The Reality Saga Volume I - The Song of Steel

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Chapter Four

The two of them returned to the cobblestone avenues of the capitol atop Nightmare well into the evening. They watched as the milling throngs parted before them, giving way without a word. Grandfathers stopped and pointed him out to their smiling grandchildren, women tittered and spoke to each other behind a hand to guard their lips from view, some of them making eyes at him as if to garner his affections. Men who wore swords and the occasional small group of soldiers on patrol stopped and saluted him with fists to heart and heads bowed. Even as the evening moved swiftly into the dark of nighttime the city was alive and buzzing with activity. These things Atolibus responded to with a wave, a smile, a calculated hand ran through his hair or a nod and one fisted salute of his own.

Kristina was not so nonchalant. Eyes wide the whole way in she kept a tight grip around him, wishing she had an extra pair of hands to have her staff in hand as well. She had not been to the capitol in at least twenty years, and when she had it was all seen through the eyes of a child who had not yet fully become aware to the world around her. All of it was so new, so vast, so vibrantly alive that she felt herself reeling simply from the sensory input.

A moment later they stopped in the middle of a crowded city street, with a group of silver armored, crimson cloaked soldiers standing in front of them. With a gentle hand Atolibus set her arms aside and dismounted Nightmare. With a single questioning glance she dismounted behind him and took place by his side. The older soldiers of the group, several of them marked with ribbons of rank on their lapels, seemed to notice the last bit with something of a knowing grin on their face. The younger and newer members stood stolidly, faces impassive and swords always but a blink away.

“Lord Commander, what a pleasant surprise,” the foremost member of the group spoke aloud, hair more gray than brown, countenance hard as if etched from stone. His voice was nothing like his face – the softest silk could not have flowed as smoothly as his tongue did. He knelt before his group of men while the others saluted with both fists to heart and heads bowed deeply – a formal yet simple acknowledgment of rank or prestige. The graying man who knelt bore the rank of Lord General – few stood above him, and he was kneeling. Atolibus responded with a nod and a fist to the chest, a formal acknowledgment for the men that he above all commanded as Lord Commander of the Armies. He broke formality and smiled warmly as the general rose to his feet. Oddly enough, from Kristina’s point of view, the general himself started grinning brightly and his whole face seemed to take on a new light. The fiercely blue eyes that stared out at the world came afire with vitality, and Kristina could see confidence behind them.

“Jael, good to see you old man,” Atolibus said to him, extending his hand. The general met Atolibus’ arm with a full armed clasp that spoke of an old, powerfully bonded friendship. Jael caught the slight woman out of the corner of his eye.

“Gods’ eyes man, who is this?” he asked him, a sly grin and a knowing look in his eyes replacing the smile he’d worn a moment before. Atolibus grimaced playfully, shaking his head.

“Lech,” he said, arms folded across his chest. Jael stepped away as if taken aback.

“It never ceases to amaze me, where do you find them old man?” Jael said, kneeling before Kristina and taking her hand in his, kissing it lightly. The breath went straight out of her throat even as his eyes never left her apple sized, upturned breasts. “Lord General Jael Lothanis at your service, milady. Would you think it forward of me to ask your name?”

“Kristina Terwynn,” she said shakily, unsure of her legs as she gave a light curtsey. A bit melodramatic but he’s handsome enough, I’m guessing he gets away with it more often than not. Atolibus leaned towards her and whispered, loudly enough so that everyone heard it.

“Pay him no mind, he has an eye for anything that sparkles or shimmers,” he said. She felt blood rushing to her face as she heard the veiled compliment in his words. Jael stood and bowed, flourishing his cloak.

“So how’s my little brother doing?” he said, turning his attention back to Atolibus.

“Busy,” the man in gold said. “though I’d wager you’d know more about that.” Jael nodded.

“Matters of state, as always,” he said. “The very reason I’ve been away as long as I have – he’s needed someone steadfast to keep an eye on the problems along the border with Andelvyn.” The edge returned to his face as his smile disappeared.

“Odd, that,” Atolibus said. “Continue.” Kristina knew it wasn’t a request without question and reevaluated the relationship between the two men.

“King Aleric and King Forrest have had their hands full,” he said. “Raids on the border outposts of the two most friendly kingdoms in all of the land aside from our own have continued at random, unabated. Were I a gambling man I might think that isn’t just a convenient set of coincidences.” Atolibus grimaced – the Network hadn’t been able to ferret out much information themselves, other than signs of possible Magus interference. His spies and informants were better than most and aided by magic no less, but even they appeared blind of late.

The last part had set him on edge since the moment he clashed blades with one of them not a couple hours past – the Magus had not been a serious threat since the War of the Magus, five hundred years past. Old phantoms threatened to destabilize the large network of alliances and treaties that the Ten Realms thrived on. Trade agreements, unspoken boundary lines… blood had not been shed in war from realm to realm in over a century. The Society of the Magus preyed on civil unrest, and nations destabilizing just as sparks of unrest flamed to life seemingly out of the aether left him troubled more nights than not.

“We’re on our way to see your brother as we speak,” Atolibus said. “Care to join us?” Jael nodded, and with one look at his men the unit returned to their duty and continued on their way. Atolibus remounted Nightmare, pulling Kristina gently up behind him while Jael walked beside them on foot. The outer walls of Castle Lothanis stretched into the air above them as they traveled.

“You know,” Atolibus said to Jael, leaning over in the saddle to speak while allowing Nightmare to guide him, “he’s been grousing about you quite a bit lately.”

“Tell me something new, Lord Commander,” the graying Lord General said. The man in gold’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly.

“Drop the formalities, you damn well know better than that,” he snapped back, the whip clear in his voice. Kristina could feel concern radiating outward from him. “He’s worried about you, my friend. Frankly, so am I.” Jael turned his gaze aside and scratched his chin with his thumb nervously, displaying a startling lack of composure that belied the presence he’d carried just a moment before. “We don’t see much of you these days.” My agents in the field don’t see much of you, either. That fact bothered him above all.

“You personally signed off on my current orders,” he said nonchalantly. “And Andelvyn’s southern coast isn’t exactly a stone’s throw away from the center of the Ten Realms.”

“Aye,” Atolibus said. “But you have these things called ‘mages’. I suggest using them from time to time, you’d be amazed how convenient they can be.” Jael snorted in contempt.

“On the battlefield? Gladly,” he said with a slight sneer. “Otherwise they’re of no use to me. Upjumped peasants that like to throw around their authority simply because they can boil a man’s brain in his skull with a thought. Fuck the lot of them.” Atolibus stopped for a moment, drawing the others to a halt as well in the middle of traffic. No one asked them to step aside, however. None of them had enough of a disregard for their own lives to step between a Lord General of Lothanis and the Regent himself, especially if the two men looked half ready to come to blows.

“Something I should know about, old man?” Atolibus said. Jael grumbled and shook his head, waving the other man off.

“I’ll attend to him when I’ve a moment to spare,” he said. He stretched his armored hand to the sky, pointing at the parapets that they were crossing under at that very moment. “We’re almost there, anyhow.” They passed through the space between the outer and inner walls, a broad circular set of farms and wells that sat nestled comfortably around the whole of the inner wall. A moment later they found themselves standing in front of a massive portcullis. Heavily armored men, wearing swords that looked a bit heavier and sharper than those carried by the common soldier, patrolled the area in front of the gate and behind it as well as manning the small gatehouse that stood just to the side. As soon as Atolibus and Jael were sighted they began raising the gates.

“Thank you, good men,” Atolibus said, nodding to the soldiers’ salutes as they passed. The iron bars rose silently before them and they stepped through without another thought. The higher ranking officers of the patrols on the inside of the gate knelt and saluted in the two fisted manner, and he responded with a simple nod as they passed.

Inside the heavy stone of the inner wall a broad courtyard opened before them, a grassy field generally green save the main route into the keep that stretched at least ten stories upwards. Various castle facilities lined the ring – the stables and the barracks, alongside other buildings with similar purposes – bowing outwards to contour to the shape of the walls. Both rings led to the keep proper, somewhere around a hundred yards away on the other side. The tiled stones beneath their feet grew broader as they approached the entrance, widening gradually until they matched the dimensions of their target. Kristina was amazed, though not by its size or the thickness of its walls, rather the very simplicity as a whole. She could smell water, fresh water, not the tang of the salty ocean, and she remembered that the large Sileas Lake lay east of the castle, forming a natural cliff wall that served as her eastern defenses. If I could see this place from above I’d bet anything that it looks like an eye. She found her thoughts drifting to the staff on her back – there had been a sigil very much in the shape of a narrow eye near the top that she’d never understood.

“Still with us, lass?” Atolibus said. Her eyes lost the glaze that had covered them and her attention shifted from the towering edifice to the tall, silver eyed man in front of her.

“What’s that?” she said. He gave her a knowing chuckle.

“Get caught up in the castle, did you?” he said to her. She mumbled something that sounded like a yes and he chuckled again. “It happens to everyone once or twice. At any rate this is our stop; Nightmare needs her rest.” Kristina let her arms fall to her sides, stretching a bit while Atolibus slipped out of the saddle to help her down. He slapped Nightmare once on the rump and she trotted off to their left, into the main entrance of the stables. As they walked they passed soldiers on night duty along with a few officers of the training barracks out for a casual evening stroll. Each man that passed him gave a two fisted salute as he walked, and Atolibus replied in kind.

“They look at you with reverence in their eyes,” Kristina said to him quietly as they walked. She was surprised at the sensation of comfort she was feeling at the sight of so many men and women wearing armor and carrying swords. It had been some time since she’d lived around soldiers and she found she missed it, missed training daily with her staff, working alongside men and women towards a common goal. “Do you know all of them personally or does your reputation precede you?” Atolibus smiled in a somewhat tired fashion.

“A little of both,” he said. “Long has it been since I shared a round with them, though, and long has it been since I practiced with the recruits in the training yards. I’ve been rather busy of late.” He fell suddenly silent at that moment, and Kristina thought he’d drifted off again when she nearly fell over herself as she heard his voice, clear and solid in her mind once more. As a member of the nobility there are a few things you’re entitled to be aware of. The situation between the kingdoms is getting hairier by the day as the seeds of war begin to sprout and unfurl their hated leaves.

War? Open war amidst the Ten Realms? How long has it been?

Centuries since I last saw it for myself, at the very least.

Just how old are you, Atolibus? The question had come unexpectedly but the man answered it regardless.

Over a thousand years, by your count. But that’s a discussion for another day in another place – as things are there are certain things best left unsaid. She looked at him in frank disbelief.

How in gods’ eyes is that possible? That’s over a dozen spans of a mortal life and you look like nothing so much as a man in his prime, maybe a decade older than my own thirty years. He stared at her intently, silently. Very well, not now. But I won’t forget that, so you know. He chuckled silently to himself.

Fair enough. But until then I guess you’ll just have to make do with what comes your way, won’t you? At this, Kristina herself laughed. She spoke her next thought aloud.

“Why did they kneel to you here inside the walls when custom dictates otherwise?” she said. Atolibus sighed.

“It is their choice, ultimately,” he said. “Honestly were it up to me I would do away with salutations and customs altogether, insofar as I am concerned. They aren’t what I would consider necessary – requiring respect is not the same thing as commanding it, and it never will be. Would that every man could see that.”

“Ah, but you forget,” Jael interceded, walking with his hands at his sides, ready to draw his blade at any moment. A typical stroll for any long bred soldier. “Order is what keeps a unit functioning cohesively at any given time. Order keeps structure in place, so that when it is necessary, no one forgets themselves.” Atolibus scoffed quietly.

“Despite what you might think, my old friend, order isn’t always the best choice,” Atolibus said, sounding a bit irritated despite himself. “When you’ve lived as long as I have and you’ve been in my position for this long, your perspective changes somewhat. I thought exactly the way you do, once, long ago. But that was ages past. I am not the man that I was in those days, so very long ago.” Fatigue in his tones there, Kristina noted. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard it, either, and she supposed if she’d lived ten centuries she’d probably be carrying her fair share. When she looked at the man in gold again, it was like seeing him under a completely different light. His walk appeared at a glance light, casual, comfortable. He had a long stride, and set an easy pace.

Underneath all of that, underneath the masks worn for public purposes was something altogether different. Underneath his easy appearance she could see someone who had worn a sword for so long that it was less a weapon and more a part of himself. She could see it in his hands, the way they swung so easily at his side that it looked random when in fact it was precise, bred into habit over unimaginably long years. The motions of a subtle dance were in his steps and she wondered what seeing him wielding the monster of a blade he carried would look like first-hand.

There was something else, though. Not something visible to the eyes alone, nothing in the manner of his stride or his posture. A sense of power, barely contained raw power waiting to be unleashed, waiting to run rampant and scream to the world, scream that it was alive, and woe to the man who stood in its way. It radiated outwards from him in a palpable aura that a part of her mind insisted she could see, plain as day, even though she knew otherwise. She had wielded magic before – she knew what it felt like to draw on the elements, to harness the raw power of nature and life and to sharpen it as a weapon. She knew of the heady sense of power that came along with it. The sensation radiating from Atolibus was kin to that, only amplified by so many orders of magnitude that it left her feeling dizzy. So much so that she almost didn’t notice the other two men next to her stopping once more. They’d finally entered the keep.

After everything she’d seen that night so far, it took her a moment to find her bearings. Through a massive archway on her left sat the Grand Hall. She could see the beginning of the red carpeting that lined the stone floor entering into that very hall, and she noticed, everywhere along the walls, solid golden braziers with well lit candles. Men and women appeared to be patrolling the entrance hall regularly, keeping the candles lit and maintaining general cleanliness. Soldiers, mostly lower and middle ranking enlisted folk, patrolled vigilantly as well, their eyes catching every single detail around them.

As they walked they passed more than a few archways that led to various places. Most opened to stairways that wound to different locations above them, some to further hallways with even more archways lining them, and three to the massive mess halls that managed to feed all of the residents and guests of the castle at all hours of the day. She could see gold-fringed, black liveried servants moving about as well, men and women that carried themselves with more confidence and pride than at least half the nobles she’d ever known.

“Impressed?” Jael said, snapping her out of her reverie and breaking her train of thought.

“I am,” she said with a light nod. He smiled warmly, and again she had the flickering sensation of a cloud of darkness surrounding his body. It disappeared just as fleetingly as it had before, but it shook her resolve even more. Atolibus looked at her out of the corner of his eye. I’m not entirely certain but I think something might not be right with the Lord General. Have you seen it? She caught a quick quizzical glance from Atolibus towards Jael, followed by a brief look of consternation.

Uncertain. When I’ve a moment to spare I’ll look into it, so far my magic tells me nothing is out of the ordinary. Keep your wits about you milady, and say nothing. She sighed to herself softly as she nodded again.

At last they stood before the massive, balanced oaken double doors that led into the throne room itself. Any man or woman in the world, be it a foreign monarch, a high ranking mage, or perhaps a Lord General, would have stopped, knocked twice and waited for a hail from the inside before entering. Atolibus simply pushed them open, allowing them to swing across their full arc and come to rest against the stone walls inside.

The austerity of the throne room reflected the general appearance of the rest of the castle – simple stone walls and floors with stout black crossbeams running along the ceiling, with little in the way of ornament or decoration. The center of a fortress, first and foremost. He noted that all four of the massive fireplaces, two on the northern wall and two on the southern wall, were piled with wood and burning strong, warding against the cold. He wondered briefly if Kristina had been cold on their journey – Nightmare had been flying across the plains at a speed no other horse could match – but he noted the thick cloak she was wearing over her robes and thought no more of it.

At the far end of the room seated on the gilt oaken throne of the realm was King Lothane Lothanis the Fourteenth of his name, sitting with a rather large leather-bound tome in his lap and focusing intently on whatever lie in its pages. Atolibus recognized the volume well – it was one of the King’s oldest favorites, The Life and Times of the True King. Seeing that volume in Lothane’s hands always brought a quiet smile to his face.

“Why are there no guards in here, no soldiers?” she said quietly, turning her head to look up at him. As he stood nearly a foot taller than she herself, in thick armored boots no less, look up she did, craning her neck slightly to do so.

“A good question, and one I can readily answer,” Atolibus said just as quietly, turning to his right just a bit, his eyes never straying from the throne in front of them. “There are magic wards all around this very room we are standing in, laced throughout the whole of the castle – wards that protect its denizens from threats both major and minor, ancient magic that has existed for centuries beyond counting. And there are mages, listening to other spells in place that will have them running from their posts, but fifteen feet away just to the left and right inside the archways of the inner ring of living quarters. This place is under far more protection with those men and women watching than if I could station an entire regiment in the throne room alone. Which I would do, if I could get the old goat to live with the idea. He doesn’t like being cramped too closely with a thick cluster of men in an area such as this, that doesn’t provide a great deal of room if over two hundred people or so are inside.” Atolibus shook his head. “He’s a secretive one, the old goat.”

“And as I recall, old man,” Atolibus heard the king say, not yet looking up from his book, “you yourself are even moreso. If you heard halfof the stories I’ve heard you’d be stalking about with that meat cleaver you call a sword twenty four hours a day.”

“I hear four times the stories you do, when I choose to listen,” Atolibus said, “and not a one of them matters. At least, the ones that are false.” The king looked up at this point, something of a smirk on his slightly weathered face. He ran his fingers through dark brown hair. Flecks of gray were in it here and there, evidence of his middling years, but other than that he showed few signs of age save perhaps a slightly deepened wrinkle or two near the corners of his eyes and his lips. His face was plain for royalty, but sincere, with a small nose and a somewhat pronounced chin offsetting ears that were perhaps a touch too big for his head.

“You didn’t have to stand there in the doorway with such a lovely young lady at your side, you know,” he said, looking Kristina up and down once before shifting his gaze over to Atolibus’ left. “And my dear brother.” He looked at Jael with a note of hesitation. He shook his head, trying to shake out some of the discomfort. Jael looked as impassive as a stone, with a slight smile upon his lips that never seemed to touch his eyes. The king cleared his throat, and continued. “I heard those confounded ringing boots when you stepped into the Main Archway, old man.” Atolibus chuckled slightly to himself.

“Don’t think they aren’t muffled when necessity demands,” he said, stepping forward with the other two. When they cleared the second set of fireplaces, standing perhaps fifteen feet in front of the throne, they stopped. Jael and Kristina both dropped to one knee one fist across the chest, a proper salutation to a king inside of his throne room. Atolibus simply stood, arms folded across his chest as he waited for the process to end. The king responded with one fist and a nod and both of them rose to their feet. With a flick of his wrist, Atolibus had the doors shut behind him with a whipcord of elemental Air power.

“You know, I swear,” the king started, turning about and returning to his seat with a flourish of his scarlet robes, “every time I send you out into the world, you come back with themost interestingguests. Young lady, you are perhaps the fairest creature I have ever laid eyes upon, and unless I am mistaken you bear the look of a Terwynn, am I right?” She nodded.

“Yes milord, Kristina of House Terwynn, though of somewhat distant relation to the current Head of the House,” she replied, bowing her head. The king smiled to himself rather vindictively – he knew of Lord Mathas well, and he didn’t like the man a whit.

“Well, judging by your current choice of companions, I don’t believe you suffer from Lord Terwynn’s more obvious afflictions,” the king said. Kristina smiled and she replied with a slow shake of her head. The remark felt a bit out of place coming from such a prominent member of the court but Lothane was known for his blunt frankness, among other things. The fact that she and most of the rest of her family agreed with him certainly didn’t hurt.

“Not in the slightest, milord,” she said. “Familial obligations aside I can’t stand the man, it’s a chore just to have to sit in the same room with him at a meal. He doesn’t know his rump from a hole in the ground – unless it’s the rump of a serving wench, in which case his hands always manage to find purchase.” Both the king and his Regent chuckled quietly.

“Aye my dear, I know what you mean – I’ll have you note the female servants of this castle somehow find themselves elsewhere when Lord Terwynn is around. He’s yet to figure that one out, though I can’t say I’m surprised by that, either,” he said. Kristina laughed lightly in response, while Jael continued to stand impassively, the small smile still lightly touching his lips. The king caught his breath for a moment, and then turned his head towards his brother. “And my dear brother – Jael, you really shouldcome around more often, the kitchen staff has been utterly bored without you.” Both Lothane and Jael laughed at this – the latter man was quite notorious for whirling through the tables with groups of soldiers like a tornado, leaving little intact but the serving girls and perhaps a bench or two. “I think old Maude might just die of heartbreak if you don’t put in an appearance soon. In all seriousness though, my brother, you should find yourself duties that center around the capitol. Your skills would serve well, here and in the city.”

“Aye little brother, but the work I do in the field and in the training yards is more than simple busy work,” he said with a slight tilt of his head. Lothane nodded, smile leaving. He sat back in his throne and sighed heavily.

“Ah, my friends, things are not the way they used to be,” he said. “Atolibus, you know of what I speak.” He nodded solemnly, eyes closed momentarily. “What with talks of rebellion in our neighboring kingdoms, bandits beginning to rove the plains once more... we’ve even had reports of Magusbeing seen in the open.”

Kristina felt Atolibus tense up next to her without even having to look in his direction. Magus. Best hope that’s all puffery and rumor, like the usual grist off the wheel. In her heart she couldn’t be certain, though. Ten years was a long time but not so long as for the rock of ages to grind them finely into long forgotten powder. Look at the Regent. He hears the word Magus and he tenses up, ready to draw that massive sword in half a second. What then of yourself? You tell yourself you’re shut of it all. Are you truly?

Her self reflection was ended abruptly by a sudden crash that came from behind them. Smoke immediately began to fill the room, a thick inky blackness that set them sputtering. Without even so much as blinking all three standing whirled in place. The king rose to his feet with them, snatching a two foot short-sword from the side of his throne in the process. Jael’s weapon had been drawn blindingly fast but she swore Atolibus’ had simply appeared in his hand, without first crossing the intervening space.

“Gods’ eyes, I see nothing through all of this cursed smoke,” the king said, coughing even as he stepped off of the pedestal to stand at Jael’s side. A short, cruelly sharp blade flashed into his left hand as he felt himself slipping into the graceful stance of a skilled fencer. Kristina spun her staff around deftly in her fingers – she’d had it in her hands nearly as quickly as the others had. It felt good to be holding solid wood in her hands again, even if she wasn’t certain what was taking place. “Atolibus, anything?” The smoke was so thick that he couldn’t see his own brother standing next to him – he couldn’t even see his own right hand, extended before him. Atolibus nodded – indeed, he could see without impairment through the use of his Sight, a talent that was somewhat uncommon, the use of which was a strictly guarded state secret.

“Magic,” he said. With the Sight he was able to see things vision alone would not reveal, in this case twisting lines of Shadow wavering throughout the room. “No one moves.” It wasn’t phrased as a request but the king stood in place regardless. He had learned long ago not to question the Regent’s judgment in times of crisis – and this may well have counted as one. It had been a long span of years since anyone had blasted their way into the Inner Keep with magic.

Atolibus stole forward stealthily, silently. Reaching the smoke filled doorway – the doors had been ripped off of their hinges and torn to shreds – Atolibus raised his left hand, taking Elysdeon firmly into his right. A white pulse of energy radiated outwards from his fist and the smoke simply vanished, as if it had never been. Everyone looked around and he could hear soldiers and mages filling the corridor outside. None of them made to step past Atolibus, who stood in the doorway with Elysdeon drawn and in hand – no one wanted to be too close to that monster of a blade, for whatever reason. They wondered why Atolibus was standing silently, looking towards the king and the young lady that had entered the castle with him.

“Sir?” an officer called, pushing his way through the throng to stand directly behind him.

“Everyone stays right where they are,” he said, voice low and deep. Silence quickly fell across the ranks. Atolibus strode forward, sheathing his blade, and stood before Kristina and Lothane. “Where is Jael?” Both of them looked at him for a moment, uncertain of the question, and then nearly leaped out of their skin when, to their surprise, they saw that Jael was no longer standing in between them – he wasn’t standing anywhere in the room, upon further inspection.

“Find my brother,” Lothane said. “Locate Lord General Lothanis and bring him to the throne room, with all haste.” Immediately orders were given throughout the mass of men outside the room, and within perhaps ten seconds soldiers were fanning out to search the castle while mages were preparing spells to blanket the entire building. Lothane looked to Atolibus, sighing as he sheathed the blade in the concealed sword belt he wore underneath the royal robes. “Can you sense anything old man? Anything at all, any trace of the magic that destroyed the doors, the smoke that clouded the room, or my brother? Any of it?” Atolibus nodded grimly.

“As clear as daylight,” he said, eyes distant. “This was the work of Magus – I can almost smell the foulness of Shadow tainting the air.” Kristina felt as if she’d had all of the wind knocked out of her – Magus? Here, in the center of the mightiest of the Ten Realms? How was that possible? Was not the castle guarded and warded to the gills? The king sighed and turned around, striding quickly and wading through the group of people gathered just outside of the throne room. Kristina watched him go and quickly returned her attention to Atolibus.

“How?” she said. Atolibus turned his gaze and his attention towards her for but a moment.

“I don’t know,” he said, voice flat. “By all rights it shouldn’t be. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that half or more of the mages on shift are either unconscious or dead as we speak.” The frankness, the stark coldness of the way he’d made his last statement left her shivering. The power she felt radiating off of him intensified for a moment and she could have sworn she saw gold flash in his eyes for the briefest of seconds. Everything returned to apparent normal a second later, but she was certain she’d seen something that he didn’t intend for her to see. She lost sight of it a moment later, anyhow – his eyes suddenly flashed upwards, above her head and slightly to the side, straight above where the throne sat. “Well I’ll be damned.” He pointed towards the wall, head tilted slightly to the side. “Take a look at that, would you?”

Painted on the wall above the king’s throne were words that were most definitely not in the common tongue. In fact, Kristina didn’t know what tongue they were in, and the message wasn’t finished, either, rather it was in the process of completing itself. Heads started turning as Atolibus stepped up to the pedestal and stood before the throne, eyes fixed on the writing on the wall.

“What is that?” she said. Looking at the words she could almost picture what it would have sounded like spoken by a human tongue. Something she’d heard before, from someone she’d not expected to hear it from, drifted from the recesses of her mind to the forefront. Atolibus had a fixed look of sour distaste on his face that was easy to read as she stepped up next to him. “What does it say? It’s pretty clear you can read it.”

“Oh I can read it, all right,” he said. “It’s in the language of the Vorathi.” Her brow furrowed as she processed this word – hadn’t the Vorathi been a society of wizards, perhaps a little over a thousand years ago? A tingle ran down her spine. If she remembered her history correctly, they had fallen to Shadow and become, “Magus. I haven’t seen their script in proper form in well beyond three human lifetimes.” He stepped forward, inspecting it even closer. “It’s written with a spell – honestly, I’ve never thought to place a ward against magical script. Whoever wrote this has spent decades studying the language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an example this completely perfect.”

“But what does it say?” she said. He shook his head briefly, blinking away piles of ancient memories that were resurfacing.

“It’s a warning,” he said in deep tones, setting his right hand to his face, elbow resting on his left arm as it was folded across his chest. “It says, in the Common tongue, ’Hearken to me, all ye living and spiritfolk who would listen, for it is foretold, in the Book of Vorath, that doom shall fall upon those of the lands of Syreal, a thousand years hence. Where once was light, there shall be darkness. Where once was love, hatred shall spawn and ferment. Where once was life, death shall reign supreme. Only the Joining of the worlds, the rebirth of the Egg and the return of the True King shall save you in this hour of peril. In the last hour of light, on the last day of life, love may yet conquer hate, but without the key all will be lost. Heed my warning or thy doom is here foretold, and you are all accursed. So it is written.”

Silence had started to fall as soon as Atolibus had raised his voice, and now the throne room was thick with it. Atolibus took a step back and to his surprise the writing burst into flame and vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. He felt his hands itching to draw Elysdeon and wield his might at its fullest, to hunt down the Magus and slay them to a man. If the words of this prophecy were written true they were all in a great deal of danger, and he had an uncomfortable suspicion that they were. Kristina took a step back away from him involuntarily, feeling fire that was almost physical, his power seemed to be burning so brightly at that moment.

“Are you all right?” she said to him, looking up and down his figure, uncertain whether or not a golden glow would appear around him at any given moment. He took a deep breath, turned around, and sighed, nodding slowly.

“Aye, milady, I’m fine – but I haven’t seen the like of that prophecy in centuries,” he said. “This does not bode well for us – and Jael has disappeared, without cause. There is no doubt in my mind that this is all the work of the Magus, but whether the prophecy is for ill or good eludes me, at the moment.” His eyes took on a far off look again as he began making his way forward, towards the archway and the masses of people milling around back and forth. She quickly hurried to his side and joined him without a word. The king suddenly burst through the crowd, for once missing his royal robes and showing the clean silver mail that he wore.

“Up and down the castle, not a trace of the man,” he said, stopping in front of Atolibus. “I still have soldiers searching but the mages, those on shift who weren’t killed or spelled unconscious, have all ready confirmed it. He isn’t here – he isn’t within a hundred miles of the castle.” At last he noticed the look of consternation upon both of their faces, and he thought back to the stunned look of the people just outside the doorway. “What is bothering the both of you? Has something else happened?” Atolibus simply nodded, eyes still off in the distance.

“We’ve just been issued a warning,” he said. He quickly shook himself off and repeated the message to the king in it’s entirety. Lothane’s face promptly lost three shades of color, as if he had just seen the ghost of his father pass before his eyes.

“And all of this time, I thought the Egg was just a myth, to give hope to a man that one day the Magus might be brought down,” the king said wanly. “And the True King. The first of my forefathers.” He snorted in disbelief. “He was lost to us almost a thousand years ago – the very same white jewel, engraved with a greatsword, sits upon my brow as we speak.” Atolibus’ quicksilver eyes looked even stormier than usual.

“I brought it to the first man to bear your name myself, with my own hands,” he said. His eyes flashed to the center of the king’s golden crown, where a small, white jewel was set into the brow for all to see. His jaw clenched and his fists tightened for a brief moment, involuntary but visible to Kristina. “The crown you wear was wrought with my own hands, in the same room that I take for myself to this very day.” The king sighed heavily.

“Sometimes, my old friend, I forget certain things,” he said. He looked up to Atolibus, meeting his eyes. The man in gold seemed to calm some, breath coming lighter and easier. “It has been long since we simply spoke to each other in good company, old man. Sometimes I think back to the time of my childhood, when you used to speak to me after sword practice.” Atolibus smiled, and the storm in his eyes lessened some. He actually chuckled to himself lightly, much to Kristina’s surprise.

“Would that time were so open to us, in this day and age,” Atolibus said. “However, things being the way they are… there is much to be done, my friend. I have brought what you asked for.” With a flourish from his left hand, a small wooden box appeared as if out of thin air. Kristina wasn’t entirely certain that it hadn’t – she had felt a flash of something when he’d procured it. There is a great deal more to him than meets the eye, that is for certain. He handed the box to the king, who turned it over and over, eyeballing it suspiciously.

“So this is what they said they found,” he whispered, feeling the well carved oak, fondling its smoothness. “Strange. It doesn’t appear to be that important, something so small, but who knows what it might contain? And this crest, so strange. Was there any trouble when you went to retrieve it for me?” Atolibus snorted in disgust, while Kristina’s face went blank.

“Aye, I would say there was trouble, if that’s the word for it,” he said softly. “Skyriders. I won’t bother you with the details, let’s just leave it at this – we need to send supplies and materials. Brenhel is in need of rebuilding.” The king stammered in surprise.

“Rebuilding?” he said. He looked at Atolibus, tilting his head slightly and sighing deeply. “What happened, my friend?” Completely stolid, Atolibus replied in truth and explained what had happened, the fire, the wave and the destruction of the town and Kristina’s home. “So they’ve that in hand.” He turned and faced the young brunette before him. “And I take it you are in need of lodgings? Not to worry there. We’ve plenty of room here, and more to spare. I’m sure you noticed the business of the city, and how packed the castle seems to be. The truth is, most of the people you’ve seen live out in the city, where, in their opinion, it’s safer. I’m not entirely certain I don’t agree with them, of late.” His eyes took a far off look of their own while Atolibus snorted in disgust once more.

“Let me ask you this, former student of mine, and think back to your schooling for this one,” Atolibus said as he started in on the king rather sharply. “How much power and coordination do you think that took them, those responsible for tonight’s events? You know of the magic that wards this place. The traps and guards were placed by none other than myself, over nine hundred years ago.” The king sighed once again, for once his age showing on his face. The lines seemed to deepen for a moment as he responded.

“A great deal,” he said, cocking his head sideways as he looked to the man in gold. “The kind of planning you would expect from, say, a Grand Magus?” Atolibus nodded, eyes closed.

“Without question,” he said, folding his arms across his chest again. “I very much doubt she had her hands on it directly, but it is precisely the sort of thing she would plan. I only hope it isn’t who I fear it is. Something I’ve seen today says it most likely is.” He looked at Kristina briefly as she nodded.

“Elise,” the king said flatly, eyes narrow. Atolibus nodded.

“There are things that need attending to,” he said. “I’m going to double the soldiers patrolling the castle grounds and the confines of the city – I’ll have the men working double shifts if necessary. It wouldn’t be the first time for a good lot of them. A lot of them are old enough to remember the Skirmishes. And I’m declaring Alert Condition Prime for every last person with a smattering of the Gift in the castle. Even the younglings in their first and second years of training, if need be.” The king hardened right before Kristina’s eyes at this.

“We haven’t had to use Condition Prime since the beginning and the worst of the Skirmishes, twenty years past,” he said in a quiet voice, pitched low. “You rememberwhat happened the last time it was in effect – men and women were burning themselves out, running day and night, constantly working spells and wards.” He leaned in closer to Atolibus and whispered behind a concealing hand, “We might not have lost Jonathyn if he hadn’t been so exhausted, twenty years ago. Don’t you see, man?” The weight of the day along with the toll of her losses finally overwhelmed her and Kristina moved away quickly, hiding a watering eye. Atolibus’ eyes flashed to her the moment she had first moved and he sighed deeply. He looked back at the king, exasperation in his eyes even as he shook his head.

“Was that necessary, my friend?” Atolibus said. “Truly? The girl has had enough for one day, she doesn’t need reminding of the greatest pain she’s known as the cream atop the pastry.”

“That was less than well spoken of me, I’ll admit,” Lothane said, lines creasing his face. He eyed the man in gold. “When you find her, because I know you will, deliver my condolences. It will sound better coming from you, old man.” Atolibus sighed, relaxing his posture a bit.

“Aye,” he said. What had started as a pleasant ride across the countryside had quickly soured, and the hits just kept on coming, it would seem. He looked Lothane in the eye once more. “I’ll see to the lass, I think I can manage that.” He looked at the forgotten box in the king’s hands, and pointed to it. “Meanwhile, I want that under tight surveillance, because there isa resonance – Shadow, more appropriately. Whatever is inside isn’t going to be a shiny gold locket, that’s for damned certain. Keep it safe, and make sure no young mage with a swollen head fools with it.”

“I think, surrounded by a host of high ranking officers, two High Mages, and under a dual decree from the King and the Regent, that no one will be quite so foolish,” he said, smiling to himself. Atolibus nodded. They both knew the box itself would not be anywhere near a host of high ranking officers or two High Mages, but in Atolibus’ personal possession – their previous diatribe had been for whatever ears the walls may have grown. “Very well then. There is going to be an emergency council meeting tomorrow at seven in the evening – that should come as no surprise to you, really. I need you there, my friend – as always your council is ever valuable, and I think in this case a full account of your experiences today will be more helpful than anything we could come up with, along with as any insights you might have gleaned.” Atolibus nodded.

“If that is all,” he said.

“Aye, my friend,” the king said. “I’m sorry about what I said, truly. You are the commander of the armies for a reason, after all. I’ve always valued your opinion, and I still do.” He extended his free left hand and Atolibus met it, shaking with a heavy full-armed clasp.

“And I think you’ve done a fine job with this land, considering everything that she’s seen in the last twenty years,” he said. “Just remember everything you’ve learned in all of that time and we’ll come out all right. We always do. Now if you don’t mind, a certain young woman needs my attention.”

“Aye,” he said. Atolibus turned towards the broken doorway and headed out as if the wind were behind him the entire time. The king nodded and started walking slowly in that direction himself.

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