Note: The following story was published in the December 2005 Everquest Newsletter.
The sun baked the desert sands as it had done for nearly six hundred years. The shadows of the western mountains promised little shelter from the sun. Waves crashed on the eastern shore but none of the water's life sank into the dead earth of the desert.
A pillar of stone jutted from the sand like the mummified finger of a dead beast trying to escape from torment under the sands. Ancient hieroglyphs covered its wind-torn surface. A giant bird stretched its wings on one side. A giant beetle crawled up another. Other smaller glyphs and runes surrounded the pillar. Few travelers who crossed the desert would recognize the symbols and glyphs, but to the elves it reminded them of what once was. It reminded them of the forest that once stretched for hundreds of leagues. It reminded them of the old and powerful city of Takish Hiz. It reminded them that this land was once known as Tunaria.
Now travelers only knew it as the desert of Ro. Heat sent shimmering waves across the hot sands building oceans of glass in the eyes of those who dared to open them against the stinging wind. The hot air rippled over the dead land. For hours nothing moved.
Then a shape appeared, tiny against the blue sky and white sands. It was a man. He did not crawl across the hot sands. He did not walk crouched down under the harsh sun.
He ran on tan leather boots that reached up to his knees. They fit him like a second skin. Deep creases cut into them from thousands of miles of travel. Dark gray trousers tied with laces of leather tucked into the folded tops of the boots. A gray tunic covered the man's chest. A hood and cloak of forest green covered his back and head. The hood shadowed his face from the blazing eye of Ro.
The man ran as he had for three weeks. He did not slow or speed up when the green grasslands of southern Freeport peeked out over the dunes. He kept the same pace he began three weeks earlier. He designed the pace exactly for this task. It took him across the planes of Karana, through the mountains of the Rathe, through the Feerot and the swamp of Innothule and finally across the great desert that stretched across the entire eastern shore of Antonica.
His body was a machine. He fueled it with food and water to hydrate his skin and feed his organs. His lungs pumped air into his blood. His heart beat this blood through his veins and into his expanding and contracting muscles.
For ten years his teachers conditioned him for exactly this job. He was an adventurer and traveler. He was a messenger. He was Tiim, the Antonican bard. His blue eyes blazed under the shadowed hood of his cloak.
Tiim arrived at the city gates of Freeport. Memories of his life in Freeport flooded into him. Happy and sad, they filled him with both longing and foreboding. How much his life had changed, he thought.
"You there!" A Freeport guard dressed in a red tunic over steel plate armor shouted through a full-plate bullet helm gripped the hilt of his sword. Tiim made no move. He knew the boast for what it was.
"Get on ye!" The guard stepped forward. "Stop yer gawking and quit blocking the road!"
Tiim turned around and scanned the road back for nearly a mile. Not another soul walked on the road. There was also little advantage to arguing. Tiim bit back his sarcastic response. Tiim had a job to do and this mouthy guard was as good a reminder as any. Tiim jogged into the gates and past the snickering guards.
Tiim entered the Galloping Mare just after sundown. The tavern and inn had not yet reached the large capacity it would see later in the evening but a fair number of patrons milled about. Two or three men sat at seven of the twelve large oak tables. Three merchants sat at one table, dressed in fine silks of violet and blue. Jewel-encrusted bands of gold and silver adorned their fingers, wrists, and ears. Two craftsmen dressed in green tunics and thick leather aprons laughed through enormous mugs of frothing ale. Four dark-skinned travelers of the south sat quietly in their turbans and exotic robes. Tiim took note of the huge barbarian bouncer standing with arms crossed at the door.
Three men sat at the bar. From the look and smell of them, they appeared to have no job other than tipping back tankards of mead. It was a job at which they appeared to excel. The huge man in the middle turned towards Tiim and glared at him. Tiim saw bloodlust in his eyes. Tiim lowered his gaze, drew back his hood, and walked down the line of the bar stools.
The crack of a thick stick in front of his feet stopped Tiim in front of the large glaring man. The large man spun in his stool with amazing dexterity for a drunk.
"Where do you think you are desert rat?" The large man propped the tall staff against the bar. Tiim saw dozens of nicks and frightening blotches of dark red on the hardwood staff. The man leaned back and rested his thick forearms on the bar. "You desert travelers think you can walk in and own the place, don't ye." The drunk slurred his words but his eyes spoke of sharp violence.
A few words of pacifism crossed Tiim's mind but the man's look held little doubt of his intentions. This man wanted a fight.
Tiim turned to the bouncer hoping that some intervention might prevent this situation from getting out of hand. The barbarian moved not an inch. He kept his arms crossed and a smile crept up from the corner of his mouth.
"He gets an extra copper to stay where he is, rat. He'll not help you."
Tiim locked his eyes on the bloodshot brown eyes of the large drunk. Conversations quieted and then died out across the whole bar. Not a sound was heard and not a move was made.
Seventy years before the fall of Takish Hiz, Volin Rosewind, a junior guardsman of the King, received a dagger from his martial teacher, the leather-faced Gort. The dagger, a single shard of sharp thick steel, felt heavy and ugly in Volin's hand.
"You can wear the king's shining sword on your belt, pup, but keep that dagger in your boot and one day it may save your life." Gort's face broke into a grin that looked like wrinkled shoe leather. "Someday you may find yourself pinned under an ogre with your fancy blade shattered. Take this from your boot and hammer it into his heart."
Gort called the blade "Honesty" and Volin tucked the dagger into the top of his ornate boot for seventy years. When he died in fire and darkness at the fall of Takish Hiz, the dagger died with him.
Five hundred and eighty six years later a powerful sandstorm dug the dagger up from the depths of the desert. A young traveler saw its glint at the top of a large sand dune. Tiim picked the blade up and tucked it into his left leather gauntlet. It lay forgotten against the messenger's wrist until three nights later at the Galloping Mare.
Gavlow the Drunk prided himself on his speed. The once powerful guardsman always spoke of it.
"Speed is power," he told his men. His speed served him through three dozen battles. It served him until the day his speed crippled him when his knee snapped over the balled up body of a Surefall spy ten years earlier.
Though ten alcohol-filled years older and one hundred pounds heavier, Gavlow continued to use his speed when he brawled. Yet only once before had he seen anyone as fast as Tiim, his last night as a guardsman when that spy of Surefall maimed two of his men and took away Gavlow's career.
Gavlow's hand shot to his stick but the steel shaft of a dagger pinned his tunic sleeve to the bar. The dagger, a thick sharp shard of steel quivered in the wood of the bar. He had never seen Tiim throw it. Gavlow sat stunned, his eyes widening as he saw the blue fire in Tiim's eyes. He was dead. He stood no chance against anyone this fast and he knew it. It was the fastest draw of a weapon he had ever seen but it only held this title for a few seconds.
Tiim pivoted fast on his left heel with a dancer's grace. His right hand swept beneath his cloak to the gem-encrusted dragon hilt of his sword hung low on his left hip. The blade shot out in a line of white lightning. Everyone in the bar blinked, thinking their eyes had played some trick.
No one moved. No sound broke the silence. Every lungful of breath was held.
Three wooden buttons fell off of Gavlow's shirt spilling his massive gut into the lantern-light. His severed belt opened and his trousers, belt and all, fell to the floor. The buckle clattered loudly in the silent room.
Tiim stood with his legs apart and his shining blade held high behind him. Gavlow stared, mouth agape, with his exposed white legs shaking.
"I think I'm in the wrong bar." Tiim pivoted again and strode out, sheathing the sword in a single fluid motion. A roar of laughter followed him out. As for the dagger, once called "Honesty" six hundred years previous, it ended its life broken in two and tossed in the gutter outside the Galloping Mare a short while later.