I woke slowly, my skull feeling as though it had imploded twice over. My arms were weak, held above my head by what seemed to be metal shackles. I tried to open my eyes but they burned with an intensity I hadn't felt before. My instinct was to shout out at the pain, trying to force it to leave, but I was able to bite my tongue and screw my face up instead, absorbing the stinging sensation.
I was furious with myself the instant I'd remembered what had happened. I was renowned for my execution and the lack of mistakes or black marks on my record and now I'd let myself down. Anger welled within the pit of my stomach and embarrassment mingled with it, making an incurably toxic combination that left a bitter taste on my tongue.
There was no time to punish myself. I needed to establish my next step and whether there was any way out of this predicament.
My eyes opened slowly, the dull light from a nearby torch sending my head spinning, my temples throbbing incessantly. From what I could tell, my ale had been drugged with Button Berry, a poison primarily utilised by high-end assassins. Luckily for me, however, I wasn't dead.
Unlucky for them.
I was on my knees, shackled to a pole that reached up to a low hanging ceiling. The pole sat in the centre of the room and there was nothing else visible inside the four stone walls. A door rested directly opposite me, but other than that it was empty and I was alone, no sound bar my raspy breaths.
The first step was to test the strength of the shackles. I yanked them forward and groaned at the pain that tore through my arms. There was no indication to how long they'd been held upright and the nature of my position stopped me from pulling too hard. A wasted effort, of course this wouldn't be easy.
I looked down to see my shirt torn open, my harness and coat both removed. My trousers remained intact, as did my boots. The various scars painted over my torso were on display and I felt exposed and trapped, a dangerous marriage for my temper. I screwed my face up once more as my blurred brain tried to compensate for earlier mistakes and rectify the situation, sweat trickling into the creases adjacent to my eyes.
Rotating my wrist revealed that the shackle was tight, but if I were to dislocate my thumb I could remove a hand from the cuffs. I felt no desire to question my instinct and I'd become too disorientated to peruse my lack of other options. I readied myself, grappling my thumb before the door in front of me swung open and a shady form stood just out of sight. I squinted in the dull torchlight and cursed myself, I must've looked pathetic to them, my pride torn asunder.
This is what you get for being careless, I thought.
"I have a few questions for you, Tobias." a voice swept through the room authoritatively.
He knows my name.
"We don't have to become enemies, but if you make this hard for us there will be dire consequences." his voice was powerful and commanding.
I bowed my head with a discouraged snort. I didn't bargain for my life.
The voice's owner entered the room. He was tall and donned the uniform of a Direthorne guard. His short black hair was pulled back, revealing steely blue eyes that watched me intensely and a scar dashed down the right hand side of his cheek.
"We want to know about the last bounty you accepted."
"Fuck off." my retort was swift and the tone was twisted, my pain coating both syllables perfectly. My captor grinned at the defiance and my anger swirled, bouncing off the walls of my stomach as it built momentum, ready to unleash itself upon an unsuspecting victim.
"Don't make this hard for us. We've got something we're sure you don't want us to break." the male clicked his fingers and two more guardsmen entered, dragging the body of a redheaded female between them.
Wearing the same leather garbs as I'd left her in, Sara was placed before me, out of my reach. Her expression seemed pained whilst she lay unconscious, her lips a faint shade of blue as though her life force dispassionately flickered like a candle in a dying breeze. I stared at her, my temper swelling, before bowing my head. These men had a death wish and they'd willingly signed it.
"When I'm done with you," I said with a voice both ragged and distant, "your own fucking parents won't be able to recognise your corpse."
"Just tell me why the king sent you to get the device, Tobias." my captor said, his voice was calm and it made me all the more furious. I was realising now, for the first time, that I would choose to compromise myself for Sara's safety. Throwing myself into a four-on-one brawl and bargaining with my kidnapper weren't average days for me before this woman with beautifully mesmerising eyes found her way into my life. She was an exception to my code.
Her life came first.
"He didn't tell me why. Just paid me to do it, so I did."
"There we go, that wasn't hard, was it?" the male knelt down beside me, the chainmail armour beneath his white Ascalan tabard rattling with his movement. A wolf, the sigil of Direthorne, was stitched onto his tabard in gold, showing a high-ranking officer.
"Let her go."
"Not until you understand the nature of what's transpired."
I groaned as pain coursed through my arms, scowling at the male. He stared in retaliation and a silence wrapped itself comfortably around us until my lips parted.
"Tell me what you need, then let her go."
"I need your full cooperation." he said before standing tall, removing a key that hung around his neck on a silver chain. He slid the key into the shackles and detached them effortlessly, my arms plummeting to my side, raw and tender. I glanced up and felt my throat produce a low growl.
"Risky move, letting me go."
"You won't do anything, you're smarter than that."
Arsehole. He was right, for now. I pushed myself forward so that I was on my knees by Sara, my hand tentatively placed against her cold cheek.
"What did you do to her?" my voice was hoarse with frustration.
"She's sedated. We haven't harmed her, she's just as important to us as you are, but to reveal more we'll need to know that you'll aid our cause."
"What the fuck are you talking about!?" I roared. I hadn't the time to think before my words, venom-tipped and fuelled by rage, spilled out and echoed through the adjacent corridor. I stood and, if it weren't for the adrenaline, probably would've fallen. "If you want my help then stop prancing around like a fucking fool."
The male smirked at my outburst. I was slightly taller than him and, if it weren't for my currently recovering arms, would've bruised his pretty face. My words would have to suffice and it seemed that I'd gotten through to him.
"We've been watching you for days, ever since your last bounty was tasked. You retrieved a Doriaz device for the king and by doing so have risked the fate of our kin."
"Bullshit. It's a piece of history that sits in a museum collecting dust."
"You've no idea what that device is capable of, Tobias." the captor seemed to lose all traces of a smirk, his mask now gravely serious. "The king is not who he claims to be. With the device you've handed him, he will destroy our realm."
Rational and calculated thinking led me to believe that he was bluffing, though my gut instinct, heavy like led, told me that I may be wrong. In hindsight, king Stoneheart had seemed all too eager to have his bounty returned, and it was unusual for him to ask me to recover an item rather than a head, but I'd pushed aside any doubt when he offered more coin as compensation. Admittedly, it was a priceless relic, but what if there was more to it? I had to push further.
"He's had the Doriaz device in his possession for years," I stated. "I'm certain that if our realm were to be destroyed, he'd have done it by now."
"His scholars were theorising how the orb would be used in the ritual, they have been for decades. We managed to blackmail Ralph Gi'lorn into holding his advisor's daughter hostage, the ransom being the device. A dirty tactic, but we had to play it safe and keep ourselves concealed, hiding beneath the sympathisers' noses. Then we heard of your interception."
"Who the fuck is 'we'!?" I was tired of playing games and this entire conspiracy seemed to be spiralling away from normality.
"Of course. I'm Taurelius Blackhale, captain of the Direthorne guard and leader of the Eternal Order."
"Oh for-" I sighed, heavily. "What's the Eternal Order?"
"We're a society dedicated to keeping Tharia safe from harm. We've operated in the shadows for centuries, and will do so for many more. We believe it's time you joined us." he said confidently, a short smile wavering on his lips despite the current situation.
"I've had enough. There's no proof that the king is some maniacal, genocidal leader trying to kill us with a glowing orb. "
"You really don't understand the power contained within that relic, do you? Come with me. Lads, bring the girl."
After one of the guardsman hauled Sara into a bridal carry, we made our way down the corridor leading out from my cell. It was long and dust-ridden, the redbrick walls and stonework floors flooded with spiders and grime.
Eventually, following a few twists and turns, we encountered a door that Taurelius unlocked with a key found on a chain attached to his belt. The room it led to was a dome, large and encircling with a lake at it's centre. There was a couple of meters of concrete around the edge of the room available to walk across, and wooden bridges that connected to a circular stone platform in the middle of the lake. Sitting on the platform was a pedestal, holding a replica of the country of Tharia.
We crossed the nearest bridge which screeched beneath our weight, and approached the model where Taurelius folded his arms and glanced over the country as though it were his own. I stood across the model, opposite my captor, still wary of the information I was being given. The two guardsmen followed, one still carrying Sara. She looked limp in his arms and it made me want to take her into my own, knowing she'd be safe with me.
"Tobias, Tharia is a country that belongs to a realm stifled by mythology." Taurelius' voice had a subtle arrogance that tinted his speech. "We were ruled by a masterful race, the Doriaz. They were human in their appearance but, as our ancestors soon learned, they were wolves in sheep's clothing. They had a natural connection to a hidden element surrounding our very existence, known as the arcane. They used magic to rule all that opposed them."
"Magic." I scoffed. My tone didn't betray my disbelief. "Come now, Taurelius. This is moronic."
"Ah," he smiled, shaking his head, "you don't believe in magic. Well, my friend, it's time to open your mind. The Doriaz crafted these devices infused with arcane. Devices capable of terraforming entire continents. Every landscape you see before you, everything on this model, was created by the Doriaz."
I ran my fingertips over the peaks of the miniature Star-Touched Mountain Range, located at the very edge of the map. I still couldn't discover what lay beyond them, even in model-form. If Taurelius was telling the truth, the Doriaz had been responsible for shaping the landscape around me. It was an unbelievable accusation.
"They reigned over us fiercely. Bred us to be slaves. Our ancestors rebelled, outnumbering the Doriaz, but many died during the resistance. However, they were relentless," Taurelius raised his voice in volume, almost emphatically, "they took their destiny in their own hands and fought back. They drove the Doriaz deep underground where it's believed they sealed themselves away from the outside world with a powerful ward."
I raised an eyebrow, finding myself enchanted by the tale. I couldn't deny that he didn't have my full attention.
"The device that's now in the king's possession is dangerous. It was given to the Doriaz sympathisers before they fled, allowing the humans that believed the race to be Gods the ability to remove the seal and unleash them upon our realm once again.
"Now that centuries have passed and our kin no longer tell these tales, the sympathisers plot to break down the ward and release our former rulers upon Tharia. If they succeed, there will be no hope of surviving." Taurelius was angered by the thought, his brow twitching frustratedly as he ran the scenario out in his mind. His passion for the myth, mastery of the history and effort he'd gone through to get me and Sara here made me doubt my initial thoughts.
Could this be real?
"If this is true, which I'm not saying it is," I began, "why am I here? What's this secret war got to do with me?"
"You're the king's personal bounty hunter, Tobias. He trusts you. You can enter his keep at your leisure and have the skill to retrieve the device before The Eclipse use it. We should know, you stole it from us."
"The Eclipse?" I asked, squinting slightly. The amount of information I was trying to digest was excruciating and it made my temples feel as though a spear was lodged between them.
"The Eclipse is the name that the sympathisers give themselves. They believe that when they release the Doriaz, the sun will turn black and we will live in darkness."
"This is too much." I gritted my teeth together, painfully. "Magic isn't real. We'd fucking know if it was."
Taurelius sighed as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. My resistance was no longer amusing to him.
"When the Doriaz locked themselves away they took their teachings of the arcane with them. While some descendants of their kin live among us, they're oblivious to their true potential." he stated, his hand gesturing toward Sara. I glanced at her lifeless form, then looked back to Taurelius.
"She's a descendant, Tobias. It's in her eyes."
"What do you mean?" my eyes were icy as I stared at the male, my jaw clenched tight.
"The Doriaz have green eyes, prominent and haunting. Try and tell me that you haven't seen those eyes in your sleep."
I found myself searching for answers. He was right, when I closed my eyes I pictured hers staring back, pure and vivid against the walls of my mind. They must've captured her to use as leverage but learned that she's a so-called descendant in the process.
"If the Doriaz are released, what will happen to Sara?"
"She will likely be taught to follow their agenda. According to our texts, if she disobeys, she will be purged."
"Purged?" my jaw clenched tighter and I was surprised that my teeth didn't shatter. Every muscle in body had become tense, my arms recovering strength whilst my hands were balled into fists. I ran through my earlier thought, as though I were adding it to the bottom of my code.
Sara's life comes first.
"Yes, removed from society. Exiled or, more likely, killed." he claimed.
"I'll help you." I locked eyes with Taurelius and made no effort to impress him with theatrics. If the Doriaz were real and ever returned, Sara would not aid them. She was no fighter and, as a consequence, would be purged. "But if you cross me, I will find you. If you're lying to me, I will find you. If you do anything to harm Sara, I will find you. And when I find you, I will seek retribution, and you'll beg for me to end your sorry existence."
My captor smirked as though he were proud. "Tobias. Welcome to the Eternal Order."
"No, Taurelius." I offered him a smirk of my own, one that forced his to evaporate. He seemed worried, concerned that I'd pulled away. It was a satisfying gesture. "I don't work for you. I work for myself and now to save her. You're just here to collect the bounty and give me compensation."
And once I'm finished, I'll make you pay for what you've done to me and Sara.
The smirk dancing across my lips faded and I gave Taurelius a nod, trying to conceal my deception.
Nobody fucks with me and survives.