Judged by human standards, basing the assessment strictly upon physical and mental capacities, arts and skills possessed, Gord the Rogue of Greyhawk would measure high. Ever since his early years, he has been a master of disguise and impersonation. It might be that Gord was the commensurate thief in all aspects of that questionable craft. It would be judged certain that he was unparalleled as a cat-burglar, for none surpassed him as acrobat and gymnast. That Gord was a swordsman of masterful ability would be contested by none. In fact, some would Judge that he had sacrificed the status of grand master of all thieves to be a master swordsman; so perhaps there were one or two more skillful at either profession than Gord, but in no one else could be found such a combination of talents. High praise, but no more than the truth as men measure such qualities.
At the age of thirty, Gord was still young and appeared youthful — until one noticed the creases around his eyes, and the eyes themselves. Gray eyes that could be as hard as stone, as cold as the leaden seas of the north under winter sky. These were the eyes of a remorseless opponent, for they had seen suffering, torture, deceit, and death. Yet none would say that they were absolutely cruel, could not glow with comradeship, shine with happiness. Gord was as stout a friend as he was unrelenting a foe. No enemy who had stood before Gord remained alive to boast of the encounter. No comrade would say aught than that this man stood ready to lay down his life on behalf of right and friendship.
"Touche!" The cry came from a tallish, grizzled nobleman. A knightly troubador, this man plied all manner of weapons with skill, but his specialty was the longsword. Close examination revealed that one of this troubador's eyes glittered unnaturally. Under the scarred eyelid there was an orb of golden hue. No normal eyeball that, but rather a polished and enchanted stone of corundum, a golden sapphire that enabled the possessor to see through the false and illusory, to espy the hidden and view the alien dimensions otherwise closed to mortal eyes. His name was Gellor. He was Gord's closest friend.
"We are even, then, at three each," Gord shot back, parrying a stroke from the one-eyed bard as he spoke. Then he launched into a flurry of cuts, thrusts, and feints both high and low.
Gellor saved his breath, concentrating on defense until an opening came and he could resume the offensive again for a time. He was fencing with an ordinary practice sword, just as Gord held a blunt-tipped, dull-edged brand. Thus armed, Gellor was reasonably confident that he would eventually prevail in the match, if only by the slimmest of margins. His short, gray-eyed opponent was faster than he was, but Gellor was stronger and far more experienced. An opening! "Four," he told his opponent softly, as his sword bounced off the younger man's padded legging, and he tried to press the advantage immediately as Gord had just done.
Now Gord defended himself grimly against the storm of the troubador's glittering steel, and the air reverberated with the clash and ring of their blades. Had Gellor been wielding his enchanted blade, then Gord would have been dead. At the same time, Gord knew that, armed with his own sword now called Courflamme, he would be more than a match for the one-eyed nobleman with or without any other magical weapon. "Come and get me, then, one-eye!" he taunted, using his speed and reflexes to make a steel hedge between himself and his opponent's darting and slashing blade. He watched the eye, the body's shifts, the footwork simultaneously. As he did so, Gord's mind correlated each look and move with the swordplay that followed. He was learning, practicing, and honing his skill.
"Enough?" Gellor asked after another quarterhour had passed. Both men were panting, sweat-covered. Neither had succeeded in another penetration of the other's defense.
"For now," Gord replied with a chuckle as he stepped back and put his point at rest upon the smooth strips of oak that floored the place.
Just under five and one-half feet tall, the darkhaired young man had sinewy muscles and lightning quick reflexes. Just like a panther, Gellor thought to himself. As strong as a leopard, as fast, as ferocious. Had any such cat the intelligence and reasoning ability that Gord possessed so amply, then that animal would be king of beasts and men alike. It made the grizzled veteran proud that his friend was so staunch a fighter for choice and liberty, the champion of Balance, the sworn foe of all who would oppress any other. Gellor knew that if Gord had cast his lot with Evil, then Tharizdun would be assured his reign of unyielding darkness upon all for eternity. Instead, the young adventurer had accepted the burden of opposing the ultimate wickedness. It was only a short time now before Gord would have to face the dreaded god of all Evil. It was a confrontation that boded ill. No man, regardless of his qualities, could face such a test with even a scant ray of hope.
Granted, Gellor thought to himself, the Lords of Balance had bestowed supernatural and magical devices and powers upon their champion. That he could actually receive and maintain unique forces and abilities of this sort was indicative of his heritage, of the legacy which made Gord more than a mortal. A glimmer of hope from the supernatural energies, a glistening of chance from his heritage and his innate desire. Was it a measurable chance? One in a thousand? The newly merged sword was an unknown quantity. And Gellor himself had to be added into the equation, since he would accompany Gord. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was a real probability of success; if not, then what of the prophecy? If he had no chance of success, then why did the dark rulers of the nether spheres fear Gord's very survival, let alone his coming?
"Would money buy your musings, bard?" Gord asked, wiping beads of salty sweat from his brow.
"Mere commons, my friend, would purchase such idle queries as I have been mulling over," Gellor replied with a trace of a smile. "When do you think we will set forth?" he asked, even though he knew the answer as well as Gord did.
"When they have finished the enspellment of everything — our weapons, our other possessions, us! It is no small matter to bring about that which will enable us to stride the nether realms as Gill Plowman walks his furrows," Gord responded, breaking into a broad grin. It was no false humor, either. He and his comrade both knew what he had just articulated. Gord was japing at Gellor's nervousness and his own as well.
"Instruct your grandsire on the consumption of suet pudding, whelp!" Gellor said. "Come on! Let's bathe the stink from us and get some nourishment inside, else we'll have neither the company for our final instructions nor the strength for any undertaking."
Clapping his arm around the taller man's shoulders, Gord said, "Very well, grandpapa, and allow me to support your aged bones as we go!"
The walk was but a short one to the suite of chambers that had been reserved permanently for Gord and whatever guests he might choose. The vast expanse of the Catlord's rambling palace had no finer chambers than Gord's. Soon he and Gellor were stripped and enjoying the plash of water from the cascade that fell from the artesian-fed fountain into the tiled basin of the great pool in the inner gardencourt that Gord's suite surrounded.
Later, while his comrade was sleeping in his own rooms, and Gord was himself comfortably sprawled on a huge, feathery bed, half dozing, the young champion's mind returned to the question Gellor had voiced. . and the ones left unspoken as well. It was plain what concerned the bard. He would accompany Gord, both despite and because of the dangers that awaited on the nether regions. Gellor would haw it that way — no question!
The grizzled troubador was brave and competent Gord could imagine no finer hero to stand at his side. Six feet tall, the one-eyed man was all hard muscle and iron determination. He had behind him years of knightly training and experience, coupled with the rigorous disciplines of the troubador — Instructions in arcane matters by the most learned savants, training at the magical playing and singing from the bard, skald, and harpist too, even lessons in the less savory arts of the minstrel and mountebank Just as Gord himself was a complex blend of professions and skills, so too Gellor. The skills and abilities of the finest knight coupled with the ethical standards of the highest chevalier formed the base of the man's character. Added to that were the experiences of serving Balance as an agent, spy, and even enforcer. Magical crafts, disguise and trickery, and the arts of thievery and diplomacy too. So as Gord was thief and swordsman, Gellor was troubador and mountebank and that combination was rare, rare indeed. It could exist only in a person totally lacking in principle, or one fully committed to a great cause.
The fabled Rhymers of the Blackfens, those northern mages who with kanteel and verse wrought world-shaking dweomers, might exceed the troubador's own ability in magic. On the other hand, it was in that land of snow and ice that Gellor had won his own kanteel and brought back great spells for his own repertoire. Gord doubted that any of the great druidic bards would care to challenge the oneeyed troubador to a contest of skill in that vein. Perhaps Gellor was as great as any man or elf, then, when it came to the weaving of spells by music and verse. Yet, as Gord, he was but a man, for all intents and purposes.
"The very deities themselves hesitate to confront the foe," Gord murmured as he rolled into a more comfortable position, "yet Gellor and I go forth readily enough upon command. This multiverse is passing strange. . " Then he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Had he been awake, and had one of the deities Gord referred to been there to comment, the reason for what Gord regarded as passing strangeness might have been explained to him. There was cause for the terrible battles raging on Oerth, the wars being fought on many planets parallel to that world and existing in its universe and others. There was purpose and cause for the one champion to strive against the coming of Evil's domination to be, in most part, human. Mankind, its inherent frailties included, was the crux of the whole struggle. Whether the struggle was expressed in terms of Evil versus Good, devil versus deva, or demon versus deity, the very existence of those concepts and entities relied solely upon the existence and intellect of mankind. Of course, the term "mankind" included more than just human beings. It encompassed the little folk of faerie, whether of unseelie or seelie court, men and elves, and all other manner of humanoids, from gnome to giant. The devotion of mankind made possible the very existence of such beings as gods, empowered them to act, gave them cause for disputation and division, alignment and antithesis, glory and extinction.
Even those entities whose reliance upon the thought and energy of mankind was minimal or nonexistent found themselves desiring those forces. Understanding, appreciation, awe, dread, and the manifold other emotions that stem from the thoughts of such creatures as dwarves and men and goblins and ogres was as gold to most such beings.
One thing was certain. Balance understood its cause and purpose. It sought to maintain all, so that there would be meaning and purpose to the whole. Just as certainty, there was an entity somewhere in the multiverse which cared nothing for equilibrium. That entity disdained mankind and its power, the deities and demons and their own force. It would greet death with death; for once the grave has taken all life, death too must cease to exist in their splendid and lofty hubris, the lords of the spheres of Light refused to make common cause against Evil, and had it not been for the willful and unruled demons, the nether realms would already have laid unending darkness on all.
Now Balance, and that only in the person of a single champion, Gord, had an opportunity to strike against the growing might of Evil. The problem was compounded by the emergence of the unknown entity that sought to destroy both Good and Evil, In the process removing the reason for and the existence of the neutral equilibrium. The small and relatively weak center of things, that called Balance, had one special advantage in the face of all its challenges. At its heart, it was the force of mankind, its perceptions and understandings those of man's thought. And perhaps, in the end, its willingness to accept any ally gave it the strength to fulfill its purpose.
Gord slept dreamlessly. No voice intruded upon his slumber. That was well and good. Soon enough he would need every resource.
Then. ."Please join us, champion."
There was no sound. The words sprang into his mind as if spoken. It was a new sensation to Gord, and a disturbing one. "I will come in minutes," he replied mentally. There had been other such strange things in the past, disquieting additions to what he had presumed was "normal". First had been the expansion of his visual ability so that he could see in low light. That ability had grown to include vision into the lower and higher spectra, so that eventually Gord accepted the glow of heat or the radiance of some magical or aural light as normal — to him, if not to most men.
Then the young adventurer had been required to deal with the transformation of his form into that of a cat The immutable body became a thing of the past. As a hand could be closed to make a fist, then open again, or as he could crawl, creep, or walk, so too Gord came to understand his ability to be man or feline, as naturally as any body movement or activity.
Magic was the cause of these phenomena initially, and because he accepted the existence of magic, he could accept the abilities. Then, when the source of these abilities became inherent power, that too was eventually assimilated. Now the expansion of his mind to allow for nonverbal communication and other perceptions as well was disconcerting — but Gord knew that in time this would become as normal to him as the rest. He smiled, thinking of the amazement on a child's face when it first takes a step. "There are many such eventful steps in life," he mused.
Gellor was waiting for him in the broad hall that led from their wing to the chamber where the others were assembled. "Is this the awaited moment?" he asked, falling into step beside the short gray-eyed champion.
Gord shrugged and asked about something else instead of replying. "Do you now speak mind to mind?"
"No," the troubador responded with a puzzled expression. "What made you ask that?"
"Well," his friend explained. "I was wondering how you happened to be alone and waiting for me in such short order. I was just informed of the meeting, you see."
"Something awakened me, and I knew instinctively that we were needed — at least, I think I knew. . "