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Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.
Once, there was a town built over a high cliff named Hearthstone.
Protected by the two hundred meters of the Tarasque Cliff, the peaceful town enjoyed an easygoing nonchalance in the northern Tyrian princedom of Rubaron. From the south, forests and mountains guarded the only other entrance for the village, while in the West lied the scattered Red Country that wanderers called the “Land without Walkers”.
Sunlight embraced the peaceful town of Hearthstone’s warm and colorful structures, mostly built out of harvested neighbouring wood. Also, it seemed summer would end quietly and children prepared for their first guildsmanship, where they would be joining the Rubaronian citizen life. Life stirred the daylight markets and all villagers felt grateful for the trade between the major princedoms of Thyria and the neighbouring super power known as the Imperial Order.
It was known that they would soon blow the ancient Fenris horn in the Holy City of Aldoradel, a traditional harbinger of winter. The horn’s howling would reach every corner of the civilized world, but not Thyria. Indeed, the Merchant Princes had ascended as a major power in the current balance, ensuring an eternal and fertile summer.
As a natural result, it was carefree and warm in the peaceful town of Hearthstone, and noon brought joy as a historical execution would soon be taking place. It was almost as if in such stability, this nest of peace and joy could never end up in flames within a fortnight.
Even a great seer couldn’t have expected a rampaging dragon to rise a few miles away from this peaceful town…
Over the two hundred meters high cliffs, a garrison for the Eleventh Order, commonly known across the civilized world as Watches, had been established in a fortified post following years of Novingard Terror. Two Watchers of the daylight, covered by their respective dirty sweat, entered its fortified dungeon on the village’s rocky edges. Relaxed, the distracted guardsmen theorized over the Gathering finals. The bigger man with ginger hair and brown eyes, a former Temerian sellsword named Steiner Fitz, imitated his current liege, Prince Imrik of Rubaron, and had bet on Bryce Hollmajen as First Sword. The younger but bulkier Watcher, a local hearthstonian with premature baldness, red pimples and dark eyes named Emilio would endlessly affirm that the champion would be Norman Daegoln.
“You are a fool to think the Golden-Eyed Silvertongue is jousting this season!” Steiner reprimanded him. “I would be there watching at his rapier, not cleaning His Grace Imrik’s mess of a duchy alongside the likes of you.”
– “How would you know that?” Emilio interjected. “Don’t believe what peddlers tell you all the time! It is their job to herald lies! Peythralm is far, so for all I know Norman Daegoln announced himself as contestant last winter.”
– “Yes,” Steiner said, nodding “but you forget what the Peddler said last time. Daegoln has been accused of abusing magi potions and was under the investigation of the Ordo Malleus.”
– “Everyone that the Ordo Malleus investigates burns to the stake, everyone knows that!” Emilio valiantly claimed before adding: “Norman Daegoln wouldn’t break the law, he is a hero.”
– “Yes, yes, and my farts smell like roses.”
Insulted as a folkloric villager by an exiled knight, Emilio grinned, until Steiner spoke again:
“Don’t worry, I’ve paid the Flintshire company a hundred griffins to keep me updated on the events. I should receive the latest chronicle from the peddler within three twilights.”
– “We can sure thank the Empire’s Own for assuring our road’s safety.” Emilio commented with a serious demeanour, despite being clueless on the commercial agreements of Peythralm, this year 1477.
“A ruse, a ruse for the Empire to get control over our guilds I tell you”, the former sellsword whispered with frustration, pretending to be followed by invisible watchers.
Entering the dungeons, the light faded away as Steiner and his brother-in-arms Emilio closed the obsidian gate behind, sealing the keys in a sealed chest designed for this effect. After crossing the rows of empty cells lighted by an odd fog, both Watchers faced the only resident of the far back jail, trapped in a loop of madness where drops defined time to their prisoner. Blop, blop. Behind the bars, a man covered in sweat and liquor awaited death by ecartelement, his hands and legs bound in chains while hundreds of silver mithril needles pierced his forehead shaping a dark cross. If Steiner felt sympathy he didn’t show any sign of it, while Emilio identified the damned soul as the archetype of a broken man. His mithril needles reversed the magic in his system and sealed away his creative mind. Therefore, the man was trapped in a reasonable depression. Accused of bringing forth an apocalypse and multiple accounts of regicide, the primary suspect in the Kingslayer Hunt would finally meet his end. However, the only words muttered by the condemned cutthroat Steiner and Emilio understood sounded like: “I have failed to protect Borothar, this is my burden, and I have accepted it.” He then opened his mouth before adding: “I don’t want to die in vain, but I receive righteous punishment for my actions.” A man whose creative mind had been sealed would mutter inanities, but his tone would remain neutral. The man they would tear to pieces had a name, once maidens yelled with passion: “Avalan Den!”
Lost in torpor, Den would barely remember the scattered fragments of his memories. He remembered fighting that warrior on the shores, Elijah. And then, the boy had screamed… Avalan Den would later fail to save the child, the brave swordsman having entered a world of secrets, dark arcane ones he shouldn’t have heard of, and had ended up in Hearthstone’s dungeon, shipped by the Imperial Armada in the two-hundred meter high Tarasque Cliff’s dungeon. Branded with the mark of the Forsaken, he had been declared guilty for the crimes of the 1455 slaying of kings. As a result, a handful of brave rulers would attempt his execution, with Imrik of Rubaron himself scheduled to address their gathering, officially ending the 22 years lasting Kingslayer Hunt. Over a three-hour celebration, Den would be dragged and exposed to the mob’s glances for an entire afternoon while being trapped in a dragonglass cage. After an hour, he would be beat up by the crowd before being allowed an hour meditation in the Fiery Abbey. By Twilight, he would be pulled apart by horses after being maimed of his sword hand. For these torments were the fate of the regicide.
Outside the dungeon, a dozen Fiery Order heralds awaited, led by their sponsor Zephyr Sarak’j, a Sealord. The former had expressed a keen interest in Den’s fate, and had paid to assist in the transfer of the prisoner towards the local Fiery Abbey.
When Emilio and Steiner Fitz would be bind the cooperative and broken swordsman with dragonglass, they would do their Daylight canton’s paperwork, ensuring a legal exchange of custody between Kyai Orders. From there, Zephyr Sarak’j, sealord of Kyl’is and current sponsor of the Fiery Order, would pay his service due to the Empire’s Own and join the Red Pavillion constructed at the place of execution, the Shrine of Alesia. Dragonglass guaranteed that the Kingslayer would remain cooperative. When his beating would end, the chained man once known as Avalan Den would receive a last visit before Twilight, right before his ecartelement. That was the planned schedule.
Obviously, they hadn’t planned the dragon.
“Come on Den.” Emilio the bald hearthstonian commanded with an authoritarian voice, trying to impress his seasoned colleague. “You know the drill, be nice and we’ll be. Make this easy for the three of us.”
– “He will cooperate.” Steiner sarcastically observed, definitely not impressed by Emilio’s manliness. “He is fogtrapped by these nasty needles. Don’t know how it works, I never bothered with magic theory at the monastery. Look.” He interrupted his resentful mockery by adding: “Hey regicide, smile.”
In his gloomy and humid cell, Avalan Den’s expressionless face transmuted into a pale smile shining behind the bars. Shivering, Emilio remained a local, fearing magical practice and being scared of these mithril needles. Their function itself disturbed the bald Watcher. In his eyes, manipulating one’s mind was unholy.
Holding a torch, Steiner Fitz placed it in the iron ring locked right to the cell. Swiftly, he searched beneath his leather armor for his order’s talisman. Its runic mechanisms, activated by a great deal of the reformed sellsword’s concentration, dismissed the dragonglass bars whose metallic shapes retracted like waves of crystalline water, allowing Steiner to enter, closely followed by a confused and skeptical Emilio.
Kneeling beneath them, Avalan Den had a smile but no dreams, dressed in a white tunic, a mark of holiness to conceal his Forsaken’s sorrow. When Avalen Den trained amongst the Prime Knights as a second kyai black Templar, the only black cloak to rise as far without magical knowledge, he had been told by the Grumpy Man that a Kyai’s greatest dishonor was to be branded with the mark of the Forsaken, a black cross on the forehead. However, the cross revealed itself as a hundred needles made of mithril which suppressed Avalan’s remnants of will.
In the blink of an eye, Emilio laughed at Avalan Den’s face, his breath of reek poisoning the latter’s air, clearly following ser Fitz’s example.
“Up!” Emilio barked.
Unwilling but reasonable, Den stood and offered his arms to ser Steiner Fitz who proclaimed:
“I love these talismans! The Order of Watches, with Dantena van Torquaz as public image, should sell themselves based off their prodigal use of Dragonglass. With our little necklaces and rings we can control monsters like the Kingslayer! Bah! Imagine if the army used it!”
Snapping back to his mundane views, Emilio refused to nod, for he knew, deep in his heart, that something was sorely wrong with abusing magic on prisoners.
Clearly shackled, Den bend his head, being still a head taller than Steiner. Smiling with his brown teeth, ser Fitz turned his back on Avalan, who remembered how easy the the move was to snap the guard’s neck, before he dismissed the idea being too unreasonable. Lowering his ardor, Den followed the two Watchers in the corridors, crossing the empty cells of the peaceful town of Hearthstone’s dungeon. Rising through the soft stairs, Den appreciated their gentle cold, as his sandals were ragged like thorns below his feet. Surprising enough, the air wasn’t heavy in the dungeon, its wide opened windows carried the outside wind and the whispers of the escort awaiting them behind the front gate.
Opening the gate, Steiner Fitz and Emilio seized Avalan Den from below the armpit, affirming their authority to confront a bare-chested and legs-crossed seafolk, fascinated and serene backed up by multiple knights covered by a large red cloak and masks of red leather covering their faces in the fashion of executioners. Recognizing the diligent jailers and tormentors of the Fiery Order, Avalan Den breathed in his lower belly to feel the oxygen running in his body. Weightlessness of mind helped him accept his condition with a sweeter taste. Grieving, the Forsaken walked forward after the two Watchers released their useless grip over his muscles. There, he met with the sealord of the Kyl’is tribe, Zephyr Sarak’j.
“Long time I have searched for you, ser Den”, Zephyr spoke with a merry face. “I believe you have most likely not heard of me. I am a seafolk overlord and privateer in the service of His Imperial Majesty. I hate you not as Kingslayer for what this title means. However, I have arranged our meeting so you could answer me truthfully on some matters.”
Since he didn’t answer, a Fiery Knight stepped forward and punched him in the belly. Containing his vomit, Avalan Den obliged as soon as his stomach allowed:
“I am here to answer your request, Sealord Sarak’j”.
Answering with a compassionate but cynical smile, the sealord pursued with a charming intonation:
“Have you heard of a man named Elijah?”
Rising his eyes, Avalan Den glanced in the sealord’s grey eyes. In this deep maze, Den read a suspicion so powerful he called it certainty. Knowing how pointless his relationship with Elijah had been, for they failed to save the boy Borothar, Den saw no benefit in truthfulness.
“I have not.”
Respectively nodding, the sealord stood up gracefully, displaying an amazing body flexibility, before stating:
“Well too bad. My ship is leaving at tomorrow’s dawn for the Temerian Kingdom. I would have hoped to bring you there with me, since I carry a document signed by King Conrad himself. One that makes me a bannerman of both Temeros and the Imperial Order. This document could have allowed me to prove that as a servant of their alliance your life could have been spared.”
Realising the dept of the bureaucratic corruption, Avalan Den began to wonder about the sealord’s intentions.
“Why tell me this now?” Den asked, finding the strength to speak despite the Forsaken’s black cross suppressing his creative mind.
“So you understand how foolish you have been not answering me. I will find Sarak’j my own way then! Don’t bother yourself with questions, I will skin Sarak’j alive and feast on his body in Thyrian seas”. He pointed at the sea behind them, one that spread all towards the Keshian realms and the lost lands beyond the Smoking Ocean. “Right there, I will devour your friend alive.” Ending his speech, the cruel sealord asked a Fiery Knight for a bag he dropped in front of Den.
Unfolding, the black leather revealed a skinned and bloody wolf dog, whose upper body had been eaten raw, leaving half of his skull untainted. The Borothar boy’s dog left eye glanced at Den, asking for the help that never came that night.
“Go to your cage.” a masked Fiery Knight ordered, Den catching his prideful eye beneath the red mask.
Behind the escort, a dragonglass cage rested on top of a carriage pulled by two gnollards, smelly and ugly equine creatures whose friendliness and intelligence explained their extravagant price and taste for magi beverages. Fire Priestesses were leading it, Den’s future confessors and lustful maidens taken away from their brothels to live a life of virtue and taunting.
Walking up the iron stair to the cage, Avalan Den finally stood on it. He would not sit, despite his depressed state he wouldn’t bow to the hearthstonians. Thus began his afternoon, as the crowd assembled down the Arathor road down the Tarasque Rock roared in furious hatred.
“Kingslayer! Assassin of Kings! Butcher!”
These were harsh words, which thundered in Den’s head while the carriage moved along and the Red Priestesses began to sing an illyrian medley, The Symphony of Kel, part.1. Thinking of his life choices, Avalan Den acknowledged being guilty of murder even if each man he had killed deserved it. His only remorse had been to fail saving Borothar. It had been the day he realised that despite all his training efforts his skill hadn’t been enough to protect a child.
He should have trained more.
Wait one moment! His rational mind awoke.
Of slacking he was guilty, yes! But not of being a folkloric ogre known as Kingslayer! Avalan Den had not slain a hundred monarchs and their kingsguards, putting the Imperial Guard to the test, and killed Emperor Thorgrim all by himself at the age of 12. That made no sense!
Old Gods and New, they are going to kill me for a crime I didn’t commit!
Looking back at the silent dungeon on the high cliff, Den missed the voices of the red-haired temerian Steiner Fitz and the bald hearthstonian Emilio and their futile arguments. He missed them but not enough to fade away his rage. As for the black cross of the Forsaken, it would not burry Avalan Den’s willpower forever.
While the day began its second half, the peaceful town of Hearthstone’s citizens excited themselves with a historical execution. They couldn’t imagine that only a handful of them – and it won’t include a blacksmith’s apprentice – would survive the fire and death arriving towards them in a storm, its fury echoing from the blaze of the deep forests.
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