The gods have agreed to a divine contest and prepared the Grand Arena. Now each god must choose a champion from among their mortal followers on Eucos. The gods choose their champions for different reasons, but the champions have one thing in common: all of them were extraordinary well before they gained a god’s attention.
Today, we meet Lysander, who will become the Champion of Light.
Chapter 2: Lysander’s Origin — Broken
by Kelly Digges
Lysander kneels in prayer, his spear and plumed helmet beside him. His god towers above him, hard white marble inlaid with gold that shines in the morning light. Behind the statue stands the temple itself, closed to worshippers. Lysander is not the only one praying this morning, and the statue’s feet are draped in offerings of silk and surrounded by sticks of incense.
“Thaeriel,” murmurs Lysander, “whose Light is the sun. Watch over us in our darkest hour. Guide our blades and our hearts as we defend your shining city, and grant us the strength to prevail.”
He listens and waits, hoping for an answer. His mentor told him once that not all prayers are answered, and not all answers are easy to understand.
Lysander sighs and rises with a rattle of armor. Other soldiers stand around him. Even in prayer, they follow his lead.
Young Kadmos stands beside him, taller than he is. Kadmos commands his own squad now, a respected warrior in his own right. Lysander claps his son on the shoulder, and he nods.
He and his impromptu honor guard march down the great boulevard to the Bronze Gate.
The sun has only half risen, and the hills around the city are still shadowed. But he can just barely see the army that surrounds the city, their red banners snapping. The wind takes the scent of incense with it, and now he can smell the fires of war.
The Tartessians have come before. They have met the Parthene army in battle, besieged the city, even scaled the walls. But this time, something is different.
This time, they brought a monster.
Kadmos kneels in prayer, his traveling pack beside him. It is a foggy morning, and the head of the marble god before him vanishes into the mist. No one else prays at the temple this morning.
“Thaeriel, lord of Light,” says Kadmos. “I don’t know if I am doing the right thing. I never do. But this is what I have to do, and if… if it pleases you, I hope you will light my path.”
Kadmos rises and shoulders his pack. His sword is heavy at his side, and he hopes he will not need it. He wears no armor and carries no banner. He is not a soldier, not today. Just a traveler.
He turns his back to Thaeriel’s temple and walks away, past the murky bulk of the Proscenium, down the familiar boulevard. Only his footsteps ring out on the cobblestones today, and they are quickly swallowed by the fog.
The city wall is usually visible from the temple, but today he can hardly see it even from the boulevard. He calls out to the gate-guards.
One of them turns—and it is no simple guard, but his commander, a hard-hearted general named Althea.
“Kadmos,” she says, looking him up and down as though to find some fault in his civilian kit. She sighs heavily. “I still think this is a bad idea.”
When Kadmos first announced his intention to leave the city, she threatened to bar him from traveling. When he told her that in that case he’d have to desert his post and become an outlaw, she threw him in the city’s lockup for a night. In the morning, having considered her options, she agreed to grant him leave.
“I know,” says Kadmos. “And for what it’s worth, I think there’s a good chance you’re right.”
“He’s not coming back,” she says flatly. “He made that very clear.”
“I know that too,” says Kadmos. “But it’s been a year. I have to try.”
“Of course you do,” says Althea. “I’d do the same, in your place. Gods go with you, and I hope… I hope you do bring him back.”
She yells for the gate to be opened, and Kadmos steps outside the city walls and vanishes into the fog.
Lysander stands outside the city walls in his shining armor and blue-plumed helm, addressing his assembled troops.
“This will not be easy!” he bellows. “Tartessos is a grim place, without the arts and luxuries of Parthon. Its children are made in its image, dedicated to warfare in a way that we, secure behind our walls, will never be.”
The soldiers shift uncomfortably. Everyone knows tales of the Tartessians, how the children of their warrior families learn to fight before they can talk.
“You’ve probably heard by now,” says Lysander, dropping his voice so the soldiers must strain to hear, “that the Tartessian commander is terrible to behold.”
Scouts had been sent to investigate these wild stories. Only one had returned, in the early hours of the morning, raving about a daemon with four arms that stood as tall as the city wall.
“These rumors appear to be true. Whatever it is, it is not human.”
There’s murmuring at this—a break in discipline that he expected, and chooses to ignore.
“I say, let them send their monsters!” shouts Lysander, cutting through the whispers. “Let them train their children for combat! It will do them no good! Do you know why?”
The soldiers are silent now, all eyes on him.
“For the Tartessians, war is a way of life. But we go to war to protect our way of life!” he shouts. “We fight, you and I, as volunteers, so that our artists and philosophers, our children and our spouses, can live in peace and prosperity. That is what we fight for! That is why the gods are on our side! And that is why we will prevail!”
The soldiers cheer.
“General Lysander!” shouts a soldier.
“General Lysander!” the rest shout in reply.
“For Parthon!” shouts Lysander.
Kadmos gasps for breath as he hikes a rocky, slowly ascending path surrounded by twisted fir trees. He has left the lowlands around Parthon and climbed into the wooded Thebian highlands, chasing rumors of a Parthene with golden scars. He’s been hiking for over a week, and he has never been this far into the highlands. The air seems thinner here, each breath counting for less. Only his purpose keeps him walking.
The sun is low in the sky, peeking out between the trees. He’ll need to camp for the night soon.
There are a few settlements up here, farming villages and shepherds’ camps scattered around Thebia itself. But Kadmos does not think he will find his father in a village, and certainly not in Thebia. He left because he wanted to be alone. He is far from the main roads now, into the hills where the villagers said the golden-scarred man went after he came to trade meat and furs for bronze knives and cured leather.
He’s not coming back, Althea had said. Maybe she’s right.
A growl from behind alerts him just in time. He lunges to the side and turns, fumbling for his sword, to see a huge gray wolf leaping toward him.
He dodges and rolls, coming to his feet with sword in hand. He turns slowly. The beasts surrounded him while he was lost in thought. Stupid!
Three against one, and literal wolf-pack tactics. Still, it should be easy to convince them he’s no easy prey. He wishes he had his shield to bang his sword against.
He lunges toward one wolf with a shout, but the others nip at his heels, keeping him trapped. He turns in a slow circle, trying to keep an eye on all of them at once.
“Begone, beasts!” he yells, slashing out with the sword again. “Yah!”
They’re still growling and circling. Not afraid of humans, nor of swords. Hm.
Then there’s a thump behind him, and a whimper. The two wolves he can see shrink back growling, then turn tail and lope away.
Kadmos turns to see a cloaked man bent over the fallen wolf, only a salt-and-pepper beard peeking out of his hood.
“Yelling won’t work against these beasts,” says the man, as he turns the wolf over, examining its pelt. A spear lies on the ground beside him, but Kadmos sees no blood. The man’s voice is deep and rich. “As like to draw in more of them, in fact. They only hunt humans to eliminate the competition.”
The man looks up, and his face—
“Kadmos?!” says the man, rising.
Lysander stands, and the two men embrace in a fierce hug, long enough to make up for the year they have lost.
Lysander shouts a battle cry as the Parthene and Tartessian lines crash together, shields interlocked. The younger soldiers’ shouts sound excited, eager for blood, but for Lysander there is only grim resolve.
Confusion reigns, as swords clang off Lysander’s shield and his own sword bites into the flesh of soldiers he barely catches a glimpse of. God, they’re all so young.
Then he sees it, rising above the chaos of battle: the daemon prince that commands the Tartessians. It is an obsidian-clad horror that towers over its troops, with a horned head and a maw full of jagged teeth. The thing carries an enormous axe, twice as long as Lysander is tall, with an axe-head the size of an ox-cart. The Tartessians shout a bloodthirsty cheer and surge forward.
The first line of Parthene soldiers reaches the beast. It swings that massive axe straight through them, but there is no blood, no body parts thrown aside.
The soldiers are just gone, their bodies and their gear crumpling and shredding, flying away like embers on the wind.
Lysander feels, more than hears, the mounting panic of his troops. They can beat the Tartessians head to head, but this is something different. They need to see this monster fall.
“To me!” he shouts, and his soldiers form up around him. He sheathes his sword and unbuckles the spear on his back. He’ll need the reach.
Spear in one hand, shield in the other, he strides out toward the monstrous Tartessian commander with a squad of Parthon’s finest at his flanks.
“Fight me!” he shouts, above the din. “Or are you too cowardly to face a champion of Parthon?”
The daemon’s monstrous head scans for him, and it breaks into a toothy grin. With one clawed hand, it waves away its honor guard and gestures for him to come forward.
“Stay here,” says Lysander to his troops. “Keep them honest, though. If they mob me, charge.”
He turns to meet the creature, but there’s a hand on his arm. He turns back. Kadmos, dear young Kadmos.
“General,” says Kadmos, bloody but apparently unhurt. “Father.”
“This is my task,” says Lysander.
“I know,” says Kadmos, his eyes shining with hope and admiration. “You can do this.”
“I’m proud of you,” says Lysander. “No matter what happens.”
Then he turns away, toward the creature. It seems bigger with every step. A hush has fallen over the battlefield, and Lysander feels as though everyone must surely be able to hear his whispered prayer.
What should he pray for? Protection for himself? The safety of his troops?
No. Only one thing matters.
“Guide my spear.”
He breaks into a run.
Kadmos walks beside his father, carrying his spear for him. It reminds him of when he was first training for war, when he was Lysander’s shieldbearer. Back when his father was a soldier.
Lysander walks with the wolf slung heavy over his shoulders, but even so, Kadmos struggles to keep up with him. Veins of gold ripple through the skin of Lysander’s arms, his legs—even his face, behind that ridiculous outdoorsman beard. Kadmos tries not to stare at them.
“I try not to break the skin if I can,” says Lysander. “The pelts are worth more that way. I was jumping down from a tree, so the choice was either to brain the thing or cut it nearly in half.”
Kadmos hadn’t asked about wolf pelts, and he listens to his father’s inane talk with mounting anger. Gods, maybe he really is gone.
“So you’re a hunter now?” he says, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.
“Just a man trying to get by, son.” He nods. “We’re here.”
A squalid little wooden shelter sits in a clearing beside the path, hand-built but sturdy. It’s draped in pelts to keep it warm and dry, and there are several fire-pits out front with crude wooden assemblies above them. Lysander drops the wolf beside one of the fire-pits.
“I need to deal with this,” says Lysander. “It’ll take a while.”
“Sure,” says Kadmos. He leans the spear against a woodpile and sits on a log.
Lysander takes the wolf’s carcass to one side of the clearing and begins the complicated work of butchering it, whistling to himself as he does. He seems like a man unaccustomed to human company.
“Gods, it smells!” says Kadmos, gagging. “Is that normal?”
“Absolutely,” says Lysander, grinning over his shoulder. “Wolfmeat stinks like Malissus’s farts. Even bears won’t touch it. But the pelts are good for trading, and the ribs are good enough for eating if you know how to cook them.”
Kadmos says nothing.
What had he expected? To find his father still girded for war, fighting on some foreign battlefield, in need only of directions home? Absurd. He was always going to find a hunter, or a herder, or a smith.
And that is all he has found: a man who used to be a general, up to his elbows in rancid wolf-guts.
Nothing stands between Lysander and the monstrous Tartessian commander. It looms over him, fangs dripping, that enormous axe seeming to cleave the air itself.
If I fall, there will be nothing left of me.
He leaps forward, under the massive creature’s guard, but the monster kicks him with one clawed foot, sending him rolling over backwards.
He’s almost to his feet when he hears a whistling sound overhead, like the roar of the wind in the treetops. He brings his shield up just in time for the creature’s mighty axe to meet it—
—and stop dead, with a flash of light and a sound like a great bronze bell.
For a moment, he holds. The rest of the battle seems to freeze around him, soldiers on both sides faltering at the display of power in their midst.
Thaeriel, protect me.
Then a crack shoots through his shield with a sound like ice breaking. Then another. And another. Gods, if he could stand his ground by will alone!
Then the cracks begin to appear in his flesh, and he knows that he is lost.
With his free hand he flings the spear wildly. Gods know what difference that will make to a beast the size of a house, but it’s all he has left.
The cracks spread, rending him with pain that goes far deeper than the body. Is this how his soldiers will die? Ripped apart from the inside?
Then he breaks into splinters, scattered on the wind.
It is full dark, and Kadmos and Lysander sit by the fire. The ribs are decent, even if Kadmos can’t quite keep himself from thinking about how they smelled an hour ago.
“Now then, son,” says Lysander, tossing his last rib into the fire. “What’s this about?”
“It’s been long enough,” says Kadmos. “I’m here to bring you home.”
“I’m not coming back,” says Lysander. “I told you never to come looking for me.”
“No,” says Kadmos. “You told them not to. They couldn’t stop me.”
“Of course not,” says Lysander. “Probably knew it, too.”
Kadmos throws his last rib in the fire too.
“Why’d you leave?” he asks. “Why’d you leave, really?”
Lysander sags. He looks tired now, and old—far too old, older than his nearly fifty summers.
“I should have been able to stand against it,” says Lysander, staring into the fire. “I should have held. If my faith had been stronger, if I had been stronger…”
His fists are clenched, every line of his body tense.
“I should have held.”
“I notice you haven’t got a shrine,” says Kadmos. “Unless there’s a tiny one stashed away in there.”
“No,” says Lysander. He looks away and pokes at the fire with a stick. “Wouldn’t have any use for it. Not anymore.”
“You don’t pray?” asks Kadmos. His father had always been a pious man, rising at dawn to greet Thaeriel.
“Why should I?”
“Thaeriel protected you!”
“Thaeriel should have let me die!” yells Lysander. “I failed him. Failed our city. Failed you.”
“You didn’t fail,” says Kadmos. “You lost. That’s not the same thing.”
His father stares into the fire, saying nothing.
Lysander is surrounded by light, a blinding white light that seems bright enough to bear his weight. He cannot even see his hands, his body. Gods, does he still have a body? The last thing he remembers—
The voice comes from all around him, from the Light—it is the Light. It speaks his name as though no one has ever truly spoken it before, as though every time before this when a parent or a friend or a lover has shouted his name it has been a mistranslation from some foreign tongue.
“YOU ARE COURAGEOUS, AND YOU ARE PIOUS. YOU HAVE DONE WELL.”
Lysander tries to speak, to protest, to ask where he is, but he has no voice. No body, no form, no self. Only the Light.
“I WILL SEND YOU BACK AGAINST FUTURE NEED.”
Then sensation returns, and it is agony, as the Light rebuilds his body from the inside out, filling every break with searing molten gold.
“THIS IS A GIFT.”
He hears another voice, his own voice, screaming into the Light.
“DO NOT SQUANDER IT.”
The gold veins in Lysander’s body gleam in the firelight, and now Kadmos can see that they are not scars, and more than skin-deep. They are cracks, filled in with gold, and they go clean through.
“They told me you were… disfigured,” says Kadmos. “But this… this is beautiful.”
“Beautiful? This is a curse. A mark of shame.”
“It’s a blessing!” says Kadmos. “It’s a blessing that you’re alive at all.”
“That’s a curse too,” says Lysander. “Best I can do about it now... is stay out of everyone’s way.”
“What are you talking about?” says Kadmos. “You threw the first spear. You showed us that we had a chance!”
“I let you down,” says Lysander. “I let everyone down.”
“You’re right,” says Kadmos. “You did let us down.”
Lysander looks at him, and for the first time it seems to Kadmos that he is really looking, really listening.
“But not when you lost that fight,” says Kadmos. “These things happen. A lot of good, strong soldiers lost that day. Died that day. Do you think they’re failures too?”
Lysander says nothing.
“You didn’t fail us when you lost,” says Kadmos. “You failed us when you walked away.”
Lysander stirs, still dazzled by the Light. Strong hands bear him up.
“—the general. I’ve found the general! Somebody help me, he’s—”
Voices, his soldiers.
“—see his face? Gods, look at his face—”
“The creature,” rasps Lysander. His throat is hoarse from screaming. Has he been screaming?
“He’s alive!” shouts a voice. “Get the healers, the general’s—”
“What happened?” asks Lysander “Did we win?”
Finally his vision clears, and he beholds a scene of devastation. There are bodies everywhere, Parthene and Tartessian. Smoke rises from a dozen pyres.
The Bronze Gate has been torn off its hinges, the wall breached, and there are plumes of smoke within Parthon itself. And there, slumped at the feet of the statue of Thaeriel, is the monstrous enemy commander, dead. A dozen spears stick out of its body.
Lysander rises, with difficulty, waving away the strong hands that try to help him. He tests his limbs, stretches hands and arms and legs. He remembers pain, but now there is not even an ache.
He tries not to look at the golden seams that now hold his broken body together.
A healer arrives, a businesslike young woman who gestures to two of the soldiers.
“Bring him to the healer’s tent,” she says. “I need to have a look at him.”
Lysander shrugs out of their hands and follows her.
“My son,” he says. “Kadmos. Did he survive the battle?”
“Yes,” says the healer, “but barely. He’ll recover, and so will you, but I need you to lie down—”
Lysader pushes past her into the tent, past a dozen wounded young men and women, to find Kadmos in one of the beds. The young man looks pale and shrunken, half dead, and there is a blood-soaked bandage around his midsection.
“Full recovery?” he asks the healer.
“Yes,” she says, “barring infection, which we’re watching for. But he’s weak. It will take time. And you… Frankly, I don’t understand what happened to you.”
“Neither do I,” says Lysander. “Let me speak to him.”
The healer shakes her head but withdraws, to help some less intransigent patient.
Lysander takes Kadmos’s hand in his. The boy stirs, but does not waken. What is he now, twenty-three? He looks like a child again, without his armor, without his strength.
“I’m sorry,” says Lysander. “I love you.”
He finds a piece of parchment and a charcoal and scratches a simple message:
I, Lysander son of Menelos, resign my commission in the Parthene army. Do not seek me out. I will not return.
When Kadmos wakes the next morning, Lysander is already cooking fish for breakfast. Kadmos crawls out of the lean-to, which his father insisted he use instead of his bedroll.
“How’d you sleep?” asks Kadmos, rubbing grit from his eyes.
“Didn’t,” says Lysander.
“I’m sorry,” says Kadmos. “You could’ve had the shelter. You’re not young anymore, you know.”
“It was time well spent,” says Lysander. “Had a lot on my mind.”
“I thought about what you said,” says Lysander. “That my failure was leaving, not losing. At the time, I felt—”
He falls silent and mutters something to himself.
“It doesn’t matter how I felt. I just… I couldn’t stand the thought of facing everyone. Whether they thought I was a failure or a hero, it wouldn’t matter. I couldn’t face them, couldn’t face Thaeriel, couldn’t face you… with shame in my heart.”
“I just want my dad back,” says Kadmos. “I miss you. There’s still a place for you there.”
Lysander hugs him fiercely.
“I’m so proud of you, son,” he says. “And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ever left.”
“So you’ll come back with me?”
“Won’t exactly be picking up where I left off,” says Lysander, scratching his chin. “There’ll be a lot of work to do. I don’t expect they’ll make me a general again.”
“Probably not,” says Kadmos. “Hey, maybe you’ll have to start over. Then I’d outrank you!”
They laugh together, for the first time in a very long time.
“Yes,” says Lysander. “It’s time I come back.”
“One thing, though,” says Kadmos solemnly. “The beard’ll have to go.”
“What? I like it!”
“They’re out of fashion,” says Kadmos. “No one’ll take you seriously, and the cadets won’t swoon over you anymore.”
“They won’t what?”
“Didn’t you know?” says Kadmos, smiling. “There are always a handful, every year.”
“Ought to keep the beard, then,” says Lysander. “I’m old enough to be their father.”
“I’m telling you, nobody wears one.”
“Hmph,” says Lysander. “We’ll discuss it on the way.”
“It’s a deal,” says Kadmos. “Let’s go home.”
Lysander pauses at the entrance to the temple grounds. Kadmos puts a hand on his shoulder.
“I don’t know, son,” says Lysander. “I didn’t pray for a very long time. Not sure Thaeriel wants to hear from me.”
“It’ll be alright,” says Kadmos. “I prayed for you.”
Lysander draws a deep breath.
“Thank you,” says Lysander, and approaches the altar under the marble gaze of his god.
How long has it been since he prayed? A year away from the city. Another two, nearly, since he returned. Some had welcomed him as a returning hero, and others had scorned him as a deserter. There was nothing for that but to do the work. He’d enrolled in the army as an officer and climbed the ranks all over again, learning new faces and new tactics and new limits. He’d done everything he expected to when he came back… except this.
He kneels before the altar, lights a stick of incense, and closes his eyes.
“Thaeriel,” he says. “Thaeriel, who is the Light. I don’t claim to understand the gift you’ve given me. Not everyone gets a second chance. But I wanted to say… thank you.”
Nothing happens, for a moment, then white-hot light presses against his eyelids. He tries to open them, but the pain is too intense. The Light.
“LYSANDER OF PARTHON.”
He has a body, this time, and the voice rings inside him.
“My lord,” says Lysander.
“YOU SAY YOU DO NOT KNOW WHY I SENT YOU BACK.”
“I have never known,” says Lysander.
“AS I SAID BEFORE: I SAVED YOU AGAINST FUTURE NEED.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
An arena, gold and gleaming, takes shape around them, half-obscured by the all-consuming Light. Lysander squints, trying to get a look at it.
“I HAVE NEED OF A CHAMPION. I NAME YOU.”
“Of course,” says Lysander, his heart racing. “My life is yours.”
“IT ALWAYS HAS BEEN.”
Thaeriel himself steps out of the Light, its brightness shining through his every feature. He reaches out with one hand.
“Come with me,” says the God of Light. “There is much to do.”
Lysander reaches with one golden-veined hand, but pauses.
“Lord Thaeriel,” he says. “This time… I’d like to say goodbye.”
“Do not tarry,” he says. “Time is shorter than you know.”
Lysander returns to his senses, nearly losing his balance.
“Father? Are you alright? You’re… glowing.”
Lysander looks down. The golden veins in his arms are pulsing with the Light. Kadmos shades his eyes.
“Yes,” says Lysander. “I’m fine. I need to tell you something.”
The Champion of Light rises.
Kelly Digges is a narrative designer and creative consultant for games, with 90 credits across more than 50 products for Magic: The Gathering and other games. Find him on Twitter at @kellydigges.
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