Chapter 1: Reborn on Wings of Fire
January 1, 1885 In a Valley somewhere in the Stonewall Mountains, Evening
It appears that I am the sole survivor of the crash of the IFS Zephyron on its maiden voyage from Caladon to Tarant. The remains of the great dirigible are strewn across this wide valley. Virgil and I have been searching for hours. We have found refuse, equipment, and many bodies, most of them charred beyond recognition, but no other survivors. We found the wreckage of one of the strange flying machines that attacked the Zephyr. The body of it’s pilot, an ogre, was nearby. I cannot imagine who would have committed such a heinous act of sabotage against a defenseless passenger ship, or what possible motivation they might have had. The ogre wore an amulet engraved with a strange symbol on its face: an eye within a hexagram. The flying machine bore a plaque: “Maxim’s Machinery, Caladon.”
“My dearest Jared, I’m aboard the IFS Zephyr, speeding on my way to see you again. My breath catches when I think that in two short weeks I shall be your wife. That is correct, my dear, I am accepting your proposal! I hope thoughts of me warm your heart on your long days and nights guarding Vermillion Station from the half-orc looters you mentioned.
Love always, Wilhemina”
--from a letter I found on the body of a young lady, a fellow passenger on the IFS Zephyr
The trip had been uneventful. I had spent my time keeping to myself, alternately reading and looking out the windows at the amazing view from the sky. It was early morning, and I was looking down upon the mountain ranges and the fog covered valley below, when out of the sun flew two small flying objects, noisy machines each about the size of a large wagon with propellers and wide fixed structures that resembled a bird’s wings. Their engines roared as they dove down upon our ship and fired their artillery. The blimp ignited almost immediately, and in seconds the whole craft was on fire. I crouched in a corner beneath my seat, holding on for dear life. People were yelling and screaming; smoke and flames were all I could see. My lungs were full of smoke, and I felt as though I were choking to death as the dirigible lurched sickeningly downward.
The next thing I remember, I was getting up from the ground with the burning remains of the dirigible all around me. I had no idea how I could possibly still be alive, let alone unharmed, but there was no time to think. From somewhere beneath the wreckage I could hear a man's voice calling out weakly for help. I could see scarcely more than five feet in front of me, what with the smoke from the dirigible and the chill wet fog that covered everything. I crawled through the debris searching frantically for the source of the voice, and pulled away a heavy metal plate to uncover a well-dressed gnome, his body burnt and battered.
He looked up at me gratefully, but I could see he was mortally hurt. “Oh, thank you my friend.” He rasped, coughing, and spitting blood. As I knelt down to help him, he took hold of my arm and pressed something hard and round into my palm. “Listen,” he said urgently, “We haven’t got much time. You must find the boy, find the boy, and give him back his ring, and he will know what needs to be done.”
Either he didn’t notice I was a half-orc, or in his desperate state he didn’t care. “Please, sir, try to lie still,” I said. “I’m medically trained, I can help you.”
But the gnome was delirious and would not rest. As I worked feverishly to save him without even my medical bag to aid me, he insisted on speaking, his mind lost in some nightmarish fantasy. Focused as I was on trying to save his life, I only remember bits of what he said. “We had to do it, we had no choice.” “He did unspeakable things to us.” “The work is almost finished.” “You can’t imagine, he’s coming back to destroy everything and everyone.”
As I was working, he suddenly gripped my arm and nearly shouted at me, “Please, just find the boy! Tell him, I escaped, tell him I came back to warn,…he will know what to do. You, my friend, it’s all up to you.” His grip loosened, and he fell back unconscious. I continued to work, but there was nothing I could do; he died as I tried to help him.
I knelt beside the body, shattered. All of my training had been worthless. Numb, I searched his pockets and found his passport and a book of matches from someplace called the Roseborough Inn. The gnome’s name had been “Preston Radcliffe.” The ring he had given me was old, made of fine silver. The name “P. Schuyler and Sons” was inscribed inside the band, while the initials “G.B.” were set in relief upon the surface. Could “G.B” be the boy Mr. Radcliffe spoke of? When I make it to Tarant, I shall be sure to carry out his dying wish.
I was still kneeling there when I heard the sound of someone tromping through the wreckage coming closer. I looked up to see a young man emerge from the smoke and fog. He wore monkish robes and bore a staff. I had never seen him before, and could only assume he had been camping nearby when he witnessed the crash. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened in amazement as he looked down upon me.
“I can’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “I mean, you! And then the zeppelin and....! And the fire! And then the altar says that... Do you have any idea what all of this means?”
I shook my head slowly, having no idea what he meant. I did my best to reply calmly, despite my agitation. “I’m sorry, sir, but what are you talking about?”
“You speak!” he replied, astonished. “I mean, of course you speak! What am I, a blithering idiot? What did you say? Maybe I should be writing all this down.” Here he started fumbling in the pockets of his robes.
I pushed myself up onto my feet. He seemed sincere, so I spoke slowly, and forced myself to be polite. “Look, I’ve just had a rather bad shock, and I’m a bit confused. What is it you are trying to say?”
The monk wrung his hands together, obviously flustered. “I am at a loss here, I don’t quite know what to do. Uh, I mean you ARE the...of course you are, I mean you DO know who you are, right? Of course you do, what sort of brainless, half-baked question is that for the uh, the uh,...what exactly do you call yourself?”
I was starting to feel desperate. “Please, sir! Slow down and tell me what it is that you’re saying.”
“Please, forgive me, I’m making a bloody mess of this whole affair.” Here he took a moment, collecting himself before continuing. “My name is Virgil, madam, and I’m new to the Panarii religion, er, your religion, and I, oh! Wait!” He knelt down on the ground in front of me, and then hesitated as if he were trying to remember something. “I, uh, hereby dedicate, no, uhm, commit my life to the Living One. I, Virgil, am at your service madam.”
I looked down at the monk kneeling before me as the craft I had just been flying in burned all about us, and for a moment I seriously wondered if I might somehow be hallucinating. “Well, that’s very gracious of you, uh, Virgil, thank you,” I answered. “But could you please explain what you are talking about?”
“Yes...right...uh...just give me a moment here. You see...the Panarii...that’s the religion that was formed around the things that he said, I mean that you said...oh, forget it...let’s start at the beginning. Or THIS beginning, since there is a lot more that came before this. You are the reincarnation of a powerful elf, who the Panarii worship, and whose name is, uh...”
“Right...yes, the name...uh, wait! I remember something! It is written in the scriptures. ‘The Living One will live again on wings of fire.’ No wait, I think it says ‘reborn on wings of fire’. Oh, blood and ashes! Why do elves always have to be so damn cryptic?”
I was still frustrated, but at least this was starting to make sense of a sort. Somehow, unbelievably, this fellow had mistaken me for some sacred figure of legend. “Look,I’m very flattered,” I answered him, “but I’m afraid I’m not who you think I am. My name is Miss Clarisse Vorak, I was a passenger of the dirigible that just crashed.”
“Yes, yes of course you’re not really HIM,” Virgil answered, “just his reincarnation... I mean, that is the case, right? I have to admit, I’m no expert in elven philosophy, er, prophecy... bloody confusing, you know, all those thees and thous.” He looked a bit embarrassed. “Not that it’s not interesting, eh hmmmm.”
I forced myself to remain calm. I still had one card up my sleeve that would surely force this young man to see reason. It seemed that in the fog and the confusion, he had somehow failed to recognize my race. “That is not possible sir,” I answered him. I looked him straight in the eye for emphasis. “I am a half-orc.”
To my surprise, this didn’t seem to bother him at all. “As far as I can remember,” he answered thoughtfully, “the scriptures make reference to there being something unusual or unexpected about you when you return.”
I stared at him, completely at a loss. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation with a crazy monk as the remains of the dirigible burned all about us. He must have sensed my desperation, for he continued, “Look. . . Miss Vorak. . . I understand this whole thing sounds ridiculous, but let me just accompany you down the mountain to Shrouded Hills. I can introduce you to my mentor, Elder Joachim. He can explain all this better than I can. I’m rather new to this whole Panarii thing myself.”
I nodded; there could be no harm in that. Besides, lost and alone in the middle of the wild, I certainly wasn’t going to object to a companion and a guide. “All right Virgil,” I said. “But let’s search this area first. There may be other survivors, after all.”
Virgil agreed, and so we have been searching this valley late into the day. The smoke has dissipated and the sun long ago burned away the fog, yet we have found no other survivors, and after combing through the wreckage for so many hours I now appreciate why Virgil was so astonished by my appearance. After surveying the flaming debris of the airship strewn all over this valley, I have no idea how I could have possibly survived.
I called Virgil crazy above, but that is neither fair nor kind. True, he does have some odd ideas, but they are the ideas of his religion, and he seems fully cognizant of how strange they must appear to me. Besides, as misguided as it was, I am touched that he didn’t hesitate for a moment to identify me as the reincarnation of this heroic figure, the founder of his religion. He is the first human I have met since my orcish heritage has become unmistakable who has not looked upon me with contempt. He has been unfailingly polite, and has offered his companionship and protection in this dangerous wilderness where we have already been beset by wolves. He obviously holds the elder Joachim in very high esteem, and I see no reason not to go and meet him, though I fear Virgil will be disappointed by the result.
Nearly all of my possessions are gone, including my medical books and my diary. Virgil and I have recovered a few items from the wreck. There is this empty notebook itself, a fortuitous find given the loss of my former diary. I could not determine it’s former owner, and I hope whoever it was would not begrudge me the use of it. There are a few personal items which I will keep in hopes of eventually returning them to their families. Among them is what appears to be a camera broken in the crash, a fascinating device. There is also a letter that was on the body of a young lady addressed to her fiancée. It broke my heart to read it. I have reproduced it above. Really, as dismal as things seem, I am lucky to be alive.