Branches snapped as Kyran Sylarus pushed his way through the thick forest, the wind howling and tearing at his thick bear pelt cloak whenever it could push past the trees. The snare Kyran approached had trapped a rabbit, a small yet coveted prize here high on the mountain so far removed from civilization. Kyran’s stomach rumbled, his hunger growing now that such a treat was in hand - hunting had been rough the past few weeks, even for the deep winter months that now sieged the mountainside, and the rations were growing increasingly bland by the day. A rabbit, though it would likely only feed him for a meal if that, was a welcome change to the monotony of salted meats and rice. Kyran quickly collected the small gift from the forest, looped a small piece of string around its feet, and hung it by the string from his belt so that his hands could stay free.
It was dark, as it had been for some hours now, as Kyran marched back to his outpost, checking his traps after a long day of short, intermittent patrols. His normal watch duty, a dull task of looking out over a cliff from in a tower over a rarely travelled road for hours on end, had been scrapped in favor of a general area patrol. The storm around him had raged throughout the day, completely obstructing any view he might have had of the trail far below in the mountain pass over which he watched day after day. Kyran thought a dragon could have marched through, breathing fire and melting stone, and he would have been none the wiser with how vehemently the wind and snow buffeted the mountaintops. Even with his change in task, his patrols were short, consisting mostly of quick walks around the area to check his traps and look for any obvious signs of ill-intentioned creatures, though there had not been those in Korinn’s Roost in many years, long before Kyran had been born. The weather was more likely to end a man here than any troll or orc.
Life here at Korinn’s Roost - a grandiose name for the singular watchtower with a singular watchman nestled in the Fangral Mountains between Kalanathos, the capital city of the Northern Realms, and Moraldain, the bordering kingdom to the south - was lonely, to say the least; it was two days ride north by horseback to the nearest farming village, three days to any real sort of civilization more than fifty people. Kyran lived here alone, far removed from the common life he had lived for the first twenty years of his life. It had been three years - maybe four, Kyran could not quite remember anymore - since Mormund had resigned, and the Eye of Galdrin had never sent a replacement. Kyran had ventured plenty of guesses as to why, low recruitment numbers or a conflict brewing to the South perhaps, but had never gotten a straight answer from Marcellia, his commander. He had Mal’Avin to converse with on occasion, but the conversations were often so grim and foreboding that he could rarely enjoy them more than a few minutes, and even her visits only came once a month at most.
It was as he approached his tower that the wolf crept out of the mist, its grey and white coat disguised in the snow. The huge beast, eight feet in size, stalked toward Kyran, its head low to the ground, a low growl rumbling in its throat. Kyran immediately recognized it by the impressive array of scars on its left side, likely from an encounter with a bear or even a nightstalker; whatever had done it, the wounds had been bad enough to ensure the patches remained devoid of fur, exposed forever to the harsh cold of the mountain. He had been accosted by this same hound several times before. Kyran lowered his hand to his sword hilt; as his hand grazed the pommel, the growl rose, and Kyran could see the wolf’s sharp teeth brandished like daggers. Kyran held for a moment, then let out a defeated sigh. His hand lifted away, slowly swinging to the rabbit that hung on his opposite leg. The growl subsided only slightly, but the wolf stopped its advance. With a pang of regret, Kyran tossed the rabbit to the ground. The wolf glared at Kyran, their eyes locked, as it stared him down, daring him to reach for the sword again. Finally, the wolf broke its gaze, the growl subsiding as it claimed its tribute ravenously then trotted swiftly off into the trees, glancing back only briefly to ensure Kyran did not pursue.
Kyran cursed to himself. This was the fourth time the wolf had ambushed him like this, claiming Kyran’s hard-earned meal for his own. Two together could easily take the creature, and even alone he thought he stood a fair chance, but with no one to help tend to his wounds should the wolf get the better of him, the risk was too great. The rations the Eye provided were bland, but not intolerable, and dying over a rabbit would be a sorry way to go.
The snow had plastered itself to the thick oaken door, its iron handle icy and difficult to get a solid grip on. With the snow building up in front of the door, heaving it open was a chore on its own. The cool air chased Kyran into his small tower on the edge of the mountain cliff. He quickly raised a hand; small red tendrils slithered quickly forth from his fingertips to his palm, coalescing into a brighter orange-colored orb that then leapt forth, bursting into a blaze of flame as it landed in the hearth. The reddish-orange light of the newly lit hearth gleefully danced along the walls, welcoming the lord of the keep home. The warmth swelled, filling the room and pushing back the cold air that laid siege to Kyran’s tower. Kyran noticed the letter sitting in the small basket at the landing halfway up a set of rickety wooden stairs that led to the watchtower’s covered roof, where Kyran would watch over the merchant road during the days that snow did not mask it completely from sight. A raven must have come from Marcellia, likely another scolding over his ever uneventful reports. He stood and collected the letter, affirming his suspicion when he saw the wax seal that matched the sigil on his cloak: three dots in a circle around a simple rendition of the head of a dragon, Galdrin, First of Dragons and Protector of Ensyndaria.
Collecting one of the rations from the small cellar in the tower, Kyran started preparing his meal. As he let the water boil for his tea, he peeled open the letter. It was certainly Marcellia’s handwriting, though the hurried, erratic writing surprised him - Marcellia’s letters normally were written near perfectly, much like a scribe’s, but this had a few errant drops of ink, several notable misspellings, and even a few words scribbled out entirely, something Kyran was certain he had never seen in any official Eye of Galdrin document before. It read:
“Kyran: Be aware that several posts to the south of you have reported strange occurrences following a band of three travelers moving north towards Kalanathos along the Merchant’s Road. Reports claim they move with haste and without rest, and within the day of their passing through the areas, several watchmen have notified us of animal attacks, toppled trees, and further oddities, including large groupings of black slugs, walking skeletons, and dark omens on land and in the sky. Furthermore, we have lost contact with the three watchmen at Frigilla’s Tooth; We fear this group to be linked directly to these occurrences, and to potentially be practicing dark magicks. We also have reason to believe that a Giant is in pursuit of the party; if you see or hear any sign of such a creature, your orders are to retreat immediately and send a report at the earliest opportunity.”
Kyran reread the message several times while he ate. None of it made sense, he thought to himself. Giants had fought alongside the Northern Realms and its allies during the Wars of Shadow, and there had been no quarrels between giants and men that had led to bloodshed in hundreds of years, let alone violent enough to warrant stalking the aggressors near halfway across the continent as would be required to reach Korinn’s Roost. Even if they had managed to find and cross an ice giant, the only giants within a hundred leagues, they would have been chased across the whole of the Fangral Mountains. Furthermore, a giant did little to explain the other phenomena; the toppled trees, maybe, but giants were no users of magic, especially the likes of necromancy, and what possible explanation could connect any sort of giant with black slugs?
As he picked the meat from between his teeth, Kyran rose and meandered about his humble housing, finding any way he could to pass the time as he continued to ponder the strange note. He passed in front of the grime-covered mirror set upon the desk he used to write up his formal monthly reports. Stopping to inspect himself briefly, he took note of the dark rings around his green eyes. He traced his fingers along the scar that ran across his right cheek, reaching from just below his lip up almost to his ear. Even now, two years after Mal’Avin had branded him, Kyran winced at the touch, the wound ever tender and aching. A thick brown beard hanging from his chin, now almost completely obscuring his neck, still damp from the adventure out into the darkness. He had a general disinclination for the beard, but the small added warmth it provided made it worth keeping for the winter months. Truth be told, the mess of hair on his head did nothing to help his haggard appearance, and Kyran thought he might be easily mistaken for a beggar or a madman.
He continued his nightly ritualistic journey around the room, glancing at the few personal items he had out on the table - a letter from his brother, his mother’s locket, his father’s pocket watch - and ran his fingers across them. His family was gone now, save his grandparents, all taken by the fever that had ravaged the Northern Realms some twenty years ago. A long, thin rosewood case laid flush against the wall, a layer of dust hiding its glossy finish. It was several feet long, just shorter than the length of the table, and near half a foot wide, its lid engraved with an ornate rendition of the sigil of the Eye of Galdrin: an intricate depiction of the three small orbs, one of fire, one of ice, and one of stone, surrounding a singular dragon’s head, its fiery green eyes fearless and proud. Aside from the coat of arms, the chest was simple, with two iron latches and no other distinguishing marks of note. The chest had belonged to his father, and inside it was the sword that had been bequeathed to Kyran at the time of his brother’s passing. Kyran had never opened it, and though his curiosity called out to him every time he laid eyes on it, pushing Kyran to look upon the treasure he knew was inside, he could never bring himself to do it. It reminded too much of his father, and few memories though he had, there was little here on the mountain to pull him back out of any dark line of thought that might take hold, especially on a stormy evening like this.
A series of brutal pounding noises thundered through the tower as splinters shot out of the door, showering Kyran like thousands of tiny lightning bolts. Kyran nearly lost his footing as he jumped in surprise; a knock, or more closely an assault, on the door of his tower had not been heard since Mormund had completed his deployment here years ago. Mal’Avin came at times to the tower, monthly at most, but never knocked, and certainly she would not do so harshly enough to make the door convulse so violently. Even if she was capable of such force, she had never come at night before, and Kyran shuddered to think what would make her concerned enough to venture out in such a storm at night on his account. Kyran hastily drew his sword and listened intently, his feet bound to the ground, unsure of what he had find on the other door; the wind relentlessly howled on, but he heard no motion from the door that might be from any creature, let alone one powerful enough to nearly shatter a thick, iron-bound oaken door.
Kyran waited as time crawled at a glacial speed; one minute, then five, then another ten, all the while his sword held at the ready, but no second knocking came. Finally, he collected what little courage had not fled into the night, never to return, and moved towards the door. The oaken planks groaned in the wind, this time with a hint of warning in them, urging Kyran to stay away, to stay in his tower where the wind and the world could not reach him. Kyran’s fingers wrapped around the icy-cold iron ring, his sword arm lifted up into the air, ready to crash down onto whatever malevolence might lurk on the other side. With one swift motion, Kyran yanked the door open.
Snow and storm greeted him like an old friend, but no creature large or small stood at the entrance to his stony accommodations. He hesitantly glanced out the door, first to the left, then the right, praying all the while that this further inspection would not reveal some assailant with dark intent. With no such revelation, Kyran inched out into the snow, sword still ready to strike or defend, and began circling the tower. As he completed his brief patrol, his mind raced, trying to piece together what might have disturbed his evening. The knocks had been equally spaced in time, and equal in force; this ruled out any sort of bear or direwolf that might have accidentally come across the place. No, it had to have been a creature of higher intelligence, a human or an elf perhaps, or maybe an orc. Whatever it was, he would much like not to find out, for anything who could have bent an oaken door near in half several times in succession was no foe Kyran wanted to face.
As Kyran re-entered his home, he turned to do one last scan when he saw the figure looming some fifty feet away. It was faint, obscured by the snow and mist, but Kyran could see it was slender, its cloak flapping about in the wind. It stood no taller than Kyran, maybe even a bit shorter, and seemed to have no weapon Kyran could see. Facing away from Kyran, it stood resolute and unyielding, an immovable obelisk in the raging storm. Kyran’s grip tightened around the hilt of his blade as he called out. “Hello there, stranger! Poor night to be out alone, especially in a place so remote as this!” The figure did not move, nor even turn to acknowledge him. Kyran stepped forward, exposing himself again to the wind and snow, hoping, pleading that whoever stood before him had simply not heard him over the wind. “Do you need a place to wait out the storm?” Kyran waited for nearly a minute, but no movement came, save the cloak snapping as the wind tossed it about. Resolving to put an end to this nightmare, regardless of the cost, Kyran ventured further back out into the snow, both hands on the sword he held out in front of him. Each step was a chore, each braver than the last, each one a step closer to death. The wind wailed, and Kyran thought it even pulling him further out into the cold, closer to whatever man or monster stood so still and ominous.
Instinct and muscle memory alone saved Kyran. He walked as he had been trained, placing one foot firmly on the ground before lifting the other, maintaining a fighting stance as he approached. As he lowered his left foot, somewhere around thirty feet from the safety of his tower now, a flash of realization struck him as his foot met only air. Kyran’s body lurched forward; with clumsy desperation he spun his body, his fingers clawing at the ground as his legs carried him over the edge of the mountain. His right hand slipped, meeting only flat icy rock and snow. His left hand, however, found a hold just large enough to catch himself on; he scrambled with his right hand, and after only a second he found another crag to cling to. His chest and head now lie flat on the rock, the edge of the cliff jabbing into his stomach. His legs kicked frantically in the frigid air as he hauled himself back to safety. Below him he heard the clanging, ringing sound of iron bouncing its way down the five-hundred foot rock wall to the bottom. He strained and pulled himself back up over the edge to the safety of the icy ground he knew.
As he rose back to his feet, he turned and saw clearly the edge of the cliff. No figure stood before him, no cloak snapping in the wind. Kyran began muttering to himself, confusion quickly replacing the fear that had so wholly consumed him only moments before as he backed away towards his tower. “No, no, I saw it. I saw the ground there, I saw that man, bless Galdrin himself, I heard his cloak!” He replayed it again and again in his head, yet it never changed. Even fixated so closely on that creature, on whatever it had been, his eyes would not have been so blind as to miss the edge of the cliff he could see so clearly before him now, even in this storm, and yet he had nearly walked over the edge. Even if he could forgive the slip in judgment that had almost sent him tumbling to his death, how had there been a person there, some twenty feet over the edge, standing on nothing but wind and will? Kyran looked around urgently, hoping, praying now that he would see some sign of the thing, some sign of the cloak-garbed figure that might at least give him the solace that he was not going completely insane. No such solace came.
Trudging back to the tower, his eyes still darting about as he scanned the trees, he looked down, confusion plunging further into outright bafflement, as he realized the only footprints in the snow were his own. No tracks came to the tower nor left it. He looked at the outside of the door, and saw no indication that any disturbance had even occurred, aside from his opening it. He glanced back over his shoulder one final time, just to be sure, but only the snow and mist greeted him. Even from here, he could now plainly see the edge that he had so nearly thrown himself over only moments ago. He shook his head in disbelief, his mind clawing for an answer. He watched behind him as he pulled the door shut, half-hoping that he would see one final glimpse of whatever had lured him out into the night. Regret swept over Kyran instantly as he turned around. The sight of the interior of his tower paralyzed him with terror, only his eyes free to roam and consume the mayhem before him. Across the walls and ceilings were scrawled a series of hectic, maniacally inscribed letters and symbols, covering every inch of available space to be found. The symbols were painted on in a myriad of dark colors, some Kyran thought he’d never seen before. Directly centered on the ceiling, one large symbol stood out, its form crisp and precise in contrast to the smaller scribblings, as though hand-carved over centuries by the finest artists of their times. An intricate, meticulous depiction of a rightward-facing dragon’s skull stared out into the world with hatred and fury, a single malignant, deranged yellow eye looking at Kyran, raging with all of the malice of the Dreadlord himself. Cracks webbed the ivory bones, and row upon row of teeth were displayed, a sea of blades each tipped with dark red droplets. A sword driven had been driven downward through the skull, hellfire raging around its blade. Kyran recognized the symbol immediately, as would anyone who had resided in the Northern Realms: it was the sigil of the Godslayer Malatheron. It was the omen of death.