Chapter 1 – Wages of War
Tryst winced as Fenroth, leader of the Tartari, slammed a mailed fist on the table. His great steel helmet in the shape of a screeching raven toppled off the side, clattering to the floor with an unholy racket. Fenroth didn’t even notice. Over the background shouting, Tryst leaned close to me and whispered, “This won’t end well.”
Listening to Fenroth’s ranting and raving, I couldn’t help but agree. He and the other lords were no closer to choosing a successor than they had been a week ago. They never really discussed the possibility of uniting behind a new king, just blustered at each other until they were hoarse, and every night they retired to their bright silk pavilions frustrated and angry. It was getting to be about that time. Crickets chirped outside, and the meeting tent was lit by torches and candlelight alone.
A cold wind blew down my back from the mouth of the tent, a sharp chill that cut clear through my oiled ringmail. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Fenroth was going on about his birthright now, his bodyguards standing like steel gargoyles at his shoulders, their giant flamberges worn peace-bonded across their backs. It didn’t make the blades any less intimidating.
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“I am cousin to the King’s own father, my lords!” roared Fenroth, his voice as rough and hard as old leather, like steel scraped across a whetstone. “Try to deny it! My claim is stronger than any of yours, and still you attempt to deny me my rightful throne with your petty squabbles and accusations. It belongs to me, that pile of old stones, and everything beneath it. This . . . this ‘Chaostle’.” He spat on the great octagonal table. “Who in the thirteen hells came up with that name, anyway?”
“Your only right is banishment to Tartarus for oathbreaking, torture and murder,” spat Lord Commander Redheart, captain of the Order of Paladins. He sat at the side of the table reserved for Vespers, the Holy Lands, and he’d told it true. Fenroth had been a paladin once, a long time ago. “You belong in that shadowy pit you rule now, and I’ll die before I let the Portal fall into your hands.”
High Priestess Skei echoed his sentiment, as did a few others around the table, but then there was a cry of unfair prejudice and they erupted into a screaming fit again.
I nudged Tryst, silently telling him to join me as I headed outside.
“I’ll be a minotaur’s uncle if these fools ever bend the knee to anyone,” Tryst muttered between hard, steaming breaths. A bitter breeze reddened his cheeks, probably a sign of things to come. It was depressing. Even the common camp was subdued, full of scattered men-at-arms drinking and dicing with each other, but their hearts weren’t in it. I couldn’t even hear any fighting, from men who’d been at each other’s throats since the day they arrived.
I shook my head slowly. “I like some of them well enough. Redheart’s a good man, I know that, but to hear him tell it, everyone not on his side is the Red Devil of Tempernile reborn.”
The old dwarf turned out of the wind to light up his clay pipe, probably older than he was. He took a puff, then turned back around to the meeting tent. “I’ve said my piece, for all the good it did. I wash my hands of the whole affair.”
That made me feel even colder somehow, cutting clear through surcoat and mail and boiled leather. Goosebumps prickled all over my skin. I drew the surcoat tight around me, huddling as I walked, the old deerskin snapping in the wind.
“Chilly night for this time of season,” I said, trying to change the subject. “Might mean a bad harvest.”
Tryst nodded, his face a brooding scowl. “You’ll see just how bad a crop you’re reaping soon enough,” he snapped.
“What, you’re blaming me for this mess now?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m just . . . worried.”
“Don’t try that jape on me, old friend. If you said you were angry, then yes, I’d believe you. Cantankerous? Oh, certainly! But worried? Not in a thousand years.”
Tryst didn’t answer. He only stared straight ahead, chewing and puffing on his pipe, and stepped back into the tent. I just managed to catch High Priestess Skei’s finishing proclamation. “. . . Very well! If you desire the Portal so intensely, my lord, then the battle lines are drawn! Vespers goes to war before any man here lays a finger on that evil thing!”
The Tartari side of the table almost cheered, while the Plainsmen and the river lords looked on with wide eyes and sullen faces. They were always the ones who paid dearest when Vespers and Tartarus marched on each other, raided and pillaged by both sides. The Elven lords were slipping out of the tent one by one, unnoticed in the chaos. Others spoke up for their own rights, their rights to the portal. Nomads burnt brown by the desert sun, the raiders of the Luminous Lake who always smelled of salt. Shouts of “So be it!” and “War!” were raised, and before long, the whole tent was chanting.
My stomach churned with acid as Tryst and I fled into the night. My tabard with its Vespers heraldry felt heavier than the steel ringmail underneath.
“Nothing for it now,” Tryst growled as he kicked at a rock. His tone was more resigned than angry. “Well, if they want the Portal, they can have it. Fat lot of good it will do them.”
“You know something,” I said, but the stubborn old dwarf wouldn’t budge. “Has it got to do with Erebus? With the old king? Tell me!”
“I can’t. You’ll have to trust me on that.”
The mysteries were driving me crazy. I groaned in frustration and buried my hands in my hair. “It does things to people, Tryst. It’s like they can feel how much power lies under that blasted castle. I’ve tried to reason with Lady Skei, but sometimes I have to wonder if she does only want it to keep it away from Fenroth. The gods only know what he’d do with it. But what will she do?” I sighed, and a long silence fell. “What will I do?”
Tryst’s eyes glinted as he rested his hand on the dagger at his belt. It was almost a shortsword when you counted the dwarf’s height. “Leave Vespers. Come with me.”
Aghast, I wheeled to face him, but found only sincerity in his eyes. He expected me to say yes. Expected it.
“I’m no turncloak,” I said hotly. “How dare you. How dare you, dwarf? You were supposed to be my friend. Don’t ever ask that of me!”
“Then stay here and fight. Die.” Such sadness in his voice.
“I said the words. Better to die with honor than forsake my vows and everything I’ve lived for!”
“Dying with honor will leave you just as dead, lad,” he sighed. “If you ever change your mind, I’ll find you.”
And with that, he was gone, vanished into nothing. Not even the decency of a puff of smoke. Cursing all things dwarvish, I turned east and saw the first faltering rays of dawn, turning the sky the colour of blood.
The Land of Zirconyx
The land of Zirconyx has a history. Strange, wonderful, and very very long, as histories get. Most of it is unwritten, passed on in songs and legends rather than books, changing by the season.
However, singers and scribes all agree that the world used to be far larger than it is today. Its many climates offered life to thousands of different species, man and beast, plant and animal, even rock brought to life by the magic coursing through the earth. There are still old maps that show some of those places, but they are lost to us now. Lost in the mist.
It started under the rule of King Napadori the Fair. Life was decent. Hard-working peasant farmed the fields and hauled in the crops, knights and paladins fought in colourful tournaments, and powerful garrisons served to placate the more unruly of King Napadori’s subjects.
In his thirty-sixth year, King Napadori was unhorsed in a tourney by some nameless hedge knight, struck in the head by his opponent’s lance; after that, he was a changed man. Plagued by migraines during the day and terrible nightmares at night, there was no safe place for his mind to hide. The sickness left him a jittering, paranoid wreck. His eyes saw shadows and knives in every corner. Public executions of the ‘traitors’ became a daily occurrence. Napadori’s once-loyal subjects took their lessons to heart.
Soon enough, Napadori was insisting that entire armies were being rallied just beyond his borders by Zirconyx’s neighbours. He ordered his court wizards to scry to the very Edge of the World, searching for his enemies. But the closer they got to the Edge, the more their magical visions clouded over. Their scrying glasses would crack, and their crystal balls would shatter. That had never happened before.
Napadori cursed them for oathbreakers and incompetents, and dismissed all the wizards from court, banishing them back to their great library in the Glow Mountains.
Entire armies of explorers surged forth from Napadori’s ancestral castle, but only a handful ever returned. Scarred men, and broken, half-mad with fear. The stories blew across Zirconyx like a cold wind. A thick, terrible mist had swallowed the neighbouring kingdoms and empires, all helpless to stop it. It was said to flay the flesh right off a man’s bones; armoured or naked, it made no difference. Cold shapes moved through the haze, killing as they faded in and out of sight.
When the stories reached them, the banished wizards came running back to court. The fog they called Erebus was closing in on Zirconyx like a tightening noose. The King ignored them, calling his entire army to the field, all but the outlying garrisons made up of ‘unreliable’ local troops. He rode out with a column of his best knights, out past the borders of the kingdom, and wasn’t heard from for three hundred years. The crown passed to his heir, a more decent man, but the banished wizards chose to remain in exile.
Slowly, Erebus covered Zirconyx’s outlying provinces, driving hordes of refugees before it — peasants and foreigners and creatures and worse. As a last resort, the wizards, the scholars, the necromancers and the spellweavers of Zirconyx all set aside their differences for one great purpose, joining their power together to weave the greatest magical spell in history. Day and night they worked, forging raw magic into a great shimmering dome of protection surrounding what was left of the kingdom. A spell powerful enough to hold the mist at bay.
When they were done, the wizards returned to court to bring their news before the royal family, only to be stymied by what they found. The entire royal family had disappeared. The serving staff had run off in terror. Once turned up, they claimed that King Napadori had returned at the head of a host of dead men, and gone down, deep into the bowels of the castle. There were things lurking down there, it was said, and a great doorway between dimensions hidden somewhere below.
The wizards fled back to the Glow Mountains to consult the Archmage, leaving Zirconyx in chaos. The kingdom was without a king. With the royal family gone, that left no one to succeed to the crown, and the people had no one to turn to for protection. Leaderless armies fell apart or pledged their swords to the lords and ladies of Zirconyx, rising to fill the power vacuum. They each raised their banners and put forth their diluted claims to the crown.
The Archmage intervened before a civil war could erupt, declaring a truce for as long as it took to investigate the mystery at the royal castle. In that, at least, the lords could agree. Then they uncovered the Seal Stone. The legendary doorway was there, blocked up by Napadori, and the Seal Stone bore one mad inscription scribbled into the rock by the old king himself. “The power is mine — Napadori, master of dimensions — to open the Seal is to open the gates of Death.”
That decided the issue. It was worth going to war over this ‘Chaostle’. The first to secure the doorway would control the castle, the kingdom, and — perhaps — power beyond their wildest dreams.
It’s up to you to decide. Who will rule? Who will claim the mysterious power of the Chaostle?