Chapter 1
Approaching Destiny

Ancient Forest, East of Gladius

"The path before me first began to take shape when I met that old man in the woods. He was the first one I met on my journey and perhaps the most influential. I would never have imagined then how important he really was."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Mark had been traveling through the woods for three days. The Ancient Forest was vast and difficult to navigate, but he knew that above all else, he had to travel westward. He veered little and hoped it would be enough to reach his destination.
No maps of Gladius were available in the East, not after the wars that separated the two kingdoms so many centuries ago. Deep inside, he felt something was guiding him. Perhaps it was instinct, the faded memories of being taken from his home as a child, or even the hand of Providence. Whatever it was, he trusted in it and continued on his path.
He was a young man in his early twenties of medium frame clad in modest, utilitarian garb. Just by looking at him, one might say he was a little nondescript, but there were a few features that distinguished him. His nose had a slightly aquiline curve, an inheritance from his father's line, and his eyes were a deep ocean-blue, the same as his mother, or so he was told.. These details were only hearsay, though, for he had no memory of either of his parents.
With its delicately carved pommel in the shape of an eagle's head and the pale blue gem embedded in its crossguard, one could easily mistake the shortsword strapped to Mark's hip for a ceremonial piece, but its blade was sharp and proven in combat. Though he was a little out of practice, Mark could still wield a sword as well as any knight.
Upon reaching a clearing, he decided to take a short break from all the walking. He was eager to get where he was going, but there would be no one to help him if he pushed his body beyond its limits. After all, his was a solitary journey, but perhaps it would not always be so.
He had just sat down when he noticed the figure of an old man wrapped in a tattered grey cloak and wearing a wide-brimmed hat on his head. Startled, Mark jumped to his feet. Out of reflex more than conscious thought, his hand slowly crept toward the hilt of his sword.
"You needn't fear me, young man," the greybeard said calmly.
Somewhat abashed by his reaction, Mark withdrew his hand, but instinct prompted him to maintain a defensive posture. With the aid of a gnarled staff, the old man walked closer to him. In spite of the staff's assistance, his gait showed more vigor than one would expect from a person his age. Mark also noted an unadorned, rusty sword at the old man's side.
"Have you anything to eat?" the old man asked, paying no heed to the young swordsman's wariness.
Unable to sense any immediate danger from the old man, Mark relaxed his stance and dwelt on the question briefly. His provisions were sorely limited and he was hardly proficient at foraging. Nevertheless, he could not turn a blind eye on the plight of the needy. He opened the pouch hanging off his belt and pulled out some dried meat and hardtack.
"It's not much," Mark said, "but..."
The old man accepted the food without comment or ceremony and began to eat. Feeling the pains of hunger creep upon him, Mark took out some food for himself. Though he had not been asked for it, Mark offered the old man a drink from his waterskin which was accepted with as little hesitation as the food. The water, at least, could be replenished at one of the many streams that ran through the forest. When he had finished, the old man's eyes expressed his silent gratitude.
"You are very generous to give to a complete stranger," he said approvingly.
Mark pulled out a silver emblem from under his jerkin. It was a distinctive silver cross set against a circle. The legs were equal in length with each of the ends fashioned into a fleur-de-lis and the center bore a semiprecious gemstone of dull red hue.
"'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,'" Mark said, the words well-practiced from constant repetition over the years.
"So you're an Aritan?" the old man asked curiously. "I've never heard of your kind crossing the border before. Given your history, I can't imagine what would bring a monk of your order to Gladius."
"Actually, I left the order to find my past," Mark replied as he tucked away the emblem.
"Your past, you say?" the old man asked with no small hint of heightened interest. "What manner of past draws a monk out of his cloister?"
"I was born in the West, you see," Mark explained, "here in Gladius, but I was taken from my home twenty years ago and left in my uncle's care. My father was supposed to return for me... but he never came." He closed his eyes and sighed. "I tried to find peace as a monk, but I failed... I had to know more about who I am and where I came from, which is why I set out on this journey."
"Your father... What was his name?"
The old man leaned forward intently, as if everything hinged on Mark's answer. Mark was taken off guard by the unexpected sense of gravity. Why the old man had taken such an interest in him, he could not say. Even though he was under no obligation to tell the old man anything, Mark did not hesitate to answer.
"My father's name is Luther," Mark replied. "Luther the Guardian."
Crossing his arms, the old man nodded.
"I see..."
Meeting his eyes, the old man's aspect changed from that of a wandering traveler to a wizened sage in possession of some hidden truth. It reminded Mark of an elder teacher holding back some critical lesson from the novices.
"Mark, son of Luther," he said, "do you truly want to reveal the past?"
Mark took a step backward, startled as much by the change in the old man as by what he had just said.
"How do you know my name?"
"Tell me your answer," the old man demanded, the hard edge to his voice reinforcing the transformation.
Once again, they had reached a critical juncture. Mark's answer would determine the course of events. Like before, Mark did not hesitate. Whether the old man truly knew what he sought or was simply playing some malicious trick, Mark had to know. Anything was better than nothing.
"I do," Mark said resolutely. "What do you know?"
"It is not my place to reveal these things to you," the old man replied, "but I shall guide you on the path to the answers you seek. Be warned, though, much sorrow awaits you. I believe you can overcome it, but if your heart is not steeled, turn back now, return to your cloister and live out your remaining years in peace." When Mark did not retreat, the old man could not suppress a smile.
"I knew you would not be cowed so easily. Follow me."
The old man rose and began to walk away. A little crestfallen at being denied any immediate answers and unsure of what awaited him, Mark followed nevertheless. If he could not have the answers right now, then the path leading to those answers would have to suffice. He was taking a considerable risk trusting a total stranger who could just as easily be an enemy as he could be an ally, but Mark was not afraid to put life and limb on the line to unravel the mysteries surrounding his past.
For days they traveled through forest and plain with hardly a moment's pause. The old man said very little and Mark did not press him for more information than he was willing to give. He knew it would be a futile effort. Still, he could not keep his questions bottled up forever and eventually decided to try his luck.
"I feel I'm at a disadvantage," Mark said. "You seem to know quite a bit about me, but I know nothing about you. Won't you at least tell me your name?"
"Names, names, names... Humans all think they can understand anything under the sun so long as they have a name for it." The old man raised his staff and poked Mark in the chest. "There are things in this world that you'll need to understand but you won't know their names. Don't rely on names for your understanding."
Mark sighed. "Very well then, is there anything you can tell me? Where are you from? What is your connection to me and my past? Why are you doing this?"
The old man raised his hand to stop the string of questions before it got any longer.
"If you didn't have such an inquisitive nature, you wouldn't be here, but now is not the time for the answers you seek. You aren't ready yet. They will come to you over the course of your journey. My task is simply to point you in the right direction."
Exasperated, Mark asked him, "Is there nothing you can tell me?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," the old man replied with a slightly impish smile. "We've arrived."
Mark looked up ahead and saw that they were approaching the bridge that led the way across the Glass River to a city, Stormtree if Mark recalled correctly. The old man stopped and turned to him.
"Beyond here lies the beginning of your journey. I cannot accompany you any further, but this will not be the last time we meet. You will be a different man the next time I see you. I look forward to that day."
With that said, the old man vanished in an eyeblink. Staring at the city beyond the river, Mark wondered what lay in store for him. He was shown the path, and now it was up to him follow it. No matter the pain he might suffer, he would not stop until he found the answers he sought.