Chapter 1 - A Late Warning
Updated: Apr 8
The evening sun bathed the two boys, sixteen winters under their belt, as they pelted hay bales with their bows. Standing a foot taller than his competing bowman, Dario wore a mask of determination. The black jerkin he wore accentuated his pale skin and dark hair, his ability to keep the bow steady with ease contrasted with Rhavin’s inability to keep the bow raised for more than seconds at a time. The only feature they shared was their bright amber eyes. Both sets reflected the sun-washed grain around them.
Achim, a man of forty winters himself, stood watch over the young men. His stern amber gaze and rigid demeanor kept them in place; the strength of a war veteran was shown by his seasoned muscles. Most notably about the man was that almost half his face was contorted from burn; grotesque alterations of the skin marred what was once an attractive man, and what remained of his face seemed to be in perpetual pain. His eyes followed the arrows being shot until one of the boys spoke.
“My arm hurts! How much longer do we have to be out here?” The smaller of the two cried out. Rhavin had been failing to perform as well as Achim would have liked. He should have started their training earlier, he thought.
“We’ve been here for hours! I’ve already hit the bullseye countless times! Couldn’t we go in and fill our bellies by the fire?” The other chimed in. Achim was more surprised at Darios’ protest, the boy had remarkable skill with martial weapons, and rarely refused the opportunity to impress. While the boys were close, Achim struggled to get Dario to actually help his brother, rather than just show him up.
“No, you both will keep firing, until you can both hit the bullseye. Dario, you might have already done it, but all that means is you need to help Rhavin. You’re brothers! Brothers look after each other, so you stay out until you can help him get an arrow in the middle of the damned target!” Achim paced between the two boys, determination ruling his face. One look at his eyes and the boys were back to pelting the hay with arrows, Dario trying his best to teach Rhavin better form.
Achim walked over to a small haystack and sat down. Pulling a light piece of wood and a carving knife from his pocket, he began to whittle the de-barked cherry. The deft strokes of a man who knew what he was doing; he shaved the wood at an impressive pace, ensuring to match the boys’ gaze when they looked towards him.
As dusk crept upon the three figures the cherry wood had taken the shape of a woman, half naked, holding a blanket covering her breasts. After staring at the figurine for a few moments, admiring his handiwork, Achim spoke.
“Well, only Dario could hit the middle of the target. You need to learn to work together! Learn from each other! When one struggles, the other picks up the slack. That’s how brothers should act.” The man’s rigid demeanor seemed to soften. “Well, we will practice tomorrow with your uncle. We might as well make use of the luxuries we have. In you go, I’m sure your mother has prepared something nice for tonight. Go wash up.”
The boys dropped their bows with relief as they ran towards the manor. Achim walked over towards the painted bales. One target had only several arrows protruding, without any grouping, the other was covered with arrows, grouped within the target.
“It seems Dario will make an excellent bowman yet. Rhavin on the other hand… Well, I hope he ends up good at something, poor lad.” Chuckling to himself, he started to pluck the arrows from the hay, placing them in a large quiver he had strung to his belt. After the arrows were gathered, the weight of the quiver tugged on his tunic. He readjusted it and set off towards the manor for some much wanted mead.
Making his way through the grain, a large stone manor came into view. Standing three stories high, some would call it a castle. It was obvious the family had coffers filled to the brim. Achim admired his faux castle. How many men can say they rose from an urchin to a man of means? Achim didn’t believe it could be that many. Thinking back on his rise to nobility, a frown graced Achim’s face. He didn’t like to think of the things he had to do to get here. The foundation of his manor might as well have been carved from stone. Achim’s thoughts were interrupted as he observed a rider galloping through his crops. The rider made ground surprisingly fast, pushing his horse at a gallop. The intruder was an old friend, a comrade from a war long past, Olsier.
Dismounting from the horse, the creature gave a sigh of relief, it's only solace was that Olsier did not carry trivial items with him. Olsier started towards the man. He was tall, with a long and sinewy build that marked an old soldier. His riding leathers were worn and dirty.
“Olsier, old friend, it’s been too long! What’s brought you out here?” Achim stood looking inquisitive, he knew Olsier’s appearance here wasn’t a coincidence. He only showed anywhere if the need required it; he was a man of purpose, and only purpose. His clothes proved that. If it provided an essential function, he would wear it, but if you gave that man a fashionable hat, it would sit on his shelf unless it was also sturdy and provided shade.
“Achim Eklod. It has been a long time. With my news, it’s unfortunate it’s not been longer.” Olsier gave Achim a deep sigh and frown. “Old times have caught up with us my friend. Mathanus approaches. I’ve ridden hard to get word to you before he arrived. But you don’t have much time to get your family out of here.” Olsier’s rigid demeanor and perfect posture agreed with his statement of urgency. A tension hung around the man as much as the musk of riding for days.
Achim’s brow furrowed; he turned to glance at the flowing grain behind him. Facing back at Olsier, the burnt man gave him a look of urgency. “Can you do a favor for an old friend in need Olsier?”
“I will do what I can.” Olsier’s toned face softened.
“Gaevan must know Mathanus is still alive. He’s a lord now, holed up in Kontov. The paranoid bastard’s been preparing for something like this for years. He won’t let anyone in to see him these days, convinced he’s the target of all kinds of conspiracies. Give him a little vindication.” Achim let out a forced chuckle. “He was right about one thing.”
“If he’s so paranoid, how am I to get in to see him?” Olsier gave Achim a worried frown and a cross of his arms.
“The Red Rose Burns Again. You say that to one of his guard captains and I guarantee you they let you in to see him. This old spymaster still has his tricks.” Achim gave Olsier a pat on the shoulder accompanied by a wink that strained the burnt flesh around his eye. “I must see my family to safety, old friend.”
Olsier nodded and looked towards the hay targets. “Remember the Viper, old friend. If all goes well here, you will know where to find me in the end.” Closing his fist and bringing it to his chest, Olsier muttered, “Val’Alathar, brother.” With a nod, Olsier mounted his horse and galloped off to the North where Achim could only assume was straight to Kontov.
“Val’Alathar,” Achim muttered as he turned away from the unexpected messenger. I need to get Lara and the kids out of that house. Achim broke out in a trot towards the manor, fighting the dragging quiver that hung from his belt. The sun was hot on his back as he ran.
Achim sped up as the limestone manor came into view. The polished stone seemed to glisten in the sunset, taunting him with false promises of safety. The stone had the family insignia of an elephant’s head carved into the wall beside the heavy oak doors. The doors themselves were sculpted to display a scene depicting the massacre of Nal’Bashan, a grim reminder of a war not long past. Now Achim had to worry about saving his family from another relic of a war not long past.
Achim burst into the manor and immediately set off towards the cellar. The twisted oak staircase descending into the wet cold stone reflected the shift in Achim’s mood. Ugh, he thought. I should have put more care into this part of the house. It smells dank and rancid down here. Coming up on a gated portion of the cellar he pulled a rusty key from his pocket. Opening the steel gate, he set his eyes on a heavy gold inlaid chest. Inside was a combination of gold coins, cut gems, assorted papers, and a large leather rucksack. He started filling the sack with gems and topped the bag with the papers.
Grabbing a small vial from a moss covered shelf, Achim popped the cork and downed the contents. Remember the Viper.
Ok, that should do it. Now to get them out of here! Achim raced up the stairs. “Lara! Rhavin! Dario! See me at the grand hearth, now!” Achim moved nimbly through the house. When he made it to the hearth Lara and Rhavin were just making it into the room, responding to his echoing shouts.
“What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?” Lara asked. The dry washing of her hands gave away that she knew this was no ordinary fit of rage. The wood floors creaked as she paced the room. Lara always was one to get excitable too quickly. She doesn’t even know imminent death is upon us yet.
“Where is Dario? This is urgent! Dario!” Achim shouted through the manor.
“I don’t know. He was going up the stairs a few moments ago.” Lara’s eyes darted back and forth nervously from her husband to her child. “Is everything going to be ok?” She worriedly clutched her skirt.
“Find Dario, and take a wagon with the best horses we have. You need to get out of this house now. Don’t go to family. You must leave for Tiva. There’s an inn there, The Chipped Tankard. Go to it. I will meet you there, but you need to leave now! This bag will have enough to keep you fed and sheltered for a long time.” He pushed it into Lara’s hands.
A loud thud was heard at the door. All attention was diverted. They waited, but no sound could be heard aside from the crackling of the fire. Achim took Lara into his hands and kissed her. Pressing on the bag in her arms he started to push her away. “Take the bag and the kids. You will find all you need in there. Remember, The Chipped Tankard. You must leave now!”
“But why do we have to go? I thought we were going to see Uncle Iven tomorrow?” Rhavin asked, confused. He ran his hands through his blond hair.
“Someone is coming. Someone who can hurt us, hurt you. Just do as I say and we’ll see each other soon.” Achim gave his son a warm embrace and an endearing look to his wife. “But you have to leave right--“
Cracking was heard and the front doors of the manor flew inward. Three men stepped into the room, two wearing leather jerkins and trousers. Swords were strapped to their hips and assorted daggers covered their appendages. The middle man was wearing black silk ornately adorned with gold lace. A neatly braided brown beard covered half his face while the top of his head was exposed, shaved clean.
“I hope you weren’t planning on going anywhere. We’ve much to discuss, Achim.” As the words were out of his mouth, the wooden floorboards warped towards the family’s legs, groaning against the magical influence. The more the wood moved, the more it moaned in protest. The mage corkscrewed the floorboards through the meat of their legs, skewering their calves and thighs. Pain from splits and splinters of the old wood racked the bound kin. The family’s screams echoed throughout the limestone manor. When the wood finally stopped its assault, Mathanus smiled.
Walking towards Rhavin, Mathanus looked him up and down, scratching at his bearded face. “The boy has the gift you know? Have you told him? Ah, It matters not. What matters is you, Achim.” More wood warped around Achim tethering his arms. Achim’s protests were in vain against the old oak boards.
Achim never liked magic, a force that more often than not brought harm to others, an easier way to kill. Not just physically easier, but pulling the air out of the lungs of a man is less personal. It’s a coward's way to kill.
Walking over to Achim, Mathanus ran his hand over the burn scars on Achim’s face.
“A memento, of our last encounter. Should I even it up for you?” Holding up his hand, a small blue flame danced in front of Achim’s face. The searing heat started to burn his flesh.
Rhavin started to scream at the maltreatment of his father, tears running down his face.
“Stop! Don’t hurt him!” Rhavin cried out. He struggled against the wooden binding running through his legs, splinters of wood breaking off within the flesh. Blood was dripping and oozing out of his legs, soaking into the wood, which drank it hungrily.
Achim glared through pain at the robed mage as his face endured the onslaught of flame. “I have nothing for you here. We settled our debts years ago.” The words were spat through gritted teeth.
Mathanus laughed in sadistic delight. “Settled your debt! Yes, I thought so too. But a little bird flew in through my window not long ago. This little bird was carrying documents.” Mathanus’s face shifted from the faux smile to a glare of hatred. “It was a letter from one of your little agents.” His voice twisted as he said it.
“Specifically the one that killed my family. Oh, you were clever, Achim. Oh, so clever. You made it look like I killed them. You knew I was working on new spells and you tried to make it look like one of them went awry.” Tears welled up in Mathanus’s eyes. His tone swapped from false appreciation to devastation. “They were just children, Achim. They had yet to see six summers. And you slaughtered them.” The tears of pain accentuated his bloodshot eyes.
“It was a different time back then. We were at war!” His arms and legs strained against the wooden shackles to no avail; winding through his appendages, they might as well be iron.
“We were at war!” Mathanus scoffed. “You cannot use that to excuse the murder of children! They were innocent! They had done no wrong! They were not soldiers! They were children! Playing with dolls and had barely learned to walk!” Mathanus’s mouth tightened through his beard, his shaved head furrowed. “I’m going to kill you for it, Achim. But first, I’m going to kill your family. You will know my pain.”
“This has nothing to do with them! Don’t make them suffer. I did horrible things, Mathanus. But do not repeat my mistakes!” Achim’s voice wavered.
“I demand justice, Achim! You will die! But you will watch me kill your family. Only then will you know true torment. First, you’re going to take a little drink. It’s a beautiful little concoction. Vipers Pox. I think you would remember it well. It’s what you used to kill my family. And while your body deteriorates, you can watch while I show you what it’s like. What it’s like to know your actions caused their deaths!” Mathanus’s voice cracked and wavered; he was a man on the brink of collapse.
The wooden tentacles started sprawling again, tethering to Achim’s mouth, prying it open. With his mouth held ajar, Mathanus poured the milky purple liquid down his throat.
“Stop! You monster! This is sick!” Lara cried out between sobs. Mathanus signaled one of the men towards her. Pulling out one of his knives, the man glided toward Lara, bringing the knife to her throat. Before the knife drew blood, an arrow was protruding from the leather clad man’s neck. His eyes widened as his tunic was washed in a sea of crimson. Eyes around the room all darted towards the manor’s entrance where Dario stood, longbow in hand.
“Dario!/My son!/Run my boy!”
The family’s exclamations reverberated through the house. As the intruders turned to see the bowman, another arrow had already been launched. The metal broadhead struck the second leather clad man in the eye. Blood painted the man’s face like a sneeze paints a wall. The man’s echoing screams overpowered the family’s exclamations. Falling to the ground, the arrow’s shaft broke off, leaving the man with only the broadhead lodged in his skull.
Mathanus’s hand moved in the direction of Dario. The longbow warped around the boy’s body, binding his arms. Closing his fist, Mathanus smiled. Dario began to slide towards the party. His protests could not stop the pull of the invisible rope.
“You all might be more trouble than you’re worth.” Mathanus sneered at Dario, dragging him through the room to lay near his kin. Dario’s well toned arms were unable to budge the magically warped bow that encased him.
“I’m going to kill you,” Dario said, sneering back with a coy smile. The boy’s demeanor did not reflect the situation he was in. White teeth shone up at the bald wizard in a final act of defiance.
“It took me a long time to find you, Achim. Apparently I should have acted faster. Then I wouldn’t have had to expend extra effort on these… annoyances. This isn’t nearly as satisfactory as I wanted it to be. I’m just going to get right to it. ” The air grew still and tense. As Mathanus closed his eyes, sparks started to appear in the air throughout the room. Blue orbs formed around all but Achim.
“Don’t do this! It will not ease your pain!” Achim’s struggle against the wooden binds became frantic.
Mathanus’s only response was a sadistic smile.
“In the heart, we are pure. Our souls are willing. Accept us in your arms…” Lara’s prayers drowned in the sound of the electric orbs surrounding them. Closing her eyes, she began to accept the fate, tilting her head up towards the ceiling. “Mother Eyvos, protect my boys.”
“No!” Rhavin screamed out. “You cannot have her!” His voice echoed like deep thunder, and his amber eyes began to fiercely glow like tiny blue flames within his skull.
The blue orb surrounding Lara began to screech. Electric tendrils shot from it, wildly pelting the area around it. The noise became overbearing. Those without their arms bound reached for their ears to block the unnatural sound.
With a bright flash, the orb around Lara closed out. Everything within it had disappeared. Even the floor beneath her disappeared as if a small sphere of the world had just been erased. Rhavin’s eyes returned to normal, and he started panting as if just coming back from a long run.
“You toy with powers you do not understand boy! It’s time we end this!” Mathanus’s hands reached up to the sky. Lightning manifested within the ceiling, striking both boys where they were bound. Only ashes and tattered clothing remained in their stead.
“No!” Achim’s face contorted in grief. He struggled against the wooden bindings with no more success than before. Darting his eyes back and forth from where his children lay, he closed his eyes, holding back the tears welling up in them.
“Now you feel my pain, Achim. Your children are dead, and you will rot.” Before exiting the manor, Mathanus turned back to Achim. “Even through this, I’m not so evil as you, Achim. You will die soon. And won’t have to live with their deaths on your mind for much longer. Be grateful I spared you that.” With the sadism drained from Mathanus’s face, he turned to exit the manor.