Chapter 0: The Beginning.
Why are you here? To read some grand truth? To experience some profound impulse within the depths of your soul? Or maybe you’re a sensible individual, and you just want to be entertained by an action story with magic and swords. Well, listen to my words, and you shall receive all these things and more.
This world, known as Caminus in the West and Yishu in the East, is beset by all manner of competing forces. Legions of Demons, Sorcerers, and Lawyers wrestle for the souls of all mortal trash. Yet no battleground is more contested than the Feudal Kingdom of Leo. It is here, amidst yet another war over some backwater hovel, that our drama begins...
Night had fallen over the castle of Stonehauze. The stars shone over its high walls, and the wind howled over the mountains that played its host. So great was the wind that the keep’s watchmen had to relight their torches, though it had no practical purpose. Stonehauze was surrounded, and the invader’s campfires far exceeded anything the defenders could muster.
The bonfires could be felt from the top of the highest tower. Such had been the “battle’s” state for nearly three days now. Three days of watching a foe that would not be provoked, would not advance, and yet charging against would be suicide. The defenders were not tired or fatigued, no. Something far worse had infected them: tedium.
As was noted by the captain of Stonehause: Adventurer and Mercenary Extraordinaire, John Paul MacArthur. “Gods damn amateurs, they couldn’t defend their mothers against a toothless squirrel...and where the hell are my archers!?”
The torches gleamed on John Paul’s armor, the steel strips laced across his chest left his wire muscled arms free to grab his bow or qabar knife, whichever he needed at the moment. His ragged face turned to look at the base of the walls, and the soldiers gathered there around their own campfires...as well as the occasional member of his troop who kept to their posts.
The MacArthur Brothers were professionals to the core and didn’t affiliate with the levies or men at arms of their employers, not when so many of them were likely to die in the coming battle. The whole farce gave John Paul a headache, which he hoped to soon temper. With this humble objective in mind, he sauntered towards the inner keep, where his employer had sequestered herself.
It was a long walk, but strangely pleasant. Stonehauze, seat of the Dukedom of Everfire, was fed by a river that streamed from the top of the mountains, which was gathered into a massive well, and then distributed via ancient aqueducts. The fortress had fully working farmsteads and animal coops within its massive walls and felt more like a city than a post on the fringes of Leo. Leo, that grand old kingdom possessed of so many enemies. Most of whom were its own nobility.
Still, the constant bickering between nobles provided steady work for mercenary companies and the bold adventurer who wasn’t afraid to abandon all moral sense and most of their self-preservation. With this common wisdom in mind, John Paul had accepted a long-term contract at Stonehauze due to its location and build. Bunking in a nigh impregnable fortress while fighting barbarians and the serfs of disloyal vassals should have been easy. The company would have enough work to keep in shape while keeping losses to a minimum.
That was the original thought anyway. For the first few months, The MacArthur Brothers had dealt with bandits and the occasional grumpy lord in need of straightening out. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then without warning or declaration of hostility (as was the custom among these ponce nobles), an army of ten thousand soldiers bearing the sigil of the neighboring Dukedom of Montrose marched on Stonehauze. This force had already met the Everfire’s standing army in the field and had soundly defeated them before the Macarthur Brothers could sally from the Fortress.
“We were careless.”
Yes, this new army, operating with far too much efficiency for a mass levee, had attacked just as the MacArthur’s were getting used to their surroundings. Was this a plan months in the making? Or simply a stroke of luck on the part of the enemy commander? Either way, the final battle always felt just out of reach, and despite the strength of this fortress, John Paul couldn’t help but recognize their position.
Stonehauze’s walls were of little comfort when you were trapped in them. Much to John Paul’s anger. “We need to strike soon. Before they make their move. Maybe sneak out and poison their supplies...”
It was a hard thing to watch, a man dying of poison. Which is why it surprised John Paul that the enemy had not already tried it. But according to all accounts, it hadn’t. His brother’s mage tricks had already seen to that. Magic was a funny thing, it could find poisons as easily as it could melt faces. Of course, that depended on whether the magician was good enough.
John Paul’s brother, Vincent, was good enough. “Big Brother, they’re waiting for us.”
John Paul had to snap back to his senses, get out of his head. He saw his brother standing at the entrance to the great hall. Vincent dressed the part of the mage, he had the flowing robes and a medallion of the Mages College he attended. But he destroyed all other stereotypes with his tall frame and muscular build.
He opened the door for John Paul and presented the way in an over-the-top and courtly manner. “After you, captain.”
John Paul grunted in annoyance and Vincent smiled, knowing that he was doing his job as a little brother. The older sibling walked through the door and was followed by the younger as the great hall shone in brilliant light, with the entire Everfire family creche feasting within as if the army outside their gates were a distant parade. At the head of the highest table sat Teresa Everfire, the head of the family, and her son Alphonse.
Much of Leo’s nobility was elvish or at least had elvish blood in their veins. The Everfires were one of the few families (outside of the Archdukes and some branches of the Royal family itself) that could boast of a pure elvish bloodline. The results spoke for themselves, as flecks of salad and mutton spewed from Teresa’s mouth across the hall and landed at John Paul’s feet.
A fact which the noble lady paid no attention to, as she waved a bloated hand towards the mercenary. “Ah! There’s my bold and dashing Commander! Come and keep an old woman company.”
Alphonse, the thin and rather effete-looking heir to the family name, cleared his throat and did his best impression of official conduct. “Mother, you really must be careful, we worked hard on those floors.”
“The Serfs worked hard on the floors my dear, it’s their only purpose in life.”
As if on cue, one of the serfs in question darted from her place on the wall and scooped up the discarded food from their landings into a dirty rag. She looked up at John Paul as she bumped crumbs onto his boots and moved, almost desperately, to clean them off. “I’m sorry sir, I only meant-”
Vincent knelt by her and helped pick up crumbs with a torn piece of his robes. “Don’t worry Miss, we’ve both gotten worse on our heels. There was this one time-”
“It’s Mrs. actually, and thank you but I’d like to get back to my job now.”
“Uh-Alright, sorry if I-”
Vincent’s babblings fell on deaf ears, as the serving girl finished her work and went out the door to dispose of her trash. John Paul noted the absence of a wedding band on either finger, the same with a betrothal necklace. This wasn’t the first time Vincent had been shot down, for he had a desperate air about him at times, despite his jovial nature.
Such things were unimportant though, and John Paul had his own concerns to deal with. “Lady Teresa, I’d wanted to speak with you in confidence.”
Lady Teresa scarfed down another handful of meat and assorted greens while waving a puffy hand over the array of family and assorted hangers-on gathered in the great hall. “Everyone within this hall is within my confidence, even my pain in the ass son.”
Being eternally youthful, and having nothing to do but sit about and order others into action does not motivate exercise, nor temperance. As such, Lady Teresa had forgone the customary elven litheness in favor of a build more suited to the worst aspects of her station.
Large and immobile, Lady Teresa relied on her son and other trusted family members to bring food to her hands, and on her worse days feed her by spoon. This dinner table service also extended into other areas. For as Lady Teresa began retching, her son sighed and retrieved a bucket from behind the throne, which his mother promptly vomited into. Once that business was done, the dutiful son swiftly handed the bucket off to a servant, in exchange for a fresh one.
Taking this all in stride, John Paul made his case. “Lady Teresa, the length of this siege is beginning to take its toll on your men.”
Alphonse straightened out his cravat and smoothed his forest green tunic. “Surely you exaggerate, Captain. It’s only been three days.”
“And already the troops have grown bored.”
Lady Teresa and her son took this in as rationally as they could. Almost speaking unison “Bored?”
“Yes, my lady bored and complacent. Since we haven’t received word of assistance from your peers, I believe the leader of this attack may wait us out until they are ready to strike, or we starve.”
Lady Teresa chuckled, and Alphonse took the opportunity to exalt himself. “My mother’s humor is well-founded, captain. Stonehauze is self-sufficient and its defenses are the strongest of all the southern fortresses. I doubt even a million knights could break us.”
Teresa wiped her face, chuckling in a strange and almost liquid manner. “Indeed my precious boy, but you’re forgetting something.”
“You’re an idiot.”
John Paul suppressed his laughter. While Alphonse stood still and blinked over and over again as if he hadn’t heard correctly. “Pardon, mother?”
“The captain’s right, it’s getting boring here. We need some blood!”
John Paul hastily shook his head. “That’s not exactly what I meant you ladysh-”
Lady Teresa pointed towards her forehead as if her opinions were something unique and profound. “Yes, but I deciphered the truth behind your automaton-like babble, dear captain. Such is my burden as your employer. You are merely the tool through which my peers and I may enact the grand and moral design of our blood.”
Teresa wagged a coy finger at John Paul. “You should know that.”
At this point, Vincent had trouble keeping still. He never liked it when someone talked down to his brother, and couldn’t hide a defiant tone as he spoke. “So, your Ladyship, what is your grand desi-”
“Is someone speaking? I know that can’t be true. Because I did not give them leave to speak.”
John Paul stepped in front of Vincent, barely containing his anger, yet pushing through for the sake of getting their money...and leaving this damn place with their money. “Your ladyship, I propose we send out a small team of good men and poison the supplies of the enemy army.”
“And then what?”
John Paul gritted his teeth. “She needs more? These damn nobles.”
The mercenary captain struggled for words, before giving up and going for the most obvious answer. “After that, you may set forward with your knights and our company.”
Alphonse stepped down from the table. “And vanquish our enemies like the heroes of old. Mother, allow me to lead the vanguard in your name! I will make our family proud!”
As Alphonse said this, the ground began to shake. Mugs clattered into glasses and tiny pebbles peppered the windows.
John Paul recognized the familiar fear that he harbored in every battle. But now, the sensation was overwhelming. “What the hell?”
Alphonse hurriedly asked his mother what was going on, even as she ordered him to shut up. While this was going on John Paul ran out with Vincent to see the cause of this ruckus. As the brothers burst through the doors, a grand sight awaited them. A massive tide of water and rock streamed from the top of the mountains above Stonehause and was making its way to destroy the entire fortress.
“How the hell did that happen?!”
The thoughts were barely in John Paul’s head before he shouted: “Vincent!”
Vincent raised his hands to the sky and tendrils of light spread from his fingers. A massive dome of energy formed in the sky, blocking the onslaught of rock and water...but only around the inner keep. The shield managed to divert the entire rockslide into the rest of the fortress.
Vincent heard the screams of those in the lower levels. “Oh my gods, Kelethon forgive me.”
John Paul shouted over the cacophony. “Keep us alive, that’s all that matters now.”
“But our men-”
“We’ll get more.”
Vincent screamed in frustration but maintained the shield, until the tide of earth and water finally abated. The younger sibling collapsed to the ground, his hands shaking and sweat tumbling down his forehead. John Paul turned to see the rest of Stonehauze, and was shocked for perhaps the first time in his life. The lower parts of the keep were now completely filled in. Those parts that were not blocked with dirt and rock, were flooded with water. The gates had been broken open, but that didn’t matter. For this mess of earth, saturated by the water, had formed a path out into the field, across the walls, and into the inner keep.
John Paul couldn’t contain his amazement, nor temper his horror. “Did they plan this?”
The enemy was already marching forward, with rams and even boats. They had planned for this. John Paul grabbed his brother, braced him on his shoulder, and ran towards the inner keep. The barrage of arrows and catapults had already begun, softening up what was left of the defenders before the main army would rush in and slaughter the rest.
Amidst the sounds of battle, Vincent had become delirious from his exertions. “How did this happen, Johnny?”
“I don’t know. They must have scaled the mountain from one of the other sides and diverted the flow of the water. That’s why they’ve been waiting for three days.”
"These men are just average ground-pounders. Fodder from a rival family. And they still managed to beat us in the field and now this...Their commander must be exceptional.”
Just as John Paul was about to reach the inner keep, a large boulder smashed into the stairway leading up to a strong door. The stairway collapsed and John Paul tumbled down landing on his brother, who took the brunt of the fall onto a jagged pile of rocks.
John Paul’s ears were ringing, but even with his senses obliterated, he could see his brother’s vacant eyes staring off at nothing...he was dead. Blood dripped out of his mouth and his neck bent in ways that it shouldn’t have.
As he struggled to get up, John Paul saw the bodies of the Everfire levies and his men crushed and buried beneath rocks and dirt. Some of them were still alive, the upper halves of their bodies poking out as they screamed for help that wouldn’t come.
John Paul gritted his teeth, steeling himself for the inevitable. ”Well, I’m not dying like that.”
His bow was shattered against the rock, but the qabar knife still rested at his belt. He drew it and rushed forward just as the Montrose men began finishing off the survivors. Among the rocks and uneven terrain, they were easy prey for John Paul. For their armor, though glistening and polished, had several openings at the neck and under the arms that he took advantage of. Three men fell to his knife before they stopped advancing for him and streamed toward the keep.
He made ready to chase but was stopped by a terrifying sight. “What in the hell is that!?”
Gleaming In the moonlight was a giant of a man in silver plate armor, across his chest was a black tabard with the image of a dark purple flame. His head was covered by a helm of archaic design, in the vein of an ancient Elysian Hoplite. Only his strange catlike eyes were visible beneath it. In his hand was a morning star, its spikes sharpened to a fierce point. And at the giant’s side was a woman, clothed in black robes with violet trim, and the same image of the Imperial Flame emblazoned on her torso. The large man looked at her and nodded. The woman, her blonde hair bracing against her soft features, vanished in a puff of black smoke, which swirled into the keep.
John Paul adjusted the grip on his knife and chuckled to himself. “So much for heroic last stands.”
He rushed toward the silvered titan, blade in hand. His thoughts were to come in low with his knife and strike at this man’s legs, where his armor’s joints might be weak. Instead, the larger man stooped forward, grabbed the weapon with his gauntleted hand, and slammed the handle of John Paul’s own knife into the mercenary’s face. He tumbled down and lost consciousness.
When he finally came to, John Paul found himself on the familiar ground of the great hall, his feet and legs bound, and the bodies of the Everfire family being stacked into a corner and doused with oil. “That quickly...Vincent...”
Voices blared around John Paul, before finally coming into focus. A pompous voice was the first, undoubtedly belonging to a noble scion of some sort. “You’ve done excellent work, Sir Abram. The Knights of the Imperial Flame indeed deserve their reputation, and you have a bright future in their service.”
A strangely deep but not quite basso voice rumbled into the air; cultured and controlled. “Thank you for your kind words, my lord. But though I enjoy triumph as much as the next soldier, I am eager for my fee.”
“Indeed. I must admit, my father and I found your request to be-”
A boot heel dug its way into John Paul’s stomach and turned him onto his back. He looked up and saw the woman from earlier, staring at him with empty black eyes.
Yet even within those empty pits, her disinterest with the defeated mercenary was clear. “Looks like he’s up...what’s left of him anyway.”
The deeper voice cut through the air like a razor. “Let’s see to him then.”
John Paul found himself being picked up and thrown into a chair. He looked up from his seat and saw the silver armored giant sitting across from him. The deeper voice was, perhaps predictably, his. “Is that all of them?”
The tall man turned John Paul’s head toward the pile of corpses. Against his better judgment, the mercenary took the time to count the bodies. The Montrose troops, led by this silvered monster, had indeed purged the Everfire family. But he held his tongue, not wanting to give the enemy any satisfaction.
The Silvered Fiend gave an affirming grunt, not at all impeded by his prisoner’s efforts. “I’ll take your delayed stoicism as confirmation. Still, it won’t hurt to be thorough. Evangeline, summon a few hell hounds and have them sniff the area for stragglers.”
The woman in black was incensed. “Why do I have to do all the grunt work?”
While the Silvered Fiend remained in control. “Because I did the rest.”
“That’s fair I guess.”
“So, get to it.”
The Warlock raised her hands in appeasement and some amount of dismissal. “Alright! Fine! But we’re stopping at the taverns I like on the way back.”
The Silvered Fiend shook his head and chuckled. “As you wish.”
Rolling her eyes but not saying another word, Evangeline walked out the doors. As soon as that happened, a great unholy flame burst through the shattered windows of the hall, and the ungodly howling of some devilish beasts resounded through the ruins. Then the flames died down, and the howling spread into separate directions.
As he took this all in, John Paul saw that the Silvered Fiend was still staring at him, and holding his knife. The large man crouched to look at John Paul eye-level. “I need to be sure of the Everfire’s destruction so that I don’t find their knives in my back...I’m afraid the same policy applies to you.”
John Paul knew that, and never one for keeping things clean: spat at the monster’s helmeted face, with no discernible effect.
Though not quite. For at that moment, the fiend’s eyes were filled with pity. “A shame. That is your best isn’t it?”
In one swift motion, John Paul’s knife was brought across his throat. He clattered to the ground and choked on his final breaths. As the life passed from his body, a few final voices echoed in his mind.
“Now, Lord Montrose, about my request?”
“Of course, Sir Abram: you were looking for a young woman and a Death Knight.”