The predecessors of all the peoples present on Altus today were known as the Prime. The forefathers of elves, humans and alchemists possessed an amalgamation of traits defining the races we know of today. The Prime wielded technology beyond the wildest dreams of common mortals, but it was lost in the cataclysm known as the Fall. To this day, the first Prime are revered in certain cultures as gods of the old.
~ Dominique Breezetrent, The Old Scrolls
Korr stood still, body pressed tightly against the pier’s barricade. The smell of brine was thick in the air, dense fog enveloping his company. A trickle of sweat inched down the side of his temple and along the stubble of his square jaw. His breaths came slow and deliberate, a battle tactic his own soldiers mimicked as they took cover behind him.
“It’s all clear from this side, captain,” Silvour, his First Officer, called. “They’re all ahead of us, cornered like rats.”
Korr nodded curtly, using his index finger to direct the lead footmen into the corridor of the docks. “Three warders front first. Follow up with Taina. She’ll break through their barricade. We’ll charge through at her signal.”
Taina, the only other human in the phalanx besides Korr, met his gaze with her sharp green eyes. Ever the charmer, he thought.
“Taina?” he asked.
She lifted a hand suddenly coated by blue werelight. Korr’s eyes followed the elementals as they shimmered faintly in the darkness.
“Go!” he cried.
The Anti-Mages marched through the pier’s entrance, heavy shields ahead of them. Once they were through, bursts of werelight lit the ground and adjacent walls of the docks. Korr’s head rattled at the sound of hammering steel. “Taina!” he bellowed.
She leapt across the barricade and sprinted through, black surcoat fluttering behind her. When his eyes no longer traced her silhouette, his body grew stiff. More flashes of intense werelight from inside bounced across shadowy edifices and storage vaults, growing more intense after Taina had gone through the line of fire.
The sounds crashed once again, then disappeared altogether in an instant.
Before Korr thought too much of the silence, a single sphere of black flame shot through the gap, fizzling into nothing as it passed him. All right then, he thought, lifting his shield as he started for the corner. He slid his blade into the sword slit and marched down the narrow corridor tailed by the remainder of his phalanx.
Amid the interior of the dock, steel crates had been thrown aside, swords of the disarmed and cracked shields were kicked into a single pile, and bloodied corpses lay strewn across the concrete floor.
Taina stood in the midst of it all. Most of the Coalitionists had been eradicated, but she had subdued three—two djinn and an alchemist—with what seemed like little or no effort. Runes of chained electricity bound their wrists together and their feet to the pier’s floor, old symbols dancing beneath them. Several warders stood at the perimeter, blocking off any potential escape.
Korr sheathed his sword and handed it, along with his heavy shield, to Silvour. He put his hands together and approached the three bound slanderers, squatting to look them in the eye. “Resisting arrest wasn’t exactly how we imagined this would play out,” he said. “I’m hoping you have a plausible reason for me.”
They glared at him, poison in their eyes, grimacing when Taina’s rune sent jolts of static through their flesh. But still, they made no motion to respond.
Korr’s eyes narrowed. “Nothing?”
A quick glance to his officers behind him didn’t do much to aid his interrogation. As the silence became palpable, Korr clicked his tongue in disappointment and held a splayed hand to his lieutenant. “Silvour, if you don’t mind.”
Korr took his blade and laid it across his thighs, light reflecting off the rippling sheen of rare blacksteel and flashing into the faces of the prisoners. He ran his hand against the body of the sword and looked out distantly. “Real dilemma is whether or not we bring you to the prison at Black Gate, or do we execute you right here? Because at this point, it doesn’t matter who does the king’s justice. You’re all guilty of treason.”
One of the prisoner’s expressions betrayed him and Korr caught sight of it in a flash. “You.” He pointed. “Where are they recruiting?”
The water djinn in the center chuckled. “So many questions, human,” he muttered, blue birthmarks on his face vivid even in the dim light. “A slave like you with this much bravado?”
Wretch, Korr thought. “I’d be careful with your words if I were you, rebel,” he finally said. “Answer the question.”
“Do I look human to you?” He bared his teeth. “Do you mistake me for a slave, my lord?”
Korr sneered. “What do you want, djinn?”
“You know exactly what we want.”
“You have no business in Psya Agunen. Aaros is the rightful king, not your beloved father.The Ironheart dynasty has survived worse. You Coalitionists won’t win. This rebellion will turn to ashes before it has a chance to light this kingdom.”
“So confident, pup?” the djinn asked. “It’s coming soon, boy. Mark my words. It—”
The rebel stopped short, chained electricity binding his wrists coming loose, too quick for Taina to grab hold of it. “Korr!” she yelled.
The rebel leapt at Korr, throwing a fist forward. A swelling sphere of magic emerged from his knuckles, aimed straight at Korr’s chest.
But Korr was already anticipating the attack. He raised his forearm and took the blow of the rune, shadowy orb smashing into his vambrace. For a split second, he could grasp the intended action of the rune: shatter any bones it came in direct contact with.
The dark sphere splintered, altering as soon as it touched his armor, magic webbing off in different directions, over his steel-plated breastplate, cuisses and greaves.
The wards etched in his armor glowed a furious bright light, threatening to break under the pressure of magic. However, as Korr pushed them, they held, and converted the energies. Wisps of light and heat were discharged harmlessly across his shoulders, elbows and knees.
When the fury of the runes fizzled into nothing, Korr stared hard at the djinn. He swung his fist and caught the marid squarely in the jaw, throwing him back several feet. Korr curled his fingers around the hilt of his short-sword and raised it up, ready to plunge the steel into the djinn’s neck.
Hesitation came, and he gritted his teeth, anger slowly dissipating as he gauged the situation with a cool and calculated poise. Rising to his feet, he gazed down at the three survivors with disconnect and sheathed his short-sword.
Not worth bloodying my hands.
He turned and strode away, Taina close at his heels like a silent ghost. They stalked away, hollow marred only by the sound of Korr’s boots thumping against the quay.
“Kill them,” he commanded with a wave of a hand.
The uneven road bumped the coach as they climbed the steep hillocks of the central districts, but the rocking carriage couldn’t tear Korr’s eyes away from the tall docking tower of the Grand Harbor. Murky and menacing, it stood like a blacksmith’s thick, soot-covered finger.
The city of Psya Agunen rising around him was a dark and dreary mass of steeples and iron towers, fringed by spire-clad walls of heavy stone. Although human, Korr appreciated the function-first attitude of the alchemist. They cared little for aesthetic principles. Even the most illustrious artists and sculptures of Ventris were an uninspiring breed in the eyes of blacksmiths. Such was the culture of the east.
Sitting in the passenger bay, with his hands in his lap and his short-sword and shield placed neatly behind the driver’s seat, he watched the airships in the distance. They seemed more like crawling flies against a smoky windowpane. General Tymour’s gonna have my head for being late, he thought, pressing his lips together and continually tapping his forefinger on his knee.
But the coachman didn’t seem to share his impatience. They trundled along, leisurely rounding the giant statue of Einion Ironheart. It was a significant journey from Westside to the Noble District.
Zeppelin airships, motorized carriages and steam-powered automatons became the staple of Psya Agunen in previous years. As always, a constant cloud of black smoke drifted above the skyline. It was an image that belonged solely to the great city.
Stripped of his worn, dented armor, Korr felt naked. He was garbed in black trousers and a dark waistcoat with a silvered lining over a cream-white shift. He was a soldier in the Iron Army, unaccustomed to attending balls. They made him nervous, paranoid even. Two short, thin stilettos hid in a concealed scabbard along the side of either boot. However, under the gaze of an untrained eye, he would seem like an extended guest of the Iron King. For once, he looked like a normal wyr.
When the coach came to a halt, Korr slipped out onto the cobblestone road to stare up at Ironheart Castle’s towering front gates and the twin hammer sigil forged into the spikes above them. The grounds remained enclosed by tall fences, patrolled by several Steelguard, day and night. Two brick gatehouses stood on either side of the entrance’s lancet arch, beyond which several carriages were already running, spewing out thin mists from their exhausts.
One of the armored sentries took leave from his post and approached him, recognition in his eyes. “Can I help you, sir?”
Korr stopped at the entrance of the portcullis. “Looks like I’m a little late,” he said, observing several noblemen and their colorfully gowned wives and paramours slip into their respective coaches.
“That you are, captain.”
Korr didn’t turn to the guard when he asked, “Has General Tymour left for the garrison yet?”
“No, sir. He’s still in there with Lady Taina and the ambassadors from Sanctum City.”
Korr didn’t reply, studying the demeanor of several representatives from the other nations. But it didn’t matter where the foreigners came from. Korr was always ill at ease when external diplomats made their presence felt in the Blacklands. Highborn were all the same. To them, it didn’t matter who got the steel. Every wyr, aristocratic or baseborn, was expendable.
In the silence, Korr made it clear he wished to be left alone. The guard accepted the wordless suggestion seamlessly. “By your leave, Captain Korr,” he said.
“Good evening, officer.”
The cadet snapped a salute and made his exit.
After a moment of hesitation, Korr slipped across the paved entrance and through the throng of noble folk, his head bowed to remain unnoticed.
Considering humans were usually never more than slaves, his rounded ears made him conspicuous in any city north of the Bend. But the narcissistic demeanor of the highborn was a quality never wrongly exaggerated, and Korr made it through to the large doors of the great hall entirely unmolested.
Inside, dozens of slaves were cleaning up the clutter left behind in the wake of the conference. Broken glasses, sticky residue of spilled wine and large chunks of the ten-course feast decorated the floor. Most humans had never seen so much food in one place, and here some had been left to sift through the disarray and somehow restore order.
Extra chandeliers had been brought down to the floor, and the tables had been upturned to allow efficient sweeping. The whole scenario looked more like a training course for infantrymen rather than a royal ball. Korr regarded the scene with silent disgust and had to stop himself from shaking his head outright.
General Tymour sat at the elevated altar table at the front of the hall, upon which the highest borne of the nobles dined during the conference. Leftover dishes from the feast decorated the tablecloth, and the burly alchemist was entirely focused on his food. Like Korr, Tymour was almost unrecognizable out of the hulking armor that plated his body and in the formal black jacket, upon which were sewn silver epaulets and sweeping embroidery.
Even amidst a crowd of alchemists—wyr with smoky skin and black-tipped pointed ears—the High General could be singled out with ease due to his towering size, wide nose and eerie purple eyes. Even with the slightest of looks, puckered scars from prior campaigns were evident on his face and neck. He was, all in all, a domineering specimen.
Korr drew near and Tymour perked up, sensing his presence, like a lead wolf picking up the scent of a pack member returning from a hunt. The High General stuck the razor sharp cutting knife into the remaining beef roast and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You’re late,” he grunted.
“Cleaning up the mess from the harbor,” Korr said, pulling a chair from the table.
“Taina was here on time.”
Korr felt the sting of Tymour’s words, but recovered as he sat. “Taina came straight back to the castle, sir. I didn’t.“
Tymour held his gaze in the same harsh, penetrating manner Korr could scarcely meet. He slid a prepared plate over to Korr and returned to his own food, stabbing at the chunks of meat with hungry fervor. Korr’s tray contained a haunch of spiced roast, blue cheeses, potatoes and an assortment of leafy vegetables.
“His Grace saved this for you before he went up the West Tower,” Tymour said, eyes on his own food. “You should probably get to it before it gets too cold.”
Korr took a bite from the cheese and potato and marveled at the sharpness. He proceeded to grab the roast and lifted the haunch to his mouth, nibbling at the crisped edge.
“Did you trace them back to their den?” Tymour asked.
“Managed to capture three, sir. Didn’t seem too afraid to give up their lives.”
Tymour paused between bites, fork at his mouth. “Did you take them?”
Korr held Tymour’s gaze for several moments, and a wordless understanding passed between them.
“Well then, at least you made it clear the Iron Army’s willing to dirty their hands. Get their exact headquarter whereabouts on your next excursion.”
“I will, sir.”
They were interrupted by the unmistakable click-clack of heeled shoes against hard flooring. Like a lithe swan, Taina came across to the altar, gliding as if she were a practiced noblewoman, the hem of her skirt swaying a whisper’s distance from the floor.
No longer encumbered by the Elementalist armor of expeditions and task force work for the Iron Army, she opted to wear a cream-colored collared shirt over a black skirt and gloves. Her thin lips were painted a blood red and her short dark hair was tied in a black mesh with dainty pearls woven into it. As usual, her piercing green eyes would only meet Korr’s for a fraction of a moment before darting away, as if she were afraid one look of hers would burn right through him.
She wasn’t alone. One of King Aaros’ personal guards followed closely behind her. Korr studied the king’s silent protector keenly, who, like him, was also one of Aaros’ adopted humans.
“General Tymour,” Taina said coolly, before turning to Korr. “Korr.”
“Out with it, girl,” Tymour snapped impatiently.
“His Grace would like to see Korr in the West Tower, when he’s done with his supper.” She gestured to the guardsman. “Karkov here will escort him there.”
“Now?” Tymour asked.
“Yes,” the guardsman said. “He’s to meet him in his solar.”
The look on Tymour’s face told Korr the old general was aware of what the summoning entailed, but was sworn to silence by the king. “Thought he’d wait till tomorrow at least to call you up.”
“Can I ask what this is about, sir?” Korr inquired.A weak smile touched Tymour’s lips. “Sorry, kid—you’re going to have to find out for yourself.”
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