Dream of Embers Book 1

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Debates and Decisions

Chapter 6

Debates and Decisions

As the eagle, Metrus saw many more scenes of ruin on his return to Attoras. The light of dawn was not kind to it, showing the smoky scars of last night’s havoc in a sombre awakening. Altogether one could say the town had steadfastly survived the goblin onslaught, but in no one’s living memory had something come as close to replicating the dragons’ feat twenty years ago, almost reducing the town to nothing.

As Metrus awakened into a man, both in mind and body, he considered that if the goblins had sought destruction above all else they might’ve taken Attoras and left a six-hundred-year old castle little more than a husk. That they had fixed themselves so on the Princess had turned out to be a mercy for the rest of the city.

Yetwithout traitors on the inside, the goblins would have stood no chance whatsoever. Worst of all Metrus knew that these traitors were still within the castle, and would be rulers of it if they went uncontested.

High on a shattered balcony he landed, and entered through doors ripped from their hinges with the same audacity as would a stray wind. He however came striding with purpose, and doing so he could not say the same for the rest of the folk. The inside of the castle was but a shade less chaotic than the town, the overwhelming mood ranging from vigilant to terrified, as if many a door were kept shut in fear of goblins still hiding in stores and cupboards. Even the household guard looked perplexed and those who cleaned the debris and carried away the rubble seemed to be uncertain at the point of it all.

A lone castle man stood idly among the rest, part of the guard possibly, and he looked up at Metrus’ approach. He had clearly been waiting for the Druid, to the extent that he stationed himself near the very balcony an eagle would land. He walked right across Metrus’ path and stuffed a slip of paper into the Druid’s palm. What’s more, without ever making eye contact, the man unclasped a sabre from his own baldric of weapons and handed it to the Druid, which Metrus promptly fastened to his own belt. After that the man left and without breaking his stride Metrus read the paper.

It was from Naceus... and reading it he saw the Scholar was already caught up in the very matters Metrus had returned for. He crushed the letter and put it away in a pocket. Many more looked up briefly as Metrus passed, but they paid him no great heed.

When in civilized places Metrus had his hood about his face, preferring to either shade or hide his eyes, which would unsettle the unknowing who did not understand their manifestation. Already the folk of Attoras feared demons and might count Metrus one of them if they caught sight of his eyes.

Metrus’ observations of the castle were grim. It seemed to him that the soot of every room set alight had penetrated every other room still intact, and was a devil to clean for the men and women assigned to them. The greatest loss was the library, Metrus knew, for all the knowledge and sentimental pieces that were lost within the blaze. In some way it was better that Princess Shala was not here to see the ruin.

‘Why rebuild the castle for the witch that started this mess?’ Metrus overheard a man say.

Already they think of her as a witch? Swarztial has a fell tongue about him.

The Druid had barely conjured the man in his thoughts when the Chancellor appeared in the flesh, his attentions swooping down on those who tarried on the job. From a first glance down the corridor Metrus would say the man looked demented. Maybe a bit like a man whose plans had been foiled.

It took only a moment for Swarztial to realize he was being watched by someone who had no fear of him and this too invoked his displeasure. Angrily he stalked the Druid, coming too close for Metrus’ liking.

‘You intrude here! Are you hiding Shala?’ Where is she!?’ accused Swarztial.

’That’s Princess Shala to you,’ said Metrus huskily.

‘Not anymore. Her rule is over as her absence attests to. She called the evil of the wraith-kind here and none of the council will abide a ruler that occupies herself with such dark practices. If she is found then I am sure the town and council will want to see her burnt. She has sealed herself a fate I warned against!’

‘Let’s not pretend we don’t know who the real culprit is, Swarztial. I always took you for a snake, but I would never have guessed you commanded powers. Tell me, who do you answer to, who do you call Master to have rule over wraith-kind?’

Swarztial smiled. ‘A convenient accusation, Druid. It is upon your Princess however that all suspicion falls. It was she who failed to keep this realm safe. Now remove yourself from here before I call the guard, who, I assure you, wholeheartedly obey me now.’

Metrus smiled as four guards predictably joined Swarztial’s side, coached men from his own security designated to the council. They were not evil men, but in due time they would be as traitorous as Swarztial himself, and serving only Swarztial’s purpose.

‘You forget that the courtesy of King Ankareus allowed me to wander here whenever I wish, and no King has decreed otherwise yet. And I would not abuse that right unless necessary. Now bother me no further before I give you the courtesy of my steel,’ said Metrus, drawing the sword with a swift move of his hand. Swarztial’s eyes went wide. ‘I can’t even remember when last a Druid carried a sword, but the times are calling for it, and believe me when I say I can wield a blade as well as any of the guard here.’

‘And you would test yourself against us?’ asked Swarztial.

’No, we’d rather not, unless my allies are mistaken for conspirators as well. Think hard Swarztial, do you think I came here bearing a sword, that I carried it with me as the eagle? Do you think I’m friendless?’

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Swarztial in a low voice.

Metrus relaxed as he answered. ‘Scholar Naceus let me know that there is a curious room where the rite allowing the wraith-kind free passage was practiced. The very room you accuse the Princess of using as the site of dark arts. Naceus reckons I might be able to alleviate the blight. Is that not what you want Swarztial? To remove the blight?’

That question at least stopped Swarztial in his tracks; he could not claim otherwise in a crowded area.

‘Yes, busy yourself with that then. But remember, those who conspire with Shala and are caught for it are as good as dead,’ said Swarztial, sweeping past Metrus and stalking off angrily, to feed from someone else’s fear.

II

Naceus heard tell of Metrus’ return and made for the room of horrors. He walked with a heavy heart, and worry, having just talked with the Bishop Jaegosh. He at least had survived last night unscathed. But the normally diplomatic man was more than appalled by Attoras and he too was inclined to blame the Princess. He has spent time too much with Swarztial, thought Naceus hopelessly.

That was the worst blow for the Princess; Jaegosh could have exonerated her with a simple show of confidence, alas... In the cellars Naceus had to leave the troubles of his mind and approach the source of Evrelyn’s final demise.

Upon entering the storage the only good thing Naceus saw was Metrus the Druid - the rest was decidedly vile.

The Druid greeted him as warmly as circumstances allowed, the two men having shared a long friendship as council to the late King.

‘The place makes my skin crawl,’ said Naceus shakily. ‘I need to sit down,’ he said, polishing his glasses, his blurry vision preferable at the time.

Metrus sighed, ‘Sadly the blight of the ritual has sunken into the room like wine into a carpet. I can set in motion a countermeasure, but it will take months for the darkness to be eaten away completely. Nasty magic, parasitic actually, the rite uses the natural magicks lingering in the castle structure to sustain itself. Diabolical and ingenious if I have to admit to it. Swarztial and his benefactors have exceeded themselves.’

‘How is the Princess?’ murmured Naceus softly, as though the walls had ears, which he didn’t rule out completely given the last two days.

‘Shook up. But well taken care of. The Wolves will not let any harm come to her. Even so her hope is little and I don’t have faith in her return to Attoras any time soon.’

Naceus smiled sadly. ‘I know her heart, I know where she will go in due time. Unfortunately so do our enemies.’

Metrus nodded and noticed Naceus looked rather sickly, his brave face doing him no good.

‘You may leave if you wish Scholar, I assure you I understand your discomfort. I know the sight of blood all too well but I feel as though a hundred cold daggers are held at my back. I will tackle this matter in solitude, although the sooner you can send some men to take away the bodies the better. And some cleaners too, with strong stomachs I would say.’

‘Consider it done, and thank you Metrus. I will confer with you afterwards, we have much to discuss. Good luck!’

III

Later Naceus returned, the last remainder of cleaners going in the opposite direction, by the look of it so very glad to be done with this place. Inside he found Captain Merohan overseeing the cleanup and Metrus wandering the room, still singing a soft melody that was part of his magic. The room had wholly changed, if not healed. The senseless spray of blood was scrubbed off and the bodies were mostly removed.

More curious was a network of plants and vines that now sprawled over the floor, walls and roof. That was the Druid’s doing of course. Even then the plants could not hide the congealed blood that still formed the many different symbols; they truly gave the impression that the room was deeply wounded. Even though this was only a cellar, the sanctity was gone from this place. The room looked less gruesome, but in some ways more bizarre. Metrus halted his song for the moment to recognize the presence of the Scholar.

‘Much better,’ said Naceus, ‘although I see those symbols are still present.’

‘Yes, they are part of the rite, and will not be gone or washed off until the Delvo has sucked the sinister magic out,’ said Metrus. Naceus noted that the thick vine plants did indeed pulse and made peristaltic movements as if it fed. He now understood what the Druid had done.

‘Devouring plants, I’ve heard of them. I used to have a small plant in a pot that could catch flies, that however is not quite on par with the Delvo I guess,’ said Naceus.

Metrus nodded. ’Noble things these Delvo, they feed on corruption until they are saturated, whence they are stripped and cast into a fire before they too become evil and start strangling the innocent.’

Metrus then saw a swift change of mood in the Scholar.

Naceus was in thought; considering the devouring plant put suspicions in his mind. The symbols had troubled him, much more than he imagined. After he had gotten past the horror, he started seeing the significance of these symbols, not so much the magic as that which they represented.

‘How many of these markings can you identify?’ asked Naceus. Seeing that the Scholar was serious, Metrus humoured him and gave a swift glance to each of the symbols written in blood. ‘The open hand and the studded triangle within the palm are from the Guild of Hands, “Death is our Domain,” they always say.’

‘The Assassins’ guild,’ agreed Merohan with a nod.

‘They have long held reverence and bondage to the wraith-kind, so it’s no surprise to see their involvement. In fact if I was a gambling man I would have bet a pretty sum that a member of their ranks is involved in staging this room, abducting the people and butchering them as it were.’

Metrus moved on, pointing to the next symbol. ’The wheel of hatchets is the goblin trademark of course.The fan of swords as I recall is a noble family way south in Avandar, though I cannot see that they should have interest in our Attoras.’ Metrus pointed to the opposite wall. ‘Crossed spears and a horsetail are a centaur mark... The rest however I have no clue to.’

‘Well, you have identified all the important ones anyhow,’ said Naceus.

‘Why all the markings?’ asked Merohan.

Naceus was prepared to explain; ’Wraiths, even though very powerful, must abide by the Rules of Realm. If there is a debt to claim, an uncollected soul of sorts, they can enter certain parts of the world to do their work.In our case however the rite you see gave them entrance, surpassing the natural defences that keep them out. As you know now Princess Shala was blamed for this mess. The rite however is bound to all those who affiliate with the wraiths and so also abide by the Rules of Realm. Put simply, the rite needs to reflect the state of current affairs or it just wouldn’t work. It needs to truthfully reflect anyone with an ongoing allegiance with the wraith-kind.

‘Like the brands on a horse so as to identify the owners?’ Merohan asked.

’Not an inapt analogy, but the magic that governs these rules does not offer leniency in the way the observer’s interpretation plays a role in the physical realm. You see, the very first domains of protection mankind developed were with runes and symbols belonging to factions with power and heritage. This is important because magic is a whimsical thing and the notion of controlling it and giving it consistency necessitates a breakdown if you will, into dimensions such as figures and glyphs and shapes, and a whole array of mediums.

’So a particular magic, bound to a place, can provide a safe haven from creatures that have certain allegiances, like the dark essence that dwells within the wraiths that cannot tolerate places of light. It is a magical protection of some kind. This rite here is the very opposite; it is the undoing and penetration of that protection. You need to see this for what it is; our enemies made it to the heart of our protection and crumbled the proverbial wall from within.

’The catch however is that any faction with an ongoing allegiance with the wraiths would need to put their mark here. Not doing so leaves the endeavour fruitless. And that counts toward adding any symbols that have not such an allegiance as well.’

At that last part the Captain looked gobsmacked. ‘But then here is the mark of Evrelyn, and if what you say is true then it convicts the House of Kings as much as Swarztial claims!’ said Merohan.

‘Suspecting the Princess is out of the question if we know Swarztial was behind this,’ said Naceus faithfully.

‘Then how is it that Evrelyn’s mark is here when the Princess is the last of her line?’ asked Merohan.

‘The obvious explanation is that somewhere there is an unaccounted for member of House Evrelyn, and more troubling, that this person was deliberately working against Princess Shala; without that mark they would not be able to blame her for this.’ Naceus sighed, ‘before you came Swarztial had just about everyone study the room, including of course Bishop Jaegosh.’

‘But who then? There is no one left in the family of Evrelyn that we know of?’ said Merohan.

’Yes indeed, something is amiss, but gentlemen, I’m afraid I’ve stumbled across a much bigger problem, a problem which for the moment leaves the mystery of Evrelyn rather... unimportant.’

Metrus and Merohan looked quizzically at Naceus.

’To understand you must know that for some time now I have been working hard again on the notes of Jeot Agathir - the name will mean a lot if you know of him.’

‘Aye, I know of him,’ said Metrus.

’His work is, frankly, deeply disturbing. He was a travelling Scholar like no other, a restless champion for truth and shied away from no means of uncovering it. Fascination alone kept me at his so called Remnant Pages. What repulsed me in turn was his detail of the macabre and of realms we mortal men should not delve into.

’I... considered burning the pages from existence twenty years ago after the dragon invasion, realizing that even they would misuse his work.

’But it is the warning contained in the pages that made me hesitate, a warning that I could not bury on the chance that it held credence. Agathir encoded much of his work, so as not to be prosecuted for revealing guarded truths. A vain attempt at the end as we all know; what a vile death he came to! In these encodings are suggestions that I have dismissed most of my academic career. Now I must heed them.’

‘What would those be Scholar? How are his secrets relevant here?’ asked Metrus, having long since learned that sometimes Naceus needed a proper question to give his lectures direction.

The Scholar looked like he didn’t want to approach the subject as directly as Metrus wanted him to. Naceus paced a bit more. ‘Let me remember this correctly gentlemen,’ said Naceus, and cleared his throat: ’It is under a trident of stars that I abandoned all other pursuits, its imperilment visited on us again. A kindred soul I see in ancient flame, traveller I call her, and say to her, under the Sign of Toreg shall It be conquered.’

Merohan and Metrus looked at him quizzically.

’That dear sirs, was a passage from the first page of the last of Agathir’s works. The Sign of Toreg is a gathering of stars and other heavenly bodies in the shape of a trident, and it is remembered for only one thing in our past, a time when we seemingly faced extinction. The pages, those last ones, they... predicted the return of the Beast. I have to ask you Druid, knowing it is a sensitive matter, and knowing that you do not speak out of the Grove, but it is important! What can you tell me about Nimroth?’

Metrus’ face became strained, his mouth tightening. He did not like the idea of refusing the Scholar an answer, but Naceus had the right of it. Secrets of the Grove remained among the Druids alone.

‘What is it that you suspect Scholar?’ asked Metrus.

‘Only the worst I’m afraid, otherwise I would not have asked you,’ said Naceus solemnly.

‘I’ll just... leave the two of you at it,’ said Merohan, intuitive to the fact that the conversation was now turning to things he was not privy to know.

‘Thank you Captain,’ said Metrus, as Merohan left, closing the door shut.

Metrus waited awhile before speaking. ’It happened long before my birth, but we are taught to know this history by heart. Nimroth the Devourer, once Nimroth the Guardian, was defeated, not killed mind you, in order to halt his mindless rampage across the world. This represented maybe the most fragile period in human history, and all lived in fear of the Beast. His fate was a tragedy, because being a devouring creature he rid magical corruption by consuming wherever he could find it. But as you know there was so much of it that he became corrupt himself. Becoming the embodiment of evil, it was at war with the world and it was only a mercy that it could be stopped at all.

Though crippled and lifeless after its defeat, inside the carcass of the Beast still lingered the power worthy of a thousand groves. The western alliances were taking rule as was their due, and they promised to us Nimroth’s carcass, to transport it to us so that we could take it to the heart of the forests. Our task would have been to bury the body, to return to Angaria its truest child, and put a blessed seedling in it, to take apart the corruption and spawn the greatest sanctuary that this world has ever seen. It would have redeemed the true Nimroth and make right the many wrongs that should never have happened.’

Metrus was silent for awhile before saying: ’They never did, Naceus, Nimroth’s broken remains were never delivered to us and its existence seemed wiped from the face of the earth. There was no news or knowledge to indicate what had happened to it. Some have alluded that the carcass was simply burned; but not even the flame of a dragon could harm it. So we questioned; what happened to it and where is it now? At the bottom of the ocean? Or buried deep in the under-earth? Shortly after the alliances seemed to shun us Druids and the issue was forgotten - by everyone but us that is. It still troubles some of the older dreamers.’

Naceus paced, looking increasingly troubled. ‘Then it is as I suspected.’

‘What is it Scholar? Now you must share with me.’

Metrus knew the look, the Scholar was mulling into his own thoughts and would all but forget where he was, or even that he had any company.

’Did you know there is no logical reason for the Dream of Embers to fail? The power there is not supposed to wane. A hundred or more kings have made the pilgrimage and with the Crimson City’s influence the madness we saw in the goblins should not be plausible. Add to that the Rules of Realm that should have kept the wraiths from Attoras was circumvented too easily with this rite, seeing that the castle was once impenetrable. These symbols, the mark of the centaur above all else, lead my suspicions. At the height of his power Nimroth rallied the most vile of creatures, whether they were willing or not. His influence is far-reaching, and the call of his thoughts great. I heard tell that down in the Sunscape flats basilisks have emerged in droves, attacking pilgrims without cause - and even turning on each other! The last time that happened was when Nimroth first became corrupt. I asked myself what has changed? A paltry answer in denial was only comforting until I saw the goblins come upon us with a blind fury.

‘My guess now, as much as I hate to speculate, is that Nimroth is nurtured somewhere and in its state of recovery it’s fashioning a crude madness that is sweeping the lands yet again. When I view these things in the light that the Dream is faltering, it becomes the only viable explanation.’

Metrus seemed unconvinced. ‘I don’t know Scholar. That is quite a reach...’

’Not at all I’m afraid. I first grew suspicious when a man came to my door in town requesting to buy Agathir’s Remnant Pages. I told him I didn’t have them and that I wasn’t looking to sell them even if I did. He came to threaten me, telling me he’d get the documents one way or the other.

’The pages as you know cover a wide variety of topics - demons, the Benevolence, the Great Starwall and also the Dream of Embers; but since they were written in that specific tumultuous era, they always came back to Nimroth in some way or another.’

’With our turn of events I’m convinced of no coincidences Metrus. Attoras is not the playground of petty goblin invasions, or at least it is not supposed to be. What could they possibly seek to accomplish? Swarztial of course needed to destabilize the realm for his own purposes, but to have orchestrated the whole mess warrants the support of higher powers than he will ever have.

‘And why would Swarztial’s patrons target Attoras so readily?’ spoke Naceus in a question he intended to answer himself. ’Because Evrelyn is one of the last Houses able to deliver an eligible candidate for the Dream. Not many evils rail against the Dream of Embers itself, because not many of them have influence enough to warrant being counteracted by the might of the Dream.

’When considering a beast like Nimroth, only the Dream can counteract his like in this day and age, and that leaves the disposal of eligible pilgrims at the top end of his worshippers’ priorities.This whole scheme we have pinned on Swarztial’s ambition is so much more than we thought. We should have seen it with the players involved. Somewhere, agents of Nimroth have strung together this plan to counter Evrelyn and return the great Beast to its former power.’

’That is a rather bold conclusion Scholar. You say the contrary yet it might still be any of the lesser evils that are resurgent.’

‘But I got another clue, one that is revealed by the migrations of our time; the centaurs.’

Metrus looked as though he wanted to spit a bad taste from his mouth. ‘Man apart and horse apart are creatures good of this world; centaurs have proved themselves to be nothing but a crossbreed that carries the worst of the beasts with them.’

Naceus nodded. ’Nimroth’s affiliation with centaurs is well documented. They revered and worshipped the beast and when he turned mad they followed in his ways of destruction.

’The centaurs are single-minded and prideful, and have associated with nothing less than Nimroth since being subjugated under it. This you know. Birds of the feather you might say, they saw in Nimroth the likeness of their own features, greatly exaggerated of course. In the past nations had grown to fear their stampede of hooves on the hills.

‘Do you see it now Druid? Look at the symbol again. The circle around the crossed spears? It has no historical foundation. The insignia of the centaur have been merged with another, not uncommon such a merging considering that factions align and divide all the time, but curious all the same.’

‘But then Scholar, I don’t need to tell you that there are dozens of factions that make use of circles in their insignias,’ said Metrus.

‘Of course, and that would have been a problem if we didn’t already know that the centaurs are in service of Allandiel nowadays. They walk the roads of the Crimson City and are even taken up as members of the guard, all as part of reconciliation of the past. Look closer Metrus, where the spears cross, the small but unmistakable smudge that represents the dot within the circle of the Crimson City. Now, Allandiel associates with all sorts, so why merge their symbol with that of centaurs specifically? Some will say it is to illustrate the end of a bitter feud, but what if it is to better hide their involvement?’

‘Are you trying to implicate the Crimson City itself?’

’Only insofar that Allandiel might be compromised, or in danger even! A city of two faces if there ever was one. You have never been there Metrus, as your kind despises cities, but know that it is an immense collaboration of agencies. Thousands upon thousands call Allandiel home and it could provide both hideout and vast wealth to the wicked. Even House Izzimer and their Guild of Hands have their headquarters there, and they as you know are already involved. You must understand the significance here; if Nimroth awakes, where will it march first? Where will it fall upon hardest to defeat the greatest threat posed to him?’

Metrus looked like he was struck in the stomach. ’He will go to Allandiel, and he will destroy the Crimson City and everything it holds. The entity that keeps the west united will be razed. And you say the centaurs already roam the streets... Should we warn Jaegosh?’

Naceus shook his head. ’This insignia means one thing at least, that we cannot trust just anyone. If we have cause to raise alarm, it must be to Grandmaster Rammas himself and no one else. He is the vessel of the light of Sunscape, and only he is above reproach.’

‘You do not trust Jaegosh?’

Naceus shook his head. ‘I don’t necessarily mistrust him, but if he sends our concerns to Allandiel we have no power over who receives the information.’

Metrus nodded, understanding.

‘Are you still unconvinced?’ asked Naceus.

Metrus chuckled. ‘You bring up my kind’s worst fears and you point to signs that are sensible warnings if nothing else. Add to that Princess Shala ultimately might be in more danger than we thought. How will I ignore that?’

‘I have you on board for my plans then?’ asked Naceus with a hopeful smile.

‘That’s never been in question, although I wouldn’t mind knowing exactly what they are,’ said Metrus.

‘Excellent, all in good time my friend, now let’s leave this room. I still have bile at the back of my throat!’

Leaving the room and making their way back to the upper parts of the castle Metrus asked, ‘Did Agathir ever hint at Nimroth’s location? He must’ve known something?’

’From his work I gathered as much that Nimroth was never returned to the Druids. But I was unable to decipher all his maps and methods, mainly because he left so much of his material in different places and landscapes. Of course his work might be more aligned to stopping the creature, rather than uncovering it. This also Agathir wrote about, but he left no easy advice on accomplishing it without decoding his work. An annoying man really.’

‘Isn’t defeating Nimroth and uncovering its location one and the same thing?’ asked Metrus.

‘To us, not necessarily. Only the Crimson City has the physical might to contest Nimroth and it might come down to their force to stop Nimroth at its inception, before it can garner its power! Our task will aid them, and maybe even halt the agencies that nurture the Beast.’

Metrus understood what Naceus implied ultimately and said no more. Someone is going to have to answer the Dream, one way or the other.

They then ran across deBella, or rather she ran across them, and in a flurry of movement she grabbed Naceus by the hem of his coat, almost plucking him from his feet, the Scholar fumbling to save his spectacles a nasty fall.

‘Where is Shala? What happened to the Princess?’ she demanded.

Naceus was uttering a long-winded story but deBella pressed through with a strong tone. ‘Don’t give me that Naceus. I heard she was taken by two men, one of which is the same man who locked us all up in the pantry I’ll wager!’

‘Calm down handmaiden,’ said Naceus hurriedly. ‘The men you speak of didn’t kidnap the Princess, they escaped with her! They saved her deBella!’

‘Then why not bring her back?’ snapped deBella.

Naceus shook his head. ‘She cannot come back. The room in which all those innocent folk were slain bears the mark of Evrelyn, and the Princess was found most unfortunately by Swarztial in the room itself. They’ll prosecute her deBella, they’ll blame her for the evil and not only remove her as monarch incumbent, but burn her at the stake!’

‘They cannot possibly-’

’But they will lady deBella,’ interceded Metrus from the side. ’Fear produces irrationality and the wraiths and the goblins that assaulted this city would be reason enough for people to want to see someone burn, even if it is the beloved Princess. “See how beauty hides the evil within,” the story will tell in years to come.’

‘But where will the Princess stay? She cannot survive in the wild.’

‘She is strong deBella, and the men with her are the finest you could hope for.’

‘Who are these men?’ asked deBella, flustered.

Wolves, left intact by old King Anka for this kind of situation,’ said Metrus.

deBella seemed to swallow hard on this news. ‘You knew about this, you knew the castle was under threat?’ she asked harshly at Naceus, her voice firing up again.

‘No I didn’t deBella, not until it was too late. I knew Swarztial was scheming, but I had no idea he’d nearly come to destroy Attoras and depose of the Princess so menacingly.’

‘And you Druid?’ asked deBella.

‘Yes, handmaiden, but me and my Wolf-friends were not in positions to speak up, this you know.’

deBella seemed somewhere between anger and resignation, wise enough to understand Metrus would have been jailed if he came in accusing Swarztial for no reason.

‘Swarztial now rules this castle, how will we dispose of him?’ asked deBella.

‘We cannot. Do what we want, Swarztial is much too close to Bishop Jaegosh, and they will be custodians of the realm for the time being,’ said Naceus.

‘But you plan to do something against it, don’t you Naceus? And don’t deny it, I know about the summons you made for the household guard and the secret meeting.’

‘Hush handmaiden!’

‘Whatever it is, from now on I am a part of it.’

Naceus and Metrus looked at each other, dismayed.

‘The Princess is as much my responsibility as she is that of the guard. Maybe even more so for me! They will follow a new ruler soon. I will not!’

‘Very well, we need you here to keep the order rather than being a curious snoop playing unwittingly into the hands of Swarztial.’

‘Oh no Naceus, you have the road in your eye, and wherever you’re going, I’m coming with!’

‘We can only take so many men! What still of a woman!’

‘I can cook, I can heal, and I can stitch torn clothes. And I’d daresay I’m hardier than you Naceus. Decide you if you’d rather have one more sword arm above my abilities.’

Metrus nodded at Naceus and the Scholar found no further use in arguing.

Naceus glanced sideways, left and right to see that they were alone. ‘Follow the men of the guard by nightfall. You will find the way.’

IV

Towards the approach of nightfall the household guard, one by one, and not at all moving in groups, marched toward the lower cellars. The summons had been suspicious and came from a man that could give some answers for minds questioning recent events. The only request was to keep it quiet, and pass on the news by soft spoken word and nothing else. It was for the good of the Kingdom they all said.

Converging in an old cellar where none in the castle had any business, the household guard saw that Naceus was already waiting, alongside Metrus the Druid, deBella and Merohan, Captain of the guard. Even Gremhalden was in attendance and sat far at the back. They had brought in several ranks of chairs facing toward Naceus, waiting patiently for the seats to fill up.

Finally considering everyone present, Naceus put aside his pipe and took a deep breath before taking the floor. He had given many lectures in his life to many good students, but he had never before spoken before a gathering of warriors. Their eyes were steely and had none of the expectation and openness that young students would have.

’I bid you welcome, each of you, friends I’d call you, because we are all here for the fate of Her Grace, Princess Shala. I thank you for attending and I will make clear the reason for your summons before long. In light of our assault on the castle I’m almost scared to speak, lest another agent of Swarztial jumps out and jails me for conspiracy, but Merohan has looked at each of you and has told me that every man here is trustworthy, and I trust as much.

‘I saw many of you just the other day at the Queen’s table. Humbling was it not? Sitting there with royalty, and urged to be at ease and be merry.’ Naceus took a bit of a pause, the men seemed impatient; he would have to be concise with them. ‘My council with you regards the Dream of Embers and as each of you is part of the household guard I trust that you know the fundamental process of it? If not, do not hesitate to ask.’

Salonce nudged Urad in the ribs and the two men looked at each other, their eyes telling one another that they had no clue on how the Dream of Embers works. Yet they did not ask, the other men seemed well-informed. For Urad and Salonce this was an important council, and that was all it was, and they’d follow whatever may come after it.

‘I know we are here more bound to the prospecting taker of the throne than Princess Shala. I know the Princess is now in exile and by all reason we no longer owe her any real servitude. But I am here to make a request on another kind of duty, one you will not find on paper or by the oaths you’ve sworn.’

The soldiers looked on him with some expectation now.

’Princess Shala, despite her youth, is the wisest and kindest ruler we could hope for. Alternative to her we are faced with crowning a King with little sense of honour and a host of Council members playing him to the flute. Our Princess will, in exile, eventually come to make a pilgrimage to Nem Nemuris.’ This had the soldiers squirming and looking at each other.

‘Of this I am sure because of the knowledge that I have and the knowledge she will gain in time. Bless her if she succeeds, because it will help the world much and restore some much needed order - but I do not wish to lose her, not so that the crown is given to Patrick of Sannil. That price is too high to pay...’

‘You would impede on someone taking the pilgrimage!’ shot one of the soldiers, his voice already hinting at outrage. There was a murmur among the men, as if the Scholar had been blasphemous.

Naceus held up his hands. ‘Not at all, rather I’d like to let someone take the Princess’s place, so that she may, one day, take her rightful place on the throne of Attoras. So that when we bow to a ruler, we bow to one we know and love.’

His audience of soldiers quickly went from irritation to confusion.

‘There is no other in the House of Evrelyn and it is the last house that can now contribute to the Dream, have you forgotten this old man?’ asked Gibbon the Marshal.

‘Let’s not make comments on each other’s age Gibbon, you are not much younger than me,’ said Naceus with a chuckle. ‘There is one still viable, our very own King Anka, laid to rest in days past.’

Now there was an even greater murmur and Merohan had to silence them to give Naceus a chance to explain.

‘Our Princess Shala, upon her father’s wishes, sealed his spirit within his body and the body itself is preserved by the spell. It will not last long, but it will last long enough for a speedy journey to Nem Nemuris. The soul is the fundamental piece crucial to blossoming and-’

‘What the Scholar is getting at,’ cut in Metrus, seeing Naceus delving into a long tirade on the properties of the soul, ‘...is that King Anka can still travel with a proper escort just like the Princess intended in the first place.’

Marshal Gibbon laughed. ‘Chancellor Swarztial will never allow us to take the King from his tomb, even if it were the right thing to do!’

‘Swarztial has no part in my plan, and best he does not know of it until it is too late to stop us,’ said Naceus.

Gods man, you wish to break into the King’s tomb and remove him? To desecrate the grave of Kings and soil his dignity? We’ll all be criminals! Graverobbers!’ said Gibbon, his words sparking outcry.

Now there was no stopping them and Naceus knew despite Merohan’s efforts he would need to wait until all the angry arguments passed between the men. He could hear deBella’s voice drowned among the men’s as she pleaded for them to see the reason in this. At this time Gremhalden stood up and just for a moment everyone calmed down, waiting on his response in expectation. But he simply walked out, giving Naceus an unreadable glance and left the room in apparent irritation. Right then Naceus’s heart sank to his stomach and the arguments started anew.

He did not get a chance to speak until Gibbon hushed everyone and said:

’Scholar, I am certain I can talk for most here when I say that we grieve for the King and his daughter, but what you ask is too much. Soldiers and men of the guard are mostly simple beings and lead simple lives, and so we will stay. We cannot give ourselves over to ambiguity, not when we owe the new King-to-be loyalty, whatever faults he may have. The sovereignty of Attoras will in some ways always come first.The merits of the task you lay out are too woolly, it seems like a bull-headed plan to start with, and we cannot see if it will bring justice. Let it go man. We’ll be better off staying here and serving Attoras as we’ve always done.’

’Yes, we’ll be fine for a while. And we’ll turn a blind eye as subjects sometimes have to do. Then comes the day the corruption has crept so far across the walls that we can smell the stink of a foul reign. Wraith-kind and more, this is what Evrelyn kept out of Attoras.

‘What I can tell you is that I will not serve under a pig-king like Patrick,’ said Naceus taking everyone by surprise. He had never said something against another in anger and name-calling wasn’t something he often lent himself to.

‘After our near destruction there is an easy way out, men. We can stay here and swear ourselves to a new King, but we all know he will be King in name only, and will become a tyrant in law and practice. Let us take this gamble and set forth, do not doubt for a moment the honour of this quest! The need for it! I cannot command you and cannot even advise you to leave so much behind, but I implore you, those of you who can, those of you who have seen the heart of the Princess, come with me. We’ll take the King on his final journey and spare the Princess a fate as good as death.’

His audience seemed to agree with him, but they also met him with a silence that was now almost worse than the arguments. They were reluctant.

In the meanwhile Gremhalden had returned, rather unexpectedly, standing in the door and everyone turned to him, again looking for some indication on what he thought about the entire matter. Naceus wondered how long he had stood there, looking as mad as he did.

‘Did you forget something Master Gremhalden?’ spoke Naceus nervously.

‘No, but I did in fact leave something in my quarters which I shouldn’t have. I have gone back to fetch it.’ He drew a dagger, one made for close combat. He walked limply towards Naceus and no one knew if they should jump up and stop him. With a sudden plunge Gremhalden struck the dagger into one of the smaller round tables, the blade slicing right into the wood so that it stuck there, upright.

Scholar Naceus held his hand over his heart in fright, relieved to find he was not stabbed like the table. Gremhalden left the dagger in the table and stepped closer to the men and he addressed them:

’There is an old way of saying farewell for those who take a crusade of personal honour. It is a pledge for men to strike their knives into a table, and to leave them there until they return. They leave behind family and respected jobs, with no promise of glory or victory, because the thing they chase is the most important thing a man can accomplish with his life. He knows in his heart it’s the right thing to do. I say to you, to those of you who can spare yourself and tear yourself away from a good life, this is the right thing to do...Search your hearts,’ he said, ‘there is no shame in staying, in fact we can only take so many men and the men who stay will have important roles as well...’ he added. Again silence and motionlessness greeted Naceus, but Gremhalden stared at all of them steely.

Urad and Salonce looked at each other, and then Urad slowly raised his hand, hoping for Gremhalden’s attention.

‘What is it?’ asked the old Knight.

‘I don’t have a knife on me sir,’ he said lamely, and as though that posed any great problem.

Laughter rippled through the men, breaking much of the tension.

Gremhalden chortled and chucked a spare knife at the man, seemingly from nowhere, landing softly in the man’s lap. ‘I thought I might need to bring a spare, but that’s the last one I can offer mind you!’

Salonce and Urad then eagerly stood up, ambling to the table and struck their knives into it, immediately followed by Captain Merohan. They had barely taken their seats before others rose to do the same, the men circulating knives to those who would commit but weren’t armed with such. Even deBella procured one from somewhere and it was struck in between the other men’s.

‘There, we have a company! Now I don’t suppose you will be so kind as to tell us how you seek to accomplish our quest?’ asked Gibbon, who was also one of the first to plunge his knife, even though he had objected most of all.

‘Invariably I will need to reveal the details of it as we go along. Even the men staying behind cannot know too much lest they are made to talk somehow,’ said Naceus.

‘I was afraid you might turn secretive on us,’ sighed Gibbon.

‘I apologize, but if any of you have questions then please raise them and I’ll answer as best I can.’

Naceus saw the soldier named Tordke raise his hand in question. Naceus knew the man to be a well-read person, with knowledge of logistics, so he knew what kind of question Tordke would ask.

’But what if the Princess doesn’t reach Nem Nemuris? We can’t travel the trail of the Masons like the Princess can, and only she can open the gate for us once on the inside. There are only two ways into Nem Nemuris, and we need someone to take the one road we can’t. We can travel all that way only to be locked out of the valley where kings come to rest. And what still about the moon Castilleon, it will be full and past its cycle in two months’ time. We’ll not make it!’

Naceus nodded. ‘It will be a mission of faith. Many things can go wrong I’ll admit, and we’ll need only one ill-fortune to sink our quest. But trust me when I say our journey will be nothing conventional, I have come upon a way we can travel in relative safety and with immense efficiency.’

Salonce raised his hand and asked. ‘Can we call ourselves Wolves now?’

Naceus smiled widely as the other men laughed and the Scholar shook his head, Salonce looking embarrassed.

’No, my friend. We have neither the talent nor the right to call ourselves that, though it be a prideful name. The real Wolves are already guiding our Princess and our missions are not the same. Besides, can you imagine the wrath we will incur calling ourselves Wolves all the way to Nem Nemuris, when even the Crimson City disapproves of the men of the Black Mountain? No, rather we will be secretive and faceless, and if possible spark no confrontation on our way.

’Although, there is a name I think we can take: the Queen’s own, it has a charm to it, and I think it describes our loyalties rather clearly.’

‘Isn’t that a bit revealing, Scholar, and optimistic besides? It’s a long road before the Princess’ name can be cleared and her finally inaugurated as Queen,’ asked Tordke.

’Then let’s choose it because it’s optimistic, she is already our Queen, we might as well admit to a name that says that we won’t stop until she takes her rightful place on the throne.’

‘Aye!’ yelled some of the men in the back, and Naceus smiled. It seemed Gremhalden had inspired a change of heart, and for that Naceus was thankful.

‘There it is then! From now until each dagger is pulled from this table we’ll be the Queen’s Own. Let no man or foul creature tear us asunder!’ said Naceus.

The men cheered silently, now talking excitedly amongst themselves, and Naceus let them revel in this commitment they had made.

Satisfied that the soldiers were preoccupied, the Scholar pulled Metrus aside, so that the two of them could talk privately once more.

‘Now as for your role, you’d best serve as our eyes for the road and maybe more importantly, act as our communication with the Princess.’

‘There’s more?’ asked Metrus intuitively.

‘Yes,’ said Naceus, handing Metrus a stack of old pages now, bundled tight to fit in a thin leather ledger. ‘These are more of the pages and I need you to deliver them to the Princess.’

‘What are you playing at Scholar? The Princess will need to be nameless on the road, and you would have her hold the documents of a heretic?’

’I know, I know. It is however of utmost importance the Princess works through these pages. She has some experience with them and she alone can solve them.’

‘I am not convinced that this is the right thing to do Scholar.’

’Did you know that Shala’s mother, the Lady Salstasha, was once burned by dragonfire? Of course you do! I never caught Agathir’s drift when he spoke of having a kindred soul in ancient flame. I thought he was invoking one of his demonic relations. But then the King’s note came along, writing something very similar to the cryptic messages Agathir so loved. The King on his deathbed, of all the things, spoke of a dragon. And it hit me! A kindred soul in ancient flame was another person stung by dragon flames!’

‘The dragons and their worshippers have a bond because the worshippers themselves have been burned,’ supplied Metrus.

‘Yes!’ said Naceus.

‘And Agathir himself was burned once by dragon flame?’ suggested Metrus.

‘Exactly my friend. So I was toying with the idea that Salstasha herself was apt to solve the pages back when she was still alive. But she had no outright magical blood even when she did show interest in the pages. But what of Shala, her daughter, maybe still carrying the sting of dragon flames in her blood as her mother did?’

Metrus chuckled in disbelief. ‘Uncanny. But plausible. How was the King speaking to dragons then?’

’One foot in life and the other in death. Lord Anka was one of the most powerful dreamers of his age. On his deathbed the King’s spirit was ready to leave this world, and strayed upon a dream where the dragon could make something plain to him. ’

‘But the King made clear to no one what the dragon shared with him,’ said Metrus.

‘It is a message whispered that I pay most heed to, Druid. Because it meant the King couldn’t divulge secrets to just any fool.’

‘As far as I know he did not even approach his own daughter,’ countered Metrus.

‘I appreciate that you want to protect the Princess from the pages. I had tried to do so for many years. But there is no denying that this burden will come her way. There is something I have to show you.’

With his gaze downwards Naceus nodded thoughtfully and then pulled a hairnet of great splendour from one of his pockets. ‘One of Shala’s maids recovered this from her room. Quite precious even without the stones. I heard deBella telling me that the Lady Shala wore this to her father’s funeral, when Swarztial forbade me to attend.’

He held it upright and let it dangle in its natural state. ’Look closely Metrus, the net is so configured that the gemstones hang exactly as an image of the stars and moons that forms the Sign of Toreg. And do you know what has me haunted? That last sentence I quoted you earlier: under the Sign of Toreg, shall it be conquered. It’s her Metrus, she is the one meant to carry the burden of these pages.

‘She is a special child. We all know it. All signs point to someone like her blossoming at Nem Nemuris for the benefit of us all. Once only an otherworldly power could stop Nimroth and only the Dream of Embers will do so now. But I truly do not want her to die. That’s why I want to use the King instead! And that’s why we must know what Agathir knew!’

Looking at the hairpiece, Metrus asked, ‘Agathir was a prophet?’

‘He was said to consult with demons and farseers of power. But the line of Salstasha is one of some scholarly descent as well, and the hairnet an heirloom that has always passed to the next firstborn daughter. For all we know Agathir might’ve been making an educated guess as to who’d be best equipped for his pages. But considering that many years after the existence of Agathir it turned out to be none other than the Highlady Salstasha herself that was burned by dragonfire…’ Naceus let the thought trail.

‘So all in all I have my reasons Metrus. If there is any chance the Princess can use the pages to alert Allandiel then we must try. When I said that the might of Crimson City may come into play it is because I fear it will become our last resort versus an overwhelming foe. They won’t rally to just anything, not even the word of a Princess, but maybe she can somehow show it to Rammas, and solve the encodings, maybe then...’

Metrus sighed. ‘Very well. How would she solve it better than you?’

‘Because Agathir left crucial information at places where I will never climb. The Princess’ exile however might see her visit such locations. Having a Wolf at her side like Bhask will help of course.’

‘When do you need these to reach the Princess?’

Naceus laughed. ‘My friend if I could have my way I would have her receive them right away. The sooner you can fly the better. Although on second thought, give her some time. Let her first make some decisions on her immediate future. I trust your judgement to hand it to her when the time is right,’ said Naceus.

‘Alright then Scholar, I will deliver them, but you must understand that I’m already abusing the favour of the Grove by joining this plight.’

‘We are all compromising our positions, you above all I know. The responsibility of the Grove does not come lightly and I would rather not involve you, save that without you our quest has already failed.’

‘One more thing Naceus: what about this unidentified member of Evrelyn? The one responsible for the marking?’

Naceus shrugged. ’I’m stumped. And since we will be on the road soon, we must leave it as a problem for another day.’

Metrus did not look particularly pleased with the idea. ‘Very well, I must go back now anyhow. The Wolves will be waiting for me. I will see you again soon Scholar, best of luck, and try to repay the faith these men have placed in you,’ said Metrus.

‘I will,’ said Naceus.

The Druid departed and Naceus was left in the company of the guard, still talking excitedly amongst themselves. He was sincerely glad that they did not know what he knew. He picked up his pipe, struggling to get the embers going again and waited for any other questions that might be thrown at him by his newly formed company.

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