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The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone.
- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954). p. 12.
Waking up to the Twilight bells, Avalan realized he had fallen asleep a couple of hours since Phil had installed him in comfortable quarters in the Cathedral of Alesia. The sun was falling in the horizon, as the afternoon was closing.
Soon, the Fog would rise.
Empty inside, Avalan watched Hearthstone from his dragonglass bars. Far away, kings and their courts arrived to behold his execution. Heir of men who had fallen to the true Kingslayer had been crying for his blood. Hundreds of free riders and dozens of knights must have accompanied them. He could ear the motto screamed from the lower cliffs. The Aeirn, the Gisgian, the Rubaronians and soon enough the Temerians would arrive, and their drums would mean the ecartelement.
Avalan had read historical records of ecartelement and by all accounts it hadn’t been pleasant for the victim.
Standing in front of his cell, on a stool, the orcish Philip Lancaster stared at him, arms crossed, expressionless. Ignoring him for he had no future, Avalan lost himself in his thoughts.
“You will receive a visit soon…” Phil said, his voice as uniform as his unshakable mask of terror. “I will leave you to it.”
And he stood, exiting through the doorway, leaving the howling of the wind cover his footsteps. Avalan had not cared to bother of the nameless visitor. Could he be Zephyr, the man-flesh eater sealord and relative to Elijah Sarak’j, that ambiguous vagabond whom he had clashed with on Peythralm’s shores. After the Summer Gathering.
What a fiasco it had been that Summer Gathering. Exposed by Dantena van Torquaz, the Sinistros Slayer proved to be ser Bryce Hollmajgen, the First Sword of that Summer 1477. He too proved an impostor, being in fact Brian Greyfallow, heir of the largest dark guild in the Empire. A heinous murderer who attempted to give birth to an everlasting whore, the Gathering’s First Sword had dishonored knighthood to the face of the Known World. The Night Watch of Lord commander Melogre had proceeded in inflecting imperial retribution upon the Greyfallow clan. All butchered, except their baron who ruined by Avalan Den’s defeat at the Gathering melee who had fled the Empire and noble and gallant Brian who awaited death in the Bloodwell at the Ashpit dungeon. Ironically, Dantena van Torquaz had been jailed at the Ashpit, in that dark fortress for imperial overlords built upon what once was the Black Temple. And Avalen Den had suffered that fiasco of a tourney… sourly.
Now that he had done wandering of that nameless visitor, a back door – one Den had thought sealed – opened, casting a bleak light into the grey cell. For a reason he wondered of, Avalan Den gazed at that sight, where a large shadow engulfed the room, distracting Den from the orange and warm afternoon outside. Avalan stood to see the man who entered.
Hooded, his face was hardly perceptible. He was clean-shaven, but scabs covered his lower lip. He had been cut in the face through the blade of a sword. Den knew for he was a master swordsman himself, and that cut had been clean. The hood couldn’t conceal that past from Den, but the man in black’s entire attire glowed with sheath and power. This was a man of war and of murder, Den assumed before feeling an odd sense in his heart.
Gasping for air, Den realized the hooded man exalted his emotions by simply standing there. A burning fire roared in his belly and his limbs loosened before exploding in energy. Den felt empowered swiftly as he regained control over his body. Feeling his arm again he could reach the Mark on his forehead and seized all of them removing them with rage. Blood spilled on the floor and Avalan Den roared. Blood drops tainted the soil. He would bear the Mark one way or another, the Hierarch of Peythralm had said when delivering his verdict. Avalan Den vowed to kill them all, all these men who had humiliated him, from Elijah and Morgane Flintshire, Sigismund Edalav and his dark guilds and that jester who had set him up!
Quickly, he remembered the Kyai breathing and let go of his animal instincts, and his thirst for fury. Looking back at the man, he felt confused. Who would let the Assassin of Kings free of his mental shackles? Who but a madman?
“Ser Richard,” the man said, his voice carried a supernatural echo. “I have come to set you free… Under the name Avalan Den you need to hide no more, of that I vow. As I am the Warren of Death, the Dark Marquis’ last rider, General of the Wild Hunt.”
The Wild Hunt?
Den almost wanted to laugh.
All but the Night Watch searched for the Wild Hunt, and the Watchers had been discredited everywhere in the Known World for generations. The Wild Hunt! A horde of supernatural riders that had been summoned by the Dark Marquis during his heretic crusade!
His host led by that mythical Wild Hunt had entered the legend, as did the Dark Marquis himself, finally slain in the fields below Hestavian, not so far from Hearthstone. They said he was responsible for the Fog, from which he drew the powers that created the Wild Hunt.
Allegedly they had survived for 30 years and been plotting some twisted conspiracy with ancient evils. They were associated with names such as the Court and Lachance, the oldest crossroads stories.
None believed in their survival, and some denied the Wild Hunt’s very existence.
Den entered the trance of probabilities.
He explored the myth of the Wild Hunt and of its Generals, the Four Riders.
Long ago goes the tale of a great warrior, born in a mighty clan. At the age of seven, he murdered his younger brother after he had won a drakkar race, and therefore was banished East.
Wondering in the darker kingdoms of obscure dynasties, the great warrior survived until the age of thirteen, where he was devoured by sinistroses.
Left agonizing in a deatheater’s nest, he was rescued by a young magician who was exploring these eastern kingdoms. With a merry face, the young magician traced a circle of blood around the fallen boy and for the boy was weak he could bind his soul to his corpse.
The non-dead had lost all memories, and was therefore named Voris, in Nord it meant “white fang”.
It was said they had become lovers for a time, until the University found of the young magician’s non-dead and expelled him. However, and the great warrior still remembers today how the young magician had rescued him along his paramour, a dazzling novice from the Lodge of Sorceresses.
The three separated, but the magician offered them mirrors to communicate and would bear a mask to find to contact them. Or would send his most powerful non-dead, the lord of famin, to fetch them.
They eventually met in Kovanni below the Hanging Tree and they aligned with the tarasque kings, for they had built their wealths with petty gold, and rose as the Dark Marquis’s Wild Hunt, and his Four Riders.
They laid waste upon the Northern Kingdoms and the Iornian Empire, great misfortune for the Great House of Fulgam.
It was said that Voris the Wolf, Madga Balgruuf and the Lord of Famin still lived had been later sealed away in different prisons, while the Red Rider and the Dark Marquis’s first servant roomed the land, as a headless rider, bearing the armour of Rhodan the Dragon-slayer, Dantena van Torquaz’s ancestor.
So this man was Voris the Wolf…
Only such a man – or non-man or undead – could release a prisoner from a seal as powerful as the Mark of Forsaken and have men powerful like Phil Lancaster under his influence. Voris, General of the Wild Hunt. A joke…
“I have an offer for you an alternative to death, Lord Sin’Dorei”, Voris said, his voice dedicated. “As the great philosopher Lucius nar’Amonaga had once answered to: “Can the end ever justify the means?” by the following quote’: “Fortune favours the conqueror.” I know not what folly led you to be arrested, but you might find a new direction by siding with us, and becoming the Fifth Rider, our messiah.”
The trance of probabilities advised Den to maintain the lie. In order to survive, he would become his dark messiah. A mistake and he would anger the servants of the most sinister magician of the third age of Fire.
“Let me think about this,” Den replied. “After all, we are in no rush.”
His bluff seemed to meet a beer.
“You are set for ecartelement in a couple of hours.”
“Then you know whom you have unshackled. It is a matter of time before I evade.”
Voris frowned, betraying his suspicion.
“You can outsmart dragonglass shackles?”
Den bet on his answer, knowing the stakes:
“I am the Kingslayer.”
Voris remain silent. He agreed. The Assassin of Kings could certainly perform such a feat.
“What would you expect from us?” Voris had abandoned diplomacy for efficiency. He was a man of understanding, he could interact flawlessly.
“I want to be sure to evade Hearthstone alive!” Den attempted.
If he was suspicious, Voris showed no sign. Stoic, he nodded.
“Wouldn’t the Kingslayer be able to elude capture easily?” he taunted.
Before Den could respond, Voris pursued:
“I am vaguely disappointed, ser. I had thought of you less… obvious. Even you cannot escape the Temerians and the Aeirn at the same time. And the Almighty knows how they feel about your death. They will beat drums until Dawn after they have dismembered your agonizing corpse.”
Den tried to fake a contained shiver, and his result pleased Voris enough.
“When they try to maim you, we will help you…”
And Voris turned around, leaving Den thoughtful.
When he closed the door without hesitation, Voris left the rising Fog leak a shadow into the grey cell of the pale cathedral.