“If you would shine like a sun, first you must burn like one.”
Imbued with the fire of the sun, Leona is a warrior templar of the Solari who defends Mount Targon with her Zenith Blade and Shield of Daybreak. Her skin shimmers with starfire while her eyes burn with the power of the celestial Aspect within her. Armored in gold and bearing a terrible burden of ancient knowledge, Leona brings enlightenment to some, death to others.
To live in the lands surrounding the towering peak of Mount Targon is to embrace a life of hardship. That many willingly do so is testament to the power of the human spirit to endure anything in search of meaning and higher purpose. As harsh as the rugged foothills of the mountain’s base are, it is nothing compared to the hardships borne by those who dwell on the mountain itself.
Living high on Targon is fraught with danger. When the glittering mist wreathing the summit descends, it does not come alone. All manner of otherworldly things are left behind when it withdraws; radiant creatures that kill at random and muttering voices that whisper unspeakable secrets to drive mortals mad.
Eking a living from mountain plants and their precious herds, the Rakkor tribe dwells at the very limits of human endurance; honing their warrior skills to fight the war at the end of the world. Rakkor means Tribe of the Last Sun, and its people believe that many worlds have existed before this one, each of which has been destroyed by a great catastrophe. Its seers teach that when this sun is destroyed there will be no more, so its warriors must be ready to fight those who seek to extinguish its light.
To the Rakkor, battle is an act of devotion, an offering to keep the sun’s light shining. All members of the tribe are expected to fight and kill without mercy or hesitation, and Leona was no exception. She learned to fight as soon as she could walk, mastering sword and shield with ease. She was fascinated by the mists wreathing the summit and often wondered what might lie beyond them. That fascination did not stop her from fighting the ferocious beasts, inhuman entities and pallid, eyeless strangers that came down the mountain.
She fought and killed them as she had been taught until one day when young Leona encountered a golden-skinned boy with horns and bat-like wings wandering on the mountainside. He did not speak her language, but it was clear he was lost and frightened. His skin shimmered with soft light, and though everything she had been taught since birth told her to attack, Leona could not bring herself to murder someone so obviously helpless. Instead, she led the boy to a pathway leading to the summit, watching as he walked into a ray of sunlight and vanished.
When she returned to the Rakkor, she found herself accused of failing in her duty to the sun. A boy named Atreus had seen her leading a creature of the mountain to safety instead of killing it. Atreus had told his father what Leona had done and he in turn denounced her as a heretic for going against the beliefs of her people. Leona did not dispute this, and the laws of the Rakkor allowed only one sentence for such a transgression – trial by combat. Leona would face Atreus in the fighting pits beneath the noonday sun, and by its light would judgment be rendered. Leona and Atreus were evenly matched; her warrior skills were formidable, but Atreus had ever been single-minded in his pursuit of martial excellence. Leona took up her sword and shield, Atreus his long spear, and none who gathered around the pit could predict the battle’s outcome.
Leona and Atreus fought beneath the blazing sun, and though both bled freely from dozens of wounds, neither could land a deathblow. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, an elder of the Solari marched into the Rakkor camp with three gold-armored warriors and called a halt to the duel. The Solari were adherents of a martial faith built around sun worship, whose unforgiving tenets dictated life around and upon Mount Targon. The elder had been led to the Rakkor by dreams and an ancient Solari prophecy that spoke of a warrior whose fire burned brighter than the sun, a daughter of Targon who would bring unity to the celestial realm. The elder believed Leona was that daughter and upon learning the nature of her transgression, his belief was only strengthened.
The tribal seers warned against interfering in the duel, but the elder was adamant; Leona must come with him and become one of the Solari, to be fully instructed in their beliefs. The Rakkor were fiercely independent, but even they paid heed to the holy decrees of the Solari. The warriors lifted Leona from the pit and bore her wounded body from the Rakkor toward her new life.
The Solari temple was a towering citadel on the eastern slopes of Mount Targon, a glittering spire of gold-veined marble and polished granite. Here, Leona learned the ways of the sacred order – how they worshipped the sun as the source of all life and rejected all other forms of light as false. Its strictures were absolute and unyielding, but fueled by her belief in the elder’s prophecy, Leona excelled in this disciplined environment, devouring her new faith’s teachings as a parched man in a desert seizes upon fresh water. Leona trained every day with the warrior order of the Solari, the Ra-Horak - a Rakkor title which means Followers of the Horizon - honing her already fearsome skills with a blade into something sublime. In time, Leona rose to command the Ra-Horak, becoming known around Mount Targon as a just, devoted and, some might say, zealous servant of the Sun.
Her path changed forever when she was called to escort a young member of the Solari to the heart of the temple. The girl’s hair was purest white and a shimmering rune glowed upon her forehead. Her name was Diana, a troublemaker well known to Leona from the exasperated woes of the temple elders. Diana had gone missing months before, but now returned, clad in a suit of pale armor that glinted with strange silver light. Diana claimed to bring great news, revelations that would shake the Solari to its foundations, but which she would only reveal to the temple elders.
Leona brought Diana in under armed guard, for her warrior instinct sensed something awry in the girl’s demeanor. Presented to the elders, Diana spoke of the Lunari, an ancient and proscribed faith that venerated the moon, and how all the truths the Solari clung to were incomplete. She described a realm beyond the mountaintop, a place where the sun and moon were not enemies, where new truths could show them fresh ways to look at the world. Leona felt her anger build with every word Diana spoke, and when the elders rejected her words and named her a blasphemer, Leona knew it would be her blade that ended the heretic’s life.
Leona saw Diana’s incredulous fury at the elders’ denial, but before she could react, the white-haired girl hurled herself forward. Blinding light exploded from Diana’s outstretched hands, and orbs of silver fire burned the elders to dust in the blink of an eye. White flames surged in a hurricane of cold lightning and blasted Leona from the chamber. When she regained consciousness, she found Diana gone and the Solari leaderless. As its remaining members struggled to come to terms with this attack on their most sacred space, Leona knew there was only one path open to her. She would hunt down and destroy the heretic Diana for the murder of the Solari elders.
Diana’s trail was easy to find. The heretic’s footsteps were like shimmering mercury to Leona’s eyes, leading ever higher up the slopes of Mount Targon. Leona did not falter, climbing through a landscape that seemed strange and unfamiliar, as though she followed paths that had never existed until this moment. The sun and moon passed overhead in a blur, as if many days and nights passed with her every breath. She neither stopped to eat nor drink, letting fury sustain her beyond what should have been humanly possible.
Eventually Leona reached the top of the mountain, breathless, exhausted, starved and stripped of all thought save punishing Diana. There, sitting on a rock at the top of the mountain was the same golden-skinned boy whose life she had spared as a child. Behind him, the sky burned with blazing light, a borealis of impossible colors and the suggestion of a majestic city of gold and silver. In its fluted towers and glittering minarets, Leona saw how the Solari temple echoed its magnificence and fell to her knees in rapture.
The golden-skinned boy spoke to her in the old Rakkor tongue, telling her he had been waiting for her to follow him since that day, and that he hoped she wasn’t too late. He held out his hand and offered to show her miracles and to know the minds of gods.
Leona had never turned from anything in her life. She took the boy’s hand as he smiled and led her into the light. A column of searing illumination stabbed down from the heavens and engulfed Leona. She felt an awesome presence filling her limbs with terrifying power and forgotten knowledge from the earliest epochs of the world. Her armor and weapons burned to ash in the cosmic fire and were in turn reborn as ornate warplate, a shield of sunlight wrought in gold and a sword of chained dawnlight.
The warrior who came down the mountain looked the same as the one who had climbed it, but inside Leona was much changed. She still had her memories and thoughts, was still master of her own flesh, but a sliver of something vast and inhuman had chosen her to be its mortal vessel. It gifted her with incredible powers and awful knowledge that haunted her eyes and weighed heavily upon her soul; knowledge she could only ever share with one person.
Now, more than ever, Leona knew she had to find Diana.
The raiders attacked before dawn; fifty wolf-lean men in iron hauberks mantled with strange furs and bearing ash-dulled axes. Their steps were swift as they entered the settlement at the foot of the mountain. These were men who had fought as brothers for years, who lived in the heartbeat between life and death. A warrior in battered scale armor and bearing a heavy-bladed greatsword over his shoulder led them. Beneath his dragon-helm, his face was bearded and raw, burned by a lifetime of war-making under a harsher sun than this.
The previous settlements had been easily overcome; little challenge for men weaned on battle. The spoils were few and far between, but in this strange land, a man took what he could get.
This one would be no different.
Sudden light flared ahead, sunlight gleaming brightly.
Impossible. Dawn was an hour or more away.
The leader raised a callused hand as he saw a lone figure standing athwart the settlement’s street. He grinned as he saw it was a woman. Finally, something worth plundering. Light enflamed her, and the grin fell from his face as he stepped closer and saw she was clad in ornate warplate. Auburn hair spilled from a golden circlet and sunlight glinted from her heavy shield and long-bladed sword.
More warriors emerged from the street, taking their place to either side of the woman, each gold-armored and bearing a long spear.
“These lands are under my protection,” she said.
Leona lifted her sword as the twelve warriors of the Ra-Horak formed a wedge with her at their center. Six to either side, they swung their shields and hammered them down as one. Leona made a quarter turn and locked her own shield into place at the apex. Her sword slid into the thrust groove beneath the shield’s bladed halo.
She flexed her fingers on the leather-wound grip of her sword, feeling the surge-tide of power within her. A coiled fire that ached to be released. Leona held it within her, letting it ease into her flesh. Embers flecked her eyes and her heart pounded in her chest. The being she had joined with atop the mountain longed to burn these men with its cleansing fire.
Dragon-helm is the key. Kill him and the rest will falter.
Part of Leona wanted to give the power in her free reign; wanted to scorch these men to smoldering bone and ash. Their attacks had killed scores of people who called the lands around Mount Targon home. They had defiled the sacred places of the Solari, toppling sacred sun stones and polluting the mountain springs with their excretions.
Dragon-helm laughed and swung his greatsword from his shoulders as his men moved away from him. To fight with such a huge weapon and keep it in constant motion needed space. He yelled something in a guttural tongue that sounded more like animal barks than anything human, and his warriors gave an answering roar.
Leona let out a hot breath as the raiders charged, their braided beards flecked with frothed spittle as they pounded toward the Ra-Horak. Leona let the fire into her blood, feeling the ancient creature merge its essence with hers more completely, becoming one with her senses and gifting her with perceptions not of this world.
Time slowed for Leona. She saw the pulsing glow of each enemy’s heart and heard the thunderous drum-beat of their blood. To her, their bodies were hazed with the red fires of battle-lust. Dragon-helm leapt forward, his sword hammering Leona’s shield like a stone titan’s fist. The impact was ferocious, buckling the metal and driving her back a full yard. The Ra-Horak stepped back with her, keeping the shieldwall unbroken. Leona’s shield blazed with light and Dragon-helm’s mantle of fur smoldered in its furnace heat. His eyes widened in surprise as he hauled his enormous sword back for another strike.
“Brace and thrust!” she yelled as the rest of the raiders hit their line. Golden spears thrust at the instant of impact and the first rank of attackers fell with their bellies pierced by mountain-forged steel. They were trampled underfoot as the warriors behind them pressed the attack.
The shieldwall buckled, but held. Axes smashed down, sinews swelled and throats grunted with the effort of attack. Leona thrust her sword through the neck of a raider with a scar bisecting his face from crown to jaw. He screamed and fell back, his throat filling with blood. Her shield slammed into the face of the man next to him, caving in his skull.
The Ra-Horak’s line bent back as Dragon-helm’s sword slammed down again, this time splintering the shield of the warrior next to her. The man dropped, cloven from neck to pelvis.
Leona didn’t give Dragon-helm the chance for a third strike.
She thrust her golden sword toward him and a searing echo of its image blazed from the rune-cut blade. White-hot fire engulfed Dragon-helm, his furs and hair instantly igniting and his armor fusing to his flesh like a brand. He shrieked in hideous pain, and Leona felt the cosmic power inside her revel in the man’s agony. He staggered backward, somehow still alive and screaming as her fire melted the flesh from his bones. His men faltered in their assault as he fell to his knees as a blazing pyre.
“Into them!” shouted Leona, and the Ra-Horak surged forward. Powerful arms stabbed spear blades with brutal efficiency. Thrust, twist, withdraw. Over and over again like the relentless arms of a threshing machine. The raiders turned and fled from the Ra-Horak’s blood-wetted blades, horrified at their war-leader’s doom. Now they sought only to escape.
How and why these raiders had come to Targon was a mystery, for they had clearly not come to bear witness on the mountain nor make an ascent. They were warriors, not pilgrims, and left alive they would only regroup to kill again.
Leona could not allow that and thrust her sword into the earth. She reached deep inside herself, drawing on the awesome power from beyond the mountain. The sun emerged from behind its highest peaks as Leona thrust her hand to the light.
She dropped to one knee and slammed her fist on the ground.
And sunfire rained from the sky.