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Book of Kayal: Houses of Light

Book of Kayal

Houses of Light

By

S. Nileson

Published by Tarek Cherif at Shakespir

Copyright 2017 Tarek Cherif

All Rights Reserved

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or give away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient or download a free copy during free promotion periods. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy or download a free copy during a giveaway. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Map of Nosgard

Table of Contents

Map of Nosgard

Part I: Pulling a Thread

Chapter 1: A Quest Begins

Chapter 2: From Quiet Life

Chapter 3: To Bloody Path

Chapter 4: Through Dragon’s Nest

Chapter 5: To Keep of Peace

Part II: Trickles Ahead

Chapter 6: With Cunning Deceit

Chapter 7: A Warrior Appears

Chapter 8: Seeking Salvation

Chapter 9: With Man and Beast

Chapter 10: To Reveal Deadly Ploy

Part III: And Always Leads

Chapter 11: An Exiled People

Chapter 12: Offer Refuge

Chapter 13: By Land and Sea

Chapter 14: To World’s End

Chapter 15: And Desert Jewel

Part IV: To a Message Read

Chapter 16: When Fate Guides

Chapter 17: The Truly Faithful

Chapter 18: Are Always Shown

Chapter 19: A Great End

Chapter 20: And the Road to Deliverance

Note to Reader

Part I: Pulling a Thread

[]Chapter 1: A Quest Begins

Take this man and head away from civilization, where no human eye can follow. Go and never look back.’ Emperor to Link

1

The Demigod Emperor Servak stood in his throne room, wearing his favorite red trimmed black royal gown, and spoke to his wife and most trusted adviser. “It has been three years since the Sky Wing descended to Nosgard with their promises of peace and prosperity. I’m starting to doubt the old prophecies.”

The once-seer and his beloved wife Cassandra stood beside her erratic husband and said, “You still don’t trust them?”

“I’m duty-bound not to.”

“Perhaps—” Cassandra said, directing her eyes shamefully at the floor. “Perhaps it was a mistake for us to wed.”

Servak gently raised her chin and held both her hands firmly. “Don’t say such things, dear wife. Both of us knew very well the cost of our marriage. I have no regrets.”

“But I could have seen the future for you and—”

“Cassandra,” Servak interrupted. He moved away and added, “Ancient prophecies, history and knowledge gathered by the Utyirth expedition are more than enough reasons for us to take action against them, but this is not the decision I have been reluctant about. What I seek is a way to avoid unnecessary death and shedding of blood. A way to ensure that the Empire, and the peace it brings, would persist after this threat has been properly confronted and dealt with. We know that dragons consider us nothing more than a stock of expensive cattle. The future is clear, love, and we need no seer to tell us so.”

“If you know what needs to be done, then why do you still harbor doubt?”

“Matters of this nature require delicacy. A good plan must be made before action is taken against the Sky Wing.” The Emperor slid his fingers across the base of his black shining throne. “Beloved wife, would you please tell me about the first people to spring into sentientism, the Golden Race known as the Elders? Perhaps there’s a lesson there that I have overlooked.”

Cassandra mimicked her husband’s touch to the throne and started, with a fitting air of mysticism, “Many believe that the story of the Elders is that of an endless cycle. It is said that they were the first to ever reach sentientism, the transcendence of instinct. Back then there was no war or strife and the land and its fruit was abundant. They lived in a peaceful world, one void of all danger and hardship. The life they had been granted was ideal for the strengthening of both body and mind. Thus, with all their needs fulfilled, they directed all their intellect towards understanding the world. Their knowledge grew so vast that they could spring elements from mere thoughts and sounds that would reshape the air to whatever they wished to conjure– in our speech we call these ancient words runes. But the Elders never satiated their curiosities and they sailed across the sea to lands far and near. They flourished and their civilization never ceased to grow in magnificence. When all lands were discovered and all of their secrets unlocked, the Elders sought to study creation itself. In their lengthy and arduous pursuit they managed to create great beasts to aid them. Three kinds were born by their hands, the Leviathans of the sea, the Behemoths of the land and the Ziz of the sky. The Leviathans were benevolent creatures to match the element they were bound to, water. The Behemoths were malevolent in nature, but the Elders sought to create them regardless, to match the elements of earth and fire. The last of their creations, the Ziz, was but one lone creature to roam the skies for eternity in solitude. In their pride, the Elders sought to give their creation freedom to go wherever they wished, but for the Behemoths it was not enough. Their cruel children born of earth and fire turned against them. Because of their civility and respect, the Elders never fought back. They allowed the Behemoths to consume their civilization in hopes that it would be punishment enough for their hubris. You see, beloved husband, the Golden Race was undone by their very own children.”

“The dragons shaped our races, some say, but are far more eager to embrace violence and trickery than the Elders.”

“It is a grim reality,” Cassandra said. She walked towards her husband and stroked his head to comfort him, a gesture much appreciated by the Wolf Emperor.

Servak looked up at his beautiful wife’s face and pondered, “The people have elected me to be their supreme ruler, their Emperor, and I won’t betray their trust as the first of my title. They expect me to care for them in whatever way I can and provide them with a worthy heir to rule as I have, if not better.”

“Do not speak of such things!” Cassandra interrupted her beloved husband. A lifetime of prophecy and mysticism made her fearful of such thoughts.

“All that lives dies. It is a reality which must be understood by all, especially the ones in positions such as myself. If I fail to ensure a future for my people, then my soul would never find peace. I must assure that one of our two children, the heirs to the throne and successors to my title, rises to whatever challenge awaits them.”

“You have taught them well in all matters familiar to you. What else is there for you to do so that such a destiny would be made real?”

“I must devise a clever plan to rid at least one of them from the clutches of the Sky Wing. I truly hope that all I know is false. I truly hope that the Sky Wing is indeed benevolent in nature and truly seeks to help us, but I can’t allow such naive thoughts to stop me from ensuring that my people, the people of Nosgard with all their races and ways, would continue to have a future in which they are free from any form of slavery, especially that of the mind.”

“A future where the true essence of freedom prevails regardless of caste or race,” Cassandra agreed. Her eyes filled with a gleam of hope that perhaps, just maybe by some divine intervention, they would be saved from the enemy who so cleverly infiltrated the minds of many and clouded their thoughts.

The Emperor had but a brief sprout of a plan which was yet to grow. Servak had to ensure that the citizens of the Empire would be left a worthy heir to lead them through the dark times coming ahead. He had to ensure, regardless of cost, that at least one of his two sons would rise to the challenge and continue his legacy and that of his generation. A plan was about to be made and set in motion, but he was not the only one plotting for the future of the Empire.

2

Malus, Servak’s eldest son and heir, sat in his room enjoying one of the many history books plucked from his extensive library. This particular book was about the First Civil War of Man, a dark time in the age of man where brother was pitted against brother.

Servak’s firstborn was not particularly skilled in combat, in spite of rigorous training which started at a very young age, but rather knowledgeable due to his affiliation with the Parthan School of Knowledge, the guild responsible for the education of all who sought knowledge.

While deeply enthralled by the events of half a century ago, Malus received an unexpected guest who pleasantly surprised the young prince.

“Unfortunately I was slumbering during these troubling times,” commented Teeban, the ambassador sent by the Sky Wing to the Empire. The dragon never revealed his true form to anyone within the Empire, for he thought that it would send a wrong message that could complicate his situation, and roamed the lands in the form of a slender aged man with immaculately combed short white hair and a trimmed moustache and beard. His eyes were a pale grey, as many other Sky Wing dragons’ were.

“Teeban, you never came to visit me yesterday. I waited for you till midnight with quite a bit of excitement to hear about your people.” The young prince sprung from the comfortable chair, nearly ripping his black silk robe.

“I apologize for my absence. My duty towards both the Empire and the Sky Wing occupied me to a late hour. Perhaps we can talk now, if you wish it.”

“Your timing could not be worse, my friend, for I am expected now in the courtyard.”

“There is something I would like to share before you leave, Prince.” The tall white-clad ambassador proceeded to walk towards the window facing the courtyard. “A long time ago, when the dragons were split into many small groups other than the Sky Wing and Abyss Brood, we had but one problem, the scarcity of food. As the clans grew the pressures to gain an advantage in numbers greatly increased our need for resources. We were far too many and there was not enough to feed us all. This was the reason we started fighting amongst ourselves. Many of the smaller clans fell and their survivors assimilated into other clans, sometimes even their very rivals. When there was but a handful of clans remaining, our leaders decided to strike a temporary truce and divide the land instead of driving ourselves towards a violent extinction. Naturally, the larger the group the more land they were given. During this time of peace, we spent all our effort trying to find a solution to our problem, and eventually we discovered a way to manipulate our stock into breeding more fertile offspring. Over time they became sentient and started to develop at a much faster rate, with our aid of course. The new stock proved intelligent and capable of learning, a trait most desirable. These creatures flourished in difficult environments and even shaped the land to their advantage, instead of having the land shape them. We trained them in many things, including self-defense and the mystic arts, and eventually they formed complex organized societies. At this point, the remaining dragon groups split into two different ideologies. One thought that these sentient creatures were merely a product of our labor and sought to continue to use them for the same purpose, sustenance. The dragons of this group shed their former names to assume that of the Abyss Brood. The other group, however, viewed the unexpected advancement of the sentient races as a breakthrough and sought to protect their creation. We called ourselves the Sky Wing.”

“It pains me to see the difference between both your groups ignored by so many,” Malus said.

“The Sky Wing is working on spreading the truth, but there are agents of the Abyss Brood corrupting the minds of many and blurring the difference between both great clans.” He paused for a moment before adding, “Troubling reports that the Abyss Brood managed to spread their influence among various prominent political figures across the Empire reached me. Let us hope that our investigations prove them to be false.”

The prince’s eyes widened with interest, and fear, about the prospect of a plot unveiling. He then looked out from his window and into the courtyard to find his instructor already waiting for him. “I must take leave now.”

Removing his black robe, leaving it on the floor where it fell, Malus ran towards the spiraling stairs and descended towards the courtyard, wearing a simple cloth shirt and pants bearing the red and black colors of the Empire. A few moments later the ambassador cracked a smile and left.

3

Believing that the struggle for Nosgard would require more time for preparation, and very possibly alteration, the Emperor decided to make use of a new art that had been acquired three years ago from Utyirth.

Thalia, one of the nine returning members of the expedition, brought the Unnamed Blade she had secretly crafted for the Emperor.

“Beloved Emperor.” Thalia bowed at the sight of the Emperor so gloriously seated on his black throne. Her brown cloak masked her golden hair well, but failed to dull the intensity of her bright blue eyes.

“Leave us!” Servak dismissed his guards in shining silver armor, the typical attire of war-ready Gallecian soldiers.

The organized warriors made a quick exit and heeded the Emperor’s command with impressive fluidity, for Thalia was a hero of Nosgard and one of the few to be trusted and treated as royalty herself, in spite of her strong objection to such attitude.

“Let us be done with formalities and talk as we ought to, dear Thalia.”

“As you wish.” She produced a package covered in a grey cloth and strapped securely by two leather laths at each end from within her cloak and proceeded to open the package. Once the sword was free from its veil, Thalia held it to the Emperor and said, “I feel obliged to warn you against using this.”

“I know of the dangers,” Servak said, “and of the sorrow it will cause me. I’m prepared to face it.”

“What if you are mistaken about the plot against you and your sons?”

Servak looked at her, smiled, and said, “Let us both hope that I am.”

“I still don’t believe that you understand the power of this blade over your life. If you indeed manage to make the transition, then you will survive and see all what you care for wither away. You will outlive your wife, children, people, and possibly the Empire itself. Immortality is not a blessing, but a cruel curse.”

“I’m afraid I cannot simply rest in peace after my death.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s my nature.”

Thalia gasped then reluctantly handed the weapon to the Emperor, taking a few moments before letting it go. The sword shined with a bright blue hue covering its sturdy Eitr-plated Orichalcum metal. Its blade sprung from a hilt fashioned to match a wolf’s head, the Emperor’s insignia. Like all Unnamed Blades, this one was empty from the middle, leaving a place for a soul to fill it one day.

“I have fulfilled my personal duty of urging you not to make use of this weapon. I hope that you will reconsider, Emperor, no matter what consequences your inaction may have. May Pax be with you, beloved Emperor.” Thalia adjusted her cloak and hood then left the throne room. As requested by Servak, she ignored all formalities and never spoke a word to anyone about the weapon she had crafted.

Once the guest left, the guards returned to the room along with Cassandra. She looked at the blade carried by her husband and knew that it had a place in his plan.

“What do you intend to do with this?” Cassandra asked, holding for a moment at the entrance before resuming her walk towards Servak.

“Assure a future for our people.” He rested the sword on the throne and approached his wife. “You should not worry about such trivial matters. Have our children been sent to Partha yet?”

“They are due to travel next sunrise.”

“Cancel their trip. I mean to have them remain here for a while longer, for lately I have been neglecting them.”

“Malus and Salus know their duties towards the Empire. You have taken great care in teaching them that, if nothing else.”

“True. It should have been me to educate them in other matters as well, but I find that many others are far more qualified than I.” Servak paused for a moment to reflect on the many things he missed in his sons’ lives and continued, “This burden has been placed on me regardless of my wishes. I never sought power or authority over others. Power sought me.”

“You are a Demigod. That in itself strips you from choice.”

“A bitter reality I cannot fight or ignore.”

The seer started to cry. Emotions beyond her strength to control forced tears from her eyes.

“My love, perhaps this is not the best time for me to tell you, but I will be going on a long journey alone. I cannot guarantee that we will meet again once I set off, but know that I will always hold you close to my heart and keep you in my thoughts. You are my one and only love, the mother of my children and my most trusted advisor.”

“I am grateful for the years I have spent with you and I know that this in itself is a blessing, but I find myself yearning for more and cannot bring an end to this greed.” She looked at him sadly, with the last of her tears drying up, and said, “Your people need you, yet I cannot simply accept that your duties may forever take you away from me.”

“You do not know that.”

“I need no premonition to read your heart. I know the cost of using that thing.” Cassandra looked at the Unnamed Blade resting on the throne with hateful eyes. It was an expression Servak only saw a few times before and each time hoped he would never see again. “Husband, just stay here with me a little longer.”

Servak’s eyes started to tear but he held his emotions at bay before they spun out of control. “There is nothing more I have ever wished for than to stay with you somewhere far away from all these troubles. Believe me, I have thought of it many a night and day, to escape somewhere in the woods and take on new names and lives. But, an Emperor must value the comfort and safety of his people above his own.” He caressed her curly black hair.

“And what of the comfort and safety of his family?”

“They too are to come second. I do not regret the time we spent together for it made me who I am today, but everything has to end. We couldn’t possibly expect our lives to last forever.”

“There are ways to assure that, with proper knowledge and magic.”

He smiled. “The temporary is always more precious than the permanent. Besides, if we lived together for eons I risk having you get bored with me. And then what will I do?”

Two knocks on the door signaled that there was yet another guest eager to meet the Emperor. Cassandra cleared her eyes and headed towards the door. As soon as his wife was ready, Servak signaled the guards to allow entry to whoever came.

The doors opened and a small group of merchants entered, they sought to discuss minor matter of trade which had been delayed for a fair amount of time.

4

A crescent moon lit the skies of Nosgard when urgent news was delivered to the Emperor by an old friend. She made her way past the guards undetected and into Servak’s study, where he had been spending a significant portion of his nights lately preparing for the events about to unfold.

Only one person dared, and could, sneak into the citadel – Anaria Shadestrike. She appeared from behind the Emperor and said, “What a beautiful night!”

Servak continued to finish the small passage he was reading and then stood up. “The Link does not need to sneak her way into Gallecia for a private audience.”

“There was no need to do once, but needs seldom remain unchanged in my line of work.” She approached the Emperor and handed him a parchment with a few names written on them.

“What is this?”

“A list of Guild members I have personally eliminated after receiving disturbing news.”

He returned the parchment to its rightful owner and offered a judgmental gleam with it. “I thought that bond of comradeship is sacred even amongst assassins and thieves.”

“The sacred, too, has limits. The names you read once belonged to people who intended to assassinate you. I have investigated the matter and uncovered a great plot. The Guild can no longer be trusted. As of late I have been excluded from many meetings with the high-ranking members of the Guild. There has also been a lot of activity that should not be in times of peace. I sense something is in the working, something that they don’t want me to know.”

“Could be a natural reaction to the dragons’ arrival.”

“Then why exclude me? As the Link bridging you with the Guild it goes without saying that I share all information with you, as contracted. The Sky Wing’s presence isn’t something to be trifled with, we all know it, and it’s also a cause for the Guild to reevaluate their allegiances, I believe.”

“So they deem me unworthy of their allegiance,” interrupted Servak. His tone bore no signs of resentment or disappointment.

“They deem your gold too little,” Anaria corrected. She, of all people, knew just how the Guild gave out their loyalty, to the highest bidder. “I have reason to believe that assassins will be sent a paper with your name on it. And I no longer have the influence to change this.”

Servak grabbed a pitcher filled with wine and poured two cups of the expensive drink. He offered one to his guest and kept the other, slowly sipping from it every now and then. Anaria gladly accepted the offering and gulped it down in a flash. She immediately helped herself to another serving.

“Do not worry about this. As a matter of fact, I find the news rather convenient,” Servak said.

“You find news of a plot to assassinate you convenient?”

“It would fall smoothly into my plan.” He paused for a moment to refill his cup. “I have spent years thinking about the future of the Empire and found no way to guarantee its survival. With a highly dynamic plan, the odds could be swayed. And your news makes it possible for a plan to be properly set.”

“What do you intend to do, Servak?”

“To control the Empire, the Sky Wing would need to keep a legitimate heir alive to manipulate him. That would ensure the survival of one of my two sons, but not both. They will keep the one most prone to such manipulation alive and help him ascend to the throne. I intend to give them exactly what they want.”

“And condemn your people to an undeserved fate?”

“And give them a chance to reclaim what is theirs.” Servak clenched his fist and hit his desk. “Only with the illusion of victory can the Sky Wing be deceived. Only then can my plan be set to motion.”

“What will you do?”

“Nothing, but others will do much.” He approached his friend and held her firmly from the shoulders. “I have a request to ask of you. It is no command and you are free to reject it should you find it not to your liking.”

“All of your requests are not to my liking.” She gulped down her second drink. “What will you have me do?”

“I will have you stay by my side till the day comes when I ask you to take Salus far away, to a destination which will be revealed to you then, and give him a new life free from past memories.”

“Then you would ask of me to bind my hands while others strike at your back.”

“I would ask of you to be a much needed friend.”

If the Link had a life just slightly easier, she would have shed a tear at the Emperor’s words, but she was one kill too deep into her craft. “Then let us drink some more and enjoy our time as we once did.”

“I don’t recall such time, but the suggestion is much welcomed regardless.”

The night was at its peak and the news fairly grim, but the two old companions drank their fill like days of old, days filled with petty worries and pettier responsibilities. It was a greatly needed reprieve.

5

Servak believed that his enemies would be moving against him and his successors. His life as Emperor, and soldier of the people before that, taught him to trust his intuition, and it told him to expect an attempt on his life, for if he was to suddenly perish chaos would ensue within the Empire of Nosgard and opportunity would present itself to whoever was ready to claim his place. He was prepared for such events and so he put his plan in motion before his hidden nemesis had a chance to act.

Servak allowed himself to be exposed, for an attempt to be made on his life, changing his habits to be more ‘convenient’ to any would-be-assassin, but for a long time there were no signs of any such foe. He began to doubt his interpretation of events. He began to hope for a better future.

Oblivious of his father’s thoughts and preparations, Salus was ever so glad to be spending time with the Emperor and welcomed the change. Servak, believing that his time in this world was limited, made certain not to repeat the same mistakes, not to ignore his family and solely focus on his realm. After all, Lyra, his friend and companion during the Second Civil War of Man, often told him: “How do you expect to run an empire if you can’t handle your own life?” Finally, at the very end, he saw the wisdom in her words.

Servak and his two sons, Salus and Malus, got to talk for hours at a time and train together in the forests near the imperial city of Gallecia. Anaria would always be near, observing from the shadows and awaiting the time to come to make her move and fulfil the Emperor’s final request. One night, when Servak was close to dismissing the ideas of conspiracies against him, an assassin came. Anaria, spotting the murderer, made her move. She rushed towards Salus, the youngest of Servak’s son, to sneak him out of Gallecia and erase his existence.

The assassin decided to strike when Servak was most vulnerable, in his study.

Servak felt cold steel on his throat and finally got the evidence he needed about the conspiracy he believed was cooking. His time had come. “I have been expecting you, assassin. Would you allow me one luxury and tell me who ordered my death?” coldly and calmly, Servak asked.

“The Lady of Blades sent me,” the assassin answered, his voice resonating like that of a serpent’s and his whisper echoed unpleasantly in Servak’s ear.

Salus entered the room and saw his father sitting calmly as a shadowy figure stood behind him with a blade held to the Emperor’s neck. His first instinct drove him to size-up the enemy and estimate who held the advantage. It was an easy calculation. The assassin appeared to be a far more skilled and prepared foe than he could handle, even if he did not have his father’s life in his hands. The prince was helpless and he hated it.

“Demigod Emperor Servak Darkhide, the first of your name and title, the Guild has profited a great deal from its association with you in the past, but we are forced to turn our eyes elsewhere, to more lucrative clients.”

Servak smiled and said, “The Sky Wing sent you.” He then took a deep breath, remembering the days of old when his muscles were attuned to a much harsher environment and his reflexed unparalleled. It was a long time ago, but not long enough for him to be completely helpless. “Thank you for your time and please tell Pax, or whatever god you worship, that I will be a little late.”

A set of movements enhanced by the Emperor’s runes allowed him complete freedom from the assassin’s grasp. Servak, moving with lightning speed, avoided having his jugular severed and escaped with a shallow cut, but the assassin was not so lucky, for in a mere moment he found a small blade the Emperor had hidden in his sleeve deeply dug into the side of the neck.

The assassin had no chance against the Wolf Emperor, a name earned by blood and war. He should have used his blade before breaking words. Like all confident assassins, he did not. This miscalculation was his end.

Anaria, being close, ran into the study and scanned the room, finding the assassin bloody on the ground, fighting for a breath that never came, and Servak soaked in blood. Salus, who she came for, was standing motionless by the door. She looked at the Emperor, giving him a brief nod, knowing that it was time, and hit Salus on the head with her small leather-padded club, knocking him out.

Looking at his unconscious son, Servak said, “I’m sorry, son.”

Salus was quickly stripped from all his clothes and dressed in the bloody outfit of the dead assassin. The corpse was given the young prince’s attire and returned to where it first fell.

“Take this map and head away from civilization, where no human eye can follow.” Servak handed his most trusted friend a sealed envelope and commanded, “Go and never look back.”

Anaria, the Link and one of the few truly loyal allies Servak had, shed no tears and spoke no more words to her friend and Emperor, yet deep inside her she wanted to scream till she could no more. Her last mission, she decided, had just begun.

6

News about Salus’ death reached all ends of the Empire and sorrow prevailed amongst its populace for the Emperor’s grief.

Yet Servak alone knew that his youngest son was not dead, and he mourned for the hardship he was about to endure and the possibility that he had sentenced his son to execution, in a most unmerciful way. In the end, it appeared to Servak, he repeated the mistake of choosing the Empire’s welfare over that of his family, how disappointed would Lyra be if she knew of what he had done.

Anaria was diligent and wasted no time in delivering Salus – or whatever new name he would be given – to Keshish, a hermit who Servak entrusted his son’s care to.

It was Cassandra who told the Emperor of the hermit, when she still had the gift of sight, and it was her who made it possible to save the Empire from the clawed clutches of the ‘hidden enemy who would masquerade as an ally.’

Guests flooded the imperial citadel, supporting the Emperor in his time of need, of course not all of those guests were of pure intention. Politicians, merchants, artisans and officers came to offer their condolences. The time was perfect for his plan to be discussed with those of them whom he trusted, but he had to be weary of Teeban’s eyes and ears, for the Sky Wing ambassador’s reach was far and wide.

The five Voices of the Emperor were the first to come. Commander Chordus of the Peacekeeper Core, the defenders of the people, Countess Ganis, Asclepius’ heir and Keeper of Katabasis Keep, Duke Constantine, the leader of the notorious band of dragon slayers known as the Ichneumon Order, and many more flooded to Gallecia. These loyal men and women would be the ones to execute Servak’s will, but they were yet to be told.

The last one to come, as per the Emperor’s order, was Sol Placerat of the Golden Steeds, the imperial messengers, and one of the few men who refused to be given a title. He was the one to be handed the most important task of all, for he was to carry Servak’s word after his death for as long as was needed. Sol had the fate of the Empire in his firm hands

It was night when the gold-clad man arrived, and well past the waking hours of most.

“I apologize for my delay, Emperor.” Sol Placerat, humbly kneeled to the Demigod Emperor Servak.

“Your arrival is precise to the minute.”

“But not to the second.” He stood up and faced the Emperor as he liked to be faced, like a common citizen and friend.

The Emperor tired from sitting on the throne, for it exhausted him more every passing day, and decided it was finally a suitable time to escape this majestic prison. The throne itself was rather uncomfortable, as all who sat on it claimed, but the responsibility of being seated on it were of a far greater discomfort.

“You are an easy man to talk to, the only one who eagerly dismisses formality when in private audience.”

“I shall wear this compliment like a medal of honor.”

“I have a difficult task to ask of you, Sol.” The Emperor’s tone changed and Sol could see the wrinkles of concern show on his aged face. Sol remembered for a brief moment the first time he had seen Servak, before he was made Emperor. It was after the Gallecian Council had been defeated and their prisoners liberated. Sol was amongst the few who still remembered the Emperor not as a man with dominion over the continent, but as a young adult who did not know how to act and relied wholly on the guidance of his tutor, Rostam.

Sol paused for a moment, lost in thought, and said, “Your wish is my command, regardless of what title you hold.”

“This I cannot command you to do, for I will be no longer of this world when the time comes. Sol, what I ask of you will be most dangerous and encumbering.”

“Even more of a reason to see it completed. It is a great honor for a Golden Steed to bear the will of his master. What will you have me do?”

“What about the will of a friend?”

Sol smiled and said, “Even more so of an honor.”

“I will have you deliver these.” Servak produced a set of envelopes and handed them over to the Golden Steed. “These are not to be opened or seen by anyone other than who they were intended to. They are sealed and branded with my emblem along with the names of whose eyes they are meant for.”

Sol examined the contents he held without succumbing to the growing curiosity of revealing them, a trait embedded in all Golden Steeds from initiation. The Golden Steed code of honor was engraved so deeply into their lives that some scholars came to see it more as a religion than a simple code, for the Golden Steeds lived, breathed and acted by this code until long after their service was ended.

His thoughts returning to the moment, Sol noticed the names on each one of these envelopes and was relieved that he knew them all, for they all had the Emperor’s friendship in common. “When would you have me deliver these?”

“As soon as you hear of my death.”

“How thoughtful of you to have me preoccupied in most sad days. I will carry your will to the letter. Consider it done, Emperor.” Sol was about to say his farewells, but realized that the news he heard brought another pressing matter into light. “What will you have of the steeds after your…embrace by Pax?”

“I will have you go into hiding until a worthy leader presents himself. You, the Golden Steeds, will be the ones who judge the worthiness of the men following in my steps. Till the day comes, live your lives however you see fit.”

“I have been born in an unfortunate time where my service was not required by many, but during your reign this was all compensated for. I fear that the leader you want us to wait for will never come to be, for I can think of no man or god who can continue your legacy.”

“It’s not my legacy alone, Sol, but yours and many others’ too.” The Emperor took a deep breath, aching to share his plan with he who would most benefit from knowing it. “Sol, I trust that before you know it you will have your deliverer and he will be a most worthy leader.”

Sol Placerat cracked a smile and offered a courteous bow, for the purpose of comedy rather than formality, and departed. This was the last time the two shared words, but it would not be forgotten by either of them for the remaining of their existence, and long after this encounter, it will be written of that day and these words shared among two of the greatest heroes Nosgard has ever seen.

7

When the assassins came for Servak once more he was poorly prepared. Again, he presented the murderers with many opportunities, and again he was kept waiting.

They came under the veil of night, when the Emperor and his wife slept, completely occupied with their pleasant dreams which took them far away from all worldly worries. The first man stabbed Cassandra in the throat, inflicting a grievous wound that claimed her life. Her brief struggle woke Servak. And his wrath was terrible.

The Emperor had no time to mourn his beloved wife. He barely dodged the knife of the second assassin and it grazed his shoulder instead of piercing his heart.

Servak knew he had to die this night, for the sake of deliverance, but he needed to do so in a matter fitting his plot. He needed to be next to Thalia’s blade so that it could consume his soul and preserve his will.

The Emperor fought back the first assassin and his foe swiftly perished as Servak guided his own assassin dagger through his heart and then slashed his throat open. There was no contest between the two and the Wolf Emperor prevailed like a lion fighting a cub. The second assassin, however, was only knocked down and his life was spared. Jumping from the bed to the corner at the other end of the chamber, Servak pushed the assassin, leveraging his body to jump higher and further, and grabbed the blade leaning on the wall after a graceful tumble.

Once the Emperor had his Unnamed Blade in hand, he moved so that the window was behind him, setting up the manner of his death as he had planned, to guarantee that the blade will fall into its intended hands.

The man plunged at the Emperor and cut him twice, inflicting a fatal wound for each occurrence in which the first severed an artery in his neck and the second another in his thigh. With the third and final leap, Servak positioned himself in a manner that the momentum of the charging man would push him out of the window and into the courtyard from a deadly height, where he would sink into oblivion.

Servak Darkhide, the Demigod Wolf Emperor and first of his title, was killed that night. The man who had unified the entire continent of Nosgard under one banner was no more, and his legacy was all but undone, for he had one remaining card to draw –and it bore the name of ‘Salus.’

 

With the death of the Emperor, Malus, his firstborn, was declared his successor. With the coronation the Sky Wing had its victory and once more managed to plant their puppet at the head of the Nosgardian Empire.

Slowly, the Empire grew divided and started to rot away into a brief shadow of its former-self, a speck of dust separated from a desert. One by one, the kingdoms of sentient beings were driven away from the new emperor.

Senna and its allies were the first to renounce Malus and his unjust rule, for they were a safe distance from the mainland and also separated by sea. Alvissmal and Partha remained within the imperial, but detached themselves from all they could without formally rejecting the Malus’ claim. Kol, however, was the only kingdom to keep its relations unaffected, since Servak was their Razul and father of the new emperor.

And thus the glorious Empire of Nosgard began its descent into chaos.

Chapter 2: From Quiet Life

For as long as you can keep him safe and treat him as you would your own son. With you last breath send him to the returned and have him repeat when trees are not themselves.’ Emperor to Hermit.

1

Under the light of a full moon two black mares galloped swiftly through a forest at night. They were fresh as they had been smuggled out of Gallecia on a carriage under the pretense of being of breeding quality. A seal with the Countess’ sigil tricked the guards into falsely believing that they were destined to Katabasis Keep. The Countess, of course, had provided her official seal to Anaria and asked not of her intention, for she had called upon a favor once given to the Countess; and the Countess was known to honor her word and repay her debts, no matter the cost. Yet her word was not easily given. Her loans not easily taken.

Once the carriage was far enough from civilization and prying eyes, Anaria took out the mares and placed a wrapped body onto one of them. The other she rode herself. The empty carriage continued towards Katabasis. Anaria guided the two mares into the forest, taking an indirect route and avoiding the road as she had been instructed.

It started to rain, first a drizzle and then a constant stream of countless drops of fresh water, washing away the Eastern Desert’s dust from the green leaves of the tall Gallecian trees. The mares’ hooves became muddy and their steps more treacherous. Their part of the journey was finished. Fortunately Anaria was not too far from where she was instructed to leave the comatose Salus. She bound the mares to a tree trunk and carried Salus on her back. The feat was barely manageable for Anaria as her small, aging frame gave her little strength to rely upon.

She struggled with the paralyzed body of Salus for an hour before she gave up on carrying him and proceeded to drag him. Eventually she reached a tree marked with a shallow carving of an imperial eye on its east-facing bark. After removing her bow and quiver, noticing that her arrows must have fallen during her walk, she untied Salus’ restraints and uncovered him, leaving him at the mercy of the elements with his bloodied assassin’s clothes.

Doing what she could, Anaria pushed around the tree’s leaves to keep Salus as dry as possible, leaving as little a trace as she could manage. Then she took out her hunting knife and cut off the mark from the bark, taking it with her to discard piece by piece throughout her journey to wherever she was heading next; she had not decided yet.

The rain had stopped and Anaria heard distant voices approaching. She was certain that no one followed her. For a moment she considered fighting off the passersby, whom she judged to be two, and then reconsidered, thinking that they might be participants of Servak’s ploy. She sheathed her blade and before escaping took one last look at Salus, his face tattooed beyond recognition. She smiled one last time at Servak’s youngest son, instinctively suppressing her tears, and then faded into darkness.

She heard the two men speaking once they found the bloodied man and breathed deeply, relieved by knowing that they bore no ill intent towards Salus, rather spoke of caring for him until he was well enough to care for himself.

And so Salus’ deliverance began.

2

It was a pleasant summer day. The birds chirped joyfully while hopping from one tree branch to another. Critters of all sorts enjoyed the easy summer days where food was plenty and their litters grew strong. A blue sky, filled with the occasional cloud, oversaw all these little occurrences as a forest near Gallecia flared with life.

Amidst the trees a small cabin stood. Three dwelled within the cabin built long ago by a now-aged man. The old man sat on the porch and worked on tanning a pelt he had just acquired.

“It is indeed a fine day,” a young man, of age slightly over two decades, said. He carried some wood he had just lumbered. The man was not of a particularly strong build yet had an admirable spirit filled with the eager essence of youth.

“Archer, you startled me,” The old man said, his bold head never moving, brown eyes fixed on his work.

“I will never get used to this unfitting name, Keshish.” He dropped the wood next to the three steps of wooden stairs that welcomed visitors.

“It seemed fitting at the time. When Balta and I found you three years ago you were soaked in bloody clothes and carried a bow and an empty quiver with you. Considering the circumstances, Archer seemed rather appropriate.”

Archer took a deep breath and stared at the bright blue sky. Two birds engaging in their usual summer courtship ritual caught his attention. They tweeted back and forth while flying in a random, yet fairy relaxing, pattern. “Well, you and I both know I’m no archer.”

Keshish smiled, continuing to work on his pelt. “Archer or not, you are my friend, and a much needed one nonetheless.”

“Tell me that again once game returns to this forest, proper game like deer not those measly squirrels that bare too little meat to be worth hunting.”

Keshish sighed. “Tell me, Archer, have you reconsidered searching for your past?”

Archer leaned on the cabin’s wooden wall next to Keshish. “I’m happy with what I have now, little to concern myself about and a healthy life in this forest.” He waved his hands at the vista ahead of them, mostly large trees wealthy with green leaves, fruit and some of them with beautiful pink flowers. “What if I end up digging in the past and uncover something that would make me a little less happy. Would it still be worth it?”

“I don’t know, youngling. I guess my own curiosity would make it impossible to stay away from seeking answers.”

“By the gods I hope you’re not serious enough about seeking your answers to make you consider joining the ranks of those pompous Parthan scholars.”

They both shared a laugh and at that moment another man arrived on a wagon and interrupted the conversation between Archer and Keshish. A strong brown horse pulled the empty wagon carrying the hermit’s other helper, Balta.

“I brought you things from Windbreeze,” he spoke.

“What did you bring?” asked Keshish.

“Ale and the sweetest bread I have ever smelled.”

“Where are they?”

“The ale I drank and the bread I ate.”

Archer looked at the hermit and smiled. “Why did I even ask?”

Keshish nodded as he continued to focus on his task at hand.

“Old man,” Balta shouted – yet there was no need to shout – “catch this.” He threw a leather pouch at the sitting hermit, but Archer was the one who caught it. “This is something for you to darken that pipe of yours with.”

“Ah…I was hoping you would not forget. Gratitude, my rash young friend.”

“I am not as young as you believe me to be.”

“Everyone is young when compared to my age.”

Balta shook his head.

“It’s time to prepare lunch then,” declared Archer. He then entered the cabin to prepare a humble meal for the three to share.

3

At night Gallecian patrols arrived at Keshish’s isolated cabin. The old man sat on his porch, finishing off the last of the pelts he had planned on tanning that day. Seven men clad in the shiny Gallecian steel coat-of-arms silently investigated the area from atop their horses. At the center of their red-trimmed black tabard was the all-seeing eye of Gallecia with a shadow of a wolf instead of the retina. Keshish observed them wearily, feeling uneasy.

“Are you the owner of this fine establishment,” one of the Gallecians mocked. The black wolf emblem on his shoulder pad marked him as captain of the group.

“Aye.” Keshish stood up. “How can I be of assistance?”

“We just need to ask you some questions, old man.”

“Go ahead then. Ask your questions, young lad.” He smirked at the man. His thick white beard covered much of his expression.

The captain inspected the area more thoroughly for any signs of others sharing the cabin with Keshish. He looked around and saw three clean bowls stacks atop one another, with three wooden spoons still damp from the water used to wash them. Several cloth shirts hung on the branches of a withered tree, a few of them looking tailored for one much slimmer than the old man. There were many other signs that Keshish was not alone, but nothing indicated more than two other men living with him, or perhaps a woman fond of men’s dressing and living habits. “Who else shares this place with you?”

“Two young men who help me keep my seasonal quota.”

“Quota?”

“Timber.”

The Gallecian hummed, showing no interest in Keshish’s quota, and continued his interrogation, “Where are they now?”

Hearing footsteps coming from the forest, Keshish gasped, “Ah…here they come.”

Balta appeared first with a large load of timber carried on his back and Archer followed carrying far less in the same manner. So far, Keshish spoke truth, but the Gallecian would not leave without being absolutely certain that his target was not hidden in this cabin.

Looking at Archer the captain said, “You there with the ink!”

Archer stood still as the man approached him, still on his steed. “How can I help you, sir?”

The Gallecian looked at him, completely ignoring his question, and addressed Keshish, “Since when has he been dwelling here?”

“Next summer would make it five years.”

“I see.” He looked around, once more scanning the area. “Remain here until my men search the cabin.” He commanded his subordinates to enter the cabin and thoroughly search it for signs of a fourth inhabitant. Shortly afterwards, after having ravaged the cabin and leaving much of its content misplaced, they reported that nothing was amiss and that the evidence suggested the man spoke true.

“I apologize for any trouble we might have caused you. Please enjoy the rest of your evening, old man.” He strode off with his small group.

Archer looked at the hermit for a moment, wondering why he lied about his stay.

“Why are you looking at me like that, boy?”

“Five years?”

“Three…Five…What’s the difference?”

“Honesty. I see no reason why you would lie to them, Keshish. If they ever uncover the truth they would suspect your intentions just because of your little harmless lie.”

“I guess my old head isn’t what it used to be.”

“I very much doubt it,” Balta said. “In all seven years I’ve been with you I haven’t heard your tongue slip once. Perhaps we should call a healer to examine you.”

“I’m fine. Just a little nervous, that’s all,” Keshish said. “Anyway, let us have some supper. I’ll put everything back in place as you prepare the food.” He then looked at his nearly-finished pelt. “I guess this can wait till tomorrow.”

Balta produced two wild rabbits from a pouch he carried on his back and gave them to Archer. “Time to cook.”

”Indeed it is.” Archer took the rabbits and entered the cabin. Until he slept, Archer could not stop thinking of the soldiers.

4

The very next day another group came to the hermit’s cabin, it was the second one this week, once more from Gallecia. Yet this time they wore silver capes and bore a silver emblem of a stag’s head on their chest.

“I am Gullveig of the Silver Stags,” said the leader of the small group. “We are here to arrest the two men you harbor. Where are they?”

“And I am Keshish,” he said calmly while rising from his tanning station to face Gullveig. “What offence have they committed to have the Emperor’s Silver Stags come for them?”

A group of large hounds arrived at the cabin and encircled it, making sure that no one would be able to escape without them noticing. A few of the hounds broke off and started to sniff at the surroundings.

“My orders are to capture the fugitives you harbor and escort them back to Gallecia,” the Silver Stag said. “Even if I wanted to tell you the reasons for their capture I could not.”

“Are you oathbound? Or do you perhaps fear the actions of an old man?”

Gullveig snarled at Keshish. “Silver Stags fear nothing, old man.” She unsheathed her short sword which she carried on her back and pointed it at Keshish. Gullveig, the proud Gallecian blonde, had been left ill-informed about her target, which drove her to one of the fits of rage she was famous for amongst her Silver Stag sisters. Yet this time, at Keshish’s reminder, she took the opportunity to vent while avoiding the consequences her quick temper often bore.

The two young men were on their way back, but noticing the hostile strangers they remained hidden in the forest while watching the events unfold. A breeze prevented the hounds from detecting their scent, for it was blown away from their sensitive nostrils, but for a brief moment it stopped and the dogs were alerted of their presence.

Once the Watcher hounds, the Silver Stags’ sentient animal companions, alerted Gullveig of young men’s presence, she shoved Keshish aside and ordered her band to capture their targets, pointing her blade straight at Archer and Balta.

Archer and Balta wasted no time and abandoned their cover to run further into the woods, a futile attempt considering their trained pursuers. It did not take long for the dogs to reach them and bite down on their ankles, effectively incapacitating their two victims and allowing their bipedal companions the chance to reach and bind them.

As she dusted herself and walked towards her steed, Gullveig looked at the hermit and said, “You chose your side poorly, old man.” She mounted her steed, looked at Keshish and added, “I do not know what these two men have done or what threat they pose, but I know that you are somehow involved.” She whistled, signaling the others to mount and follow her. They obliged as soon as Balta and Archer have been prepared for the voyage.

Once the wardens were far enough from the cabin Gullveig ordered them to set up camp. The journey to Gallecia was not a quick one and they would need to pace themselves if they wanted to remain in a position to defend themselves should anyone come for the captives.

5

At midnight the two prisoners were still awake. A Silver Stag kept a lazy watch over her sleeping comrades, considering that they were well into the Emperor’s territory and away from danger. Little did they know how carefully they were being watched.

After completing her short patrol, the warden rested on a tree and started to doze off. A poisoned dart caught her by surprise in her neck and she quickly fell into a deep sleep. Shortly afterwards, when the Stag fell onto the ground, a slim woman dropped from the sky above the two bound prisoners. It was difficult to make out her features from the dark other than the outline of her slim body whenever the cloak fluttered away from her.

“Can you run?” she asked of the two in a calm, low voice.

Archer’s tongue did not respond to his thought, so Balta spoke for the both of them, “We can,” he whispered.

“Follow me.” She cut the ropes securing their hands and feet and led them into the forest. Six horses awaited them, three packed with bulky grey bags nearby and another three some short distance away. The woman directed the heavily burdened horses away and let them gallop as fast as she could command them to, leaving a false set of tracks for the wardens to follow. Archer and Balta then followed the woman’s lead through the forest towards another three horses, the ones meant for them. They rode them and galloped away. A faint trail was left, for the careful woman had set the path with carefully placed stones and twigs that made it difficult for others to track them.

“Where are we going?” asked Archer.

“To Fort Pax.”

He stopped his steed. “I must go back to the cabin.”

“It would be suicide.”

“I can’t leave Keshish behind. I must go back.”

“I have very strict orders to bring you to Fort Pax as soon as I can. Do not make this hard on both of us.”

“Are your orders to bring me there alive and well?”

“Yes. But I tend to occasionally forget some of the details.”

“Then this would be a good time to prove it. I will head back to the cabin. You can come if you want.” Archer steered his mount towards the hermit’s cabin and urged the steed to gallop as quickly as he could.

The woman looked at Balta and said, “Is he always this stubborn?”

“At least since I have known him.”

Puffing in frustration she turned her mount and followed Archer to the cabin.

6

Keshish, the hermit who had cared for Archer and Balta, laid perfectly still on the ground, soiled with his blood, while the wooden cabin burned behind him under the darkness of night.

Unmounting his steed in a hurry, Archer tripped and fell on his shoulder. He ran towards the man, ignoring the pain from the fall, and held his head to see if he was still among the living. Keshish was barely alive.

“What happened? Who did this?”

“The Gallecian patrol. They came with no warning and burnt my hut. I tried to stop them…I tried to stop them.” The man coughed. “I have one last request, Archer.”

“Anything!” Tears started dripping from Archer’s cheeks.

“Go to Katabasis Keep and seek out the Countess. Ask her ‘When is a tree not a tree?’.”

Archer thought the man delirious, but did not have the heart to tell him so. Swiftly, he decided to do as the man requested regardless of his doubt. “Anything else?”

“You and Balta have been like sons to me. Take care of one another no matter what.” The man smiled then collapsed.

It was a great shock to take, for just two days ago no thought of change existed within Archer’s clear mind. He was content with his simple life.

After Keshish’s death, Balta and the cloaked woman came.

“What happened?” Balta asked, shocked by what he saw. He stood there watching the cabin burn then took note of the figure in Archer’s hands. Once his mind cleared and he saw that it was Keshish in Archer’s embrace, he fell on his knees and stared at the grim sight.

“The Gallecians came back.”

“Is he dead?”

Archer remained silent. He looked up at the sky, took a deep breath and stood up. “We must go to Katabasis.”

“Katabasis?”

“His last words.” He looked at the mysterious woman and said, “I will go to Katabasis now.”

“We must go to Fort Pax. My orders…”

“Damn your Fort Pax and your orders. It’s Keshish’s will that binds me. Stop me if you can.” He started to walk away, resisting every urge to stay behind and give Keshish’s the proper burial he deserved. Perhaps his soul would rest in peace if his last wish was fulfilled, Archer thought.

Balta stood up and halted Archer with his right hand, putting no strength into the effort and having Archer pause by his own volition. “Wait!” He looked at the woman and said, “It would be wise not to go alone.”

The woman removed her hood, revealing trimmed chestnut hair perfectly matching her bronzed skin. Her eyes were grey and her gaze was sharp, conveying a strong sense of intellect and cunning. “I, Ascilla of the Ichneumon Order, will help you reach Katabasis if you promise to come to Fort Pax once your business is done.” She then removed her cloak and revealed a set of dusty white wings.

Momentarily Archer and Balta had their minds taken off of Keshish’s death. It was the first time any of them had seen a Walkyrien. Both had heard stories of the winged Alvian dragon-slayers, but words have a way of falling short when describing the incredible.

“You’re a Walkyrien!” asked Archer.

Ascilla nodded. “I am indeed. Now let’s go. There is little time to waste. I take it you’re men too proud to break your oaths.” She put on her cloak again and gracefully, in one fluid motion, rode her steed. “Come, we must not tarry.”

Archer and Balta obliged, a little less gracefully than their companion. And the three made for Katabasis Keep, where the Countess Ganis ruled. When the others were not looking, Archer let his tears flow freely.

Chapter 3: To Bloody Path

Guide he who asks about trees the way you would guide your own, and when you deem him prepared point him to where Pax dwells strongest.’ Letters of Sol: Emperor to Countess

1

Long before she joined the Ichneumon Order, Ascilla was a pathfinder. Instead of leading a solitary life as most pathfinders did, Ascilla cared for two orphans whom she raised as her very own. She was not much older than them, perhaps by some seven years or so – it was a difficult thing to estimate the age of folk where she was as there was no necessity for citizens to register themselves, and orphans, being naturally obscure of past, were almost never registered – and to the orphans she was much like an older, caring sister, and sometimes a mother.

When life was good and work abundant she would come back to her small room, a home to the orphans and herself, with food and drink and sometimes even new clothes to replace the rags they wore; for they only seldom got new clothes and often the shirt or pants they replaced had been worn beyond recognition.

When the Emperor and his Peacekeepers won their war against the Gallecian Council, peace spread within Nosgard and the need for pathfinders was all but gone. In time their clothes turned to rags, all three of them, and then even the food and drink grew scarce. That was when Ascilla had her back to the wall. And that was when she was sought by the Ichneumon Order, as one suspecting to be capable of surviving the metamorphosis into which she was made a Walkyrien; to be a winged slayer of dragons and a pathfinder no more. When the time came and she was approached, the Order gave her the privilege of one wish which they would grant, and she asked for the orphans to be cared for until they were old enough to care for themselves. In return the Ichneumon Order demanded her loyalty and to dedicate what was left of her life for their service, or until it was no longer needed.

 

So Ascilla, being once a pathfinder, guided Archer and Balta through a safe and hidden path that led straight to Katabasis Keep. Without her aid they would have been spotted by Gallecian patrols a dozen-fold or more, assuming that they managed to escape each encounter. Archer had no memory of ever travelling as far from the hermit’s cabin as he had with Ascilla, yet little did he know how familiar he was once was with these lands.

Katabasis Keep, the fief of Countess Ganis where she studied and brutally trained her disciples, was not considered a large keep by Nosgardian standards, but it had by far the most terrifying of reputations, for it was known throughout the lands as the place where the dead walked and incorporeal souls wandered. That, of course, was a rumor spread by the disciples to protect the land from bandits and looters. The truth was far more terrifying to be conveyed through mere words.

But the rumor was easy to spread, for those who managed to look upon the land where Katabasis stood saw nothing by rotted forests and pestilent-ridden grounds where the dead lay unburied and scavenged by vultures and many different types of carrion insects, some common and others not. From a distance it seemed to the unlucky traveler as if the very keep emanated a pulsing sickness that enveloped the land.

Archer approached the gates, followed by Balta and guided by the fearless Ascilla, his heart throbbing with every step and each beat grew stronger than the one before it. Each step taken incited an internal battle within him against the urge to turn around and run as fast as his bony legs managed. Yet he kept following Ascilla, thinking as little as he could about the dreadful aura surrounding him. Then they reached the first set of gates and saw Ganis’ infamous Deadguard protecting the opened entrance. The two iron-clad guards stood in perfect stillness, so still that the crows stood on them as if they were inanimate statues of ancient times.

Archer’s fear made it difficult for him to approach. His feet felt heavy to his command.

“You wanted to come to Katabasis and I brought you here as promised,” Ascilla said. She stepped close to the Draugr and looked curiously into the eye-sockets of their helmets. Archer held his breath as he watched the Walkyrien get dangerously close to the unknown figure, absent any indication of fear.

Archer forced himself to swallow, hoping that it would bring him some relief and the will to proceed, and said, “I have to deliver Keshish’s message.” The announcement gave him courage and allowed him to walk past the two guards and even nearer to the keep itself.

The two still guards allowed them passage and the travelers walked on the cobbled path leading them into the keep through a black steel gate which provided entrance into the moss-covered walls of Katabasis.

At the gate a freshly made corpse hung, its smell still faint. Yet other smells prevailed, that of death and untamed wilderness. It was a strange place for those who grew in a forest or within the walls of a civilized city. Archer did not remember much of the known world which he had once known so well, yet he strongly felt that Katabasis Keep was far more intimidating than any other place in Nosgard. He was surprised at how little the dreadful sight affected Ascilla, and impressed by Balta’s composure. The only one who seemed to disappoint Archer was himself.

Another set of guards awaited them by the second gate. Equally still as the first two and just as dreadful.

“They decorate their walls with hung corpses and desecrated ones encased in tombs of iron,” Balta said. His face grew red with anger and his fists, hanging by his sides, clenched. It appeared to Archer that his companion was more distraught by the disrespect shown to the dead than by fear.

“These are no dead men,” Ascilla said. “Behold the Deadguard, Ganis’ immortal Draugr.”

“Draugr?” asked Archer. A shrill in his voice gave away his fear which both Balta and Ascilla noticed and gracefully ignored.

“Warriors risen by the dark arts of necromancy. I’m no warlock, wizard or scholar to know the details of their second life, but I know that our best chance of survival is to hope that they’re on our side,” Ascilla answered. She then took a moment to inspect them, hummed and said, “But the little I know about Draugr is that they wear no armor, just the swords they were buried with.”

“Great,” Balta said, hiding his earlier ignorance and assumption that the Draugr were skeletons morbidly displayed. He scratched his head with his right hand and looked at Archer. “Even if we could kill them, there’s all this steel we need to hack through.”

“No need to worry about that,” Ascilla said. “If they start to fight us we’ll be dead regardless of their armor or weapons.”

“Not sure how you feel, Archer, but that’s enough for me to worry,” Balta said. He often used humor to relieve his stress in times of difficulty. It was a habit Archer had noticed early on during their relationship; on the very first week, in fact.

Archer moved closer to examine one of the two guards and jumped back in horror as it moved its head in response, with empty sockets staring straight at him. Along with the jump a small screech escaped Archer.

“Now that’s not embarrassing at all,” Ascilla said, casually chuckling. “Just don’t threaten their master and they’ll remain harmless…except for the smell.”

Archer took a few moments to catch his breath before speaking. “I seek audience with the Countess of Katabasis Keep.”

The golems were unresponsive. When Archer tried to enter, they dropped their spears which clashed and blocked the gate. This position was held for a time before they returned to their original stance and a scrawny skeletal figure covered in ragged robes appeared before them. It raised its skeletal arm and gestured for the adventurers to enter.

As they entered Katabasis it became clear to Archer that life was no longer welcomed in this place. This must be where the condemned spend eternity, Archer thought. The sound of their guide’s feet dragging on the floor growing ever so unbearable. His teeth grazed upon each other with every step.

It was day, but a dark cloud blocked the sun from spreading its shine on Katabasis, making it feel to Archer much like a moonless night. Lit torches hung on rusted iron poles placed along the cobbled path and flickered to have the shadows they cast dancing around the visitors. Then they walked past a small wall hiding the courtyard behind it and saw the space filled with Deadguard standing perfectly still in battle formation, each group of twenty five formed in a square of five rows and five columns.

“Ascilla, what are they doing?” Archer pointed at the Deadguard troop.

“Waiting.” She continued to follow their guide, seeming undisturbed by the strange sights unfolding around her.

“And I thought the stories about this place were exaggerated,” Balta whispered to himself. “Oh how wrong I was.”

“Actually I think you were right,” Archer said, “about the stories being exaggerated. They certainly fall short.”

Balta hummed and released a nervous chuckle which caught Ascilla’s, making her look back at the two with a disapproving frown.

They reached the large wooden gate, with black iron hinges and moss growing where the two doors locked the entrance behind them, which marked the end of their path. The gate opened wide just by the approach of the small group; sending chills up Archer’s spine. They entered and Balta curiously looked around to see who had opened the gate. He found no one, not even one of the lifeless corpse guards, standing by the gate. He too was left unsettled after his discovery.

The structure was riddled with hallways and empty dusty rooms, but echoes signaled more life within the grey walls than it appeared to harbor from outside. The keep sounded fairly busy, to Archer’s delight. Since his second life began, the one with Keshish, Archer always preferred loud places than silent ones. It was not the noise that gave him comfort, but the life which generated the noise. He drew his breaths a little easier now and the dread started to dwindle.

Then again they reached the end of a path, this time the one marked by the corridor, and a red carpet guiding them to the next portion of their brief stroll began. It was a dusty thing, being withered with age and the abuse of the many insects which fed on fabric, but from what remained Archer could tell that it was once a beautiful crimson carpet with gold-trimmed edges. The carpet led to a throne where no king sat, just the Countess of Katabasis who, some say, had more power at her disposal than most other leaders in Nosgard. She wore a sparkling crimson robe with not even a speck of dust staining it. Her blonde hair fell on her shoulders and her sharp dark eyes on her guests. In her hand she held a glass, fashioned with the most beautiful shapes of flower once prevalent in Gallecia, and within the glass a thick red liquid was held.

“You are rather old to start training,” said the Countess. She then took a sip from her glass and stood up to closely examine her visitors. “I smell burning wood. Where did you come from?”

“A town near Windbreeze, Countess,” answered Ascilla.

The Countess looked at the Walkyrien and sniffed at her general direction, catching her scent. “What brings a Walkyrien of the Ichneumon Order here? What message does Constantine send?”

“I’m not here by order of the Duke.” She pointed at Archer. “You should ask him for the message.”

“I smell a familiar scent coming from this one.” She looked at Archer. “It is difficult to put in the words of your simple language. What message do you bring me, boy?”

Archer swallowed before saying, “Keshish sent me, Countess.”

“I am not fond of these meaningless titles,” the Countess interrupted, “call me Ganis. Now, what does this old fool want?”

“He told me to ask you ‘when is a tree not a tree?’.”

“I see.” She returned to her throne and sat, contemplating her next move as she stirred the liquid in her glass and watched it closely. She then hummed and licked her finger clean before asking, “Tell me of your father, boy?”

“I… I have no memory of my father.”

“What about your deliverance?”

“It rings no bell.”

“I see,” Ganis gently placed her glass on the right arm of her throne and stood up. “You and your companions are my prisoners as of this moment.”

Ascilla quickly unsheathed her blade and removed her cloak. In one swift motion she plunged at the Countess, but she was no match for her opponent. Archer’s eyes did not catch the next set of moves and suddenly he saw Ascilla disarmed and Ganis standing over her with her white wings spread and held in an impossible grip. She pushed against Ascilla with her right foot and tore her wings off, discarding them immediately and slowly returning to her throne, and her glass. Ascilla remained bloodied on the ground, screaming in pain and paralyzed by it.

“You cannot defeat me,” Ganis calmly spoke, wiping off the blood from her face. “Now look at the mess you’ve done.”

Archer and Balta stood petrified.

“Listen to me and listen well,” Ganis said, she looked at Archer, Balta then at the fallen Ascilla now trying to stand up but slipping on the bloodied floor and grimacing in pain. “What I did to your Walkyrien companion might seem cruel for now. In time you will understand why I did so and, perhaps, forgive me. Know, however, that I do not seek neither your care nor forgiveness.” She slowly took a sip from her drink and enjoyed its taste for a moment before swallowing. “You can try to escape if you want and perhaps succeed, but that will result in either your death or that of whoever I get my hands on. Do you understand, Archer?”

Archer nodded in agreement. His face turned pale and his hands shaking.

“Archer,” Ganis continued, “you will be a disciple here and study for as long as I see fit. Should your progress satisfy me, I shall grant freedom to you and your companions. I shall also see that the Walkyrien’s wings are restored to what they once were. Will you accept my terms or have them forced on you?”

Archer nodded once more and at his compliance Ganis gestured at the skeletal figure which had guided the three visitors into Katabasis.

“Follow him to your quarters, Archer. The other two will stay with me for now.”

Archer was reluctant to leave his two companions, but he now knew that choice has been stripped from him the moment he had entered Katabasis. All he could do was comply with an evil countess threatening his allies. Keshish acted like an angel, but seemed to be a devil, Archer thought, a devil who selflessly cared for Balta and I.

2

Katabasis was a safe haven to all who sought to learn practical knowledge, as Asclepius often said to distinguish it from the Parthan School of Knowledge which offered a great deal when it came to theoretical education. There were no research restrictions, allowing many taboo sciences and arts to be thoroughly investigated, as long as it lead to a practical application; and this made it a promising institute to all those who sought a better understanding of necromancy or to escape a troubled path.

When Asclepius was released from his imprisonment by the Gallecian Council, during the Second Civil War of Man and after Servak’s victory over the Gallecians, he was given unrestricted dominion over Katabasis Keep, formally restoring the authority he once had before his sentence. This, along with Asclepius’ vast power, made Katabasis immune to the Empire’s politics and intrigue. Once accepted into Ganis’ domain, inherited from Asclepius, those in Katabasis became untouchable.

Countess Ganis herself had a price on her head by many a mysterious entity which attracted the interest of bounty hunters and other dangerous folk. The price, many knew, was far too little for such a difficult target to kill. Only those desperate or stupid enough would attempt to collect such prize. Ganis had no objections to being such a lucrative target, for it gave her a steady supply of test subjects for her disciples’ experiments. Some even speculated that the bounty on Ganis’ head was placed by the Countess herself, but none ever managed to prove or disprove such accusations.

There were few rules in Katabasis, the most important was to abide by Ganis’ wishes, different for each visitor, and the second was to hide any signs of divine worship. Ganis though – as her deceased master convinced her – that strong faith had a tendency to suppress free though, and that went against everything Katabasis stood for. Anyone who broke those two rules were always sentenced to exile – yet few lived long enough to have the judgement enforced – and those who did not were often viewed by those unfamiliar with Katabasis Keep and its disciples with much skepticism as their loyalties were always in question.

 

As instructed by Ganis, Archer spent his days training in the arts of war. Being once trained by the finest weapon specialists in the land, he was a quick study. His comfort with strategy, however, is what made him excel among his peers, whom felt uneasy at his mysterious and sudden appearance. Older students directed him though his lessons as they themselves were directed by their predecessors when they were in Archer’s place. The system, although subject to much debate, had been successful so far.

For many a day Archer trained without ever getting a chance to speak to Ganis, or to hear from Balta and Ascilla. It was a source of great worry for the young man, but rarely was he allowed the luxury of time to feed his concerns. This changed one night when Archer had finished his training earlier than most days. He had just come back from the library and was preparing to wash off the day’s work with the little water sent to him in a small wooden bucket.

“May I come in?” Ganis entered Archer’s room without waiting for a response; rather without giving him the opportunity to reject her imposition. As the wooden heel of her boots struck the stone floor Archer felt his heart beating to the unpleasant rhythm. “It seems you’re not as fragile as you appeared to be. That is a pleasant surprise.” She walked around his small room and went to take a quick look from his small glass window. She wore the same colors as before, a crimson robe with a black pattern of thorned vines climbing from the bottom right edge of the robe to her right shoulder. The vines thinned the higher they went until they led to a single black rose which marked the pattern’s end.

“It has been difficult with the others taunting me.” Archer stopped undressing, leaving his black leather jacket halfway opened, which allowed the smell of his hard work to escape and remind him of just how urgent it was for him to wash. The smell, however, left Ganis unphased.

“That behavior is encouraged for it sparks competition amongst the disciples. Just don’t give them a chance to mock you.”

“I’m not sure what else I can do.”

“Do you know why?”

“No.”

“It is because you study under a disadvantage.” She walked halfway back to the door and stopped at a rough wooden chair tucked under a small wooden table with only a candle on it. The fresh candle was unlit and stood too polished at the table’s right corner to fit in with the rest of the room’s contents. “The other disciples have all been rune-carved and the full potential of their minds, bodies and spirits unleashed.”

“Then this is no place for one as ordinary as me.”

She looked at him for a moment, holding her tongue as she contemplated the extent of Archer’s knowledge about his past, and asked, “Keshish never told you anything about your past?”

“I’m not sure it was any less obscure to him than it was to me. Yet his will, the words he spoke to me with his last dying breath, makes me wonder about the extent of his ignorance.”

She knew all too well how concerned Archer was for his companions, how much he craved to hear from them. Ganis hummed. “Your friends are well, Archer, probably even better than you at the moment.”

“Can I see them?” Archer asked, making no attempt to mask his excitement.

“Pass my tests and you will be with them for as long as you wish. In fact, if you pass the tests you face here I will even support you for the remainder of you journey. For now you should only concern yourself with your studies.”

Archer gasped in shock, for his thought of the Countess had become mixed with greatly negative and greatly positive feelings, no doubt due to his indoctrination into the culture of Katabasis. A moment of reflection made him interpret her words as an attempt to manipulate him. This was all he needed to regain his composure and clarity of mind.

“Come here and take off your garments,” Ganis said. She walked towards the door and washed her hand in the clean water sent to Archer in the wooden bucket he had grown accustomed to.

Archer, embarrassed by his stench, reluctantly removed his leather jacket and the cloth shirt beneath it. With no further instructions to disrobe the rest of his outfit, he approached Ganis and stood in perfect stillness. With clean hands still wet the Countess placed her palm on Archer’s chest and burned into his skin a bright red rune, a carving in a language which Archer had not yet learned. The process was not painful and Archer became less anxious at the second, third and fourth carving.

When she was done, Ganis said, “I expected you to resist.”

“Sorry to disappoint. May I dress now?”

“I would recommend you wash first, but I do not judge.” She walked towards the door, leaving Archer to his privacy.

“Wait!” Archer called. The Countess halted from her brief walk and turned her head to her right shoulder, still giving her back to the young disciple. At her pause Archer asked, “What have you given me?”

“I have evened the odds. Tomorrow when you train it will be clear to you.” Ganis returned her gaze ahead of her and said, just as she was about to cross past the door, “Strangely enough both you and I are bound to the will of dead men. I am curious to see where your journey will take you.”

3

The sky above Katabasis was darker than usual and carrion birds flocked above several freshly-killed corpses. Another failed bounty hunter group which attempted to claim the reward on Ganis’ head.

This particular band of mercenaries once belonged to the Arrokan Wolves, a Kolian mercenary group which had fought against Servak during the Second Civil War of Man and never came to be employed by anyone serving the Demigod Emperor. After Servak consolidated his power in Nosgard many Arrokan Wolves broke off from the band and formed smaller groups, focusing on small jobs. They were amongst the most feared bounty hunters, but their reputation was much damaged by their defeat during the Peacekeepers’s cleansing of the Council’s supporters shortly after Servak’s coronation. This band, calling themselves the Arrokan Pack, thought to regain their glory by killing Ganis. Their fate, as was the fate of many such bands, was sealed once they marched on Katabasis Keep, for they could not nullify their contract without suffering a fatal blow to their credibility and they had no real chance at capturing or killing Ganis.

Raids by such bands had become a regular occurrence in Archer’s life, not that he participated in the defending of Katabasis or even witnessed it, and news of some minor bounty hunter’s death no longer worried or excited him. Ganis’ visits, on the other hand, remained scarce.

After living and training with his runes for some time, the Countess summoned the young disciple to her main hall, where all meetings that mattered took place.

“Your mentors reported a steep improvement in your performance,” she said.

“You sound surprised.” A dripping sound caught the Archer’s attention and when he looked at its source he was taken aback by what he saw. A bloodied man hung from his feet via strong iron chains attached to the wall and had many deep cuts in his flesh. His thick blood dripped freely onto his lifeless face and into a large barrel. “What is this?” Archer asked, masking his disgust well.

She waved at the two Deadguard by the entrance to her hallway and they shut the wooden door, a muffled thump signaling a job well done. “Can you keep a secret?”

“I would rather not be told one.”

“Blood is life.” She pointed at the hanging corpse.

“That is no secret.”

She hummed and produced a fine glass from within a masterwork wooden cupboard with two dozen – less one – fine glasses clean and carefully displayed. She filled the glass with the fresh blood dripping from the man and took a sip of the warm elixir.

Archer, having spent months in Katabasis, began to feel less discomfort in the presence of Ganis and at her bizarre actions. This new habituation, coupled with the confidence he had gained in his own abilities, made Archer bold.

“Why am I here?” He asked, looking at the glass with disgust and frowning a little.

Ganis, as Archer came to know, often ignored giving answers to questions which did not interest her or fall within her intended stream of conversation. “Do you still care for your friends?”

“Yes.”

She signaled the guards once again and they opened the door. Balta and Ascilla stood at the entrance, in what was to Archer unexpectedly good spirits. They were not harmed, as the Countess had promised, and seemed to Archer to have been well cared for. Ascilla’s wings had grown to almost be as large as they were when Archer had first seen them, but were still not fully restored.

“Brother, how are you?” Balta greeted. He rushed at Archer and offered him a rough hug, which he quickly broke to take a closer look at Archer and feel out his chest and arms as if he sought to confirm what he saw. Once he released Archer, he said, “How do I look in this?” He turned around to display his new outfit. It was a simple black leather armor that granted minimal protection and would usually be used as an under-armor during battles, nevertheless, it bore the same pattern of the vine growing from the bottom right corner of the outfit which extended to the shoulder and ended with a blossomed rose. Yet this time the pattern was in crimson.

“You are unharmed, both of you.” Archer smiled and gently punched Balta’s shoulder. He then headed to Ascilla, the Walkyrien whom he had not gotten a chance to properly know, and offered her an equally warm greeting. “How is your wound?” He felt a little awkward when Ascilla failed to respond in the same warmth he had shown her.

“Recovering well.”

“I told you my reason for clipping her wings. It was no act of mindless cruelty,” said Ganis.

“Yet unforgivable,” noted Ascilla.

The brief exchange left Archer confused as he had not yet known how the encounter between Ganis and his companions continued once he was taken away to commence his discipleship.

“Archer, you will need my assistance to prepare for what awaits you should you seek to fulfill Keshish’s will. I have freed your companions as promised, and you too are free to leave should you wish it, but I believe that you ought to stay here a little while longer to be better prepared for what is yet to come.”

Ganis’ words sent Archer’s thought into a violent spiral in which he was convinced that what he needed to do was at conflict with his deepest desires. The young man wanted to return to Keshish and his cabin, resuming the life he once had before misfortune befell him, but this prospect was long gone with the hermit’s death and the declaration of his cursed will. What his soul needed, however, was to see Keshish’s last wish fulfilled, not simply his last words, but their essence. Archer knew not where this journey would lead him or how long it would take, but he believed that the choice he was about to make would one day come to bare grave consequences that he did not fully understand yet.

Referring to her deceased master’s own method of manipulating his students, Ganis made sure that Archer would be exposed to scriptures and training that would guide his answer to this very dilemma he faced. She watched in anticipation for his response to her clever scheme.

“I will remain in Katabasis until you deem me ready,” Archer said once his emotions settled and his thoughts cleared.

“What about Fort Pax? You gave me your word,” Ascilla burst. In her impatience she unintentionally took a step forward which triggered Archer’s defensive reflexes to take one step back, preserving the distance between them. Neither were aware of their motion, but Balta stood in amazement as he saw just how changed his friend was.

“A promise I intend to keep, Ascilla,” Archer calmly responded, his stance unchanged.

Infuriated by Archer’s decision, the Walkyrien stormed out of the room and towards the courtyard.

“I stand with you, brother, regardless of your choices,” Balta said.

“A sentiment much appreciated.”

Knowing that his presence was no longer needed, Balta followed Ascilla, appearing to Archer intending to calm his winged companion.

When silence prevailed in the hall once more Ganis reached out to the blood barrel and used a silver serving spoon resting on its edge, by the handle shaped at its end, to delicately refill her glass. She continued to casually sip her drink.

“Tell me, Archer, do you feel any different since we last met?”

“You mean since I was last granted your gift? I do. Somehow it feels as if my vitality is superb. I am always prepared for action, and appear to require less rest than usual. Strangely, too, I can sense the moods of those around me.”

Ganis hummed. Runes were a poorly understood craft which its use often led to unintended consequences. Ganis did not know just how much or how strongly Archer would be affected, but she hoped that he would respond similarly to how his father did, with godly improvement. “Runes cannot give you what you do not have. This mood sense you speak of is just an amplification of your natural ability to judge how others feel.” She took another quick look at Archer and thought, now I’m starting to see why you spared this one.

“Should I feel the way I do?” Archer asked, still not entirely certain about how runes worked or the extent of their effect.

“I do not know,” Ganis said. Once more she returned to her intended topic. “Do not expect your journey to be short or easy, Archer. I do not know anything about it other than my small role, which will come to an end soon.”

“The training?”

“That and your next stop.”

Archer grew curious of where he was to go next. He sought out any clues about his journey and contemplated endless outcomes to which it could lead, but when he was brought back from the land of imagination and to reality he always repeated the thought that he knew too little to predict. “Where will that be?”

“All in good time, Archer.” She turned and started to slowly walk around Archer in a circle, her boots producing the sound Archer always found unpleasant as it made contact to the stone floor, and a muffled version of it when they struck the withering crimson carpet covering a small portion of the floor. “How well do you know Ascilla?”

“As well as is possible to know someone on a short stroll.”

Ganis hummed. “Then not too well. She is Alvian and her wings are not a quality of her heritage, but that of her dormant potential.”

“A rune?”

“Precisely. There is one more thing that she does not know about. She possesses a second dormant quality, very rare and only possible within Alvians of pure blood.” She stopped for a moment and stared at Archer. “Do you want to know something about her that she does not? You could wield this knowledge to have her bound to you throughout your journey.”

Archer pondered the notion for a moment. He did not like the idea of withholding information from others to manipulate them, and he was uncertain what influence it could have on his relationship with Ascilla, whom he started to view as a potentially valuable ally. Whatever it was, it would be impossible to make use of Ganis’ knowledge without knowing it. “I do.”

“Very well,” Ganis said, continuing her stroll and occasional sip of her drink. “Ascilla has another dormant trait which I could activate. She has an affinity to a particular element. I do not know which, for I am yet to uncover the secrets of my new discovery. This trait could be unlocked and make her even more valuable to the Ichneumon Order.”

“Ganis, what would you do with this knowledge if you were in my place?” Archer shocked Ganis with his question, an effect made clear to him by the change in her pacing.

“I would keep it to myself till I find a use for it, as I do with all secrets.” Ganis broke off her circling of Archer and slowly walked towards her throne to rest on her comfortable golden seat padded with crimson pillows. “You can think about what I told you as much as you want later. For now I suggest you turn your attention towards the upcoming tests.”

“Tests?”

“The other disciples are not aware of it yet, but within the next week you will all be tested and ranked, consider this an opportunity to see how well prepared you are to venture outside of these walls.” She waved her hand and gestured to Archer that the audience was concluded. He obliged and left unceremoniously.

You have done well raising this boy, Servak, Ganis thought as she sipped on her drink.

4

Ascilla came rushing into Archer’s chamber. Her extreme agitation caught Archer’s immediate attention, and he quickly shifted his focus away from the tome he was studying and stood up, leaving the wooden chair wherever the back of his knees pushed it.

“What is it?” Archer asked. His voice was muffled and coarse with hours of silence.

“Dragon eggs…the Countess has two dragon eggs hidden in her cellar.” She quickly closed the door and shut the old grey curtains, stirring the aged dust settled in them.

“One does not simply come across that which is hidden. You were snooping, Ascilla, where you shouldn’t have. This will not bode well with the Countess.” Archer hummed and brushed his eyes as he often did since his arrival in Katabasis, a habit he picked from his mentor. “Why is this cause for concern?”

Ascilla walked erratically around the room, turning whenever an obstacle blocked her path. “My oath to the Ichneumon Order is to kill any dragon I come across. I must destroy these abominations somehow, but I also need to bring you safely to Fort Pax. I am conflicted and don’t know what is expected of me.”

“Are you sure what you saw were dragon eggs?”

“I’ve seen drawings before. There is no doubt.”

Archer hummed yet again and firmly held Ascilla when she was close enough to stop her dizzying motion. “What would happen if you don’t destroy them?”

“When the Ichneumon Order finds out they could banish me from their ranks. I can’t afford to leave on such terms.”

“It’s settled then. We are never to speak of these eggs again.”

“The Order surely knows.” Archer felt her strong heart beating ever from his palms resting on her shoulders. “We have spies everywhere.”

“There’s no guarantee that they do. Even if they did, their laws are not enforced here in Katabasis.”

“But they are outside. There is no escape.”

Archer did not know how to respond. Whenever he argued against Ascilla’s concern she would somehow conjure another argument that rendered it false. At last, he decided that it was best for Ganis to handle the issue. “I am sure that Ganis has a reasonable explanation.”

“She who tore my wings off!” Ascilla burst in anger. The mention of Ganis’ name enraged the Walkyrien who seemed to Archer deeply engrossed in the tradition and code of the Ichneumon Order.

“What choice do you have?”

She stared at him angrily, now her fury directed at Archer, and stormed out of his chambers.

Realizing where Ascilla was heading, Archer rushed after the Walkyrien and towards Ganis’ hall. He never thought it would be so easy to convince her to trust in Ganis’ fairness as he had learned to during his discipleship. Perhaps, he thought, she wishes to provoke the Countess.

 

As soon as the seated Countess spotted Archer, she said, “Your companion should not be meddling in the affairs of others, affairs that do not concern her and are well beyond her understanding.”

Ascilla was standing no more than ten paces away from the Countess, appearing to be ready to lunge at her once more. This time, however, she had no weapon and was well aware that any attempt was doomed to failure, for she was driven by passion, and not cold logic. “I demand you destroy the eggs,” she said.

***

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Book of Kayal: Houses of Light

The Sky Wing has returned to threaten the Empire. The Demigod Emperor Servak plans one last journey to save the lands, but this time it's not his own. Salus, the Emperor's youngest son, is sent away and his memories are taken from him. After two years of living with no knowledge of his past, things start to change and events unfold. With his last dying breath, Salus' caretaker guides him to where his journey is destined to begin, in the putrid lands of Katabasis, where Ganis, the hero of Utyirth, has been plotting.

  • ISBN: 9781370028115
  • Author: S. Nileson
  • Published: 2017-01-31 22:50:12
  • Words: 87536
Book of Kayal: Houses of Light Book of Kayal: Houses of Light