Princes Elsinore’s brow furrowed, the perfect skin between her eyes puckering ever so slightly as she ran the tip of her finger down the side of the palm-sized portrait she held. A gentile, but ever so arrogant smile peered out from the stretched canvas; deeply set beneath two brown eyes; the teeth unnaturally white. She sighed and as a knock sounded behind her and she set the portrait down on the windowsill beside her. “Enter,” she murmured and turned to see the ornate door of her bedroom open and a middle aged woman step in; her white linen skirt fluttering ever so slightly beneath a starched wheat-colored apron. Her wimple matched. In fact everything she wore was light in color, save for the simple red sash pinned about her waist. It made the woman stand out against the dark wood and ironwork that comprised every square inch of her bedroom and the rest of the castle.
At one time the royal attendants had all worn black, but from the time she had learned what color was- what it could mean- Elsinore had begged her father to let her change the dresses of her own maids to something more… light. She could not stand darkness upon darkness. It was one of the very few concessions the King had made, though it came not without its own punishments. Her horses, the swans in the courtyard pond, even her faithful dog Dash were to be black. But then that was her father’s way- the same way it had been for her grandfather, her great grandfather, her great-great grandfather, and so on. There was no pleasure without pain. No life without death, no gain without sacrifice.
Still, Elsinore gave the woman a smile. “Hello Hetty.” Hetty returned the smile, her eyes creasing as she gave a light bow of her head.
“Alas, not still sighing over what cannot return, are we my girl?” she asked, her gaze shifting to the small gilded frame that caught the sunlight streaming in through the window. Elsinore glanced at it.
“He wasn’t really so bad,” she said as she pushed up to her feet, the black velvet of her gown brushing against the tops of her shoes with a delicate rustle. A dainty ringlet of golden blonde hair caught on the crystal studded net that encased the bundle of her braid. Hetty merely sighed.
“Aye, that he wasn’t. Though I didn’t quite care for his manners at the dinner table.” She extended a weathered hand towards the princess and Elsinore crossed the room to take it, allowing the maid to tuck it into her arm with a motherly-pat.
“Neither did I, I’m afraid. I suppose it’s just as well.” Together the two made their way down the long hallway that was lined with a plush red runner and when they reached the stairs, two more similarly dressed maids took up their posts behind them.
The man in the portrait had been named Damien, and he had been the son of a Baron from a neighboring land to the south of the Capital. Almost two years ago they had been engaged to be married, but a week ago she had been notified that he’d taken a spill from his horse and died. This hadn’t made much sense of course. His country had been known for their horse breeding, and Damien had been riding since before he could walk. But Barengarius had apologetically assured her that it had been just that. An accident. And you didn’t question Barengarius because he currently held the throne. Questioning anyone in the upper echelons of court was bound to get you an accident of your own. Besides, she was just Princess Elsinore Aurelia Barinthus, born and bred only for her ability to marry well. Who she married was of little concern as long as he was chosen for her. But Damien hadn’t been a bad suitor. In fact, compared to a few of the other candidates that had been in the running, he was down-right pleasant. In the end he been chosen for his dull personality and easy manipulation. She liked him because he preferred hunting then spending time with her. And when he was with her he did little more than eat food, fondle her breasts a bit, and fall asleep with his hunting dogs at his feet.
She wore black because that’s what grieving fiancés who just lost their husband-to-be’s did, but she was less upset about the meaning behind it and more so that she couldn’t break in the dusty rose frock she’d had commissioned for the harvest festival. It was one of her favorite events of the year because she could spend it outside the gates for a little while instead of locked away behind its towering walls. Those moments were precious and far too rare, ever since King Roland's death. Barengarius said he could not risk her safety. She was allowed out for only an hour each day, and she usually spent it on a walk along the canal that surrounded the capital. The route took her past the Temple District where various worship houses were open to the public.
The Xiatus Empire had four prominent deities, said to make their home at the four corners of the universe. Each were always depicted in the animal forms they were said to take on earth- a Dravvus for the south, a Sluagh for the north, a Thylanice for the west, and a Mynad for the east. Each temple possessed separate architecture and theming, but all of them were undeniably beautiful, separated by gardens and various other architectural aesthetics. Each season had a festival dedicated to whatever deity had fought to take its rightful place on the moon at that time of year, and the citizens of the Capital flocked to the corresponding temple to pay homage and bask in frivolity. It was autumn- Festival of the Thylanice temple.
Elsinore stepped daintily down the main staircase and into the shining foyer, where the iron and stone walls glowed dully from the sunlight that shone down through the massive glass skylight. A female attendant was waiting, the princess’s black cloak draped over her arms, and Elsinore quickly put it on, Hetty ensuring the silver clasp was secure beneath at her throat. A matching bonnet was tied beneath her chin, the brim of which stretched outwards, casting her face into shade. She let out a small sigh she couldn’t bare to muffle. “Too tight, my girl?” Hetty asked with concern.
“It’s so warm out today! Must I truly bundle up?”
“When the seasons change so does our wardrobe,” Hetty recited dutifully. “You’ll be glad for it come another week or two when the winds turn cold.” Again, Elsinore didn’t bother to argue. And it wasn’t just because her dissent fell on deaf ears. Hetty may have been her governess and now her head maid, but as much as she loved Elsinore, she was loyal to Barengarius and his men. Her complaints would get back to him no matter what, and too many would get her already miniscule privileges taken away.
Instead she glanced around the massive foyer, ignoring the obscenely large mural that spanned the entire walls; depicting a battle one of her the royal family’s long ago patriarchs had been involved in. The mural showed them triumphing, but so did every piece of artwork in the kingdom. It was against the law to depict the Royal family as anything more than victorious. When all you did was win, victory lost it’s meaning. “Where is Heathcliff?” she asked, the blue-violet of her eyes catching the sunlight even beneath the bonnet. She was answered with the sudden clattering of boots on the marble floor.
“I’m here! I’m here!” a strong voice called out. The gathering of ladies turned to see five men stride into sight, their armored boots echoing off in the space. They were dressed in uniform, their armored breastplates and bracers decorated with etched scrollwork. The man in front held a loft a covered basket. He was young, only a few years older than her, but he was tall and broad shouldered, his long dark hair pulled back into scruffy ponytail and secured with a ruby studded clasp. An impressive sword was sheathed at his hip while a heavy rifle hung between his shoulder blades by way of a thick strap. The rifle was black, comprised of a sleek but weighty iron, and the caged barrel glowed ever so slightly from an orange crystal that was trapped inside. All the soldiers carried one.
Elsinore smiled, placing her hands on her hips with an arched brow as he approached. “You’re late.”
“I got held up,” he said with a roguish grin and handed her the basket which she took and hung in the crook of her elbow. It had a good weight to it and she heard the rattling of coins and the pewter containers of food offerings.
“Thank you Heathcliff.”
“My pleasure. Now…” He offered her his arm with a bow. “Shall we, Princess?”
“We shall, Captain,” she replied and went to take his proffered arm. Before she managed t, Hetty sidestepped in front and looped her own arm through.
“Now-now, Captain Thome. Our Princess is still in mourning for the passing of her betrothed. It is against our modesty laws for another man to be so forward with her.”
“Of course,” the Captain smiled, nodding as he straightened. As Hetty lead the princess towards the front door, she rolled her eyes at him in passing, and he returned it with crossing his own, causing her to stifle a giggle behind a crooked finger to her lips.
With the two maids in front and five guard in back, Elsinore and Hetty made their way down the front steps and into the cobbled courtyard where the sight of the castle wall greeted her. It was nearly a hundred feet high and comprised of large slats of thick iron, as black as sin, and riveted together. They called the seat of power the Iron Throne for a reason, It was their number one export; though the only countries lucky enough to import it were under Empire control themselves. The pathway was lined with crimson-leafed trees that, with the autumn season, glowed red as they blossomed. At peak it would look as if a dravvus had lit the place on fire, the leaves dancing like little flames in the breeze.
If she were going anywhere outside the Capital district, she would have taken a carriage, but the Capital was truly the epicenter of both business and religion, and so she started the mile walk to the Temples. In her opinion, business and religion should never mix, but so went the way of the Empire. Outside the walls of the castle, the world was abuzz and she found the hum of conversation and rumbling of the military vehicles in the streets to be a refreshing change to the quiet halls of the inner, royal sanctum. The sun was high in the sky and brown-feathered birds flew overhead. She could smells the sizzling street food vendors and watched light hearted at the children that chased after each other with toy weapons carved from wood; a few of them waving red streamers attached to sticks while musicians played their drums and woodwinds in anticipation of sunset when the festival would officially begin. It was everything Elsinore could do to keep from ripping off her bonnet and running head long into the crowd, shouting and laughing at the beautiful day. Instead she did as she had been trained, kept her eyes ahead and her mouth delicately pressed together like the petals of the roses in the castle courtyard. To be royal meant to appear indifferent and regal, and despite her title holding no merit other than her bloodline, she was still a part of it and so she would act as she had been instructed to in public. Running into the crowd wouldn’t have done much good anyway. Everywhere they passed, people stepped back- carving a path through the gathering citizens like a parting wave. They bowed low and murmured, “Gods save the Princess.” She would have liked to meet their gaze, returned their well wishes. But it was not allowed. She was Barinthus, daughter of the late King Roland. You did not acknowledge those beneath you. To do so meant they mattered somehow. And no one mattered more than the Iron Throne…
The trek to the Temple District took about 20 minutes on foot, and as the clean stone walls came into sight, Elsinore felt the corners of her lips tip upwards. Here it was peaceful and serene, the energy positive. She loved it here… Her smile faltered ever so slightly as she went to step off the sidewalk and onto the cobblestoned road when suddenly Hetty’s grip tightened so much so she nearly tripped and was pulled to a stop. Confused, she looked to the side and her pulse quickened. A soldier on horseback rode into view, the clatter of hoofbeats matching cadence with the two others that followed behind. Between the guard shuffled a line of about twelve man; all of them hunched, dirty, and carrying various tools like pickaxes and shovels. It wasn’t the state of them that made her feel instantly sick, however. It was the look in their eyes. All of them were hollow and without life, and she wanted nothing more than to turn her head and look away. As they passed, the soldiers saluted her and her entourage with their rifles. The guns they carried glowed blue instead of red like Heathcliff’s.
“Gods save the Princess,” the guard called out.
“Gods save the Princess,” the men in line murmured, though their voice lacked the same passion. They bowed their heads in passing… save for one. Even beneath the layer of soot that dulled his skin, his face was wrinkled. But his eyes belonged to a man who only looked old due to the work he did, not his age. And those eyes met hers and glared. She was caught completely off guard and she blinked in surprise. Her own eyes widened immediately, however, as without warning a shot rang out; a blue bolt of light sizzling through the air as it struck the man; slicing through his flesh like a blade made of pure light. His skin crackled and burned, and she couldn’t help the tiny gasp that escaped her as the top of his face split on the diagonal; his skull separating from the rest of his head as his body collapsed to its knees and then landed in the dirt. The light had cauterized most of the wound, leaving the brains a grey and sizzling mess as it pooled out in a small puddle of burnt blood. Elsinore lifted a finger to her nose and turned her head. The smell was stomach churning.
One of the other soldiers that guarded the rear of the line, reached to his side and unhitched a long metal tool, three pronged on the end like a trident, and trotted forward a few steps where he lifted it and threw it down ; impaling the corpse. As if it were just an every day occourance, the head soldier repeated “Gods save the Princess.” The men repeated it, only this time it was louder… and no one dared to look at her. With that the soldiers and line of men moved on, the corpse dragging along the ground behind them. When they had passed, Hetty merely patted her arm and forced her to continue across the street. Elsinore’s toes curled inside her shoes as she passed by only inches from the skull cap that lay on the ground- the only evidence of what had once been a living person…
The men had been magi- born with magic in their veins. Once, magic had been as commonplace a talent as singing or swordplay; even revered. The first king of their family line had been an extremely powerful mage, wielding a fire said to have rivaled that of a dravvus. But almost three hundred years ago, their family had lost their magic. The new king, fearing the throne would be usurped by another magi, he outlawed magic completely; forcing those who were born with it to be registered and enslaved under the new regime. No magic? No chance of a stolen throne. There had been an attempted uprising of course, but the King had beaten them all with a simple spell. It was said he found someway to steal the heartfire of the dravvus god and imbued a talisman that could steal the magic of other mages. He decimated the population, and when it could hold no more, he destroyed it. The dravvus that once roamed freely on their lands- the animal that decorated the Capital’s livery- disappeared from the land, moving outward until all that was left was the feral beasts that inhabited the Neither. And magic, like some living and breathing thing that knew when it was not wanted, began to disappear until only a select few were born every year.
If you were born a mage, it was only a matter of time before you got caught. You became a pariah- like a leper. According to the Capital, magic was a disease; an abomination only worthy of being rubbed out. Magic was feared and hated. When that magic manifested, usually during puberty, you were forced to register with the government. Mage’s couldn’t freely get jobs or use money, and their citizenship was completely stripped. Their only hopes of staying alive was to agree to work for the Empire, usually in the mines of the Neither. Sure you didn’t have to register. No one forced you to. But if you got caught without the enchanted seal branded onto the skin of registered mages, you were killed on sight. No matter the age, no matter the how powerless you actually were… And you would be caught. All mages in hiding were eventually caught in the end. It was too difficult to stay hidden. Magic recognizes magic, no matter how well hidden, and Xaitus’ foundations had been built on magic. But death might have been the more merciful thing in the end. Working for the Empire meant jobs that would end up killing you anyway, just far more slowly.
“Shall we, to the Autumn Moon Temple?” Hetty’s voice pierced through the haze of the Princess’ thoughts and she gave herself a little shake to return to the present. They were now standing just inside the district’s entrance, which was always open. No gate or door barred the passage. Anyone could come and pray and enjoy the gardens and beautifully cultivated grounds. In fact it was the only place the maji were free to use along with Capital citizens. Elsinore looked to Hetty’s smiling face, the woman completely unperturbed by what had taken place. How very… Xaitus of her… Looking down the pathway, she looked to each of the four entryways that faced the paths. They were spread far apart, all four having completely different appearances. The Autumn Moon was the fourth entryway all the way to the back, its golden apple trees and moss covered stone work were made ever more striking by the bright orange maples that lined the pathway. It was filled with a throng of people who waited their turn while others prayed and left their gifts, lighting incense sticks that they stuck into gravel filled tiers in front of the massive stone depiction of the autumn deity of the west- a thylanice. A tiger-like beast with stripes along its’ back and three tails twisted in an arch behind it. It towered above them, teeth bared and one paw raised to rest on a globe made of pure gold.
After witnessing the death of the mage in the street, the guilt of having been helpless to intercede flooded her, and turned her stomach. She knew as the Princess she could tell her guard to clear out the temple for privacy and they would do it without hesitation, but Elsinore simply did not want to look anyone in the eye at the moment, and the crowd made her shudder inside. “No,” she replied, forcing herself to retain the practiced cool and calm voice she used at court. It was the most talented defense she possessed- to sound and look completely indifferent. When your life hinged on appearing untouched by emotion, you learned how to fake it. “I’d like to visit the Summer Moon Temple, first.”
“Are you sure?” Hetty asked. “You only have so much time, and we must ensure your offerings are left.”
“I’m sure, Hetty,” Elsinore said and gave the woman a look that told her not to argue. Hetty acquiesced immediately and they made towards the third temple instead.
The symbol of the summer temple was the Dravvus, the creature that Xaitus had once revered above all others. She quickly strode beneath the ornate archway into the warm terracotta and white stone structure where various members of the religious sects that lived there bowed as they passed before returning to their various states of meditating or chores. Heathcliff and the soldiers immediately took up post outside the doors of the inner sanctum while the Princess and her maids ventured inside. Once Elsinore crossed the threshold to the cool, shaded interior she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, her eyes moving towards the impressive statue at the center, the onyx gleaming in the sun as if trapping the suns warmth inside. Reaching up, Elsinore plucked at the bow beneath her chin until it came undone and with a sweep of her hands she removed the bonnet and handed it to Hetty who took it with a stern look of disapproval. Elsinore knew she’d hear about it later, but right now it was as if she was having trouble breathing and the bonnet was the least constricting thing she could quickly take off. Not that it mattered much. Her hair was tightly coiled and the netting bound it to her head. No true freedom. Only ever the illusion…
“Princess Elsinore.” Elsinore looked over to a side doorway to see a young, pretty woman dressed in the robes of a priestess strode forth, her silky hair tied in a bun that was slowly coming undone. It gave her a lively look that added to her beauty, and for the first time Elsinore truly smiled.
“Kirra! How lovely to see you. I was hoping to run into here.” The priestess was honestly the closest thing Elsinore had ever had to a friend. They had grown up together in a way, seeing each other often enough as children when Elsinore spent time in the temple for her religious studies. And while they could never truly be close because of their class standing, they were still allowed the liberty of speaking to one another. They had played together on her breaks, skipping stones in the temple pond, or running hand-in-hand as they were chased by the always-angry peacocks that ran wild over the grounds. That changed one day. Kirra was a couple of years older than her, and one day she stopped being allowed to fraternize so closely with the Princess. When Elsinore had begged to know why she could not see the other girl, Hetty had only said, "you’ll understand soon enough.”
Sure enough, only two years later, Elsinore left her own childhood behind, along with her menstrual blood. She had understood then. Puberty had brought with it an end to her innocence, forever changing her the same way Kirra’s had. For the Princess it come as her eligibility to marry. For Kirra… it had come in the manifestation of the magic in her blood. And while a common citizen was to lower themselves to kiss the feet of a royal, for a mage like Kirra they were lower still than that. Only when Kirra had managed to reach the coveted position of priestess had they once more been allowed to speak. Elsinore looked forward to seeing her whenever she could, but those times had once again become rare when her father died three years ago, and Barengarius had stepped up to take his place and had demanded she remain in palace at all times save for her hour of recreation…
Kirra’s smile warmed, her dark eyes rimmed with long lashes. Elsinore had always found her pretty. She gestured towards the doorway with her broom, her robes flowing about her like ripples over water. “You must be heading home to prepare for the festival. To what do I owe the pleasure of you dropping in?”
“Actually, we just got here,” Elsinore replied, lifting the basket she carried, ever so slightly. “We’re here to pay our respects. The Autumn Temple’s just a bit crowded at the moment…” Kirra nodded, knowingly. All the temples would receive visitors that night, but the Autumn Temple was the highlight for the festival. “I’m glad you came, I was hoping to see you tonight, how lucky of me you’re here early.”
Elsinore smiled, her lips parting to respond, but she was interrupted by a sudden, sharp crack above them. The sound ricocheted like a thunderclap against the walls of the sanctuary, causing all those inside to duck as if to avoid a physical strike, before peering upwards at the ceiling where the noise continued to roll. Elsinore’s eyes widened as she suddenly took notice of the sudden formation of swirling clouds that began to collect above their heads like a misty whirlpool. The clouds thickened and suddenly begin to flicker as if lightning were trapped behind them. She heard Heathcliff’s voice calling her name as the guards rushed in to check on the commotion, but she couldn’t tear her eyes from the swirling storm overhead. Without warning they seemed to split in the middle and the void was filled with a light so bright and fiery she could only lift one dainty, gloved hand to shield her eyes. Was this somekind of God coming through the heavens?!
“Get back!” Kirra yelled, and Elsinore felt herself blindly shoved backwards; Kirra’s slender but muscular arm wrapping about her shoulder. The force of the unexpected embrace caused her to drop the basket, and the contents exploded out of it with a clatter, the bags of coins and foods spilling out across the floor. The various fruits and grains immediately caught fire and charred to blackened nothing as an enormous bolt of lightning shot through the clouds and struck the statue, splitting the onyx dravvus down the center. Elsinore felt immediately faint and her hands reached up to grip at Kirra’s arm as they watched the top half slide to the floor and shatter. She couldn’t help noticing the eerie similarities between the statue and the earlier mage’s skull.
Someone shouted and she heard the maids scream as they dove for cover, while the lightning was drawn back up to the sky, but before it could pass the ringed structure it snapped once more and suddenly the clouds were sucked from above to form a mercurial vortex in the center of the sanctuary, over top of what was left of the statue. The onyx shards seemed to hum to life, and lifted off the ground, trembling as if charged by pure energy. It caused wind to pick up and Elsinore was left to reach up and grip her hair with one hand so it did not tear free from her net. Kirra didn’t release her hold on the princess and she shoved the young woman further behind her as Over the howl of the wind was the echoing shout of a person that seemed to increase in volume as if they were being dragged through the air.
A large, ornate steamer trunk suddenly fell through the vortex, and it hit the ground with a crack, shattering to pieces; the contents scattering across the stone floor. Moments later it was followed by the figure of a person- their arm outstretched and clasping a oversized broad sword as if it were pulling him through. He collided with the floor, flipping twice before landing on his back; his hand still gripping the hilt. The void flashed once more before coming to an abrupt close; the light snuffed out and the clouds dissipating until the world was as till as if it never happened, the distant sound of laughing and talking heard from the adjoining temples. For a long moment, no one moved, uncertain of what had happen or if it were truly over.
The Captain was the first to jump back to his senses and he all but leapt over the scattered belongings of the trunk to grab the Princess’s arm and pull her back. Elsinore went without a fuss, too shocked to argue. Kirra released her immediately and instead took a step towards the unconscious figure on the ground. He was dressed oddly, his shoes caked with mud, and his shirt well-worn and thin. He possessed a head of dark hair which he had tucked under an unfamiliar style of hat. Still gripping her broom, the priestess firmly tapped the bottom of his foot and he groaned which gave Kirra a moment’s hesitation. Further down the hall she could hear other Papal shouting and running to figure out what had happened.
“Sir?” she called out. The man groaned a second time, but this time he finally brought his hands up, the sword he held slicing through the air. It made everyone take a step back out of surprise. Finally he opened his eyes and there was an audible gasp at their color. They were a beautiful amber-gold, that seemed to catch every bit of light the temple sanctuary offered, making the almost platinum inner-circle around his pupils glow.
Only one other person had eyes like that ..
King Roland Barinthus the Third…
Giving her head a slight shake to gather her wits, Kirra had the wherewithal to rush forward and disarm the stranger, but the moment she took hold of the sword she stumbled and nearly fell. It was heavy- unbearably so. She managed to keep herself upright, but her legs were forced to shift to keep her balance. In her hands the metal felt hot, bordering on scalding, as if it had been held over a fire.
“Hey…” the stranger groaned again, attempting to sit up. He lifted a hand and gripped his head, squinting as if in pain. Kirra glared at him. She wanted to point at him, but she knew she couldn’t hold the sword up with only two hands…
“Who are you?!” she demanded. “Where have you come from?!”
He didn’t answer her, looking around the space, his breathing catching before he finally turned to see Kirra. She gasped, he stared on slack jawed. Kirra felt pale… was this man a spirit? He looked exactly like the late King Roland! There was just no denying the eyes…
“Mon cour! What just happened to me? Where am I?” he asked with a strange accent. Kirra felt herself get defensive.
“I asked you first, traveler! Who are you?”
“I’m Jackson Lafaye… what is this place?” He didn’t bother to get up, still trying to get his bearings. A crowd of papal worshippers had begun to gather, their faces a combination of shock and awe. Kirra merely grit her teeth, her inability to lift the blade beginning to anger her.
“This is the Dravvus Temple in Xaitus Capital! Where did you come from?!” The man looked back at her, hands lifting as if in surrender.
“I was at home… hey I didn’t want to come here! That sword brought me here. I found it with my dad’s things.”
Where she stood Elsinore felt faint. The sword… she recognized it almost as quickly as she recognized her eyes. It was the focal point of nearly every artist rendering of the Barinthus Regal line. The hilt of the sword was designed to appear like a pair of wrapped dravvus wings, carved from a material that at first glance appeared to be iron, but the texture of it was such that it almost stone like. The blade was thick, and a line of three blood-red stones were set at the base of the blade, embellished by an inscription that ran the length of the blade. It too gleamed unnaturally. She wasn’t the only one that recognized the blade for what it was, however. Kirra looked down at the sword and read the inscription. Upon completion, her eyes widened in shock. “F-father! Mother!”
Two older temple residents rushed forward, their robes swaying as they came to either side of her in an effort to help her lift it. Neither one could manage it. “Look- quickly,” Kirra strained and the head priest reached out to run his hand against the etched lettering. Kirra expected him to commen on the heat, but he acted as if he hadn’t even noticed.
“It is the King’s sword…” he said with a hushed breath. Behind them Elsinore tensed and without warning nearly every eye turned on her. She couldn’t spea, too in shock to react. A large hand suddenly covered hers, and Elsinore glanced up to see Heathcliff giving her a look that promised to protect her. Her fingers laced with his and she squeezed her thanks.
“He wants this,” the mother priestess suddenly said, her voice a dark warning. 21 years ago this very sword had disappeared, and now it was back; clutched in the hand of a stranger. This did not bode well for anyone…
Kirra looked back at the stranger, her grip on the sword tightening. Her look became one of feral determination. She had been ordered to find the sword, and now she had it. It was her ticket to survival from a future that had up till now been marred by a promise of death if she failed, and she sure as hell wasn’t letting it go. She looked the sword over and then looked over at the man. “You have to be sure,” Vanya added. Kirra swallowed tensely.
“Captain… take it,” she said carefully and behind her Heathcliff released the princess to step forward and grab the blade, The moment Kirra’s hands released it, he fell to his knees; the sword clattering to the ground as if magnetized to the earth.
“What in the four moons?!” he exclaimed through gritted teeth, making an attempt to stand and pull it. It was like trying to move through a tar pit with his armor on- almost impossible. Kirra almost reached out to help him, but she suddenly realized that the sword wasn’t going anywhere.
Instead, she made her way over to Jackson, kneeling before him. He tensed up backing away just as nervously from her, and when she reached out to touch his forehead, he initially slapped her hand away. “I must do this. I promise I will not hurt you.” He seemed reluctant to believe her, but allowed her to place her hand on his forehead. They both gasped, as Kirra flipped through Jake’s history, and thoughts. Elsinore pressed her fingertips to her lips as she was suddenly overcome with a sensation that welled up inside her as if it were crawling from her brain. Her eyes welled with tears as for no reason at all she could feel nothing but an empty sadness. Where had that come from? As if he could sense it, the stranger immediately met her gaze. And when Kirra pulled her hand away, she too was crying. “You are full of much pain…” Jake stared back at her with an unreadable expression. Swallowing tightly, Kirra quickly reached up and wiped at her eyes before turning to the others. “He tells the truth. The sword is his… it brought him here. The council will want to know.”
Heathcliff, still struggling with the blade immediately looked to the other soldiers and barked an order to get them a carriage to take the princess home. He also demanded one of them ride ahead to summon Barengarius. Where she stood Elsinore managed enough of her wits to rip her eyes from the stranger and look to Heathcliff. “No!”
“Princess, come,” Hetty suddenly approached attempting to coax her from the temple. Elsinore pulled away.
“No! That is the King’s Blade- that is my father’s sword! I deserve to be here when you interrogate him!”
“Princess,” Heathcliff managed as three of other soldiers came to his aid, managing to drag the sword up and onto their shoulders. It took all three of them to lift it and even then they seemed out of breath. “You must return to castle. It’s not safe here.”
“Captain Thome I order you to allow me to-” Elsinore began but Hetty stepped between them once more. This time the old woman’s gaze was fiery and suddenly her weathered hands belied her age as she squeezed them into the Princess’ arms, forcing her to suck in a breath.
“I think this day has been most trying on our Lady,” she said, her voice a warning. “Perhaps these outings have become unnecessary for the sake of your safety.” Elsinore’s eyes widened and she immediately stopped struggling. No- surely they could not mean to take away her only hourly privilege?! Knowing she had her, Hetty immediately wrapped an arm around her shoulder’s and lead her towards the exit. Elsinore managed to look back once more at Jackson, her gaze pleading in every facet of her pretty face as she disappeared behind a corner.
Barengarius was not a happy man. His steepled fingers tapped together as he stared down at the map laid out before him. It was massive, tattooed onto leather, and stretched and mounted to a large circular table. Tiny replicas of ships and large iron boxes representing troops of soldiers on land were scattered throughout the various colored patches that boasted the names of those countries to which they belonged. A large crimson mass took up the vast majority of the center, on which “Xaitus” was painted in large, foreboding though elegant script. His fingertips tapped together again.
“Have you ever seen a bridge, Commander?” he suddenly asked.
A man in uniform stood at the opposite side of the table, his helmet tucked beneath his arm on which an impressive set of epaulets rested. His brow furrowed in confusion.
“My liege?” he asked, uncertain of the question. Barengarius simply arched his brow, the grey hair peppered with the barest hints of white.
“A bridge, commander. Have you ever gone over one? Even… stood in the presence of one?”
“My… Leige… I…. yes?” the commander stammered. Barengarius gave a simple nod, lips pursed every so slightly.
“And tell me… are you afraid of bridges? Do you fear traversing them?”
“No. I don’t believe so, My Leige.”
“Then tell me,” Barengarius sighed before movig with a speed that belied his age and snatching up a small model of one that was placed on a particular section of the map. He crushed it in his hands, breaking it in half, before throwing them with such strength and accuracy that a bit of wood embedded deep in the stunned commander’s cheek. The wound welled with blood and then spilled down in a single, thick rivulet. “Why the fuck you have so much issue with crossing the shithole that is the Neither?!” he yelled. Behind them, posted at the door were a pair of soldiers and they cringed at the man’s anger.
Barengarius was not a man to cross. He was not a king- Xaitus hadn’t had a king in three years. When Roland had died, it left an empty throne on which no man but the rightful heir to the Iron Crown could sit. Because the only legal, blood relative of the king was his daughter, the rightful heir had to be the man she married. Barengarius had quickly discovered the lack of qualified candidates. Oh there was plenty of young men in the Capital and its surrounding territories. The Empire had no shortage of young blood. With the power of metal and fire behind them they had easily decimated every kingdom they’d come across. In an effort to cement their loyalty, the kings of Xaitus had slaughtered any leader that denied them fealty and replaced them with more… cooperative rulers. Now they owned almost the entire continent- an unstoppable superpower of the world. But there was always the chance that power could slip, fade. Finally he had realized there was only one person ruthless, cunning, ad powerful enough to keep that throne…
Turning the throne that he currently occupied as a mere figurehead, into his rightful ownership would mean he would need to marry Elsinore Barinthus. But marrying her meant that he had been required to off any other, eligible bachelors that stepped into the running His latest had been easy enough. The man hadn’t been the brightest bulb on the porch. He would have been nothing to manipulate and control. But he wasn’t Barengarius… so he had to go.
“It’s too big!” the commander replied, stepping backwards; boots squeaking on the floor. “There are too many variables. My last platoon was eaten alive by the rakes! Their numbers are growing! We’ve become nothing but a steady supply of food for them!” Barnegarius lifted a hand and raked his fingers through his cropped mane of grey hair. His white sideburns were a nice contrast, amplifying the red of the ruby that sat atop the massive signet ring he wore. It was the King’s Ring, passed down to mark the rightful ruler. That honor had once been done by blade, not ring. But the King’s sword had gone missing 21 years ago, so now the ring took its place. Roland had given the ring to him; placed it in his palm as he lay on his death bed. There were witnesses. Barengarius possessed the ring so he too possessed the power to stand in his stead. He needed that sword though. Without it- marriage or not- he would never been seen as full ruler.
No one knew where the sword was. King Roland had told them he’d hidden it in a place no mere man could find it. Not even Barengarius had been privy to the hiding place. But it was inching closer to the time he couldn’t afford to be missing it. Royal weddings were only ever held once a year- on the exact day of the summer soulstice. It was the day the dravvus mated. The day of Dravvus-Fire when the sword was at it’s peak power. Whoever held it aloft would be privy to the whereabouts of the single most important artifact the Empire had ever know… the talisman that all the magic of the bygone eras had been collected in. Whoever held that, would be unstoppable. The talisman was said to be destroyed, but he knew better. Magic was pure life-force, it could never really be destroyed. That talisman had survived and he would find it. It was already fall. The summer soulstice was coming fast. He needed that damn sword!
“Sir! Caius Regis Barengarius!” a voice called out, followed by the thunder of heavy boots on the marble floor. The commander looked instantly relieved to have the attention taken off him for the time being and he and Barengarius looked to the door in time for to see one of his higher officers rush in.
“What?” he snapped, his hazel eyes glaring. The soldier saluted.
“Sir we’ve located it.”
“The sword.” Barengarius froze and the question must have been written across his face because the soldier nodded. “The King’s Blade,” he elaborated. The Regis shot to his feet.
“Where is it?!”
“The Summer Moon Temple. The Dravvus Temple. A void opened and unidentified male exited. He had the sword on his person sir. They’re bringing them both to the castle as we speak.”
“Deliver the sword straight to me the instant it arrives. In the throne room.” The soldier nodded and made a movement as if he were going to leave, but paused to turn around. “Sir?”
“The unidentified male? What would you have us do with him?”
“Lock him in the prison. He is obviously a thief.”
“Are you questioning me, boy?” Barengarius demanded even though the soldier could not have been less than thirty. The soldier swallowed.
“Well? What is it?! Spit it out man!”
“His eyes. Sir… he looks just like the king.”
Barengarius froze. For a split second there was fear behind his eyes. But he quickly slammed anger down over them to hide it. He could not afford a single show of weakness. His plan was so close to fruition he could taste it and he did not need some golden-eyed little upstart to throw a proverbial wrench into it. “Then bring him to the throne with it. And I want not one single pair of eyes or ears to around us. If I find one, I will cut it off, or cut it out. Do you understand me?” The soldier saluted and dashed back outside the room. Barengarius followed, his black tunic fluttering spastically as he moved, knee-high boots of supple leather thudding with every step. His right hand went to the thick belt that surrounded his waist out of habit and unclipped the sheath that housed his own personal blade. Entering the innermost, center sanctum of the Castle, he threw the large, ornate doors wide revealing a circular room with pillars built from floor to domed ceiling. There were twelve of them, giving the room the appearance of a large clock face, and at the twelve o’clock position, perched on a slightly raised dais, was the King’s Chair. The Iron Throne. The chair was black, inlaid with a dravvus mantle at the top, its eyes made of large rubies. It was made of the same material as the sword- a black metallic stone; the core of an ancient meteorite fallen to the earth.
He walked towards it with deliberate steps, his heart pounding in his throat, and as he approached it, he could see the lines of the sigil circle carved directly into the floor beneath the throne. The closer he came the harder it was to move forward, a wave of guarded power emanating from the runes and lines. Finally he stood at the first step of the dais, and tried to lift his boot to step up but the sigil glittered red and he found himself unable to take it. He put his foot back to the floor, hands curling into fists at his side; the King’s ring heavy around his finger as he glared. Only the one true heir could sit atop it. Once he had the talisman he could use the magic to make the bloodline fall to him. But he needed that sword.
The doors behind him opened and three figures entered, the soldiers closing the, afterwards with a bang. Alone, Barengarius turned to meet the gaze of his Captain of the Guard, a temple priestess, and strangely dress young man with golden eyes. His expression stopped just short of shock as he stared at him. The soldier hadn’t been lying. The boy looked like the spitting image of Roland when he came into power. Surely it couldn’t be. The Princess was Roland’s only living heir… The doors opened again and quickly Barengarius hardened his gaze. Four soldiers entered, pulling an iron trolley between them. The wheels squeaked under the weight of the King’s Blade that rested on top. They pulled the sword to the center of the room and left once more. When the doors here shut, Barengarius tossed his sword to the side with a clatter. “So! We have a thief in our midst, I see,” he snarled. “He has stolen the King’s face the way he has stolen the King’s Blade!”