The Greatest Enemy

by Ian N. Cohen

It was just another day at the Hero's Haven, Meribia's oldest and most famous tavern. Working men and women were sitting over their drinks and their meals, idly chatting about their daily lives. Travelers and adventurers discussed their plans and shared their adventures. Martyn, the proprietor of the Haven bustled about, taking orders from guests and barking out instructions to his workers.

Suddenly, a strange man entered the tavern, obviously weary from travel. He was pale, of average height, and aquiline features. His hair and short beard were jet black, with traces of gray. But despite his haggard expression, he still retained an aristocratic bearing. His black and red robe had been battered by extensive travel, but had obviously been of fine quality once.

The man approached Martyn, and handed him a few silver coins. "A room for the night, please, and some supper."

Martyn stared at him, and then broke into a hearty laugh. "Master Ailric! Is that really you? It seems like it's been ages since you've set foot in my tavern!"

At the mention of Ailric's name, the tavern immediately went quiet, save for a few excited whispers. The name of Ailric was well known far and wide, but his homeland and his past were shrouded in mystery. All anyone knew about him was that he was a professional storyteller, the best that Lunar had ever known. From Burg to Tamur and far beyond, Ailric traveled all across Lunar, collecting stories and sharing his own. No matter what company he was with, Ailric could always count on having an audience eager to hear his storytelling. For to hear a tale from Ailric himself was a rare privilege.

Ailric chuckled. "My sincerest apologies, old friend. I've been busy, expanding my collection of stories. The old tales get stale after a while, and new ones are always needed to take their place. Such is the way of things."

The bartender nodded, and looked at Ailric imploringly. "I hate to impose on you, sir, but would you mind... you know... would you share one of your stories with us, sir? Your room and board for the night will be free of charge."

Ailric gave the bartender an indulgent smile. "Of course. But after I've eaten. I need to regain my strength if I am to adequately work my craft."

Martyn eagerly seated Ailric, and served him a hearty meal and a generous amount of ale to wash it down with. As the storyteller ate, word spread of his arrival, and dozens of people crowded into the Haven, eager for the chance to hear one of his stories.

When Ailric had finished his supper, he rose from his seat and faced the crowd surrounding him, all signs of weariness gone from his face. He radiated a youthful eagerness as he faced his eager audience.

"Now then, my friends!" he announced. "What manner of tale would be your pleasure? A stirring romance of love's labors? An amusing anecdote about the folly of Man? An epic of valor and heroism?"

"Aye, let's have us an adventure!" one man called from the crowd. "Tell us a story about a great hero!"

Ailric bowed to the man. "As you wish! A tale of adventure it is! A tale of not one, but two great heroes, knights of your own city of Meribia three generations ago! Slan and Jacen, best of friends and best of knights! Valiant, strong, and courageous beyond compare, heroes of a hundred battles! And yet my tale is not a happy one, for they both fell at the hands of the greatest foe of mankind. A power that no blade or spell can overcome, for it is a force within the hearts of all men... pride. It is pride that all baser emotions stem from--jealousy, anger, hatred, and the like. It is pride that corrupts the greatest of champions and twists and turns them into selfish, petty creatures. The great and noble Ghaleon of Vane was himself a victim of pride, and driven by it to become the fiendish Magic Emperor only six years ago. Just as Slan and Jacen were driven by it to destroy each other, as well as themselves. "Slan and Jacen had met and become the closest of friends during the dark days when the armies of Pesha would have ground Meribia under their heels. Their armies swarmed at the walls of fair Meribia, eager to rend them asunder. But our two knights led their comrades against the invaders, and struck them down with their swords! To recant a fraction of their many deeds of arms would take far too long. Suffice to say, they shattered the forces of Pesha in battle after battle, always returning to their brethren victorious.

"But wars end, as all things must, and peace returned to Lunar. Our champions were warriors without a war, heroes without a cause. They loved the battlefield too much to turn their backs on it, and they could not bear the thought of fading away into obscurity in their own lifetimes. They would meet in this very tavern where we are now gathered, and relive their glory days, longing to hear the call to arms once more.

"They would also boast of their prowess, and each would claim to be superior to his fellow. Slan, a burly man with a red mane and beard, claimed that his great strength could overwhelm any foe. Jacen, fair haired and graceful of movement, swore by Althena herself that his speed and agility could outmatch the most cunning of warriors. And thus their pride drove them to quarreling, and bred in them a desire to determine which of them was truly greater.

"After much thought, Slan and Jacen decided on a contest, to see which of them was the greatest. For they were still young, and had plenty of fight left in them. In the course of a year, they would go in search of adventure, seeking challenges and conquests. They would meet back once a month, and decide for themselves which of them had achieved the greatest feet of arms. When the year was over, whoever won the most months would be declared the greater of the two.

"For a whole year they played their game, seeking out fearsome monsters, bandit hordes, and winning treasures no other man would dare hunt. In their zeal for superiority, they traveled to the ends of Lunar, ever seeking new challenges and foes. I would need a year and a day to tell of all their exploits during these twelve months. But they would include such wondrous feats of arms as Slan's winning of the Silver Scepter of Malori from the vicious Asavi tribe, and his conquest of a Tateynu, a monstrous beast of great size and strength, whose only weak points are its death-dealing eyes. Or Jacen's victory over a pack of fifty Lizardmen warriors who were assaulting the distant city of Kellen, and his rescue of the Lady Marin from an evil sorceress.

"At the end of the year, each had won six months apiece. It seemed that they were truly equals, and that one was not greater than the other. Jacen was willing to accept the draw, but Slan could not. His foolish pride demanded that he know once and for all whether he or his comrade was the greatest knight.

"'Brother,' Jacen said to his friend, 'what else is there for us to do? There are no wars to fight in. In this past year, we have swept Lunar clean of mighty beasts and dangerous men. Were there not already a Dragonmaster among us, I would say we should brave the Dragon Trials. And to challenge the Dragonmaster himself is folly, for we cannot raise arms against Althena's anointed. So what is left for us? There are no challenges anymore, for we are too mighty for any enemy.'

"Slan looked at Jacen with dark gleam in his eye. 'We still have each other,' he hissed like a hypnotic serpent. 'Let us settle this matter with our swords. What better way for us to prove which of us is the greater knight than matching our might and our skills against each other? You say we are equally matched. But I cannot believe that. One of us must be stronger than the other. I wish to find out once and for all by pitting my strength against yours.'

"Such an idea troubled Jacen greatly. 'My friend, we have fought together, drunk together, and risked death together time and again. We are more brothers than our own kin! Why would you have us draw swords against each other for so futile a prize?'

"'Futile?' Slan laughed mockingly. 'Do you think you can hide your thoughts from me? Do you not long to see once and for all whether or not you are a greater knight than I am? What do you say? It will be a battle like no other we have ever fought, sure to be spoken of in songs and ballads throughout the generations! And may the goddess Althena grant victory to he who is most worthy!'

"Jacen's pride would not allow him to resist Slan's challenge for long. They left the gates of Meribia and met each other on the sprawling plains of the Katarina. There, far from the eyes of their countrymen, they met each other in battle, striking at each other with their swords with all their might. Had you been there, my friends, you would have wept to see such close friends fighting as if they were the deadliest of enemies. For a full four hours they battled without pause, hacking each other's armor and shields to pieces, bleeding from many grim wounds. Still they fought on, their pride not allowing them to falter.

"Yet even men of valor such as these two worthies have their limits, and pride strengthens the heart, but not the body. And so it was that Jacen paused from the fighting, and implored his friend to cease. 'We have been fighting all day, and neither of us have gained any advantage. Is this not proof enough that we are equals, and to fight on is a waste of time? Let this battle be over and declared a draw!' For Jacen's pride would not let him yield to Slan.

"'Never!' roared Slan, his voice laced with a fury you could scarcely imagine. Taking advantage of Jacen's lowering of his guard, he struck him a treacherous, dreadful blow that slashed through armor and flesh! Realizing he'd been dealt a fatal wound, Jacen swore to Althena that Slan's treachery would not go unavenged, and he delivered a death stroke of his own to his friend that laid him on his back. With that, Jacen fell to the sweet earth.

"With both knights dying, Pride released its hold on their hearts and minds, and the light of reason returned. Slan looked upon his dying friend, and he wept. 'What have I done?' he cried. 'Jacen, my friend and brother, I have slain you and you me. Why did I not heed your words? We have proved indeed we are equals and unmatched, but what good will that do us, now that we shall not live to hear Lunar speak of it?'

"'The fault is as much mine as yours,' Jacen gasped with his final breaths. 'I was seduced by my own pride to fight you and take up your challenge. I too wished to prove myself the better knight. Forgive me for slaying you, my true friend, and may Althena have mercy on both our souls.'

"And in the same moment, Slan and Jacen, the worthiest of knights, succumbed to their many wounds, and died outside the gates of their beloved Meribia. All of Lunar mourned their tragic deaths. The skies themselves rained heavily for many a day after that, and it was said that Althena herself wept for their loss and the folly that drove them to destroy each other. And indeed they are still remembered to this very day. But not as the champions and heroes they wished to be. Instead, they were to be remembered merely as two foolish men who fell victim to Pride, the greatest enemy of mankind."

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