King Hermon Cordillera knew everyone called him the Mountain King. It was a fitting name, so he didn’t mind. His castle was like an illusion that tricked the eyes. Built into the peaks of the Rames, and blending perfectly with the grey rock and dark clouds, the magnificent structure was even more camouflaged under often brooding skies. This, of course, was the obvious reason behind the name, a way people could talk about him without allegations of treason. He knew his being called the Mountain King also came from fear, and maybe a sliver of respect. While he’d never heard rumor of civil unrest, if there were ever an uprising he would crush everyone involved, the people within the Osiris Realm knew as much. If pressed, content, he would settle for ruling over nothing but rock and his valleys of land behind the mountain.
His was the only kingdom still standing on the east side of the Isthmian Sea under the Old Empire. He ruled the Osiris Realm in a way much different than his father. His father and grandfather had been happy with just their jagged piece of the pie. Hermon aspired to greatness, and saw no reason why he couldn’t expand his reign. Each day he was closer to realizing his dream. Yes, yes, blood would be shed, lives lost, but that was a necessity of war.
The last several weeks had proven beneficial. With many of his goals met, what he’d acquired would help him begin his work toward becoming the new emperor of the Old Empire. In his possession were three charmed talismans: a chalice, a dagger and a mirror. These he could use to summon three powerful wizards who had been in hiding for centuries. The items were locked away in Ida’s room. They were safe there under her protection. His sorcerer had proven herself time and again. Her reward, if she stayed the course, would be just and potentially limitless.
The prize, however, was locked away in the dungeon. Inside, the wizard, Galatia, was bound and gagged. This prevented her from waving her hands around and speaking magic into existence. Even if she found a way loose of her bindings, the dungeon and very cell she occupied were enchanted. Ida had helped cast that particularly powerful spell. It prevented Galatia from ever escaping. Crossing the threshold would kill her as surely as a bolt of lightning through the skull.
Ida impressed him; her magic continually became more potent by the day. For now, she was the strongest sorcerer in the Old Empire, and perhaps across all empires.
He strode through the halls of his castle. Nothing was better than the rhythmic sound of his heels stomping on rock floors. Banners bearing the family sigil hung on walls between tall, thin stained glass windows. Mounted torches burned from evening until dawn, letting his shadows flicker as they walked beside him. He stretched out his fingers in black leather gloves, pulling the ends up past his wrists. Standing guard in front of the bolted door, the captain saw him approach and stood at attention.
“Sire.” Captain Mansel looked as if he might be holding his breath. He wore an inverted triangle of hair on his chin under his lower lip. The mustache under his nose was long, and thin. His helmet sat by his feet; the steel dull, and dented from use, and therefore acceptable in appearance. The captain held a spear in both hands, angled from the floor by his left foot, to past his right shoulder. The hilt of his sword was easily accessible, if needed. The captain was well trained and more than a capable warrior. He might consider protecting the dungeons a menial task, but if he understood the value of the prisoner below, the compliment would be far more apparent.
“Evening, Captain Mansel. How is our guest?” The Mountain King arched an eyebrow, curious, but not really expecting a report to suggest anything other than normal.
“Fine, sire. Not so much as a sound from her.” The captain smirked. He was a head taller than the king. His long hair touched his shoulders. The man’s eyes were dark, and closely set, a little too small for his face. When he smiled they became tiny slits, accented by the wrinkles at the corners by his temples.
“That’s good to hear. Stand aside, captain.” It wasn’t that Hermon didn’t trust the guard’s word because he did, but there was no way Galatia could be anything other than silent. Last time he checked the iron shackles had chafed skin on the wrists of her outstretched arms, and the ankles of her spread legs. Savoring the flavor of her magic made his mouth water. The time to harness power unto him was fast at hand. While Ida made the necessary preparations, they still needed the wizard’s participation. She alone knew how to utilize the talismans, which was what made his prisoner invaluable.
Given enough time, she’d break and bend a knee in his presence. The problem, however, was time. His impatience for power grew thin. With everything he’d desired since the death of his brother now being so close, he wasn’t sure how much longer he could wait. The only way to speed up breaking someone with a strong will was by increasing the level of discomfort.
Time was up.
The countless chances, opportunities, and bargains he’d afforded her were now off the table. It was unfortunate she’d forced him to take this path, but he wasn’t too terribly disappointed. Her muffled screams were often a symphony to his ears. Before long, she’d surrender the instructions, even if at the cost of her very life.
The Mountain King whistled a loud and nearly tuneless melody as he descended the uneven and damp staircase. Spotted moss-covered walls leaked water, reminding Hermon of perpetual tears. The core of the dungeon was frigid because the dungeon was deep in the bowels of the mountain; the walls never accessed the warmth of the sun’s rays. The pungent odor of sweat, spilled blood, and mold assaulted his nostrils. There was another scent, too. This one was perhaps stronger than the others, and far more distinct.
He smelled fear.
One torch burned at the bottom of the stairs. The light it provided barely penetrated the darkness. The dark was almost alive in the dungeons, as if a breathing entity. The mind naturally feared the dark, saw shadows in it that might or might not be there. There always seemed to be something moving just ahead, and behind. If one listened closely, sounds accompanied the dark. Scraping. Whispers. Moans. As a child Hermon was always convinced something lived in the darkness around him. As an adult, a king, he knew better. The dark no longer scared him. He didn’t allow it to have that kind of power over his life. The danger didn’t come from the shadows; the danger came from him.
King Hermon lifted the torch from its bracket. He held it out in front of him as he walked past closed and locked solid wood doors. He continued whistling. Each step was slow and calculated. His heels still echoed on the rock floor, but the echo was killed off almost immediately. The sound became flat, almost menacing.
The cells were carved out of the rock; small rooms with low ceilings and jagged walls. Eye level on each door was three iron bars, with just enough opening for a guard to check in on a prisoner. Food—if food was permitted—was merely slid into the cell underneath the door. At the end of the block in a recessed room were barred cells, and the dungeon itself.
The rack sat in the center of the room, a long imposing table. Hermon loved the device. With prisoner’s arms and legs secured by rope, or chains, the dungeon master spun a crank. Eventually limbs were dislocated. If the cranking continued, they were torn off the body. Unlike footfalls, down here screams did echo.
In the far right corner was a large crudely constructed chair where the seat, back, and arms were covered with hundreds of spikes. Leather straps secured arms, chest and legs to the seat so that one could not lift off the spikes until the treatment concluded. Death was almost certain. While there was a lot of blood, it seemed like infection from untreated wounds was the bigger culprit.
The iron pear hung on a hook near the second wood table. The dungeon master told the king time and again he favored this tool. Four closed leaves were inserted into an orifice, chosen depending on the crime. The master turned a crank opening the leaves. When used in the mouth the jaw and teeth broke, and the gums shredded. Gretta, a peasant who was found guilty of adultery, had suffered a hideous fate. The dungeon master thrust the pear into where her sin originated. She’d never bear children. Death might have been preferred for her actions. The pear did more than tear skin, it permanently mutilated prisoners. Gretta still walked with a cane.
King Hermon remembered when they hung Boxman by his feet from a rafter. He’d murdered a neighbor’s child. The man was not right in the head. You saw it in his face, the way his eyes drooped, and his mouth was always open. He didn’t talk as much as grunt. Two torturers were needed for this particular contrivance. The guard and the dungeon master used a crosscut. They set the teeth of the blade on Boxman’s groin, and then sawed back and forth slicing through the man until they reached the navel. Blood, feces, and intestines spilled from the gaping gash. The stench reached unbearable levels and the king was forced to retreat out of the dungeon.
Galatia hung upside down and spread-eagled against the jagged rock wall. Her face was red. Her face was so red it seemed likely that her whole body’s blood was pooled inside her brain. A large silver ball had been stuffed into her mouth, and was held in place with a strap that secured like a belt with a buckle behind her head.
The Mountain King stopped whistling and made a show of pulling off his gloves, one finger at a time. Lifting the pear off the hook on the wall, he sat on the edge of the rack and turned the crank on the instrument. His eyes widened, as if surprised, as the four leaves opened.
“That unnaturally green hair.” He walked closer to his prisoner. He brushed his fingers through the strands, and stopped when the tip touched the purple teardrop amethyst around her neck. “And this. A keepsake? Spent some time living with the mermaids, have you? They’re a nasty bunch. Filthy, smelly race of creatures.”
The sorceress watched him with wide, terrified-looking eyes.
He yanked the necklace off, and cupped the rare jewel in his palm. “Whether you realize it or not, you will answer my questions; you will follow my commands. You think keeping silent will show me how strong you are? It won’t. I’ll break you. And between you and me, I will enjoy the work. That’s right. Me. I will not have someone else steal away from me the pleasure of making you scream. The right is mine. Those talismans? You will summon the other wizards. You will call them here.”
She shook her head. Her lips were chapped. The woman was dehydrated. He wondered if offering water in exchange for compliance would work easiest, but buried the idea. What fun would that be?
The king grinned, and leaned in close. His face was right in front of hers. He stared into her eyes for a moment, until his vision blurred, and then backed away a few inches. “Oh, I am confident you will. Quite confident you will do everything I ask of you.” He held up the iron pear. She didn’t know he wouldn’t use the device. He wanted her mentally broken, not physically destroyed. Keeping her somewhat intact was an essential part of the plan. “What kind of damage can a king do with a toy like this?”
He laughed as the restrained wizard pulled and tugged at her chains, writhing, and moaning, desperate for freedom.
The dark was nothing to fear. King Hermon laughed.
Curled into a ball, Mykal shivered. When he opened his eyes he saw he was lying down in freshly fallen snow. The flakes covered his body like a cruel blanket. He shook off the snow, brushing it off of his shoulders and legs as he sat up. He hugged himself, drawing his knees up to his chest, and continued shivering. The fire had gone out. The wood in the small fire pit looked frozen over, the burnt brown bark was coated in a thin layer of ice. He remembered the wind had howled during the night, although at the time, he’d have sworn it had been part of a nightmare where he was chased by werewolves. Thankfully, wind, and not werewolves, made much more sense.
His dear friend, Blodwyn, and his Uncle Quill slept soundly. He saw their chests rise and fall. The three of them wreathed the fire pit, and had perhaps sucked every last bit of warmth out of the flames. He reached for the wood stacked in the pit, and with his magic blew on it. The ice melted, and flakes were whisked away. He dusted the remaining signs of mountain weather off with finger tips. Re-stacking the wood, he sat back and stared intently at the teepee he’d constructed and watched as the wood magically caught fire. Small tendrils of grey smoke snaked upward into the night sky. Orange flame flickered and danced as the wood below crackled, and sparked. Cherry embers moved in the pile of ashes under the wood. In just moments the fire was awake and burned hot. Mykal rubbed his hands together and then held his palms out by the flames. Heat radiated off the split logs. It felt wonderful.
Blodwyn had been a friend of the family since before he had been born, so the two had known each other for seventeen years. Like with his mother, Blodwyn promised to protect and teach Mykal to defend himself. At the time, Mykal hadn’t understood the necessity. Only during this journey did he learn the truth about his past, and his mother. They were wizards. Ironically, Blodwyn taught them both—his mother before he had been born, and then him, after she’d gone away—how to use swords, daggers, and their hands in combat, instead of relying on magic. King Nabal’s decree still proclaimed that wizards receive death sentences.
Blodwyn, who always wore a tan tunic under his dark green cloak, also always carried a six-foot-long cedar wood and iron staff. It was his weapon of choice. His black hair was long, and thin. His eyebrows, however, were thick and bushy as if fat caterpillars had fallen asleep above his eyes. His moustache was far tamer. The sides drooped down past his jowls, and the triangle patch of hair from his chin was neatly braided. The man was something of a mystery, and never talked of his past. He’d alluded to days of mischief before he’d met Mykal’s mother, but without specifics. Mykal was thankful for his teachings, but more so for Blodwyn’s friendship.
When Mykal met Quill, the head of the Archers, he’d been surprised because he’d never known his father had a brother. It was not something his grandfather ever mentioned. Quill lived above the trees in the Cicade Forest with a small army of men who once served King Nabal, either as knights, or part of the Watch. The Archers were considered bandits, rebels, and ultimately an enemy of the crown. The time limited time Mykal spent with the Archers proved otherwise. The first encounter hadn’t gone smooth. He’d exercised his magic without much control, and the outcome would haunt his nights forever.
Mykal and his uncle looked very similar. Quill was about seven inches taller, but they were both broad shouldered, and bulky from large arm and leg muscles. They kept dark beards trimmed close to their faces, or had kept them trimmed, since there hadn’t been much time for shaving the last month or so. Quill wore a hat, with a large brim that was bent, curled on the sides, and pulled down in front. While Quill wore a mossy green cloak that was more like a cape, and was secured over the shoulder with a large dragonfly pin, Mykal had on a vest he’d made himself with brown leather, and a high collar.
Staring at the flame, Mykal’s mind reeled from events of their recent past. Blodwyn had used sellswords, who were also his friends, to keep an eye on Mykal’s grandfather and the farm. The farm was a small home on a few anorexic acres of land on the west banks of the sea, but east of Nabal’s castle, which was well within the Grey Ashland Realm.
Mykal still worried. Grandfather was old, and crippled. He’d lost a leg fighting for King Nabal, and was given nothing but grief in return. Grandfather would be worried, as well. They had been gone so long Mykal lost count of the days and nights. It was impossible not to feel defeated. He and his friends had gone on this journey, to retrieve items hidden by ancient wizards. Galatia was going to use the items to summon those wizards. She explained that King Hermon Cordillera planned to use wizard’s magic to start a war. The king wanted to expand his land to encompass the entire Old Empire. In essence, he wanted to trade in his crown and become the new emperor.
He thought about Karyn. It was near impossible to accept her death. He wore her opal broach on his vest. It had been all she possessed from her father’s kingdom. He would keep it close to his heart forever. She’d given her life to save his. He’d not been strong enough to bring her back from the beyond. What made his life any more valuable? Nothing. He kept expecting he’d see her again. Oftentimes on their trek back across the Zenith Mountains he’d look back, but she wasn’t there. She couldn’t be there. They’d buried her by the Balefire River. The spot looked peaceful enough. It was a small grassy knoll under the million drooping limbs of a Weeping Willow. He didn’t need a marker. There was no way he’d forget where she was laid to rest. As she was an orphan no one else would visit the spot. Still, they marked the head of her grave with a half-buried flat stone.
When King Hermon stole the talismans from them, and kidnapped Galatia, there was little they could do. The king had an army with him, and an evil sorcerer. Her control of magic was nearly immeasurable. They’d been ambushed, caught off guard, and lost the battle against the king.
The snow fell, and kept falling. The wind blew, but without howling. The smoke from the fire swirled and rolled and rose. Blodwyn’s snoring masked the crackle from the burning logs. Mykal tried hugging himself tighter. His arms wrapped around his legs. He couldn’t get warm. Although it was too dark to see the Zenith Mountains, he could feel them. They were large and foreboding, and seemed to close in on him. They towered above like giants, as if gods from childhood stories he’d once heard.
Were the mountains watching him? He must be like an insect to their eyes if they could, in fact, see. He thought of how he sometimes treated insects as a child. Without warning, too often he crushed bugs underfoot for no other reason than to do so. What if the mountains squashed him like a spider?
Spiders didn’t count. They were more than just bugs. And despite what anyone said his fear of the arachnids was not irrational, but qualified. Why did they come with eight, hairy legs, and pincers like fangs? How many eyes did those creatures even have? Nothing about those monsters made any sense at all!
He felt suddenly claustrophobic and in danger sitting by the fire, the only one awake. His senses were on high alert, and probably for no reason.
He’d never fall back to sleep.
Mykal closed his eyes, regardless. He wanted the anger he felt to go away. He’d lost his parents when he was just a child. He knew now that his mother left because she was a wizard, and feared persecution. His father went after her. When he couldn’t find her, he was too ashamed and never came back.
They’d left him in the care of his crippled grandfather, and then they both died. He kept the feeling of betrayal inside. Having only recently met his Uncle Quill, Mykal blamed Blodwyn for keeping the secret. It was difficult not talking through clenched teeth. Eventually, they’d have it out. He could not think of a worthy reason for sheltering him. Even if tortured he’d never give up family. Blodwyn must know as much!
He grew up thinking that way only to learn back by the Balefire River he’d been wrong. Uncle Quill knew where his father was. Blodwyn took responsibility for hiding his mother from King Golan Nabal’s crusaders.
They were both alive.
Now, the three of them—Mykal, Blodwyn, and Quill—were on a new quest, embarking on the second leg of their journey. They were going to find his mother and father. They needed to warn King Nabal of the Mountain King’s plans, and then rescue Galatia.
Somehow they needed a way for restoring order, and stopping a seemingly inevitable war.
King Hermon Cordillera won the battle two weeks ago, having stolen the talismans, killing Karyn, and kidnapping Galatia. There was no question. He had won that battle. Hands down.
The war wasn’t lost.
It was just beginning…