Three months ago…
“Tell me what you found.”
Despite the late hour, Lord Justinian of Albora, Chamberlain to King Thaine Trannoch of Caldera, tried his best to appear alert while sinking into a plush, elegantly adorned chair at the head of the King’s Spring Chamber. In years past, visitors to the Silver Palace of Corendar would be greeted in the Hall of Glass, a vast banquet hall surrounded by mirrors, glass walls, and onyx and crystal artifacts. The majesty of the King and his Court would be on full display in such a glorious venue. But since the current King considered himself a simple, pragmatic man who liked to avoid pomp and frivolity, the Spring Chamber, a much more intimate location, had become the preferred meeting location. A waste, Justinian thought, as he tried not to yawn at his guests.
He’d been alerted shortly before retiring to his quarters about the arrival of three members of the Warhounds, the fabled Sotheran lance company that Earl Amminis Adribard could never shut up about. Normally, he’d have told them to come back tomorrow, but one of the three included the Earl’s grandson, Lord Andreas of Devrin. A pompous, arrogant man, but an Earl’s grandson nonetheless. So Justinian had consented to the meeting, despite his weariness. In retrospect, he should have refused. He couldn’t believe the tale these three men had brought to him this night.
“These parts were older,” Andreas said, sitting to Justinian’s right at the oval table situated squarely in the center of the room. The leader of the Warhounds still wore most of his silver plate, which bore dozens of unsightly dents and scratches, along with streaks of mud and dust, which hadn’t been completely wiped away by the servants outside. Even as exhausted and beat up as he was, though, the boy still looked ripped from a painting, with his finely crafted features and chiseled jaw. Next to him was the grey-haired sentinel Riordan, and Tholstan, the giant, brooding armsman, both of whom were even filthier than Andreas. “But they were more refined than the caves up top. These were tunnels constructed by craftsmen, designed for people to live within them, like the ancient dwarf cities, only there were no dwarves. I don’t know how far down we were, but it took us some time to get back above ground. I’m convinced we spent at least a day wandering through those tunnels, trying to find our way out.”
“And we are quite happy you did, Lord Andreas.” Justinian flashed a warm smile at the young palatine. His natural-born charm fit his role as the King’s primary counselor perfectly. “But did you come all the way here tonight to tell me you found nicely built tunnels deep under Teekwood?”
“There were also rooms,” Tholstan added in a deep voice. He was both taller and heavier than Andreas, with stringy black hair and a short, thick beard. He seemed a brute compared to the well-bred leader of the Warhounds. “They were filled with belongings, as if people lived there once. And treasures.”
That piqued his attention. Barely. “What kind of treasures?”
“Things people would wear. Armor, jewelry, weapons, clothes. But they were lying on the floor in piles, like they’d been tossed in the room and forgotten.”
“So not real treasure?”
“There was gold,” Andreas explained. “And silver. Some gems, I think, and crystals. But that’s not the important part.”
“Oh, I know.” Justinian waved his hand dismissively. “There’s also an army of outlaws and brigands down there to protect it.”
“They aren’t outlaws, my Lord,” Riordan said, his voice desperate. Despite being only a few years older than the other two, the sentinel’s hair had already turned grey, and thin wrinkles covered his face. He seemed to age five years every time Justinian saw him. “These aren’t the lost men and women of Caldera, or Andua, or Bergmark. They weren’t down there to escape a crime or a debt, or even the war. They weren’t fighting together because of some shared cause. Magic was involved. Dark magic.”
Justinian glanced over at his councilor, Eddark, the wizened old wizard who sat unmoving at the other end of the table. Save for a twitch of his lips at the mention of dark magic, he could have been a statue. “Why do you say that?” Justinian said.
“Because I could feel it. Whatever keeps those poor souls down there, and whatever caused our own allies to turn on us, it tried to take me as well.” Riordan’s eyes became distant. “I’m sure of it.”
“Take you?” Eddark asked, his first words since entering the room. He wore the gold-trimmed purple robes of a Theurgist, the wizards and scholars who maintained the sacred teachings of Thandaran wizards of old. “That sounds like domination magic.”
“It was. A form of it, I think. It was a powerful thing, though. Far more powerful than anything an Anduain dominator can master. Certainly more than I could ever dream of knowing.” Riordan fixed his eyes on the old man. “The Theurgy must be warned about this.”
Eddark frowned in thought, but he said nothing. Justinian took his lack of response as a lack of interest, something he’d begun to suffer from as well. The Endless Caves were curiosities, but nothing more, despite what these men had been through.
“Anything else?” the Chamberlain asked, anxiously leaning forward in his chair.
“I noticed something,” Tholstan said, staring intently at a tapestry hanging on the opposite wall. Once he realized that all eyes were now on him, he glanced at the others sheepishly. “But I’m not sure how important it is.”
Justinian leaned back and gestured to Tholstan. “Let’s hear it.”
“While trying to get out, I saw that one of the rooms had an open door at the back, with a hallway that led to a bigger room, a chamber kind of like this one. In the middle of the chamber was a pedestal, like the ones that line the roads outside, with statues on top of them. But this one had only a skull on it. I wouldn’t have looked twice at it, normally, but the pedestal had a symbol on the front that glowed… black, if that makes sense. The same symbol as the one on that man’s shield right there.”
He pointed and everyone in the room followed his gesture to the wide tapestry, which depicted an ancient battle between the denizens of the island from millennia ago, before the Thandarans had ever wondered what lay across their northern sea. Humans, elves, dwarves, firbolgs, havtrols, and nuathreen all fought together against an army of spirits, the legendary Pale Men. According to legend, they’d once claimed this island, only to be destroyed by their own hubris, and their souls were left to haunt the land. That is until they were destroyed in the Battle of Goldcliffe. The legend was nonsense, of course, but it made for a rousing story, and a beautiful tapestry.
Tholstan had singled out the shield carried by one of the Pale Men in the front line. He, like most of the others, had a symbol painted on the front of a white, chalky circle with four small points sticking out diagonally, as if the circle covered up crossed swords. Three thick vertical lines were etched below and above the circle, with a small space in between. The symbol had been found carved into three different stone altars found in Anduain ruins over the last few centuries. No one knew what it meant, but scholars all assumed it was a sign of the people who once ruled this land, hence the artist’s decision to include it on the shields of the Pale Men.
“Something terrible is happening down there. You have to take this to King Thaine,” Riordan pleaded. “He must know right away.”
“The King is busy entertaining guests at the moment,” Justinian said. A lie, though a necessary one. “But I will bring this to his attention as soon as possible. I can assure you that your worries will soon be his. In the meantime, we’ll see to it that you are well taken care of.” Justinian motioned to the guards at the far exit. “See that our guests are fed, and then make arrangements for them to stay in the city. I believe the Regal Rose is considered the finest inn in the city. Find them rooms there.”
The guards nodded and escorted the Warhounds out of the room. Andreas stood, bowed slightly to the Chamberlain, then wasted no time in leaving. Tholstan and Riordan were slower in their movements, and cautious in their expressions. But they followed their leader through the door.
Once they left, Eddark stood from the table with a sigh and walked over to the tapestry, staring at the symbol. Justinian sidled up next to him. “You worry me, Eddark. I almost think you believe their tale.”
Eddark turned, that frown still plastered across his face. “My lord, I think we may have stumbled upon something important.”
Justinian shook his head wearily and walked away. He wanted this day to end. “A bunch of delirious explorers are attacking each other at the bottom of the world, fighting over treasure. We should worry about that? Now? I tell you, Eddark, if I was stuck down there for weeks at a time I’d lose my mind, too.”
Eddark clasped his hands together behind his back. “The pedestal the soldier described, with the black symbol. Did you not recognize the description he gave?”
“Recognize it? I see it right there.” Justinian gestured at the tapestry with a scowl.
Eddark frowned. “That description matches a very important legend. One that we would be remiss in not following up on.”
“You too, Eddark? You pore over this nonsense all day long. I would think you of all people would be tired of hearing about tall tales and wishful thinking.”
Eddark stepped closer, lowering his voice. “My lord Chamberlain, part of my job is to research such things. And I do so with great fervor, because any one of these ‘legends’, if true, could help us win this war. Fortunately, I’ve grown adept in my old age at identifying which of the stories I read about have a kernel of truth to them.”
Justinian raised an eyebrow. “This is one of them?”
Eddark’s eyes gleamed in response, and the Chamberlain suddenly realized how serious the old Theurgist was about this discovery.
“When the Theurgy opened its books, we did so only at the insistence of King Damhran. We allowed dangerous magics to be taught once more, all in the name of preserving our kingdom against heretics. Since that day, our greatest desire is to close those books. But that can only happen when we win this war.”
He pointed to the tapestry.
“This symbol shows up throughout history. It’s been given many names, and even more meanings, but those of us in the Theurgy have found a tale that we believe identifies it correctly.” He stepped closer, tracing the symbol with his finger. “According to this tale, which we keep away from the eyes of the unfaithful, this is called the Aegis of Cithria, and it represents power beyond understanding.”
Justinian shook his head. “Cithria? Who is that? A woman?”
“It’s not a person.” Eddark smiled. “It’s a city. A city of the gods.”
2 days ago…
Justinian pushed open the doors to the King’s chambers and strode through the wide, circular room. At the far end, he found the double doors leading into the balcony open, and he stepped through into the bright, early morning sunlight that bathed the King and his opulent breakfast. Thaine Trannoch sat at a round table of polished wood, covered by a decorative linen cloth. His chair, an unremarkable wooden one he’d taken from the kitchens years ago, faced west, allowing him an unfettered view of the western Artoran lowlands, the Red Hills beyond that, and, on a clear day, the tips of the Caelmont that divided Caldera and Andua. The King was an old soldier at heart, and he preferred to keep his eyes on his enemies at all times.
“Good morning, my King. I trust you slept well?”
Thaine didn’t even look up at his Chamberlain as he picked at a plate of sliced fruit.
Two servants waited by the door, one holding an empty tray and towels, the other a serving pitcher. Justinian waved them away and they quickly left the patio. Justinian walked over to the empty chair on the opposite side of the table. He sat down, not bothering to ask for the King’s permission. Thaine Trannoch was a simple man, who eschewed the normal rules of kingly decorum.
“I take it you’ve heard the latest news from the war?”
“Some of it.” His expression remained stoic. “Every day I hear that we’re closer to victory. That Bergmark has no more warriors, and Andua is losing its resolve. Yet every day I have to hear my councilors tell me how many more of our own we’ve lost in the war. And this morning, to find out that Hannerkeep fell…” He shook his head. “If our enemies truly are on the verge of collapse, then no one seems to have told them that.”
“They’ve fought us for almost twenty years, my King. Perhaps they don’t know how to see their own end.”
“Well I see ours, and it grows closer every day.” He shifted his large frame, still fit despite more than twelve years on the throne.
“We still have an opportunity to end this quickly.”
The King cocked his eyebrow at Justinian. “The caves, again?”
“Yes, my King.”
Thaine frowned. “You’d have me send an army down there to chase a rumor?”
“It must be more than a rumor. All manner of strange things are happening down there. I’ve sent scouts to verify the claim, and the few who manage to return tell me fascinating stories. Whoever is down there, they are certainly guarding something important.”
The King grumbled. “You’d have me reward their deaths with even more?”
“Our armies are more than capable of handling that challenge.”
Thaine grunted loudly. “I can’t send an army down there. Not now. Not when war has resumed.”
“Even if it would ensure our victory?”
“Does it?” The King turned to his Chamberlain. “Can you promise me victory, Justinian? Can you promise me that this war will end, and our suffering will cease?”
The Chamberlain bowed his head. “Of course not. As we both know, it’s never that simple.”
“No, it is not.” The King sighed deeply. “I can’t spare a thousand men to go stumbling through dark caves searching for a legend. Not when I have fires to put out all over my kingdom. Anduains at Hannerkeep, Bergsbor making runs at Goldcliffe. Even the Movri are inching out of their keeps. Everything north of Artora is dangerously close to being overrun, and you’d have me send men I could use to defend our land down into these caves?”
Thaine glanced curiously at his Chamberlain, not expecting such a determined answer to what was intended to be a rhetorical question.
“My King,” Justinian began, taking advantage of the moment, “everything you say is true, but I think there’s another way to see this.”
Thaine regarded Justinian with weary eyes. “Enlighten me.”
“Were you to send those thousand men out into the frontier, say to retake our towers, how many would we lose? A third? Half? Even if it were only a quarter, that would still be men who needn’t have died to protect our lands when they could be retrieving weapons that would help us win without another battle. If we send those men to the caves, and they find nothing, then yes, we needlessly tie up a legion of soldiers for a few days when they could be defending our lands. But if we send them down there and we find this legend, if we find this dark relic, then we can end this war now.” Justinian leaned closer to the King. “No one else has to die. We will finally know peace. And you will be celebrated as the King who brought that peace. You will know glory only King Damhran has known.”
The King said nothing.
“My King, we have other legions who can hold our ground during the time it takes to search the caves. It’s either there or it isn’t, but we can’t afford to not know for sure.”
“You seem certain of this.”
“I am. Something important is down there. And we must find out what it is before our enemies do. If Bergmark or Andua gets to this before we do, it may be the boon they need to keep this war going for another twenty years. Certainly we want to avoid that?”
The King sighed. He was troubled, that much was clear. He looked out across the countryside, toward the distant mountains that protected his people from the wilds of Andua. His gaze dropped, and he exhaled softly.
“Your words make sense. They always do.”
Justinian bowed his head. “And your words inspire, my King.”
“General Rondell is gathering his men in Trenant right now?”
“He is, my King.”
“How many serve under him?”
“Nearly a thousand. Most of them Venrian and Esteran.”
Thaine nodded his head thoughtfully. “He has his lance company with him? The one led by Lord Othar?”
“I believe he does, my King. Lord Falstar is with him as well.”
Thaine frowned at the mention of Falstar’s name. He took a sip of his drink, staring blankly out at the countryside.
“Send a courier to me in a few hours. I’ll need a message delivered to Trenant Keep.”
“Of course, my King.” He stood and bowed his head. “I’ll see to it immediately.”
Justinian motioned the servants back onto the balcony with a snap, and then walked through the doors and out of the King’s chambers. He left that room content with his plans, the hint of a smile on his face. His King, however, sat with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN!”
The light faded.
With it, went the magic that somehow kept Aiden from moving, speaking or even being. For both an instant and an eternity, the world had ceased to exist, and Aiden found himself in someone else’s reality, one filled with stilted images and memories. He saw a tortured man trapped in a prison, screaming for help, surrounded by the dark shadows of creatures he couldn’t begin to describe. Then a skull, resting on a pedestal that glowed black, calling out to him with the voice of a demon. The visions faded, and he returned from the aether with a stuttered breath, the distant echo of those four words his only evidence that something had actually happened during that time.
He blinked away the stillness. The other figures in the room, mere shadows a moment ago, without form or face, now found their shape, and Aiden recognized his enemies and his allies. The Anduains who had charged in from the side. The Bergsbor who forced their way in from the door opposite him. His own fellow Calderans standing behind him. He tensed, knowing a battle could start at any moment, but he found it difficult to summon the same desire to fight that he’d had only moments ago. The same must have been true of the others, too. Everyone stood motionless, sluggish, the only sign of life the rapidly returning consciousness in their eyes.
Aiden’s gaze drifted to the bowl sitting on a pedestal in the middle of them all. The light had flared from that spot. The voice had come from that direction, too. But not only the voice. The visions came to him again, as memories this time instead of experiences. He saw the prisoner, not much older than him, wearing the purple robes of a theurgist, smeared with dirt. He been held against his will, beaten, and his silent expression screamed for help. But it was the skull that called to Aiden. It sat atop a thick pedestal made of polished stone, with a black symbol on the front that pulsed like a heartbeat. It was much like the pedestal in this room, though it had no symbol on the front. It merely glowed with a faint blue light. What kind of magic was this? How did an object invade his mind so thoroughly?
Something moved at the corner of his vision – the firbolg, the one with two swords, like a thorn. The Anduain lifted his head and looked left, at Aiden, then right, seeing the Bergsbor. His face twisted in panic, as if suddenly realizing where he was, and he charged the Calderans, screaming, “It was them!”
Aiden barely had time to wonder why the firbolg had no accent. He sluggishly brought up his own sword, parrying the first of the firbolg’s two blades, then quickly back across to catch the other. Aiden had lost his shield back up top, while fighting the armored giant. The sword in his hand was the only weapon he had left. Luckily, the firbolg wasn’t too adept at combat, or Aiden might have been seriously hurt.
“No!” A small voice called out. A young woman. But not Kat.
Andreas appeared from Aiden’s right, slamming his shield into the firbolg, who fell sideways into the wall. Aiden stepped forward to drive his blade into the Anduain’s exposed left side, but an arrow clipped the top of Andreas’ shield, splintering the shaft and sending remnants flying past Aiden’s face. He ducked, cursing himself for forgetting about the nuathreen archers, then cursing again as the firbolg kicked his large leg out, sweeping Aiden’s feet out from under him. He fell backward against Malcolm, who caught him, but not before they both crashed into the wall right next to the Anduain.
“What witchcraft is this?” someone shouted from across the room. The Bergsbor? That wasn’t possible. They didn’t speak the Calderan tongue. A roar echoed throughout the room. One of the havtrols. That would make this complicated.
“Wait!” A shout this time. A man.
Aiden pushed himself away, trying to shake away the haze in his mind and make sense of the fight that had suddenly ensued. Men and women were everywhere, weapons had come free, enemies surrounded them. Blood would soon stain the walls of this room.
“Stop it!” The female voice screamed over and over again. Aiden turned to see the source of the command, the small, haggard, red-haired Anduain woman, who stood in the center of the room. Her expression was one of genuine concern, so much so that Aiden found himself lowering his guard. The firbolg had done the same, as had everyone else nearby. “Stop fighting each other!” she pleaded as all eyes turned to her.
“What are you doing?” Andreas said to the Calderans, brandishing his sword. “It’s a trick!”
“No.” Landon stepped forward and grabbed Andreas’ shoulder. “Listen to her. We’re not here to fight.”
“No one tells Gruesome Beartooth what to do, human,” the havtrol bellowed. He raised his fearsome hammer, a weapon that would pound straight through Aiden’s meager armor and shatter his ribs. The Calderans tensed as the creature took a step toward them.
“Gruesome, please,” the Bergsbor human reached out and put his hand on the havtrol’s arm, as Landon had done with Andreas. He wore purple robes – a darker shade than the theurgists – and a black cloak, and carried a staff with a skull at the top. He wasn’t like any shaman Aiden had ever seen before. Was he a mage? “She’s right. Didn’t you hear the voice?”
“Sorcery!” the havtrol snarled. “From them!”
“No,” the mage said. “It wasn’t from them. It wasn’t from anyone in this room.”
“Explain yeself,” the dwarf stomped forward. How did these Bergsbor know their language? The mage, who had another havtrol standing silently behind him with vacant, lifeless eyes, swallowed and turned toward the Anduain woman, as if she should be the one to tell the story.
“The voice,” she began, suddenly timid now that she had everyone’s attention, “he asked for help. He said he brought us here to free him, and to stop the evil creatures who rule this city. Before they,” she looked at her fellow Anduains for support, “before they do something terrible.”
“We all saw it, didn’t we?” Riordan asked breathlessly. He turned to Landon. “Damhran?”
The ice wizard shook his head. “Not Damhran. His nephew. Geris. That’s why I thought it was him. They look so much alike.”
“I saw a wizard in a cell.” One of the other Anduain women stepped up next to the first one, wearing a silver cloak. A druid. A wolf followed her, its eyes narrowed and its teeth bared. “And that was all. What else did you see?”
“He…” the girl shook her head, as if trying to remember, “he was trapped somehow. He said that he came here looking for old magic, but he was captured and imprisoned deep in the city. He said they were an enemy that threatens us all.”
“He said all that to you?”
Aiden winced, but not in pain. Something about him wasn’t right. The magic, the light, hadn’t completely gone away. He could feel it on his skin, coating him, like a thin sheen of oil. His head began to throb, and he reached up to grab his temples.
“There was also a skull.” The nuathreen mage spoke, his large eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Did anyone else see that?”
He was met with a chorus of nods. The firbolg captain, still standing amongst his allies, stepped forward. “I heard the voice, but I saw nothing.” He kept his large hands wrapped around the hilt of his greatsword, and though his eyes watched everyone in the room, Aiden could tell that his attention was focused firmly on the havtrol, whose zeal for battle seemed all to obvious. “All of this could be a trap.”
“It’s not a trap!” the Anduain girl implored. “He’s the one who showed me Liam. He’s the one brought us here. You have to believe me.”
“I believe you, Eilidh,” the firbolg said. “That doesn’t mean I believe the spirit who guided you.”
“So a ghost brought us here?” asked the third Anduain woman, who wore barkskin armor. “ALL of us?”
“He’s not a ghost,” the Bergsbor mage said. “He’s still alive, trapped somewhere in this city. These creatures have taken him prisoner. He brought us here to save him.”
“Why?” the firbolg captain asked, his deep voice rumbling. “He’s Calderan. Why bring us here?” He motioned to the Bergsbor. “Or you?”
The small Anduain woman, Eilidh, shrugged her shoulders in defeat. “I don’t know,” she said in a tiny voice. “But he needs us. We have to help.”
Her words were met with cynical stares and incredulous expressions.
The elven dominator ignored the conversation and stepped across the room. She stopped at the bowl, her delicate finger tracing a line along the rim. Everyone fell silent, watching her actions as if in a trance, waiting for the bowl to do something meaningful.
“We should fear this magic,” she finally said. “Whatever it is, it’s beyond us.”
“Shouldnae be touching things that glow like that,” one of the nuathreen trackers said.
“Quite right, Bruce” whispered the other.
“I don’t understand,” Finias whispered from behind Aiden. He looked over his shoulder to see the boy holding his bow, with what was probably his last arrow nocked. “Are we here to fight them, or to discuss our surrender? They’re likely to kill us if we don’t do something.”
“I don’t know,” Aiden mumbled, distracted by the dull pounding in his head. It was getting worse.
“We can’t fight them,” Landon said, having overheard their conversation. “They were brought here to help, same as us.”
“How do you know?” Finias asked the silver-haired wizard. “They could be the tenebrous that Riordan keeps talking about.”
“They’re not,” Landon said.
“How do you know?”
“They’re not!” Landon replied sharply.
“What is that noise?” Aiden asked, not really hearing the argument next to him. The pounding had turned into a cacophony of voices. Snarling, angry voices.
“I hear it, too.” The druid glanced at Aiden, then at the wall just past the elf. Her wolf bared its teeth and growled. Aiden turned. He could feel it stronger now.
“More sorcery?” the havtrol growled. He held his hand up to the wall, obviously sensing it as well.
“I don’t care what it is,” the dwarf said. “I care why we’re all standing around in this room with our weapons out, but no one’s thought to use them.”
“We must not fight each other.” The Bergsbor mage held his hands up, imploring everyone around him not to act rashly. “That’s not why we were brought here.”
Voices filled the room. More talking, and arguing, but Aiden didn’t care. He only cared about the danger coming for them on the other side of that wall. He edged closer, examining the solid block of stone, nearly twice his height and twenty paces wide. Impervious to all but the most determined, and powerful, attacker. But that’s exactly what he feared. Someone waited for them on the other side.
No, they weren’t waiting.
They were attacking.
He stepped back, just as the room exploded.