The snow, it’s like sand, finding its way inside your clothes, your hair, your mouth; it gets everywhere, covering everything in a sea of white. But unlike sand, snow bites, stinging you viciously until numbness overcomes the agony.
It was difficult for Gretel to picture the warm sandy beaches of the village where she had spent the majority of her adolescence, the place she still referred to as home, while trudging up the backside of snow covered Castle Mountain; but she tried anyway. She was exhausted, not just by the climb but because Gretel hadn’t had any sleep in well over twenty four hours.
Just making it to the base of the mountain was not without its share of complications. It had required months worth of conditioning and prep work to start. Then, before beginning the climb, Gretel, upon locating the secret pass that happened to have a guard camp posted at its entrance, snuck by the guards without being sighted, and continued to follow the pass for hours in the early morning without the light of the sun. Afterward, upon reaching her intended destination, Gretel was faced with a brutal three thousand foot climb to a man made platform, the same platform which now loomed only a hundred feet above her.
Gretel was actually fairly lucky to have found the man who knew of this secret exit from the Castle of Five Spires in the first place. The exit, which Gretel was about to alternately use as an entrance, had been built as an escape for the royalty in case the castle was ever under siege. This was not unusual as most castles have precautionary measures such as this. However finding the secret exit was, ‘more than difficult, but less than impossible,’ as Gretel would say. Perhaps the most difficult part had been in finding someone who knew where it was in the first place. Even then it had required certain aggressive interrogation techniques to force the someone who knew, to let loose his tongue.
It’s no wonder the exit is so far from common knowledge; Gretel considered it a reasonable thought as the pass is well off the beaten path, and even when standing directly below it, the platform was nearly impossible to see. As Gretel had learned, the platform was built so that even if one did happen to see it, they would think it nothing more than a natural extension of the mountain. Truly, the only way one would recognize it for what it was, is if they came here with the express purpose of finding it.
This climb had once again reminded Gretel of how much she missed having the use of all her fingers. She found that even something as seemingly unimportant as one’s left, little finger, proves its usefulness in it’s absence.
To bad I already killed the man who took it, thought Gretel as she continued her climb, making a last bit of significant progress. In hindsight she thought it would have been better to have forced the man to live his life without the use of a few of his digits, as opposed to just killing him. Gretel, also often considered that the thumbs would have been best to take, because after all, what can a man do without thumbs? Her logic sometimes seemed more logical and less vengeful in her head than when it came out of her mouth. But none of that mattered now anyway, as he is after all, dead, and her finger, is gone.
“Just a few more feet now,” Gretel whispered to herself, arms feeling as if they were about to give out on her at any moment.
She had trained hard for this, and she was not about to fail before she even entered the black castle fortress overlooking Kingsgate. There was no turning back now; this would either end in her success, or her execution. However, she refused to die here, plummeting to the mountain floor. With that, she ignored the bitter wind, the ice, and cuts mercilessly given to her by the mountain. Putting all things aside, she pushed forward with all the might Gretel had left.
Gretel’s coat was heavy; being made of thick wool it proved a new obstacle. Without it, Gretel would have frozen by now, but needing to loose weight, not unlike a sea crew that throws cargo into the ocean to save their own lives in a raging storm, it was either the coat or her sword and satchel. Making the decision without further thought, Gretel threw off her coat letting it tumble down, flapping in the now strengthening, icy wind, to the bottom of the mountain. But, as Gretel threw off her coat, she slipped, falling a couple of feet, barely catching the mountain as she desperately reached out.
After taking a moment to steady herself, Gretel again struggled forward. Fighting off feelings of despair, Gretel crawled six inches, one foot, two feet, until she closed the gap. Gretel took one last gasp, letting a small whimper follow, then, with her eyes locked onto the ledge, she reached. Upon grasping the edge, Gretel screamed, pulling herself up over the ledge, onto the platform. Panting heavily, she sat down in the snow, taking a brief moment to catch her breath and regain a bit of strength before pushing on.
A few minutes had passed since Gretel had seated herself, intent on catching her breath. She wasn’t concerned about any guards being posted around the exit, as the whole purpose of the exit was not to be found by someone like her. With that being considered, this was the last moment of relative safety Gretel would have for days even if she wasn’t caught. So, this being highlighted in her mind, she relished it as much as the icy weather would allow.
It’s no wonder why peoples like the Gahnen have such a war torn history; the brutal cold of the Northern lands is not kind, Gretel thought as she picked herself up off the ground. Gretel knew that if she didn’t start moving again soon, hypothermia would set in, and she didn’t plan on loosing any more fingers today; maybe her head, but not her fingers.
Gretel removed her special gloves and placed them in her satchel. She removed them because they interfered with her ability to use the sword which was currently in a sheath strapped to her back. The dark cave loomed in front of her, and to her right she could see a large lever that would release the long hanging ladder built onto the platform which she would use to climb down to the ground safely upon her exit. There was no door blocking her entrance into the cave which she was told would wind through the mountain, leading eventually to a trap door on one of the floors of the castle. The man also told Gretel that she would have no problem finding her way in the dark. She hoped he was telling the truth, after all, sometimes cutting off a man’s fingers in a tavern one at a time until he spills the beans, can have the opposite of the desired effect. Sometimes they don’t spill beans, they just spill lies, a prospect that at the moment was less than appealing.
Gretel didn’t like deep dark caves, but then again who does. With that, she drew a deep breath and walked not so fearlessly into the darkness.
Gretel had been fumbling uneventfully through the cave for what felt like hours, before finally coming to what seemed to be the very entrance that she had been searching for.
Ah, here it is. Now all I need to do is… there, and then…
She breathed a sigh of relief as she heard the click from up above. Following the click, Gretel couldn’t help but smile as she popped up the floor piece, moving it to the side. She then pulled herself up out of the cave and into an empty room.
It must be a few hours after midday. Gretel looked out the wide window which sat on the opposite side of the room as compared to the location of the door.
I wonder how many people in the castle even know of this caves existence.
Gretel reached for her sword and pulled it out of her sheath knowing she might need it at any moment now.
The room was dark due to the snow storm which had recently moved in, and the stone walls only worked to amplify its gloominess. Also, the abhorrent lack of furniture or decor in this room didn’t help to alleviate the poor first impression made by the Castle.
Gretel dropped her satchel, thinking it would be best to leave it in the cave in case of capture, before she then resealed the trap door shut and placed the old rug, apparently the only thing hiding the caves existence, over what she soon hoped would be her exit. Gretel, then walked quickly to the wooden door on the other side of the room and reached out with her left hand, turning the knob. Creeek! The door opened a bit too loudly for comfort.
Gretel went on, peeking around both ways up and down the long hall.
The inside of the castle was far more decorated and welcoming when one looked into the hall. One would think judging by the castles black steel coated exterior that the inside would be more foreboding. Actually it was almost beautiful. The walls were painted white, and the floor had glossy black tiles. There was a red carpet about five feet wide running up and down the middle of the hall. Gretel, saw quite a few paintings and portraits adorning the walls in an orderly fashion, set in gold frames. Then, every so many feet on either side were four foot high, rectangular tables, which lined the hallway. On each table there were ornate lamps; lamps which Gretel could obviously tell to be worth a fortune.
The hall was massive, being at least one hundred yards long and ten yards tall. It also appeared to have a width of about fifty feet. Gretel was told that Five Spires was built with ten stories; each one up to the sixth floor was built with a massive hall, every one like the last, running the length of the castle front to back. On the sides of the halls there were many rooms, some bigger, some smaller, some used, some not. On the first floor the large, steel, double doors, being the main entrance to Five Spires, stood at the backside of the massive monolith. Then, on every level, there was also a round terrace placed on the front side of the castle, each giving a bird’s eye view of the most populated city in the known world; Kingsgate. On both sides of the terraces there were two circular staircases that ran all the way up and down the castle. She was told that beyond the first level there would be guards posted in increasing number depending upon how high one went. The man also told Gretel that the first floor would be lightly guarded with just one guard standing on the terrace. He said when asked about the castle entrance that the double doors remained unbarred most of the time. He stated that there was a huge compliment of guards stationed outside, but none immediately inside the doors. This made sense to Gretel as she figured they were trying to keep people out, not in.
A slight grin spread across Gretel’s face. Well, it looks like that little man told the truth after all. Peeking out in the direction of the terrace she saw the lone guard halfway across the hall. He was leaning over the four foot high terrace cross guard facing the city with both hands being used to prop himself up. Her grin turned to a smile as she quickly but quietly made her way across the first floor. She hoped her fortune wouldn’t turn as it was still a relatively long way, and one shout from him could send the guards above clamoring down the stairs. She was counting on the sound of the icy wind, the wrath of the storm, to cloak her approach in silence.
With phase one of her plan completed upon entering the castle the second phase had begun, and this step was pivotal. She needed to interrogate someone inside the palace as no one outside could give her precise directions to the dungeon. As uncanny as that is, apparently no one who has ever gone in has ever come out. At least that’s what they say; Gretel never really believed that though, it was just too unlikely, too mythic. Someone always escapes or gets released, unfortunately she just couldn’t find that someone. But that didn’t matter now, what mattered is the perfect mark standing in front of her, unaware that in just moments his day would turn for the worst.
There he was, now just ten feet away from her. He hadn’t really even moved accept to scratch himself once or twice since Gretel walked out of the room. I’m never this lucky.
“Hello,” said Gretel.
The guard, surprised, immediately turned, reaching for his sword. But Gretel was faster, she rushed forward, left hand closing his mouth with her sword held against his throat. She pushed his back up against the rail, not so fast that he would topple over, but also not slow enough for him to escape.
“Shhh… I am going to ask you a few questions; if you call for help I will spill your blood on the floor right here and now. If I don’t like your answers, then well, we’ll see if you can fly. However, if you don’t call for help, and I like your answers, then you may just live to continue your illustrious career in service to the Empire.”
Gretel was never going to let him live of course, and if he had just a smidge of intelligence he would know that. But telling someone you were interrogating or kidnapping that they were going to live if they complied, whether it was true or not, is the only way to get them to do what you want. After all, someone who thinks or knows that they are going to die no matter what they do, is far less likely to comply than someone who has hope.
“Do we understand each other?” asked Gretel right before slowly removing her hand from his mouth.
“Yes,” replied the guard as he quietly followed with a stressed swallow.
“Good, I like that answer,” said Gretel before asking, “So, I need to know where the dungeon is and how to get there?”
“Now that answer, I didn’t like; let’s see if you can fly shall we,” said Gretel while putting pressure on his neck, slowly pushing him over to the point of teetering on the rail.
“No, stop, please,” the guard said in a panic but still keeping fairly quiet.
Gretel stopped for a second holding him in place. At that moment a devious smile spread across her face which served to frighten the guard even more.
“I know what you are thinking,” Gretel said with a chuckle.
“What, what am I thinking, what…?”
“I think you think you can fly,” Gretel said before making a fake movement suggesting that she was going to toss him over the edge.
“No, no stop, I’ll tell you, don’t, I swear I’ll tell you what you want to know…”
Well that was easier than usual.
It didn’t take long for him to reach his breaking point. But this is where the man tells Gretel about his kids, his wife, and anything she actually needs to know. Gretel was competent at this, she knew how it worked; this wasn’t her first time, and with a few exceptions they’re all the same.
“…please just stop, I have kids, I have kids,” the guard finished with near whimpers.
Gretel, now straight faced, responded with her own dark sarcasm, “What, no wife?”
“She… died a few years back.”
“Huh, I see,” replied Gretel coldly.
Gretel would have liked to let the man live, truly, but that just wasn’t possible. She would not even be here if her mission wasn’t so important, so personal. Gretel had difficulty feeling sorry for any soldier serving under Tiburon’s banner, but children loosing their father, that is never right. However, the children are often made to suffer for the sins of their fathers; this is the way of things.
Gretel pushed in a loud whisper, “Well? tell me how to get there… speak!”
The guard began to do as she asked when all of a sudden, the castle entrance on the other end of the hall, flew open.
“I request an answer as to the purpose of this audience with your majesty, and I inquire as to the purpose of my being summoned to Kingsgate,” said Tiberius as he knelt on the floor of the throne room, twelve feet before Emperor Maximillian.
“Ahh… Tiberius, what a tedious start to a simple day,” responded the emperor with a sigh.
Tiberius attempted to bite his tongue but was rather unsuccessful, “Forgive me your Majesty but perhaps one would have a word with those that deliver his messages. For after all the summoned do not summon themselves, and is it the fault of the summoned that the summoner is not prepared to receive a timely appearance by the summoned? Should the summoned return later, perhaps when the summoner is more prepared to conduct the simple meeting which now lies before him?”
The ruler’s expression immediately turned sour from his previous look of boredom and slight agitation, “How dare you insult me with belittlement and accusations of incompetence!”
“Forgive me your Highness. I will choose my words with more care, for I did not intend to express belittlement,” responded Tiberius as he attempted to mask the amusement and pleasure he received from insulting the emperor.
Tiberius’ response only helped to further anger Maximilian, but do to the emperor’s clear eagerness to get Tiberius out of his sight, he continued with the meeting. Taking a second to compose himself the emperor continued, “I have no time for your… trying nature today Tiberius. Did you do as my message instructed?”
“Yes my Lord, I withdrew my personal units from combat and had all imperial units under my command transferred to Legatus Malcus. If I may, as earlier I request an explanation as to why I have been pulled from my commission in Gahnen and summoned to Kingsgate?”
“No you may not, my reasons are my own. Malcus is fully capable of dealing with the rebels in your absence; and as of today you are currently… on leave.”
Malcus, hah, that foolish warmonger is the reason another rebellion sprung up from Gahnen in the first place.
It was all Tiberius could do to keep what was in his mind from exiting his mouth so he simply replied, “As you wish your Majesty.”
“You may leave Tiberius.”
“Of course, I will see myself from your sight.”
With that Tiberius rose before striding down the steps leading away from the throne, and across the long room adorned with all manor of riches and beautiful craft works. He did not bother to look out any of the large glass windows that gave one an eagle’s eye view of the mountains from the tenth floor of the menacing Five Spires. Upon reaching the massive double door the two elite guards opened the throne room’s entrance. The guards eyed Tiberius as he exited the room, then continued to close the door shut behind him.
“That pompous…,” muttered Tiberius under his breath before stopping himself mid-sentence.
As Tiberius walked up to Eleven, who had been standing outside the two large doors waiting for Tiberius to finish his business with the emperor, he continued, “How this empire will survive Maximillian’s rule I will never know.”
Tiberius simply did not care who overheard him talk ill of the emperor, as his dislike of the foolish monarch was no secret. Besides he had certain immunity due to the prestige he had earned from crushing the Tet rebellion over four years ago. For ending the rebellion in a way that many consider to be a stroke of tactical genius, he was named Protector of the Empire, much to Maximillian’s dismay as the reason he was victorious was due to the fact that he disobeyed the emperor in the first place. So as far as Tiberius was concerned, speaking ill of Emperor Maximilian was one of the perks which came along with being Protector of the Empire. The title in fact had many perks due to the position it held in public opinion, although it didn’t necessarily grant him anymore rank than he previously held as a legatus.
Tiberius being twenty nine years of age, standing a couple inches shy of six feet, having brown hair and blue eyes, was now the youngest Praetor in the history of the Tiburon Empire. He did not gain his position through humble means, as Tiberius is the son of Danicus the recently deceased Minister of Justice. But his rise is still seen by many as nothing short of impressive.
Tiberius proceeded to lean on the terrace guard which was a little ways in front of the throne room. Then he turned, eyeing the two guards that were standing at the entrance to the throne room just out of earshot due to the wind which preceded a brewing storm.
“Your admiration for the emperor is well known,” Eleven responded with sarcasm in a characteristic dark, sinister sounding voice.
“You know Tiberius; many men would give anything to be standing where you are now. You could give me the order this very moment in fact. That order would be like a soft Librium melody to my ears,” Eleven spoke at a patient pace as usual, just loud enough for Tiberius to hear his slightly muffled voice through the mask Eleven always wore.
Tiberius responded with a devious grin, “Tell me Eleven were I to give the order right now, what would you do? How would you do it?”
Eleven began, “I would begin walking towards the guards on the right side of the hall. As I approached, the guard in front of me would ask what my business was with the emperor. I would ignore him for the time being, continuing my gait until the distance was closed. The moment before I drew my sword the guard in front of me before the other would see my intent. But it would be too late as I will have already drawn my sword, and he would be absent the room needed to lower his spear. Terror would grip him as he moved his left hand in my direction in a desperate, but futile attempt to stop me while I sliced forward severing the right side of his throat. Then what neither of them notice is that by now, as the blood spewed out of the guard’s neck splattering all three of us in red, I will have already slipped the guards dagger out of his sheath with my left hand. I would close my eyes so that the blood doesn’t limit my vision, but that’s no concern, I will have already seen my target and know his movement from the noise he makes while charging at me spear raised. But he doesn’t see it, they never do as my throw will have already placed his companions dagger in the air, flying toward its intended target… You know as well as I do Tiberius that I never miss.
“As he falls to the ground the dagger plunged in his throat, I would bend over and whisper to the first guard who has not yet crossed over, ‘In answer to your question I have come to kill the Emperor, and my business is pressing.’ At the time of the guard’s expedient expiration I would knock on the door as the guards do when someone is about to enter. Those inside the room have no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary is happening as my quick work and precision will have mitigated any concern of alerting those on the other side. Now that I have the assassin’s element of surprise, as soon as the doors began to open I would charge in, slicing the right guard’s throat. Then, as the guard on the left raised his spear I will already have turned, leaning left shoulder back, stabbing up, piercing the armpit in the weak spot between the heavy armor plates… They would have lasted longer had they worn mail… The four elite guardsmen, who protect the emperor, will be rushing down the stairs at this time, far too confident for their own good. They will be wearing light armor, confident in their training. The Ti’esh’iit fighting form that they use is one of the best sword techniques, unless you know its tricks, and I know them all. It would be much more difficult if I had to face eight of the highly trained warriors, but the foolhardy Emperor only has four. He is far too confident in the protection of his walls, when he should be more confident in protecting himself from those within.
“At this point I will look for the boldest and most aggressive guard while moving to one of the large windows on the right. The boldest one isn’t hard to find as he is charging lone wolf, far ahead of the pack, too far ahead for the support of his comrades. Yes, he will be my first victim. As he reaches me I will move forward quickly, surprising him by switching positions and tripping him at the same time, tossing his back against the window. Then he will look down as my foot will have already impacted his chest before he had a chance to recover. His training has taught him to embrace pain and fate as mine did, so as the glass shatters and he plummets to his death, he won’t scream, he will just fall in silence, embracing his fate. As I turn around the other three will take pause, surprise and fear written across their faces due to the shock felt in conjunction with the fresh sight of their comrade’s speedy demise. The remaining three will mask it quickly, but now they know they can be defeated as they have already seen their defeat; the fallen guard is now but a symbol of their future. I can use this newly found realization against them. In their fear they will forget to work as a team, so the leader strikes first as he is the only one brave enough to begin the battle. This is a mistake as I will make quick work of him, increasing the fear of the already fearful. The others now retreat as I attack, working against the strength of their aggressive form. They last inevitably but a few more brief moments in this world before the last line of the great emperor’s defenses are gone.
“After reaching the top of the steps I believe I would find the recently majestic ruler on his knees trying to barter for his life. All reason would tell him that his pathetic actions will have no effect on his quickly approaching fate, but that will not stop him. I believe when the time comes I will say to him, ‘you were foolish to trick me all those years ago, petty king; don’t you know that paranoia brings its own death. Now, the only thing that stands between you and this life is a piece of steel, it is fitting that your death should be carried out coldly, in silence.’ My blade would then move with all swiftness, separating his head from body, letting his soul spill out on the floor.”
Tiberius’ demeanor was serious as he followed, now looking out over Kingsgate, “Tell me Eleven, would you smile over his corpse?”
“I never smile over the corpses of the men I kill Praetor. Death is a dark thing, and just like those I kill, death will find me someday as well. But for Maximillian Praetor, I believe I would, and you know the reason.”
“Yes, I do. But unfortunately I will not give you that melody… today.”
Tiberius, for a moment, was tempted to give Eleven the order. All he had to do was speak a word and the deed would be done. It seemed so simple, so easy. However the potential consequences of such an action were to vast to reasonably predict as Maximilian had not yet chosen a successor. But that being said, secretly Tiberius’ fear grew with each passing day as his and the emperor’s strained relationship was bound to end with either Tiberius’ assassination or execution. It was a dilemma that at this moment he attempted to put out of his mind.
Still looking over the massive city which stretched sixty miles North to South and twenty East to West, Tiberius finished, “ Don’t worry my friend, things change; you will have your chance.”
At that Tiberius heard quick footsteps charging up the stairs to his left. He then saw Zackarius appear head first, charging up the spiral staircase in a hurry. This was no indication as to the importance of the young man’s message due to the fact that Tiberius’ personal messenger often ran, treating every message like it had been sent by the gods no matter its relative importance. This was a quality Tiberius appreciated; it was fitting for a messenger.
As far as Tiberius was concerned Zackarius was one of the best messengers in all the Empire, in fact he was flat out impressive. The kid could run over twenty five miles without stopping, a feat which outside of Tet and the small nations further south was just unheard of. Even more impressive to Tiberius is the fact that Zackarius ate all the time and it never seemed to affect his talent in a negative way. In fact right now he had a delicious looking cake in his hand, which he had just now begun to devour as if he hadn’t eaten in days.
“Slow down kid remember to breathe,” said Tiberius with a muttered chuckle as he turned to face the seventeen year old.
Tiberius waited till Zackarius finished his current mouthful, which took but a few short seconds.
“Sorry my Lord.”
“Don’t worry; I don’t have my best messengers flogged for scarfing down cakes…usually. So out with it, what is your message?” he asked with a smile.
“I was sent by Jaimus to inform you that he requests a meeting.”
“Did he say what it was concerning?”
“No,” Zackarius responded, “he just requested your presence.”
“Hmm… I wonder what this is about… is he at the Library?”
“Yes,” replied the messenger as he made a quick glance at Eleven.
Most were afraid of Eleven. Perhaps it was due to his presence and demeanor, or because of the steel mask he always wore, his head covered often by the hood of his long cloak. But usually it was because they new who he was, what he was.
“Go back to Jaimus and tell him I will be along soon,” Tiberius instructed.
As Zackarius turned, about ready to leave as instructed, Tiberius halted him, “Wait I changed my mind. I will head down to meet Jaimus, why don’t you go to the kitchens, and tell the servants that I ordered you to eat a large breakfast. Then when you are done there, join us at the library.”
Zackarius responded with a subtle smile, “Yes Praetor, I will see to your order as if my life depended on it.”
With that the young messenger left, eager for the early morning feast which awaited him in the kitchens. Tiberius then turned his attention to Eleven, “Come, let us see what Jaimus wants.”
After walking down the long fifteen foot wide stairway, and through its five sections, each of which had a small, short, square watch tower and large wooden gate at the entrance; Tiberius and Eleven came from Five Spires to the large fortress at Castle Mountain’s base. Then upon moving through the fortress and entering Kingsgate they continued further until they stood a little more than a few blocks from the library in front of Tiberius’ favorite shop; Grundon’s Bakery.
Kingsgate was truly magnificent to behold and visitors were often overwhelmed with its size. The city was broken up into three main parts: Northside at the footsteps of Castle Mountain, Southside, and the Commons, which due to the wealth and tourism weren’t truly all that common.
The Commons, spanning a great portion of the city from the bottom of Northside to the top of Southside, also hosted most of the boat docks in the vast port city. And if one were to go to the docks they would see the hundreds to thousands of merchant, transport, and cargo ships going in and out of the harbor. Being one of the few cities in the Empire to have a large and definitive middle class, Kingsgate was known as the merchant hub of the Empire. The streets themselves sprawl with the foot traffic of thousands of people even in the winter months, which can be considerably harsh. One can also see carts being pulled back and forth, and even the many vendors that line each side of Kingsgate’s vast myriad of streets do moderately well for themselves in the Commons.
Aside from the merchants and the middle class, the lowly peasants and many of the cities common slaves live in Southside. Like most of the city, except for the wealthy estates in Northside, the houses are stacked on top of each other up three, four, even five stories high. However in Southside the houses are made from whatever a peasant can find and afford, so they are often in such horrible condition that one wonders how the houses, if they can be called that, don’t just collapse, falling to splinters. Few merchants or shops fill Southside’s streets as there is relatively little coin to be made there due to the condition of its occupants. Rule of law in Southside is often either cruel or absent as the city takes more of a containment or enforcement policy than that of a peacekeeping approach. And as things are the way they are, the city devotes very little resources to Southside, treating that part of the city much like one treats a leper or an unwelcome guest. The result is rampant crime and hunger.
Northside stands as a symbol of the Empire, hosting a few shops but mostly large beautiful estates along with vast, and in the summer, delightfully plush gardens. Some of the estates are like small castles and kingdoms unto themselves complete with trees, trimmed gardens, and gates surrounding the magnificent dwellings, posted with small armies. Many lords and ladies own, live in, or frequent these estates. It is often said that the true wealth of the city is made in the Commons, but the truly wealthy dwell in Northside, the pinnacle of all wealth and prosperity. Like the Commons the streets are paved, but in Northside there is breathtaking artistry in the way everything was made. It could also be said that each and every stone which was laid was laid with definitive purpose, and every stone that is carved was carved by the hand of a master craftsman. Aside from the gardens, which in the summers are uniquely trimmed by skilled gardeners and high class, unpaid servants, the streets present many sculptures and beautiful fountains. Most in Southside, while they do frequent the commons for various reasons, have never seen the exceptional untainted beauty of Northside, as peasants are only allowed there upon special permission.
Grundon’s Bakery is, as far as Tiberius was concerned, the finest bakery in the whole of the Tiburon Empire. It is for Tiberius a place filled with many memories, and to him it also, at times, seemed more like home than Five Spires. As he had spent much coin during his early teenage years on the many special cakes and pies which filled the shop, eventually Tiberius and the owner, Daemion Grundon, had become friends.
Memories came flooding back to Tiberius as he began walking toward the shop, the scents of the delectable treats filling his nostrils; memories of sitting at his favorite table and ordering an apple pie, which was, according to Tiberius, unrivaled. Then often as Grundon brought the pie, when there were few customers, he would join Tiberius to converse.
Grundon, before he bought the shop had spent several years as a traveling merchant. He would entertain Tiberius with stories of his many travels. They would also talk about the happenings of the Empire among a variety of other topics. Grundon was a very kind and friendly man but for being a merchant he wasn’t very good with money, so after making one too many financial mistakes he eventually lost the bakery to a few shrewd business men who had had their own eyes on Grundon’s prime peace of real-estate. At the age of twenty one upon hearing this news, Tiberius bought back the shop before he then returned it to its rightful owner. These days Grundon was a fairly busy man as Tiberius’ fame made Grundon’s bakery one of the more popular locales in Northside despite its tavern-like atmosphere, something that Grundon often complained about, claiming commonly that it used to be a quiet place where a man could think. However Grundon’s unspoken gratefulness was more than apparent. Unfortunately Tiberius’ last appearance in Kingsgate was over a year ago, and since his recent arrival until now he had not yet been afforded the chance to visit with his old friend.
For this it’s good to be home.
As Tiberius neared the entrance he stopped. Before entering the Bakery, Tiberius took a second to look at the sky as even with the large wolf skin coat wrapped around his body the young praetor could feel the chill of the souring weather. Snow storm’s coming.
Continuing forward, Tiberius then reached out, opening the door, his left hand resting on the forward curved handle of the uniquely forged sword strapped to his waist. As he pushed the door open, faint scents which had previously welcomed him to the bakery whilst he had taken a moment to observe it from the outside, now became bold, bringing him in from the cold like a welcomed guest. In the same moment the warmth of the ovens had arrived to greet him with equal kindness. As Tiberius looked about he saw the heavy wooden tables which were surrounded by wealthy patrons who sat or stood, preoccupied by their own business. The building also had glass windows which one could use to observe the snow from a warm vantage.
It was much busier than Tiberius had remembered, but the shop was still just as homely. In many ways it never changed, it is and had always been a shelter from the cold, a place where one could sit, eat, think, or talk, a place of rest.
One of the only alterations Tiberius had made to the bakery before giving it back to Grundon was a fireplace on the Southern corner of the main room. Tiberius, while walking by, glanced at the fireplace on his way to the front counter. It was always lit in the winter from open to close, and at the moment four men sat around it drinking ale, sitting on four of the seven comfy lounging chairs that surrounded the warmth of the dancing flames.
“How can I serve you today,” asked the young man attending the service counter.
He must be new, thought Tiberius, certain that he hadn’t seen him before. Clearly the young man was also unaware of Tiberius’ identity.
Tiberius replied, “Yes would you mind fetching the owner?”
“Of course, he is currently in one of the back rooms. I will be but a moment if you will excuse me,” said the young man as he retreated beyond sight, searching for his employer.
The men sitting at a table on the northern side of the moderately large room suddenly erupted in a chorus of laughter for an undefined reason. Then, after they quieted down, Eleven, who was still present, said to Tiberius, “If you have no objection I will make my way to the library announcing your arrival to Jaimus.”
“That suits me fine, I will be with you shortly,” Tiberius responded.
Never before had Tiberius ever seen Eleven eat, as he only ever ate in private, no doubt due to the full faced mask complete with two eye slits and a vertical mouth slit that hid his face from the world of men; or rather whatever was underneath.
As Eleven departed, Tiberius smiled turning his attention to an old friend that now approached with an even brighter smile, as if his day just turned for the better. Walking around the front counter, Grundon quickly embraced Tiberius before turning to address his employee who was presently still standing behind the counter, “Bring us a fresh apple pie, then take care of the costumers for a bit while I have a talk with the Protector of the Empire.”
“Lord Tiberius? Forgive me I did not know,” said the kid as he bowed low.
“Oh give me a break; he’s not the damn emperor yet. Just get the pie,” said Grundon as he rolled his eyes.
“Of course, right away.”
“You see what being friends with such an influential celebrity has done to my once humble bakery. It used to be a quiet place where a man could think, now look at it. I haven’t been able to sit down in years thanks to your heroism. And where in the hell have you been? What, you don’t like my apple pie anymore,” asked Grundon in a faked exasperation.
“Yeah, it is good to see you too. I am curious though, how is it, if you have not been able to sit for so long as you claim, that you have managed to put on all that weight,” teased Tiberius.
At that remark Grundon laughed replying with a smile, “It is good to see you kid, you haven’t changed.”
As Grundon Motioned to a nearby table they had a seat. Then a pie appeared as the paid servant arrived with the delicious late morning breakfast. Tiberius’ mouth began to water as the sight of his favorite treat beckoned him to bliss.
While Tiberius took a slice of pie, Grundon broke the short silence, “So I heard you were summoned by the Emperor.”
“How did news of my recent summons reach your ears so promptly?”
“I live and work in Northside; news like that travels quickly among the wealthy, and people talk. So what was the purpose of your summons? I thought you were busy ending the rebellion in Gahnen?”
“That is privileged information my friend, you should know that,” responded Tiberius.
“Very well, have it your way,” said Grundon with a chuckle, followed by, “So who is your replacement?”
Tiberius responded to the question with a sly smile after finishing another delectable bite, “Who said I was being replaced?”
“Come on kid it isn’t alchemy. Everyone knows you aren’t on the best of terms with Emperor Maximilian, and your appearance in Kingsgate can only mean one of three things: You were stripped of rank, which we both know won’t happen do to your increasing favor with the Lords and the public; not to mention the fact that you are exceedingly competent at war and politics. You completed your mission, which I know, due to the talk I overheard from Lord Gundrid of Wintersbane, is not possible. The only other reason is that you have been replaced. So again my curiosity beckons you to answer my question?”
“Well I suppose you will find out in a few days anyway seeing as how you are so well informed. In answer to your inquisition, Legatus Malcus has been assigned to deal with the rebels in my stead, and I have in the emperor’s words been… placed on leave.”
“Damn, really? He’s sending Malcus the scarred? If it wasn’t for his going around sacking and burning whole villages to the ground in search of a small band of thieves and traitors, you wouldn’t have needed to go to Gahnen in the first place,” said Grundon, appalled by the prospect.
“You say nothing I don’t already know… (Sigh)… But unfortunately I have no say in the matter. Most of the time my job is just to clean up the mess left by the emperor and men like Malcus, it’s what makes me hated by them, and yet absolutely necessary. But with each consecutive war and rebellion, thousands more are orphaned, creating twice as many enemies of the Empire than years past. I mean, when does it end, you know? How long until the Empire’s enemies outnumber its friends when men like Malcus keep coming along to throw wine on the fire.”
“You sound tired kid; perhaps you should take advantage of your… unexpected leave. Go visit the luxurious cities of Librium to the west, or the sandy beaches of Ni’usii in the south. You are too young to be so burdened by the trifles of old men; and yet I suppose for some we have a say in what we become, but for others, like you… you were born to be what you are.”
“Perhaps,” responded Tiberius with another sigh.
Tiberius finishing another slice continued, “Well enough about me, I see your business is doing well, how is your family?”
“Well for starters my wife won’t get off my back about the weight,” Grundon started with a chuckle, “In fact I told her just this morning, ‘Hey I’m a baker, without it I wouldn’t look the part’. Then my son, who just bought his own ship, now transports goods between here and Librium. And also, my grandson, whom you just met, served you your pie.”
“You don’t say; he is a strong looking lad.”
“No, no, don’t even think about trying to recruit him. He likes the bakery and he doesn’t need someone like you filling his head with delusions of grandeur.”
Tiberius laughed before devouring his last tasty bite, “Alright, I promise not to make a hero out of your grandson; I mean, if I wound up on your bad side, from where am I going to procure a pie as good as this.”
“That would be difficult.”
“Well old friend, I am afraid I have to leave,” said Tiberius as he stood.
“Yeah I need to get back to work anyways. Come by more often will you, it increases my profits,” responded Grundon with a wink.
“I will try, and hopefully next time it won’t be with such brevity,” said Tiberius as he shook Grundon’s hand one last time before venturing back out into the cold.
Tiberius walking down the mildly busy snow covered street glanced at one of the large sculptures standing to his right as he passed by. It was a beautiful, tall, clothed sculpture, created over two hundred years ago that stood in the middle of the wide walkway. It was supposedly of the great Emperor Tiburon from which the Empire derives its name. As the Minister of Education claimed, “He is the great man who took all of the barbaric nations by the hand, bringing them unification and peace under one banner. Before Tiburon the nations were divided for ages, squabbling amongst each other with war after war until one man was born with a vision; that vision was a vision of peace which would be obtained by uniting them by force under one man, one emperor. Then, after the great Tiburon war which lasted over thirty years, his vision was accomplished.”
Tiberius had heard the minister quote this particular piece of the Empire’s propaganda enough times to be able to recite it word for word in his sleep. However the truth was that the Empire, as Tiberius had seen, was not at peace. It’s Lords still squabbled and its idealists still died for their ideals; Tiberius should know, he had killed many of them. But it was not that which troubled him the most. No, it was Tiburon’s following order to burn all the old books. The ministry teaches that the order was given because the ways, beliefs, and teachings of the past, of barbarism, no longer held any validity. But in Tiberius’ experience the only reason to burn a book was because you desired to hide something from someone, not because it was worthless, but because it had value. A truly worthless piece of literature is cast away; burned for warmth by those less fortunate maybe, but not by kings.
Recently Tiberius had grown suspicious of Tiburon’s true purpose, a purpose that was hidden, and kept hidden by those who came after. Was there something valuable he was trying to hide? If so, what was it? The question was beginning to plague his mind like an unrelenting splinter, an annoyance, a pain which could only be numbed by an answer.
As Tiberius continued on, moving toward the library which was now a mere block away, the wind chill suddenly became intolerable, causing Tiberius to wrap his coat tighter around his body as the snow began to fall.
Books lined the shelves of Tiberius’ close friend and Master of Messengers’ library. It was perhaps the largest library in Kingsgate, boasting books dating back to the writings of Talisius the poet, who wrote over five hundred years prior, chronicling the earliest days of the Empire.
One of Talisius’ most prominent writings was that of his poem chronicling the battle of Summer’s Spring as he stood on a nearby hilltop overlooking what became known as the defining victory which ultimately decided the fate of Tiburon’s new empire. The battle was named in conjunction with the poem sometime after the event.
At the opposite end of the brightly lit room sat Jaimus and Eleven, while Zackarius, apparently making it back before his arrival, piddled with the fireplace, nudging at the logs before he too sat. Tiberius, after closing the door, began to set his stride toward the warmth of the fire which was encircled by the other three. There was no one else here, as Jaimus no doubt appropriately sent them out due to their meeting. As Tiberius walked towards them, Zackarius looked his way, even Eleven made a glance if only to acknowledge his entrance. But Jaimus just continued to sit still, head stuck in a book, his attention consumed by whatever he was reading. Tiberius never took offense by this as he understood that the older man probably didn’t even notice his arrival.
As Tiberius took a seat, Jaimus looked up, suddenly aware of his attendance, “Praetor, welcome, forgive me I did not notice your arrival until just now. I need to place a bell on that door.”
“Don’t worry, besides I seriously have doubt as to the effect a bell, no matter the volume of its ringing, will have upon your alertness when preoccupied with books,” responded Tiberius with a grin.
“Your doubt might be proved correct,” said Jaimus, a smile appearing on his face.
“Well Jaimus, what is the reason you requested my presence?”
“There are two reasons, the first is potentially troubling, and the second is, well…quite exciting,” Jaimus responded.
“Alright, I’ll hear the troubling news first.”
“Very well, as you wish Praetor. Unfortunately the disconcerting news is that one of my spies has recently reported the arrival of Malcus in Kingsgate late last night. I thought you should be informed as the purpose of his arrival is unknown. Although it has been confirmed that his arrival is indeed due to a summons by the emperor, a hasty report brought to me just before sunrise. This seemed rather out of place as I was under the impression, due to the correspondences I had sent to your forces stationed in Gahnen, that Malcus was set to takeover your commission in the Northern lands upon your arrival to Kingsgate. If that is truly the case, then what is the reason for his return. After all, I heard that Malcus had met with his highness weeks ago to receive his new assignment.”
Tiberius began stroking his beard after he and Eleven shared a quick glance. He was very troubled by his rival’s mysterious appearance, as it was out of place. It was a sign of… something. Normally he wouldn’t be so bothered, but under the current circumstances…. Malcus had arrived for what could only be personal business with the emperor right after Tiberius had lost his assignment and before he had had a chance to leave the city. To a commoner such things would seem like nothing, but one who had been raised into power, intermingling with the powerful, learned that death and destruction came to rulers who dismissed other ruler’s actions as subtle coincidence.
“Yes, you were right to bring this news to my attention. Your assertions are correct; his appearance here at this time is indeed puzzling. Inform me immediately if your ears fall privy to new information on the subject; make it a high priority,” ordered Tiberius.
“Of course commander; now to news far less off putting. Let me just say…I found it,” announced Jaimus in a flash of subtle excitement.
Immediately knowing the next topic of conversation, Tiberius turned to Zackarius reaching into his coin purse. He removed three gold pieces and tossed them to his messenger, “You are dismissed. Go have some fun, and I suggest you not follow Cristoff’s advice; stay away from the whore houses. Go find yourself a decent girl if you must, or do whatever it is you do, just stay out of trouble and meet me at Five Spires in the morning.”
Anxiously Zackarius stood, and after slipping the coins into his pocket, he moved excitedly for the door. As he exited, Tiberius turned to Jaimus saying, “Oh to be that young again.”
Jaimus replied with a laugh, “What in the gods’ creation are you talking about young man. You’re only twenty nine; I was your age when you were nursing.”
If Tiberius was straining to hear he almost thought he heard a chuckle come from the hidden lips of Eleven who was sitting to his left.
“Damn, you are getting old. I think later this year when your birthday rolls around I will send you a beautiful gold encrusted walking stick to replace that dusty old cane of yours,” replied Tiberius with a friendly jab of his own in less formal speech.
Jaimus sat back with a more serious expression, “It’s not dusty.”
“Pardon me, I stand corrected, it’s well used,” followed Tiberius with a lingering smile as he continued before giving Jaimus a chance to respond, “The friendly banter aside I am eager to see the book you have uncovered for me.”
A gleam appeared in his eye as Jaimus stood before walking over to Tiberius. Placing the ancient tattered book in his hands, he pointed to the image placed on the cover below the title, “Look, after all these years I found it; that symbol is the same as the mark on your palm.”
Jaimus was referring to the inch wide, and tall, mark that was imprinted right below the thumb on Tiberius’ right hand; the mark which he had always kept hidden under a special cloth for fear of what its discovery might or might not mean.
Tiberius had been born with the mysterious mark, a symbol made up of four runes, unknown in origin, inside of a circle. It appeared to be more than just blood vessels, but not quite a tattoo or brand. On occasion the mark glowed with a luminous blue light, and the cause, or reason for it was a complete mystery, a question that needed an answer.
Upon meeting Jaimus some time ago, the man claimed to have seen a book once with Tiberius’ strange mark on its cover. This was that book, but Tiberius’ excitement turned to slight disappointment as he began to flip through its pages.
“I can see the pictures and diagrams, but what language is it written in? I don’t think I have ever seen this writing before,” queried[* *]Tiberius with a puzzled expression.
“That’s because the language has not been spoken by men or written by his hand since before Tiburon gave the order to burn the books of barbarism,” said Jaimus before following with a question, “I know where to look, but before I tell you, you must ask yourself a question. How far are you willing to go to find the answers you seek?”
Tiberius was silent for a moment or two before responding, “You speak a spy’s riddle my friend.”
“Perhaps that is because I am one,” said Jaimus as he put a note in Tiberius’ hand; the writing written on the note being perfectly legible.
Tiberius again stroked his beard as he began reading the message written on the note. It was as follows:
He was with us, one of us, but in our presence he left us, lusting after power as his love for himself grew insatiable. Hating the ways of the one he claimed to serve, he found her in the night as he sought out a way to bring about our destruction. She gave him a way, though it came with a price. But to him the reward was worth more than the cost, a testament to the darkness inside of him. He is the one; he is the one who murdered us. I am the only survivor, I am the last of us, but my failure haunts me, and it will be the death of me.
I have hidden this book and the message you now read in the hands of a man who calls himself Zealot. I hope that one from the continuing line of Kings goes on to finish my task. If one with the mark reads this; it’s the box, you must destroy the box; the secret lies with the Feyliimn. And if Zealot should fail, God help us all.
When Tiberius looked up Jaimus spoke, “The note was tucked inside the book.”
Eleven spoke up after he too read the note, “Even I do not know where to find the Feyliimn, if they yet remain in existence.”
“That’s just it isn’t it, the Feyliimn, according to my understanding, are little more than myth. Even if they do somehow exist or did exist as this note suggests, what happened to them,” asked Tiberius to no specific person.
Jaimus continued, “Yes, I thought the same until I remembered a correspondence which I recovered many years ago by happenstance. Its apparent date was near the time of Talisius which is why it stood out to me as something unusual aside from its contents which are equally noteworthy. Until today I have never spoken of it to anyone else. I believe the correspondence contains the location of whatever remains of the Feyliimn. It read: Your orders have been seen to completion. All of those expelled from the Empire will now be forgotten beyond the wall.”
Silence followed as Tiberius and Eleven sat in surprise and careful contemplation of the words which had just made their presence known. Jaimus also refused to break the silence, letting the full realization of the words which had just been spoken into existence only be disrupted by the crackling of the fire. Eleven was the first to speak, “Beyond the wall… You could only be speaking of one place.”
“The message spoke of it,” Jaimus quickly corrected.
“The unnamed island,” said Tiberius in nearly a whisper.
An unpleasant memory suddenly grew fresh in Tiberius’ mind, one of many he desired to simply be forgotten in time’s slow decay.
…. “No, father don’t!” he screamed with the voice of a child.
“All traitors to the Empire must die a traitor’s death,” replied Danicus, the Empire’s Minister of Justice, as he held the curved two handed ax above the peculiar pointy eared mans neck; the man who was now facing an abrupt and unavoidable execution.
“But why must he die?” asked the young Tiberius as tears streamed down his cheeks.
“The why is not important son; all that is important is that he must die.”
Tiberius looked around the private, darkly lit room which was on the fifth floor of Five Spires. He glanced at the oil lamps, and the tables upon which they sat. He observed the various torture devices which were strewn about the room in an organized fashion, realizing in addition that the soul crushing gloominess of this room was emphasized by the lack of windows which kept out any hopeful ray of natural light. In fact everything about the repulsive room stole the life from anyone who entered. Yes, Tiberius would look at anything else to avoid the horrid thing which was about to happen right here, right now.
As Danicus brought the ax up, suddenly he stopped, noticing his son’s attempt to avert his youthful eyes from the quickly approaching fateful deed.
“Come,” Danicus ordered sternly.
Tiberius began moving hesitantly toward his father. As he grew close Danicus took a hold of his hand and placed it on the weapon. As Danicus stood behind Tiberius, assisting his young son hoist the weapon up above his head, he said, “It is not enough to be strong of intellect or skilled with a blade; one must also be able to do the things which must be done. Now harden yourself and deal the blow.”
As the tears fogged up his vision Tiberius cried, “I can’t father.”
“Yes you can; do it,” said Danicus firmly.
Suddenly the gagged man with his neck resting on the execution block began to writhe and grunt dramatically in a futile but desperate attempt to break free.
As Tiberius grew older he understood that the man not only feared his death, but in addition to that fear was the knowledge that it would take a young boy many swings of the ax before he would finally be released from this world.
As Tiberius continued to hesitate, Danicus shouted, “Do it!”
Suddenly, Tiberius found his strength, and with all his might he brought the ax down as he screamed; he brought it down again, again, again….
“Tiberius,” said Jaimus.
“Sorry I was deep in thought,” replied Tiberius abruptly.
As Tiberius again turned his gaze to the fire which sought to lure him back into hypnosis, he continued, “I met a man, a prisoner many years ago as a child; he had pointy ears and other perplexing features. Well, against my fathers orders I would sneak into the dungeon occasionally, and during the man’s short stay we became friends; I brought him food and he told stories. Upon my inquiry he claimed his mother escaped the unnamed island and gave birth to him months later. He told me upon one of our last meetings that there is… a darkness there, a sickness beyond the wall.”
Minutes passed as Tiberius’ words hung in the air.
“Hmm… It remains troubling, but enticing,” said Jaimus.
Tiberius glanced over at Eleven who seemed just as consumed with his thoughts as he had been moments ago. But even Tiberius couldn’t render a guess as to which thoughts occupied the masked man’s mind.
“Indeed,” said Tiberius as he turned to face Jaimus.
Tiberius slowly walked up the long path which led to Five Spire’s entrance as he remained, still deep in thought. It had been a couple of hours since his meeting with Jaimus and after leaving the library Tiberius had sent Eleven to do his own personal investigation into Malcus’ unexpected arrival. Tiberius had a feeling that he just couldn’t shake. It’s that feeling one receives before calamity strikes, the calm before the storm. Because of this Tiberius knew one thing for certain; tonight sleep would elude him, hiding in the shadows of the night, just out of reach like many recent nights.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and the fading light was evidence that the sun had already begun to fall behind the dark stormy clouds.
The snow flurries were beginning to limit Tiberius’ vision like early morning fog and he clutched his coat tightly as he remained caught in winter’s grasp. Even though the harsh cold urged Tiberius to hurry, he instead took his time, walking tall in front of the soldiers as he went through gate after gate toward the top.
Tiberius commanded great respect despite his age as he handled himself appropriately according to his position; it was in the way he walked, in the way he talked, in the way he treated people and gave commands. There were plentiful rumors indicating that there were many people throughout the Empire which would pledge to him there support should Tiberius vie for the throne. Although even if the rumors were true he wasn’t sure if he even wanted the throne. In fact Tiberius spent much of his time being disgusted at the very thing he swore to protect. But, of course, he knew that it was no longer possible to run from those who wanted his death. The truth of the matter remained simple; stepping down from his position would mean his death in a fortnight. Either by a lord he slighted, a rebel fueled by the love of a murdered family member, or perhaps the great Emperor Maximilian himself; all he would ever earn from all his work would be nothing but an early grave it seemed. Ironicaly, all everyone else saw was the epitome of success, an untouchable man, a hero above all heroes; but all he saw was his rapidly approaching fate, unavoidable, unstoppable. Did he ever have a choice? Was he not born into this? He was in many ways just as much a slave as those in Southside, the only difference being, that he commanded legions, and that his death would greet him sooner. Perhaps Jaimus was right after all; every man is born a slave, every man pursues freedom, but only a precious few ever obtain it.
Tiberius, now standing at the entrance to Five Spires along with the large compliment of guards who stood formally alert to the praetor’s commanding presence, moved his hand to direct as he commanded, “Open the doors.”
“Right away sir,” responded the gate captain.
The captain then gave his commands, putting the soldiers to action. But as the gates parted for Tiberius, he suddenly saw a scene which he had never anticipated would ever be seen on the first floor of Five Spires.
“Halt!” shouted the captain who jumped into action.
Tiberius moved through the towering doorway in seemingly no hurry as the guards rushed passed him. Then he watched as the thief, or assassin, which was standing on the other side of the long hall, continued to throw a lone guard off of the terrace to his certain death before turning to face capture.
“Captain, order your men to stop!” shouted Tiberius.
The captain obeyed, giving his commands to the soldiers who had not already ceased at Tiberius’ initial command. Appearing surprised by the Praetor’s unexpected order, Tiberius then chose to grace the captain with an answer which he did not need to give, “She has nowhere to run, and to be honest, I am thoroughly intrigued. Keep your men back so that I may deal with her myself. The one who proves this castle not to be impregnable does indeed deserve special treatment after all.”
Tiberius closed the distance and as he reached the woman he asked, “What is your name?”
She did not respond, she just stood in her place, sword drawn, like a wild beast waiting to pounce. The woman appeared nordic, perhaps from Kiel, Gahnen, or even Haaren the southernmost Northern kingdom; he would not know until she spoke. She had beautiful but messy long golden hair, with blue eyes like his own. She had an angular face, that of which is common in Gahnen or Kiel. There was a scar above her upper lip on the left and another across the left side of her lower jaw; no doubt both were from other swordsmen who met their deaths at her hand, not unlike his own scars. She wore style from Gahnen trademarked by the large leather belt that spanned from just bellow the chest to the waist. Female fashion in Gahnen often didn’t include dresses like in most other countries, demonstrated further by this woman’s choice in pants and a slightly feminine long sleeved shirt. Finally she was shorter, capable but not strong, indicating that she must rely heavily on skill alone in battle, and her clear past success warned Tiberius not to underestimate her.
As Tiberius drew his uniquely forged, long but light weight, forward curved handled sword, he said, “It is polite to introduce yourself before entering a duel, even if only to know with what name to mark the grave… You may have heard of me, I am Praetor Tiberius.”
“I know who you are… I am Gretel.”
Ah, Gahnen. Tiberius could recognize that accent anywhere.
“Strong Gahnen name… Captain!”
“Yes sir,” responded the captain.
Tiberius continued, “If I die she goes free, anyone who breaks this word will suffer the wrath of Eleven as I promise you that even at this very moment my spies are among us.”
Was that true? Perhaps; Jaimus had many spies and it was entirely possible that one of these soldiers reported to him. Ultimately that didn’t mater though, what mattered was the fear, as the fear of his unique servant was more than enough to guarantee that his orders would be followed upon Tiberius’ untimely death.
Turning back to the woman he now knew as Gretel, Tiberius again spoke, “Now it is fair. You have two choices, you can surrender, in which case you will be taken to the dungeon to be tortured and then neglected, but you will live… for a while. Or you can take your chances in a duel with me. If I die you will walk free.”
“How can I trust that?”
“I cannot offer you a guarantee, just a chance; an opportunity to walk free or die on your feet. So which will it be?” responded Tiberius as he moved within striking distance lowering his sword down and to his right, using a seldom known technique created by the Faceless; a small but infamous brotherhood of assassins which Tiberius knew to be nearly extinct.
Then, not a moment after Tiberius finished, it began as Gretel struck, clearly hoping to catch Tiberius off guard. But Tiberius expected this and merely stepped out of the way without moving his sword. She followed, striking two more times, meeting nothing but air while Tiberius simply evaded her attacks.
Tiberius then taunted, “At least your effort is apparent.”
It was not her fault as Gretel was obviously, by the way she moved, a very skilled and experienced warrior. But most had never encountered the dueling technique he used, which gained its strength from taking away the others strength, it created a sense of awkwardness in the opponent’s mind which could then be taken advantage of. Therefore, the technique which Tiberius had spent years mastering had a tendency to make many a skilled opponent look amateurish in the heat of battle.
As Gretel struck again, Tiberius made a swift attack of his own sending his sword toward her throat. The woman evaded Tiberius’ cleverly placed maneuver with surprising grace. Ah… there’s the talent I anticipated. He then sent a follow up to the outside of her sword hand before escaping a smooth slice to his leg.
They retreated before engaging again and again, Tiberius in constant amazement at Gretel’s ability to adapt in combat. Her grace was unusual, and her talent, unquestionable. They collided over and over, evading and attacking like a deadly choreographed dance.
One minute, two minutes passed before Gretel, the weaker one of the two, began to tire. Her movements, once graceful, became sloppy and impatient. Her once powerful aggression gave way to her desire to live, and her attacks acted in accordance.
Gretel attacked toward Tiberius’ neck to no avail. He then returned, successfully slicing her left arm after taking advantage of Gretel’s mistake. Tiberius, seeing the fresh blood seep down from her arm, sent another slice which was quickly deflected. As Gretel held her arm close to her body, coddling the deep wound, she struck again, catching Tiberius off guard. Suddenly, as the special cloth which covered his hand was sliced off revealing his now brightly luminescent blue mark, Gretel instantly fell to her knees with a look of shock and surprise.
Everything stopped as the woman simply stared down at the floor, stunned by some new revelation which Tiberius was not privy to. The woman then continued to look back at his mark as if trying to make sense of something.
Tiberius knew that he should land the final blow, but he hesitated. He never hesitated, but right now, in this moment, he waited, for what he was not sure.
Then, in a soft voice, as Gretel looked up with a joyful smile, she spoke, “So the rumors are true. All this time I have been searching…” then as her smile faded before quickly turning to a look of confusion she continued, “…But it can’t be, you are Praetor Tiberius, not a prisoner…”
As Gretel’s words trailed off a tear rolled down her face as she finished, “… Little brother, what have they done to you.”
Tiberius remained still and unmoving, unsure of what to think or conclude. After all this was not how a duel to the death was supposed to go. But there was something she did or maybe it was the way she said it that moved him, that caused him to hold back, to give pause. Surely he didn’t simply believe her like a simple fool, but still, there was something…
“Captain, take her personally to my ship. Cover her face on the way and if asked don’t give away her name. Take some escorts with you, and once you arrive tell my men to lock her in the brig. Warn them to handle her with caution as she is extremely dangerous.”
The captain was hesitant so Tiberius continued, “I know you are not directly under my command, but ask yourself; can the emperor protect you from my wrath?”
At that the captain quickly went into action doing exactly as Tiberius had instructed. On occasion, Tiberius had found that an appropriate death threat was sometimes necessary to guarantee the faithfulness of those he ordered, and to set them to task; most especially and specifically this was true for those whose faithfulness he reasonably questioned.
In this circumstance Tiberius had given such orders because if what she claimed is true, however unlikely that was, then she would not be safe at Five Spires.
While Gretel was being taken away, Tiberius turned again to face the commander, “And Captain, do not report this.”
As everyone left and a few servants came out to clean up the mess, Tiberius walked toward the terrace. Then, as he arrived, Tiberius knelt, reaching down to pick up some snow, which had been left by the still raging storm, before using it to wipe Gretel’s blood off of his sword. He found a moment of peace as he did this task, the wind blown snow brushing up against his face. His following whispered words were then carried off by the furious wind, “Another soul I didn’t have to take; another soul that won’t burden me.”
It was a bitter cold, early morning, with the sunlight just now beginning to pierce through the weakening cloud cover which currently blanketed the sky following the recent unwelcome snowstorm. The blizzard which had passed on, now wreaking its havoc on men who dwelled further south, left layers of fresh snow which was currently being pushed aside into large piles by the many servants who sought, not of their own accord, to clear a clean path for the footfalls of their wealthy and important masters. Tiberius scanned his surroundings noting the exceptional busyness of all who worked on and traversed Northside’s currently bustling streets as he made his way from the gates of Five Spires to his ship.
The Andromeda now rested just a few feet away gently bobbing in the sea as if he had yet to awaken her from a deep slumber.
Tiberius’ personal ship was only slightly modified from the rest in his armada which he had commissioned to be built by certain boat builders from the Red Isles more than a few years prior. As he had grown displeased with the common Imperial design, a design which placed importance on heavy naval combat over transport and speed mainly by adding a large ram and reinforced wood to the hull, Tiberius had a brand new design commissioned which was modeled after the old Gahnen raiding vessels that had once been used by certain sects of Nordic pirates. Tiberius’ new armada was built with speed solely in mind by removing the ram and heavy hull reinforcements, thereby unequipping the ships for naval engagement, and instead, re-equipping them with smaller size and more versatile sails. He prided himself in his fleet’s ability to be in and out of combat faster than anyone else; also to be able to move positions or call on and receive reinforcements on a whim. And, while most of his ships had a small cargo hold, only the Andromeda was equipped with a small brig capable of holding up to three people in a cramped space.
Tiberius had fallen into a troubled sleep whilst back at Five Spires and had decided on leaving just before first light. So, after instructing a servant to inform his personal messenger of his whereabouts and the change of plans, Tiberius had begun the long walk to the port at which the Andromeda and her four escorts were docked. And, as Tiberius presently arrived, his soldiers who were about stood at attention immediately while the Andromeda’s captain made her way out to greet him.
After Tiberius signaled his men to resume their duties the captain spoke, “You sent us an interesting delivery last night Praetor.”
“An interesting delivery for an interesting night. We had a most unusual guest at the castle,” responded Tiberius.
“So I have seen,” said Kanii with an inquisitive look.
Kanii, once a successful pirate captain and worthy adversary, had outmaneuvered Tiberius more than once in battle. After a little time and successful persuasion on the part of Tiberius, which included her being forcefully removed of ship and crew with only a death sentence to look forward to after an unpleasant imprisonment, the dark skinned scoundrel decided it would be more profitable to accept Tiberius’ gracious offer. Tiberius was pleased, as he believed the pirate’s talents would prove themselves significantly beneficial over time.
Kanii seemed to enjoy their arrangement well enough, as she received much of the same responsibility she had grown familiar with before, without the constant pressure of having to score quick earnings or risk mutiny. Additionally, she now made twice as much money while uniquely answering only to Tiberius.
The dark skinned Ti’esh’iit people, whom Kanii called her own, live far to the south. Being either from North Ti’esh or South Ti’esh, the Ti’esh’iit are famed for their longstanding hatred of the Empire, but luckily, Kanii, in many circumstances, placed wealth above ethics. And oddly, Tiberius sometimes preferred a scoundrel like Kanii over well-meaning men, as he never had to question an honest scoundrel’s motives, and likewise their actions are often fairly easy to predict. It was the actions of those who were well meaning and loyal to the empire that caused Tiberius complications. Because of this and other reasons, he preferred recruiting those that were loyal to him first, not the empire.
Kanii stepped forward and continued as she rubbed the ship’s port side, “I heard about the fight; too bad she lost.”
Tiberius responded with a smirk, “But then, who would pay you?”
“It’s not about the money, it’s about personal principle; I want your ship.”
The praetor, being slightly humored by this comment, gave reply, “It is about money, otherwise you would have taken the Andromeda years ago. Besides I wasn’t even the least bit aware that you possessed principles?”
“What are you talking about, my life is run by many good principles, the greatest of which is that if I see something I want, then I take it; it’s simple and straight to the point. The complication of your life, and the lives of other land lovers, baffles me. Unfortunately that is true though, I do at this time want your money more than your ship, a fact I regret. But I give you my word as an honest pirate that I will inform you as soon as that changes, “ Kanii finished with a half bow.
“I would expect nothing less,” Tiberius paused before continuing, “Did the woman give you any trouble?”
“No, she hasn’t said a word or made any attempt at aggression since she was delivered late last night,” responded Kanii as she glanced toward the floor entrance to the cargo hold.
“Good, bind her hands and have her brought to me at the end of the dock,” commanded Tiberius as he turned. Then, putting the sun directly behind him, he began walking straight out toward the open ocean on the solidly constructed wooden platform.
A few minutes passed as Tiberius gazed out over the sea, watching the many ships go in and out of the harbor, listening to the sound of the gentle tide brushing up against the long dock’s strong pillars. He once again pondered the previous day’s surprising events, not completely allowing his mind to become lost to the sea’s welcoming charm. His thoughts were then suddenly interrupted by the completion of his own command.
Not turning, Tiberius spoke to the soldier who had brought Gretel to him as instructed, “Leave us.”
After giving the order, Tiberius heard the soldier’s heavy footsteps move away, toward the other side of the dock. There was a moment of silence before Tiberius began, “I love the smell of the sea, but I always feel that the scent or site of the great body of water’s presence is never fully realized until you are close enough to hear its song, to see its dance, to feel its calm presence, or to be fearful of its indiscriminate rage.”
Tiberius could barely hear Gretel’s soft footsteps as she moved forward. Standing directly to his right, following Tiberius’ gaze, she replied, “What is to become of me?”
Tiberius glanced at the woman before looking back out over the sea, “I do not yet have that answer. All I know is simply that you are not a liar. If you were a liar as many would claim, then you would not have gone to such great lengths, and I can think of no political reason for a lord to hire a woman like you for such a foolhardy deception. So, as it stands you are either crazy, mistaken, or your claim, as inconceivable as it may be, is the truth; and at this juncture I do not see crazy. But, then again, perhaps I am missing something.”
Some time passed before Gretel responded, “If only you knew how many times you have raided the same village to which you were born as you sought to crush the very Gahnen rebellion which your father believed in and unjustly died for over twenty five years ago. How many of our father’s friends, and their wives, and their children are you responsible for murdering little brother. I was old enough to vaguely remember some of their faces, faces which now lie buried below the ground, with only their tombstones to give evidence of their tortured existence.”
“The rebels did what they believed was right and I did my duty,” responded Tiberius coldly.
Gretel let out a short sarcastic laugh as she replied, “What they believed was right? Tell me noble Praetor, what do you believe is right? Have you ever even been to places like Southside where millions live in poverty like rats, fighting brutally for little scraps. They have no freedom, no hope, no safety, and no protection from the lords who keep them there.”
There was a moment of silence before Gretel continued , “It’s true, you haven’t been there have you? How shameful. Well there is ultimately nothing I can do to prove my claim, but you have already anticipated that, so I will ask one thing of you; go to Southside, see how they live, see the true mark of the man you serve, then make your decision.”
Tiberius remained silent as he pondered the truth behind many of her words. It was true, he had never been to Southside, and even if he had been to places like it, it would have been due to war by the emperor’s command, not of his own accord, and not under a flag of peace. The golden haired Gahnen rebel struck a cord. Was he such a monster as she claimed? Perhaps; his failure to give an immediate no to that answer troubled him greatly. Was he growing weak to be moved by such an accusation so quickly, or was his hesitancy to answer his own minds quandary with a simple no, justified, giving the woman’s harsh words credence.
Tiberius proceeded by changing the subject, “Your claim was obviously realized by the sight of my mark. What do you know of it?”
“Nothing, except that I remember it from when you were a young child; before our parents were murdered, before you were taken,” Gretel finished with a voice resounding the sorrow which she clearly sought to hide.
Gretel after a quick moment continued, “Your mark is unique, and unmistakable.”
As Gretel’s words trailed off, Tiberius tried again and again to remember something before his life at Five Spires, anything that might corroborate her story. But try as he might, his efforts proved just as futile as they had before.
Tiberius, deciding it was time to bring this to a close, turned saying, “You put me in a difficult position; I do not wish to deliver you to the Ministry of Justice for I know first hand what awaits you there. But I also can not risk believing you based solely on your word alone. I will think on it and give you my judgment in two days time.”
“So it shall be,” responded Gretel coldly.
As Tiberius escorted his prisoner back to the Andromeda he considered what she had claimed about Southside. Was it truly as bad as she claimed? To Tiberius that was not inconceivable, however he was appalled by the prospect that he had never been there; in this Gretel was right, that was shameful. The fact that he had no reason to go was true, but that, in his eyes, was a very poor excuse, as a commander should always bear witness to the results of their actions. Tiberius, if he was honest, like it or not, did bear at least a small piece of responsibility for Southside and the many places which were like it, as Tiberius was directly or indirectly responsible for taking many a man’s family, home, livelihood, and freedom, throughout the empire.
Perhaps I will go.
Upon reaching the Andromeda, Tiberius handed the potentially doomed rebel to one of the guards, giving him instructions to resume the woman’s imprisonment. Then Tiberius turned before moving toward the captain who was, at this moment, kneeling down on the dock near the bow, rummaging through various chart maps.
When Tiberius arrived, Kanii spoke as he leaned back against the thick wooden rail on the starboard side, “How long do I have to keep her down there?”
“I will reach a decision in a couple of days,” said Tiberius as he began to stroke his currently well trimmed beard.
“Good, she’s taking up storage space.”
“Why would you concern yourself with storage space, or the lack thereof? You planning on going somewhere Kanii?”
“I assumed you wouldn’t want to stay here long, and you know how I feel about this damn city. So, that being said, I want the ship ready to leave in a moments notice.”
“Good; your assumption is correct, I don’t intend to stay here long.”
Kanii stopped whatever occupied her and looked up with an inquisitive expression, “What are you thinking about Tiberius, I know that look.”
Tiberius stopped stroking his beard, and after folding his arms he replied, “Take me to Southside, I have certain business there today.”
With a surprised and puzzled expression, Kanii asked, “Southside? What business could you possibly have in Southside? You do realize how dangerous it would be for someone like you to wander its streets? I’ve been there, and have seen enough to know that it’s not a place you want to be… You’re serious?”
“Yes very serious,” responded Tiberius.
“Very well, I’ll fetch some of the soldiers and have the Andromeda ready to depart for the other side of Kingsgate shortly.”
Tiberius nodded his approval after a brief yawn, before turning to move toward the aft.
Tiberius took two steps before Kanii again spoke, “And Praetor, get some sleep; you look tired.”
“Praetor… Praetor wake up, we’ve arrived,” said Kanii as she stood over Tiberius who was quickly becoming fully alert.
After setting sail, Tiberius had settled in, hoping to catch the sleep which had evaded him in the early morning. He was pleased to learn upon waking that he had found success in that simple venture. However his pleasant mood soured immediately upon hearing Kanii’s following words.
As Tiberius reached his feet the Andromeda’s captain followed, “Shortly after you fell asleep our ship was tailed by the Imperial ship of Legatus Malcus. I attempted to lose him, but we, unlike them, are laden with cargo, and the mild winds wouldn’t have it. He is unfortunately drifting up to the dock as we speak, you have my apologies.”
Tiberius turned to face aft and saw the larger ship snug up to the long dock behind the Andromeda. Instant anger and irritation began to bubble to the surface as the unexpected arrival of his rival caused deep seated emotion to be resurrected from the depths of his subconscious.
As Tiberius immediately pushed down his powerful emotions in a fairly successful attempt to regain his regal composure and controlled persona, he replied, “What could he possibly desire to obtain from a meeting with me, and an informal one at that?”
“Your guess is as good as mine; are you going to want an escort,” Kanii asked as Tiberius walked toward the starboard side and exited the ship, quickly moving across the small boat ramp before setting foot onto the long boat dock which was much the same as the last.
“A complement of six should be sufficient,” commanded Tiberius as he began walking quickly toward the larger ship. A hastily chosen six man escort speedily caught up as Tiberius neared the large ship’s wooden exit ramp. The tall, slender, middle aged man, known famously as Malcus the Scarred, then emerged, sauntering patiently down the ramp to join Tiberius with his own five-man escort in tow.
“Greetings Tiberius, I presume to anticipate your befuddlement as to the purpose of our present meeting, so up front I will at this time dispense with common pleasantries and unveil the reason for my curious appearance. Whilst I was in court I overheard the emperor issue a summons for you so I took it upon myself to volunteer… Pardon me Lord Tiberius but would it be too presumptuous to request your enjoyable company on a brisk walk?”
Tiberius moved his arm out leading the way, motioning his agreement to Malcus’ fraudulently humble request. As they began walking, Malcus continued, “Anyway, I could have delivered the summons by messenger, but alas, I feel as though the last time we met was not on the best of terms. I wish to change that by offering my presence off of the battlefield, away from our war, in a method more desirable to those who desire… peace.”
“Peace is our purpose, is it not my esteemed colleague?” Said Tiberius as they entered the city.
“Perhaps, but even you must admit that the only way to achieve true peace is through war. That is, the peace which is achieved when one side destroys the other. The concept is highly despised by civilized men these days, but the irony is that the use of this concept is what gave birth and continues to preserve their current position, wealth, and status. Do you disagree?”
Tiberius did not dare to answer foolishly by bluntly answering no as he knew much about what the legatus now said was true, so he instead took his time, making Malcus wait for his answer.
Tiberius took the moment to scan his surroundings, looking for the truth behind Gretel’s words which she had spoken earlier. He found that truth instantly, as the sadness which came from that which he saw turned his stomach sour.
There was a child in front of him and to his right which looked up at him as he walked by. Hunger was made obvious by the bones which jutted out from inside her skin. She tried to stand up straight in the snow, clearly seeking to get his attention. There was an eagerness, hidden by the hopelessness which consumed the small child’s face. However, weakness, caused by starvation, then resigned her to lean back against the wall of a rundown shack which had propped her up before her partly futile attempt at discovery.
Tiberius wished to give her money, to silence the little girl’s hunger pangs, even if only to ease the child’s suffering for a day. But, as he looked around, noticing the other starving men, women, and children, some in even worse condition than the helpless girl; he realized that to hand her scraps was to resign the poor child to certain death, as the others would certainly kill for any one of the gold pieces which were currently in his coin purse.
Tiberius felt the disparity which consumed this place, it was on everyone’s face, it was in the way they walked, it was in how they treated each other; it was like a disease which spread to anyone who entered. Tiberius’ attention now turned to a shop standing in the distance. It was easy to tell apart from the rest of the dilapidated shacks which were stacked one on top of the other, called home by many poverty stricken families, widows, and groups of orphaned children. He wondered how the shop owner protected his humble establishment from being raided by the many starving citizens, as he saw no other policing force around which would keep a hungry mob at bay. Tiberius concluded that the man must have an agreement with one of the powerful gangs which he’d heard had formed to control the populace of Southside; an arrangement which the government appreciated as it allowed them to divert their policing forces elsewhere.
Many watched from the street or in their houses as Tiberius and Malcus passed by; anger and hopelessness were often worn as a mixed expression showing clearly upon their faces.
As two of his soldiers nudged some peasants aside, Tiberius gave his answer as they made way toward the small shop, “Far be it for me to disagree with such reason, for there is substantial truth behind such simple logic. However I would enlighten you to the fact that we are still at war, and therefore far from peace.”
“I do not recall myself suggesting that peace need not be maintained. In fact, to the contrary, the maintenance of peace is our purpose, in that we agree. It is the method, in which we potentially disagree,” responded Malcus.
“Is that so? Why then, if you agree with my earlier supposition, are you responsible for creating so much conflict? I wonder to myself if the war which I have been so recently relieved of was truly necessary in the first place. I wonder if perhaps the extremity of your methods creates opposition which should never exist, and therefore subsequently makes peace harder to find. You did have command first; perhaps were peace your true motivation you would have been more successful in its conjuring.”
After Tiberius’ mild mannered rebuke trailed off, they found themselves standing near the entrance to the small general store. As Tiberius opened the door and made movement to enter the humble establishment, Malcus replied, “If you will excuse me Tiberius, I believe I shall wait here.”
“As you wish,” said Tiberius as he closed the door behind himself.
The small store on the inside, unlike what it appeared to be from the outside, was neat and orderly, having various supplies and foodstuffs decorating the shelves. There were holes in the walls, and places where the roof didn’t seem as though it could hold true through anymore winters; but aside from these things Tiberius could see the visible signs of the effort which the shop owner clearly put into keeping up a pleasant atmosphere. Light was let into the shop from two small shuttered glassless windows at the front, but much of the light seeped in through the wall’s many cracks.
The shop owner came out from a back room as Tiberius arrived at the front counter. The short gangly man was no doubt surprised by his arrival, as the owner was likely not accustomed to serving many customers due to the shops location and status.
The man paused for a moment, then as a quick look of recognition passed across his face he bowed low uttering a greeting, “How have the gods granted me such favor that I am to welcome you, the great Lord Tiberius, to my meager shop?”
As Tiberius motioned the man to rise he answered, “I have never come to Southside and my decision to wander through it’s streets today was made with haste, so I lack a proper guide. I am truly just passing through and have seen all that I came to see, however would you mind telling me whether or not any charity is offered to these starving people?”
After Tiberius spoke, a small woman peeked around the corner. Tiberius nodded in her direction. Then as she too recognized Tiberius, the woman immediately came out and bowed before the famous legatus saying, “It is an honor, me Lord.”
As the humble woman rose, the man Tiberius had been speaking with, threw his arm gently around the woman and introduced her with a smile, “Lord Tiberius meet my wife Arianna, she and I have been happily married for over a year now.”
Tiberius nodded, replying politely, “The honor is mine.”
Tiberius quickly noticed the mark upon Arianna’s right wrist. The branding mark was that of sickle and spear, a house which he was familiar with by name alone.
House Valdiss had a reputation for cruelty to its slaves, a fact which explained the woman’s crooked nose, two long scars which traveled the length of her neck in a vertical fashion, and her limp which was made apparent every time she walked. Tiberius knew full well that the fact that this poor woman smiled at all was merely a testament to her husband’s kindness.
After the man finished with his brief introduction, he sent his wife to fetch something from their home, and as Arianna removed herself from their presence making a timely exit, the shop owner continued, “Forgive the interruption my Lord; in answer to your question, yes. In fact I take part in the offerings about once a month. The various foodstuffs are delivered to my shop, then the soldiers who deliver them stay to assist me in parting out the food and supplies to any in need; which in Southside, is everyone. If you are asking me if it’s enough, well, all you have to do is look around.”
Tiberius took a second before replying, “Indeed, and assuming you know the answer, who finances this charity operation?”
“Why, the Ministry of Finance of course,” the man paused before continuing, “My Lord if I may, last month there weren’t….”
Suddenly one of Tiberius’ soldiers burst through the door following the sound of a woman’s shrill screams. The soldier spoke quickly as Tiberius, knowing instantly that something was very wrong, made quick movement toward the door, followed closely behind by the shop owner, “Praetor, it’s Malcus, he’s threatening to rape the peasant woman who was just with you, shall we do something?”
As he rushed out of the general store, Tiberius was met with the unpleasant site of Legatus Malcus, and froze as Malcus stood outside of what he could only assume was the lowly couple’s home, holding his drawn sword up to Arianna’s throat as he stood behind clenching her hair.
“No, please, no my Lord, don’t hurt her, please let her go, I’ll do anything, anything,” begged the woman’s husband after he too exited the shop, coming to full realization of the current situation.
Malcus responded with a sinister smile, “That is up to her, should she make it easy for me I assure you the woman will come to no harm; at least, not physically. However, if the girl is difficult I make no promises.”
Tiberius grew furious, “Let her go Malcus, if you wish to finish what I started at the battle of Ruins then put your sword to action against mine. Come, take your revenge, if you can, but leave the woman out of it.”
As Tiberius slowly drew his sword, Malcus replied with a laugh, “This is not about my eye, I will have my revenge for its untimely removal in the battle of Ruins at a later time. Besides, Malcus the Scarred has a ring to it that I must admit certain partiality to.”
At that Tiberius made forward movement before again stopping as both his and his rival’s escorts squared off, surrounding the two powerful commanders, each side readying themselves to fight and die for their legatus’ personal war.
Any bystanders who had previously occupied the street were now hidden inside the many, storied, poverty-stricken shelters which surrounded the two opposing sides.
Malcus continued, his smile growing wider, “Need I remind you of the laws Tiberius? Someone with our important status, as a lord, as a citizen of Northside, for the most part, may do whatever he wishes with the likes of these peasants; and seeing as how I am not under your command, us being equals for all practical purposes, you must yield or face execution as a traitor, for I have already claimed this one.”
Tiberius’ rage quickly became despair as he knew Malcus’ claim to be true. There was nothing he could do. Tiberius could attack, risking the lives of the woman, his men, and himself, only to earn the execution block for all of them should any succeed or survive; or he could order his men to stand down, saving the lives of everyone. The man inside of himself wished to wage this small war, but the leader of men would not allow him.
Just like the strange man he had executed all those years ago as a child, Tiberius grew cold, making the only true decision he had available. So making not the decision he wanted to make but the decision he had to make, Tiberius sheathed is sword, giving orders to his men before turning his attention back toward the vile man who delighted in his own wickedness, “Stand down, stand down! …Do what you wish Malcus, but I warn you, remembrance of this action will return to draw blood.”
“Of course Tiberius, I will await the attempted completion of your threat with definitive expectation,” said Malcus in reply as Arianna, restrained by her long hair which was currently held cruelly in Malcus’ rough grasp, quietly wept in sorrowful acceptance of her fate.
As Malcus continued, one of his escorts opened the door to the couple’s poverty-stricken home, a home which looked much the same as the many other poor dwellings that occupied the street, “How am I the villain and you the hero? What makes you more necessary than me? I know you well Tiberius; as soon as I drag this woman into that disgusting shack, you will empty your coin purse of coinage, offering it to ease the grieving husband’s suffering. This is the way of things, noble Praetor. How long will it be before you come to realization that you and I serve two sides of the same purpose? I take and you return a lesser portion; I begin conflict, and you end it. We are both necessary to the preservation of the great Tiburon Empire. But perhaps you are no longer fit to perform your role as my unwilling accomplice.”
“I am no accomplice to this,” Tiberius quickly replied in disgust.
“Really Tiberius, then where is your sword? It is not raised to bring truthfulness to your claim. If you think yourself more necessary than I, then why do the laws of the land protect my actions while defending me from your intentions.”
After Legatus Malcus finished speaking, he moved the shop owner’s weeping wife into their home and shut the door closed behind him. As two guards took position outside the entrance to prevent entry, the shop owner, on his knees, came before Tiberius. Tears began to cloud the frantic man’s eyes as he pleaded, “Please do something, you can’t do nothing, please my Lord, help me, help me; I love her, so much.”
The man then began to act according to his anguish, losing all hope. And upon reaching forward toward him, in a last ditch effort to beg desperately for help, the man was pushed away by Tiberius before the great leader of men could do nothing but reach for his coin purse. And in this moment, just as the vile man had predicted, Tiberius tossed the shop owner all he had, before, grimacing at the poor man’s desperate pleas for help, he turned and began walking back toward the Andromeda.
As Tiberius made way back toward the ship, trudging through the slowly melting snow with his soldiers following closely behind, he heard cries of justifiable anger coming from the man whom Tiberius had wronged, “Damn you Tiberius; may the gods curse you to an early grave!”
I fear they already have friend.
Tiberius didn’t turn at the man’s hate filled response, no, he just kept moving forward until the shameful deed which he had done no longer echoed through the voices of those he had harmed.
Upon reaching the Andromeda, Kanii, who had been addressing a soldier on the dock, turned to face Tiberius saying, “Well, you came back in one piece… wait, where is Legatus Malcus?”
Tiberius simply responded, “Let’s go, I’m done here.”
“I present Lord Galdrig of Keil my Lord Emperor,” said Zephir as he bowed low before Emperor Maximillian.
Lord Galdrig followed closely behind Zephir as the guard presented him formally before Maximillian.
“You may return to your post,” replied the emperor as he motioned his orders to the guard.
Zephir, as ordered, rose and turned. Walking to the other end of the throne room he then took his position as one of the two guards who stood on the inside of the large door, which he would open upon Lord Galdrig’s exit.
The emperor began as he asked, “How goes the rebellion?”
“Well my Lord, I have supplied them with food and weapons just as we had discussed upon our last meeting. Also I have fully convinced the rebels that I am a full believer in their noble cause, and a traitor to your Lordship.”
Maximillian laughed loudly, clapping his hands together before replying, “Wonderful, and I take it by your lack of complaint that you have received payment?”
“Indeed I have my Lord.”
“Good, I am so enthralled by your success that I will give you double what we originally agreed to.”
“Thank you my Lord; it is good to know that you are so pleased,” responded Lord Galdrig in veiled excitement.
“Indeed, I am not ready for their rebellion to end just yet. We must raise them up, then destroy them, raise them and destroy them; again and again they must be within the reach of hope before we snatch it away. Eventually after reaching the true depths of hopelessness and despair they will find obedience more pleasurable than rebellion, slavery more fulfilling than freedom. This is how you help to serve the Empire Lord Galdrig, this is the art of slavery.”
“Of course, and I will continue to serve your glorious Empire in whatever way you deem fit.”
“Good you may go now, I will call upon you in two years time.”
“Yes my Lord, we shall make slaves out of the Gahnen yet,” said Lord Galdrig as he stood to leave.
Listening in intently on the conversation from the opposite side of the room, Zephir identified the pieces of information which he felt must be delivered to Jaimus immediately upon first opportunity. This was potentially the most worthwhile gathering of information he’d gotten since Jaimus had worked his magic to get him into this post over a month ago.
Zephir considered it very possible that he was one of the most important infiltrations under Jaimus and ultimately Tiberius’ command, even though Tiberius of course had no knowledge of it by his own choosing. He’d served under Jaimus long enough to know that Tiberius wanted the information, not the details as to how it was obtained, a fact that Jaimus greatly appreciated. Unfortunately this post, as pivotal and dangerous as it was, often found itself exceedingly boring, as, even though the room’s odd harmonics allowed him to listen in on most of the barely audible conversations which took place on the other side, they, strangely enough, were often of surprisingly low importance. Today fortunately was different.
Zephir had to admit that Tiberius’ early-morning meeting with the emperor was quite entertaining.
Zephir, like many, found himself quite fond of the praetor, and considered him perhaps one of the only truly noble lords worthy of his title. Although, he did feel odd about watching the great leader converse with the emperor when he considered the fact that Tiberius, the man he technically served, not only had no knowledge of his existence, but also considered the guard he did not know as Zephir, to be a servant of the emperor upon passing glance.
The emperor’s court was lit by lantern light as the sun had fallen beyond the horizon not long ago. The day grew long and Zephir awaited the end of today’s exceptionally long shift with great anticipation. Then as he opened the door for Lord Galdrig’s exit, Zephir saw what would be the last visitor of the day approaching, and he recognizing the man immediately as Legatus Malcus the Scarred.
As Malcus arrived, he merely walked right through the entrance, not even bothering to glance at Lord Galdrig as he left, and continued to demonstrate his importance by moving on toward the emperor without even waiting for Zephir to close the door and herald the legatus’ arrival. Zephir decided it would therefore be best just to remain at his post as he watched Malcus, who was already kneeling before the emperor. He knew then, as he began to eavesdrop, that this was no doubt going to be, as far as information gathering is concerned, the highlight of the evening.
Legatus Malcus began without pause, “My Lord Emperor, I must admit your summons intrigued me as I failed to decipher its purpose. Would you perhaps see fit to unburden me of the reason behind such a puzzling action, as I was not under the impression that my recent presence here was insufficient or incomplete?”
“Perhaps you presumed too much upon completion of your last visit.”
“Perhaps, but even I am familiar with the changing of the tide, or rather the actions which a man makes as unexpected developments cause a man to change course.”
“Be careful, for your clever words do not fall on unlearned ears,” replied the emperor.
“Forgive me my Lord, I merely spoke to suggest that perhaps an opportunity which had not fallen into view previously has now kindly revealed itself before your Majesty.”
“In this you ponder correctly.”
Malcus then continued to ask, “Will my Lord then grace me with knowledge, as I presume you have called me here for no other purpose than to execute your glorious will.”
The emperor responded in reply, “Indeed I have, tell me, what are your feelings regarding Tiberius?”
“Is the eye which has been made absent from the other not reply enough my Lord,” seethed Malcus in a controlled manner.
“Good, it pleases me that your feelings on the subject have not yet changed. Tell me Malcus are there not many thieves, kidnappers, and even murderers in Kingsgate?”
With a smile Malcus replied, “Of course my Lord there are many victims in Kingsgate, it is… quite regrettable.”
“Indeed, one would presume the possibility, unthinkable though it may be, that even an esteemed Lord such as say… Tiberius could potentially fall victim to such a heinous crime as kidnapping, or even murder on one of Kingsgate’s many potentially treacherous streets.”
As Malcus’ smile widened he spoke, “Of course my Lord, one would presume that it would be possible, yes; but what terrible punishment would be in store for someone who performed such a terrible and inconceivable deed?”
“Well I suppose, were it to actually happen, the punishment would be truly severe, but how can you enforce such a penalty when the identity of the aggressor remains a mystery. I have heard that the majority of such crimes remain unsolved amongst the peasants, and I would think that such a crime committed against a Lord would be perpetrated by an individual much craftier than those who prey on peasant’s, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I believe your assertion to be correct as usual. The demise of someone so esteemed as Tiberius in such a manner would be truly, unfortunate… Is there another matter you wish to discuss my Lord or may I have your leave?”
“You may leave, but before you go you may be interested to hear that I have commissioned a new legion. It is quite unique and I wanted you to be the first to battle test it,” finished the emperor.
“With pleasure,” said Malcus giving a nod of acknowledgment. Legatus Malcus then rose and began making movement toward the exit which stood at the other end of Maximillian’s now nearly empty court. As Malcus reached the two large doors, one of which Zephir had just opened, he looked at Zephir and chuckled before officially making a prompt exit. This odd action simply added to Zephir’s already overwhelming anxiety.
Does he know? No, that’s impossible, not even Tiberius knows.
I need to reach Jaimus immediately.
Hours had passed since Zephir had been relieved from his post. As a spy he had learned that there were times when one uncovered such pivotal and time sensitive information that it became prudent or even absolutely necessary to drop your cover and make a tactical retreat. This was one of those times; Zephir needed to deliver his intelligence directly to Jaimus and he didn’t have time to go through the normal channels. This was an emergency which required all swiftness and tact, so as soon as he had been dismissed from duty, instead of going to the guard quarters, Zephir made way down to the fortress at the bottom of Castle Mountain. His actions would no doubt bring unwanted attention, but Zephir no longer cared as Tiberius’ very life depended on his current mission’s success. Zephir’s plan was simple, deliver the information to Jaimus then disappear, and as he hurried quickly across Northside’s currently quiet, snow-covered streets, he quickened his already speedy pace.
Zephir was finally nearing the library, now only a few blocks away, when he heard the distinctive crunch of a snow trudging footstep somewhere behind him. Zephir suddenly stopped, and as he turned to look behind he saw nothing but his own moon illuminated footsteps leading down toward the large, finely carved statue of the great First Emperor, Tiburon, which he had just walked beside only a moment ago. Zephir spoke with a loud voice in hopes that a simple bystander would respond, indirectly giving him assurance that he wasn’t leading someone back to the library, back to Jaimus; or that an assassin wasn’t awaiting in the shadows for the perfect moment to strike, “Hello, is anyone there?”
No one responded to Zephir’s inquest, so he turned, seeking to again make forward movement, pondering whether or not he should set a new course in hopes of losing any spy who was potentially stalking him. But as he turned, making a forward step, Zephir was immediately struck. Then again he was struck, and as he slowly fell onto his knees, Zephir looked down to see two long arrows sticking out of his chest. As he was struck a third and final time by an unseen archer who fired from an unknown forward location, cloaked in the darkness of the half moonlit night, he was caught by a stranger as he began the fall backward, choking to death as the arrows which punctured Zephir’s lungs denied him of the breath needed to sustain life.
After a few moments passed, one of Zephir’s last conscious thoughts was pertaining to the sudden realization that the man who now held him was not his killer, but the man whom he had heard before, following him in the shadows. As his last act of loyalty to the honorable commander he served, the man who did not and likely never would know of his existence, loyalty, or courage, Zephir managed three last words before his eyes at last faded to lifelessness, “Must stop Malcus.”
The guardsman, his position and post made clear by certain pieces of decorative armor which he wore, after speaking three peculiar final words, continued to breathe his last. Then as his body grew limp, Eleven laid the unknown victim on the snow, moving two fingers up to close the guardsman’s now lifeless eyes forever. Eleven did not know if the man had died a good death for he knew very little about his mission, or in what manner the guardsman had wished to pass from this world. It was no doubt a poor death, for what he did know suggested that the man’s seemingly important mission remained incomplete, and as he had been with many a man in their final moments, Eleven had observed that the cold of winter often made death more difficult to embrace.
As Eleven again looked around to find some sign of the killer’s continued presence his thoughts turned to the victim’s last words. Then, after standing up, Eleven returned to the shadows, pondering his next course of action. He faced the fact that while his instincts to follow the strange guard who had wandered so unusually far from his station in the middle of the night were correct, he had at least expected the man to arrive at his destination. So as the assassin was no doubt long gone by now, Eleven decided promptly that currently the only reasonable course of action would be to to continue to stake out the large fortress below Five Spires in patient anticipation of Legatus Malcus’ emergence.
Upon making quick movement in the same direction from which he had come, Eleven considered the current apparent similarity between his and the recently deceased guardsman’s mission. Something more than undesirable was happening, and Eleven was determined to uncover whatever hidden reasons lay behind the utterance of the fallen man’s last words.
Many hours had passed since Eleven had returned to his room.
The room which Eleven presently occupied was located on the backside of a high-class inn which sat on the very edge of the city. Eleven had requested this specific room as it’s large main window happened to face the entrance to Castle Fortress. He had positioned a chair directly in front of the window allowing him to watch intently, awaiting any sign of Malcus, hoping that he had not already missed the man’s departure during the period which he had been absent while tracking the suspicious guardsman.
Eleven throughout the night had dismissed tiredness and boredom as if they were soldiers under his command, as if they were slaves which obeyed his orders for fear of his wrath. Now, as he looked out through the glass window, Eleven was beginning to see evidence of first light. Then as he continued to watch, Eleven saw movement as the gates parted and a single man stepped out. It was too far away for him to tell exactly who it was, so Eleven decided to capitalize on the possibility that it might very well be Legatus Malcus.
Upon quickly exiting his room, Eleven walked down the finely decorated hall which led to a descending spiral staircase. Then, after descending the staircase, he continued to make way through the large lobby before exiting the inn.
As Eleven ran down the now busy streets he moved speedily to the main street which was commonly used to enter the city after exiting Castle Fortress.
Castle Street, as it was called, continued in a straight line taking one theoretically from Castle Fortress to the southernmost tip of Southside, and Eleven only needed to travel but a block before nearing the entrance to the wide street.
Eleven made himself invisible in the crowd of people who recently emerged to begin the work of the new day, however unfortunately as he neared, Eleven saw Tiberius instead of Malcus wandering down Castle Street, oblivious to his presence. Then suddenly as Eleven scanned the crowd he noticed a tail tracking Tiberius’ movements. The spy moved stealthily through the crowd stalking Tiberius, keeping just out of sight. Eleven then glanced back toward Castle Fortress to again in the distance see another man exit. Ah, that will be Malcus I presume.
Eleven was faced with two choices; either divert to spy on the spy, or wait as the man in the distance neared, the man Eleven assumed was likely Malcus the Scarred. He quickly decided to follow the man who was tailing Tiberius, trusting his instincts for the second time since Tiberius had dispatched him to find out what Malcus was up to.
Weaving in and out of the crowds which occupied the surprisingly busy streets of Northside, Eleven followed the man who was stalking Praetor Tiberius for some time before they reached the boat docks. As Tiberius continued forward, moving towards the Andromeda, the man whom Eleven had been following suddenly diverted South, heading away from the praetor. Eleven went on in stealthy pursuit of the spy for awhile before stopping as he came in view of Malcus’ flagship. Looking out over the docks, Eleven, unwilling to leave the cover which the buildings provided, slunk back against a wall making continued effort to remain out of sight. Peaking around his cover, Eleven witnessed the man, whom he now identified as Malcus’ servant, conversing with the legatus. As the two men finished their business together, Eleven continued to watch as Malcus fetched what appeared to be one of his many messengers. Then, after a few moments, the man Eleven deduced to be Malcus’ messenger, departed, making quick movement toward the Northeast, leaving the docks and entering the city. Feeling the need to discover the identity of the messages recipient Eleven left his cover, moving quickly to catch up. Matching the messenger’s pace, Eleven continued to move unnoticed through the city’s bustling streets, following unseen behind a man who was unintentionally leading him to a location which he was soon to discover.
Some time had passed as Eleven was led east to Castle Street; then, after traveling north for a little way, the Messenger took Cobbles Corner which brought them further east to the estate of none other than Salinius of house Brasitus.
Tiberius had crossed paths with house Brasitus on more than one occasion in his relatively short career. And regardless of the disdain Tiberius had towards this particular family, he had earned far more so from them. However none bearing the Brasitus name hated Tiberius more than the man who owned this vast and significant estate which now stood before Eleven.
Although Eleven could not see the manner from where he stood, as a twelve foot tall brick wall surrounded the entire estate, he knew it to be three stories tall and hundreds of feet long, built from the crow’s perspective in the shape of the Brasitus family crest; an hourglass with a small circle at its center. He knew the large estate’s grounds to contain many trimmed bushes, and hundreds of trees, some very exotic, as much of the greenery found throughout the grounds had been taken from the farthest and most beautiful parts of the world. There were many concrete walking paths and even a stream which wound its way through the estate flowing south.
It had been a few years, but Eleven had once walked through the large wooden gates which towered above the brick wall while accompanying Tiberius on business. He remembered the distaste Tiberius felt toward Salinius, and the tense circumstances which surrounded their meeting.
What are you up to now Salinius Brasitus?
It had been more than a few minutes since the messenger was granted access to the grounds by the two guards which stood outside the gates. Eleven did not believe it to simply be a coincidence that immediately after the spy who followed Tiberius had reported to Malcus, the legatus subsequently sent a messenger to a lord who famously wished nothing more than to see Tiberius smote.
After a few more moments passed the gates parted as the messenger moved to exit the estate which stood at the farthest end of Cobbles Corner, making his way west. Eleven debated letting the man go unobserved as he was no doubt only going to return to Malcus, but then decided against that course of action in prospect of the completion of thoroughness.
After heading back through Castle Street, the messenger suddenly made a peculiar turn that led them past the large Tiburon sculpture which stood on Harbor Street just a few blocks away from Jaimus’ library. Then Eleven, not being surprised easily, stood in brief confusion a short distance away, watching as the messenger who he’d been following, the man who he had witnessed serving Legatus Malcus, nonchalantly walked into the library which was owned by Tiberius’ chief spy and communications official.
Upon quickly entering the library, Eleven saw the man conversing with Jaimus next to a set of tall bookshelves on the other end of the room. The man left as Eleven approached Jaimus, speaking slowly as usual with insidious sounding long drawn-out words, his voice muffled by his mildly formfitting sinister looking steel mask, the mask which adorned his face at all times, “Who is he?”
Jaimus turn to Eleven with a grin, “Well hello Eleven, not even bothering to greet a kind old elderly fellow, eh? You need to work on your abhorrent manners my friend.”
“So you have said; although I doubt a warm greeting would fair me well now,” spoke Eleven in an effort to remain patient.
“No I suppose not… Very well, in answer to your question, the man who you referred to is a double agent recently hired by Legatus Malcus. He serves Tiberius by delivering messages for Malcus and reporting the content of those messages to me without Legatus Malcus’ knowledge,” there was a brief pause before Jaimus continued, “and in anticipation of your next question, the message which my spy delivered for Malcus today was, ‘The deed will be done soon, you can expect my arrival late this afternoon’.”
“I see…,” replied Eleven as he paused, “I shall now take my leave. If anything else of importance comes up on the matter of Legatus Malcus, you are to inform me immediately. I have been ordered by the praetor to discover whatever it is that he is up to as quickly as possible, and any information you might uncover will assuredly be of use to me. In the meantime I will be staying for now at the inn across the street.”
“Very well,” Jaimus responded as Eleven moved to the door, and continued on, making his exit.
Then, as tiredness from lack of sleep began to cloud Eleven’s mind and slow his prompt pace, he moved on toward the inn which he had spoken of, holding one intent primary; sleep.
“Yeah you just missed him. He left for Five Spires not long ago, but if you hurry, catching up to him shouldn’t be difficult. If I were you I’d try intercepting Tiberious on Castle Street.”
Kanii spoke as if Zackarius hadn’t traversed Kingsgate’s vast myriad of streets countless times, delivering messages to places in the city that most didn’t venture. In fact if one counted the quick greeting and farewell which courtesy required upon messages delivery, it was likely Zackarius had met more lords, merchants, and officials than even Tiberius.
It went without saying that Zackarius knew Kingsgate better than anyone; so knowing exactly which route Tiberius would take he courteously bid the Andromeda’s Captain farewell before leaving the docks, hoping to find the praetor before the sun gave its last rays of light as it fell beyond the horizon. But Zackarius, before allowing the buildings and crowds of Kingsgate to engulf him upon entering the city, stopped, turning to look back over the harbor which bustled with ships as they wandered about, moving into port or finding position to place anchor for the night. He looked over the sea as the gentle tide made brilliant by the sun’s falling caused subtle rays of light to be reflected off of the water. Then, looking past the activity of the vast busy harbor and over the beautiful endless ocean, he saw the sunset lit clouds reflecting many shades of orange which was soon to become red, then pink, and finally a deep violet before the sun bade all who lived under its watchful gaze, all who lived according to the life it sustained, goodnight.
Turning back around after finishing his glorious glimpse of the beautiful sunset, taking one last deep inhale of the strong yet serene smell of the ocean which came up to the harbor from the Tiburon passage, Zackarius began running east down a series of streets, a path which he knew Tiberius commonly frequented. He wove of in and out of the crowds, jogging at a steady pace.
Kingsgate was beginning to settle down as the day’s work was nearly completed for most who currently traversed the city.
Zackarius found it somewhat easy to run through Kingsgate as most in the city were familiar with seeing messengers run to and fro; that being the case, most, both rich and poor, tended to graciously move out of the way as Zackarius passed through. Zackarius appreciated this greatly, as it made deliveries far more pleasant than some smaller cities, towns, and settlements which he had been to in service to Praetor Tiberius.
Rounding another corner, but still catching no glimpse of the praetor, Zackarius quickened his pace.
More time passed as Zackarius traversed the broad streets of Northside before, finally, he spotted Tiberius sauntering northward in his typical patient gate.
As Tiberius walked, Zackarius noticed how the people which he passed by gawked, stared, and gave double glances, most enamored by the prospect that they were mere feet away from the great Protector of the Empire. The majority were starstruck, a few couldn’t care less, but there were still those who clearly were unaware that they had just witnessed the noble Praetor Tiberius himself. Either way one thing was clear to anyone who saw Tiberius walking down Castle Street; the world revolved around one man.
As far as Zackarius was concerned Tiberius was the one man worthy of his own legend. Even though Zackarius had only been with the praetor for a few years, he did not simply follow Tiberius’ orders, no, he believed in the man. Zackarius, like many, would give his life to serve Tiberius, and he knew with full confidence that Tiberius would never betray that loyalty, for he was one of the few proud commanders to have justly earned the complete trust and loyalty of his men. In Zackarius’ mind it was as the great Tiburon himself said, ‘It is common for men to retain a semblance of loyalty to their master whatever the reason may be, however that which is truly unusual is a master who bears even greater loyalty toward those who suffer his rule.’ Zackarius knew that Tiberius was one of those men, but even further, he knew one thing above all else according to that which he’d personally witnessed; anyone who did not at least respect Tiberius was a fool.
Suddenly, as Zackarius neared the praetor, intent on joining him, one large man disguised as a merchant came up from behind Tiberius swinging an oddly shaped club which had been hidden in his cloak. Then, as the praetor was struck in the back of the head, four other disguised men came out of hiding to pick up Tiberius’ unconscious body and throw him into a cart which one of the men had just pulled up. They quickly covered the praetor with a blanket before hurriedly carting him away.
Zackarius, surprised, terrified, and frozen in indecision, had a difficult choice to make; he could either follow the men back to who knows where, or he could make use of the little time Tiberius had left by sprinting back to Jaimus and quickly informing him of the unthinkable thing which had just happened, allowing the praetor’s myriad of spies, warriors, and assassins to do their respective duties. After taking a few brief moments to weigh his options, Zackarius moved to action quickly by turning and running as fast as he could along the route which would bring him to the library, hoping beyond all hope that Jaimus would know what to do.
As the twilight gave way to darkness, the sun to the moon and stars, Zackarius ran, his heart beating, his breath shortening, his mind turning helplessly to the terrifying prospect of life without the great Tiberius. If Tiberius should fall what would become of him, what would he do, where would he go? He had never thought of this before, he had never needed to; the praetor had always been so solid, so unmovable. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen to men like Tiberius, to men of his rank and authority.
Continuing to round corner after corner, Zackarius began to reflect upon the naivety of his thoughts and past expectations, for he knew the truth was that lords fell all the time, the unexpected becoming reality so often that the unexpected eventually became expected. In fact, Zackarius was not a stranger to the concept that men like Tiberius were perhaps the most at risk, as they handled power and the lives of men with the wave of the hand, a flick of the wrist; legions lived or died by a single spoken word from men like Tiberius, and the consequences of such power are truly far-reaching, and often times highly unpredictable.
Many of the lords and servants who had previously occupied Northside’s once busy streets were now in their homes and respective estates, leaving the roads fairly empty. And as Zackarius passed by, occasionally he glanced through the glass windows of wealthy homes lit by lantern light, seeing briefly a family sitting down to a meal, people passing from one room to another; sights which earlier he might have found provided a pleasant atmosphere for a peaceful late afternoon walk. At this time though, Zackarius could focus on nothing else but the task at hand, remaining center focused as he charged across the streets of Kingsgate which were now devoid of men, women, and children, quiet and dark.
Finally, after traversing a few miles, Zackarius slowed his pace from a full out sprint to a quick jog as he neared the library. Seeing that the library was still lit, Zackarius breathed a small sigh of relief as the lantern light which exuded from inside the building gave clear evidence that Jaimus was still present. After reaching out, he grabbed the doorknob and turned with a push before storming into the large secret spy hub which remained disguised as a simple, large collection of rentable books. Seeing Jaimus sitting in the chair at his desk poring over an assortment of large books, Zackarius all but sprinted toward the older man. As he arrived, panting from shortness of breath, Jaimus, looking up, spoke with concern, “What is it?”
Speaking in between large gasps, Zackarius replied, “It’s Tiberius… he’s been kidnapped!”
Jaimus after a brief moment of surprise responded with urgency, “By who, where, and how long ago?”
“Just before sunset I was looking for him… then upon finding him I saw a man disguised as a merchant come out of nowhere swinging a club… immediately afterward as the praetor fell unconscious four other men came out and carted him away… they were heading north on Castle Street,” finished Zackarius with a few more stressed breaths.
After taking another brief moment to analyze the impossible situation, Jaimus stood before picking up his cane and fetching an old book from a hidden compartment. Jaimus then spoke while making way for the door as fast as his limp would allow, “Come, we leave immediately to fetch Eleven, I know where they took Tiberius and I know who was responsible… damn-it son, don’t stand there like a statue, help me open this door we don’t have much time.”
Zackarius, after snapping out of a brief haze, speedily jumped to action to do the task which he was instructed. Then as they walked out along Tacitus Street, Jaimus spoke hurriedly, giving commands to Zackarius as he limped forward quickly on the young messenger’s left, “Alright this is what I want you to do, get to the Andromeda as fast as you can, inform Kanii of the dire situation, then tell her to prepare for an emergency exit immediately. Do not allow anyone who is not in service to Tiberius onto the docks surrounding the Andromeda or her escorts; tell Kanii specifically to enact Praetorian confiscation rights on that land, guarding it legally as the temporary property of Praetor Tiberius. If for some reason I don’t make it there before Tiberius arrives then leave without me; now go, hurry!”
As Zackarius began to run toward the docks, doing exactly as he had been told, Jaimus called out from behind, “Oh and don’t forget to tell Kanii; Tiberius will be coming in hot!”
Jaimus watched as the eager Zackarius sprinted away to complete his orders.
That poor boy may become a soldier today.
Aside from talent, the quality Jaimus liked most in those who served him was loyalty, and by his estimation that kid had it in spades. Jaimus would never have two worry about Zackarius running off to save his own skin, as the boy’s constant unwavering loyalty to those he served would not allow him. No, Zackarius would follow his duty to death’s doorstep and beyond, that much was certain.
If only there were more like him.
Quickening his pace, Jaimus moved as fast as his old bones would allow toward the large, high class inn where Eleven would be staying. Upon entering the sizable lantern lit lobby Jaimus continued forward before stopping at the front desk. The man in charge came to greet him, but as the smiling man began to speak, Jaimus cut him off, “Send someone to fetch the masked man named Eleven immediately.”
Retrieving a widely recognized Imperial seal which identified Jaimus as a high-ranking government official, the seal which Tiberius had given him many years ago, he continued after throwing it on the table, “This is under the express authority of Praetor Tiberius himself, which means, if you don’t mind me being blunt, that if you continue to stand there and gawk at me, or refuse this order out of some sort of customer confidentiality regulation, then in about ten seconds I am going to walk out that door and see if Tiberius’ soldiers fare better than I.”
Jaimus’ well-crafted threat worked wonders, as the man moved speedily, reaching for the inn’s books. Finding one in particular, the innkeeper opened it and began running his finger down the list. The man, stopping his finger on one name specifically, then spoke out, “Ah, excuse me, I will be but a moment.”
“Thank you,” said Jaimus, as the innkeeper strode quickly, nearly sprinting, up the elegant staircase to his right, moving speedily to fetch the masked man out of the fear which had been placed by Jaimus’ well played partial scam.
A few moments passed by before Eleven, followed closely behind by the innkeeper, came gliding down the stairs, perhaps curious but in no apparent hurry.
As Eleven came up to Jaimus he spoke first saying, “When I requested you to inform me of any new developments I expected the message to arrive by a trusted messenger; not by Jaimus himself? I wonder what extraordinary situation warrants such unusual action?”
Jaimus responded quickly, “Normally I would beat around the bush a little before getting to the point, but today the dire situation at hand requires certain directness… The praetor has been kidnapped, and I believe, putting the pieces together which I have gleaned from certain recent reports such as the one I shared with you earlier, that he has been taken by Legatus Malcus and is presently being held by Salinius at his estate.”
The innkeeper rudely interrupted immediately after Jaimus had finished, “Wait, I thought you said that you were acting under the praetor’s express comman…”
Before the innkeeper could finish, Eleven cut him off, shouting uncharacteristically, “Silence!”
The innkeeper wisely obeyed Eleven’s command, instantly shrinking back behind the front counter. Eleven walked toward the door after removing his hand from the hilt of the sword which was strapped to his back, the sword from which Tiberius’ sword was designed. Then, turning around, Eleven spoke before disappearing into the night, “I won’t be long.”
Jaimus watched the darkness engulf the last surviving Faceless, as the man, if you can call him that, went off to do the only thing which he was bred to do; release souls.
After a few more brief moments passed, Jaimus made his own exit, walking into the brilliantly moonlit night.
It took some time before he began to near the docks; but as he neared, still within the shadow of the over encroaching buildings which made up the majority of Northside, Jaimus saw in the distance Tiberius’ soldiers preparing themselves for battle. The five different captains were working quickly to prepare the ships and organize their defenses with Kanii, clearly, ultimately in charge. Having only a complement of twenty soldiers assigned to each ship, there weren’t enough warriors, battle ready as they were, to fight any real battle. However, there were enough Gahnen warriors for a tactical retreat, and that is exactly what they prepared for.
Jaimus knew that, since most of Tiberius’ personal legions and their commanders were recruited specifically from places unfriendly to the Empire like Gahnen, if Tiberius’ personally financed warriors were forced to choose, the majority would remain loyal to Tiberius, not the Empire. So in reality the clever praetor had been preparing, with betrayal in mind, for some time now. What he did not prepare for was the way in which it happened.
Continuing to move forward, suddenly, Jaimus stopped, as a person he did not expect to see moved out from the shadows in front of Jaimus, sword drawn.
Jaimus spoke as the tall man moved closer, putting his sword to Jaimus’ chest, “I expected infiltration but I must admit surprise at the revelation that the double agent is you, Talius.
“Tell me three things before sending me to the fate which now lies clear before my eyes: How long, why, and did Zephir die well?”
After he finished speaking, Jaimus hunched over suddenly, gasping as Talius’ sword came in, piercing his heart. With a grim expression, Talius whispered in Jaimus’ ear as he leaned forward, “Since the beginning, because your death is my freedom, and no, I saw him suffer before his breath gave out.”
Jaimus, reaching out to Talius for stability as he attempted to cling onto life for a few more agonizing moments, replied, “I’ve seen it, traitors like you are always haunted by the choices they’ve made… so freedom from slavery to Malcus maybe, but you will never be free from your own mind’s lash. Do one thing for me, I offer a rare chance to make future’s burden lighter. Take this book and throw it into view of those soldiers before running off to collect your reward.”
The pain surged through Jaimus’ chest again as the long straight sword was abruptly pulled out of his body. Then, falling to his knees, dropping his cane, his vision closing in as the blood spewed out of his body onto the ground, Jaimus gazed forward catching a glimpse of Zackarius far off in the distance before exhaling one last time, falling to his end.
Clink, Clink, Snap! The sound Tiberius heard as he was shackled moments before his eyes flew open, amplified the distress he felt as his present situation began to reveal itself. With his mind slowly regaining consciousness, he struggled futilely against his restraints that held him tightly upon a cold steel surface which could not realistically be called the bed. No one, as Tiberius scanned the room, could be seen, no one with which he could ascertain or identify his captor’s identity. And, as Tiberius continued to look around the room, it became very apparent as to the sole purpose with which the room was built; torture.
Tiberius had heard of rooms like this being built by some lords to keep their slaves in line; in fact, some houses, like house Valdiss, were famed for such things. But such rooms and methods were not by any means exclusive to house Valdiss, as there were many similar rooms even in Five Spires which are not, even in the slightest sense, unused. No, extreme cruelty and despair are used by many to craft subservience; although Tiberius very much doubted subservience would be the reason for his torture and no doubt death at the hands of his currently unknown captors.
As Tiberius looked around the dimly lit room he saw three cages behind him, each one for a different purpose with only the one on the left being a holding cell.
The cage in the middle being too small for one to stand straight up in, and not wide enough for one to lay down, also had sharp razor blades sticking up off of the ground, leaving only about a foot wide and long space razor free. This cage Tiberius recognized famously as the bed of razors. A disobedient slave or prisoner would be left inside for days even weeks at a time before, as they chose to sleep on the razors due to extreme exhaustion, someone would jolt the man, woman, or child awake in a variety of cruel ways, the worst of which usually being the lent scorpion, whose venom gives its victim light convulsions.
The cage on the right was known as the serpent bucket. It’s hooks, which would be used to hang the undesired, could be raised or lowered below the trap door on the bottom of the cell. Then below the iron cage’s trap door usually sat a large bucket of venomous or non-venomous serpents which would be used to terrify, injure, or kill whichever poor soul found themselves inside the monstrous contraption.
Continuing to examine the room, Tiberius saw two tables littered with saws, blades, and various other horrifying contraptions, each device worse than the last. Also he saw hooks coming down from the ceiling in different places, and small lit oil lamps to bring all of the horrible things which should never have been invented or used, to light.
After some time had passed, unwelcome fear came to greet Tiberius then remained to gnaw at his mind, and no doubt very soon his sanity. Suddenly he heard footsteps coming down a set of stairs that lay beyond the thick iron door which if he tilted his head up, was directly in front of him. His heart quickened as a strange apprehension took hold of Tiberius which was a result of both the desire to learn the identity of the one who put him here, far beyond the salvation of his legions, and also the fear of whatever fate was about to befall him, or the final journey through which fate would lead him to its undesirable gates.
Chink, chink, eeek! The sounds of the rusting iron door opening, unpleasantly greeted Tiberius’ ears before an unwelcome but familiar voice followed the appearance of the vile, wicked man, famously known as Legatus Malcus the Scarred, “You don’t look too pleased at my appearance’s embrace Praetor.”
“I wonder why,” replied Tiberius as a new found rage began to rise to the surface.
“Well I suppose it is due to the unfortunate position you find yourself in; and I assure you were it not for the slightly indirect command of Lord Emperor Maximillian himself, our last meeting, according to my preference, would be on the battlefield in exceptional, invigorating combat to the death.”
Tiberius responded with an angered, mock laugh before taking the time to consider the new troubling information that Maximillian himself had warranted this action, “Hah… let me out of these chains and we can satisfy your… preference.”
Was Tiberius surprised by this new development? No, but he had not expected such action to be taken so soon; perhaps that was his own mistake.
Malcus continued, as he walked slowly from the doorway to the left side of the restrained Tiberius, “You know, I must admit that I will truly enjoy this, because as much as I despise the manner in which I obtain my revenge, the relishing thought of causing you to suffer sends electrifying shivers of excitement through my spine. Although, I almost feel besides myself, for while the thought of your torture gives me so much joy and contentment, the thought of your death disturbs me as I have thoroughly enjoyed our dance of destiny, our coalescence in service to the Empire. After all, we work so well together, so in unison, despite your ridiculous notions caused by your unhealthy pursuit of true nobility. I would go on to say that eventually you would see things as I do like always, but we both know at this juncture that such a thing is now, let’s just say… far more than improbable.”
Tiberius, enraged, simply responded with silence.
Malcus continued toward a far table to fish out the tools which he would use upon his unwilling victim. Finding a sharp thin blade and a specially pronged scoop he returned before going on, “Well, before we begin let me tell you why I find incredible irony in this current situation which has brought us together again. You see, I’m sure you don’t know this but many years ago I was a young officer serving under your father’s command in a little village called Bjernein, located in southwestern Gahnen. I was sent there to investigate numerous reports of the rebellion potentially stockpiling weapons there, along with many reports of soldier disappearances. So, Danicus, being whisked away on Imperial business to the nearby large city of Bjernstein, decided to make a short side trip to the neighboring village of Bjernein where I was stationed.
“You have to understand, I had uncovered nothing in the whole time which I had been stationed there, so in order to keep my commission and impress Danicus, I decided to falsify evidence, framing a young couple for conspiring with the rebellion. I believe their names were Fjorden and Helga; also, if memory serves me correctly, they had two young children, although the girl’s body was never recovered. Anyway, the day before Danicus, the then newly elected Minister of Justice, arrived I went to the young couple’s home ordering the soldiers under my command to lock the family inside. Then I threw the first torch before standing back as my soldiers continued in suit. As the crowds gathered around, we could all hear the shrill screams of those inside as they were consumed by the tall flames which engulfed their home,” after a short pause Malcus continued, “Well, upon Danicus’ timely arrival the following day, I went to show him my work. Being pleased, Danicus congratulated me for work well done, but as he was speaking, the men who were pulling things out of the rubble surprisingly found a survivor; it was a four-year-old boy with a strange luminescent mark on his right hand. As the child was quickly brought to me for a decision on what to do with the boy, Danicus spoke up immediately, ordering my soldiers to hand the young boy over; and so it was.”
Malcus then, taking the scoop he held in his left hand while holding the razor in his right, thrust the pronged scoop inside the socket of Tiberius’ left eye. Tiberius screamed in pain yanking his shackles in a desperate attempt to free a hand. But all attempts proved pointless as Malcus began removing his eye from the place it belonged.
After fully removing Tiberius’ left eye and severing its stem with the razor, Malcus finished as the praetor’s agonizing screams died down, “Do you know what I learned all those years ago? I learned that other people’s pain brings me… happiness.”
Tiberius cried out with rage, “Damn you Malcus, if I cannot live to see your death in this life, than my blade shall await you in the next.”
Suddenly, a man Tiberius immediately recognized as Salinius of house Brasitus, came storming down the stairs saying loudly to Malcus, “Hurry, come quickly, there’s trouble!”
Malcus, not taking a moment to pause, turned, heading quickly for the door before charging swiftly up the stairs behind Salinius without even bothering to close the large iron door as he made his exit.
Malcus, running speedily behind Salinius through the halls of the large manner, began to feel immense irritation rising to the surface due to the unexpected interruption.
This had better be worth my time Salinius or I will skin you myself.
Making their way out of the manner, Salinius led them across the long walking path, and through the winter-made-barren landscape, toward the wealthy estate’s tall gates. Upon arriving, Malcus stopped instantly, remaining silent as he took in the gruesome sight which revealed itself before him, Salinius, and the soldiers who had come to see what all the commotion was about.
Just twenty feet away lantern light revealed the twenty soldiers who had been posted at the gate; all of them, were now lying slain upon the ground. Blood was strewn about the shocking massacre, covering the bodies of the dead. Eighteen of Malcus’ fallen servants were rearranged to look as if they were bowing, laying prostrate before two heads which were held above the ground by the two decapitated soldier’s own spears. Then Malcus’ attention was drawn to the two names, one name carved onto each of the bodiless soldier’s foreheads, they spelled; Malcus and Salinius.
“He’s here,” declared Legatus Malcus.
“Who?” asked Salinius, all attention directed toward Malcus as he turned to face the Brasitus manor.
“Tiberius’ dog,” seethed Malcus in reply.
Salinius, responding to the legatus’ insufficient answer, spoke, “You’re saying just one man is responsible for this; or do I misinterpret your meaning?”
“He’s not just one man; he is a Faceless, the last of his kind. He is a thing of night terrors come to life, one from which stories of your childhood taught you to fear the night and take pleasure in the rising of the sun,” answered Malcus as he grew irritated by the man’s questions.
Malcus needed to think quickly, as the timely appearance of the monster known as Eleven was indeed unexpected. He had believed that all of his tracks were covered, that everything was working according to plan, but of course he now knew that such belief had proven itself to be unfounded. No doubt spies, which by him went unnoticed, had reported to Jaimus before Talius had completed his mission.
How is Tiberius always so infallibly fortunate?!
Salinius spoke up with a fearful voice as Malcus stood unmoving, “What should we do? Shall we run to the manner, attempt to barricade ourselves inside?”
Suddenly, as Salinius finished, the screams of two of the twenty soldiers who were left could be heard somewhere beyond the small circular clearing in which they stood. Then silence followed, before calls for help came from the southern side of the estate; again there was silence as the small group’s calls for help were immediately put to death, leaving only the dying screams of the slaughtered to echo across the grounds, carried by the quickening breeze. After a few more moments passed, screams rose yet again from the darkness, this time much closer than before.
According to Malcus’ count, this left only Salinius and his many servants which were no doubt cowering inside the manner, along with his ten remaining soldiers who were now bravely encircling both him and the master of the estate.
Malcus, turning to the soldier on his left, gave orders, “Unbar and open the gates,” then, turning to answer Salinius, he continued, “You may leave if you wish, but you will not make it. At this present moment to leave the lantern lit clearing is to join the dead who now surround us…”
But Malcus was too late in answering the terrified, apprehensive man, as before even receiving a chance to finish, Salinius bolted toward the manner.
“Let him go,” commanded Malcus to his soldiers who began to make movement in a reflexive attempt to catch up with and restrain Salinius.
As his soldiers moved back in obedience, with the other two who left to open the nearby gates returning to join the group, Malcus watched Salinius charge out of the small clearing and into the dim moonlit night. A quick moment passed before Malcus saw a shadow spring up out of the darkness, severing Salinius’ now barely visible head from his body.
There he was, just staring at them in the shadow of the night, holding the once esteemed member of house Brasitus’ head at his side as the man’s now lifeless body fell to the ground, claiming its place among the others. The dark shadow which Malcus knew to be Eleven, still barely visible in the distance, made another movement before he simply again could not be seen.
Thud! Malcus and the others turned to watch as Salinius’ thrown head hit the ground, skipped once, then rolled before coming to rest at the legatus’ feet. Carved into the man’s forehead was as follows; 11 left.
“Steady men,”commanded Malcus, as his soldiers noticeably began to become restless.
Malcus in this moment, while preparing for retreat, simply could not at this point fail to kill Tiberius. But he also could not deny the simple rudimentary truth which remained, that is, living is better than dying. So, hating the idea of retreat, Malcus accepted the fact that regarding the prospect of failure, today he might not have a choice.
Malcus’ thoughts were abruptly cut off as a soldier directly to his right suddenly dropped dead with a large spear protruding out from where his face should be. Then another man was struck, spear protruding from his groin, followed by a second spear which came whistling through the air somewhere beyond the tree line to silence his screams. Then a third soldier dropped immediately after from a fourth consecutive spear which struck his chest.
Watching his soldiers begin to panic, realizing he had already lost, Malcus was forced to make a decision he despised, “Retreat!”
His soldiers immediately made way, sprinting quickly for the gate which appeared to be their only salvation. But Malcus, anticipating his hidden enemy’s next move, ran in the other direction, heading for the small side gate which existed on the North side of the wall. Knowing a duel with Eleven in the darkness of night, would be suicide, Malcus retreated, considering the unknowing sacrifice of his men to be both necessary and acceptable.
Eleven caught a glimpse of Malcus as he unexpectedly retreated in the other direction. The masked man then briefly considered leaving the rest in favor of catching the legatus, but it was too late, he was already committed to the slaughter of the seven men who were now charging for the gates which unbeknownst to them were just out of reach.
Eleven, waiting in the shadows just outside of the clearing, against the long brick wall which surrounded the estate, made quick movement, bolting out of the darkness to intersect the soldiers as they attempted to flee. Before the men even realized they were being attacked, Eleven’s sword moved to decapitate the soldier who was furthest ahead of the group. Holding onto the man’s head, he then threw it mid-spin at the soldier to his right, putting him off balance as the retreat slowed to a halt. As Eleven continued, the second closest guard’s throat split open, the masked man’s blade carving through with perfect accuracy in completion of his improvised technique.
Recovering from the shock of having his comrade’s detached head impact him with no warning, the third man charged ahead of the fourth who was following hot on his heels. Eleven smiled behind his mask as he reached for one of ten daggers that he kept on his person; six small ones on his lower back and four slightly larger ones on his chest, eleven blades in all. His dagger was placed in the air flying toward the closest soldier. Upon impact, as Eleven’s third mark fell to the ground with his dagger lodged firmly into the unfortunate man’s eye socket, the fourth soldier doubled down, making two repetitive attacks which hit nothing but air. Frustrated, the large man again incompetently struck, missing his target. Eleven took easy advantage by evading left, slicing the man’s thick right leg. As the monstrous man followed by swinging his sword to the right in desperate anger, Eleven ducked below, pushing forward and through the hulking soldier, dragging his sword to the left, slipping the blade underneath the man’s armor, severing the flesh which held the man’s internals inside of his body. The large man dropped his weapon, trying to coddle his innards as they seeped out of his gaping wound, crying out in horror before his screams quickly faded due to the Faceless warrior’s final blow which came from behind as his sword plunged into the man’s back, through his heart. The remaining three stepped back, dropping their lanterns to free their hands while they watched Eleven turn to face them as he slowly pulled his sword out of the falling, soon to be lifeless body of the man who, not long ago, had clearly been their champion.
Taunting them, Eleven spoke with a sinister laugh, “All men fail, but the largest have further to fall.”
Terrified, the final three once brave soldiers turned, believing without reason that fleeing further into the darkness would somehow help them escape a master of shadows. As the men sprinted away from the masked man in a panic, he closed his eyes seeing instead with sound, his other sight.
It was a closely guarded secret, still hidden from most, that the Faceless were bred from one human and one Ungassii, a race which he had never seen aside from those who were apart of the now extinct Order; nor did he know where they came from as it was another hidden knowledge which he was never privy to. The result of such breeding allowed him to see with the eyes of a man, but when those eyes were closed he could see the world in a different way, a way which the Order taught him was due to something they called the vibrations of sound; something he saw with his ears, and not his eyes.
Eleven watched with his second sight as the sound which the three soldiers made as they retreated, illuminated not just themselves but also the neatly trimmed bushes, the many patches and piles of snow which littered the estate, and the leafless barren trees which surrounded them. Removing just three of the large daggers from the sheathes which were pressed tightly up against his chest, Eleven exhaled as he sent each one gracefully into the air; each one toward a precise target and a vicious outcome. The small short battle was immediately finished, as each consecutive blade hit its exact anticipated target, leaving the soldier’s bodies to fall, dramatically bouncing and tumbling forward after hitting the ground, before lifelessly coming to a complete stop.
I never miss.
Eleven then ran quickly toward the manner where Tiberius would be kept. He did not take his time as the masked man knew Malcus would return soon with a small army, no doubt heading straight for the docks to prevent any chance of the praetor’s escape.
Hours had passed since the old book which Zackarius had seen Jaimus carrying upon their parting, had flown out onto the docks, tumbling to a stop not far from where he had been standing while he patrolled the perimeter. After picking up the book, which seemed oddly important for some reason unknown to him, he boarded the Andromeda to place it below deck in a safe location.
There had been no sign of Jaimus since they had parted ways, which caused Zackarius to fear the worst. Jaimus should have arrived by now and Tiberius’ messenger knew full well that if he didn’t appear soon they would have no choice but to leave the old man behind, an unfortunate but soon-to-be inevitable outcome.
Come on Jaimus where are you?
As Zackarius sat on board the Andromeda sharpening his hand ax with a whetstone, he stopped to glance over at the round shield which Kanii had handed to him earlier saying, “Today you are a soldier, remember our lessons; stay strong.”
Aside from the nearly overwhelming apprehension, Zackarius felt more than ready, and he took this time to review Kanii’s teaching.
Zackarius had tried countless times to get Justinian to train him in combat, but the legatus under Tiberius’ command had always refused, telling him to simply accept his place as a messenger. Luckily he had much more success with the Andromeda’s captain, and in consequence she had spent many hours teaching Zackarius how to use sword and ax since he had successfully coaxed the ex-pirate into teaching him well over a year ago. And today, all the time which he had spent training was about to pay off.
Immediately, Zackarius rose, dropping his whetstone, and equipping his shield as one of the lookouts shouted while emerging from the shadow of the buildings in full sprint, “They’re coming! They’re coming!”
Zackarius, no longer bitten by the night’s freezing windchill, bolted forward, exiting Tiberius’ flagship to join the shield wall which was already beginning to form. He could hear Kanii, followed by the other captains, shouting, “Shield wall! Shield wall!”
His adrenaline surged with anxiety at the prospect of what was soon to emerge from the city to assault the small band of soldiers who were about to prove their loyalty; who were about to earn the right to be called servants of the great Lord Tiberius.
Kanii continued on to take position at the front line, standing shoulder to shoulder with Zackarius who was immediately to her left. Other captains took position up front as they hastily gave their men final orders in preparation for the approaching battle.
If Zackarius strained to hear, he could make out the short hushed conversation which Kanii and the soldier who had been the lookout, were having about what he had seen.
Zackarius’ heart began to beat more intensely as time seemed to slow to a halt; this was it, this was the moment he had been anxiously dreading for the past few hours.
Kanii then called out, “You all know the plan; as soon as Tiberius launches from the dock on his ship, a retreat will be sounded.
“I know that many of you are having second thoughts right now due to a belief that this plan is perhaps a little too ambitious for success; and those who share this belief might very well be right. However, I also know that recently many of you bled for Tiberius on Gahnen’s northern glaciers in the Battle of Shards. Tell me, when you were boxed in and outnumbered did the Praetor listen to wise counsel and abandon you to slaughter for easy strategic advantage?!”
The soldiers looked around nodding or grunting their affirmation of her point; one or two spoke out, “No!”
Then continuing, Kanii shouted, “No, he gathered together his remaining Imperial forces and personally ran into the fray not for his own gain… No, he did it for you! So this is your chance to prove to him that you are worthy of his loyalty; to prove to your enemies, in life or death, that you are not their equals! No! You are above them, you are better than them! So join me for your Lord Tiberius, make them shake in their boots because only you, not they, are worthy to walk upon the same field of battle which he walks!”
Shouts of agreement and affirmation rang out among the men, before, as Kanii finished, they could see Eleven and Tiberius charging around the corner, their existence illuminated by the torches which were carried by the small army who followed behind only feet away, sprinting to catch the two men before they reached the ships. The approaching enemy looked to be at least four times their number.
Zackarius tightened his grip around the hilt of his ax as he stuck his shield out with the others, preparing for the impact which was now a mere few seconds away. He glanced quickly to his left to see the soldiers in the middle positioning themselves to let the two important men, who were speedily approaching, through the shield wall before closing the gap behind them. His attention turned forward again as one of the captains shouted, “For the praetor!”
The soldiers followed in suit as they began to pound their shields, chanting. Zackarius joined in the chant with Kanii, “Praetor! Praetor! Praetor!”
Upon his third chant, Eleven and Tiberius reached them, going through their ranks toward the ships which were immediately behind; ready to go with a few men already on board who were prepared to set sail at the drop of a coin.
Then not a moment after the praetor and his servant were let through; crash! Both forces collided instantly as battle cries still rang out among the front lines. Zackarius, not being exceptionally big, but also not small either, reeled back feeling the impact nearly shatter his left arm as he braced his shield with both hands. Then as the large man in front started hacking at Zackarius in a frenzy, he felt his arm again near the breaking point. Zackarius regaining his bearing, pushed back with all his might before reaching around with his own ax, hooking the man’s shield and pulling it inward exposing his back to Kanii as she sent her ax to mercilessly sever the large soldier’s spine. Then, immediately after the soldier fell, another one came in to fill the gap.
Zackarius suddenly heard someone shout over the screams of the dying and the clash of combat, “Hold the line! Hold the line!”
At the same time a sword came hurling in Zackarius’ direction. He blocked the attack with his shield as he sent his ax toward the man’s leg. Feeling the severing of flesh, and tasting the blood which splattered his face from the felled ally who had just been standing to his left, he continued forward, taking advantage of his enemy’s wound by furiously battering the soldier’s shield with his ax. Slam! Slam! Slam! Zackarius struck again and again like a wild animal. Then his enemy was quickly yanked back by one of the man’s fellows before Zackarius had the chance to finish him off. As the soldier was hauled off to one of the back ranks another immediately took his place, swinging his ax viciously at Zackarius.
Zackarius fought one after another holding his ground, unmovable against the will of his enemies, unmovable against the group of battle hardened soldiers who attempted to crush him underfoot. He heard horrifying screams as men on both sides fell to death’s cold embrace. He heard men calling out for their mothers; others cried out like victims pleading desperately for their enemies to stop as they helplessly watched themselves being hacked to pieces. Everyone was drenched in the crimson blood of battle and Zackarius was no exception. In fact he found himself occasionally having to quickly wipe the splattered blood of fallen men from his eyes in order to regain clear vision. This was not how he had envisioned war to be.
Again and again Zackarius struck, as the vicious enemy advanced, releasing the souls of his allies. But he stood his ground beside Kanii, until finally the commanders called out one after the other, “The praetor’s away! Retreat! Retreat!”
But the orderly retreat which was planned had become nearly impossible now, as the front line was already nearly obliterated. Their plight was now desperate as their number which was small to begin with had already been shrunk by nearly half.
Kanii shouted, “Push!”
The men, knowing what to do, pushed, gaining a few immediate inches of space before turning to retreat.
Zackarius felt Kanii yank him back just in time, as the tip of a sword swept through the air just a fingers length away from his face while he turned to run. Regaining his balance he bolted for one ship in particular which was starting to pull away from the docks. There was mass confusion as it turned into a free-for-all, every man for himself. He did not look around to see how many of his comrades were left, or how close the enemy was behind him; and Zackarius’ fear of catching an ax or loose arrow in the back drove him faster still.
Arriving at the end of the long wooden dock, Zackarius nearly panicked as he saw the boat which he was attempting to catch float away out of reach.
Kanii screamed, shoving Zackarius into the water as she dived, “Jump!”
Zackarius began to swim like Kanii had showed him, with big long scoops, kicking his feet, breathing to the side. He wasn’t nearly as good as the captain but he was proficient. He swam as fast as he could, scooping right, left, breathing in and out, side to side, trying to put the freezing cold water out of his mind as it threatened to paralyze, before drowning him.
Kanii charged ahead, causing it to become clear that if either of them reached the ship, she would reach it far before Zackarius. Moving forward, keeping his pace, he tried not to think about the occasional arrow which he heard whistling by, choosing determinedly to block everything else out in effort to simply focus on the task at hand. Steady moments passed before suddenly he caught the cold bite of an arrowhead across his cheek. But he was not deterred, Zackarius continued on, resolute, unwavering.
In addition to the freezing temperatures, Zackarius’ body was beginning to tire from exhaustion. Cuts and scratches which he had earned on the battlefield, some deeper than others, seeped small amounts of blood and now began to sting in conjunction with his movements, threatening to slow his progress.
A few more moments passed before Kanii finally boarded the ship, a time which seemed like an eternity. Then a rope was thrown down to Zackarius who caught it on the first try. He clung to the rope as they pulled him on board and wrapped him in blankets.
Looking around, Zackarius saw some of the soldiers still holding up their shields as they were not yet out of archer’s reach.
Immediately they made way, rowing until the arrows stopped flying before switching to full sail, hoping that they would not crash into an anchored ship before officially exiting the harbor. But as far as Zackarius was presently concerned, that was an issue for the captains.
Cheers went up around the ship, cheers of survival, and the mission’s success. It was impossible at this time to know how many had survived, as aside from the twenty eight people who were aboard, and the Praetor with Eleven on the Andromeda, no one would be able to tell how many men or ships made it out until morning. Also virtually nothing could be seen due to the weak moonlight, making it impossible to gain proper bearing of the fleet. No, all of that was a discovery for the new day, but for right now the exhaustion caused by the waning adrenaline rush, beckoned Zackarius to sleep.
As Zackarius found a place to lay his head, Kanii approached before crouching down beside him. She spoke gently as she handed him a few extra blankets to help prevent frostbite, “Quick, wrap yourself in these; if you don’t get warm soon you could loose a few of your extremities, or your heart might give out on you in your sleep. I’ve seen both.”
After Zackarius did as Kanii had indicated, she finished, “You fought well today; now get some rest, you’ll need it.”
Kanii then rose, but before she could turn to walk away, Zackarius replied, “You know, maybe you’re meant for this noble stuff.”
“What do you mean?” Kanii inquired.
Zackarius went on, “Well that speech you gave earlier…”
Kanii cut him off, “What about it?”
“Well I’m just saying, it wasn’t the type of speech I would expect to hear from a backstabbing pirate,” answered Zackarius with a smirk, his teeth chattering once or twice.
After a quick chuckle, Kanii responded with a wink before moving back to join the other captain.
As the Andromeda’s once not so noble pirate captain walked away, Zackarius laid down, closing his eyes as blood trickled down his face from unclosed fresh wounds, allowing unconsciousness to snatch him away under the starlight.
415 days before day 1
The sun began to fall behind the rolling hills; hills which continued on and on without end. Yellow grassy fields which also stretched as far as the eye could see, rippled like the sea’s tide as the gentle breeze flowed over the tops of knee high grain stalks, broken up only by the occasional tree, large rock at the base of a hill, or colorful patches of pink and violet flowers which pleasantly dotted the landscape. The tall golden colored grass also complimented the color’s being painted across the sky’s canvas; the bright oranges and reds that now began to reflect beautifully off of scattered clouds which flitted here and there across the sky.
Salius slowly placed down his book, and after scanning the scenery, he leaned back to lay down upon the grass, gazing up at the sky, hoping to capture every moment, every small ray of light which contributed to the sun’s masterpiece. After a few moments he closed his eyes, fully at rest due to the beauty of the world which surrounded him. As his eyes closed, Salius’ mind began to wander. He tried to picture what it would feel like to run across the landscape, to walk, to jump, to explore the world around him, or even to dance along with his younger sister Valecia, who went about in a joyful way when hearing a musical melody. But the sad truth was that Salius had been a cripple for far too many years to remember what such things were like, things that other people took for granted. Still, Salius tried anyway, torturing himself with the pursuit of a memory of something he would never have again; the ability to walk.
As his mind began to turn to horrific memories of the accident which happened over ten years ago, Salius was interrupted by his mother as she came up behind him with the wooden wheeled chair that his father had fashioned for him many years before, “Son it’s time for supper… Oh, which book are you reading?”
Salius answered as he pulled himself onto the chair with the help of his mother, “A King’s Charge.”
His mother responded as she began to turn the chair around before pushing Salius on toward their home which sat on a small hill overlooking the farm, not far away for those who could walk, “That’s a good read, it’s one of my favorites, not very practical though… well unless you were a king; then I suppose it would be very informative, useful even.”
Salius’ mother was unusual in the sense that she was one of very few peasants born who had the ability to read and write. In fact it was not just unusual, it was downright unheard of. A farmer’s wife who could read and write, practically a circus act; at least so the locals thought when they learned of her talent.
His mother was taught the skill by her mother, as Salius’ great grandfather was a tragic story of what becomes of a wealthy Lord who loses everything due to uncouth misfortune. She then taught Salius how to read and write the Imperial Standard, and due to the fact that he usually had nothing better to do, Salius often passed the time by reading and rereading the many books which his mother had inherited from her grandfather, the books which now occupied a small study that his father had built for his mother as a wedding gift over two decades ago.
The twenty one year old, dirty blonde haired boy named Salius had a truly bizarre feature; a light green colored left eye and a deep blue colored right eye. This color scheme was so unusual, so odd and out of place, that often when people saw him their first reaction was either that of disgust, curiosity, or sometimes even fear.
For more than one reason Salius was often avoided whenever he made an appearance among the small farming community which his family was a part of, or the townspeople in Minos, the nearest town in the area; and those who knew of him often simply referred to him as the cripple.
Replying to his mother, Salius teased, “Well, I can see you’ve already resigned me to lesser fortune. How do you know I won’t be a king?”
Salius’ mother laughed before returning playfully, “Forgive me your highness, I was not aware of your noble bloodline.”
“You are forgiven,” answered Salius with a mock regality.
As they neared the fairly large wooden house, Salius’ dark haired, blue eyed mother who was originally from Haaren spoke to Valecia, who had just emerged from the front door, in her light Haaren accent, “Fetch your father and brother will you, supper’s ready.”
“Yes mother,” said Valecia as she flitted away toward the other side of the farm.
Salius’ mother then continued to push Salius up a small ramp and onto the wooden porch. Upon passing two rocking chairs as they crossed the neatly constructed platform, they came to the front door before continuing to enter the house.
Many fine works of craftsmanship could be found in the home, and all over the farm as Salius’ father happened to be a skilled carpenter. Why the man had chosen to resign himself to life on the farm in spite of his talent, miles away from a small town called Minos in landlocked West Librium, was anybody’s guess. Salius had often tried to understand his father’s reasons for rejecting carpentry, a higher class of profession than working the fields, but try as he might he had never been able to ascertain the true reason.
Salius didn’t mind living in the country, and he didn’t mind the endless grain fields of West Librium; West Librium being one of two major farming hubs that provide the Empire with a majority of it’s grain. Of course Salius had never been anywhere else either, so he couldn’t truly make a determination as to what he did or did not prefer. No, Salius had never experienced the forests of Ameritus or Haaren; he had never been to a city like Kingsgate which was so vast you couldn’t reasonably expect to walk across it in one, two, or even three days. He had never seen the snow of the North lands, which after it fell across the landscape, Salius was told, appeared like white sand had fallen from the sky, covering everything, making the whole world around you the purest white. But of course Salius had never seen sand either; the thing called sand, Salius found, was often times directly associated with the ocean, another place, another thing, which he longed to see and experience.
Before the others had arrived, as Salius was pushed up to his place at the dining room table, he spoke, “Mother?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Tell me again what the ocean is like.”
His mother glanced up at Salius with a gentle smile after placing a large loaf of sweet bread onto the table, before leaving to fetch the pot of stew. After placing the steaming, delightful smelling stew onto the rectangular table, she sat at one of the ends before giving answer to Salius, “Well, it’s beautiful. It’s truly endless, like the grain fields, going on and on, as far as your eyes can see. On some days, depending on the winds and where where you are, the sea can be furious , it’s powerful waves rising many feet taller than a man, threatening to bring the whole world to heal. Then, on other days, the sea rests calm and still, like a person who falls asleep, or lays back to rest; so dangerous, and yet so… wonderful… serene. Sometimes, in certain places when the sea is most still, at night you can look down to see the moon and stars reflected in the water, like a mirror, an endless mirror which grants you such vision that it can almost, with a little imagination, appear as if you are swimming or sailing through the starlit sky.
“I very much enjoy the rocky coast, especially when the seas get more violent, as you can hear the waves crashing up against the rocks with a powerful sound, like thunder echoing through the air. Such things make you feel very small compared to the ocean’s sheer power and might. Then, there is nothing like feeling the spray of the sea splash up against your face, as you ride upon a sea vessel while it breaks the swells which strike aggressively at the bow before washing over the deck. And, above all else, I will always miss the ocean’s pleasant but haunting scent.”
Immediately after Salius’ mother had finished, the rest of their family began pouring in, moving to take their places at the table. Salius’ brother Leonidus, younger than Salius by only a year, teased his seventeen year old, soon to be married sister about her fiancee. Valecia punched Leonidus on the shoulder in retaliation, launching back an accusation that truthfully wasn’t even a little relevant, before officially deciding to sit down beside her older brother, who was clearly amused at the brief outburst.
Salius’ father walked toward his wife after making his entrance behind the other two. To his left, Salius then heard his father whisper to his mother, “Smells wonderful.”
After leaning over to kiss his wife on the forehead, Salius’ father turned before walking over to the other end, taking his place at the head of the table which sat on Salius’ right.
Leonidus, sitting directly opposite of Salius, then exclaimed, “Let’s eat.”
Salius’ father grunted his approval before moving to fill his bowl with stew while also reaching for his portion of bread as it was passed around.
As they all began eating, Salius’ mother spoke, “Did you boys get the plow fixed today?”
“Well, yes and no; we fixed the first problem, but upon closer inspection, father found another broken metal piece which needs to be replaced.”
“The good news,” Leonidus’ father continued after his son, “is that the Minos smith should have the part readily available.”
Salius’ mother responded, “I see, well, there are some things I could use from town too. How about we make a day of it?”
Valecia’s eyes lit up immediately at her mother’s proposition, as a family trip into town was always a unique and special event. Salius himself had only gone with them a handful of times, as transporting him back and forth was difficult due to his condition, but each of those times, to him, was a treasured adventure. Although Salius was continuously puzzled as to the reason behind his father always referring to Vasily as the smith, especially considering the fact that Valecia was soon to be married to the man’s son; that of course being the other, and perhaps main reason behind his sister’s present look of glazed excitement.
Salius grinned as he teased, “Careful sis, you’re drooling.”
Leonidus laughed after moving his thumb up to Valecia’s face making a comical motion as if trying to wipe the imaginary drool from her lower lip in continuation of his older brother’s subtle joke. Valecia immediately swiped his hand away saying in annoyance, “Oh come on you guys, grow up. I’m just excited is all, it’s been awhile since we’ve been to town.”
“You mean it’s been awhile since you’ve seen him,” said Leonidus in reply.
Salius’ mother then chimed in, “Alright that’s enough boys, leave your sister alone.”
Salius’ mother then glared at her husband as he chuckled a little before pretending to be serious, “Yeah, listen to your mother… Anyway, it sounds like a good idea, I don’t see why not. You care to watch over the farm while we’re away Salius?”
“Sure,” answered Salius.
“Good, then it’s decided, we’ll head for town early in the morning.”
After some conversation and a little more frivolous banter, Salius left, heading for his room full from the evening meal, ready to put an end to another typical day on the farm. Then, shortly after closing his eyes, sleep befell Salius as he laid down to rest.
414 days before day 1
Salius simply enjoyed the early, brilliantly sunlit morning, as the cool autumn breeze pleasantly blew his less than shoulder length hair back and forth while he sat upon the front porch in his unique chair. It never snowed here in the southernmost parts of West Librium but the winter still brought a definite chill before it’s passing; and as autumn was the harbinger of winter, it often carried a certain windchill of its own, a windchill which warned of winter’s expected arrival. Today was warm enough, but as Salius looked out over the peaceful landscape, he could already see and feel the signs of change all around him.
The leaves on some near and distant trees had altered color some time ago from lively summer green, a change which signaled the harvest.
Fortunately Salius’ father and brother finished harvesting early this year, making up the loss from last year, putting everyone in high spirits. So it made sense for them to make a trip into town earlier this morning, even though it was not necessary to have the main plow fixed until the end of winter. It was a well earned break, and Salius didn’t mind being left behind. Even though he enjoyed leaving the farm as often as he could, which was a rare opportunity at best, he was content with staying behind today and reading his book. Besides, Salius enjoyed the quiet, and the undisturbed peace which nature provided. The truth was that Salius often wondered how people who lived in the city could think and appear so sane; with people surrounding them at all times, the constant noise, and never ceasing social interaction as one went to and fro about his or her business. To him the prospect seemed maddening, until he remembered a painful lesson which he had learned over nine years ago; a person can adapt to anything, and anything can become normal.
Suddenly as Salius looked about, admiring the scenery, finding enjoyment with his own thoughts, he saw a man far off in the distance begin to approach, making way through the tall yellow grass at a brisk pace.
Salius was curious, apprehensive even, but not afraid, as occasionally, rare though it was, a traveler would stop by the farm for water, a meal, or maybe someplace to sleep for the night. Generally they would entertain with stories or current world events as they dabbled in politics and religion. In Salius’ experience it was quite a treat to host a traveler, and as the man neared he breathed a sigh of relief upon verifying that his previous assumption, that the man was indeed a traveler and not an Imperial soldier, was correct. He had decided it was an obvious truth back when the man was too far off to identify, as Imperial soldiers traveled in packs, not alone.
As the man neared, close enough for his voice to be heard by Salius without needing to shout, he began, “It is a beautiful day. I’ve always loved the endless fields of West Librium, it reminds me of home.”
Salius responded, “And where is home stranger.”
“Far away from here, and yet, not that far,” the stranger replied pleasantly as he stopped just short of the porch upon which Salius sat.
“I see, well welcome, I am Salius, son of Fasius, and you are…”
“Forgive my manners, I am Claudius, son of a man I never knew,”answered the stranger with a polite hand gesture before continuing, “Do you mind if I take a seat?”
Salius gestured his approval. Then, as the man who called himself Claudius briskly stepped up onto the deck before moving to take a seat, he said, “Don’t worry, I won’t be long, I have places to go, things to do; I just stopped by to rest my feet, and hopefully have a little human interaction before resuming my journey.”
“Very well then. Tell me, where are you heading, and what is it that you do?” asked Salius inquisitively.
“Far away from here,” answered Claudius not bothering with the second part of Salius’ question.
There was a time of silence which followed Claudius’ response as he sat appearing perfectly contented with the view.
After a few minutes, Salius broke the silence, saying, “You are a mysterious one aren’t you?”
Claudius replied with a smile, “You aren’t the first one to say that about me and you won’t be the last.”
After a few more moments passed, Salius spoke again, this time with a subtle but friendly rebuke, addressing the man’s willing lack of conversationalism, “A good conversation has at least two contributing members, don’t you think?”
Claudius laughed before returning with, “True, but sometimes the most truthful and meaningful interactions are carried out with few words, are they not? I do not recall myself saying I wanted lengthy conversation, but if I did, then you have my apologies.”
Hmm… clever, and intelligent.
“What are you reading?” asked Claudius as he leaned over to glance at the cover of the book which Salius held on his lap, before going on, “Ah, A King’s Charge, written by Emperor Lucius, the third Emperor of the Tiburon Empire. It’s a good read, very practical for an aspiring ruler.”
As Claudius leaned back in his chair, Salius spoke in surprise, as travelers were generally never learned enough to have the ability to read, “How is it that you can read?”
“Why so surprised? It’s no more strange for me to read, than for you, the humble son of a farmer,” replied the stranger.
Salius paused before slowly replying, “I suppose that’s true.”
They had not talked long, but it had been long enough for Salius to know and suspect two things; that Claudius was not an ordinary traveler, and also that he did not arrive here by happenstance. Salius always had the ability to read people well, ever since childhood, and while he did not sense any evil intent from the stranger, there was something else, something purposeful.
“Tell me Claudius, what is your true purpose here?” asked Salius boldly to the raggedly dressed, satchel carrying, bearded stranger.
“Now that is the question isn’t it,” answered Claudius.
The stranger continued as he lifted his satchel and began rummaging through its contents, “I apologize for greeting you with untruthfulness regarding my purpose here. You see, I have arrived to inform you that you have been ordered by the King Unseen to hunt down and execute the Empress, and the three items which I am about to give will assist you in accomplishing that purpose.”
Salius laughed, “Ah, I see, so you’re crazy.”
Claudius looked up with a blank stare, “Funny, and you’re the one who still believes that the world is flat.”
“What…?” said Salius with an incredulous expression as the bizarre stranger motioned for him to hold out his hand.
Salius hesitantly complied as Claudius fetched out a long dagger. He pulled the elegantly designed, but not impractical weapon, out of its sheath, revealing small foreign runes carved on the side of the crescent curved blade. The eight inch long blade continued down to a uniquely forged, forward curved, wrapped handle, with a strange looking mechanism located near where the index and middle finger would be when holding the weapon in a forward facing grip.
Claudius spoke as he handed the weapon to Salius, pointing at the odd mechanism attached to the top of the handle, where it ended and the blade began, “The runes which you see spell out, Foot for Foot, Finger for Finger; but this dagger is much more than it appears to be, and that mechanism right there is the reason. My people call it a trigger, and they know the action it carries out to be something they call teleportation, or leaping. Look about, see the place you want to be, then slip your finger into the finger guard and pull the trigger. However I warn you that you can go no place which you cannot see.”
Salius was about to say something as he placed the dagger into its sheath, but he was immediately interrupted by Claudius who was already pulling out another item, “This ring, when placed on your finger, will allow you to understand and speak any language which you should happen to come across in your travels.”
Claudius handed Salius the ordinary looking black ring, before Salius replied with sarcasm, “How about my legs, got anything for that too since we’re at it.”
Claudius then reached back into his bag before bringing out a tiny transparent object which appeared to contain a liquid.
“Ah yes, of course, magic water, I should have known,” Salius said, trying painfully hard to hold back another laugh.
Claudius sighed as he spoke to himself, shaking his head before addressing Salius, “I swear, I get no appreciation for my work,” then, looking back up at the twenty one year old, he continued, “Look, if you want to be a cripple for the rest of your life that’s fine. But if you want to be free from that chair, if you truly want more from this life; an adventure, something amazing, something honorable, then you’ll swallow this after I leave, and complete your mission. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity kid, don’t throw it away out of foolish ignorance.”
There was a moment of silence before Salius responded, “Okay, even if I believed you somehow, there is no empress; don’t you mean the Emperor?”
“Kill the Empress is the message, the rest is up to you.”
Salius replied with a smirk a few moments after reaching out to take the small fingernail length, liquid containing object from Claudius’s hand, “The rest is up to me? What are you even talking… Ok, ok, look, if you are a king and you command someone to complete some sort of special mission for you, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to make sure that said person at least knows where to start? And I don’t mean to indicate that I believe you; I’m just saying, logically, that would be the case, am I wrong?”
Claudius answered with a slight grin, “You want to know where to start; why didn’t you just say so? This, I can help you with. Go to the village called Lituss which lies to the east of here. Once you arrive, ask about a place they will know as the Forest Around the Mountain. Then, if you are vigilant, you should find a man there, in the forest, who will point you in the right direction. And if he likes you, he may teach you how to swing that new blade of yours; of course that’s only if you survive the forest.”
The man known as Claudius, suddenly rose and walked down from the creaking wooden deck before turning as he continued, “Be confident; you have been chosen to accomplish a truly noble purpose.
“Well, you have a choice to make and, should you choose correctly, a long difficult journey ahead of you, so I shall not keep you any longer… Oh I almost forgot, as a chosen agent of the King Unseen your new name, your new identity, should you choose to accept, is Zealot.”
Before he finally turned to go on his way, the stranger finished, “I bid you farewell.”
Salius replied politely, raising his hand in return, “Farewell.”
He continued to watch as Claudius walked away in the direction from which he had come, until the man finally disappeared out of sight beyond the golden, sun shimmering, rolling hills.
What a strange… appearance. What if it is true? Could it be true?
Despite some of the ridiculous things which he had said, Claudius himself didn’t seem crazy to Salius, and it was well known that reading is a mark of nobility.
An hour or two passed as many different thoughts filled Salius’ mind, strange thoughts. Even though the very idea of what the man had said was nothing short of lunacy, Salius could not silence the, what if. He knew that the object which he now held in front of his face could be as perilous as poison, but there was still that, what if. The, what if, had so much power in the mind of someone like Salius, someone who was desperate to be free, to be complete.
Suddenly, because of the power, the authority he had now in this moment given to simple and desparate hope which had voiced itself subtly as, what if; he put the object into his mouth deciding that the miniscule chance of freedom was worth the potential price of crushed hope or worse, death. Then, Salius immediately closed his eyes in the grip of anxiety, and swallowed.
Nothing happened… but then… after a few moments, Salius began to feel something which he had not felt since childhood; his legs.
Could it really be working? No, it can’t be.
Suddenly, Salius felt his right leg twitch. Then opening his eyes he watched as the muscles which had previously been shriveled and worthless, restored themselves rapidly to full strength. Salius moved his leg easily, as a test, before, feeling the immense joy overcome his disbelief, he leapt off of his chair and onto the ground. Tears streamed down his face as the current happiness overcame years worth of sorrow, pain, and hopelessness.
As Salius ran through the fields of tall windblown grass, he knew right then that the man who called himself Claudius had not just healed his body, but in the process, Salius felt as though his soul had also been healed. But, if what Claudius had said was true as Salius considered, then perhaps it was this King Unseen who deserved his thanks; after all, Claudius only claimed to be a king’s messenger.
Salius paused on a short hill some distance from the farmhouse and looked down at the weapon which he held in his grasp. Removing the intricately designed dagger from its sheath, Salius scanned his surroundings. Finding a spot near a tall tree which he saw in the distance, Salius pictured himself arriving there but facing in the direction of the farmhouse which was currently behind him. Then, slipping his index finger over the device which Claudius had called a trigger, he pulled it back.
Instantly he was there, standing in the exact spot which he had pictured, facing the farmhouse, hundreds of feet away from where he had just been standing. With a smile on his face he looked down at the weapon feeling his new identity as Zealot begin to take hold. Turning around to face the vast wilderness whose gates had just been opened to him, Salius’ smile faded slightly as he spoke, “Very well, I will do what is required of me, King, whoever you are; but first, I must have justice.”
407 Days before day 1
Salius stood, back turned toward the tree which was located one hundred feet away, holding a stick in his right hand and the dagger in his left. Upon glancing over his shoulder, Salius began his swing to the right in a turning backwards strike as he spun around pulling the trigger. Smack! His stick hit the tree mid-spin, perfect timing.
Salius had spent every waking hour practicing with the weapon over the past week. It was difficult to get the hang of it at first, but after running into the house, a rock, and more than a few trees, he began to get a feel for it; perfecting his technique, learning from his mistakes. And thanks to some sort of safety feature, which teleported him back to the ground automatically when he began to fall too fast after leaping into the sky, he wasn’t dead.
As Salius began to understand how the mechanism worked, he learned things like; whatever momentum he carried into the leap was continued after he arrived on the other side, essentially merely transporting him exactly as he was going into the leap. So if he spun going into the leap for example, than subsequently he would spin coming out. Salius learned that he could not only alter the height and distance of the leap, but he could also alter what direction he wanted to be facing upon exiting the leap as well. Finally, Salius learned that if he leaped high into the air, then he would need to make another leap immediately after, otherwise the safety feature, which apparently prevented him from breaking his legs, would automatically leap Salius straight back down to the ground. He saw that he could go as fast as he wanted forward, backward, side to side, even upward; only downward momentum seemed to be monitored and acted upon, a feature that Salius had decided was actually very useful.
Looking at the many marks he had made on the tree during the day’s beating, Salius reached his right hand out to rub one of the many places where the bark had been chipped away. He looked up at the tall tree’s many branches which spread out from its trunk over his head. Then Salius watched, as a mild wind gust rustled the decaying brown leaves causing two to float down off of the tree, disappearing into the tall stale grass below.
Being miles away from his home, somewhere upon the endless rolling hills in between his family’s farm and Minos, the small farming village which lay further to the south, Salius dropped the thick short stick which he had held in his right hand. As Salius moved away from the tree to catch a last glimpse of the sun as it fell before giving way to twilight, he marveled at the colors which reflected off of the distant clouds. He watched as a beautiful pink turned quickly to the subtle violet of twilight. Then as the twilight gave way to the darkness of night, Salius whispered into the shadows, “It is a fitting night… I will make you remember Centurion. Foot for foot, finger for finger, I will have my vengeance, and I will take from you what you took from me all those years ago… I have not forgotten… I will never forget…”
Salius, placing the dagger in his right hand, then began leaping in the direction of the dirt road which would take him to Minos.
It was more difficult to leap at night, as it was harder to see, causing him to teleport much shorter distances than during the daylight hours, cutting his overall speed down by half as a result.
Salius had told his family not to expect him back until long after nightfall, something which had become normal after the change. He liked covering vast distances which would be impossible for anyone else to traverse in one day, even on horseback. Salius discovered that he found great enjoyment in exploration, he loved to see new things, new places. In a sense, Salius was very much a new person who had been given a new start, and daily, aside from what he had dubbed, fighting practice, he fed his wanderlust. He was making up for the time lost, and his family had been very understanding of it after they had gotten past the shock which had been caused by Salius’ unexpected transformation.
Salius had stunned his father, mother, and two siblings a week ago as he went out to greet them upon their return to the farm. In fact it was so unthinkable to them that they thought he was someone else for more than a few moments, his mother even going so far as to entertain ridiculous notions of diviners and skin changers. His father and brother being the first to come to their senses, realizing that the impossible had become reality, had moved quickly to embrace Salius with the women following in suit. All of them had been overcome with joy, and Salius continued to tell them all that had happened down to the last detail. After all, why would they not believe his story when the fact that he was standing before them was already not possible, yet it was. The following day was then spent in delightful celebration.
Yes things were good, things were finally good; but what remained of the old Salius was haunted by the actions of one man, and the banner under which he served. A man whose face was carved into the recesses of his mind, etched so deep that the hatred it caused threatened to rot the very soul of the newly reborn Salius. Yes, he knew deep inside that if he ever wanted to be truly free, if he ever wanted to truly embrace his new identity as Zealot, whatever that meant, then the final remnants of the old Salius must die with the Centurion.
After reaching the small sleepy town of Minos, Salius had continued on to the dirt road which led east. Then after a few minutes of leaping, he found another smaller dirt road which would lead to the nearby permanent Imperial encampment.
Even though the size of their armies are heavily regulated, the nations do rule themselves under the Empire partially, as their own entities, keeping their own peacekeeping forces on hand to enforce policies and protect their citizenry; of course that’s only as long as their policies don’t interfere with the Tiburon Empire’s interests. However the Empire does keep a substantial military presence within every nation anyway, to protect the roads, assist local peacekeeping forces, but most importantly to keep the kings and the nations which they rule in check. The kings, while trying to glorify the power of their thrones in the public eye, are, therefore, often treated by the overreaching Tiburon Empire as mere governors and statesmen, in truth having only the power of such.
Salius finally neared the small military encampment; the encampment which the Centurion had commanded for over twelve years now, apparently with no ambition for advancement beyond terrorizing and stealing from the locals. Then laying down on a small hill to the right of the narrow dirt road which brought one up to the currently barred wooden gates of the twenty foot tall wooden wall which went all the way around the camp, he saw soldiers walking to and fro atop the wall, monitoring the surrounding area by lantern light. The hill was not tall enough to see inside the walls of the encampment, but he did get a good picture of its size; it was definitely not small, but not large either.
Luckily tonight the moon’s light was relatively dim, a fact which allowed Salius to get within a few hundred feet without being seen as he hid in the brush. While laying in the grass, Salius twitched slightly upon feeling a large, slimy insect begin to crawl up his left hand. He allowed it to make its way up, as Salius feared he might be discovered should he try to shake or swat in an effort to free himself from its hold. Salius closed his eyes for a moment in an effort to keep calm, still, and concentrated, as he attempted to resist moving during the large insect’s uncomfortable march up his arm. He tried all the while to be positive by remaining thankful that it was not a serpent, scorpion, or anything else that could cause actual harm. Eventually Salius breathed a sigh of relief, reopening his eyes as the insect detached itself from his arm and crawled away.
At the same time that Salius prided himself in this small demonstration of willpower, he made a mental note of the fact that he remained unsure of his ability to maintain that same controlled will should the insect have continued to reach his face, or crawled down his shirt.
Salius had been disgusted by small and large insects alike, most specifically the slimy or crawling ones, since early childhood. He did not understand why he had this mostly unreasonable fear of the generally harmless creatures, a fear that neither his younger sister nor brother shared. But Salius knew that if he was going to be doing this type of sneaking around often, then he would need to get over it eventually, and remaining perfectly still while allowing one of the most despicable insects to crawl up his arm unchallenged, as he did just a moment ago, was a step in the right direction.
Salius refocused, putting his mind to task in an attempt to figure out how to complete the first part of this plan. Unfortunately the clearly apparent dilemma remained substantial as he realized, while watching the guards intently, that there was no way to whisk one of these soldiers which monitored the wall away, in an effort to steal his uniform, without alerting the others. Salius pondered this problem for some time as he thoroughly attempted to work through this issue in his mind. But, try as he did, Salius could find no other way around it; he couldn’t just charge in, blazing with unfounded confidence, as he wouldn’t even know where to locate the Centurion once he entered the encampment, not to mention the fact that Salius knew full well he couldn’t fight everyone. His practice had spoken volumes about how unready he was to do this in the first place. He was still only just beginning to learn how to use the unusual weapon which he had recently been given, not to mention the fact that he didn’t have any skill with a blade whatsoever to begin with. No, even though he had decided that he could wait no longer, he had also decided that fighting just four trained soldiers at a time, even with the ridiculous advantage which his unique weapon would lend, was pushing it to say the least, and any more than that would be suicide. The only thing he could do now was simply to stay in this spot for a while longer, hoping that luck would somehow present him with an unexpected gift of welcomed opportunity.
More time passed by as he watched the soldiers walking back and forth along the tall, thick wooden wall. Occasionally, Salius would see a guard be replaced as a fresh soldier took his shift. He also, once in a while, would see a man relieve himself over the side of the wall; and at times others would rest, leaning on their Spears, looking as though they were called by sleep’s seductive enchantment before they immediately snapped themselves out of rest’s charm by resuming a patrolling March. Sometimes Salius also saw the soldiers huddled together to talk for brief moment, and at times one would laugh heartily at a joke the other told before moving on to continue his duty. There was even a time when one soldier isolated himself from the others just enough that Salius was tempted to make his move. But Salius instead choose to remain, deciding it would be a risky move made out of impatience and the desperation he felt to achieve his goal.
Then suddenly, after much time had passed, Salius thought he heard a faint sound, a sound carried by the mild breeze which blew through his hair as he slowly cocked his head toward the direction from which he believed it had come. There it was again, still faint, but loud enough to make out the nay of a horse off in the distance, back toward the main road. It could be anyone, a villager, traveler, farmer, but what if it was an Imperial soldier, could he be that lucky?
Salius teleported immediately, dagger still in his right hand, leaping away from the encampment toward the noise; deciding that it was worth at least checking out the possibility, especially since he doubted any progress would be made by continuing to simply watch the wall.
He leaped again and again, heading toward the origin of the noise which he had heard. Finally, as he grew within sight, Salius leaped quietly behind a bush which overlooked the narrow dirt road that would take one straight from the main road, which led eastward, to the gates of the Imperial encampment which lay at the trail’s southern tip.
Excitement, neither negative nor positive, gripped Salius as he watched the lone uniformed Imperial soldier sit atop his horse as it trotted south at a patient pace. In this moment he hesitated with thoughts that kept him from moving to complete his plan. His hesitancy was caused not by the question of, could he do it? No, it had more to do with the far more difficult question of, should he do it? But the answer to this question remained elusive.
As Salius watched, the soldier moved forward undisturbed, and unabated by the knowledge that his fate was being decided at this very moment by the twenty one year old Salius, who currently performed the roles of both judge and executioner while skulking around in the shadows unnoticed.
Does he deserve to die?
In his reading, Salius had found much truth in Emperor Lucius’ simple, but famous quote, “In order to find the correct answer to a most complicated matter, it seems to me that one must first find the right question to ask, before one can even begin to postulate the answer to one’s quandary.”
And that, to Salius, was indeed the correct question; does this man deserve to die?
The answer was still difficult as he discovered within himself in these moments that, despite the personal importance of his agenda, he would not kill an innocent man. Salius could not personally verify whether or not the soldier had done anything that would, in Salius’ opinion warrant death, like murder. However, the man still volunteered, as he was clearly not a conscript judging by his uniform, to serve under a powerful man who had openly murdered countless men, women, and children. Since this fact was apparent to Salius, and the man was now standing directly in the way of justice, he decided that as long as the soldier stood in his way, voluntarily serving under Emperor Maximillian, the chiefest of murderers, then he at the very least was not innocent, and, therefore, Salius would consider him an enemy in the same way that one army fights another.
With certain decisiveness, Salius then silently teleported toward his enemy in mid-strike. Upon exiting his leap, after using the bottom of his dagger to impact the soldier’s head with as much force as he could muster, Salius hit the ground feet first as the soldier, not even having enough time to respond to Salius’ presence, fell off of his horse unconscious, hitting the ground with a loud impact as his open faced helmet tumbled away.
As Salius worked vigorously to remove the soldier’s Imperial gold colored uniform which had certain pieces of armor plate latched over the gold standard, he wondered to himself if this king which he now apparently served, would approve of the decision he chose to make. At that, he also pondered whether or not the king was a just king in the first place. Salius assumed so when he considered the message which the runes on his dagger pronounced. However many kings assert their own brand of justice, claiming the essence of their crimes to be righteous. But as far as Salius was concerned, a crime committed by king was the same as those committed by lesser men. It wasn’t a very popular opinion for those who wanted to keep their heads, but Salius never did care about what was popular, he only cared about what was right, about the truth. In that, Salius’ curiosity pondered about the potential existence of a king who felt the same way he did.
Wouldn’t that be something? A just king.
A few more moments passed by as Salius dressed himself in the gold colored, standard Imperial uniform. Then, putting out of his mind the unpleasant and slightly disturbing idea that he was indeed dressed in the very uniform of those which he despised, Salius reached for his dagger which he had placed near himself on the ground before walking over to the still unconscious nearly completely unclothed man. Salius then, after picking up the soldiers head, continued to end the man’s truly unfortunate life.
Now that the fallen soldier would not alert those in the encampment while Salius was sneaking around pretending to be one of them, Salius sheathed his dagger. If even one of the soldiers suspected something was awry, Salius would very likely be found out quickly, a chance which he could not take. Besides, Salius figured one less Imperial soldier would do the world some good anyways. Who knows how many innocent men, women, and children he had just saved. That alone did not justify killing, but it did give Salius some small amount of comfort as he briskly slipped his sheathed dagger into the satchel which the now slain soldier had been caring not long ago.
Many years before, Salius had vowed never again to ride a horse, so, after watching the dead soldier’s steed begin to trot away, Salius turned, heading in the opposite direction, toward his target, toward his long-awaited chance of obtaining some small amount of justice, toward retribution, and vengeance.
407 days before day 1
“Yes, I have a message for the centurion,” said Salius to a soldier who stood addressing him as he leaned over the top of the gates.
“Very well, open the doors,” commanded the soldier as he spoke to those who stood below at their posts on the inside of the tall double doored entrance.
Salius heard the sound of a plank being lifted from steel upward facing latches which braced the gates shut. Then, the entrance opened inwardly, before Salius, stepping forward, headed straight into the lion’s den with the satchel that contained his blade held close against his side. As he entered the encampment, which seemed somehow larger when standing on the inside than it had whilst observing it from the outside, Salius began to feel apprehension and anxiety once again rise to the surface, making him sweat as his heart began to pound in his chest. He quickly put his mind and body at ease, reassuring himself that his enemies, who now surrounded him, would not know him any different from any other Imperial messenger. Immediately his walk turned from that of nervous paranoia, to a walk of poise and confidence, which allowed him to move through the camp as if he was one of them, as if he belonged there.
Looking around, Salius saw that the camp was now dimly lit due to the fact that most, except for the few who were still on duty, were sleeping.
Salius, as he walked by, noticed the lanterns which were held up by hooks that protruded from certain posts which stood here and there throughout the encampment. He also observed the many tents which hosted the sleeping soldiers, some larger than others, scattered in loose groups all around. Many of the small, portable dwellings stood apart for the various, designated, small walking paths, such as the one which Salius currently traversed.
He glanced up to the right noticing a few wooden buildings near the wall, then, looking left, Salius saw one building far in the back which stood directly opposite to the gates. The large building was no doubt the officer’s quarters, but Salius knew that the Centurion wouldn’t necessarily be in occupation of his sleeping quarters at this time.
Seeing a campfire lit in the distance, Salius made casual movement in its direction, deciding that, as much as he hated the idea of asking for directions, it would probably end up saving valuable time, and therefore, be well worth the risk.
After walking a short distance, and nearly tripping on the outstretched foot of a soldier who decided to sleep out under the stars while allowing his leg to lay dangling out on the small narrow path, Salius began to hear hushed voices and occasional chuckles coming from the area surrounding the small fire as he neared. Coming within sight, Salius saw three men sitting around the fire talking to each other quietly so as not to disturb those who were trying to sleep. They continued to talk as Salius arrived unnoticed, “You never heard about the fall of Persus? How’s that possible? Oh yeah, I forgot, you’re new, and from the jungles of Southern Ameritus of all places. I’ll give you a break this time, but this is something you gotta’ know so listen up.
“The beautiful, towering stone pillars and statues of Persus are said to be as tall as mountains, for the vast city itself is built upon a mountainous sheer cliff which overlooks the docks that are built upon the sandy beaches which lie at the tall cliff’s base. In order to enter, one must travel through a wide canyon that goes through the middle of the cliff top city, before riding one of the many platformed pulley systems which line either side of the canyon that will pull one up the city’s gates; the gates which stand at either side on top of the enormous cliff. The only thing connecting both sides of the large divided city is a series of bridges which align the tops of the city walls that can take one from one side of the canyon to the other…”
The younger looking soldier sitting to the left clearly on the outside of the current discussion suddenly chimed in, “How are the women there?”
Suddenly the man who was listening intently to the soldier who had just been interrupted, responded in annoyance with a thick, suave, Ameritus accent, “What do you care, I thought you liked boys; now shut up and let the man talk.”
The soldier who was previously speaking about Persus, chuckled before continuing, “Well anyway, long story short, the only one to ever defeat the impregnable towering city was none other than Praetor Tiberius himself. Of course, after it was taken by the praetor over a few years ago, the Tet capital became permanently a part of Librium leaving its capture to forever symbolize Tet’s crushing defeat at the hands of the youngest legatus in history. I’m tellin’ you, the man’s a legend, unbeatable. Whatever he sets his sword to conquer, it’s defeat is inevitable, and that’s no doubt why the emperor both loves, and hates him. Well, that and the fact that Emperor Maximillian supposedly gave strict orders to break the siege and leave the Tet capital alone in the first place. See, Tiberius knew that Tet’s king would send the greater part of his army to reclaim Persus immediately, upon receiving word of the siege. And ultimately, the king fell into Tiberius’ trap which is how he stole the glory from Malcus who was slowed down by fighting in the canyons which protect Tet to the North.
“What I heard was that beforehand all of the legatus’ had laughed and scoffed at Tiberius, saying that an assault from the sea was impossible due to the cliffs which guard Tet’s coast. But, Tiberius thought otherwise and responded by sailing his armies straight to Persus; a move which most thought was foolhardy of course. See, Tiberius thought that the armies which guarded Tet would withdraw the city’s pulleys to the top, locking themselves inside their walls instead of guarding the wide canyon that acts as Tet’s gateway from the coast. Well, his gamble paid off and he marched his armies straight through the canyon, laying siege to the city, in turn letting Tet’s armies come to him; then the praetor set a trap which was simply brilliant…”
Salius, growing impatient, interrupted, “Excuse me but I’m here to deliver a message to your centurion.”
The man who was speaking turned immediately, startled slightly by the unexpected intrusion, “Of course, yeah he’s probably over in the command tent.”
“Thank you,” said Salius as he turned and began walking in the direction to which the man pointed after speaking.
The command tent was not difficult to find as many lanterns lit the open faced tent which, as a result, acted almost like a beacon amidst the faded light of the dark encampment. Upon closing the distance, Salius saw three men circling a large square table which stood between them. The man in the middle was pointing to a map which lay on the table while either discussing with, or giving commands to the two other officers of lower rank.
There he was, Salius would never forget the face of the man in the middle; it was him, the Centurion. He walked quicker now as he approached, still maybe a hundred feet away. Anger and solemn hatred rose to the surface causing a resolute focus as his heart began to pound, and his mouth began to dry. Salius reached down into the satchel which hung at his left side. He felt for the dagger as it lay amongst his peasant clothes; a raggedy once white shirt, loose legged pants which had been patched up more than once, and a pair of suspenders to keep his pants from falling to his knees. Salius pulled out his dagger as the officer to his left, noticing him, said, “Yes, what is it soldier? Wait… Centurion!”
But it was too late for him as Salius, standing over fifty feet away just a second ago, had already leaped, severing the officer’s throat. As the dying officer’s abrupt warning trailed off with a gurgle, Salius leaped to the other side of the table while the other two drew their swords and a few in the camp began to stir. Salius, exiting his leap by mistake right in front of the second officer, was immediately impacted by a reflexive fist which came flying in his direction. Salius reeled backward, spinning uncontrollably as the large heavyset man’s blow threatened unconsciousness. But, the determined Salius speedily recovered from his mistake, regained his bearing, teleporting quickly behind his attacker as the man’s sword cleaved through the space which Salius had just occupied. After sticking his curved blade into the officer’s neck, he withdrew it, teleporting just a few feet outside of the tent in order to lure the charging centurion away from the tent’s umbrella and into wide open space.
Yelling as he charged, the Centurion fell into Salius’ trap; and with his finger on the trigger, Salius then waited for the right moment. Upon nearing, the Centurion, being a smart man and therefore catching on quick, turned to strike behind himself thinking that Salius would do to him the same thing which he had done to the other two. But Salius having made exaggerated movement to cause the Centurion to believe that Salius would teleport, simply stood still as the man made his mistake. Not wanting to waste the opportunity he had just gained, Salius, in this moment, as the officer’s back was turned to him, reached out, grabbing the man’s collar with his left hand, pulling the trigger.
Salius let go of the man as he exited the leap which brought them past the wall, thirty to forty feet up in the air. He immediately pulled the trigger again, placing himself beside were he had anticipated his enemy would impact the surface. Now standing on the ground, Salius patiently waited a full moment as he watched the Centurion fall to the ground beside him, feet first. Pop! Snap! Salius winced at the gruesome sound which the man’s legs made as they shattered. With the incapacitated officer screaming in agony, Salius then reached down, grabbing hold of him before leaping him away from the shouts of the soldiers who were scrambling inside of the wooden fortress to rescue their commander from the phantom who had just whisked him away in the night.
Salius leaped again and again until he was far enough away to be sure that he and his mark would not be disturbed.
The Centurion, still writhed in pain as Salius moved his left hand up to see if his currently bleeding nose was broken in the place where the lower ranking officer had struck him. Finding that it was still intact with its bleeding already beginning to slow, Salius moved to a nearby rock, and, after throwing off his helmet, he sat, patiently awaiting the murderer’s screams to come to an end.
Salius admitted to himself while waiting, that he was slightly disturbed with the small amount of pleasure he took from watching this man suffer. But, he quickly decided that it wasn’t the agony itself which he found enjoyment in, rather, Salius enjoyed the justice which it symbolized.
Finally, as some time past, the vile man’s screams began to fade, turning to whimpers. He then spoke, after glancing once again at his mangled misshapen legs, “Who are you?”
Salius responded quickly, “I am… Zealot.”
There was a pause before Salius continued, “You don’t remember me do you. Well, it’s not surprising, I mean why would you, I was just a child last time we met.”
The Centurion, replied only with a blank stare as Salius went on, “See, many years ago I had a friend named Silara. She was the daughter of the family who had owned the neighboring farm, and, after our families became close friends, she and I spent countless hours together as children. I still remember vividly how we used to run through the fields out by our homes, playing games, and exploring till the sun fell and the moon rose. She was kind, always wearing a joyful smile on her face, like her mother; happy, and carefree. On many an evening, after our two families ate supper together, Silara and I would lay outside and gaze upon the night sky. Silara knew all of the constellations, even though it was my mother who was the educated one, and she would recite them to me for hours as we watched for falling stars. But, all that changed when a centurion arrived unexpectedly on a warm summer day.
“If I recall correctly, about a week before, as I discovered after the incident, while Silara and her family were in town, a centurion came across Silara’s mother. Thinking she was beautiful, the Imperial officer began to aggressively flirt with her in the Minos general store. She would have none of it, so, eventually, Silara’s mother struck him before leaving in tears. He allowed her to leave, and the family thought that the incident was behind them, but they thought wrong. A week later my father, mother, and two younger siblings, leaving me to stay with Silara’s family, left to go into town for the day. Well, later on, at about noon, Silara and I, after hearing an
ruckus off in the distance, began charging through the grain fields back toward her home to see what all the commotion was about. After nearing the house, I froze upon witnessing one of the soldiers suddenly begin to hack away at Silara’s father with a sword ill-equipped to handle an execution by beheading. I could hear his gurgling screams and pleas as the soldiers took turns hacking at his neck, trying to find a blade which was sharp enough to cleave through the bone. He died before they finished, and as I was close enough to hear the words you spoke, I listened as you rebuked your soldiers for not keeping their swords sharp. Then as you grabbed the dead man’s beautiful wife, picking her up as she had previously been held down by your men, you mocked her with a smile saying, ‘Well, you’re not married now’.”
Salius’ rage grew as he continued to recite the incident, “As you attempted to take her honor, Silara’s mother fought back. But, as she fought back you threw the small woman through the air. You killed her on accident as she fell headfirst onto a large jagged rock,” Salius paused for a brief moment before going on, “Frustrated by the accident, you then set the house on fire before you and your men mounted your horses. Silara, overcoming her shock ahead of me, had already bolted toward her now deceased parents. Before I could stop her you rode forward, trampling over Silara on your steeds, silencing her cries of pain and loss which still to this day echo through my mind. You rode away as I held her. She wheezed painfully while staring up at the sky, the life fading from her eyes. At the end she tried to tell me something, but she couldn’t, she was too broken to speak, her lungs and bones having been crushed well beyond any chance of life. After a moment she quit trying, and as a tear rolled down her cheek she breathed her last agonizing breath in this world.”
Salius stopped as his voice choked up, eyes
with sorrow. Then suddenly, being filled with all manor of emotion which could be caused by such tragedy and injustice, he lashed out, shouting with a suppressed rage that he did not know had been so deeply entrenched within himself, lurking for years in the shadows of his soul, “Silara, deserved more than that!”
Salius paused again before he went on through clenched teeth, as the deep sadness and raging furry became nearly more than he could bear, “But, the story doesn’t end there, no, and you’re going to hear it before I let you die. See, I wept for a few minutes before the rage set in. I wanted vengeance, I wanted justice, so not thinking clearly I picked up a dagger that one of your soldiers had left behind and ran to the stable which was nearby. I was barely able to mount a horse, but having had a few previous lessons I managed. Little did I know, the horse I picked was the most skittish horse which Silara’s father had owned and was not yet meant to be ridden. So as I charged after you, full speed, screaming with fury while I rode blade in hand, the horse bucked before tumbling over me, permanently paralyzing me from the waist down.
“I was lucky my father found me or else I would have died that day, and you would have lived.”
The Centurion, began laughing before he spoke as Salius stood, walking toward the broken villain who lay across the ground mere feet way, “I do remember you; that was what, ten years ago? I remember the girl too, pretty thing; and her mother, too bad she died. Good for her, bad for me.”
At that, Salius leaned over grasping the hair of the Centurion’s head. Placing his dagger’s point over the man’s heart, Salius replied before plunging his blade into the man’s chest, “Blood for blood.”
After stabbing the man many times in anger, Salius stood, wiping the now deceased officer’s blood from his eyes.
It is done; the old Salius dies with you, and a new Salius rises.
Salius then, after taking the dead man’s unneeded coin purse, leapt away toward a creek which was in the vicinity to clean himself off and get changed, hoping to arrive back at his father’s farm before sunrise.
406 days before day 1
A gusty, partly cloudy day beckoned Salius out of his fathers abode and into the outdoors. The wind had a bit of a chill today, not that it bothered Salius as his light wool coat was sufficient for the days wondering. However, the chill did serve to complement the solemn melancholy which he had awoken to not long ago.
After the successful completion of the task which Salius had set out to do on the previous night, he had returned just before the sunrise, sneaking back into his room without allowing anyone the knowledge of his late arrival. No one bothered him about waking up a few minutes past noon, although he knew that that would change should it become a habit. But, it wouldn’t become a habit, not just because of Salius’ discipline about such things, but more because he knew, even though he had not mentioned it to his family yet, that he would not be here for much longer. He loved his family, but he was about to take the path which was placed before him, a mysterious path, a path which would take him far away from everything and everyone he had ever known. To fight his call to task would be foolish, as all that had happened within this past week, even though most of it truly surpassed his understanding, gave proof, lending credence to all which the stranger who had called himself Claudius had told him. No, he was an agent of a king now, as the stranger had made it indirectly clear that accepting the healing which had been given to him was no different than taking an oath of service. After his transformation, Salius knew one thing with absolute certainty; everything had changed and everything was about to change.
Salius walked through the tall grass before stopping near a patch of beautiful violet roses dotted with pink wildflowers. Removing the dagger from his satchel Salius bent down to cut the stems of eleven roses before gently placing flowers into his satchel which hung at his left side. He then moved to pluck a few of the pink wildflowers before he continued his solemn patient gate toward the burnt ruins. As Salius walked forward from the place he had just been standing, somewhere in between his home and the long abandoned neighboring farm, he was close enough now to be able to visually recognize the ruin that was once a tall beautiful farmhouse in which had dwelt a kind pleasant family, and for him, many of his most happy memories.
He walked for some time before arriving at the three tombstones which rested near the two burnt but still standing walls of the ten-year-old ruin. Salius glanced around at the wild, unkept, overgrown brush which threatened to bury even the memory of this place.
Moments afterward, the tombstones, which were covered by the overgrowth before Salius had cut it away just a few moments ago, now drew his attention as he stood before one grave in particular.
Salius removed his satchel, which contained the flowers that he had brought, from his shoulder, placing it gently on the ground beside himself as he sat in front of her grave. After taking a moment to close his eyes, feeling the gusty prairie winds rush up against his face, he then opened them before he began, “How long has it been since I last came to visit you my friend?… Too long I suppose.”
Salius let a few moments pass before continuing with a peaceful smile, “Sometimes I wonder what you would have looked like had things been different. You would’ve been beautiful, of that I am sure…,” he let his words trail off before going on, “Do you think we would have married, had children, and worked a farm of our own? Or do you think perhaps we would we have chosen to remain friends, going our separate ways?… Well I suppose it doesn’t really matter now, does it. But still, I do think on it from time to time.”
Salius paused, letting his mind wander as he looked about, taking in the scenery. Then, after glancing up at the cloud which had just moved out from underneath the sun, giving Salius welcomed warmth as the sun’s rays again brightly illuminated the surrounding area, he laughed to himself before he again spoke, “I was just thinking about that time you stole from me to prevent me from receiving what I’m sure would have been the beating of beatings. Do you remember?… I had stolen that small knife from the general store while we were in Minos that one day. While we were there in the store, thinking myself clever and having had my eye on it for months, I decided to take matters into my own hands. So after slipping it into my pocket the shopkeeper grabbed me before I could make it out the door. Little did I know that you had slipped it out of my pocket when I wasn’t looking, and placed the knife back on the shelf exactly where it had been sitting before I snatched it. Oh, the look on the shopkeeper’s face when, after searching my pockets, he found nothing? Hah, I was just as surprised as the shopkeeper had been. Goodness, how many beatings did you saved me from anyway?”
After he finished reciting what, over the years, had become a very pleasant memory, a blue and yellow colored butterfly flitted by, eventually coming to rest on Silara’s grave. Salius continued as his smile faded, “They were good times… But, I suppose either by the point of a sword, failed outcomes, or by the passage of time itself, all things, all good things, eventually come to an end. The one thing which I’ve seen that can always be counted on is change.”
After a moment of silence, Salius stood, and after watching the butterfly flit away he reached for his satchel. Pulling out the flowers, Salius carefully placed them onto Silara’s grave before saying, “Well, I fulfilled the promise which I had made to you all those years ago upon your burial; I have given you justice. And now I have come to say my final goodbye and pay my last respects… I hope that I was as good to you after your death as you were to me in life… Well Silara, I guess this is where we finally part ways; I doubt I will be through here again.”
Before turning to leave, Salius finished, “Be at peace my friend… Goodbye.”
Then, facing toward his family’s farm, Salius began to walk, head hung low, with the satchel hung around his neck. He breathed deeply, hoping to put the sadness of the moment behind himself as he took one step after another. But, the sadness lingered, like the winter rain storms which seemed at times as if they would stay forever, blotting out all pleasant memory of the sun. Salius knew that eventually it would fade, just like he knew in the winter months that the clouds would eventually part for spring to herald the coming summer. However, Salius also realized that summer only welcomes those who have endured the winter, so likewise, he must continue to endure both present sorrow, and the sadness yet to come. Salius, not wanting to dwell on the past any longer, reached for his blade, then after pulling the trigger he began leaping back toward the farmhouse.
On his way back, Salius saw his father fiddling with a tool outside of his work shed which was near the small stable. Salius then diverted, leaping in his direction.
Salius’ father spoke, slightly startled by his son’s abrupt appearance, “I’ll never get used to that.”
Salius attempted a smile as he responded, “A wise man once told me that enough time and repetition will make anything normal.”
Salius’ father Fasius replied while thoroughly wiping a metal piece with a rag, “Well, whoever said that didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“That’s interesting, because it was you who said it,” answered Salius.
Fasius, turning to face him, winked with a subtle grin as he said, “I know.”
The forty-year-old man, after placing down his work, then asked, “So, what is it?”
“Well father, we need to talk.”
“I figured as much. Come pull up a seat.”
Salius, after fetching a stool, then sat down a few feet away before he went on, “I’ve done some thinking; after considering all that has happened, and after considering what the man named Claudius had said, I’ve decided that I need to go. I need to set upon the task which I had accepted the moment that I allowed the healing to take place. I feel as if I have sworn an oath, and judging by the words which were spoken by Claudius, I believe that feeling to be well-founded.”
Fasius paused for a moment before responding, “You, even when you were a child, were not like your brother or sister Salius. See, both your brother and sister are happy here on the farm, they do their work and their chores living in full contentment with their lives the way they are. Your brother enjoys working on the farm, hoping to work his own and raise a family someday just like me. Then, your sister delights in the prospect of being a home keeper, in marrying a simple man with a steady simple way of life like your mother. But you are different, you’ve always been different. You have always had this unquenchable need to explore, to see, feel, and hear new things. You also love academia and the search for knowledge; in fact, I’ve known for a long time that books were your means for exploring this world without the use of your legs. But, aside from your love of the arts and academia, there has always been something that drives you, something which no one else in your family has, it is something that I can only describe as this… need for more. Because of this need, this desire for something of which you do not know, you unlike your brother will never be satisfied here… Son, I do not know how it’s possible that these things have come to pass, nor do I pretend to know why, but perhaps the reason you are the way that you are is because you are special, chosen for a unique purpose… All things being considered, one piece of advice that I can give you is that nothing in this world is truly free, and to think that you have been given such an amazing gift without any strings attached would be foolish. My life experience, which has taught me this truth, makes me certain that since you have chosen to accept this gift, you must do what the giver requires in return; or else the giver might take what has been given away, and turn to give it to another that will do what he asks. And if this… King Unseen as you called him is actually not a king but is instead a god, well, this truth is all the more real concerning gifts which are given by them… What I’m saying Salius is that while your mother and I love you, I think that you should go and use this opportunity to find out there, whatever it is you’re looking for. Then, maybe, when you are through, you will join us again.”
A few minutes of silence then passed before both Salius and Fasius stood, and as they warmly embraced, Salius spoke, “I love you father.”
“I love you too son, and you will always have a place in my house.”
The following morning was warm and pleasant. The sun hovered in the sky, it’s light reaching the ground unabated by clouds. A calm, unusually warm breeze for autumn, blew through the fields almost as if the air itself gave a kind of farewell greeting to the young Salius as he walked along the road.
Salius, having woken up early in the morning, had wanted to begin his journey promptly. His mother did not take the news of his leaving so soon well, none of them had except his father; but, as he left, they all warmly bid him farewell, goodbye tears were shed, and his journey had begun.
After arriving at Minos, Salius had decided to wait for the next town before buying new clothes with some of the deceased centurion’s coin, as he didn’t want to risk the possibility of someone potentially recognizing him and wondering where he had gotten all of the coinage from, due to the possibility that it might cause trouble for his family whom he had so recently left behind.
Having now recently exited Minos, Salius turned and looked back at the city, realizing that this was the point at which he would truly leave everything he had ever known behind. Then, not pausing for another moment, Salius, after taking a deep breath, turned east with dagger in hand. He immediately pulled the trigger without hesitation, launching himself on a journey which would lead him to places unimaginable, to outcomes unthinkable, to choices which can never be undone.
…Praetor, one of ours can be seen in the distance.”
As Tiberius quickly awakened from a deep sleep, he spoke in reply to the man who had been given temporary command of the Andromeda during the previous night’s escape from Kingsgate, “Where?”
“Over there,” said the soldier who pointed as Tiberius rose to his feet.
Tiberius’ servant then continued, “There’s only one my Lord Praetor, but you did instruct me to inform you immediately upon the sighting of one of your ships.”
“Indeed I did, thank you Commander Raulph. Have the Andromeda on course to intercept, I wish to converse with her captain.”
“Of course, it will be done immediately,” said Raulph in a thick Gahnen accent before shouting out his orders to turn to starboard, putting the Andromeda on course in obedience to Tiberius’ command.
Raulph had been Kanii’s first officer for nearly as long as Kanii had been the Andromeda’s captain. Tiberius had kept his eye on the man at first, unsure of the wisdom of Kanii’s choice. But Raulph have proven himself more than competent, and significantly trustworthy, both as sailor and warrior. In fact, perhaps he was too successful in his position, as any attempt by Tiberius to give Raulph his own command would surely be met by never ending grief which Kanii would heap upon Tiberius in private. Kanii was very particular about who she wanted as her first officer, and she would not respond well to any order which would remove Raulph from her command. In essence the Andromeda’s first officer was currently both incredibly fortunate due to his job security, and at the same time incredibly unfortunate due to the fact that he could not, at this time, climb any further up the ladder of rank and position. Of course, Tiberius didn’t know whether or not Raulph even wanted a command of his own, even though the man in Tiberius’ opinion was well-qualified.
Tiberius had often pondered the idea of making Kanii his first admiral. He decided that two things withheld him from making that decision, as Kanii was more than capable of performing the position adequately; for one, Tiberius still wasn’t sure if he trusted her enough yet, and two, Tiberius selfishly wanted Kanii to remain in her present position, as secretly he simply liked having her around. However, Tiberius decided that his current judgment on the matter could change at anytime, and should it change, Raulph would be the obvious candidate to take over command of the Andromeda. Was that the reason Raulph never made mention of promotion? Perhaps; it’s possible Raulph was intelligent enough to simply ride the wave, waiting for Tiberius to make his inevitable decision.
Tiberius winced as he touched the cloth which currently covered is now vacant eye-socket. The pain was still excruciating, though not nearly as awful as it had been before he had fallen asleep. The wound throbbed, continuously reminding him of what he had lost, of what the vile Legatus Malcus who, as Eleven had hesitantly informed him not long ago, was still alive and well had taken from him. But, of course, the pain would eventually fade, and Tiberius understood that the most difficult part was, and would continue to be, in training his body to function as it had before, with the use of only one eye. Tiberius had already found that the true difficulty he faced without the use of both of his eyes was in compensating for a decreased depth perception; something which wouldn’t perhaps make a big difference when regarding the day-to-day, but dueling practice however, would need to become a high priority.
Tiberius turned his attention to the six soldiers who had previously been stationed on board to sail and defend him upon his escape. Two had fallen to stray arrows leaving only Raulph and the six which now worked the ship as the stationed crew’s survivors. Tiberius had no idea how many had survived the shield wall, but he did know, by what he had seen, that the number of survivors would be small indeed.
Tiberius, had to admit that he was moved by the bravery of his men, as they fought a losing battle in a valiant effort to rescue their commander. While watching for a brief moment from his ship after sounding the retreat, he had taken note that not one of his men had retreated before the command was given. They, all of them, stood their ground for loyalty’s sake, resolute in their cause, with strength and bravery. Tiberius soon would write down all of the survivor’s names in his personal notebook that he kept below deck, which he had titled, “The Loyal and The Valiant”.
It was a cold, but sunny day at sea and Tiberius listen to the short swells which were currently being parted by the Andromeda’s bow while it briskly sliced through the water. He looked up at the sky to gauge the height of the sun which indicated that it was near noon as the mildly icy wind blew through his hair. Then, Tiberius again turned his gaze to look across the endless ocean.
It was peaceful today, fairly calm and serene. The wind which blew from the Southeast filled the ship’s sails, causing the Andromeda to cruise along at a relatively slow but active pace, and while making these observations, Tiberius’ mind turned again to more present matters.
“Soldier,” called Tiberius to someone nearby.
“Yes my Lord,” responded the soldier as he approached.
“Fetch the prisoner and bring her to me.”
“As you wish,” the soldier replied before leaving to do as Tiberius had commanded.
Tiberius stood facing away from Gretel as she emerged from below moments later, escorted by two soldiers. He then turned to face her before she spoke in reference to his missing eye, “It seems as if you have returned with fewer parts than you left with.”
Ignoring Gretel, Tiberius immediately responded, “You might be pleased to learn that I have at last come to a proper test; it is simple and brief. Should you offer the correct answer to the question which I’m about to ask, then you are indeed who you claim to be. However, if you answer incorrectly, then you will die. Are you prepared to respond to my inquisition?
“Ask and I will answer.”
Tiberius then continued, “Very well, then no more time should be wasted. What is the name of your mother?”
Gretel replied without pause, “Our mother’s name was Helga.”
Tiberius, taken back by Gretel’s correct answer, grew silent. He then turned back toward the sea, leaning forward on the rail.
Could it be true?
Tiberius knew, at this point, that reason dictated Gretel must be telling the truth, as there was no other logical explanation to explain how she would be able to know that name; unless she was working for Malcus, but he thought that very doubtful. Tiberius also came to the realization that, judging by his own surprise at the fact that she had answered correctly, he had indeed expected her to die today.
Regaining control of his thoughts, keeping his word, and choosing to remain on the side of reason, Tiberius spoke, “Release Gretel from her chains; she is no longer a prisoner here.”
Tiberius could hear the clinking iron as Gretel’s shackles were being removed. Then, after the noises stopped, he waited a moment or two before he turned to face the sweat soaked, golden haired rebel. She looked toward him with an awkward look that asked; do you believe me now?
Suddenly Tiberius became overwhelmed with both feelings of joy and at the same time regret, as he began to accept what he now understood must be the truth.
Immediately, Tiberius moved forward to embrace the woman which stood before him. Gretel opened her arms, in turn welcoming the gesture. Then, as they both stood in reunions warm embrace, Tiberius spoke, “Forgive me sister.”
Gretel quickly followed, her voice little more than a whisper, “There is nothing to forgive.”
They stood together for some time, arms wrapped around each other, quietly relishing the moment. Tiberius’ attention then shifted to his escort ship as it neared on the Andromeda’s port side. He gently moved out of Gretel’s grasp, turning slightly to his left as he spoke, “There are so many things which I wish to discuss, so many questions… We have so much to catch up on, but for now I must return to business, after all, I am still the legatus of this army.”
Gretel replied with a smile as she swiped at a tear or two which had fallen down her cheeks a few moments ago, “Of course, and I have many questions for you as well. But I suppose it can wait a little longer.”
Tiberius responded with a smile before fully turning toward the approaching vessel, “Indeed.”
A little more time passed as Tiberius and Gretel watched the separate crews tethered the two ships together.
Tiberius had been significantly relieved upon seeing that both Kanii and Zackarius were alive and well. Despite growing somewhat fond of Kanii, had he lost her she would have been truly difficult to replace, and as for Zackarius; well, he liked the kid. However, he would be remiss to admit that all of his worry was gone, as he did take note of the fact that Jaimus was not among them.
Where is that old man?
“Oh, it’s so good to see you again,” said Kanii as she set foot on the Andromeda before walking straight past Tiberius, continuing on until she began gently caressing the wooden mast.
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it,” Kanii continued.
“Well Captain, when you’re done making love to the ship I’d like to speak to you,” said Tiberius after rolling his eyes.
Kanii, ignoring Tiberius, leaned forward to kiss the mast before leaning back to speak as she patted the Andromeda in a loving gesture, “Ugh, I know, he always does that, so impatient. (Sigh…) Well we’ll have to catch up some other time.”
Some of the soldiers who stood about looked at each other with puzzled expressions; expressions which revealed the fact that, at the moment, they clearly questioned the woman’s sanity. Then, as Kanii turned to look about, the soldiers which had stopped their work to stand and casually gawk, immediately looked away, resuming whatever task they had previously been performing.
The captain, making steps toward the annoyed Tiberius, continued, “Well, thank you for keeping my ship in one piece, Praetor.”
“You mean my ship?” responded Tiberius.
“Oh, technicalities, technicalities,” replied Kanii with an over exaggerated eye roll, before resuming, “You know, I’d think you should be more grateful, because if I recall correctly, it was I who just got done saving your sorry ass.”
After making a quick glance at Eleven, who raised his head instantly to look in her direction from the corner which he sat in, Kanii corrected, “Well, Eleven helped a little of course, but I did all of the heavy lifting.”
Kanii then looked back at the masked man who was still staring directly at her. She again rolled her eyes before correcting herself, “Okay, alright, a lot of the heavy lifting. There, are you satisfied enough not to kill me in my sleep now.”
Eleven chuckled under his mask before responding, “I will not kill you unless the praetor wishes it. However, if the praetor no longer concerned himself with your well-being… I wouldn’t kill you in your sleep, that I promise.”
Kanii watched for a moment as the ruthless assassin turned his attention back to the piece of wood which he had been whittling. She subtly gulped before looking back to see Tiberius’ equally subtle grin forming, “Anything else Captain?”
There was a brief pause before Kanii gave reply, “Nope, I Uh… I think that’s it.”
“Good, I was going to thank you for staying to make my escape possible; so thank you. Also I commend your success, and you as well Zackarius; I caught a glimpse of you fighting on the battlefield, you stood your ground beside some of my best warriors, well done.”
Before either Kanii or Zackarius had a chance to respond, Tiberius went on, “Now where is Jaimus?”
Zackarius began to speak but was quickly cut off by Kanii, “He um… he didn’t make it to the ships before we left. We don’t know what happened to him.”
“I see, well he may still be alive, the man is nothing if not crafty. I suppose all we can do at this point is hope for the best,” Tiberius responded.
“I did receive an old tattered book which I assumed he meant to deliver to you,” Zackarius said, speaking up.
“Really? Well good, do you still have it?”
“I placed it below deck next to your other things before going into battle; it should still be there,” Zackarius answered.
“Very well,” acknowledged Tiberius before he continued, turning his attention back to Kanii, “Let us cut this short as we are currently, no doubt as we speak, being pursued by Malcus’ fleet under the authority of none other than the emperor himself. You are to resume your post as acting captain of the Andromeda, and as such make the appropriate transfers and have us on course to arrive at my Army’s encampment on the eastern coast of the Red Isles as soon as possible.
“Of course,” responded Kanii.
“And Kanii, do what you do best, we are under the clock,” continued Tiberius.
“Have I ever failed you before,” replied Kanii with a mischievous smile.
“No, but you worry me sometimes,” Tiberius finished.
At that Kanii laughed before saying, “That’s because you need to loosen up, Commander.”
Immediately after she finished speaking to Tiberius, Kanii turned and began shouting her orders. Tiberius then walked over to his favorite spot and sat, motioning for Gretel to sit beside him. After seating herself, Gretel spoke first, “She’s quite something.”
Tiberius chuckled before replying, “Indeed, that she is. She’s a little crazy, but she gets the job done; and better, she probably hates the Empire more than you do.”
“I don’t know about that.”
A few moments of silence followed as Tiberius and Gretel leaned back, watching the newly formed puffy clouds move here and there across the skies canvas. Then, after once again checking his bandage with two fingers, Tiberius asked, “Tell me, what was our mother like?”
The legatus’ eyes suddenly opened from a restful sleep. Then, as the commander rose slowly to a sitting position, he rubbed his still groggy eyes before moving his arms to stretch out as he yawned. His elaborate officers tent was close enough to the camp to hear thousands of soldiers moving about their business, but far enough away that the ruckus caused by the soldiers was not enough to completely shatter the relatively peaceful morning which Justinian had just awoken to.
After Justinian stood up from his featherbed, he dressed himself in proper uniform before reaching for the sword which was sitting upon his nightstand. Justinian, then walked out of the bedroom after pushing aside the separation curtain, and waltzed into the main room where a personal servant, two guards, and a servant of Legatus Cristoff stood in anticipation of Legatus Justinian’s emergence.
The main room bore two tent flaps at the front, a large, squared, chart table to Justinian’s right, near the center, and a small circular dining table surrounded by three chairs which currently stood in front of Justinian near the tent flaps.
As soon as Justinian made his appearance, his servant then moved to open the tent flaps before tying them in place, giving an eagle’s eye view of the truly vast encampment from the dining table which sat inside the officers tent as it rested on an overlooking hilltop. After flitting his hand, a motion which told the guards that they were relieved, he spoke to Cristoff’s servant, “Yes, what is it?”
“My legatus has sent me to inform you that he might be a tad late this morning.”
Justinian then responded, “I see, and what is it this time?”
“Which answer would you prefer my Lord, his exact words, or a more… proper accounting?”
“What did he tell you to say, specifically?”
“Well my Lord if you wish, but I’m eager to remind you that they are his words, not mine.”
“Of course, continue.”
Nervously, the servant paused for a brief moment before going on as instructed, “Very well, Legatus Cristoff informed me specifically to tell you that; he has a hangover the size of your… damned ego, which subsequently will prevent him from being on time to another one of your useless, unnecessary, early-morning meetings…”
The servant then stopped as if there was more but he was unwilling to continue.
“Yes, continue,” ordered Justinian patiently, seemingly undisturbed by what the servant had just spoken.
The servant then hesitantly went on, “Well, before I could leave to deliver the message he told me to also inform you that you are a…”
The servant again paused for a long moment before finishing, “A pompous son of a whore.”
Justinian then continued in a calm regal manner, “I see, well, inform Legatus Cristoff that if he doesn’t get his drunken ass out of bed soon, then this pompous son of a whore is going to walk down there and drag him to our scheduled meeting by his own manhood. And please be sure to use my exact words.”
“I… I will do as a commanded,” responded the servant with a bow before immediately making himself absent.
As Justinian took a seat at the circular table, he observed the encampment below. Soldiers were moving to and fro by the thousands between the many simple tents which housed the men. He gazed at a few of the designated drill areas in the distance where many soldiers were being led by their field commanders in staying fit and prepared for war. He could hear the clashing of wood and steel, shouts, and even the faint echo of wordless conversation coming up to him from below.
It was a brisk cold morning, and apart from a few puffy clouds which sailed through the sky on mild wind currents, it was bright and sunny. Justinian noted the weakening breeze as he looked past the camp to the ocean, in the far distance, which could barely be seen from his current position.
The encampment stretched all the way out to the rocky beaches of Nooks Bay, the landscape in this area being relatively barren and uneven. By the majority of man’s standard it was most assuredly an ugly place, but of course Justinian knew that in selecting this main rally point, attractive landscape was no doubt not in Tiberius’ criteria. He selected it mainly because of its easy accessibility due to the large protected bay that currently hosted the majority of Tiberius’ vast armada, which boasted near eight hundred ships; and also because of the area’s easy defensibility due to the many cliffs and obstacles which dotted the landscape.
Justinian began to ponder what he would do and where he would go upon receiving his long-awaited leave after much of this army was disbanded. He new Cristoff, having no ambitions aside from drinking, bedding whores, and commanding legions, a combination which surprisingly fit together more often than not, would probably stay on to command Tiberius’ personal legions, a sum totaling somewhere near sixty-five hundred Gahnen raiders. But, as for Justinian, he had other ambitions aside from war.
Being the second son of the Lord of house Benedictus and King of Haaren, Claudius III, Justinian had spent quite a bit of time in Kingsgate whilst growing up. During his time there, since his father had many dealings with Danicus the previous Minister of Justice, he and Tiberius, near the same age, became good friends. He and Tiberius had been close ever since their days spent together in the capital, perhaps in part due to their many similar interests, but since, Justinian had grown just as tired of fighting the Empire’s wars as Tiberius had. Justinian had seen enough of the true face of the Empire in his current position, and having received news that his older brother had recently died due to a horrendous accident, Justinian, as he thought about it more and more, decided that perhaps it was time to return home, taking his elder brother’s place as heir to the throne of Haaren, and eventually Lord of house Benedictus.
Justinian, while the thought of parting ways with his dear friend saddened him, had helped Tiberius fight the Empire’s wars for many years and was finally more than ready to move on. Tiberius may have no other choice, but he did, and in that, Justinian pitied his unfortunate friend. Yes, for the three of them their glory days had finally come to a rather abrupt and early end it seemed. They all knew it, especially Tiberius whose time would no doubt come far sooner than either him or Cristoff. The cruel irony is that their current state of being was all due to their competency at winning wars, as there were no longer any more real wars to fight. For being good at what they do, all except for Justinian would soon be left with no real position at all, an unfortunate truth. Tiberius when they were younger had always said that there is always a war to fight, implying that there would always be a use for them; but, these days, it seemed as if even Tiberius, the wisest of them, questioned the truth of that statement.
Justinian’s mind then turned to memories of the good times and the bad, to memories of moments which defined both him and also Tiberius. Justinian wondered to himself if his own judgments were as wise or moral as those made by the world’s esteemed, Protector of the Empire.
You would have made a good king my friend; between the three of us you were always the one who most deserved a throne.
Justinian, despite being a year older and nearly his equal, had always looked up to Tiberius in a way, occasionally judging between his own character as compared to the praetor’s, his own decisions as compared to his, and all the while wondering if Tiberius occasionally did the same. Such is the way of the closest of friends, Justinian supposed as his servant finally arrived with the morning tea.
“I have made a brisk mint this morning, just as you requested,” said the servant as he placed the steaming cup on the table in front of Justinian.
“Good, thank you Mattius,” replied Justinian before he continued after reaching forward to take a sip, “It is indeed quite delightful; you may go now.”
A few moments after sending his servant away, Cristoff strode in, “You damn son of a whore! Who died and made you king!?”
Justinian smiled before responding after another sip of tea, “Well, good morning to you too; and nobody, yet.”
Cristoff then moved to take a seat clasping his head due to his apparently agonizing condition. The large, handsome, well cut, bulky man then continued in a more quiet voice no doubt in an effort to prevent further head throbbing which would be caused by another outburst, “You have always been pompous, but I swear ever since your brother died making you heir, you have been nothing but a royal pain in my ass.”
“I assure you I have not changed, however, would it really hurt to, you know, give me a bow now and again?”
Cristoff, instead of replying to Justinian’s playful sarcasm, just sat across from him, glaring with incalculable displeasure at the remark.
Justinian after a few moments of silence went on, “Aside from your well earned hangover, what’s really the problem Cristoff; have a bad night with the ladies?”
At that, Cristoff breathed in deeply as if he was about to respond, before, he then moved his head down. Placing his face on the table he proceeded to grip his head with both hands, moaning as he began, “Never trust a whore.”
Justinian chuckled before he spoke, “Ah, and there it is, the mighty Cristoff brought low by lady trouble and one too many drinks.”
Cristoff replied, head still resting on the table, “You shouldn’t poke fun at another man’s misery.”
“Oh my friend, I can’t help it, see for most men, don’t trust a whore, seems to be a pretty widely understood and accepted rule of thumb; but you apparently, on this one, are… let’s see, how shall I say it… a little behind the curve, to be delicate.”
“You’re one to talk, you haven’t been with a woman in years,” responded Cristoff.
“That’s because I don’t fill my bed with loose women. You know perhaps you could learn something from me.”
“Oh shut up Justinian; and have some compassion will you, my head has a heartbeat.”
“Indeed,” replied Justinian in a way that suggested he was interested in getting to business.
Cristoff, reading into Justinian’s response, raised his head, sitting back while he regained some bit of professional composure before speaking, “Well is there an issue you actually wish to discuss, or is this just another… Check in? And by the way, I feel it necessary to remind you that tomorrow we meet in my tent.”
“Actually, yes, there is a matter that has come to my attention. While I expect men to fight now and again, there has been far too much tension between your Gahnen warriors and my Imperial legions. As expected the two groups do not get along very well; one of us has to move,” said Justinian in his characteristic civil manner.
“Similar reports have reached my ears as well, and I agree it is getting a little out of hand. Honestly, I don’t like the fact that Tiberius sent us both to the same rally point; he knows our separate forces can’t even stand the sight of each other,” Cristoff finished, waving up his hands in mild exasperation.
Justinian went on in reply, “We’ve discussed this, you and I both know that Tiberius is going to disband my army shortly after returning from Kingsgate; we just have to keep them from killing each other for a few more days.”
Cristoff rolled his eyes then went on after sighing, “You’re right of course; I’ll move my legion’s encampment further west, I have the smaller force. My captains aren’t going to be happy about it though, they don’t want to be moved any further from the ships.”
“Neither do mine, I suppose being at war so long has given all of us a slight sense of arguably healthy paranoia.”
Cristoff grunted his approval before both Legatus’ grew quiet as they gazed out over the encampment, enjoying the view. After a few long moments, Cristoff spoke, “Looking back I wonder what it would have been like to fight for the other side. I almost did you know, that was before I was press-ganged by Tiberius’ charisma.”
“Soon you might just get the chance to find out,” responded Justinian with words that dripped with intrigue.
“What do you mean?”
After looking around to make sure no servants were in obvious earshot, Justinian replied in a lowered voice, “Well, Tiberius and I have…”
Justinian’s words were immediately cut off as a freshly battle scarred messenger came bursting through the already open entrance. The young man, after taking a moment to catch his breath, spoke, “My Lords, it’s the praetor, he’s arrived early. He dispatched me to inform you that your presence is required at the docks immediately… Hurry my Lords, we have no time to waste, there’s trouble.”
“We are now at war gentlemen,” said Tiberius to the other two legatus’ after a quick recounting of recent events in the capital, which had been preceded by their greeting.
As they stood alone on the Andromeda, Tiberius continued, “All three of us are now fugitives, rogues… rebels. By now Maximillian will have already put his spin on what took place, he has no doubt claimed that I moved to assassinate Salinius; also that Malcus uncovered my plot but arrived too late, and is now in pursuit to bring me, along with all other conspirators, that would be you, to justice… Forgive me Justinian; you and I both know that at this time home is no longer an option for you.”
Justinian spoke in reply, remaining, even now, controlled and postured, “There is nothing to forgive my friend, the fault was not yours. And, in answer to the question which you have not yet presented, I am with you.”
Moving past the shock of the day’s sudden change of events, Cristoff quickly responded in suit before Justinian’s words trailed off, “As am I; it’s about time we were on the right side.”
“Good, I’m pleased to hear this. Now tell me, how much do the two of you know about the unnamed isle?”
Silence followed before Cristoff spoke up after making a sideways glance toward Justinian, “Only that no one who has gone in has ever come out to tell their story. No one has been permitted to go beyond the wall for hundreds of years, hence the small standing army which patrols the hundred foot tall wall that surrounds the accursed island night and day. Everyone who’s anyone knows that the soldiers who patrol the wall aren’t just there to keep whatever is on the island from escaping, their dual purpose is to prevent anyone from entering; heck, even they aren’t permitted to enter. But, I believe I speak for both myself and Justinian when I ask the more pertinent question; why would you ask that?”
“Well haven’t either of you ever been curious about why no one is even permitted to enter. Aren’t you the least bit curious about what lies hidden within the island’s jungles.”
Justinian replied, “Well sure, but do I believe in the myths?… The Golgaleth, Feyliimn, and Ungassii have been extinct for over five hundred years now according to the legen…,” he stopped mid-sentence before finishing, “That’s all they are, myths.”
After a brief moment, Tiberius responded, “I do not believe so. I’ve never spoken of it before ten days ago, but as I told Jaimus, I spoke with a Feyliimn many years ago in my father’s dungeons. And, due to both my secret conversations with the prisoner, along with knowledge which had been more recently provided by Jaimus, I have reason to believe that the three races were exiled there on the isle for choosing to fight on the side of the five kings in the Great Tiburon War, and therefore still exist beyond the wall. I don’t know what their current state is, but if we had their help, if we could just use their hatred for the Empire, then…”
Again there was silence before it was broken by Justinian as he spoke with an almost incredulous expression, “Well, I honestly can’t decide whether you have finally gone completely mad Tiberius, or, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, whether what you’re suggesting actually has some merit.”
Cristoff then chimed in, voice low and serious, “What choice do we have Justinian? Your Imperial legions are all, when everything is said and done, directly loyal to the Emperor. This leaves us with only sixty-five hundred loyal men and no way to pay them. Sure we might be able to recruit somewhere near fourteen thousand at the most who would be willing to fight for Tiberius temporarily for little to no payment, due to his reputation and influence alone; but you and I both know that it won’t last more than a year. Even if we could somehow make it work and figure out how to stay alive in the process, then we would be no more than a large nationless band of raiders and cutthroats due to the fact that we would not have a large enough army to either sway the kingdoms to our side, or confront the Empire on our own. If we have to do it then we have to do it, but if we have even a remote chance at a better way, well… I like the idea of being a thorn in the Empire’s side as a glorified pirate, but I like the idea of winning, of storming through the Empire as a conquering commander, much better. And, I don’t see the latter happening without the Golgaleth, mythical though they may be. So, even though just talking about the idea of it makes me feel like a certifiable lunatic, I say we do it. It’s risky but if we take the majority of our force to climb the wall at night, using grappling hooks, we could attack strategic points along the wall, allowing us to completely seize and occupy within a very short period of time. The casualties will be substantial of course, but I believe it can be done.
“Now, if I remember correctly, for a post like that the Emperor usually will receive an annual message to affirm that everything is as it should be. So, that gives you maybe six to eight months to summon a sufficient fighting force Tiberius, if you fail I don’t see how I will be able to hold the wall beyond that.”
After Cristoff finished, both he and Tiberius glared at Justinian before he spoke, “Well, I’m with you Tiberius, even if we are chasing fairytales. I suppose while you two are busy prancing around on the island, I will take a thousand of Cristoff’s warriors, with your permission of course, along with the majority of the fleet, to recruit as many soldiers as possible from the nations. Then, I’ll return in seven months time to reinforce you beyond the wall, if you’re still alive that is.”
Tiberius responded with a smile, “Good, sounds like we have a plan. If I’m successful Justinian, then I will send Eleven to meet you at the North gate when you arrive; he will lead you and the army to my location. In the meantime, we need to ditch the Imperial legions before they figure out we’re fugitives, there are more than a few Imperial officers within our ranks that i don’t trust. So, move quickly, we depart shortly after nightfall.”
Before continuing, Tiberius stepped toward Justinian reaching out. Justinian then followed in suit, reaching out to clasp Tiberius’ arm before the world’s new, involuntary rebel leader, spoke, “Good luck my friend, I hope to see you again in about seven months.”
Justinian nodded as he gave reply, “You as well… Seven months.”
Tiberius then turned to walk toward the Andromeda’s bow as Justinian and Cristoff also said farewell. He faced south, the direction in which lay his ultimate destination, hundreds of miles across the sea. It was from there that all the answers he sought called him, beckoned him. He did plan to do exactly what he had told his two legatus’, but he also had a dual purpose, he needed answers, personal though they may be, and that island was the only place he would ever find them. In fact at this moment he would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that right here, right now, he felt somewhat divided between his duty and his personal goals; a reality that made Tiberius uncomfortable, and a little uneasy.
As Tiberius gazed out in the direction of the island which many believed to be cursed, he whispered, quiet enough that no one else would hear, “I will uncover your secrets.”
“Should we go now sir?”
“Not yet captain, steady. We wait until the sun falls; till the last remnants of its light have passed,” responded Cristoff as he gazed out across the water toward the island; toward the wall which they would soon see.
Seventeen days had passed since leaving their encampment on the southeastern corner of the Red Isles, and the fourteen days it had taken them to reach the unnamed island had been fortunately, fairly uneventful as had the three days since.
It had been a few moments since Captain Warus had spoken, and Cristoff, acknowledging twilight’s last moments, gave the command, “Light the torch.”
At that captain Warus began yelling his orders before suddenly the ship leapt to action as the sails were unfurled. The torch was quickly extinguished after being lit, it’s only purpose, to signal the rest in Cristoff’s fleet to commence the attack.
It was a bold plan, a risky plan, as both Tiberius’ army of Gahnen warriors, and the soldiers atop the wall were no doubt fairly evenly matched, at least as far as numbers were concerned. Cristoff and Tiberius both knew that even their strong, seasoned, army would stand no chance against the Imperials defending the wall if the attack was discovered before they began the climb. This meant that they needed to use the darkness of the new moon to cloak their approach. Then, hopefully, with a bit of luck, the element of surprise could be obtained, tipping the odds in their favor. Unfortunately no matter what the outcome, the Army under Tiberius’ command would suffer dreadful casualties tonight. But Cristoff knew, as did Tiberius and Justinian, that this mission was absolutely necessary, and being so, failure was, most absolutely, not an option.
Finally there it was; Cristoff could identify the large wall by the Imperial soldier’s lit lanterns, which flitted here and there marking the top, illuminating the hundred foot brick wall against the starlit sky with firelight. It was a sight to behold even at night as the wall stretched on and on seemingly without end. As they grew closer, Cristoff began preparing his mind for the battle which was quickly approaching.
Cristoff began reanalyzing the strategy, the plan, every aspect of the mission which had recently begun. Even he admitted to himself that it would require a miracle to arrive at the top, or even the base of the wall before being seen or heard, but it would not be the first time that he had pulled off the impossible under Tiberius’ command. According to Cristoff, Tiberius was the luckiest son of a bitch he had ever known, a fact that, while he didn’t understand the source of the legatus’ uncanny fortune, made Cristoff feel more confident than most would in this situation.
It was quiet as they neared. No one dared even breathe as the thought of discovery haunted the men which sailed Cristoff’s silent, phantom, fleet. All the men in Cristoff’s fleet were well accustomed to war and the possibility or likelihood of death, but even still, there was nothing like the apprehension of battle, the calm before the storm, encroaching darkness. War is their lot in life, but war is despicable, no one loves it. All had their reasons for being here, some had no future, for others, war came to them; it didn’t matter though, all would fight, many would die, it was their profession and they were masters at it. Cristoff could sense their uneasiness as he attempted to quell his own while tightening his grip around the large, two-handed, battleaxe with his right hand as it stood at his side. Cristoff stood tall in front of those men who could see him at the ship’s bow, waiting, watchful. He was patient on the outside, but on the inside war had already gripped him. Cristoff was ready, strength and power swelled through him, his muscles flexed, he breathed deep.
Cristoff’s fleet grew near. The wall which at once appeared to be large, now appeared monstrous as it loomed ahead. His men noiselessly prepared the special hooks which they would use to reach the top. While they did this Cristoff reviewed the mission one last time in his mind. There were five fleets, one commanded by Tiberius, one by him, and the other three by personally appointed commanders. The five fleets which surrounded the island were to stay out of sight before launching a simultaneous coordinated assault upon five uniquely chosen points along the wall, using the cover of the darkness which came immediately after twilight. If successful most Imperial personnel and fortifications should be taken within one to two days. Also during the initial attack Tiberius and his small group would use the distraction to reach the other side of the wall before sunrise. If the plan succeeded there would most likely be a portion of Imperial survivors who will barricade themselves inside some of the wall’s guard towers, this was normal and typically unavoidable for this type of assault. However, as long as they retained a large enough force during the attack, then Cristoff knew it would not be an issue. After the battle, Cristoff and his army were then to remain in occupation of the wall for many months until Justinian arrived. It was not a loved plan by the three Legatus’, but it was a plan, the only plan. If one wanted to hold his own against something as powerful as the Tiburon Empire then one had to take big risks; one had to think outside of the box, as anything conventional was doomed to failure.
The battle hardened man stood steady as he glanced up at the partly cloudy sky almost as if he were looking for a moon which he knew he would not see. It was a very dark night making it difficult for Cristoff to visualize much of anything except the gargantuan wall; the wall which was currently illuminated by men who could not even begin to anticipate what was about to befall them on this relatively peaceful night. As the mild, cool, temperate, breeze blew through Cristoff’s hair he looked down toward his ax. Then, looking back toward his men he hefted the large weapon up over his shoulder and whispered loud enough for his warriors to hear, “Now!”
They were finally close enough, nearly beached; it was time. The hulking commander, standing well over six feet tall, leapt off of the ship, landing in the waist high water, followed, as he could hear by other subsequent quiet splashes, by one thousand, battle hardened, Gahnen warriors. They, all of them, were headed for the base of the massive wall with due haste.
Cristoff tripped once or twice on a plant or loose rock before reaching the wall, each time making great effort to contain a myriad of rash expletives from slipping out of his mouth and subsequently revealing their arrival to the enemy. But, here he stood, looking straight up at the men who patrolled the top of the seemingly impregnable wall. He could see his men beside him, not well, but sufficiently, due to the remnants of the light which shone down from above. He waited, less than patiently, for his men to shoot their crossbows which had been reconfigured to launch special grappling hooks whose tops were fitted with padding so as to prevent the loud clinging sound that the metal hooks usually made when they struck brick or stone. Then, suddenly, as the imperials moved far enough away from their location along the wall, Cristoff heard the quiet thud of many crossbows being fired. A few hooks missed their targets bouncing off the wall, but enough latched onto the large brick structure to begin the climb.
Cristoff had been one of the first to begin the difficult climb up the solid tan rope which now held both his weight and the weight of the men who were currently below him. He was finally near the top, a few more steps across the brick blocks, and a few more pulls of the rope, would render him at the precipice. A smile spread across Cristoff’s face as he relished the fact that by some miracle they had not yet been discovered.
How are we this lucky?
The legatus peaked over the top while simultaneously halting his armies movement up the ropes with his right, ax wielding, hand in the form of a signal. There were guards here and there, but they were far enough away to not hear or see his force of one thousand strong, either hiding at the base, or resting against the wall on the latched ropes which currently dangled from the wall’s side. They were running out of time, as any moment now the alarm would be sounded due to the other four assaults which were about to take place. He ducked down, and waited a moment before finally glancing toward his men who waited in eager anticipation of his order. The men gazed up, or across the wall at Cristoff. They looked primed, ready to do what they had come to do.
Their profession is war, and they truly are masters at it. Cristoff’s smile widened.
It was finally time, so, without further delay, Cristoff waved the ax which he held on his right side forward, over his head, giving the signal to attack before he himself leapt over the ledge and onto the wall; the battle had begun.
Wearing only thick leather as armor, the experienced, hot headed commander, charged toward a group of four archers which had stood to his left, running in the opposite direction of the guard tower which now stood behind him. Half of his men would follow him north, and the other half would attack in the other direction, to the south.
A moment of terror gripped the archers as they turned to face Cristoff who rushed toward them like a charging beast, holding a hefty ax with both hands, ready to be bathed in their blood. Three of the four were able to string their bows before Cristoff could reach them. Carrying no shield he ducked behind four of his men who were running beside him as they put their shields out in front to block the incoming missiles. After the missiles struck, each with a thud, the soldiers parted, making way for Cristoff as he resumed his terrifying charge, this time reaching the archers before any more shots could be fired.
No battle cry was shouted, as Cristoff and his warriors worked to buy as much time for the other four groups as possible. His ax carved into the first man, sending him off of his feet and onto the ground with a huge gaping hole left in the Imperial archer’s side. The other archer was dispatched by a man who came up from Cristoff’s left as Cristoff spun bringing his ax up and then down to cleanly chop through the cowering third archer’s skull. A pool of blood splattered across the fourth archer who tripped and fell behind the third.
Cristoff’s men continued to run around giving him a wide berth like a stream parted by a resolute stone.
Cristoff slowly walked toward the cowering fourth archer atop the wall which appeared to measure near fifteen feet wide. That was his mistake, as the panicked archer reached for a horn that Cristoff had not seen at his side. Moving quickly, Cristoff struck the man with his ax delivering the archer unto death, but not before the alarm was sounded.
The noise of many horns could be heard off in the distance, one sounding off after another. Sounds of alarm moved at lightning speed across the western side of the wall from south to north. Luckily Tiberius and his group were already leaning against the wall’s side at the top.
Tiberius, while sneeking a peak over the wall’s outside edge, saw the patrolling Imperial soldiers turn towards the south in response to the noise. Tiberius, knowing immediately that he had no more time, gave the signal, leaping in single stride over the ledge and onto the wall. He sprinted in front of his men, long, thin, curved dueling sword, like the one that Eleven used, in his right hand and a medium-sized circular shield in his left to defend against arrows. He reached the first group of two archers which had turned around, right before Tiberius presently sliced the inner thigh of the one on the left before the throat of the one on the right. As they both bled out, he moved to the next group, his troop now right on his heels. Raising his shield while he charged, Tiberius felt the impact of two arrows before reaching his next victim.
More than a few Imperial soldiers had already begun to organize, pulling out their swords, and preparing for close quarters combat. The one in the lead, charged Tiberius, believing he stood a chance. After Tiberius’ swift reproach, as the man’s innards spilled out across the floor, Tiberius knew that the once brave Imperial soldier would have encountered a far less cruel fate had he chosen to throw himself off of the wall on his own accord; his shrill screams echoed that thought as the man was then thrown down to the island floor.
Tiberius struck down the next, and the next. One after the other they fell before the ex-praetor, who, just weeks ago, had been on their side.
As his men fought beside him, Tiberius spotted Eleven and Gretel attacking and defending nearby. Tiberius, facing south down the wall, then evaded a sword slash to his neck by leaning backwards before slicing the soldier’s side. As Tiberius’ enemy leaned slightly to his left in response to the fresh wound, Tiberius stepped to his own left, swiftly delivering an efficient but awkward looking stab to his right which soared through the flesh underneath the unsuspecting attacker’s jaw, then continued on, flying through his tongue and brain before exiting the top of his skull. Removing his sword the dead man fell to Tiberius’ feet as the legatus moved on to the man who still bravely pushed his attack even after seeing the speed at which his companion had fallen. After quickly dispatching the next attacker, an allied soldier to Tiberius’ right leapt in front of Tiberius, taking an arrow which was meant for him. Tiberius then subsequently ducked to the ground due to a shout from Kanii which was directed toward him and the men who were fighting at the front beside him. Kanii followed, “Loose!”
At that, arrows whistled out from over Tiberius’s head flying toward the enemy.
There’s Kanii, but where’s Zackarius?
Gretel stood back up, weaving in and out, striking and retreating as she had been trained to do by Relius the traveling swordsman. Although many years had passed since her training, it was still fresh, she had kept it that way. Her instincts were sure and she moved with unrivaled grace and precision.
Already soaked in blood, Gretel moved out of the way of a large war-hammer which had been swung in her direction on accident by an ally; it was close, too close. She nearly took a swing of her own at the man in retaliation, but quickly decided against it, deflecting a sword strike instead as two enemies pressed her. She brought the attacker on her left towards her as she deflected, simultaneously kicking out his right foot as she shoved him over the ledge. Then, the second attacker struck, his sword bouncing off of her chain-mail armor, his aim a little off. Gretel immediately took advantage by shoving her sword straight through his throat before continuing to bash his face with her shield as she removed it. She then speedily reached out slicing an interloper’s eyes before he could reach her with the swing of his ax. The man shrank back behind his allies, as he was carried away, his shrill screams were heard by all. He will be put out of his misery soon enough, thought Gretel with a feeling akin to pity.
Gretel stepped out of the front line for a moment, taking the opportunity to look around. She spotted Tiberius nearby, fighting with his men. Eleven was now fastening a long rope further back which they would soon use to climb down the opposite side of the wall. Then, looking further back, Gretel could make out Kanii working with the archers in the center.
Why hasn’t Tiberius given us the order yet? What is he waiting for?
Suddenly Tiberius called out toward her over the shouts and screams of battle, “Gretel, find Zackarius!”
Tiberius then turned to dispatch another enemy soldier before continuing, “Hurry, we need to leave!”
Gretel nodded her acknowledgment before turning to head back toward the center of both fronts which were heading in opposite directions along the wall, hoping she would find the kid along the way.
The enemy at this point was now fully alerted, forming full solid lines on both fronts, many of them archers, who, in the moment, had become swordsmen. As she glanced back, Gretel could see that, even though the advantage still belonged to them, progress was being slowed, as expected.
It had been more than a few moments since Gretel had left the front, moving south. As she continued to squeeze through Allied lines, the men standing shoulder to shoulder due to the fifteen foot width of the wall, Gretel continued to search the faces of those she passed, both, those standing tall pushing forward, and those lying dead on the floor, but none bore the face of the young Zackarius.
Where could he be?
Gretel moved over to the ledge on the inside side of the wall, squeezing passed soldiers under Tiberius’ command as she began to near the northern front. She had run into Kanii along the way, but still, she had not yet seen Tiberius’ messenger. Then, suddenly, over the screams of battle she heard something faint, it was someone calling her name, but it didn’t sound like it was coming from either in front of or behind her. As Gretel further strained to hear, she heard it again, but this time it sounded like it was coming… from below her.
Gretel immediately looked over the wall facing the inside of the island. As she looked down Gretel saw, struggling to hang onto a loose brick which jutted out of the wall, a desperate Zackarius. He appeared to have gotten himself stuck somehow about thirty feet from the top, seventy feet from the bottom. It didn’t seem to Gretel as if he would be able to hold on much longer, so, without hesitation, she shouted down before turning, “Hold on; I’m going to find a rope!”
Moving away from the wall Gretel began south, quickly looking for one of the grappling hooks which were no longer being used. After a few more moments passed, all while squeezing between people, and stepping over the dead bodies that were being trampled by the fighting warriors, she reached the area where they had climbed the wall.
Unlatching one of the hooks from the ledge, Gretel pulled the rope which it was attached to, to the top. Then, after wrapping the rope quickly around her body, she carried the climbing equipment, as quickly as she could, back toward where she had seen the young man dangling from the side of the wall.
After nearly being knocked over the side once or twice herself, Gretel arrived back at the place from which she had seen Zackarius. Gretel, looking over the wall to make sure he was still there, identified his location before latching the hook onto the wall. She followed by dropping the rope down to where Zackarius could reach for it.
After safely grabbing onto the rope, Zackarius shouted up, “Thank you!”
“No problem; you’re lucky I got here when I did,” replied Gretel.
Zackarius went on, “Since I’m already halfway, I’m going to head down and meet you guys at the bottom!”
Before Gretel could turn away, Zackarius called out again, this time with a slight tinge of embarrassment, “It wasn’t my fault you know; I was doing great until one of our own pushed me over!”
Gretel smiled humorously as she called out, “Yes, yes, I know, you are a great warrior, and you can tell me all about what happened when we meet up!”
If it wasn’t for the darkness, penetrated only by torch and moon light, Gretel thought she could recognize a slightly red shade indicative of bashfulness, come over the boy’s face.
Turning around, as Zackarius began to slowly make his way down to the bottom, Gretel’s smile faded, her mind refocusing on the battle. She now needed to deliver the news to Tiberius quickly before anything else went wrong. At that, Gretel quickly faced south before speedily making way toward the location where she had last seen her brother.
Even though Tiberius still danced around most of his opponents, he struggled due to the possession of only one eye which caused him to make mistakes that he would not normally make, and the various minor cuts he had sustained only served to give evidence of his new learning curve. He had even stumbled once or twice due to his new lack of depth perception, nearly giving his enemies the fighting chance they had been looking for.
Tiberius had wanted to practice before he again entered combat, but unfortunately, this had not been possible because they had left for the island immediately after arriving at the Red Isles, and he, of course, could not train in front of his men as it would be both unwise and improper for a commander of his stature and authority to do so. No, he and Eleven would train in private some other time, but for now, this was practice enough, as true experience was indeed the better teacher.
Moving in and out, attacking, retreating, deflecting, evading, he was a spectacle on the battlefield by any warrior’s standards. Tiberius fought beside his men on the front lines, something unusual among men of his rank, but it was something he not only demanded of himself, but also of those who served him in similar station. His actions gave evidence to the fact that Tiberius believed a good commander does not order his men to fight and die for his ambitions without first being willing to personally fight and die beside them; to personally lead them into battle in attempt to bring his own ambitions to fruition. Why did he believe this? Because Tiberius knew that were he in their position he would expect nothing less; why should men fight and die for a man who was not willing to do the same thing which he had ordered his servants to do? Why should men serve someone who is not willing to sweat and bleed beside those who were attempting to make his own vision a reality? As far as Tiberius was concerned, such a man is not worthy of his position or the power which his position granted him.
Suddenly, while dealing a fatal blow to another attacker, he heard someone urgently call out his name. Stepping away from the front line in order to address whoever it was that had spoken, he turned to see Gretel approaching. Tiberius listened as she spoke, hoping for good news, “I found him clinging onto a ledge on the island side of the wall. Apparently he had been pushed off, so I gave him a rope. He went down saying he would head south to meet up with us at the bottom.”
“Good,” responded Tiberius with a subtle look of relief before continuing, “Get Kanii and inform her that we are ready to go.”
Gretel nodded before heading off to do as instructed. Tiberius then turned toward Raulf, who had previously been fighting beside Tiberius, “Raulf!?”
The officer shouted in reply,“Yes commander!?”
“It’s time; you’re now in command of the fleet! Keep pushing the attack until you meet up with Cristoff!”
“And Raulf,” continued Tiberius.
Tiberius watched Raulf nod as he looked back, before Tiberius then made way north, heading for the location where his small group would meet up before descending from the Western wall.
After securing the rope, Eleven waited patiently until Tiberius, Gretel, and finally Kanii arrived.
“Aw, you guys all waiting on me? How thoughtful,” said Kanii in a playfully sarcastic tone as she sauntered up to the rest of the group.
“As if we had a choice,” muttered Eleven quietly.
“Fashionably late as usual, but always on time to lighten the mood,” said Tiberius in reference to Kanii with a nearly unnoticeable smile before he continued, “Alright, let us be on our way.”
“Where’s Zackarius?” asked Kanii with a tinge of concern.
Gretel replied as she threw her leg over the ledge while clasping the rope, “He will meet us at the bottom.”
Due to the following inquisitive look which Kanii gave in reply, Gretel went on, “I’ll explain later.”
At that, Gretel went over the ledge, followed by Kanii, then Tiberius, and finally Eleven, who held up the rear.
Some time passed before Eleven, feet and hands supporting him as he descended, felt something strange while clinging to the rope still nearly twenty five feet from the bottom. Then, suddenly, as Kanii reached the bottom, with Tiberius still maybe ten feet away, the rope snapped. Eleven fell through the air, about fifteen feet behind Tiberius who rolled along the ground safely, moving out of the way of Eleven while simultaneously absorbing the impact. Eleven was not so fortunate.
Pop! Was the sound that Eleven’s left knee made as it snapped out of place, followed by darkness…
“I think he blacked out,” uttered Gretel.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day that Eleven lost consciousness,” said Kanii as she carefully examined the break.
“Looks like he hit his head on that rock; doesn’t look too serious though, he should awaken in a few minutes,” replied Gretel in response to Kanii’s comment as she peered over her shoulder.
Tiberius looked incredulously up toward were the rope had somehow severed under the stress of their weight. As he stood more than a few feet behind the two women and the now incapacitated Eleven, Tiberius grimly marveled at this new unprecedented misfortune.
A few moments passed before Gretel and Kanii moved to join Tiberius.
“What do we do?” asked Kanii.
“The only thing that we can do now,” responded Tiberius before going on with the obvious, “is wait.”
Gretel then spoke up after looking around, holding the lantern which she had brought down with her, up, in effort to light the dense jungle which surrounded them, “Where is Zackarius?”
The other two, having forgotten about the boy due to recent calamity, suddenly all bore faces of remembrance and equal puzzlement. Kanii was the first to speak after she too looked about almost as if she expected to find something which had been overlooked by Gretel, something which she immediately realized was not there to be seen, “Could he have gotten lost somehow?”
“I doubt it, all he would need to do is trace the wall south,” stated Tiberius with an inquisitive expression.
Kanii turned to face Gretel asking in a slightly more worried and apprehensive manor, “How long has it been since you saw him?”
“Long enough; I don’t understand, he should be here by now,” she replied.
Kanii then looked toward Tiberius in all seriousness, “Should we look for him?”
As soon as Kanii finished, Tiberius turned abruptly due to a rustling he heard coming from behind in the thick green foliage. The lantern light was not bright enough to see very far into the jungle so Tiberius strained his one good eye to, as futile as the action was, hopefully see an inch or two further into the night. He then called out, “Zackarius?”
There was no response. Kanii then did the same, “Zackarius?”
Still there was no reply, leaving Tiberius to nearly dismiss it as just a small land animal moving through the surrounding greenery, or perhaps a large bird flitting from tree to tree. But then it came again, this time louder, thrashing, seemingly coming from all around. No, not thrashing; a charge!
Tiberius quickly reached for his sword, but it was too late. It… no, they, emerged from the bushes at breakneck speed, charging more quickly than anything else he had ever seen from a creature which ran on two legs. Then, blackness…
Eleven could not believe what he saw as he groggily regained consciousness. The lantern which Gretel had carried was now destroyed, and lay on the ground shattered where she had just been standing. Having closed his human eyes he could now see a sight which only he was capable of seeing.
They communicated in a language which was immensely unfamiliar to Eleven, appearing to be, in every way, human, except one; all five men stood, about what appeared to be, an incredulous eight feet in height. The tall muscular men which stood before him, carrying off all three of his captured and unconscious companions, could only be of one race. It was safe to say that, as Eleven watched them depart, disappearing through the tall trees into the night after a quick and short conversation, he had indeed encountered the mythical giants of old; he had just seen with his own sight what could only be, the Golgaleth.
He was alone now, in silence, alone in an unfamiliar jungle with a useless leg; fortunate to have remained unnoticed by the giants who had emerged from the jungle, but unfortunate to be left as stranded and helpless in this moment as he truly was.
The moments passed, and as Eleven lay in the grass, on his back in stillness, trying to figure out what to do next, he laughed a laugh which most would believe was deeply and profoundly insidious. The truth, was that in his frustration and misfortune, instead of finding pain he found laughter, a laughter which had been learned through many years, and many tortures in the dungeons beneath Dak’engül. He laughed because his left leg had been broken instead of his right, he laughed at the humor, the irony of it.
His left leg had been broken first many years ago as a child, then his right, then after it healed, his left again. They had been broken a total of ten times beneath Dak’engül; now his left was broken. Eleven, then let out a sinister chuckle before uttering through his mask, “It all begins and ends with eleven. The first to be broken, is the last to be broken.”
Suddenly, through the sound which he had spoken, he saw something different approach from behind as the sound which had exited his lips worked to provide him with sight. He saw it approaching, oddly… noiselessly, as most which he had encountered made at least small echos of noise as they moved or walked, illuminating whatever the sound seemed to touch in usually a beautiful flowing, luminescent blue. But this creature didn’t, and as Eleven looked he identified it as a creature even more unfamiliar, or, then again, perhaps less unfamiliar than those which he had previously seen. It knew he was there…
Eleven would rescue Tiberius. Was it because of loyalty; because Eleven liked him? No, it was because, more than a few years ago, Eleven gave his word, made an oath.
A faceless never breaks that solemn rule, it is their only rule. Time slowed as he recalled reciting that oath which could not physically be broken once one was bound to the Essence by it, my word is my life, to break my word is to die by my own hand.
This rule is unbreakable and Eleven had never broken it… could not break it. Then, with oath in memory, Eleven reached for his sword…
393 days before day 1
The day was growing long, with the sun beginning to fall gracefully toward the horizon, casting long shadows through the tall pines. The air, already with a chill, began to turn cold even as the gentle flowing breeze remained constant.
Strangely it was still eerily quiet, as it had been since Salius had entered the forest earlier this morning, just after sunrise. Beside the mild wind currents that swept through, there had been no noise, something which was unusual even in the fields where he had grown up, as occasionally there would be a squirrel which would run through the brush, or a bird that would sing its song; but here in this place there was no sign of any such thing. In fact the only living things which seemed to exist in this place were the vast greenery that surrounded him. And beautiful though the many tall trees and various lively species of plants were, as it was the first time Salius had seen a place like this, he couldn’t help but feel as if there was an unspoken warning which lingered in the air, something which told him not to stay, not to rest, something which told him to leave. Yes, there was a darkness here in the forest, a darkness which hid behind the beauty of this amazing place that lay at the footsteps of the mountain; Salius could sense it.
Two days previously, after traveling hundreds of miles, Salius had finally reached the quaint little village of Lituss, a journey which would have taken the ordinary traveler well over a month. Upon his arrival Salius had bought a wool coat from the small general store to make the nights spent traveling easier. He had hoped to by some nicer more gentlemanly clothes but due to the only shop’s nonexistent selection, Salius had decided to wait a bit longer, spending his coin for now on only the necessities. After a hot meal and reserving a room at the local inn, Salius began to ask around about the forest which stood off in the distance, marking the edge of Librium’s flowing fields and the beginning of things truly unfamiliar to Salius. He was immediately confronted with obstacle as no one had been willing to engage even remotely in any intelligible discourse regarding said forest. That is, except for one man, a man who afterward had referred Salius to none other than the town drunk for more information. Upon locating the apparent undesirable, Salius began his inquest as the man had agreed to tell all over a few drinks in the tavern, at Salius’ expense of course. With a definable drunk slur the man had claimed many things, a list which included having survived the forest himself. However all the while the man remained adamant about one thing in particular; one who traverses the forest must never touch the ground after sun fall, because him who comes out at night can only kill that which touches the ground.
After their meeting, Salius decided, after giving it thought, that he would get some sleep and head out in the morning, as there was no point in wasting anymore time or coin here. It was obvious that the only way he would discover what was truly in the forest was to just go, a prospect which he admitted was not at all appealing. But if he did not find this someone, whom the stranger known to him as Claudius had claimed supposedly lived there, than he could not continue his journey. So, despite his qualms Salius would go out of apparent, but not so appealing, necessity, hoping that following the seemingly foolish notion of spending the night in the trees, would be enough to protect him from him who had simply been referred to, by those willing to speak of him, as Him.
Salius pulled his new, long wool coat tighter around his body due to the not dramatic but still surprising drop in temperature as he kept moving forward, heading further and further into the continuously disconcerting forest with each step. He had thought about using his dagger to cover more ground more quickly, but decided against it as his purpose for being here was not to pass through, but to find someone, and Salius felt that that purpose would be better served the old fashioned way, by walking. Besides, despite the obvious concern which this place brought, walking gave him a chance to fully take in this new and unfamiliar, but surprisingly beautiful environment.
Aside from the very apparent lack of wildlife, the forest was very much alive due to the vast tree and plant life which littered his surroundings. Truly, while he had read about forests in many books, Salius had never imagined being able to see so many trees in one place. While he saw a tree here and there which was familiar to him, most were different, tall, some even seemed as tall as mountains, reaching up even past the height of the canopy. Oh what future wonders will I behold upon my journeys?
But Silius’ amazement at the world around him turned quickly to sudden mild distress as he felt a new type of cold, one not brought by weather but by the approach of something else, something which had been sleeping beneath the earth, something which was about to awaken. He felt it in his bones as a new type of fear which he had never experienced before came over him quickly as the last moments of direct sunlight began to give way to the beginnings of twilight.
It was time, and as such Salius reached for his dagger. Then pulling the now familiar trigger he leapt into a nearby tree, one with surprisingly thick branches.
Being now near fourteen feet off of the ground, he leaning back against the tree’s trunk, peering down at the ground below, watching intently, waiting for something, anything to make its presence known. But still, Salius heard no sound, nor did he see anything move from below, and the absence of seeing or hearing what he knew was there, caused fear to seat itself, growing ever more present in his mind as time slowly crept forward.
Some time had passed since Salius had found his moderately comfortable perch among the trees, watching below for any movement like a bird in search of prey. But unlike a bird in search of prey, Salius was not looking for a passing meal, he was seeking revelation, revelation as to what specifically had caused this place to be surrounded in so much fear and mystery for so many generations. Also, as he waited the thought had crossed his mind many times; was he actually safe in the trees. Salius couldn’t stand the thought that he was taking advice from a known drunk with his life potentially at risk. But, then again, what choice did he have, and self admittedly it was better than nothing. So with that he continued to wait, watching, right hand grasping the handle of his short but elegant weapon.
More time had passed as Salius sat ever watchful. It had been hours now since the sun had fallen and the night’s bright moon shone brilliantly from above, illuminating the ground below. Feeling a bit more at ease due to the absence of anything noteworthy, Salius looked up at the sky to find the stars shining as a faithful companion to the moon. He began to search out the constellations, a few of which he could see through open spaces in the tree canopy above where he sat. The ones which he recognized brought him a small measure of comfort, as Salius had grown familiar with a certain degree of what travelers who had known a home called “home sickness”. It had been a powerful feeling at first, but as the days went on the burden had begun to grow somewhat tolerable, and Salius hoped that given more time it would fade more and more until it became unnoticeable.
Suddenly as Salius looked above he saw movement. It appeared to be a large bird, maybe an eagle, flying in the direction of the mountain holding a serpent in its talons. But just as the large bird flew past, while Salius still pondered the magnificent predator’s reasons for flying over the deserted forest at night, the creature dropped the snake, no doubt due to the feisty serpents size and will to live. Immediately the snake, a vicious predator in its own right, fell through the trees, down to the forest floor nearby. Salius could still barely make out the serpent as it slowly began to move having survived its encounter with the fearsome flying beast who had thought it to be prey. But as he watched the creature come to, it immediately darted for a nearby tree quicker than Salius had ever known a serpent of its size was capable. A subtle thought then passed through Salius’s mind as he watched, before it was nearly instantly rejected as lunacy caused by baseless paranoia; it’s almost as if he is running from something. Like he sees something that I don’t.
Not two moments after dismissing his previous thought, he saw it go by in a flash, coming out of nowhere, slicing the serpent in half with a five foot long hilt-less sword. Then as the seven foot tall being hovered a near foot off of the ground near the now decapitated serpent, enveloped in a white hooded cloak, it turned its head slowly until the creature eerily paused, looking straight at Salius. His face, maybe like that of a man’s, although difficult to make out due to both the night and also it’s eyes which exuded brilliant blue light, unnerved Salius as he met the creature’s gaze. But as Salius did this, staring straight into the being’s unnatural eyes, two blue lights in the dark, suddenly the creature flew in the opposite direction just as quickly as it had arrived, and like that, it was gone.
Salius more than a few moments later, still not able to fully process what he had seen, but fairly confident he would not be decapitated in the night as long as he didn’t touch the forest floor, reached into his satchel to pull out a piece of tan rope which he had bought in Lituss. Then carefully turning so as not to fall, he wrapped the rope around the tree trunk before using it to fasten himself in place. It would continue to be a long night, but Salius hoped to catch at least a minute measure of sleep before first light.
Then before he could close his eyes, Salius saw something move, off in the far distance; something, or perhaps someone, in a tree. It was definitely not the same thing which he had seen earlier, however, something was there. But, then again, perhaps not, perhaps his eyes were just playing tricks on him, like when seeing an unwelcome insect in bed; after its removal he still got that crawling sensation from time to time even though he knew his mind was administering the tickle he felt. And with that conclusion, Salius suddenly felt sleep easier to obtain.
After finally closing his eyes, a moment or two passed before Salius eventually drifted off to the world of unconsciously conceived images, images which had neither the ability to kill, nor to harm.
392 days before day 1
Consciousness beckoned Salius to an awakened state, and as he looked around groggily, Salius discovered that he had slept well past first light. In fact, it appeared to be noon, and upon looking up at the sky, Salius determined that it was likely to rain this evening, as the now partly cloudy sky revealed its intentions clearly.
It was a colder day than the previous, and after remembering last night’s disturbing events as he came to full alertness, Salius decided that he needed to get moving as quickly as possible due to the fact that Salius did not want to be here any longer than he had to be. So, after untying himself from the tree, he used his dagger to leap down to the forest floor below before setting out to continue his search for the man whom he was supposed to meet.
A few uneventful hours had passed as Salius continued his southern course toward the mountain, going deeper and deeper into the treacherous place where anyone with any sense of reason chose not to venture. The environment had remained relatively the same, and, of course, no living creatures were there to be seen for reasons which Salius now understood.
Salius, after having hours to think about the previous night, had still come to no conclusions as to what exactly the man or creature that he had seen was, nor why it did what it did. And, Salius eventually decided that its identity and purpose would simply continue to allude him, unless of course he happened upon some new information which would give him clarity. Perhaps the man he was looking for would have the answers, were Salius to ever find him. But then again it was a vast forest and Salius was unsure how he was supposed to find what he was looking for without having even the slightest idea of which way he needed to trudge. However, as Salius had no other options available, he hoped that on this quest, luck would be on his side. With that small measure of hope in mind, Salius simply kept placing one foot in front of the other.
A little more time had passed, and as Salius reached into his satchel eager for a meager snack to keep his strength up due to hunger’s mournful call, Salius caught site of an apple tree. Then, as he moved forward more quickly, mouth beginning to salivate, he saw another and another. In fact, upon standing near enough to pluck a piece of delectable looking fruit from one of the trees, he noticed that they were many, and seemed to have been planted with organization. This was not some random grouping of trees, this was a farm; Salius would know. Also besides the apple orchard, he saw other fruit trees and berry bushes, most of which Salius did not immediately recognize.
Finally; he must live nearby.
Before going off to search for the planter, who was no doubt the man Salius had been looking for, he decided to grab a bite just in case their meeting, for some reason, went poorly. So, reaching up, Salius grabbed hold of a delightful looking green apple and took a bite, then another. It wasn’t long before Salius had devoured the whole of the seed bearing fruit, and after throwing the core down to the ground, Salius moved toward another, before he consumed that one as well. In Salius’ opinion these apples tasted, curiously, far better than those he had eaten in the fields near his home, perhaps due to the climate. He continued to grab another for the road only now realizing how famished he had been; but after taking a bite he heard a voice address him from his right, “Best produce in all of Librium.”
It was a long moment before Salius gave reply, “How would you know something like that?”
The man paused briefly before responding, “Let’s just say, I’ve been around for a very long time.”
Salius took another bite before turning. Then as Salius turned, the man, whom by Salius’ sight stood maybe a little above six feet tall, spoke again while casually stroking his thick beard, “It is odd to me that a man, no matter his age, should continue to eat stolen produce in front of its planter after being caught.”
“It would be odd to me too,” replied Salius frankly before crunching down on another bite.
“Then why do it?”
He made a point to motion at the tall, middle aged man’s right hand, the hand which currently rested upon a three foot long sword, strapped to his side with a thick leather belt, before Salius spoke, “I was raised on a farm in West Librium, and it is my experience that farmers don’t take kindly to those who take from their land without invitation. That being said, if you are going to attempt to kill me… well, lets just say that I have found preference to fighting on a full stomach.”
The man smiled suddenly before removing his hand from the hilt of his weapon. The mysterious farmer, now taking a more non-aggressive posture, responded, “Well, you have somehow survived the night, and you speak as one who is learned; it has truly been a long time since I have had the privilege to engage in discourse with a guest such as you, despite your apparent youthful age. Come, you have my open invitation, I shall not kill you today.”
At that the man turned to lead Salius back to his home. Salius spoke as he followed behind, still wary of the bizarre stranger who he did not truly know, “My name is, Salius; and how would you be addressed?”
“Call me, Planter; for that is all that I am now.”
After guiding Salius through the orchards, and up a sturdy, wooden, spiral, staircase which lead to a cleverly devised house that had been built around the trunks of two very large trees; the man who called himself Planter, then left, after letting Salius into his abode, to gather a few things in preparation for the evening meal. Being well over an hour since the man, who preferred to simply be called Planter, had departed, Salius already had time to look around before taking a seat in one of two intricately carved, tall backed, thick armed, lounging chairs, which sat at the South side on an open balcony, facing the mountain.
Planter’s home was not large, but it was homely, being built in a rectangular shape with one end facing north and the other east, complete, as one looked from the outside, with four shuttered windows and one covered balcony. On the inside, a long, worn, rectangular table with two equally long benches, sat north to south in between the two thick tree trunks around which the house was built. The windows were built along the breadth of the house, two on each side. There also were two doors, one existing on the north end, acting as the home’s gateway, and the other near the south end, which entered onto the balcony. A full bed equipped with proper bedding sitting atop a wooden frame existed on the Southwestern corner to the right of the door, if looking south from the north, with its head on the southern side, up against the home’s far wall.
Something Salius did not expect to see upon earlier entrance had been four tall bookshelves, two placed on either side against the two long walls, as one entered. All four of the wonderfully crafted, old fashioned bookshelves, were entirely filled, leaving no space for even one more book or manuscript. Then, as Salius had gone further past the bookshelves there was an area against the long western wall dedicated to various types of weapons and armaments, all of which hung on the wall or shelf, very well organized like everything else in Planter’s home. This seemed equally out of place to Salius, but what truly caught his attention was the centerpiece; a full, richly ornamented, military uniform, currently suited on a wooden manneqhin. The suit was complete with gold chainmail, and a gold left shoulder piece with golden leg and forearm plates. Even more strange was that some of the gold plates bore obvious scratches, signifying that the suit’s wearer had worn it in battle. This was unusual, as the kings and high lords who would wear a piece like this, didn’t wear it for battle but as an authoritative symbol. This was for many reasons, one being that, since gold is one of the weakest metals, it wouldn’t hold up well as actual protection in a fight, not to mention the fact that it was heavy and therefore would be a mere annoyance to the warrior who adorned it in the heat of conflict.
After analyzing the armor, Salius’ attention had then moved on to the sword which was strapped around the manneqhin’s waist. It had an apparent three foot long length, and had appeared to Salius as something similar to an Ameritan traditional saber; its blade having just a slight curve making it easier to use for slashing, while also making it definitively different from a straight sword.
As Salius, in present time, sat looking out over the forest atop the balcony he pondered how a man like Planter could possibly have such rare and amazing items in his possession, which brought perhaps the more pertinent question to mind, which was; who is he?
Only two conclusions seemed even relatively possible to Salius: Either the man was a thief and no doubt subsequently a murderer, or he had at one point been at least a high lord, if not royalty. It was a mystery to be sure, one which would keep him from reaching any measurable amount of sleep on this night. And no matter how friendly Salius’ host seemed to be, Salius would stay on his guard as he was certain of one thing; Planter was hiding something, something unusual.
He heard footsteps, by the sound of it, coming from the spiral staircase. Salius after standing up, moved toward the currently open balcony doorway just in time to see Planter open the door which was on the other end of the house. As Salius sauntered out of the overlooking balcony and back into the mysterious man’s home, he saw the tall man enter, carrying something that smelled all too familiar to Salius in a large pot.
“Hope you’re in the mood for a good stew,” said Planter with a smile as he walked over to place the pot in the center of the lengthy table before going to fetch the dinnerware; two bowls and two spoons.
“Smells like my mother’s cooking,” responded Salius as he took in the wonderful scent which reminded him so much of home. But to Salius’ surprise instead of bringing happiness, the memories brought back the homesickness that, due to recent events, he had temporarily forgotten. But, despite the unpleasant feelings, feelings that he knew would soon pass just as they had before, Salius allowed a slight but pleasant smile to come across his face, even if only to keep up appearances.
Upon taking a seat, with Salius briskly following in suit, Planter continued with a slight chuckle, “I hope that is a good thing.”
“It is,” replied Salius with a friendly smile.
“Good,” responded Planter as he filled up both bowls with a ladle before going on, “Now obviously, all of the spices which you are about to taste have been grown right here by yours truly. So although your mother’s cooking may have smelled similar, I very much doubt that the flavor will be equally so, as I doubt your mother was privy to the rare spices that I cook with. Unless, of course, you were lying about growing up in the fields.”
Salius nodded before taking a sip of the broth.
In immediate amazement, Salius made indirect inquest, “This is excellent, you must tell me your recipe before I leave?”
“I’ll think about it; I am glad you enjoy it though, haven’t had any visitors to cook for in a while.”
“After what I’ve seen I have no doubt,” Salius responded before eating a sliced up chunk of potato.
“Indeed, that brings me to a question I have. If you don’t mind telling, how exactly did you figure out the secret Salius?”
Not willing to divulge everything to this man out of caution, Salius took a moment before answering, as the conversation was already quickly turning to more relevant matters, “I was told by a man whom one would expect not to have knowledge of such things.”
“Hmm… I see,” said Planter in reply as he took another bite.
Anticipating it would take a little more time before Planter breached the main topic which had brought him here, Salius went on with tact, “Now it’s my turn,” he stated, taking a brief pause before continuing, “I saw it; I don’t know exactly what I saw, but I would be remiss to say that I am not the least bit curious to know exactly what it, or perhaps he, was?”
Planter didn’t speak right away, instead he simply took another bite before glancing back up at Salius as if pondering what answer to give. Then, after taking yet another sip of broth, Planter spoke, “You are right to call the creature you saw, it. What it is I can’t really say, all I know is that it has been standing guard for a long, long time. He rises as the sun falls, and kills any who set foot upon the forest floor before the sun’s return.”
Salius waited a moment before giving reply, “You said he guards something. What does he guard? The forest? Something in the forest?”
“No, not the forest; the mountain.”
Planter took another bite before dodging Salius’ question by changing the subject, “You must tell me, how is it that you learned to speak proper while growing up on a farm?”
Knowing that he would get no further answer about the creature at this time, Salius gracefully allowed the aversion, “My mother’s grandfather was a very wealthy lord, but lost everything due to most unfortunate circumstances. However, his knowledge and education was passed on, and long story short, my mother, was a very good teacher.”
“I can see she was,” responded Planter, obviously satisfied by Salius’ short but sufficient answer.
Both Salius and Planter then sat in silence while they ate, taking what comforting pleasure they could from the evening meal. A tinge of awkwardness began to set in as neither spoke, or even made eye contact aside from sparse glances.
Rain began to fall from the storm clouds which had gathered darkly from above, dimming the already fading evening light. Salius, looking out the open window behind Planter as he put down his bowl having drunk the last of his broth, discerned that the sun would finish its falling in no more than two hours.
With both men having finished their meal, Planter cleared off the table before retrieving a few blankets from a nearby cabinet. Then, after having placed them down in an area, indicating that it was the place Salius was to sleep, Planter waved him out to the covered balcony. Planter took a seat in the chair of his choosing, and waited until Salius was also seated before he spoke, “So Salius, what brings you to this place? It isn’t the type of place you just simply explore, or wander through to get somewhere else. You have to have a very specific reason to enter the forest, otherwise it would simply be avoided in choice of another path.”
Salius, looking out into the wilderness, watched the rain as it fell, hearing the calming sound it made as it collided against the trees, the plants, the ground, the roof of Planters home. More than a few moments passed before Salius responded, deciding that at this time honesty would fare him well, “I came here to find someone who could tell me about the Empress, and where I might find her. Are you that someone?”
Salius saw a subtle, brief moment of what he interpreted to be shock or surprise come over Planter’s face at the mention of the Empress, before Planter quickly re-adorned his neutral composure. Then, not turning to face Salius, Planter, after letting another moment pass, gave reply, “Now that is a name that I have not heard in a very long time,” Planter then paused before turning to look at Salius, “Tell me, if I gave you that information what would you do with it?”
Regretting his words as he spoke them, fearing that they were too bold, too honest, Salius hastily responded, “I intend to kill her.”
Clearly taken aback by this statement, Planter replied after a quick chuckle, “You and what army.”
Salius did not respond but instead turned away from Planter to again look forward gazing off into the distance. Planter more serious now, then continued, “You’re serious, aren’t you? Tell me, son of a farmer, do you even know how to properly swing a blade? Do you have any clue what you are getting yourself into?”
Salius, simply answered, “No, I don’t know how to use a blade.”
Planter, looking puzzled, went on to ask, “What reason could you have for killing the Empress? And what reason do I have for helping you do it?”
At this point, Salius decided to play off of a hunch, “My reasons are my own. As for your second question; I have a feeling that you have a vested interest in my journey’s success.”
Planter, about to speak, suddenly paused, looking inquisitively at Salius, as if questioning how much Salius already knew. It was in this moment that Salius knew he had obtained conversational success.
A few more moments passed as Planter sat to the right of Salius, stroking his beard. Then, as he sat gazing into the forest with all seriousness, Planter began, “The world was once a very different place; free, just… simple. This, of course, was before Tiburon changed it, altering it into something that it was never meant to be. See, before the Empire came there were six kings, and each king, a marked descendent of the original six kings, ruled his own race, his own people. In those days the Northern, Middle, and Southern races of men ruled beside the other three elder races; the Feyliimn, Golgaleth, and Ungassii. It was a time of peace which lasted many centuries. There were a few squabbles here and there, but nothing of the magnitude which came after.
“Tiburon, Lord of the middle race, secretly hated the Law of founding and all it represented. He felt that it restrained him from being able to bring his own vision of how the world should be, to reality. But, as his ideas were immediately rejected by the other five kings, he put them aside, knowing that the only way to do that which he willed would involve all out war with the other races; a war which he would most certainly loose… at least, before she came.
“One day on a stroll through the city square of Librium’s capital, Tiburon saw her. Some say she cast some sort of magical spell over the king, but I’m not so sure; it’s amazing how easily even a wise man can be deceived by a woman as beautiful and charming as Mara.
“Well, years passed, with Mara playing the part of Tiburon’s only mistress behind the Queen’s back. Then, on one night, Tiburon, a little drunk, revealed to Mara his secret desire to create a world with one supreme king; a world where that king can make the world in his own fashion not bound by the regulations of the Law of Founding, not bound to the rule of six, but by the rule of one. Seeing her chance, having her own, perhaps even darker, ambitions, Mara used the opportunity. She told Tiburon that she had secret knowledge which would allow him to create a weapon so powerful that it could be used to bring the entirety of the world before his feet. However, her knowledge came with a price; Mara, in exchange, required the death of Tiburon’s current wife, and the subsequent lawful marriage between her and the king. But Tiburon, even in his drunken state, refused, and the next morning the king had her sent away, even though she had recently born him a bastard son.
“As the years passed, Tiburon’s lust for power grew so overwhelming that he began to regret his hasty decision. So, he sought her out, and after finding her, he went to her in the night, she then demonstrated her knowledge to him before Tiburon agreed to her terms. In the following months Tiburon’s wife was murdered, and shortly afterward he was bound lawfully in marriage to Mara. Not two years later the Tiburon war had begun, and his men fitted with a new type of weapon, which if my memory serves correctly, used what the new Queen had called, black powder. The weapon’s use in warfare was just as effective as Mara had claimed it would be. Although, discovery of its creator by the public had caused the new queen to be forever labeled by the people as a witch.
“Ultimately, it was only a matter of time before the war would end, and Tiburon would be forever known by a new title; the title of, First Emperor. After the war, fearing that the power of his world changing weapon would be somehow used against him due to likely future rebellion, Tiburon decreed, that all weapons which were crafted to use the magical black dust, which was called black powder, were to be destroyed. He then killed all, with the exception Mara, who had the knowledge of the powder’s crafting, and forbid all creation or understanding of the black dust which could somehow amplify fire to cause untold destruction. Long story short, all which the king had bid, had been done successfully, and two war-less years then followed; years filled with much change. But, Mara would not be satisfied until her own dark goals were completed. She spent those two years planning, and at her chosen time she launched a coup. But, overlooking a few important details due to pride and overconfidence, Mara only sat on the throne for ten days before Tiburon overcame her. After retaking his throne Tiburon put Mara in a special prison, locking her away, never to be seen or heard from again. Upon Mara’s failed cue she was given a mocking title by the public; she was thereafter infamously known as the Empress. But, what most don’t know is that over five hundred years later she still lives, locked in that prison to this day, guarded by legions; kept there all along just in case those who ruled the Empire would once again need use of her knowledge to re-create her unstoppable weapon. It’s a shame the rebels don’t know, for if they did, they would understand that as long as she still lives, the Empire cannot be beaten. And because of that, things will never again be the way they once were.”
Silence came as Salius took in all of the information which had just been given to him. It was overwhelming, but as he pondered, three questions came to his mind. So, facing Planter, he spoke, “Ok, first, how could you possibly know all of this? Second, how can any man or woman live over a hundred years? And finally, if what you say is the truth, would you happen know the location of the prison were she is held?”
Planter responded in no hurry, “You have your reasons for keeping secrets, and I have mine. But yes, I know where she is kept, or rather, where she was kept,” Planter stopped and let a moment pass before turning to face Salius as he went on, “You impress me Salius; you have proved yourself, competent and intelligent, not to mention the fact that you have survived a night here, a rare feat if ever there was one. With that said, even though I still believe you will fail your mission, I do have interest in her death for reasons, both obvious, and others that will remain my own. So, I will offer you what I can to help you succeed in the fashion of an unusual trade. I will tell you her last known location, only if you agree to stay with me for at least a month to learn the sword. Deal?”
After a moment to think it over, Salius replied in agreement, “You have a deal.”
It had been two nights since his capture, and as Zackarius trudged along, hands tied behind his back with rope, he wondered as to the condition and well being of the other four who he had not seen since the battle on the wall. Had they been as unfortunate as he had, or did they somehow evade capture, to wander through the jungles in search of him. Then again, perhaps if they remained free, they decided to push on without him instead. But, as Zackarius pondered this yet again he quickly rejected all such notions, knowing full well that Tiberius would at least make small effort to look for his missing messenger.
Zackarius had, throughout most of the journey, been dragged by the two eight foot tall muscular warriors, which he of course assumed to be none other than the Golgaleth of legend, through the dense foliage of the lush jungle environment that surrounded them. Earlier they had finally come onto a narrow dirt path which had been a nice change as they continued their unpleasant march northeast. Although, unfortunately, Zackarius had no clue where they were headed, as the two giant men spoke in a very different, unfamiliar language, and even if he did understand his captors, Zackarius was unsure as to whether or not they would reveal their current destination anyway.
So far, as Zackarius could tell by the way they interacted, these hulking men had the same level of intelligence as any other men. He had briefly wondered as to their mental aptitude on the first day because he had heard in one retelling of an old legend that Golgaleth were somewhat dimwitted. But, it was easy for Zackarius to conclude at this point, having had plenty of time to observe them, that that myth was clearly unfounded.
It seemed according to Zackarius to be around noon. There were scattered clouds, but none appeared to threaten rain, although Zackarius had learned before that in a tropical environment the weather could change rapidly from one moment to the next, making it at times fairly unpredictable.
The sand had turned to dirt earlier this morning as they marched farther inland; it was a noticeable change, however the tree and plant life remained mostly the same.
More time passed as the two towering Golgaleth escorted their prisoner forward, one from in front and one from behind, leaving Zackarius to keep up in the middle. The warriors were adorned in newly fashioned, large, uniquely designed, strapped leather armor, fitted to chest, midsection, and back, along with thick leather, shoulder, arm, and forearm pieces; wearing ordinary leather pants and boots. Both were bare chested beneath the protection, no doubt due to the hot and humid environment, and at their left sides they carried their full headed steel helmets. The helmets did not bulge anywhere in the face but rather had a T design with a slit going vertically from the bottom of the front till it reached the eye slits which came across horizontally. At the top of the helmets there was a two or three inch long steel fin which protruded up, moving toward the back; looking similar, in design alone, to the common imperial, gold feathered fin, which typically adorned the top of any imperial officer’s helmet. Then, strapped onto the backs of the two towering men, currently rested large shields, and at their right sides resting on thick leather belts were brutally crafted steel maces, each weapon fit to be wielded by an eight foot tall, hulking Golgaleth warrior.
Due to lack of sleep during the previous night, Zackarius began to feel weariness again come over him as he walked forward along the dirt path. He had previously considered trying to escape but decided that even if he could somehow escape his captors, there were probably much worse things in this unfamiliar jungle than the Golgaleth. Even Zackarius had to admit, that he had been treated fairly well so far as compared to how prisoners of any kind are generally treated. That being said, he was also deeply curious to see where he was being taken, and perhaps after reaching his destination, fortune would see fit to deliver a translator, allowing him to converse with this supposedly extinct race. Then again, it was all too possible that nothing but death or slavery would greet him at the end of this road, a prospect that yet again forced Zackarius to reconsider escape. But, before having the chance to rehash his options Zackarius paused for a second to look at the sudden change of scenery. The man in the back then immediately shoved Zackarius forward unkindly as Zackarius took in what he saw.
In the vast man-made clearing which Zackarius had just entered, worked thousands of Golgaleth men and women, some warriors judging by the leather armor which they wore, but many were not. To Zackarius it was apparent that they were attempting to construct an incredibly large wooden city. It was impossible to see beyond the forty foot wooden wall which towered two hundred to three hundred feet before the tree line, but even so it was easy for Zackarius to tell that in every way it was not a town or a village, but a great city in both size and scope. The wall appeared to be finished with its guard towers looming above the height of the wall, and many guardsmen peered down as lookouts to protect the city's populace from potential invasion or outside dangers while they labored. Clearly as the wall would be the first piece of the city to be constructed, the rest of the workforce-- whose number he judged, in part by what he could see and the rest by what he could hear on the other side of the wall, to be incredibly large-- would be currently mainly focused on building that which would be built on the inside of the wall.
An observation made by Zackarius at this time was that the Golgaleth, except for the size difference of course, looked very similar to the Gahnen people in terms of facial structure, and also the color of their hair, eyes, and skin.
Zackarius as he looked around could see hundreds of men moving about, working busily to fell trees, cut them into desired pieces, and proceed by hauling them into the city, delivering them to wherever they would be needed. Then, as he again focused forward in the direction to which he was being lead, Zackarius gazed upon what he was originally taken aback by.
Near the front of the wall’s gates there were two immense statues, each near twenty five feat tall, one was laying on the ground covered partially with overgrowth, and the other appeared to have recently been raised in front of the city gates; raised in place as if it was standing to guard the very same people who raised it up. But as the one already in place stood facing the tree line, the other was currently being strapped with many lines of rope to what appeared to be a very complicatedly constructed wooden lever system which had had been built even taller than the two stone statues. Zackarius had seen something like this to raise other things throughout the empire, but he was initially surprised to see it in use here. As he looked at the tall statue which had obviously not recently been carved, it’s age being duly apparent, Zackarius decided, why not; there was no reason why such an ancient and once glorious race should not have this technology, despite their isolation from the rest of the world. In Zackarius’ mind it was at least conceivable, however as he turned his attention away from the magnificent sculptures of two ancient, armored Golgaleth warriors, each carrying a massive shield in front with an equally massive mace at its side, Zackarius began to return his focus to the present situation.
As they marched forward Zackarius was brought before one man in particular who stood in observation of the workers who labored to raise the second statue. The man, different from the rest, was surrounded by guards in not leather armor like the other warriors, but in steel plate armor.
All six warriors, who if Zackarius was correct, appeared to be something like a kings-guard, wore finely decorated, dark green, knee length coats under the plate, with incredible five foot long swords at their sides instead of maces. The swords which these Golgaleth used could without a doubt be wielded by them with the same ease that Zackarius could wield a much smaller three foot long weapon.
Zackarius’ two captors, at this moment, bowed but did not kneel before the man who appeared to be the equivalent of royalty, perhaps a high chieftain of sorts. Then, one of the men who had led Zackarius to this place smacked Zackarius lightly across the back of his head, no doubt to indicate that he also was supposed to bow. But, as Zackarius was accustomed to kneeling before a high lord or royalty in a situation like this, he moved quickly to do such, kneeling out of habit. However, this action was met with an even quicker kick to the chest by the same man who was now obviously either angered or disgusted by Zackarius. As Zackarius flew backward, the impact of the large man’s boot making Zackarius fear as to whether or not he would ever be able to breathe again, he heard the chief suddenly speak up to quell his soldier’s wrath. The language which the chieftain spoke was of course the same language of his captors and, due to this, Zackarius, as he recovered from the recently sustained blow before moving to stand up, knew that he would not understand anything which was about to be said.
A few moments went by as the man who had kicked Zackarius spoke with the high chief, obviously on the topic of Zackarius’ fate. He glanced at his other captor who stood nearby to his left before, after the soldier returned Zackarius’ glance with an expressionless look, Zackarius again turned his attention to the chief.
The conversation then stopped immediately, as the chieftain paused for a moment while seeming to briefly ponder which decision to make regarding Zackarius’ future. Then, the man waved his hand, as Zackarius’ heart, due to mounting anxiety, pounded in his chest. What did that mean? Death or life?
Looking unhappy with his chief’s decision, the man who had earlier coldly rebuked Zackarius, now broke audience with the chief before, after another quick bow to his lord, he again approached Zackarius.
Zackarius felt his heart race faster and faster. His hands, once steady, suddenly began to subtly twitch and shake due to the fear that gripped him. Sweat poured down his face, stinging his eyes mercilessly. Zackarius couldn’t stand not knowing what fate was about to befall him as the man approached, and due to this he worked aggressively to keep his mind under control. If he was to die, he decided that he would not beg or plead like a peasant who had known no other way in life; nor would he die like a slave who had learned to take the lash day after day in silence, and, therefore, approached his death in like manor. No, he would die like the man he was, a warrior, a warrior in service to a legend. If he was to die right here and now he would approach his fate with honor, with strength, and with the pride that he had come to know after serving alongside the greatest of men.
At this, Zackarius would not cower. He stood resolute, unwavering, approaching death in the same way he had approached life. This was it, in but a moment he would know whether he was to live or to die, and with that, he uttered, in the tongue of the Gahnen, the rebellion’s anthem; something which was roughly translated, “I live by those who die, and so shall I die by those who live, but either by time or sword I stand avenged.”
361 Days Before Day 1
Salius deflected a blow to the neck before swiftly moving out of Planter’s range as the skilled swordsman attempted a clever follow up attack which, due to Salius’ more than adequate timing, hit nothing but air.
It was early in the morning, no more than a few hours after first light, and, as they battled on with carved wooden practice swords, Salius was finally beginning to notice the first signs of exhaustion, which came due to the energy he had exuded throughout their many bouts since they had begun earlier.
Over the last month, Salius had trained with the sword before breakfast, before lunch, and before dinner every day. It had not been easy at first as they trained sometimes for hours at a time, but Salius was a fast learner and his body quickly adjusted, making him stronger, faster, and more skillful with each passing day.
Planter did not allow Salius to farm or do any other labor besides training while he was to learn the sword. He claimed that this was not just to give the body what rest it could receive, but to train the mind, to keep the mind focused on the sword at all times, when awake, when sleeping, when eating, when lounging. In fact, before the first lesson Planter had said that by the thirtieth day, Salius would feel insanity begin to creep into his mind, and it was only at this point that Salius’ training would end. Salius was now at that point, and he fully understood Planter’s meaning; it had only been thirty days and Salius had already forgotten everything but the sword. He could not stop thinking about his movements, or his opponent and how he might best him in the next bout. Salius dreamt about combat while awake or asleep, each night and every day. It was like a melody that sung its song over and over in your mind without relent, driving you mad until one moment its song simply leaves on its own.
But, the mysterious man’s training regime had worked, for within a month Planter had turned a young man who had never held a sword in his life into a capable and learned swordsman. It had no doubt been a difficult task for the man, but nevertheless, he had succeeded in doing it both timely and adequately.
Today was the last day of his training, and this was the last bout before Planter would reveal Mara’s location so that Salius could then depart to complete his original task. Salius did not think about whether or not he could actually find it within himself to kill Mara when he found her, or what he would do once his journey was completed, he simply approached each task, each step, one at a time, hoping that eventually he would wind up where he wanted to be.
There was a pause as Salius had put new distance between himself and his opponent. With sword held forward and low, Salius made movement as if he were about to attack, but seeing that Planter had already anticipated where his attack would land, Salius pulled back at the last second.
Damn, he’s too far away.
At that, Salius stepped forward without striking, feeling for the perfect spot which would allow him to land a blow and retreat before taking one himself. But, as Salius moved forward, Planter executed a feint before swiping low. Salius speedily moved his right leg, letting Planter’s sword fly past while leaning in with an attack of his own. Salius hit nothing but air as his weapon flew less than an inch in front of Planter’s face. Planter then countered toward Salius’ stomach thinking himself already the victor, but as he did this, Salius did something unexpected; he leaned out and doubled down, smacking Planter hard across the face. It was not that the move was unusual as it was actually quite common, it was the way and timing with which it was executed that caught Planter off guard.
With the bout now over, Salius being the clear victor, Planter, still holding his face where he had been struck, began to laugh heartily as blood started to pour out from his nose, “Finally; I must admit, I was rooting for you this time.”
“Ah, I see… so this is where you tell me that you let me win,” teased Salius dryly.
Planter then looked toward Salius with a smile after moving his left hand away from his nose as the bleeding slowed, “No, no, it was a legitimate victory, you caught me off guard. I didn’t expect you to recover so quickly; well done.”
Salius nodded his gratitude for the compliment before giving reply, “I had a good teacher.”
At that, Planter began walking toward his sword which he had left resting on a nearby tree. He glanced at Salius before speaking, “Well, I imagine you want to be on your way presently, and we have our agreement… You will find what you are looking for just a little way southeast of the Leodician southern port city, Castia. If I were you I would head to to the capital city, and there in Paleo you should find a captain willing to take you all the way to Castia; that is, if you have the coin of course.”
They paused turning toward each other as Salius responded, “Thank you, for everything.”
“You’re welcome, although I would be remiss to say it was entirely for you. I am labored somewhat by the realization that I must now be, yet again, without company.”
There was another pause before Planter went on toward his sword while Salius followed closely behind. A moment went by before Planter was close enough to grab the weapon.
Salius found it unusual, as he also bent down to retrieve his worn satchel that currently held all of his belongings which included the dagger he still kept a secret from Planter, that the man had brought with him the sword which Salius had never, until this point, seen removed from the manikin’s side.
As Salius glanced again at the weapon he noticed its finely forged, steel, wrapped handle, smooth, and curved slightly forward, a hilt style that was well suited for the duelist.
Then, turning toward Salius, Planter handed out the fine weapon saying, “A gift for the one who slays the Empress.”
Salius, pleasantly surprised, nodded his appreciation before taking the weapon. He then drew it out of the scabbard, and as the steel sang while it was drawn, Salius noticed the runic engravings on either side of the blade. He immediately understood the inscriptions as if it were written in his own native tongue; this no doubt was due to the old and blackened steel ring that he always wore which had been given to him by Claudius. On one side the ancient writing read “Ear for Ear” and on the other “Eye for eye”.
As Planter noticed Salius reading the two inscriptions, he immediately spoke up in reference to them, “The Law of Founding is spoken many ways but has only one meaning. It is fair justice in its simplest form. It is that which all intelligent life knows by instinct. It protects and avenges, but it is more accurately that which brings all life back into balance once it is unbalanced, once it malfunctions. The elder races who were once the caretakers of this world ruled according to this truth. But that was a very long time ago, and this age has shown us that to forsake this truth is to invite cruelty, war, slavery, or in essence, simply, death,” Planter then stopped, letting a brief moment pass before he continued, “I have known you only a short time Salius, but still I sense that a great destiny calls you. So, if there is one thing that I would like you to take away from this awful place, it is this final lesson. Use what you have, and what I have given you to restore that which has been forgotten, that which once gave all men, rich or poor, high or lowly; peace, safety… freedom.”
Again Salius nodded, this time in understanding as he sheathed the sword and slung his satchel around his shoulder. Before turning to leave, Salius began, “Thank you again, and be assured that I will see it done. I hope we meet again friend.”
Planter then gave reply before leaving toward his tree home, “I have a feeling we will. Good luck.”
After their parting, Salius waited until the man was out of sight before reaching for his dagger. Then, with the sword in his left hand, and right index finger on the trigger of his other weapon, Salius faced in the approximate direction of a road, which, upon exiting the forest, would take him all the way to Paleo. Finally, after one more glance back and a deep sigh, he pulled the trigger.
Eleven, after reaching for his sword, suddenly paused as the creature spoke in a language that he had not heard in many years; it was the language of the Faceless.
“I saw, foreigner. Now, if you promise to leave that blade where it is you will most likely not be harmed.”
Not having any other option, Eleven moved his hand away from his blade as he saw many more come out of what seemed to be a nearby hole in the ground. All of them appeared to be men, except for one bizarre feature which clearly stood out; they neither had eyes or eye sockets on their faces, nor did they have any sign of anything which would indicate that they had the ability to see.
Eleven was very puzzled by the unusual feature which most certainly separated these creatures from the races of men. But then, something immediately occurred to Eleven. Of course, it makes sense… So this… this is the home of the Ungassii; the Ungassii from which I am half descended.
Eleven, after a brief moment, spoke, “I am one of your kind.”
The Ungassii man responded inquisitively, “If that is true then remove your mask.”
“Doing such will not reveal my truth for I am born from one of the stolen.”
Immediately after Eleven spoke the men drew their swords, anxious and fearful. Then, one coming up from the side started to charge toward Eleven, sword raised. But, he was quickly knocked down by the one who had first spoken, obviously their leader. It was a move purposed to regain control of the startled group.
The leader, with sword raised toward the fallen Eleven, then spoke with certain anxiety which was easy for the listener to ascertain, “You are not one of us.”
“Then what am I,” responded Eleven with a sinister chuckle.
The group’s leader, regaining a bit of composure, spoke in return, slightly altering the subject, “Answer truthfully or I will let them gut you right here, right now. How many are here with you? What is your name, if Faceless have one? And have you come to steal those we love?”
Eleven could see no reason or benefit in lying to these people, nor did he really care if they thought him a monster or hero for what he had done, “No one will come to steal from you your wives or your children anymore. I am the last of my kind, and my name, is Eleven.”
The man paused, puzzled by the unexpected answer before waving over a man who was standing nearby. After whispering something to his companion the leader turned back toward Eleven, “Why should I trust you? And even if you speak the truth how do you know that you are the last?”
“You are right to hate me, but I have no reason to deceive, in fact, kill me if you like, however it is the truth; they are survived only by me, I know because I am the one who killed them.”
More than a few moments later after discussing it with his comrades the leader then turned his attention back to the masked man who still lay on the ground in the same place he had fallen. The leader, following another brief moment, spoke, “If you are truly Faceless as you claim, then it is impossible for you to break your word, correct?”
Following Eleven’s response the leader went on, “Very well, it is therefore the group’s consensus that we will allow you to enter our city, and we will provide you with treatment for your injury, but only on the condition that you give us your word to not harm any of our people for the time that you are among us. If you should break your oath then clearly you are not what you claim to be, and therefore we should have no problem killing you.”
Eleven, in agreement to this offer, gave answer, “I give you my word that no harm shall come to you or your people by my hand, from this time until the time that I depart from your city.”
The leader, now satisfied, unlike some in the group, waved to the others before saying, “Very well then, we are agreed.”
The Ungassii after sheathing their swords carefully picked up Eleven to place him on a wide wooden plank, a plank which someone whom Eleven had seen recently emerge from the hole, had brought up with him. Then, after being carried toward what the masked man now knew was some sort of entrance to what must be an underground city, Eleven subsequently entered what he would soon discover to be, the world below.
348 Days before day 1
Paleo was an exuberant place by Salius’ observation, vast and lively. To be here, in the city, was a very new experience for Salius in every way, and even more so as this city just happened to be the second largest city within the Empire.
Even though Kingsgate was said to be at least twice the size of its runner up, Paleo was still nothing short of impressive. It hosted many shops and venders. Also, due to the slight slope upon which the city was built, one could often have a lovely view of the ocean while going about one’s business. Many things added to the pleasant atmosphere of the city, but, that being said, the city was still a very busy place, far different from the peaceful calm of nature which Salius had always known. And, as Salius strolled the bustling streets of the market section he found himself intimidated, awkward, and uneasy due to the sheer number of people alone.
It was a beautiful sunny, but breezy, day, and, despite the season’s chill, it seemed to be even warmer here than it had been in Lituss; not a surprise, but welcomed just the same.
Upon admiring the weather after exiting a high class clothing shop, Salius took the road heading east, toward the docks; on the way seeing, performers, many different types of street venders, slave traders, and anything in Salius’ estimation that one could ever want to purchase.
During his time in the shop, Salius had bought what he was told to be the finest in male fashion these days, an outfit which included a green knee length coat with stylized white decorative stitching, a fine pair of leather trousers, boots, and a fashionable shirt to be worn under the coat. Salius also purchased a sturdy leather belt, fashioned to carry the sword on his left side, and the dagger also on his left behind the sword. After everything had been purchased, Salius figured he had just enough of the, no longer recently deceased, centurion’s coin left to barter passage to Castia.
Salius, as he walked along the cobblestone streets, chuckled at the thought that while the Centurion might have been a horrific man, his money was serving a good cause.
Some time had passed before Salius stopped as he came near a slave auction. He had never seen a slave auction before, and even though many accepted it as part of day to day life, Salius always thought the concept of slavery, at the least, to be rather distasteful. Maybe something like a bond servant would be acceptable according to Salius, but pure slavery without any choice in the matter or hope of freedom, by his account, was an injustice akin to kidnapping. What was worse is that the Empire allowed and encouraged the enslavement of its own.
As Salius moved closer to the auction, watching people in the crowd claim one slave after the other as the downtrodden men and women stood in a line waiting to be purchased by yet another abusive master, he grew even more disgusted by the event than he had been previously.
Salius being closer now, gazed into the desperate faces of those who had no hope of peace or freedom, but those who were bartered would not dare to look him in the eye. Not one dared to return his gaze.
Salius’ attention was then suddenly captured by a commotion on the other end of the line up. The situation was immediately clear to Salius, as two slavers reacted quickly to regain control of their sold property. It was a case of something which, although he had known was not uncommon, still remained gut wrenching to witness.
Upon witnessing the result of the separation of a slave family, due to the slavers allowing the man, woman, and child, to be bought separately for more potential profit; Salius’ left hand, which was resting on the hilt of his weapon, began to clench the sword tightly as the slave wife’s screams of anguish drowned out the desperate war cries of her husband. Then, after watching the man be beaten down mercilessly until the fight left his eyes, leaving nothing but silent tears, Salius winced while averting his gaze.
A moment later, following the perfect restraint of the disobedient slave, all three family members were then carted off separately. As Salius had returned his gaze to see the broken family leave, he saw something which he would never forget; while the woman continued her shrill screams as she reached out for her son, the young child of the two slaves waved goodbye to his father, who out of his own shame could not even bear to return his son’s gaze. Then, as the moments passed, the son turned away, clearly feeling the true sting of ultimate rejection and loss. It was no doubt then that the boy realized he would never again see his family, he was alone, completely forsaken by any hope of justice.
Salius, after the incident was completely over, immediately bolted from the scene. Moments later, after finding a more private place in an alleyway, Salius, not being able to hold it in any longer, vomited.
He had not vomited after killing the soldiers, but here and now he vomited for this. Salius found that strange at first, but after considering it, he decided that it was far easier to watch evil men die, than to be helpless to save an innocent, desperate, family, which was torn apart right in front of his eyes by the injustice of cruel men; cruel men who he now hated nearly as much as those whom he had slaughtered over two months past.
It took all he could not to rush in and attempt to heroically save the family who had just recently been carted away. Perhaps he could save them, but even so, where would the family go afterward, they were already branded. Even if he chose to rescue them, Salius could think of nowhere they could go which would protect them from discovery and re-enslavement, or death as a result of their escape attempt. Salius, should he choose that foolhardy, but just, course of action, would need to keep them close at all times, and this was simply not possible; maybe if it was just one person, but man, woman, and child, no, that could not be done. He had an important mission to complete, and Salius would see it through. Considering this hard wisdom, he remained, leaning against the back wall of a home, staring down at his own vomit, repeating over and over in his mind; Keep to the mission Salius, there’s nothing you can do, just keep to the mission.
After hardening himself to the cruel reality of slavery which he had just witnessed for the first time, Salius exited the alleyway before again making his way toward the docks.
Salius passed more slave auctions along the way but he choose not to stop, not to give the events anything but a cold shoulder as he passed by. It was better this way for now, as Salius had a task to complete, and since there was nothing he could do at this time anyway, watching the men, women, and children as they suffered, would only serve to bring him more agony. Salius discerned that while this course of action might not be the right thing to do, it was the wise thing to do. So, now being disgusted by what the city had to offer, Salius vied to leave as quickly as possible, because truthfully, his wisdom had limits.
While walking the streets of Paleo, Salius chose to avoid the places considered lowborn as he had been advised to do earlier at the clothing shop. Therefore, sticking mostly to the market districts, he eventually found his way down to the docks.
Once there, after emerging from the shadow of the buildings and onto a sandy beach, Salius saw it, really for the first time. He had of course seen it from inside the city, but it was not the same as being within a stones throw away.
Salius smiled as he took it all in before removing his boots and charging down into the water, all the way giddy like a child. It was exactly what his mother had described it to be, it was magnificent, and yet somehow subtle, but in all ways, beautiful. The ocean was so vast, more so than even the fields, and Salius could only marvel at how it was possible that a single body of water could be so endless. He had seen water in wells, streams, and even small lake ponds, but Salius could never have imagined, even with his mother’s wonderful description, what he now saw, and fully realized.
Salius, after splashing around a little upon entering the sea, now stood with the water level just below his knees as he closed his eyes to take in the memorable salty smell. Then, upon re-opening his vision, Salius stared out at the water which reflected the noon sunlight off of many, near and distant, tiny swells. He followed by turning his attention to the hundreds of merchant ships which carried cargo to and from Paleo. He considered heading immediately toward a long nearby dock where many men, clearly serving aboard one of the anchored ships which waited off in the distance, could be seen moving cargo off of a few row boats; but decided against it in favor of simply lounging on the sand for a few moments.
Salius had heard that it was common for people to sit in the sand while observing the ocean, and he decided to partake in this apparent tradition considering the fact that one only gets to experience the ocean for the first time, but once. So, after heading back onto the beach, he found a place to sit. Then, as Salius delighted in the breeze which blew through his now constantly lengthening hair, and after fiddling with the sand a little, finding the sand a pleasurable form of earth, he leaned back while thinking of his mother and her delightful stories, stories which she had taken just as much enjoyment in telling as he had in listening. Salius, then closed his eyes while basking in the warmth of the sun as he whispered, “You were right mother; it’s inexpressibly beautiful.”
311 Days Before Day 1
The rain, cold and unpleasant, poured relentlessly upon Salius and all who dwelled within Castia, and the wilderness which surrounded the once significant city.
Castia was said to be, at one time, a stronghold of the Golgaleth, called Gollekan, evidenced by the ruin of a once majestic castle which still lies in Castia’s center. And, while at one time the city was a prosperous place, it was now little more than a ruin itself. Many people still dwell within Castia, but the overwhelming majority of its occupants are now peasants, and due to the city’s current state of being, along with many other reasons, it’s population had been steadily dwindling over the past fifty years. Such is often the result of devastating natural phenomena when it clashes with a city, although Salius supposed that if such an earthshaking event struck a place like Kingsgate, or Paleo, the Empire would, no doubt, fund massive reconstruction efforts and the city would be rebuilt. But, after the earth shook Castia, most who suffered loss, instead of remaining to rebuild, simply left, choosing to move on. And, apparently, the Empire didn’t think Castia was worth the effort or cost to repair, so it remained, not deserted, but hopeless.
Bartering his way to the city had been more difficult than Salius had anticipated, but after a day or two spent in Paleo, Salius by the grace of luck was eventually referred to a captain who was already preparing to set sail for Castia. So, near a month later, Salius had arrived four days ago, and after asking around in the city for a path to the supposed special prison, he came upon a man by happenstance who claimed he had been there before. Then, Salius had set out the next morning at first light, following a nearly invisible, narrow dirt path which appeared little more than a dear trail due to the thick overgrowth.
Salius buttoned his coat as the rain only fell harder. He had anticipated the arrival of a downpour this morning immediately after leaving the inn, but Salius had decided on pushing forward in spite of the approaching gloomy cloud cover, heading out of the city and straight into the dense jungle forest.
The presence of wildlife, although it was sparse due to the current weather, was a welcome change after his last experience in the forest. However, this forest, being more tropical and less mountainous, was different than the last. He noticed that while being far more densely packed, the environment which surrounded him consisted of such a vast combination of greenery that Salius would have surely stopped to indulge his naturalist curiosity if he wasn’t so caught in the grasp of the apprehension caused by what loomed ahead.
As he walked through the forest, Salius’ mind could not dwell on anything but that which was approaching. His mind’s thoughts were those of an assassin, he yearned, not to kill, as Salius did not enjoy killing, but to complete the mission, to be free, and to earn the gifts which he had received. All good things came with a price, and in his case that price was about to be paid.
Salius did not find himself pitying the woman who was about to die, due to the fact that apparently she deserved nothing less; her death was, in fact, just. However, the mystery surrounding her intrigued him; how could she live so long? Was she a witch? If not, how did she receive the power which she used to forever alter the world for the worst. But Salius, pushing forward, chose to keep his mind on the task at hand; no distractions, he just wanted it to be done… and soon, it would be.
But, while continuing along the path at a quick pace, judging that it was presently somewhere around noon even though it was difficult to tell due to the thick cloud cover, Salius began to consider what he would do once he was finished, should he survive. Only two things came to mind; on one hand, he naturally wanted to return home, but on the other, he would be a great help to the rebel cause, assuming it was still alive and well. Salius had been pondering this since leaving Castia, and the more he thought about it, the more he came to realize that his gifts should not be wasted in the fields of West Librium; no, they should be used for something just and noble, or perhaps like Planter had said, to restore what once was.
Finally, Salius came back to focus on the moment, as he could see many buildings begin to appear suddenly, whilst standing upon the summit of a small overlooking hill. Salius immediately crouched behind a few tall bushes as he peered down at the many Imperial buildings below, most of them being military barracks. His plan had been simple; Salius would sneak in under the cover of night, then, after finding her he would deliver Mara, infamously nicknamed the Empress, unto death. But, as Salius came within sight of the prison, he saw what he did not expect to find.
It appeared in all ways to be… abandoned?
Salius whispered, barely audible enough to be heard by his own ears over the sound of falling raindrops, “Where is everyone?”
Upon closer examination, as he gazed out over the seemingly abandoned compound, Salius noted that the man-made clearing in which the compound sat had been taken over by thick overgrowth, indicating that the prison had been abandoned for some time; potentially many years. Puzzled, Salius decided to wait out of sight, watching the area for any sign of anything that may indicate a continued Imperial presence. So, Salius, deciding to allow caution to remain supreme, waited.
At least an hour had passed, and aside from a few squirrels, and a jack rabbit which scampered out of one of the nearest concrete brick buildings, Salius had seen nothing, no sign of anyone. Therefore, deciding that he could retreat out of harms way in a flash if the situation required, Salius walked out from behind the brush and headed down the hill. Salius unsheathed both weapons, dagger in his left, finger on the trigger, with sword held at his right side, at the ready. He moved forward, keeping vigilant watch of his surroundings just in case he had been wrong about civilization’s absence.
Making sure to keep up a steady march, Salius passed by the first abandoned building, then a second. He headed toward the center of the complex due to previous recognition of a building which seemed to be different than the others. It was longer, taller, had barred windows, and gates on at least one side, judging from his previous hilltop perspective.
Salius went by building after building, glancing from side to side at open and closed doorways, along with unbroken windows, some shuttered, some not. While passing through, Salius didn’t get the sense that there had been any sort of a struggle or battle, nor did it seem as though the compound had suffered any relevant damage due to the earthshake which had struck Castia over half a century ago. No, it appeared for whatever reason, that the prison had simply been freely abandoned.
As Salius neared his destination, he approached the closed gates of the large prison building with no delusions that Mara was still present. Trying to keep feelings of the letdown temporarily at bay, Salius instead allowed curiosity to manifest itself, influencing his decision to enter the building anyway. He hoped, however unlikely, to find clues, perhaps in the woman’s cell, which would indicate her current location.
Staring down the building before walking up to the door-less entrance which was closed off by a lowered, steel, barred gate, Salius spoke out loud, “Amazing, all of this for one woman?”
Being able to see inside the building through the steel bars, Salius pulled the trigger, leaping forward into the long prison house hallway. Immediately upon looking around, he felt a sense of darkness; it was a smothering darkness, and a strange feeling. Salius, then realized that most who enter such places reported similar feelings; after all, prisons are dark and desperate places. However, whether the feeling was a creation of the mind or something else, Salius continued on, making his way through dimly illuminated, winding halls.
Windows in this building were sparse, so, rain or shine, Salius didn’t imagine any significant amount of natural light would ever put away the gloom which lingered here. There were more closed gates as Salius passed through, making him thankful that he had his dagger, for without it he wasn’t sure how he would be able to push on. Strangely, he saw no rooms of any kind. He glanced up at the ceiling occasionally to see open holes where one could poor down hot oil, shoot arrows, or drop large rocks in case of invasion, and Salius took note of the fact that this meant somewhere there was an entrance to a second floor. Often, Salius also saw metal lantern holders attached to the walls, most were absent of lanterns of course, but here and there a lantern which appeared to still contain oil rested on its perch. There were many hallways leading throughout, but none were so complex that Salius felt he had reason to fear becoming lost. However, in light of caution, earlier, Salius had sheathed his sword and brought out of his satchel, a loaf of bread, tearing off pieces every so often, letting them fall to the ground, marking his path.
It had been maybe twenty minutes since Salius had entered the building which he still believed had, at least at one point, housed Mara as its only permanent inhabitant. Salius continued at a steady pace, searching for a room, a prison cell, something which might bring light to his situation, or more importantly Mara’s location. Suddenly, upon rounding another corner, about ten feet away, Salius saw a room, the entrance to which existed on the wall to his left. The tremendously thick door, which would be barred from the outside, stood wide open, and Salius paused outside of the entrance for a moment before slowly stepping inside the room, looking both ways. Salius, after of course discovering that the room was completely empty, was disturbed and further puzzled by what he then saw.
Aside from the wooden door, the room was complete with a small window that peered out over a small section of the compound, letting in at least a small amount of natural light, enough of which to see what was etched into the walls of the small, ten foot by ten foot wide, room.
Salius remained shocked in disbelief by what he saw carved into all four walls of the room, over and over and over again. It was a single word, a name, an identity which he assumed was only his.
Then after placing his hand onto the closest wall, moving his fingers across the etched words, the one word which had been written over a hundred times, Salius voiced the word with little more than a hushed whisper, “Zealot.”
Day 31, Chapter 20 Continued…
As Zackarius’ bonds were cut according to his command, Salius spoke in reference to Zackarius’ understandable outburst, in which he voiced that ancient Gahnen saying, “Interesting that at this time you should utter a phrase which is exclusively forbidden by the Empire.”
Zackarius paused, instantly surprised and befuddled by Salius’ ability to speak the Imperial standard. After a few moments, Zackarius broke silence, saying, “Well, with all due respect my Lord, we are not in the Empire.”
Salius grinned before responding, “Very true; tell me, what is your name?”
“I am Zackarius, trusted messenger of his lordship, Legatus Tiberius, once the Praetorian Protector of the Empire; now its harbinger. And you, my Lord?”
“That is quite a title… I am King Salius, Lord of the Unkneeled,” replied Salius before he stopped to gaze across at Zackarius with a curious expression. Then after a moment or two passed, Salius continued, “Legatus Tiberius was actually brought before me this morning; he is currently confined, waiting for me to call upon him, to make judgment. I am actually headed back to the seat of decision right now, and I wonder if you might tell me a little more about Tiberius along the way, it’s potentially possible that your words might even help to bring your commander a more favorable outcome.”
“Of course your majesty. Um… my Lord?”
“Please don’t mention to Lord Tiberius what I had spoken earlier; I know we are rebels now, but I’m not sure he would take kindly to my repeating their sacred anthems yet. I mean, it’s, it’s just perhaps a little to soon is all, and besides, when I uttered it I was under the impression that you were going to have me executed.”
Salius chuckled as he turned to walk toward the city gates, with Zackarius and the Kings-guard following in tow, before he spoke, “It will remain between us.”
Zackarius breathed a subtle sigh of relief before giving reply, “Thank you.”
Salius nodded his head in acknowledgment before going on, “By the way, I should probably inform you that if I hadn’t stopped him, it’s entirely possible that that man might have killed you for kneeling. See in Golgaleth culture, kneeling is the greatest disgrace, hence their sacred right of execution called the Falling. So in the future it would be wise to refrain.”
“Yes my Lord. Um, the Falling?”
Salius stopped to glance at Zackarius before resuming his kingly saunter, “Yes, of course, why should you know, obviously you haven’t been here long. See, the Falling is an important piece of extremely ancient cultural significance to the Golgaleth. It begins either at sunrise or sunset with the accused standing up while placing his head over what you would refer to as a chopping block. The accused is then struck in the head by the executioner from above at full force by club or hammer. Then comes the important part. If the executed falls to his knees first as he dies, then it is believed that in the next life he will be nothing, the lowliest slave, being denied the right to be Golgaleth; however, if he falls so that any part of his body above the thigh touches the ground before his knees then he will enter the next life again as a giant of men, as Golgaleth. It is also believed by the Golgaleth that there are individuals within the other races which are capable of living such valiant, strong, unkneeling lives that they too can be given the right to enter their new life as one of them. Those non-Golgaleth that are thought to have such quality are referred to, in their tongue, as Oböjd, which in the Imperial standard means roughly, unbowed. That being said, Golgaleth therefore believe that their knees should never touch the ground in life, and those whose knees do, deserve to be slaves. As for me, they have already declared that I am Oböjd, which in their culture is a rare honor.”
“I see,” answered Zackarius.
After a few moments passed, with both Salius and Zackarius walking in silence, Zackarius was the first to speak, “My lord, if it pleases you, and with all due respect, would you enlighten me with explanation as to how you can understand the imperial standard, and also how you know so much about the Empire?
“Along with my height I presume…? Very well, like you I came from a place outside of the wall,” Salius paused for a brief moment before resuming, “You see, well over a year ago I set out on a journey, and after hitting a dead end, instead of going home I headed off in search of a people or purpose were my gifts could be of use. I didn’t get far before the ship which I was on was blown way off course due to a wild storm and subsequently crashed onto the shore of the Island. Long story short, I went beyond the wall and happened upon these people; then, with a little time and blood, I purchased the throne. It’s amazing how quickly circumstances change my friend, and that is especially true beyond the wall,” there was a short pause before Salius continued as they made way through the large city which was currently still under construction, “Now, about your commander…”
Salius stood in the sacred room of the Unkneeled, leaning on a pillar, overlooking the courtyard. The courtyard was a large circular area in the middle of Jhorna, the ancient, now resurrected, Golgaleth capital. It was separated from the rest of the city by a slightly larger, more fortified wall than that which existed at Jhorna’s border. Once going through the gates of the courtyard one would walk down a long cobble stone path which ended at the entrance to a surprisingly tall circular tower, standing at a height of near sixty feet. Then, upon entering, one would be met with a stone, spiral staircase that led all the way up to the ceiling, which opened into the center of the sacred room from which the king ruled the fourteen Unkneeled.
Salius glanced back at the fifteen large, empty, stone seats which sat near the edge facing each other, going all the way around the open, circular room. Then, he looked at the stone pillars which held up the stone roof. The whole building was an impressive monolith which had stood throughout the long centuries and appeared as though it would stand for centuries more.
Salius moved his gaze again, looking back over, the courtyard at the huge dining hall, the guards quarter’s, the small wooden palace, and many more buildings which existed therein. He began to feel weariness from the long day approach, and Salius straightened his back immediately in effort to keep it at bay; he had but one more task to complete before he would allow himself to delight in the notion of rest.
Suddenly, Salius turned around, sauntering over to his throne as he heard men climbing the long staircase below. There were fourteen other seats in the room, but the one built for the king was just a little bigger than the rest.
With no one else currently in the room, Salius smiled as he dwelled upon the incredible, true notion, that just over a year ago he was the lowly son of a farmer. But, here he was now, after a bizarre and in all ways surreal series of events, a king in his own right, sitting on his throne in judgment of the legendary Praetor Tiberius, Protector of the Empire.
What a strange world.
Not long after taking his seat, Tiberius rose in the middle of the throne room, escorted by four of Salius’ Kings-guard. Tiberius gave a slight bow before Salius, showing respect, and as was proper Salius motioned his hand, indicating that Tiberius had permission to rise. Salius then spoke, “I trust you were treated well while in confinement?”
“Good,” there was a brief pause before Salius went on, “Tell me Legatus, do you know who the Unkneeled are?”
, no, I do not.”
Salius took a moment to reply, “Many years ago, long before the Empire, the Golgaleth were united under one king, and this king ruled over the fourteen Unkneeled. The Unkneeled were the lords of fourteen houses which ruled the whole of their race. That government lasted for centuries, but after the great war, the seven remaining Unkneeled were without a king, their kingdom in tatters. After a few years of containment on the island, the seven united factions which remained, became divided in petty squabbles that became minor, but destructive, wars which led to lost culture and the emergence of small chiefdoms,” Salius paused, “My current goal, Tiberius, is to restore that which was lost by reforging this kingdom, and afterward, once it’s strength is reborn, I will march on the Empire with a glorious army, the likes of which the world has not seen in five centuries. Four ancient houses of the Unkneeled remain amongst the cacophony of chiefdoms, and two have already joined me… The day grows long Tiberius so I will make this as quick and painless as possible. If you are indeed at war with the Empire then give me your service. I need an experienced military commander like you on my side. Your servant Zackarius has revealed to me your goal, and you and I both know that you have no chance on your own; you don’t have the men, the money… I am your only hope.”
Tiberius responded hesitantly, “And if I don’t?”
Salius held up his hands as he answered honestly, “Well, I can’t exactly allow someone like you the opportunity to fight against me, now can I?”
“I suppose not.”
Another moment passed before Salius again spoke, “Well Tiberius, I say the Empire’s time has come, will you join me, or not?”
Tiberius stroked his beard twice before responding, “I retain my current command and autonomy, serving directly under his majesty; I will not take orders from any other lord or military commander.”
“I choose my own recruits with permission from the crown, and my commission is for two years, at the end of which I am free to either go my own way or renew said contract at your discretion. Should I choose to go my own way I will relinquish command of all soldiers which belong to the crown, but those who currently serve me, along with any others that are selected and financed by my own name, will remain under my command. Is this satisfactory to your majesty?”
With a smile, Salius answered, “It sounds like we have an accord, Legatus,” Salius stopped for a moment before going on, “I have a feeling we will work well together, and, with time, we shall discover whether or not the Tiburon Empire truly is, indestructible.”
At that Tiberius simply replied, with a smile of his own, “Indeed we shall.”
It wasn’t the darkness or the dampness; nor was it the constant screams, or the moans of the tortured which disgusted Talius the most as he ventured through the deep dungeons below Five Spires. No, it was the smell. Here, the air was filled with a myriad of different foul and distasteful scents which not only included the rotten smell of human excrement, but worse things, such as the smell of rotting bodies; some odors came from those still barely alive, but the other more powerful scents came from those that lie dead and rotting in their cells.
Deeper and deeper into the mountain, Talius followed the dungeon master, as the stout man lead him through the maze with only lantern light to lead the way. On his way through the long dark halls, Talius passed by prison cell after prison cell, most of them barred shut with thick wooden doors; doors commonly built with a feeding port closed up by a wooden flap.
It surprised Talius to learn that most of the prison cells in the vast dungeon were actually filled with occupants, so much so that some cells even contained two prisoners at a time.
The dungeon master spoke as he half turned, still moving forward with his lantern raised, “You look surprised to witness firsthand the fate of those who oppose the crown commander. Does it not please you?”
Talius replied with a mildly harsh tone, keeping his own lantern raised as he moved closely behind the large unhealthy looking man, “Nonsense, it pleases me greatly.”
“Forgive me commander, it wasn’t meant as an accusation,” said the man in a breathy, gruff voice, pausing before going on, “You know I bet you would be surprised to hear that there are quite a few important people here in these cells. People like Nelice the sword master who attempted to assassinate Emperor Maximilian the lesser. Guess she wasn’t as good as she thought, eh? Then, there’s Claudius II of Haaren, who defied the current emperor over that matter about national politics; in fact I believe we just passed by his cell a few minutes ago. And, due to Justinian’s part in Tiberius’ assassination of Salinius Brasitus, old Claudius will soon, no doubt, end up right beside his grandson; I mean, when will that family ever learn, right?”
Talius refused to respond to the talkative prison guard, considering the man’s chatter nothing but an unwanted annoyance. He simply desired to do what he came here to do as soon as possible, so that he could depart from this horrid filthy place. Talius, not wanting to be here a second longer than he had to be, simply pushed on, ignoring the overweight man as he continued to babble on incessantly.
It hadn’t taken long for the dungeon master to, upon noticing Talius’ lack of reply, get the hint, and therefore most of the rest of their journey was to be completed in relative silence.
Some time had passed before the man informed Talius that they were nearing his destination.
“Here it is commander,” said the glorified prison guard as he took out his keys and fiddled with the door’s locks.
Upon the door’s opening, Talius spoke, “Thank you, now wait for me, I will be done in a moment, and if I find out that you overheard any part of my following conversation, then be assured that I will slowly cut out the same tongue which you clearly prize so much. Are we clear?”
“Good,” replied Talius, as he entered the dark room.
It was a larger cell than most, and as he looked about he identified its single occupant sitting in a corner, leaning against the wall.
The woman spoke first, “Ah light… its amazing how wonderful something so common and so often taken for granted is when one is deprived of such a gift for so long.”
“I imagine that is true,” responded Talius.
The woman went on with smile, and honeyed tone, “So what can I do for you, handsome?”
Studying the seemingly young woman’s appearance, Talius replied cryptically while he considered that were she cleaned up proper, the woman would be rather sightly; easy on the eyes to be sure, “What is your standing position concerning the emperor?”
The woman’s expression quickly changed, turning from her previously pleasant posture, and, unless his eyes were mistaken, Talius believed he witnessed her hair change color, turning quickly to bright red as she spit toward the ground; indicative of her feelings on the subject. Talius then saw the woman’s hair quickly change back to the same golden color it had been before, seemingly due to her regaining composure.
Following the woman’s brief outburst of rage, Talius spoke, “Good, then you would have no problem in helping me give back to you what was rightfully yours?”
The woman paused for a moment as if questioning whether or not Talius was serious before she replied after a short outburst of laughter, “Oh? And why would you not simply take the power for yourself were I to lend you that which you clearly want; that which is up here?”
After the woman finished pointing up at her head, Talius responded, “Because I want freedom, not power. And, because someone needs to pay the price for breaking his word; for deceiving a man, a man who had been forced to lie to, steal from, and kill those who were more deserving. A man who, in return, had been promised the priceless gift of freedom, even though it was never intended to be payed out.”
“I see… then you are a slave, yes?”
“Then why not simply flee; you clearly have certain power and authority, or else you would not have access to this wretched place?”
Talius waited a moment before giving his answer, “I want true freedom, being fugitivus is not the same as being free.”
The woman then sighed before speaking with a bored expression, “I find this dream so common, vomitously so, but alas I have found myself desiring a similar state of being for… How long has it been dear?”
“Over Five hundred years.”
The woman after a subtle expression indicating perhaps a hint of surprise, then whispered to herself before becoming silent.
A few long moments passed before, growing impatient, Talius spoke, “Well Mara, I’m out of time, your answer?”
Mara after a few more moments of silence answered, “Yes, I will help you in this.”
“Then we have an accord; your throne, for my freedom.”
Talius being finished, turned to walk toward the door, but he paused near the exit as Mara spoke with slight hesitancy, “Before you go, tell me about my son; is he alive?”
“The Supplanter disappeared hundreds of years ago, no one has seen or heard from him since,” replied Talius without turning to face the woman.
As Talius continued to exit he overheard the woman whisper something in reference to his reply before the dungeon master closed the door behind him. She whispered, “Then there is hope.”
...As one kingdom enslaves another, an Empire is born... Tiberius, a young, war weary, but battle hardened commander, begins to question his service to the overreaching Tiburon Empire, as his search for the meaning which lurks behind an unusual luminescent mark imprinted on his right hand takes an unexpected turn. Salius, the crippled son of a farmer, is visited by a mysterious stranger, before, after undergoing a unique transformation, he then begins upon a dark mission. Two paths, two missions - one driven by the desire for peace, the other driven by the need for vengeance... If only they knew where their paths would lead them... If only they knew what their journeys would uncover.