Chapter One: MercilessEdit
- "Escaping from one's mind is a foolish thing to do. Sometimes, a bit of madness helps the soul."
- —Nharid Rialas, legendary Outlander Val'Jharim
- Nathaniel Adamus
- Empyrean Grove, Leabin
They struck just as the moon disappeared behind the winter sky’s clouds.
We were halfway through the caves, and I could see the foggy sky through a small hole in the roof of the cave.
“Full moon,” I murmured before the clouds covered it, to no one at all, but I was answered by a primal shriek of savage fury.
I spun round, and was greeted by a flash of huge fangs and crimson eyes. I yelped as a huge weight crushed my stomach and tackled me to the ground. I heard shouts from Solicius and Garim, and knew there were more attackers.
I struggled against the creature, trying to fend it off with one arm while I reached for my dagger – Runeshard was on my back and I was in no position to grab it. My attacker was difficult to make out in the dimness of the cave, but I caught glimpses of wild eyes and distorted, warped features.
“Nate!” Garim roared, and the words of his next incantation spilled from his mouth. The monster upon me screamed in a horrible, ear-splitting voice as its back was charred. I managed to get a hold on my dagger and wasted no time in thrusting the blade in the creature’s face. The screeching it made in its death throes pierced my ears.
Vampires. The diseased vermin afflicted by the Blödskreager’s Curse, infesting the Savallian Mountains’ caves and tunnels, preying on the travelers who used the nearby roads and passages besides the heavily-guarded Gerith Vale. I was sure of it, by their large, wolfish fangs, bloodshot eyes, and soot-gray skin. They weren’t undead ghouls that feasted on only blood and slept in coffins in the day, but merely diseased folk who were taken by the Blödskreager’s taste for blood and flesh. But they had a weakness to light and fire; there was always a bit of truth in the old wives’ tales.
Solicius was barely fending off a vampire as he tried to attack two others who were skillfully evading his short, sharp bursts of flame.
I pulled my dagger from the lifeless corpse and threw it at one of the creatures. The blade stuck in the ribs of one of Solicius’s attackers, and it paused to glare at me momentarily, seeming more irritated with the wound than hurt, but it was the opening Solicius needed. Lightning dancing on his fingertips, he unleashed a torrent of electricity on two of the vampires. As they fell to the ground, he grabbed the one I’d struck by the head. The monster barely had enough time to howl in retaliation before its brain was completely burned.
Solicius stooped down and retrieved the dagger as I ran over to him.
“We had to go through the mountains?” I asked, breathlessly.
“I didn’t anticipate vampires, m’boy,” he said gravely.
We heard Garim’s scream from behind us. “Help me!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend surrounded by the diseased creatures. One of them had sunk its claws into his back, while the young mage was desperately trying to weave a shield spell against three of the creatures.
“Just hold on!” I managed, as I ran towards him, drawing Runeshard from my back.
I heard Solicius roar a spell as flames crackled at his fingers, a fire in his eyes, and then teeth sank into my left shoulder as I staggered forward, and the world went red, spinning screaming …
“Shut him up! He’ll wake everybody up, and you wouldn’t like Jove irritated in the morn’!”
“I’m trying, you old sot! Nathaniel Adamus, for Jhalabre’s sake, wake up!”
Someone slapped me on the face. Hard.
My eyes snapped open, heart racing, primal fear threatening to overwhelm my mind. My throat hurt like it’d been scalded with fire, so I knew I’d been screaming. From Victor’s irritated voice, I’d probably been very loud.
I gradually took in my surroundings as the fear faded.
I was laying down on my bedroll in my tent. I tried to remember where we were and why I was here. I was in Empyrean Grove, Solicius’s sort of Leabian headquarters. And we … we had to stop some sort of psychopathic necromancer from raising an army.
Aelia was standing over me, her brown eyes clouded with mixed anger and concern. Concern I’d never seen in her eyes, at least not directed towards me. I think it was then she realized I was truly awake, for her gaze became cold and irritated again. That was a look I knew well.
As she helped me up, I eyed her strangely. Two shows of kindness I’d never seen from her. Odd.
“Are you alright?” she asked awkwardly.
I nodded mutely, unsure of what to say. I suddenly realized I was shirtless, covered in sweat, and probably looked like some Wilderfolk savage with my messy hair and three days worth of stubble. I hadn’t shaved for a few days. Not since Solicius asked me to join his little gang of self-styled vigilantes. I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since then. And the nightmares …
Aelia cast a quick eye over me, hesitated, and then left my tent.
As I grabbed a towel and wiped my face and bare torso, I heard Vincent’s voice from outside.
“What’s going on?” The master thief’s question was obviously directed towards his brother.
“The Huntress and I heard our co de-facto leader screaming,” There was slight derision in his voice as Victor spoke. “We thought he was in some sort of trouble, only to find out he probably had a nightmare.”
The two brothers’ voices died to a murmur; they were probably walking away.
Victor was the infamous Warlord of Fort Scarr, but better known under his alias of Red A. Surc. He was also one of Solicius’s contacts, along with his brother, and the bard Jove de Sandus. Vincent, the leader of the Westport Thieves under the guise of the Shadow Crusader, master thief, and merchant prince, signed up for Solicius’s crazy quest because he refused to leave his brother alone. Their kinship reminded me of things I would’ve liked to keep forgotten.
Jove was asked to stay, for he was a travelling bard, and knew the lands well, along with customs and languages and old tales.
Aelia, however, was a special case. She had insisted to come along with her foster father on his mad quest to defeat the necromancers. With King Aramus Leabin and Emperor Faeler Myrin at odds with one another, and the two other world leaders distracted by their Leabian –Myrinese war, it was up to the old magician to stop this new threat, one, he said, that personally threatened him. He told us of how he had been attacked in his tower, and barely managed to fend off his attacker – a necromancer leader by the name of Lucifer Morag.
Solicius told me the tale himself. “She was as willful as Mafaren had been; I remember how her father was adamant on his plans to overthrow his uncle from the mantle of the Nawaj chieftain. She insisted to come, and while I do not like risking her – I swore on Mafaren’s grave I’d keep his daughter safe – I believe the Kynliadian Huntress can aid us well.”
“Another blade is welcome, always, so long as it will slit the throats of our enemies, or so my uncle Reager had always said, the Saints rest his soul.” I solemnly agreed. “What of the necromancer?”
The old magician snorted. “That foul deathmonger?” He scowled. “His henchmen have contacted the Vahkaranist Disciples already – messages have been sent to the academy in al-Sharin, the Bingfei Fort outpost, and Fruehgurkiin Hall. Messages that, in essence, say the same thing – that their master respects those who respect the dead, and that they were more than willing to spare the Vahkaranists if they pledged fealty to their master. And,” his voice took on a grave note. “they mentioned me. They said that their master and I share a similar past, and are plagued by similar regrets. Something like that.” He seemed very evasive on that part. I decided not to question him further.
I pulled on a loose, coarse-linen shirt and strapped Runeshard and its scabbard to my belt. I heard a fire start crackling outside. “… and I’ve some meat from last night that hasn’t gone rotten yet. I think it’s … hmm, yes, it’s definitely boar.”
The smell of cooking meat made my stomach growl. I stepped outside.
As I did, I felt magic fill my body with renewed energy. The unpleasant experiences of the past nights faded away. The place was probably above a large concentration of magicka ore. I could almost feel Runeshard longing to go back into the earth.
I remember Solicius had told me Empyrean Grove was enchanted. It was protected by magical boundaries that repelled anyone not given the old man’s permission to enter.
“But magic,” he had said to me. “is not devoid of loopholes and flaws. Even in this place, it is wise to be wary.”
Victor was grilling large chunks of meat over the campfire while Jove tuned his lute and Vincent sat idly by the fire, reading a leather-bound book. I didn’t see Aelia. I figured she was in her tent – or better, in a secluded spot talking with Solicius with Veil Mirrors. I knew that she had some capability with the magickal arts.
“So,” Jove said with a chuckle. “There goes the fearless mercenary spellsword! I wonder how fierce was the beast you tackled in your sleep to make you shout so.”
I ignored the bard’s jest, instead sitting on a stool by the fire and grabbing a plate.
“We’ve got boar, some mutton, a few pieces of Middenplain-bred beef …” Victor said in his usual gruff way.
I ate my fill and spent the rest of the morning reading and dueling with Victor. The 37-year-old warlord was an incredibly-talented swordsman and a man who understood the principles of honor, so, in spite of his brusque ways, I held him with an air of respect and reverence.
In the late afternoon, however, a sound that sounded like wind blowing alerted the camp to Solicius’s return.
“Finally,” I heard Vincent mutter under his breath as I exited my tent.
“… outpost of Skrugenhaal,” Solicius was saying to Aelia. “And from there, we’ll make our way to the last known camp of the Ragnarokian Reavers.”
“And try to win the favor of ol’ Ragnarok,” Victor said. “Though that shouldn’t be too hard if we mention lots of bloodshed and mead.” His mouth twitched ever-so-slightly, and I knew that was the farthest the man would get to a grin.
I strode over next to the fire.
“Good to see you’re back, Sol,” I said. “The past three days have been …” I stopped, unable to think of a suitable word to describe my experiences for the last three days. “…difficult.” I managed.
I think the old magician understood the look in my eyes. He nodded slightly, as though to say he knew what I’d been going through.
“I was just telling them of our plans to head to Orithia,” he said. “We’ll ride a Conduit to the Vahkaranist outpost of Skrugenhall and make our way to the last place the Ragnarokian Reavers were sighted at. And maybe then we can earn the favor of one of the most powerful Reaver clans in the merciless Icescapes and have a few hardened warriors join our ranks.”
“So we leave early morrow’s morn, then?” I asked.
“Indeed.” To the others he said, “Pack whatever supplies you need. There are a few extra things in the old shed, but remember not to enter my little laboratory. If the enchantments I’ve set up don’t kill you on first contact, the boiling oil and poisons surely will.”
With that, everyone dispersed and started packing up for tomorrow. I was about to leave but Solicius stopped me.
“Nathan,” he began, and I suddenly knew what he was going to talk to me about.
“Oh, Saints give us strength and the Blessed compassion,” I muttered under my breath, rolling my eyes.
“Boy,” he said warningly. Then his tone softened. “Aelia told me you’ve been … having problems.”
“And I wonder how much you’ve told her in return.” He didn’t respond. “Well? Speak up, old man.”
“I may … have told her about … Garim.” he said concedingly. “I thought that would garner her sympathy to you.”
I laughed bitterly with as much scorn in my voice as possible. “Sympathy? And what does she know of sympathy? If the first look she ever gave me was a blade, it could cut me deeper in my skull than Runeshard in my groin.”
I saw the old man’s brow furrow, and saw him struggle to hold back his irritation. “You’ve not heard of the Kynliadian Huntress’s story?” he asked in a clipped voice.
I blinked. The question caught me off-guard; I’d expected anything but that. “I only know all the rumors and legends; if there was a definite truth, I know it not.” I replied evasively.
Solicius took a deep breath. Lowered his eyes and muttered something that sounded like a curse or a prayer. Then he spoke.
“Aelia was eight when the Wilderfolk invaded Nawaj village. The Wilderfolk had already ravaged several other tribes and decimated them. They were working with coordination, with purpose, and had even hired mercenaries to aid them in their conquest.” He looked at me sharply. “Leabian mercenaries, paid gold in order to gain blood on their hands. Paid gold to slaughter innocent men, women, and children.
“When the Wilderfolk invaded, Aelia saw her parents cut down right before her. Her parents’ blood spilled over her face. The savages would have cut her down if I hadn’t arrived. But, I think, if I had arrived sooner, her parents would still be alive.” He paused. I looked at him, feeling a chill in my heart I hadn’t felt for a long time.
“So,” he continued, cold anger in his voice, eyes stony as his gaze fell upon my face. “Don’t ever say Aelia doesn’t know sympathy towards those who lost loved ones. I’m warning you, Nathaniel Adamus.”
That was the first and last time I saw him like that.
In the evening, after dinner, I bathed in the nearby creek that ran near the boundaries of Empyrean Grove and went to bed. I tried a spell I’d read in one of Solicius’s own tomes, a spell for a good night’s sleep and pleasant dreams. The foreign words and complicated signs I weaved in the air with my hand didn’t seem to have much of an effect, as I found out later that night.
The teeth sank into my shoulder, and I howled in agony. Without thinking, I concentrated all my energy into repelling the vampire that clung to my back. I felt something like a burst of air in my face, and the teeth retracted.
I turned around to find the vampire screeching, half his face crumbling to ash. I gripped Runeshard tightly and stabbed the writhing, pathetic beast in the remains of his face, temporarily forgetting about Garim’s plight.
When the fiend stopped moving, I heard Garim and Solicius in conversation. The two had repelled the monsters, but Garim was bleeding in various places and a chunk of flesh was torn from his back, revealing the muscle and parts of bone on his back.
“… sorry, but we can’t risk you chasing after those things-”
“Sorry, Sol?” Garim spat angrily. “That amulet was the last thing I had left of my mother. I’d die first before I let some filthy Skreagerspawn snatch it away from me.”
Solicius sighed. Hesitated, then spoke. “Alright.” he said, defeated. “But go after I fix you up. You won’t last five seconds with a hole in your back.”
I watched as Solicius grabbed a flask with red-purple contents from his satchel. He uncorked it and, as Garim turned around, poured the liquid over the large wound on the young man’s back. I had seen Gregorian Leonard’s ‘miracle healer’ dozens of times before, so it didn’t surprise me when the flesh on Garim’s back slowly began to heal.
Solicius turned to me, his countenance grim.
“You’ve been bit, boy,” he said to me. “Vahkaran’s beak, we need to cut the infected flesh out and then heal the wound.”
“What?” I asked in surprise, leaping back. “Wh-whaddya mean ‘cut the infected flesh out’? You- you can’t be serious.”
“Boy,” he advanced upon me, holding out a small, delicate knife, his face deadly serious. “Unless you want to turn into one of those damned Skreagerspawn and spend the rest of your days runnin’ round like a savage, preying on innocents and feasting on their flesh and blood … well, I think a bit of pain is a small price to pay to avoid such a fate.”
He thrust his hand out at me, and my legs buckled as I was simultaneously spun around so that my back faced Solicius.
Unable to move, I yelled the foulest curses I could think of into the dirt, but that didn’t stop him from stabbing the knife in my back.
I woke with a start. “Paragon’s loincloth,” I muttered the curse under my breath, breathing heavily.
I sat up, running a hand through my messy brown hair. It was probably early morning, from the sound of the birds and the tiny glimmer of light that shone through the small, eternally-present gap in my tent door.
“Wake up, everyone!” I heard Sol roar, his voice magically amplified. “We leave for Orithia in an hour!”
I buried my head in my hands, groaning.
“Saints give me strength,” I muttered. Would I be plagued with unrest every night til this mad quest was over? Assuming I lived still? night til this mad quest was over? Assuming I lived still?