The Shrew, The Owl and the Final Vow

The sun sets upon the ocean horizon with a warming glow and a gentle kiss to the ocean below. The goddess moons of red and white seek to guide the wanderers of night as they sit upon their throne, one made of stars and light.

A single, small village lies at the tip of Hammarkand, far from the trade roads and cities, it is usually very peaceful and quiet. Today though, it is too quiet and deathly calm. Too calm for what is supposed to be a fisherman’s village and one of the final ports of the northern shores that seat the edge of the Altyran Empire. It is not Merstone Wharf by any means, that port city bustles with merchants peddling their wares from all corners of Ayl’gard, but it is does usually stir with enough business to support its hardworking people. For tonight though, the streets are empty, the boats are docked, abandoned and swaying in the breeze. Only the mild howl of the wind would welcome any who venture here on this quiet night. That and the sight of those who now lie dead on the ground.

At the edge of town there is a single route through the forest, a guiding path lit with lamplight to aid travellers. From it, a single shrew leaves its burrow as it peaks its head out to take advantage of this unnaturally quiet situation though even he knows to take a second glance before actually venturing out to find its meal.

It scurries away from its deep, dark home nestled at the base of a great red Alder tree in search of something to eat. Success! A single blue beetle has become trapped and is wriggling incessantly, trying it hardest to escape. A thick pool of blood has seeped over the stone path and into the soil causing half of its body to become encased within a sinking tomb. The shrew cares little for its plight, it desires only to feed and then return to the safety of its dark hole in the ground. With a quick grasp of its prey, the beetle is claimed.

Little does the shrew know however that it is being watched from afar. How could such a simple creature understand that it has entered the domain of this predator? How could it know that its presence, its willingness to dally and feed at the boundary of this forest, is an affront to the owl that has claimed its territory. It remains still and watchful. The piercing stare from its eyes is unrelenting as it waits for the perfect opportunity to attack.

Unaffected by the possibility of being caught and insistent in its pursuit, the shrew carries on and travels onto the border steps of the village as it clambers over the fallen bodies seeking more to eat. It stops for a moment to peer into the gaping mouth of a bronze skinned man still clutching onto several coins in one hand with a firm grasp. A tattered piece of parchment lies just beyond the other that has only a few words written on it.

Seek the Aeons in Amberfall

The shrew does not care for shiny things instead preferring to investigate the strange, moist hole before him as it attempts to burrow into the throat of the dead Mithylfar, albeit to no avail. It will not find what it is looking for there.

A single man stands alone at the edge of the village. He is upright, unmoving, and staring far into the distance as if he is scanning the horizon. His armour consists of the finest steel and cloth. Upon his belt, he has a scroll chained to a silver token depicting the image of Altyr and a symbol of his faith. To the rest of Ayl’gard, Altyr is the god of purity and justice. To any loyal to the Empire he is the only, one true god. A shining guiding light in a dark world to many who have accepted him but he is also a grim symbol, the scourge of all mage folk, a damning ideal that has been the cause of the death of thousands unfortunate to have been born as Aeon blessed within the borders of an Empire that demands purity. His eyes are unwavering, unblinking and his sword, unsheathed with its hilt glimmering with the light of the dying sun, is dripping with blood.

The symbols he carries say more than any words can to those who look upon him. They say he is just, they say he is pure of heart and mind, they say he answers to no one but the authority of the Empress. He is a Judge, one of the Silent Knights sent to cleanse the world of all who fall foul of the gaze of the One God.

He is Judge Alastair Albright, one of the finest knights to ever become one of the Order of the Sworn. A perfect instrument of cleansing and just cause in the eyes of his peers.

Leaning forward, he reaches out to the body beneath him, one whose hand still grasps his boot. It was one final act of pleading that fell deaf upon his ears for there can be no mercy in the eyes of Altyr for any who were born with the ability to conjure magick. With a sharp tug, he tears off the dead woman’s tunic so that he can wipe the blood and muck from his blade leaving her naked body to clatter onto the ground without a single thought toward respect or courtesy. To him, and all loyal to the Empire, she was an abomination. An impure insult to Altyr born cursed, whose only purpose is to die.

She is one of three who fled to escape the wrath of the Sworn Order. Three who bought passage by carriage in the dark of the night as they were brought here to find someone willing to take them across the shores of the sea to Ayrlaston where they might find some semblance of peace and perhaps a life lived without fear. One without the scorn of nation, where the blade of a Judge cannot find them. They tried to be free of their fate only to find a village unwilling to stand in the way of one avowed to rid the world all magicks. They sought a free life but found only death.

There was no chance for words. He did not toy with them or seek to reason with them. A single sword shimmering in the light. Three swift strikes. Three dead mages and his task is complete. There will be no remorse, no regret and no lament for those born only to perish as an example to any who might have mercy in their hearts for these pitiable creatures.

Now the sun is set and the bodies are piled onto a pyre made of wood and flesh. The Judge is satisfied in the fact that justice has been done and his oath has been fulfilled once more as the fire burns away the corruption that once housed such unforgivable transgression. At his feet, he notices the shrew next to him in the soil, oblivious to the fire and smoke as he wrestles the life away from another beetle. Almost contented, the shrew scampers away back to his burrow with its carcass dangling from its jaw.

The flames dance in the night as they burn the fallen into a pile of ash as Judge Alastair stands in the wake of the dead to recite his oath, an unending affirmation to his life’s work.

“I walk the path in the shadow of Daryan. May the dawning order of the One God guide my sword as I act in your name. I wield the fire of your light, the burden of your words and the honour of your blade forever bound by my oath eternal to serve your Creed until my last breath.”

The Judges of the Altyran Empire are known as the Silent Knights for the words spoken in their oaths, their vow to Altyr, are the only words they are permitted to speak. It is known as the Final Vow of a knight deemed worthy of carrying out the work started by Daryan’s crusade to bring order and purity to a world cloaked in chaos and corruption.

The final flames are flickering, the pyre is spent and the villagers are beginning to stir once more now that the Judge has gone. The shrew takes one last look across the edge of the forest on the path to the village. It has feasted well but the beetles are out in their droves tonight and so it cannot resist the tantalising prospect of yet another meal. The moons guide their light to the ground for the shrew to enjoy its supper as it scurries over the soil and grass but as it turns out, it is to be the last decision the shrew will ever make. Swift and soundless is the owl whose unrelenting regard has abetted its yearning to swoop in and claim its prey as the master of the forest.

The owl considers nothing of reason or mercy. A creature born of singular purpose that knows naught of kinship and desires no alliance with its prey. It is a relentless predator honed by instinct to strike as swiftly as it can. It ponders only what it knows which is to chase, kill and live again to hunt another day.

Remnants of a Shadowmancer

‘Where is he now, Guardian?’

The Arch Magister’s words echo loudly across the halls and through the wings of the now almost entirely vacant Citadel. All mages, merchants, scholars and any whose rank does not read Guardian or Magister have been confined to their quarters, for their own protection.

‘He’s been taken down below, by order of the Commander.’

‘And is he secure?’

‘Yes, Arch Magister. The captive mage’s hands have been bound in iron, he’s blindfolded, his mouth gagged shut and there are two Guardians down there with him now.’

‘Take me to him, now’ demands the Arch Magister, unblinking and determined.

The unwilling Guardian hesitates where he stands and bows his head slightly.

‘Is there a problem?’

‘I’m sorry, Arch Magister, the Guardian Commander has given strict instruction to not let anyone else below without his say so.’

The Guardian bows his head a little lower as the intimidating presence of the Arch Magister looms over him with a glare that would petrify even an Ogre of the Highlands.

‘That man has come here, broken into this institution, our home, to steal from our Reliquary and has killed four of our own people in the process before he was finally apprehended by two Senior Magisters. My people, dear friends, who lie bleeding and with their minds broken with unknowable torment for their efforts.’

The Arch Magister is now so close to the frightened Guardian that his breath can be seen steaming his armour with vapours of unbridled resolve.

‘By the Kings edict, it is the duty of the Arch Magisters of the Aeon Citadel to pass judgement on all matters of magick as well as this murderer’s ability to do us any more harm. So, move Guardian, or I swear by almighty Mithron that the fire coursing through my veins will burn your very tongue into ashes so that I might never have to hear the utter wolf shit coming out of your mouth again.’

‘Yes, yes…. of course, Arch Magister, but the Commander will…….’

‘Just leave the Commander to me Guardian. I’ll deal with him in due time.’

The Arch Magister of the Citadel, esteemed pyromancer and former counsel to King Valorayne, barges past the poor fellow who just weeks ago earned his position amongst his peers and marches down into the bowels of the ancient tower to confront the one responsible for this bold act of merciless death. An act so bloody and brutal to be worthy of a Dothylfar war band and yet it was perpetrated by a single individual.

The memory of what has become of the unfortunate four, two mages, a scholar and a single Guardian, will be with him until his final days. Their bodies were mutilated and torn down to the bone as they were discovered covered in a thick, black coat of shadow mist and blood. A dark deed done only to acquire a single artefact housed in a floor deemed inaccessible to all but a few. For who it is for and why, he doesn’t care. It is an old argument as to whether this place should act as a beacon to would be thieves and trespassers for all the artefacts and treasures stored within and yet every Valorayne King and Queen for a thousand years has deemed it the safest place to do so. The Citadel has been breached before and it will be again. But rarely is it done with so callous an approach, with so little respect for those who live and breathe within this community of mage folk.

As he proceeds into the depths of the tower he eventually realises that it is too quiet. The orders of the Commander have either been carried out flawlessly or have failed entirely. His pace quickens with the realisation until he reaches his destination a hundred feet below the Citadel grounds.

Ferociously and without hesitance, he bangs opens the door with such a clatter that the gust from the impact almost blows out the torch light blazing on the stone walls. The horrifying stench of burnt flesh invades his senses. His eyes scour the room for their captive but instead he see’s nothing but blood, caked in black ashes, of the dead Guardians tasked with standing watch over the wielder of shadow. No bodies, nothing that resembles what they once were. Just empty armour covered in a pool of dark red blood corrupted by the black of the shadow magicks used to claim their lives.

Footsteps echo down the staircase behind him until the Guardian he spoke to and his Commander enter the room to see what has happened.

‘Why did you leave the torches alight Commander?’ shouts the Arch Magister with a bellow loud enough to cause the question to be demanded several times over as his voice relentlessly repeats his torment with the echoes from the walls.

The Guardian Commander is stunned by the question. Not only is he not used to being addressed in such a severe manner, since only the Arch Magisters have the power to match his own standing, he also fails to understand the significance of the inquiry.

‘Did you really expect me to leave my people here with that man in complete darkness? What does it matter anyhow?’

‘From what I have learned in my time of such magicks it will take someone decades, if not a lifetime or more, of study to wield shadowmancy with such mastery as to conjure the very shadows from practically nothing. The one responsible for these black deeds was a small man, likely an exile from Hammarkand, no older than twenty some years. It should be blatantly obvious to someone in your position of authority that you must not leave one such a that in a room where the light of the fire from those torches can bring forth shadows. Shadows that can be used to twist and corrupt the flames into something unrecognisable. Shadows he was evidently able to wield to end the lives and destroy the bodies of your men. Now he flees to Maellor knows where.’

A moment of hurried contemplation passes as the Arch Magister awaits a response.

‘I’ll order my men to scour the Citadel grounds and the Wraithwind Woods until the shadow wielder is again apprehended.’

‘You’ll do no such thing Commander.’

The Arch Magister turns to the Guardian standing meekly in the entry to bark his next order.

‘You there, in the doorway. Listen carefully to my words boy.’

‘Yes, Arch Magister’ he replies standing to attention.

‘Summon the other Arch Magisters, Xaros and Alden, to meet me in the hall. And send word to Guardian Vanorath that he is to lead his contingent into the woodland to begin the search.’

‘Right away.’

‘Tell them to look for a trail of withered leaves and for fucks sake absolutely no fire! I don’t care if they’re struggling to see. They’ll have to make do with the light of the moons and they can thank me later.’

The Guardian races back to the tower above leaving the Commander behind who is becoming frustrated with this mages desire to command his forces. He has never been one to hold his tongue.

‘Arch Magister, I protest. Thomyr Vanorath is new to the Citadel and completely unprepared for such a task. He is unknown to me, I don’t trust him. He is an outsider.’

‘No Commander, he is your replacement.’

‘I’ll remind you mage, only the Baroness of Amberfall or the King himself are permitted to remove me from command. You haven’t the power to order me to do anything!’ states the Commander with surprise.

The Arch Magister finally turns his head away from the atrocity at their feet to stare directly into the Commander’s eyes.

‘Did you really believe my position here would prevent me acting out my former duties to our King? Who do you think has the true power to command the Guardians while I still breathe? I have his ear and his trust and I’ll tell you now, you incompetent son of whore, it’s not you.’

The Commander sighs as he relents, defeated by his failure and the will of the Arch Magister before him.

‘Will they be able to find him?’

‘For your sake and for the wellbeing of Ayrlaston, I hope so.’

The Arch Magister turns back to look upon the vacant armour of the deceased as his voices calms.

‘For their safety and what I fear he is capable of, I hope not.’

War at My Door: The Final Day

Piper.

I found your letters dear sister and I read every last word. I have finally come home.

Two weeks had passed before word of the attack reached the gates of Amberfall and it was two weeks too fucking many. I passed by the bodies of those who were slain, devoured and then discarded by the side of the road. I’m guessing they tried to flee. They did not succeed. I tried to look upon their faces to see if they belonged to someone I know. I couldn’t though, it was too painful. What if I saw your face?

The village has been utterly destroyed. The King ordered every last building to be cleansed with flame from the taint of our enemy and so the Baroness and her Amberguard have dutifully obliged. The homes and bodies of our friends and neighbours have become only smoke and ash as the final fires dim before the setting of the sun. I am holding the key to our front door in my hand as I write this and there is no sodding door to unlock anymore. The only way I was able to read what you wrote is because the cellar and everything in it was all that was left of our home.

It’s funny though, that even after all these years and everything that has happened over the last fortnight and more, it still reeks of mother’s reels of cheese down here. So many memories, even amongst a smouldering ruin.

I managed to get here with the aid of an attendant from House Emberheart. My time spent in the city has been fruitful and I have become close friends with the Lady of the House. When she heard of the attack on our home she immediately summoned for an escort to bring me back to you and father. His name is Sigmund and all I know of him is that he’s from Wintermere, or at least he used to be. He doesn’t tell me much but Lady Emberheart assured me that he is the fastest rider in the Westervale and she wasn’t wrong. But it was too late. I knew it was too late. The entire journey here I knew that I would probably never get to speak to you again but I just couldn’t, did not want to believe that until the grim reality of it all was burning before my eyes when we arrived.

After mother passed away and father didn’t speak a word for weeks, we only had each other. It was you who helped me to become the person I am today. It was because of you that I dared dream of leaving home for the city to follow in the footsteps of our great grandfather. I am only who I am now because of you, because of father, because of mother. Now you are all gone. Who am I now without you?

I don’t know where you are and we tried so hard to find you. The remains of the village, the nearby farmsteads that had been ransacked, the roads, I searched everywhere for you. We even tried the edge of the Wraithwind Woods but without a guide from the Citadel, it wouldn’t have been long before we too were lost. Sigmund is an excellent tracker but even he wouldn’t be able to guide us through for more than half a day. If it wasn’t for him, I would probably still be in there right now shouting your name loud enough for every wolf, brigand and grimlurk to have their way with me.

Where are you Piper?

My heart aches in my chest and tells me to keep looking but my mind speaks other words. It says to me that you are long gone. The Dothylfar were driven back into the Eastreach where they fell to the Silver Legion in one swift and bloody massacre. Every soldier, every rider, every prisoner that they took. All who remained were killed in minutes. If I were a historian looking back upon these events through old tomes of the Crimson War, centuries from now, I would describe the ambush as a stroke of pure, unmerciful genius. But as your sister, thinking about how you may have been one of them – it makes me sick to my stomach.

The red moon shone brightly that night. It was as if Ashyara, the Lady of Death herself, was watching.

We managed to recover what was left of father from our doorstep. I cannot write down on this paper exactly what had become of his body for I haven’t the nerve to. It was frightening to see him that way. Even now my hand shakes as I struggle to withhold my anger, my absolute and bitter resentment for a war that has already claimed too much.

But not for much longer. The Amberguard have mustered their strength at the behest of Lady Emberheart and they have joined the fight to rid Ayrlaston of these vermin. The Legion marches now with the River Bann and the Amberguard and they will make their move at dawn. They will drive these gods damned blood drinkers back beyond the Silverblade and join the warfront in Frosthaven.

Their days polluting our soil with the blood of our people are coming to an end. You have my word sister.

Father will be buried next to mother where she lies in the valley. At least they left her grave well enough alone. They will be reunited once more but I will never see them again, I will never see nor hear from or speak to you one last time. So, I shall bury this letter along with those that you wrote to me with them. I’m going to put them with mother’s letters in her chest so that in some way our family will always stay together, beyond death.

I will be leaving for the city again when the sun rises. The Legion shall move against our enemy and so shall I. Lady Emberheart has kindly offered me a place in her court but I shall decline her most gracious proposal. Once I am done with my tasks in Amberfall I am to set sail for Hammarkand and I intend to never again set foot upon the shores of Ayrlaston.

I write this to you, my sweet little sister, so that a part of me will forever remain with a part of you in the grave of our parents. This is my final farewell to you, to mother and father and to our home.

I love you Piper, from now until the final day of my life.

Goodbye.

Erin.