A story written by Lunos.
Their voices rustled like leaves. They were scratchy and strained, but one could sense a sort of power emanating from them. Come. They whispered. See what gifts we have for you. The small rat-like man hobbled into a clearing.
This was the Frostwood. Many years ago Ivan Carteret had stumbled upon this clearing while part of an expedition in mapping the ancient forest. It had been... two-and-twenty years since that fateful day. The clearing was about a quarter-day's walk from the north-eastern edge of the forest, horses couldn't be ridden to the spot - the forest was far too thick.
In the middle of the clearing sat a squat cabin made of rotting wood and covered with vines. Ivan pondered how he the cabin had never seemed to age; probably by the same force that withered all trees within fifty feet of the cabin. Nothing grew here, this was a place for death.
Ivan started his trek towards the cabin as the voices grew rougher and louder. These same voices had driven him to murder his other three expeditionary companions all those years ago, there was no reason except for the soothing yet demanding voices that possessed this cabin. Ivan entered the cabin and was taken aback by the musty odour that wafted out. It stank of blood; something had died here recently. This was natural, Ivan walked to the other side of the cabin and searched on the floor for a handle. He found the old rusty thing and pulled open a hatch in the floor that revealed a staircase while both the stench and the voices grew louder and more insistant.
Descending the stairs brought Ivan to a small stone passageway. Even a man of his small stature had to duck to get into the dark passage, he then felt along the right side of the passage until he found a "door" if it could be called that. Once he passed through the wooden contraption he was able to stand freely.
Before him stood a six foot tall granite statue of an armored being complete with cloak and pauldrons. This was a tribute to Rhaal, the blood god. Beneath the statue was a basin, and behind the statue on a large pedestal was a skeletal man on a throne. This man was Na'ren, an old priest of Rhaal and a powerful mage. By all accounts, he should have died more than two hundred years before but powerful magic and continued tributes kept him alive. Ivan shivered, he did not know what those skeletal eyes did or did not see.
Na'ren had no hair, clothes or mouth. His bones were visible along his entire body and disgusting sores were open across his torso and arms. Ivan knelt before the statue and laid the possession he had brought with him in front of it: a human skull. He then cut his palm over the basin and allowed the blood to drip in.
"You called for me?" Ivan stuttered. There was no vocal reply, but only a feeling in Ivan's body that meant yes. Ivan shivered again.
Time is over for me, Ivan. The voices bounded about in his head. But I have need for one more act to be fulfilled in my name, and in the name of your God. The voices rasped.
Rhaal demands the life of your king and of his kingdom. His son, Jon, will bear no children. The line must die and the snow falling on Winter's Guard must be red. Fail me, and you fail Rhaal. Succeed, and you will have the glory of His Presence in the 'After.
I do not expect you to do this alone. Look for three travellers when the moon is full, they will appear at the castle gates and they will be yours to command.
With the final words, Ivan felt a massive mental burden lifted off of him. He was released, it seemed. Maybe this act would finally bring him total release and let him die with his sins.
Chapter 1: HalonEdit
"Try again, my lord." Dameon said boredly.
Thwack. The arrow hit the outside ring, not even close to target. Dameon strode over to the prince.
"Try releasing a breath just before you release the arrow." He said.
"I damn well know how to use a bow, Dameon. What do you think I've been doing? I've tried all your techniques and I've listened to all the master-at-arms' speeches. I'm just a poor shot." Halon nearly shouted, obviously frustrated. He threw the bow into the accumulating snow on the ground and then began to laugh.
"Ah Dameon, you put up with a lot from me. Let's go see about getting something to warm us up eh?" Togther the two men strode into the barracks to put away their training weapons and armor. Halon's armor was engraved with a bright blue mountain surrounded by clouds: the sigil of House Wintrey. Dameon's was similar but not as ornate, one does not outdo the prince. As they walked into the Great Hall where numerous men and women were taking their meals, Dameon thought about how good the residents of northern Emiria had it.
Emiria had been plunged into war by Tytos Korlath; King of the South. In a bid to take control of all of Emiria, Korlath had begun moving armies into the territories of the east and the west, where the fighting was the worst. But throughout all that death and destruction, Jon Wintrey, the lords of the north and Ivan Carteret had hammered out a peace treaty with Korlath that spared them from the war. Slimy as the so-called "Voice of the King" may be, Ivan was a damn good politician.
It was a shame they even needed a "Voice of the King" though. Harle Wintrey - the King of the North - had been chamber-ridden for many years now, so sickly that he had not actually left his room for over seven years. Dameon's thoughts were brought back to reality when Ivan scurried into the room. His voice was always barely audible, but somehow it always carried throughout the hall.
"Halon, my prince, your brother wishes to speak with you."
"Yeah, and why does he want that?" Halon asked.
"That's between you two, my prince, but he said it was urgent."
Halon led the way at a brisk pace and the three of them climbed the curling stairs up three levels before entering a regal-looking corridor adorned with the Wintrey flag along the walls. The party walked down the hall and entered a large door on the right, inside was the planning room. Jon, Halon's older brother, sat at the end of a large table with a map of Emiria sprawled out on it. The man looked far older than his thirty six years and looked very distressed. His whispy brown hair was greying on the edges, the responsibility as heir had taken its toll on him.
"Halon. Sit." He motioned to a chair on his right and dismissed Dameon with a wave of his hand.
"Dameon will stay." Halon said coldly. "Then so will Ivan." But that seemed a foregone conclusion - the little man had already taken his spot on the left of Jon at the ornate table.
"As you know, Katelyn has not returned for quite some time. I'm worried about our sister, Halon, Last Winter is no time for a lady to be traversing the North! I've sent out riders but they've returned with... nothing." Halon rose in a fury.
"What?! A handful of riders?! Why didn't you tell me, I would have found her in ten days." Halon exclaimed as he rose from the table.
"I didn't tell you-" Jon paused and waited for Halon to take his seat again. "I didn't tell you because I knew you'd act like this. Besides, we have more pressing matters to consider, like father's failing health. Ivan has suggested perhaps giving him the gift of death..." Jon eyed Halon carefully to gauge his response.
Halon was surprisingly cool, but rejected the idea entirely. "You would have our father's life determined by this creature?" Halon asked, pointing across at Ivan.
"Father's been sick for a long time, he's not going to recover, Halon. Besides, we look weak in this time of war. Ivan tells me - " Halon cut off his sibling.
"Ivan says this, Ivan says that. Think for yourself brother. If you want to be half the man father was then you better start learning how to run this kingdom yourself." Halon spat the last word. "As for me, I'll be finding our sister. Dameon, let's go." Halon marched out of the room with his guard.
"He's gone, with supplies and all just like you said he would." Jon said to Ivan.
"It was a tough thing, to send your brother away, I'm proud of you Jon. Now we can begin to do things around here without constant opposition." Ivan said, almost fatherlike.
"Will I be king before he returns?" Jon seemed to visibly shudder at the thought.
"You might be. But I'll always be there to share the burden. Always."
Tonight was the night! The full moon was already visible in the evening dusk and Ivan was excited. A mixture of excitment and anxiety bubbled inside the man standing on the castle ramparts. He hadn't felt such things since he became the Voice of the King. It had all been to easily a game up until now; tell the king a few vague prophecies, befriend the heir, poison the king's body and the heir's mind, all too easy! Tonight would give him the exhiliration he longed for.
As if on cue, Ivan thought he spied a caravan in the far distance. Mind tricks most likely, but it brought Ivan's mind back to his instructions. A plan had already been devised, the whispers had told him in his dreams exactly what would be at his disposal.
A shapechanger, a magician and one of those "Brothers of the Tongue" were to show up at nightfall. Ivan had contemplated and accounted for all problems he could foresee in his plans, and he had got rid of Halon: the only one who could challenge the change in authority. As the sun set, Ivan hurriedly returned to making sure everything was exactly perfect.
The call came for him a few hours later, when it was well and dark out. The guards had nearly turned away the "freaks" (as the one who knocked on Ivan's chamber called the travellers) before they had shown the seal of the Voice of the King. Ivan had dismissed the guard to the barracks before marching out to the gates. He was not dressed especially ornately: merely a deep purple cloak with the seal of the king - a golden imprint of the Crown of Winter - imprinted on the top left of the cloak. Ivan attempted to be as inconspicuous as possible but he knew anyone who saw him would recognize him instantly. He pulled up the hood of the cloak anyway.
At the gates were two men and one women. He instantly recognized the "Brother of the Tongue" by his skeletal features and his sewn mouth. Ivan knew that in that mouth there was nothing: no teeth, tongue or any other attachment. Ivan wondered how his kind ate. The Brother simply stared, his bulging eyes seemed to want to leap out of their sockets.
The man with the dark eyes and dark skin he recognized as a man of the Great Desert in the east. By the fashions associated with this man - his cloak, gloves and boots - Ivan assumed him to be the mage. What he didn't expect was the light brown material nor the cheerful demeanor that the man seemed to possess.
The woman had emerald-coloured eyes and a mop of dirty brown hair. She was dressed like a washerwoman but Ivan knew this to be a ploy.
"Come, then." Ivan said as he motioned them past the gates. Ivan began to explain his plan before the dark man stopped him with a laugh.
"Our mutual friend has told me of your plan. You think you are the only one he speaks to in the night? Now, let us do what we came for." The man continued chuckling.
"I suppose you also know that you're here to protect the new order of things as well?" Ivan asked sharply, obviously irritated by the mage's carefree personality. Murdering a king was a serious business!
"Yes, yes. Now let us find this 'old order' and do away with it, hmm?" The mage laughed again. "You may call me Natesh. The 'woman' goes by many names, we simply call her Ru. And our Brother friend over there is Skahn."
Ivan acknowledged them with an air of uncaring.
"Yes, yes, let's get on with it!" His blood was pumping.
Per Ivan's instructions, the Great Hall had been cleared. Nobody saw the four conspirators enter or make their way up to the fifth floor: to the king's floor.
"Halt! Who's that, now?" A guard standing outside the king's chamber called from the end of the hall. When he recieved no answer, he and his companion drew swords. Kiaea! A shout rang out and one guard was writhing on the floor in pain, the other guard charged into the darkness sword aloft only to be caught in the chest by a slim blade. The owner, Skahn, smashed his bare foot into the guard's face when he fell.
The four walked into the king's room.
"Jon. Halon. Sons, are you there? I have something I need to tell you." Instead of a reply from one of his beloved children, the King of the North was grabbed in the chest by a distinctly reptillian hand. A reptillian tale formed as well, as if from shadows, and pierced the old, grey, frail man through the chest and splattering blood all over the regal bed covers.
For the first time in years, Harle Wintrey could see through the milky veil that covered his vision.
"Jon. Jon, wake up." A familiar voice called. Jon woke to a start to see Ivan standing over him, the small man seemed enlarged by his dominant position.
In his arms was the Crown of Winter.
"It's damn cold, even for Firstleaf!" Halon complained. It had been this pattern for a while now: the two companions would travel in near silence for a while, then the wind would annoy Halon and he'd complain about the cold, then he'd complain about his brother and the adviser, then he'd complain about women, then politics, then back to women and then anything else that came to mind.
It really was starting to irritate Dameon.
"Sire, I've already told you that we have no other garments, I asked you if we should bring more and you said 'no, Dameon, this will be a very short adventure' and then you went to saddle up the horses." Halon looked ready to interrupt.
"And then I asked you if we should buy some more when we stopped at that village few days back, but you got us chased out when you bedded that smith's daughter! Imagine the embarrassment had they recognized you!" Halon again moved to interrupt but was cut off again. Dameon was nearly shouting then.
"I'd say that you don't even believe your sister is in any danger. I think you're half expecting to see her carriage roll up on the road any day now. It seems like we've asked about bandits once, twice? I think you just wanted to get away from your brother because you two can't damn well get along!" Dameon said, sharply.
"Enough!" Halon stared at Dameon with his icy blue eyes. His short brown hair seemed to rise like a cat that has been backed into a corner.
"I... I'm sorry my prince. I didn't mean to get out of line." Dameon looked abashed. Halon held the stare for a moment longer, and then just as it had materialized, it vanished nearly instantaneously and the joyous demeanor for which Halon was known came back.
"It's fine. As I said, it's damn co--" He stopped midsentence as the two travellers came across the seen of a wreckage. A wooden carriage with a floral pattern surrounding the outside was overturned in the middle of the road. Four horses and six men lay dead around it. Halon dismounted to examine the bodies while Dameon kept a vigil.
"These men are bearing our sigil. Dameon, this was my sister's carriage!" Halon said, panicky, after a minute or so of examining the wreckage. "These bodies are fresh. A day old, two at the latest! And no sign of my sister or her maid..." Halon trailed off as he noticed a small blood trail leading into the forest on the left. This was not the Frostwood, but it couldn't have been more than twenty miles away. However, Halon knew this particular forest - he had gone on hunting trips here with his brother when he was younger. The forest was not very large and anyone hiding inside would not be very hard to find.
"Dismount, we're going to find these bastards." The prince ordered.
Dameon and Halon had followed the blood trail for two hours. They had lost the trail after that and had proceeded to wander the forest aimlessly for another hour, Halon marked where they had been with a groove in every ten trees with his knife.
"My prince, maybe we should start thinking about camp for the night?" Dameon asked wearily. He was worried about Katelyn - of course he was! But they had themselves to think about as well. Cold, lost and tired in a forest was a bad combination. Halon froze.
"Wha-" Dameon sputtered out before Halon waved for his silence.
"Moiri better...else I'm...y'see?" Some not-so-distant voice rang out. The voice was gruff and slurred the words - probably drunk.
"Ah shutup you...Moiri...dumb brute!" Another voice said, in reply. This one was significantly higher pitched and clearly sober. The two voices got louder and soon their footsteps could be heard approaching Dameon and Halon.
"Hide!" Halon whispered and disappeared into the brush. Dameon, not knowing what to do and bad at improvising, ducked into the nearest snow drift and pulled his grey cloak over his body, hoping it would conceal him but leaving his eyes uncovered to watch the alleged bandits go by.
What he saw next surprised him.
A human shadow seemed to overtake the two quarreling men. The shadow took a remarkable human form and grabbed the man with the gruff voice by the neck. Before the unaccosted man could grab his mace, a hand with pointed nails and sloughing skin tore out the drunk's jugular, and blood spilled onto the snow.
This was not Halon, Dameon knew, and saw the creature in the reflection of the moonlight. A large gangling person, much akin to one of the bodies of the guards from the carriage. This beast wore the Wintrey royal guards' armor and stood with a dagger through the left eye, an arrow in the chest and various pieces of muscle and bones clearly visible throughout the body.
Dameon froze, motionless as he thought about all the stories of his youth about dead men walking Emiria once more. His shock was alleviated, however, when another form appeared from the darkness and caught the dead man in the back with a sword. Dameon jumped up and, seeing as the other bandit moved to get away, drew his sword and levelled it with the man's throat.
Halon dodged the dead man's swings and countered with slashes which didn't even phase the undead. One slash by the zombie came too close for comfort and opened a wound on Halon's cheek. How do I beat this thing? Halon wondered frantically. Another few stabs and slashes got him no closer to the objective than before.
Then Halon went for the neck.
The head of the dead man rolled away on the ground. The corpse struggled for a bit before collapsing as well. The prince took a few breathes and then walked over to Dameon and his prisoner. The bandit looked incredibly scared.
"Who th' hades are you and what was that thing?" The man cried out, and then spat on the ground. "Y'know what? I don' care. I ain't done nothin' wrong."
"Kidnapping a princess is a very serious crime." The piercing stare was back in the prince's eyes. "So maybe you show us where she is and I'll let you walk away."
The bandit pointed. "Moiri's in that hill not a hundred feet that way. Look for the hole. But if you're looking for th' girls you're too late - once Moiri's had his way with 'em he burns 'em." The man motioned at the corpse like he expected it to come alive again any moment. "Now I see why." Furious, Halon struck him across the face with the flat of his sword.
"You lie!" He said.
"Please, I didn't touch 'em, please! We live out here but sometimes we get jobs and Moiri gives us gold to do it, but we only captured 'em we never touched 'em, please!" The man looked like he was on the verge of tears.
"Here, we got this stuff from Moiri. Gold, but it's not real! Don' got the right king on it! Moiri got tricked. I wouldn't a taken the gold if I had touched her. I've got honor!" The man was crying now. Halon took the coin purse and ripped it open. Inside was at least thirty gold northern coins, the sigil of House Wintrey on one side and on the other side was Jon Wintrey's face.
There was something else in the purse that Halon almost missed in his fury. He drew out a pendant - his sister's - which was thoroughly covered in blood. No more words were spoken. Halon simply shoved his sword into the gut of the bandit and eviscerated him.
Then he stalked towards the hill.