Five tens and three days since the Mark of the Other One blossomed.
The voidstones had awakened. Five pillars of wild energies pierced the skies all over the human kingdoms and brought destruction and sorrow in places. The ancient wards had held in Ironcourt, but barely. A few buildings near the spire had been damaged, yet thankfully no lives were lost.
In Whitefall most of the Palace of the Pureblooded had crumbled and sent one fifth of the city with it into the seas. The Ebon Spire remaining where it had been, but floating in the air and torn into a twisted visage of a giant flower.
In Ordruch a giant crater now decorated the centre of the capital. The Ebon Spire there torn into another twisted visage of a giant flower, with the complete voidstone hovering above. Many lives had been lost in those cities. All the others fared much better.
And east of the Greater Spine of Tavran three more pillars of darkness had shattered the skies. One above the mountain range and the others barely visible on the distant horizon. And one final pillar was seen in the north. Where the Iordurians had flourished, until their kingdom, the home of the Pureblooded Emperors, was shattered by the Makers of Light.
One of the voidstones thought lost beyond the Greater Spine was almost in reach of the Empire. But one would have to bring the entire army of a nation to break through the demons and awakened ones residing north. Shadowwatch over Tristen had been a place of battle and tempering for the Empire’s armies close to two thousand years now. The demons were held at bay but it was impossible to drive them away from the borders.
Two days since the voidstones had awakened and with it winter had finally arrived in Ironcourt. Soft snow was slowly blanketing the entire city. Frost and ice had decorated the riverbanks and leftover puddles for a while now.
For Keldin everything was a huge mess. The problem of who would take the throne had become an urgent matter since the Emperor Naivir the Fourth had collapsed on the evening the voidstones had awakened, in full view of many senators and warlords. The same had happened to Seldin. Keldin had had no choice in the matter. As of yesterday, his father officially named him as the first heir.
The final nail in the coffin was the Pelesi Princess’ interest in Keldin. They had met twice as she was still settling in. Both times, awkward and controlled gatherings with too many guests and onlookers. But she had made it clear that Keldin was the one who had caught her attention. A small part of him had felt flattered but the overwhelming responsibilities drowned those feelings. The piling work and duties also kept him from mulling too long on Seldin. The spite and anger were still there. However, a feeling of loss and mourning had come, as if a piece of his familiar world had died.
“Keldin Ebonveil are you listening!” The Emperor roared. Seldin was in the room too. Along with their uncle Navvar and his wife Tulsa and daughter Teresa.
“Yes! Yes I am listening!” Keldin roared back and turned his attention from the window to the strict and minimal office of the Emperor.
“Lies!” Naivir looked out of the window. “If you want to keep mistresses find a more discreet way of doing it, do not stare out of the window every time one of your bed warmers appears on the horizon.” Navvar’s wife let out a small cough and her daughter stifled a laughter.
Keldin threw one last spiteful look at the random maid down in the street and glanced at Seldin for a moment. “It’s late. The topic is long overdue. I named you first heir, but the initiative has to come from you, my son! I can talk and waste my breath on those idiots in the Council all I want, succession has never been the job of the one about to give up his throne. Strength and power! If you are strong, you must raise your own voice and tell me. Tell everyone! That is how the Empire has ruled and kept the balance of power for thousands of years. Strength of blood and mind!” But you seem to like the sound of your voice so damned much you can barely shut up, father dear. Keldin thought. “Tell me of the Princess. I’ve only seen her once and in annoying company.”
“She is a beauty, brother. A woman worthy of your son.” Navvar said.
“Hmph! Let’s hope my son can be worthy of her!”
“She has taken an interest.” Keldin squeezed out a few words. The atmosphere in this room couldn’t have been more awkward for him.
“That’s putting it lightly.” Seldin chuckled. In public, his brother still kept up the act of getting along with Keldin. He did not have to pretend so hard any more. Keldin was still angry with him. “Her heart seems to be completely stolen by Keldin. It’s the best match.”
“We have talked twice. It might be her first impression of me.” Keldin tried to bring the room’s expectations down to a more manageable level.
“More than anything, I hate that habit of selling yourself short. You are an Ebonveil! You are my son! Stop hiding in the background.” The Emperor barked.
“Brother, listen.” Seldin leaned closer. “You are everything I am and there is much more hiding inside you. We have all been given different blessings and curses in life. Accept yourself and you will become much stronger than you are now.” His brother’s eyes looked sincere. A lump had formed in Keldin’s throat and he felt miserable.
“Don’t delay Keldin.” His father suddenly talked with a quieter voice. “The entire world is watching. Now more than ever with the Mark of the Other One blossoming and the voidstones waking up. If the thought of ruling an empire is too much, simply start with the thought of keeping what was ours, ours. The Ebonveil bloodline has lost much.” The Emperor stared at a piece of paper in front of him and cleared his throat. “A draft has passed the Grand Council and the Greater Conclave has approved it as well.” Naivir the Fourth coughed again. “I intervened and vetoed the idiotic parts but because the base idea gained the support of the entire Council, we will have to take it into consideration. They will not take no for an answer and ultimately it is an issue we must take action on.”
“The voidstones.” Navvar cleared his voice before continuing. “At the end of the day, the stones still belong to us. Since they fell into slumber and the old empire fell, there had been no way of bringing them back to our bloodline, the family left them where they were. Over time, those in the hands of other nations became gifts of good-will.” Navvar rolled his eyes at his own words.
Naivir continued after his brother was distracted by a glass of water. “One thought lost was revealed in the north. Shadowwatch on Tristen reported the pillar of flow coming from somewhere towards the western coast. And the Council can say all it likes, the way I see it, it is not close by any stretch of the imagination.” Naivir coughed. His health really was in decline after the voidstones’ awakening. Had the stone affected him or had his old age caught up with him, Keldin thought.
“Still far north, but below the Lesser Spine, somewhere in Safehaven Forests. Two possible cities are in the area. Both on different branches of the river Yal, Shadowwatch finds the likely candidates to be Yalthar and Yalfen.” Naivir the fourth took a deep breath, looking displeased with the situation.
“Family matters.” Navvar’s wife jested. “But the stone in Luxor is also within reach. No one has gone after that one. And how is it easier to transport an awakened stone than a slumbering core? The core was a small cylinder the size of ones’ head. The real thing is as tall as an Ereko if I remember correctly. Taller even if you would believe the countless paintings.”
“Two hives stand directly in the way of Luxor. And the Sinwatch fort has been sealed, no one dares undo that to go through the mountains. Coming from the north you would have to cross the Nandari.” Seldin had stood up and walked over to a giant map of the known world to examine it. “Safehaven is closer and during summer it would be easy to follow the coast north with a ship.”
“She has a point still. You couldn’t even move a slumbering voidstone core after our family’s blood thinned. How are you going to find a ship small enough to escape notice and large enough to contain one of the most powerful arcane relics ever created? The seas off Bitternest are swarming with war-ships from Ordruch, Pelesi and Dorwald. In addition to ours.” Keldin asked.
“Moving it is no longer a problem. Although they are bound by our blood, Furos has informed me that research has been done on the stone long enough that simple methods of manipulation by outside forces have been discovered.” Naivir yawned and shifted his chair closer to the open fireplace. “It is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, when someone returns from the Iordurion peninsula and displays a voidstone in their capital for all to see. The other kingdoms may have forgotten and they will outright ignore our rightful ownership of the voidstones, but that does not mean we should let it happen. Come spring there will be an idiotic race to reach the river Yal.”
“I would say we have to get the stone in the north at all costs, perhaps even consider leaving before spring, but I imagine it’s not that simple.” Keldin attempted to add anything meaningful to the conversation, but every word felt awkward and inappropriate.
“Hmph! You are learning. No, it is not that simple.” Naivir took a deep breath and rolled his eyes. “We already own a voidstone. Because our bloodline left the voidstones where they were, some nations think there is some unspoken agreement, that voidstones in no-man’s-land also belong to no one. Should we recover the lost voidstone for ourselves other nations will blame us for warmongering, power hoarding, you name it. And I will guarantee that in such a situation, the Arcane Crux will demand that the recovered voidstone be given to a nation without one. In fact, I have already received a diplomatic notice, advising me of the proper way to handle this delicate situation.” Following father’s gaze, Keldin found a letter with a familiar blue hand on it.
“What are they going to do in such a situation? Declare war?” Navvar laughed. “We would have two voidstones.”
“And how would we use them?” Seldin still stood by the map. With a shock, Keldin realised, that his brother’s health had taken a turn for the worse. Seldin looked pale and skinnier than normal, now that he had a chance to look at his brother more properly. “They may be bound by our blood, but blood has thinned! It is the one inescapable fact. Just as all humans have lost their power, so have we. Our loss is bigger.”
It made sense. And Keldin had an idea of his own.
“Alone, a single nation may be afraid of our army. We are the only nation on Tavran in active war. Our armies are battle tested and many times larger than any other. However, the Arcane Crux holds sway over all the other nations. Everyone has been looking for an excuse to go to war with us ever since the Age of Stagnation began. Two voidstones would be all the excuses they needed.”
“Not all the other kingdoms are against us. Nevertheless, the idea is correct. If the Arcane Crux gets involved in a war against us, we would face an alliance.” Seldin crossed his arms.
“A weak alliance.” Everyone turned to look at the door. Archmage Furos was standing in the doorway. No one had heard him arrive. He bowed slightly. “I apologise for arriving late. I finally recovered most of what was left of my office.” The Archmage’s quarters had been in the Ebon Spire.
A tall and everlasting man, he had seen battle in the fallen Tristen first hand. Scars covered his face and neck and even though he was missing an arm, he was still one of the most powerful humans in all of Tavran. In spite of his old age, no grey hair marred the sight of his majestic red long hair and full beard. The most peculiar sight about the old man were his amber eyes that seemed to shine at times.
“You’re excused!” Naivir growled. Furos was a childhood friend of Keldin’s father and uncle. It was one of the reasons the Archmage was such a capable being. Being friends with the heirs to the most powerful bloodline ever had left its mark. “Now explain, a weak alliance? No matter what I still count an army which exceeds ours in numbers.”
“First, the Pelesi Dominion, Ordruch and Ildar will not be going to war with us. We have a marriage arranged with the Pelesi. They never had any tolerance for the Crux, like us they can’t accept the Crux’s inane policy of tightly controlling all arcane knowledge and ancient relics in their allied kingdoms. All while the Crux itself hoards every bit of the arcane it can get its hands on.”
“I told you, brother.” Navvar stood up and offered his seat to the Archmage. “Trade. That is the only reason the Pelesi still hold any form of relationship with the Crux. Like us, they are ruled by an ancient and proud bloodline who still believe the flow and the arcane are the way of this world, regardless of past mistakes.”
“What they show on the surface is but an act...” Naivir finished what Navvar was going to say.
Keldin had heard this discussion repeatedly, ever since the marriage plans were made public. Apparently, his father still had doubts about the Pelesians. “I can understand why Ildar would stay away, in addition to their distance from us. Despite both nations belonging to the Crux, they are at war with Telred. Have been for several hundred years now. Can’t blame them either. The Crux has put them in an awful position. Why would Ordruch stay away?” Naivir looked at Furos.
“They are out of money.” Teresa, Navvar’s daughter was the one to answer. “I heard that in my studies!” As she spoke, her white-golden hair glittered despite the overcast weather. Her and Tulsa were complete opposite in looks compared to the Ebonveil. The Ebonveils were dark and warm while Tulsa’s family was often described as silvery and cold. Time and time again Keldin found himself mesmerised by his cousin’s looks.
Furos nodded and smiled. “While far from broke, they cannot afford to field an army. Their fleets are too precious to them and over the last several decades, their crop yield has fallen. Entire harvests lost in an area that already had limited possibilities for growing crops. Rumour has it the Crux forced them to accept a bad deal with Morwen a while back. They lost fertile soil. Their ambassadors have shown much interest in increased trade with the Empire. I’m surprised you keep forgetting this.”
“Blame the hen house that is the Grand Council. It is their fault I can barely see what lies beyond Ironcourt. This is enough speculation, I would think.” Naivir returned his gaze to the documents on his desk.
“I am sorry, that would be my fault. What are we discussing?” Furos smiled at Naivir.
Keldin grinned and looked at Seldin who had done the same. Yet when he looked away another lump had formed in his throat and his grin died all too quickly. As Keldin pondered this, Navvar let out a small chuckle, but stopped as soon as he saw Naivir chewing on his lips. The only person able to withstand the stern and humourless Emperor was his annoying childhood friend, now crowned the strongest mage in the Human Kingdoms.
“The Voidstone in Safehaven forests.” The Emperor growled.
“Ah! Of course.” Furos smiled again.
“I want to hear your thoughts once more.”
“You can try to retrieve it, but I doubt the stones will obey anymore.” Everyone was silent now, holding their breaths and waiting on the outcome of this. “They didn’t awaken on their own. They cannot awaken on their own. They need a master. If that is even the right word. No one in this room has such power. I am sorry Naivir, but despite your high expectations for Keldin, this is a feat too great for him. He might be worthy of Akresh and Balaar, but not the voidstones.”
“You were given small samples of our blood.” Seldin had an idea and frowned at Furos. Keldin merely looked around bewildered.
“No one can get too close to stone any more. It was excruciating for me, but I tested your blood on the awakened stone. The reaction now is nothing like before. They remember the link to your blood, but it fought furiously against it. The risk is too great.”
“Humans created the voidstones, no other soul will resonate with them. Who in all the human kingdoms has enough power to affect the voidstones now?” Keldin remembered only this much what he had been told about the voidstones.
“Where do all the stones reside, should we start with...” Navvar was about to say.
“Irrelevant.” Furos interrupted him. “No one has such strength of flow any more. There is no doubt, no point in speculation. No known great mage or human in all the human nations has such power. Stagnation has done its job.”
The Emperor sighed and hid his face in his hand.
“In all the human nations.” Naivir struggled with something. “Is this going where I do not want to go? Again!”
“We do not know who still survives beyond the Greater Spine. There may be survivors. And there is always the possibility that a new human soul has entered this world.”
“Stop that!” Naivir was now visibly angry. “It is a myth, a story from the ancient times when our kind did not see beyond the home valley or forest they were living in.”
“I was in Tristen, Navvar. I know what I saw in the scrolls and books I found there. Yes, they were incinerated almost as soon as I found them. Nevertheless, the humans’ birth world is no myth! Even the Alyar speak of such a thing.” Furos rumbled without losing in volume.
“Through our blood and soul courses the proof that we are of this world! How could our kind have existed in a world without the flow if our blood carries such power? How could a world without the flow exist?” Naivir coughed again.
With trouble, he drank a remedy that had been brewed for him. “Answer me this, Furos! Should we reclaim the voidstone in the north? The warlords of the Council say it is within reach.”
“The stones altogether are slipping out of your reach. Do not waste any strength or human life trying to retrieve it. There are other ancient relics and feats of strength for your son to capture the hearts of the Empire with.”
Keldin should have expected it. Princess Sui had reclaimed something that had belonged to her bloodline a long time ago. It was as Seldin had said. The Pureblooded Emperor and his Empress. Those with strength above all ruling an Empire. Blood and mind.
“Furos!” Naivir had been considering something in silence for a while. “Can we really afford to lose a voidstone? If...”
“If they are out of the reach of your bloodline, then they are most certainly out of everyone else’s.” The Archmage interrupted the Emperor. It was nothing new, but hearing it was unusual as always. “Trophies are for those who need to compete. Let them take it. Show them you need not compete for the past, you already are the victor. The stone will not heed any master.”
These words resonated with Keldin. Do not linger on the past, move forward and accept your being. You were born to rule after all. Hesitation and anger about the present remained. How do you accept that which you wish to change?
“It will be impossible to make the Grand Council accept it.” Seldin said. “They only see the strength in that which has always been such a symbol.”
“Then we need to forge a new symbol of strength.” Keldin said louder than he had intended. He was looking at the floor, hands held as if praying. He hoped that what he was about to say was right. “The Mark has blossomed, a new Age is about to dawn. Only a few tens ago that was all they were crying. They wanted changes, a new breath of wind. Make them understand that and they will find a way to let go of the stone.” Keldin looked into his father’s eyes, determined.