locked, and instead of shying his eyes away from mine, as I might expect from someone who had been caught eavesdropping, he offered me only a somber, solemn frown before he returned to his scrutiny of the skies.


Again the winds have failed us. It was only during the late afternoon that we sailed past the walls of Trinsic. Evening has now settled, along with a storm that threatens us from the west. I have ordered my crew to steer clear of the storm, for the Fens of the Dead lie beneath that dreary canopy, and pity the Captain and crew who beach on those haunted isles.

 The passengers, too, are wary of the archipelago and its legends. Oddly enough, Astarol has managed to keep their cheer by telling chilling tales of the Bloody Plains and the ruined city of Magincia.

 If all goes well, we should reach Britain by tomorrow afternoon, in plenty of time to join the celebration of the solstice.

 It was not the storm that awoke me, but the lurch of my ship, and the screams that followed.

 I was thrown to the floor. I heard Faulina's cry of surprise as she was tossed, followed by the shatter of our oil lamp when it crashed beside me. Thunder deafened me and lightning flashed.

 The bed, like the other furniture of the room, was bolted to the floor, and I used its leg to pull myself to my feet. I had but a moment to orient myself when the door flung open. Streams of rain and a flicker of lightning silhouetted the hulking figure who braced himself against the door frame. "Johne!" Nosfentre called. "'Tis a maelstrom, and we are caught in its maw!"

 Again the ship lurched. My shoulder cracked as I hit the wall. The latch on the wood stove split in two, and crimson coals danced over the floor. Beyond Nosfentre, the ocean swelled and broke over the deck. A dark wave drenched the fighter and flooded the cabin. The coals guttered and hissed as they died along with what little light was left.

 "In Lor!" cried Faulina, and the tip of her staff flared blue. A cold, pale light basked the cabin.

 "The passengers," I shouted to Nosfentre. "If any are still on deck, throw them in the hold!" I staggered to him, water surging around my bare feet. I turned to Faulina who was ready to follow me. "No," I said to her. "Stay here and conserve thy strength. We may need thee for thy healing skills." She nodded, and stepped back, pulling her nightclothes tighter as if that would somehow ward off the danger. Nosfentre grabbed my arm and together we stumbled onto the deck.

 Rain stung my flesh while lightning gutted the sky. "How did this happen?" I cried over the wind. "I ordered us away from it."

 "I don't know," he answered, "but the bard, he claims that the storm stalked us, hunted us. Your men could not steer away."

 A flash of lightning illuminated a scene of chaos. My crew scuttled across the deck, some screaming as the arms of the ocean embraced them. Others fought with the rigging, desperately trying to furl the sails. I began to shout orders, but my voice was lost to the thunder and wind.

 Then another voice sounded above the storm. "Vas Rel Por!"

 A brilliant light showered the Ararat as a luminescent, azure portal rose from her deck. Sutek stood before the mystical gate, his arms and staff outstretched, his white robes shimmering like veins of crystal.

 "May the Virtues enlighten me," Nosfentre said, his eyes wide. "A moongate."

 "The passengers!" Sutek commanded to a figure. In the blaze of the moongate, I saw that the individual was Astarol. "See them to safety!"

 "I must help them," I said to Nosfentre, pulling away from his grip. "Find Faulina and bring her to the gate. We must abandon the Ararat if we are to live!"

 Nosfentre nodded and stumbled away, his figure soon lost in the curtains of rain. I ran to where Astarol guided the terrified passengers to the moongate. Those who were left of my crew abandoned their posts, slipping as they scrambled for safety, for the ship now leaned to the port, as if a hand steadily tipped her over. Nosfentre and Faulina arrived moments later, and they too helped.

 Most of the passengers and crew had disappeared through the radiant gate when the ocean suddenly swelled off the starboard. A wave higher than the walls of Trinsic rose from the maelstrom like an amorphous beast.

 "Quickly!" I screamed. "Through the gate!"

 I saw Astarol dive for the portal. Nosfentre tried to shove Faulina toward it, but the wave struck us all. My vision reeled as I was thrown back. Tendrils of cold, foul sea water slithered down my throat, stung my eyes, and flung me into a stack of barrels secured to the deck. I grabbed a length of rope just as a second wave hit me. There was nothing I could do but hold on as I toppled over the barrels and fell overboard.

 The rope went taut. I slammed into the Ararat's hull, bounced away, and there I hung, peering down into the heart of the maelstrom. Time seemed to still and along with its slowing, an unsettling silence befell me. A few barrels, surrounded by shimmering droplets of the sea, toppled from the deck and tumbled end over end past raging walls of water, shrinking silently as they disappeared into an inky void where the ocean and all reality dissolved.

 And in that void, for just a moment, I thought I saw stars.

 "Johne! Hold on!"

 I looked up. Time and sound returned to normal. Nosfentre was leaning over the edge of the ship, pulling on the rope. Above him roiled the sky, thick with clouds, laced with lightning.

 With the help of Faulina and Astarol, Nosfentre hoisted me up by my belt. Even as I spilled onto the deck, I knew something was wrong, for there was no light. "The moongate!" I cried. "Where is it?"

 Nosfentre's grim expression was answer enough. He did not need to point at Sutek's body, which lay unmoving among a tangle of riggings and barrels.

 Thunder roared. I had a brief glimpse of lightning toppling the mainmast like a scythe scourging wheat. A few moments later, the shrieks of splintered wood wailed from below us: The hull of the Ararat being torn apart. I heard screams, mine and those of my companions, as the ship tilted. For one last time, I looked into the maelstrom's black soul, then it reached up and swallowed me.

 "Johne? Johne? Wake up."

 Wearily, I opened my eyes. Faulina's eyes filled with relief in the light of her staff. "Thou wilt feel better in a moment. I managed to heal most of thy injuries."

 Something was wrong with her voice. It held fear, that much was certain, but something else was wrong. And the sky. Something was wrong with that too.

 "Sutek?" I whispered.

 "He is alive, and resting," she said. She stroked my forehead. "Astarol is tending to him. Nosfentre is inspecting the ship."

 "The others?"

 She hesitated. "It is only us five. The others either escaped. . . or perished."

 "We are still on the water. I can feel it." My voice sounded hollow and I thought I heard an echo. "Tell Nosfentre not to hoist the sails," I said with a weary smile. "There is no wind, and that ogre probably does not realize that we cannot sail without it."

 Faulina smiled, but I could tell she was making an effort to conceal her anxiety. "I will tell him," she whispered. "Thou shouldst sleep, my love."

 "Yes." I leaned back, glancing at the sky.

 There were no stars. No clouds. Just emptiness.

 I sprang to my feet, tossing aside bits of rigging that clung to me. My breath came in frantic gasps, and the taste of the air. . . stale, foul, and cool--like tasting a breeze that had swept through a cellar. Except there was no breeze. No motion of air at all

 "By the Virtues," I whispered.

 "Johne, please," Faulina pleaded, standing up.

 I ignored her and grabbed the oilskin pouch she carried on her belt. Withdrawing a black pearl and a pinch of sulfurous ash, I intoned words that I thought I had left behind me when I first took to the sea.

 A flaming orb shrieked from my hand. Its light revealed nothing but a placid sea, and I watched with frustration as the missile descended. I expected it to be swallowed by the water without giving a hint as to where we rested, but then, quite suddenly, the missile exploded with a thunderous roar when it impacted on a sheer, rock wall. The explosion and the subsequent splash of debris plummeting into the sea echoed as if we stood in an immense cavern.

 "Johne," Faulina whispered, her hand coming to rest on my shoulder. Astarol watched me with a grim frown.

 "What is this place?" I demanded. I cringed when my voice hollered back.

 "'Tis the Underworld." It was Sutek who spoke, his eyes frosty glints beneath the bandage on his forehead. "And I curse the day when the Great Council and that fool British created it."

Worlds Below


It has been two days since we arrived--according to my pocket watch, that is, for there are no other ways of telling time in the Underworld. In any event, the solstice has come and gone, and Faulina's ring lies untouched in its hiding place. I cannot propose to her now. To do so is to admit that we are stranded here until the end of our days.

 Sutek's injury is more grievous than I thought. He sleeps much of the time, and he eats when he can. Both Faulina and Astarol are looking after him. Faulina would heal him, but she wishes to conserve her spells for emergencies.

 The damage to the Ararat, fortunately, is less grievous, and I must admit that I am proud that she survived the maelstrom. She is a bit lopsided, and much of her hull is water-logged and stinks of brine, but she floats nonetheless. We salvaged a majority of our supplies, which is good, for who knows where we will find food. And we are moving southeast--assuming my compass, which appears to work here, reads correctly. Where the current will take us is beyond speculation. But there is no sense in worrying. There is naught we can do.


Nosfentre and I have both noticed that the Ararat is traveling faster. I admire the warrior's courage in light of this news. His spirit hasn't wavered, probably because he has become good friends with Astarol, whose cheer seems to be in endless supply. Those two, the fact that the Araratcan be repaired, and the company of Faulina, of course, have made our isolation bearable.

 I saw stars tonight! My companions do not believe me, and they have given me wary looks, but I swear by the Virtues, 'twas if a window to Britannia's sky had been briefly opened. Nosfentre grumbled that if I kept looking up the way I did, he would start mistaking me for Sutek. I could not help but laugh.

 Speaking of the mage, he has finally awakened. He is eating now, but it will not be long before our questions about this so-called "Underworld" will be answered.

"I warned them not to do it," Sutek said. "To tamper with the Ethereal Void is madness. There is so little known, so much evil that can be unleashed." He tossed the uneaten remains of his meal into the small fire pit that we had constructed on the deck. Sparks flurried upward. "They were fools."

 "The Void," repeated Astarol, who sat next to Faulina. He stroked his mandolin. "I have heard of such a thing. The essence of magic. The stuff of the stars. A boundary between worlds."

 "Are these more of thy stories, bard?" Nosfentre rumbled from across the fire.

 "No," said Faulina. "Astarol speaks the truth. All magi know of the Void." She gripped my hand. "But as Sutek says, what is known is very little."

 "Other than it is dangerous," Sutek said. "And I said as such when my peers and Lord British called a gathering of the Great Council. Despite my protests, eight of the most prominent wizards in Britannia, including myself, were selected to raise the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom from the Abyss."

 Nosfentre suddenly stood, his eyes wide and luminous. "Aye," he said. "I remember that day." He glared at Faulina and I. "Thou might hath mentioned that this was one of the wizards who pulled the Codex from the Abyss. After all, we were in Britain when the decision was made."

 "As was I!" Astarol exclaimed. "I entertained crowds at the Wayfarer Tavern and the Blue Boar. What a glorious day. Never have I experienced such a festival. It was there that I met Iolo FitzOwen, bard of legend, companion of the Avatar, author of the masterwork 'Stones.'"

 "Aye!" Nosfentre said. "I remember thee now. Dost thou remember me? 'Twas I who tossed the first fruit at thee on the day the strings on thy mandolin broke." We all laughed.

 Except for Sutek. "How fitting we were all in Britain that day," the mage said, "and now we find ourselves here."

 Our laughter would have died abruptly, if not for the caverns which carried our mirth for several more moments. "What is this place, then?" I asked. "How is it linked to the Great Council and the Ethereal Void?"

 "It was in the Void that the Codex originally rested," Sutek answered. "When we brought the Codex to Britannia's surface, we ruptured the boundary between our world and the Void. So great was the aftershock that a mountain rose from where the Abyss once lay, and the tremors were felt as far as Buccaneer's Den. When the discord settled, my peers thought naught of it. They merely congratulated themselves, and returned to Lord British to announce their success. Little did they suspect what they had created." The mage's voice soured. "But I suspected. I knew that the emptiness where the Abyss once lay would have to be filled."

 The mage stood and peered out into the darkness. "Thus, it was no surprise to me when tales of a world beneath Britannia began to circulate through taverns." He rounded on Astarol, who grasped his mandolin tightly. "Certainly, bard, thou hast told some of these stories. Perhaps the one about Spiritwood?"

 Astarol swallowed. "Aye, I have. Beneath the River Maelstrom, whose waters feed the great trees of Spiritwood, lies a hidden waterway. 'Tis this underground river that a band of mighty warriors have claimed to have followed. It lead to a lost realm, they said, a land of darkness and despair, a breeding ground for beasts both foul in stench and sight. How the warriors escaped this land, none will say."

 "'Twas not through the dungeons," Sutek scoffed, "for only the wizards and the Great Council know the words of power to open them. I heard the same story, bard, from the warriors themselves when they spoke before the Great Council. After hearing their adventure, Lord British said he was intrigued--intrigued was the word--by this Underworld. He asked the eight wizards to learn more of this place, so that he might mount an expedition in the coming year." Sutek sat down, his shoulders hunched. "That is why I was returning to Britain," he said quietly. "The eight of us were to report our findings at the next Great Council."

 "So the rumors in Minoc are true," Nosfentre said. "Thou didst enter the dungeon Covetous."

 "Yes. Covetous leads to the Underworld, as I suspect the other dungeons do." He looked up, eyes mournful. "I have been in this place before. I swore I would never return, but I suppose the heavens have dictated other plans for me." He turned his head then, his eyes flickering suspiciously. "What is that sound?"

 "Sound?" I was about to ask, then I heard it too. A dull roar, soft at first, growing louder.

 Faulina spoke. "The ship. Is it moving faster?"

 Immediately, Nosfentre and I exchanged a glance before we ran to the bow. Ahead of us was a cavern branching off from the main galley in which we sailed. White rapids licked the cavern's mouth.

 "It is too late to steer away from it," I said. "We will be dashed upon the walls if we try. Man the helm, Nosfentre, and take through the cavern. Let us pray that it does not get any smaller."


The Ararat has sailed her last voyage. After surviving the rapids that carried us through the cavern and over a waterfall that spilled us into this lake, my frigate has washed ashore on an island. For the past few days, we have explored the lake and its shores with a skiff that Nosfentre and I managed to repair. What we have found gives us hope. A series of galleries leads farther into the Underworld. By exploring these passages, we may find an exit to Britannia, perhaps through one of the dungeons that Sutek can open.

 The five of us plan to mount an expedition in the next week, led by Sutek, of course. Now that my frigate is grounded, I suppose I am no longer the Captain. But I am grateful to relinquish my leadership to the wizard. Guilt has plagued me these last few nights. It is I who am responsible for the Ararat's wreck; I who am responsible for those who perished in the maelstrom; and I who am responsible for the darkness that perpetually haunts us.


I saw the stars again, though sometimes I wonder if I am hallucinating. They shimmer and ripple as if they rest in a dark pool. I called for Faulina, but by the time she left the company of Astarol and Nosfentre, the bleak nothingness of the Underworld had returned.

 She insists that she believes me, but sometimes I doubt her honesty. Then she offers her delicate smile and all is better.


We will begin our expedition in a few days. Nosfentre is busy honing his battle skills while Faulina studies her spell books. Astarol often joins one or the other--usually Faulina, I have noticed--delighting them with his tales and songs. He has also tried to teach me the art of juggling, but my dexterity is lacking, and my heart is still burdened with guilt. I often find myself alone, watching the other three with envy, wondering how they can be so jovial beneath these halls. Sutek, too, spends much of his time by himself, lost in the notes he has recorded about the Underworld. There are still times when I catch him glancing upward to read the stars that are not there.

 Faulina is worried about my aloofness. She often asks me to study with her. Sometimes I do, but the words of the most basic magic, which I once knew so well, are foreign to me. I usually end up daydreaming of the way life used to be.

 "A weapon?" Nosfentre laughed, as Astarol buckled a short sword to his belt. "Thou dost need no weapon. Thou canst frighten off our enemies with thy music."

 "Be careful of what thou dost say, warrior" Astarol replied, "lest my weapon slip from my unskilled hands and stab thy foot." He shouldered his mandolin and slipped his backpack into the skiff which we had readied for our expedition. "Faulina, may I say that thou dost look resplendent this fine morning."

 Faulina laughed and plucked at the worn leather vest she had donned over her violet robes. "'Tis a fine gown, 'tis it not? Johne, art thou ready? Johne?"

 I blinked. I had been staring at the wreckage of the Ararat. "Of course," I said, feigning a smile. "'Tis been awhile since I used this." I held up my mace. "Where is Sutek?"

 "The mage?" Nosfentre barked. "He is still in the ship. I will get him. Perhaps he does not care if he wastes away in these halls, but I--"

 The claw emerged out of the darkness like a silent knife and before anyone could act, Nosfentre's throat had been slit. Faulina rushed to his side, chanting words of healing as the air suddenly erupted with monstrous shrieks, the rustle of leathery wings, and the foul stench of rotten meat. Astarol cried out, slashing at two yellow eyes that leered before him. A hideous wail followed as his opponent careened to the earth.

 My mace also graced the darkness, hitting its target: a winged humanoid clad in fur, its face embodying both beast and man. Its lips turned up in a grimace of pain, revealing slender, white fangs, and it was those teeth which I struck next, satisfied to hear the resounding crunch of bone.

 Astarol's scream ended my brief victory. I swatted the creature that clung to his back, but a second careened into the bard, knocking him to the ground. I raised my mace, but I was flung forward into the cold waters of the lake by another attacker. I twisted, striking out blindly. Only luck allowed my weapon to hit my foe. Yet still the air rained with creatures and the cries of my companions.

 Then the words of a magical incantation thundered across the cavern, and a wind soared. The air around the creatures rippled in a dark wave, and they screamed as an unseen force flayed the flesh from their bones. Only a moment passed before Sutek's spell ended, but by then, the ground was covered with the remains of our enemies.

 I struggled to my feet, drenched to the skin. I ran to where Faulina's body was draped over Nosfentre. Cursing, I reached out for her, tears in my eyes. I gasped when a gloved hand took my wrist.

 "She is only asleep," Nosfentre said. "She drained herself saving my life. See to the bard, quickly."

 I nodded dumbly and knelt next to the minstrel. His shirt was already soaked with blood.

 Suddenly, Sutek knelt before the body. "Stand aside," he commanded. I caught the pungent scent of garlic and ginseng as he whispered, "Mani." Astarol's chest heaved, and he coughed, spattering us with blood. "That is all I can do for now," Sutek said. "I cannot spare the mandrake for a greater spell. Bring him to the Ararat so he can rest."

 When both Faulina and Astarol had been lain in the bed of the Ararat's cabin, Sutek mumbled his satisfaction and then headed for the door. "Come along, Captain, we must be going. Nosfentre, thou shalt guard the mage and the bard."

 "What?" I said. "We cannot leave them here."

 Sutek stopped and turned, his gaze full of the power he had just wielded. "They will recover, but it may be a week before Astarol is fit to even walk, and we cannot afford that kind of delay. Someone must watch over them."

 Nosfentre's cheeks flared as red as his beard. "The two of thee cannot go alone. Those creatures will kill--"

 "I have dealt with mongbats before," Sutek snarled, "and creatures far worse than that. The Captain and I will be safe. As will thee if thou dost stay inside the Ararat."

 Nosfentre suddenly unsheathed his sword, and strode forward. "Thou shalt not abandon us, nor shalt thou take my friend! "

 Sutek's eyes became slits. I quickly stepped in front of the enraged warrior. "Stop, Nosfentre. Thou dost know that Sutek is right. The longer we delay this journey, the longer we must spend in the Underworld, and our supplies will only last so long."

 Nosfentre's brow furrowed. "A week will make no difference."

 "Astarol may be fit enough to walk in a week, but with his injury, it may be a month before he is able to explore these caverns. And the magi cannot afford to waste their spells on his health, especially if the wounds will heal on their own." I indicated Faulina. "She will agree with me when she awakens."

 Reluctantly, Nosfentre lowered his weapon. "So be it." His glare focused on Sutek. "Since my birth, I have been warned not to argue with wizards." He grasped my shoulder, and his gaze softened. "Fare thee well, Johne. Fear not, I will take good care of our friends."

 He said nothing else as we departed.

The Foretelling of an Age


The Underworld is endless. For nearly two weeks, Sutek and I have toiled northwest through passages both cavernous and narrow. Too often we hear the rustle of wings and the ghastly shrieks of mongbats. Fortunately, none have approached us. Perhaps our avian friends have spread the word that Sutek is a force to be reckoned.

 Today, Sutek and I traversed the shores of what might be called a cove on the surface world. I have named it the Bay of Lost Hope, but I have kept this to myself, for I doubt my companion would appreciate my humor. We have made camp on the northwest shore where a large passage leads farther into the heart of the Underworld.

I closed the pages of my log, capped my inkwell, and placed it and the quill inside one of my pouches. After gathering my blankets, I rested my head on my hands and waited for sleep to settle in while I listened to the rustle of Sutek paging through his spellbooks. I was used to the routine. My companion and I would set up camp, roast our supper, and eat. Then I would record our journey and fall asleep while Sutek studied, usually without a single word exchanged between us.

 Save for sound of waves lapping against the shore, that night by the lake was no different--at least, in the beginning.

 The campfire had dwindled to embers and my eyes were at last beginning to feel the pull of sleep when Sutek spoke in a quiet voice. "Look, Captain, the stars have come again."

 I jumped to my feet, throwing off the blankets. A thousand lights shimmered where darkness normally held reign, and there, glowing softly like two golden orbs suspended before a black curtain, were Trammel and Felucca, the two moons who nurtured the night skies I once knew. How long I stood there, my hands outstretched, bathed in the luminance of that beautiful celestial dome, I cannot recall. I do remember the tears I felt on my cheeks when inevitably, the sky rippled and shuddered as if being stripped away, and then it abruptly vanished.

 "I knew I was not crazy," I whispered to myself.

 "Indeed thou art not, Captain." Sutek's voice jolted me from my despondency. The mage motioned for me to have a seat near the coals which he poked with his staff.

 I settled among my blankets. "How is it possible? How can we see the sky?"

 "This place, these caverns, are not meant to be beneath Britannia," Sutek answered. "They are shattered lands, worlds we unknowingly stole to fill the chasm we created when we ruptured the Void and raised the Codex. And I sense that our creation is unstable at best, flirting with one reality and the next. Certainly you have felt the tremors in the ground. What thou hast seen in the sky is no different, except it is the Void itself that trembles, and the reason why I cannot summon a moongate to escape this realm. But the Heavens may still be of help. The stars serve as auguries"

 He must have noticed the doubt in my eyes, for he scowled as he spoke. "Is what I claim so difficult to believe, Captain? Dost thou not use the stars to guide your ship? Is that so different from I who uses the stars to guide his life?" His voice lowered to a whisper. "It is no legend that the Heavens foretold the coming of Mondain, his apprentice Minax, and their offspring Exodus. Thrice have comets ignited Britannia's skies; thrice have they heralded an Age of Darkness!"

 "And have the stars told thee how the maelstrom brought us here?" It was a question that perhaps mocked his claims, but one I had been meaning to ask for a long time.

 "No," Sutek admitted. "But maelstroms have always been shrouded with myth and legend. As a sailor, thou hast certainly heard the tales of ships discovered without crews or shipwrecks that mysteriously appear on the shores of Lock Lake. Maelstroms have been blamed for these acts, and why not? They are torrent, violent things--nature's wrath unleashed. It would not surprise me if such things might create ripples in the Void and drag us here."

 "A shame Astarol is not here," I smiled. "He would be delighted to hear this."

 "Perhaps. Perhaps not. He was on deck when the maelstrom struck thy ship. He watched the storm stalk us, even as thy crew tried in vain to steer away from it. That is right, Captain. The maelstrom sought us that night. It is no accident that we are here." He paused, then he spoke again, compassionately, as if he might be able to soothe the fear that tightened my breaths. "Neither was it the fault of thy crew. That much the stars told me during our first night at sea."

 I remembered. Damn him to the Abyss, I remembered how he had watched Nosfentre, Faulina, and I. I thought it had been sorrow in his eyes that night. Now I realized it had been pity. "Thou knew of this?" I nearly screamed. "And thou did not warn us? Why?" My hands curled into fists.

 "Wouldst thou have listened?"

 His question remained unanswered for many minutes. Faulina would have believed him, and she could have convinced me to return to Minoc. But Nosfentre, my crew, and the passengers--they certainly would not have been ready to believe their destinies had been written in the Heavens.

 The mage bowed his head. "I thought not. Rare is the wise man who seeks his destiny rather than avoid it."

 "And what of thee, mage?" I asked angrily. "Didst thou know that thou would be trapped with us? Where lies thy destiny?"

 Again the end of his staff touched the vestiges of our fire. He looked up at me, the soft, crimson glow of the coals barely illuminating his sorrow. I regretted my hostility as soon as he spoke. "Madness," he murmured. "Isolation."

 The shadows of the Underworld had crept up to our camp before I broke our silence. "And mine?"

 "The same," he said, and in glow of the dying embers, I saw his sorrow deepen.


Three weeks as of this night, and still no sign of a passage to Britannia. We camp tonight in a narrow gallery running southeast. I doubt we shall see where it ends. Soon our dwindling provisions will force us to return to the Ararat. I cannot say I am disheartened by this thought. I miss our companions--Faulina, most of all--and dare I admit I have had thoughts of taking the ring from its hiding place and slipping it upon her finger? The Underworld would be a lighter place, I think, if a marriage dwelled within it.

 I had the nightmare that night.

 The light that bathed my eyes had no natural source. Soft and faint, it touched only that which lay near the figure who waited for me to awaken. Tall and stalwart like a warrior he stood, though his cloak and cowl marked him a mage. For a moment, I thought I recognized this apparition, but an instant later, my recollection failed me. Perhaps his appearance should have unsettled me and forced me to awaken Sutek. Yet I did not, for oddly enough, the specter's appearance brought a calmness I had not felt since we had entered the Underworld.

 "Johne," he said, holding out his hand. Fingernails half the length of his palm beckoned me. "Rise from thy sleep, Johne. It is I who can help thee." He turned then, cloak making not a whisper as it brushed the floor like a shadow, and stepped through the rock-hewn wall. Who the newcomer was, I still could not say, but that face--it was so familiar, so I followed him, looking back only once at Sutek's sleeping form before I, too, stepped through the wall.

 For hours, days--perhaps ages--we journeyed through the Underworld, walking through stone as if it was air, treading upon subterranean waters as if they were earth, until at last we crossed a great sea. An isle loomed before us, crags molten with crimson stone. Only once did fear strike me: When I passed through a blinding curtain of molten rock and stepped into a darkness so absolute and complete that it engulfed all sense as well as sight. I tried to scream, but my voice was not to be found.

 I heard the mage speak, and his voice, calm and fluid, soothed me.

 "Here we are at last, Johne," he said. "Here, at the center of it all."

 His light returned, shrouded me in a comforting glow, and illuminated the ruins of a palace. Shattered columns rose beneath a dome of cracked marble, and tapestries hung burnt and torn along the walls. Dark welts streaked from the center of the floor in a starburst, uprooting tiles both black and white. On the far wall leaned a mirror inlaid with gold, and perhaps it was a trick of the light, but its crystalline glass reflected not this room, but another.

 "My home, Johne, for many years," the mage said, "until it was destroyed by my enemy."

 "Who could desecrate such elegance?" I asked.

 His eyes, pools of darkness, diminished to slits. "A savior, some would allege, who brings enlightenment to those deemed worthy. A false prophet, others would claim, who brings darkness upon the damned." His scowl slowly twisted into a pleasant smile. "But such matters are for another age. I have come to be thy savior, Johne, if. . . thou wilt be mine." He ushered me forward with a languid wave of his hand. "Come closer, Johne, and thou wilt understand." I obeyed until he gestured me to stop. "Look down, Johne, and view thy destiny."

 I peered down at the center of the room.

 Three shards of a shattered jewel, each the length of dagger's blade, lay embedded in the blackened stone.

 "What are they?" I whispered.

 His answer was tainted with anger. "The remains of an artifact, a beautiful gem that harnessed the power of a sun. Now it lies ruined." His voice drew to a hiss. "Take the shards, Johne, and avenge me. Only then shalt thee and thy companions be free."

 I reached forward. My hand hesitated over the first shard. Its edges, sharpened like a knife, gleamed greedily, as if hungering for my flesh. I grasped it, and it slid free of the stone.

 "Take them, and thou shalt be free," he repeated.

 The second shard slid from the stone.

 "Avenge me, Johne."

 With the hiss like steel honed against stone, the third shard was freed.

 "Avenge us."

 It was not one person, but a triad who uttered those final words. The mage had been joined by a woman, her expression as cold as sculpted stone, and another, a thing neither human nor beast, but whose skull glowed with a fire forged from hell.

 I stumbled away from those specters, the crystal shards clasped tightly to my chest, and as I finally unleashed the scream that had been swelling my lungs, I awoke next to the remains of our campfire.



We began our journey back to the Ararat today. Sutek wished to continue our exploration, but my persistence and--I am reluctant to say--my fury won this argument. For once, I took the lead, perhaps too anxiously, for often I found myself alone in darkness until Sutek arrived with his light.

 A nightmare. I keep telling myself it was a nightmare. It has to be. I have searched our supplies and I can find no shards.


There can be no doubt about it, our pace has slowed over the past week. Only today did we arrive at the lake shore where Sutek and I were blessed with our last glimpse of Britannia's heavens. It is I who delays us, for if I exert myself too much, I must stop, lest I become ill. Sutek is patient, and assures me that we may take our time.

 I often dream about comets.

 A nightmare. It has to be.


Does this accursed passage never end? I do not remember it taking this long to travel.

 My illness grows worse. We stop every hour while I sit and catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my brow. Sutek reassures me that it is only fatigue.

 I can tell he believes otherwise. He has never smiled before.


We will reach my companions tomorrow. . .

 The shadows, they follow me.

 Thank the Virtues. . .

 A nightmare. It has to be.

We beached our skiff near the ruins of the Ararat whose masts groped upward like withered, bony fingers. My friends greeted us enthusiastically, though I was the only one to receive an embrace, and that from Faulina. Nosfentre grinned broadly as he gripped my shoulder; Astarol welcomed us from our "journey into a depths, an adventure surely fraught with peril, one that only a brave few have survived!"

 All was well.

 Until I saw the shadowy figures that lurked behind my three friends.

 I screamed and a sudden darkness enveloped me.

I awoke in my bed. Faulina withdrew her palm from my forehead where I felt the residual tingle of magic. "What happened?" I asked, startled to hear my words sound so coarse. And despite the blankets wrapped around me and the sweat beading on my brow, I shivered with a chill.

 "Thou art ill," Faulina answered. "Sutek has told us about thy journey."

 I gripped her wrist. "Journey?" I hissed. Had the mage witnessed my dreams? Did he know of my pilgrimage to the center of the Underworld? "What did he say? Tell me!" My grip on her wrist tightened.

 "Johne, please," she said. I reluctantly released her. "He told us about the stars, Johne," she whispered. "Astarol, Nosfentre, and I envy thee. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to see Britannia's sky again, even if only briefly."

 I recalled the destiny that Sutek and I shared: madness, isolation. "There was not much to see," I murmured. "How long have I been asleep?"

 "A day, no more," she answered. "But still thou must rest."

 The door to the cabin opened, revealing the flamboyant minstrel. "Ah, I see the Captain's illness has abated, at least, for the time being. Will he be able to dine with us tonight? I should like to hear more of his adventures with the enigmatic mage, Sutek."

 "No, I am afraid not," Faulina said.

 "'Tis a pity, but I am not one to argue with so wondrous a lady. May I escort thee to the deck? Nosfentre has prepared us a meal."

 Faulina laughed. "Of course, my minstrel." She rose and clasped my hand. "Rest, Johne. I will bring thee food later." She leaned forward and kissed my forehead.

 I barely noticed, for my thoughts lingered angrily on a single fact: Throughout his exaltations, Astarol's eyes never strayed from Faulina, nor did he say a word to me.


I have grown stronger. I can walk to my desk if need be. Faulina spends much of her time at my bedside. Astarol, of course, is never far away. He offers his music and stories to "alleviate the boredom of the bed-ridden Captain."

 But I see through thy masquerade, bard. I can see the envy in thy eyes. . .

Nosfentre stormed into my chambers the next morning, slamming the door shut behind him. He carried a scroll.

 "The mage is gone," he said, evenly.

 I propped myself on my pillows. "What?" I exclaimed.

 "Sutek, damn him. He has abandoned us. Abandoned us in this accursed realm to die and rot!" Nosfentre pounded the desk with his fist. His beard quivered while he continued. "I never should have taken my eyes off of him. He spoke about another expedition, but refused my offer to join him. When I awoke this morning, I found the skiff gone. This was left in its place." He tossed me the scroll, which was unopened and addressed to me. "He has doomed us all! With the skiff gone, we are stranded on this island. Damn him to the Abyss. We were fools to have trusted him. Look at what he has done to you, Johne!"

 "'Tis not Sutek who causes Johne to suffer, dear Nosfentre," Faulina said, rising from the bed.

 "Then what is it?" he demanded. "I have never seen such a sickness."

 As they argued, I unrolled the scroll, and read Sutek's spidery script:

I am sorry to leave, but time grows short. I must find a way for us to reach the surface. I could not allow one of thy companions to accompany me. They would only hinder me, and there is a darkness that shadows those three.
But rest easy, Captain, the illness that plagues thee will have subsided when I return.
--Thy friend, 

Nosfentre and Faulina had ceased arguing, and both regarded me. "What did that foul mage have to say?" the fighter demanded.

 I rolled up the scroll, and laid it next to my side. There is a darkness that shadows those three. "He offers his apologies for leaving so abruptly," I lied. "He will return in a few weeks."


I dreamt of comets again,

 And often I hear voices. . .

 "Avenge us," they say.


The days pass slowly, and I am recovering. I spend much of my time with the others, yet their presence offers no companionship. They watch me, the three of them. They hide it well, but I know. I hear their whispers, if not the words. I see their glances. Astarol may continue to sing and recite his tales, but his gaze flickers with envy and hatred when Faulina and I are together. Nosfentre's fear and suspicion of Sutek's betrayal grows with each passing day, and I fear that he is beginning to feel that I am in league with the mage. Still, he is the only one I can trust. And Faulina. . . dear, dear Faulina. I hear the lies beneath thy nightly proclamations of love; I see the uncertainty in thy beautiful eyes as thou dost choose between me and the bard.

 I often read Sutek's last message. . .

There is a darkness that shadows those three.

 . . . and when I read it, I often sense that I am not alone, that others read the scroll with me. But when I turn to confront them, they are not there.

I requested Nosfentre to meet me alone in my cabin. He complied, but was outraged when he heard what I had to say.

 "Art thou mad?" Nosfentre's roar shook the walls.

 I eased back in my chair, refusing to show my fear. The warrior leaned over my desk, and I felt as if I faced a mountain of rage. "Thou must do as I ask," I said. "Surely thou art aware of Astarol's betrayal. Was it not thou who warned me to watch my back?"

 "'Twas a jest," he simmered. "'Tis no reason for me to raise my sword against the minstrel. He is my friend, and, whether thou dost choose to believe me or not, he is Faulina's friend, not her paramour."

 "He is a thief!" I cried. Had the chair not been bolted to the floor, it would have tipped over as a I sprung to my feet. "And she a liar! Now, wilt thou help me put an end to this, or art thou a coward?"

 Anger colored his cheeks. I could tell it took all his effort to edge away from the desk without striking me. Instead, he said softly, "Ever since thou returned with Sutek, thou hast not been thyself. What happened to thee in the Underworld, Johne?"

 "Nothing," I lied. There is a darkness that surrounds those three. "'Tis thee who has changed. Before we entered this accursed place, I could trust thee to never turn thy back on me. Now, thou art no different from the others. Sutek is the only one I can trust."

 At last his anger was released. "Sutek!" he bellowed. "Is it he who has fed thee with these lies? What has he done to thee?"

 "He has done naught but tell the truth," I retorted, "which is more than I can claim for others."

 "He has made you sick!" Nosfentre returned. "Listen to thyself!" He pointed at the mirror resting against the wall. "Look at thyself! See what has become of thee!"

 I faced the mirror, and to my horror, I confronted the skeleton of a man I once knew. My flesh was pulled taut over my bones. My hair hung in unkempt knots. And my eyes, oh, my eyes--those bloodshot orbs seemed to stare at me from the sockets of a skull. My hands began to shake.

 At that moment, the door opened and Astarol and Faulina walked in. "What is the matter?" asked Faulina. "We heard shouting--"

 A red mist seemed to cloak my vision. "Thou!" I screamed at them. "Thou hast done this to me!"

 I leapt at the bard, intending to strangle him, but Nosfentre's fist took me square in the chest. My breath escaped in a painful gasp, and I fell back against the desk. Faulina stepped forward. Nosfentre held up his hand. "No, stay away from him."

 Faulina began to protest. "I can help--"

 "Go now!" Nosfentre ordered. "When his anger settles, then may thou tend to him."

 Faulina reluctantly nodded. Astarol followed, looking back at me with an expression of pity.

 Nosfentre waited while I struggled to my feet, still trying to catch my breath. "Traitor!" I finally managed to hiss at him. I took a step forward.

 Nosfentre drew his blade. "Stand back, Johne," he warned. "Thou art ill, and I have no wish to harm a sick man."

 He, too, backed away. The door shut. The latch clicked. And my fury was released in an anguished wail.


They have locked me in my own cabin. Nosfentre stands guard outside so that I cannot leave. I imagine Astarol and Faulina are elsewhere, plotting against me, though at times I can hear them speaking with the warrior. They sound concerned about me.

 But thou hast to do better to outwit me, my friends. . .

 Oh, yes. . .

 Thou hast to do better. . . do better. . . do better. . . do. . .


 I lifted my head away from the desk. I must have fallen asleep while writing in my log. I could not remember much of the previous day, only that the others had imprisoned me in my cabin.

 "Johne, it is time I fulfill my promise. I can set thee free."

 Outlined by the crimson glow of the stove was the familiar mage I had met in my nightmare. So eagerly did I stand that I knocked the journal and inkwell to the floor. Ink pooled in a dark circle at my feet. "How?" I asked. "How can I escape?"

 "Look in thy chest, the one in which thou dost keep Faulina's ring. Hurry, for there is not much time."

 I knelt before the chest near the foot of the bed, and unlocked it with a key I kept hidden beneath one of the floorboards. The lid of the chest lifted with a solemn creak. There, glowing dimly and resting next to the pouch that held Faulina's ring, were the three shards of the shattered gem.

 "Take them, Johne."

 I obeyed, thrusting each shard under my belt. As I stood, the mage rubbed his hand against the wall opposite that of the door. The wall shimmered and disappeared, offering escape to the Underworld.

 "A skiff awaits for thee at the other end of the isle. My apprentice will show thee the way. Once thou dost board the skiff, our prodigy will guide thee from the Underworld." I nodded eagerly, and headed for the darkness that waited. The mage's hand lashed out and gripped my shoulder. "I have kept my promise, Johne," he whispered, then released me. "I trust thou wilt remember thine."

 I stepped outside the ship. I turned to assure the mage I would keep my oath, but the wall had solidified behind me. Near the shore of the lake waited the woman from the dream. She rose her arm and pointed to the north, to where I might find this skiff.

 I trotted along the rocky shoreline, glancing over my shoulder at the Ararat. I could see Nosfentre's dim figure still posted outside my cabin, unaware of my escape. I arrived at a stone outcropping, but still no skiff. I thought perhaps I had been tricked, then to the north, a horned skull with eyes like ghostly beacons floated silently out of the darkness--the third figure from the dream. I sprinted toward the apparition, knowing that it marked where the skiff was beached. A curse resounded from the Ararat--Nosfentre had discovered my escape, no doubt. My pace quickened as I rounded another outcropping.

 The skull had vanished. No boat awaited me. Only Faulina and Astarol.

 Faulina--my Faulina--was embracing the bard. She wept, and I heard her whisper my name. She opened her eyes, and they filled with fear when she saw me.

 "Johne," she gasped.

 Astarol whirled, his expression also fearful and wrought with guilt. "My Captain--" he began, but his plight was cut off when I leapt like an enraged beast and, without thought, without any sense at all, buried one of the shards in his throat.

 His mouth opened in a scream. No sound emerged, only blood which bathed the shard. Faulina cried out and stumbled backward into the lake. From behind came a shout of outrage. Nosfentre had arrived, and I turned to face the warrior as he drove down on me with the sword that Faulina and I had given him many years ago.

 His blade and the second shard met in mid-stroke with a metallic peal that reverberated the caverns. The warrior's face paled in the violet glow of the crystal, and I took his moment of hesitation to strike, thrusting the third shard into his stomach.

 Nosfentre fell to his knees, peering up at me with disbelief. He tried wrench the shard free, but as his fingers touched the crystal, the shard quivered, and buried itself deeper into his bowels. His scream of agony pierced the darkness of the Underworld, and lifted the darkness that clouded my mind.

 "Nosfentre," I whispered. "What have I done?"

 The shard in his gut quivered again and he howled. Still, he remained on his knees, refusing to fall. "I ask but one thing, Johne," he said between breaths tainted with blood. "End this for me."

 I nodded, tears rolling down my cheeks, and raised the last shard.

 "Johne, NO!"

 Faulina flung herself in front of the warrior, even as I drew the shard down. Silence followed, then a soft splash as my love crumpled into the lake, the shard embedded in her breast. Nosfentre glanced down at her, then up at me. "She loved only thee, Johne," he said. A solemn sigh escaped his lips, and he fell before me.

 I sat among my slain companions for many hours, though time might have ceased for all I knew. I stared off across the lake, its waters illuminated by the glow of the crystal shards.

 I remember 'twas Faulina's hand that I held during those hours.

 And 'twas her hand that first trembled with a new life.

 The shards embedded in each of my companions suddenly flared. While the shards pulsed with a brilliant glow, cracks of light spread across the bodies of my companions like luminous veins. The rents in my companion's flesh widened, spilling forth a ghastly radiance.

 Something emerged from each of the bodies--shadows born from wombs of light.

 They rose before me as the glow of the shards dimmed: Three beings robed in darkness, eyes burning with the blood of my friends.

 One raised a hand, a shadow draped in darkness. A silver arrow crystallized at the tip of its finger.

 The arrow struck my chest, and I fell among the bodies of those I had slain.



I awoke still lying on the shore of the lake. The bodies of my friends and the shards were gone.

 The arrow in my chest had been removed. The wound had been healed.

 I tried to end my torment with Nosfentre's sword.

 But the wraiths--they will not let me die.


The wraiths are gone.

 I eat very little these days. I often roam the shores of this island for hours. Sometimes I imagine meeting my friends. They are sitting around a campfire. "Come Johne," Faulina says, patting the earth next to her. "Join us." Both Nosfentre and Astarol nod their approval. So I sit with them and we talk and laugh, dine and drink, until they fade away, leaving me alone in the Underworld. I continue to talk, even though they are gone, and stop only when I begin to weep.

 I am sorry, my friends.

 I am sorry.


They returned.

 I was eating dinner when the wraiths emerged from the walls of my cabin. They did nothing, merely watched me as I ate until, at last, I screamed at them to leave. When they did not, I dropped to my knees and begged.

 They said nothing as they vanished into the gloom.


The wraiths. They torment me.

 Each night they grant me visions.

 Britain, Jhelom, Moonglow--the wraiths show me the evil they have begun to foster in these towns, the darkness they cultivate within the good folk of Britannia. No one is aware of them or their purpose, not even Lord Blackthorn, whom the wraiths visit each night as he sleeps, watching him, haunting his dreams, nurturing his fears and ambitions.

 Oh, Faulina. . .

 What have I done?


Damn thee. . .

 I know thy names.

 First thou dost steal my friends. Now thou dost take and corrupt their names.

 Damn thee.


Sutek returned today. I wept as I told my tale.

 And may the fates forgive him. . .

 He forgave me.

 "'There is a darkness that shadows those three,'" Sutek said. He was reading the scroll he had addressed to me. "Words I did not write, nor can I see." He handed me the parchment. Indeed, the phrase was no longer there. "An illusion," the mage continued. He appeared much older than I remembered, his beard tangled and matted, his robes streaked with the gray dust of stone. "A trick by the shards to deepen thy madness."

"And my dreams? My visions of Mondain, Minax, and Exodus?" I could not subdue the shudder that pierced me when I uttered the names of the Triad of Evil.

 "More of the same," Sutek replied. "Mondain's gem was the heart of his power, the very essence of his immortality. Perhaps that is why some scholars believe the gem ultimately spawned a soul of its own. Or perhaps the gem contained part of Mondain's spirit. It may never be known. Nevertheless, it is clear that the gem was not destroyed as was once thought. It was merely shattered, its fragments hurtled into the Void for an imprisonment that would last an eternity."

 "Or what should have been an eternity," I murmured, "if not for the raising of the Codex."

 "True enough," Sutek agreed. "Our magic may have weakened the barrier between Britannia and the portion of the Void in which the shards were trapped; weakened it just enough that the shards could seek an escape from their imprisonment." He peered at me. "And they found thee. They brought thee and thy companions to the Underworld. They corrupted thee, just as Mondain corrupted the jewel when he stole it from his father so many eons ago."

 We fell silent for many moments before Sutek spoke again. "I have found a way to the surface. Southeast lies the entrance to the dungeon called Despise, a labyrinth of mine shafts abandoned before the Age of Enlightenment. I've explored the lower passages, and I am certain with further exploration, we can find our way to Britannia."

 Never had any statement spawned such hope and despair at the same instant: To know there was a way home, and to know that I could not go. "If I accompany thee," I said, "they will find us. Even by speaking to me, thou dost jeopardize thy life and any hope to warn Britannia."

 Sutek nodded while he shouldered his pack. "It was good to see thee, Captain," he said.

 "Go, then," I insisted. "Flee this place whilst thou can. Warn the Great Council of Britannia's peril."

 Sutek released a heavy sigh. "I am afraid it may be too late by then. Two meetings of the Great Council have come to pass since we arrived here. Who knows what decisions have been made about the Underworld."

 "Then thou must find a way to stop these wraiths," I said. For the first time since I had returned to the Ararat, I managed a smile. "Thou once told me only a fool seeks to avoid his destiny. Remember what the stars have told thee, Sutek. Isolate thyself. Hide, if thou must, but thou must never be found until thou hast found a means to destroy this evil."

 We walked to the shore where he boarded the skiff. He guided the craft across the waves, darkness slowly enfolding him like a black mist.

 At first I thought he had cast a spell, then I realized the pale glow emanated from above. Quickly, I looked up, and once again, I was blessed with a familiar, starlit sky. Trammel hung low on the horizon, silhouetting the mage and his boat.

 "Remember thy destiny as well, Captain Johne," Sutek called. "And remember: 'Tis the wise man who seeks his destiny, but 'tis the wiser man who seeks to change it."

 As he spoke, the heavens ignited. Three brilliant orbs, comets, arched across the stars, leaving fiery trails in their wake. Gradually, they and the moons and the stars dimmed. The mage and his boat faded from my sight, lost to the perpetual night of the Underworld, as did my last vision of Britannia's sky.


A fear swells over Britannia, though none can say why. Some folk speak frightfully of nightmares and of wraiths called Shadowlords who haunt their dreams.

 I am aware that Lord British, his Royal Scribe, and six knights will venture forth into the Underworld when the sun rises.

 I am aware of the Shadowlords' plans.

 I hope Sutek is well and has discovered a way to vanquish them.

 I hope.

"The wraiths came this morning. There were three of them. They walked through the stone. Their blackness was deeper than the shadows from which they emerged. . . They took our lord with them. I was powerless to stop them. I am afraid we all are."

--final entry from The Expedition of Lord British
Remoh, Royal Scribe to the Court of Lord British

Copyrights and Disclaimers

-The Tale of Captain Johne is Copyright 1998 by Michael D. Hilborn, and is based on the characters and events portrayed in Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. Please feel free to copy and distribute this story, but I ask that it remain in its original form. If, for some odd reason, you wish to use it for commercial purposes or alter it, please contact me.

-The images on these pages were designed by Michael D. Hilborn and created with Adobe Photoshop 4.0. All other artwork were either downloaded from the Ultima WWW Archive or were scanned by the author, and are Copyright ORIGIN Systems, Inc. Many thanks to the artists at ORIGIN for bringing their skill, imagination, and devotion to the Ultima series.

-Musical arrangements were downloaded from the Ultima WWW Archive or the Ultima Music Library,and are Copyright ORIGIN Systems, Inc. Again, I thank the artists at ORIGIN for their efforts in enchanting the Ultima realm with music. Special thanks to Televar Dragon, Minstrel Dragon, and Newton Dragon for compiling and arranging these scores in their MIDI format.

-Ultima, Britannia, and Lord British are registered trademarks of ORIGIN Systems, Inc.

-And, of course, a special thanks to all who took the time to read this story. If you have any questions, comments, or criticisms, I would love to hear from you.

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