The Dark Double - chapter 1

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The Dark Double - chapter 1

Post by leonvr »

Mikael – The dance of life begins

Chapter 1

To unite a divided land you will at first need a scapegoat. Find the weakest sect or race it matters not which and blame them for all your lands evils. Incite the masses, ignite their passions and drum up their irrational fury. Add a few paraphernalia; a sacrificial martyr here, a crucifixion there. Put a few supporting slogans into the brew and stir it all up with some tame minstrels embellishing your song. Soon you will have control of your adoring people just like the masses of sheep that they are. Place some fierce sheepdogs to enforce your will and the land and the people will be as putty in your hand.
From Hiliel’s ‘Ways to achieve Power - a synopsis’

I grew up within spitting distance of the scenic Nahoon River a small insignificant waterway, with no trade value whatsoever, that struggles to make its way into the Alnic Ocean. At low tide the water is no deeper than your ankle and splits into various frayed streams that all trickle through a narrow, short channel that links the river’s stunning blue lagoon with the vast ocean beyond. This peaceful countenance changes at high tide when our goddess, the moon, flexes her muscles and blesses us with her powerful influence. Then the river’s pent up fury is unleashed and one needs to be extra careful so as not to be trapped on the wrong bank while it expunges its pent up malice into the sea. Trying to wade through the channel at the mouth of the river at this time is a risk most grown men shun at the best of times so a young child such as I had no hope of safely navigating this short stretch of raging water. I found it always best to cut my losses, curse my luck and wait it out on the opposite bank brooding over the coming punishment my tardiness would gift me whilst making the best of a bad situation by playing in the sea caves I had come to love so much. I reached the river via a sandy pathway that lead a lazy trail from our summer castle through some planted fields and finally up and over a hill cloaked in the shelter of the sneezewood and yellowwood trees that formed part of a larger forest and shaded the pathway part of the way to the river. A cacophony of chirping insects and singing birds accompanied me without fail on the pleasant journey through the wild forest. The guiding pathway emerged from the forest to end up on a fine white sandy beach that was the small shoreline on the east bank of the river. When you stood here on this beach you had three wonderful choices; to either cross over to the west bank and explore the caves and fishing village that lay beyond it, or to turn to the left and follow the rocky ocean shoreline, with its rocks and reef which lined it and which hid many delicious, edible delicacies that could be scrupulously collected and eaten later on or finally, my personal favourite, which was to the right where the sandy shore soon narrowed into a collection of rocks that one could journey along by small energetic leaps and which ran like a great stone pathway in between the large yellowwood trees on the one side and the lagoon on the other. These rocks were the perfect base from which to dive into the lagoon and frolic away a summer’s day. We rotated our residence between our homes as the seasons of weather and kingdom wars dictated. I was always happy beyond belief when I was told that we would be going to our summer home. This was the idealic part of my existence and sheltered me from the harsh realities of life for a long period of time. My river escapades framed my earnest studies and the severe physical exercises I was forced to endure during the first seventeen years of my life. All this did however have the effect of shaping me into the heir I needed to be and attempted to prepare me for my life which would become as strange as a conspiracy.
I drifted away from my daydreams to admire the swift flowing Dericho River from the sturdy riverboat which was racing with all haste to complete its task of depositing me in the ancient city of Dericho so that I could pursue my twin goals of a further education, with my secretive uncle as my tutor, and hopefully to make me a man of the world. I was the heir to be of a small but affluent kingdom that formed part of an area collectively known as the mountain kingdoms. The only allegiance the many kingdoms owed to each other was the flimsy one of a common language. Once long ago in the mists of time we were a united powerful nation that awed the world but after many years of decadent and poor rule had eventually been allowed to decline to such an extent that it was easily overrun by bloodthirsty barbarian tribes, who came over the Alder Mountains like a swarm of bees to raid, pillage and sack the land all the way up to and including the fabled city of Dericho itself. From the ashes of these defeats groups of people led by battle hardened men had risen again. The peasants in dire need of protection flocked to these powerful warlords begging shelter from them. The warlords obliged in return for a levied a tax on the produce of the land. This was the dawning of the noble class that now ruled the kingdoms and to which I happily belonged. I felt proud and elated that my ancestors had not cowered and hid like simpering fools as most did but instead had stood firm against the rampaging hordes. I feel that our titles and lands are just rewards for the brave tasks we undertook. The kingdoms vary in size and power dependent on the money they can generate or the mercenaries they can hire. Some kingdoms are large but poor but have many vassal nobles that lend strength in arms that the more affluent smaller kingdoms can’t match by solely relying on mercenary soldiers. We fall into this second category. Dericho, the town I was on my way to, was the rebuilt capital of this once illustrious empire. Many ancient buildings had survived the sacking of the city and these combined with new grandiose buildings that had been erected made Dericho the greatest city in the world. It was here that the most powerful kingdoms tried to rule the others by dint of alliances, threats and bribes. Rule was a constant and ever ebbing flux of changing shifting patterns as rulers were either crushed and overthrown and left to lick their wounds or forced to flee in fear so that they could regroup to try challenge again. The Vilatakus kingdom was currently in control and seemed to have a firm but tentative grip on rule at present, no one had ever had full control although many had tried and failed. All the kingdoms, of which there numbers had been whittled down to about thirty, had representatives in Dericho. They hovered around circling like starving vultures waiting for their prey to flounder and fall so they could swoop down and grasp some power for themselves. In Dericho I would join my uncle to undergo my spiritual and magical training as well as to put in some effort to increase our current buoyant prominence and prestige. I had full confidence in my abilities and knew beyond any doubt that I was up to the task. “I am sending you to learn how to play the great game my boy. To learn how to weasel our way into as much power as possible. To get even more power for our kingdom Mikael. Yes that’s it more power. But remember my maxim; always stay neutral. Neutral, yes neutral my boy and for as long as possible I say. Yes right up until you see that a wolf is about to feast. Yes that’s a good description isn’t it wolf, good description. Yes good that. Aahhhh and when you spot this wolf you need to run. Yes run and join in this wolf’s banquet and my boy you know what this wolf will think. He will think you a friend, a friend. All the wolves in the kingdoms they our friends Mikael . Yes our friends!” my chortling, stern father’s fox-like words echoed in my mind. “And when a kingdom falls my boy? Do you know what we do then? Here we show true cleverness. Yes true cleverness. Do you know what we do then? Aaaahhhh I thought not. We help crush them my boy. Yes crush. Such rewards and for what. For nothing for no risk. No risk and such rewards Mikael such rewards. Know this and know it well; a destroyed force is no force at all. No force at all my boy. No force at all. And when two powerful wolves fight. That’s kingdoms not the wolves we hunt. Wolves are the kingdoms you see my boy. Yes I see you do. Good then when these wolves fight. When they fight we stand aside. Yes that’s it stand aside we do. We become difficult to get hold of but not like cowards. Not like cowards my boy. Not like cowards at all. Like busy men like men doing important things. Important things that’s it. And all the while we sit we wait we observe patient we are. Patient. And when we see the die fall with the numbers showing which wolf is going to win that gold. That’s the sign my boy the sign. It’s the winning wolf we support. The winning wolf. Can’t lose when you do that. You can’t lose then can you. It’s brilliant isn’t it. We run out then like a hunting dog. A hunting dog that flushes out a startled bird on the hunt. And what do you think we do then. Why we join the hunt we take part in the thrill of the kill. And with no risk, yes no risk. No risk at all my boy. No risk at all” my laughing father’s raging torrent of cowardly but wise advice rang through my mind as I thought back to his reddening face now flush from the warming brandy he had thrown endlessly down his supposed parched throat for the whole of the evening. “I have great faith in you my boy! Do us proud! Proud my boy! We are a little kingdom. Aaaahhhh but a strong kingdom. A strong kingdom can you see it. Such strength we have. And rich! Such richness we have. Yes a rich kingdom. And my boy if you practice what I preach. Yes I like that saying I do. If you practice what I preach well then you will succeed well Mikael. Succeed well you will.” his clichéd dictum continued well into night. I smiled as I thought of the excitement of leaving to undertake this grand adventure that lay, like the endless ocean, before me.
It was a short journey to Dericho from my home, about two and half days by riverboat. I could see the sparkling city loom into sight at the bottom of a fertile valley just as the sun crested the horizon on the crisp spring morning of the third day of my voyage. Dericho nestled like a huge green emerald, below the encircling hills and forests which surrounded it, oblivious to any looming dangers. It was obvious to any military mind that it was not built with defence in mind. The city was seen as safe from any attack by the rulers of old as it was far inside the borders of their vast unassailable empire. How wrong they were! Trade was its main reason for existence though and this activity had as its two main proponents the swift rivers that flowed like silent vipers either side of the rich city. It truly was a merchant’s paradise. Easy to get to and with many valuable natural resources only a short journey away. These advantages meant that ambitious people soon flocked to Dericho after its sacking seeking their fortune and they were seldom disappointed. It now served as the hub from which the golden tentacles of the mountain kingdoms intertwined in an intricate and prosperous trading network. Its main purpose nowadays was as this centre of the trade market and as a gathering place to plot alliances, plan treachery and make stabs for power. Heads of kingdoms stayed away but it was here that all heirs tested their mettle, either forfeiting their lives or finding glory instead. The riverboat docked to the left of the heart and soul of this trading capital, the large imposing market square. Here alongside the market the river served a dual purpose dependent on the season. Now free of ice it served as a bustling, humming harbour but when winter stretched its icy claw over the river freezing it the farmers arrived by sled with their herds of stock and claimed it as their fiefdom. Their domestic beasts were slaughtered and then displayed standing up, frozen, whole and skinned on the river that then extended and enlarged the market place by a third. The farmers-come- butchers would then hawk their wares on the ice which by now was a bloody red sheen. These cries from a few weeks ago were non-existent this morning. Instead I had for music sailor’s muttered curses, sounds of boats docking and merchant’s enthusiastic tallying of their goods. All of this was but a murmur compared to the drone of thunderous noise that drifted over from the vibrant bazaar that now ruled the square. Somewhere hidden within the bazaar was the ‘place of the speaker’ a circular limewood dais with a stone balustrade that served as the pulpit from which all proclamations were made. All the shops and taverns were closed and the square was cleared when this happened. The effect of this was that the square would soon throng with a multitude of people in frightening proportions. The important message would thus gain its audience and any foreign emissaries or merchants present could not help but be awed by the power of our kingdoms. This show of strength fortified our land in a blustering show of unrivalled petulance but it was very, very successful for there had been no raids on our borders for many ages.
Fragrant aromas of tasty smelling food mixed with the sweat of milling people and the refuse of discarded waste and goods assaulted my senses and told them that I had now arrived at the heart of Dericho. Amongst the churning mass of people were collapsible trading stalls set up in rows, one for each item and decorated with their various wares. There were countless items for sale here and it was said that anything a man or woman desired and a whole lot more besides was available here to buy. As far as the eye could see rows of tables of sheepskins, kerchiefs, smocks and boots, pelts from the red fox to bear to even the common house cat, bones for buttons, tusks for shafts of knives, culinary delicacies, fruit and vegetables, herbs and healing potions, charms, magical amulets and numerous other interesting and uninteresting items cluttered the square. A square which was surrounded on three sides by large imposing buildings that stood as cold stone sentries silently observing the press of habitation below that now was effortlessly coming alive in the rising heat as the bazaar swung smoothly into the beginnings of its peak morning time activity. I passed a culinary stall and bought a slice of melon that had been grown in horse manure and straw to make it more succulent. Delicious! The market was now a hive of noisy activity and even though I had been here numerous times before I gaped in wonder at the audacious events around me. I decided to send my servants on ahead, along with my baggage to our house of residence which was set in the affluent upper noble region in the north east corner of the city, as I decided to enjoy a nice slow amble through the bazaar. While taking in the merry, joyful exuberance that surrounded me I noticed a short stocky blonde haired man with a tattoo etched onto his cheek drifting through the milling crowds. I looked at him with disgust and sneered to myself “One of the fallen!” The fallen were a now ostracized sect whose dwindling numbers still held fast in their belief of the sun god, a sun god who masses of followers had deserted when Dericho fell all those years ago. The black etched sun eagle on his check marked him as a member of their priesthood. Most people now shunned and discriminated against any part of this sect with gleeful exuberance and rightly so. Why some people still tolerated these miscreants I did not know. Well at least all members of the sect had to live in a separate restricted area which was sealed at night to keep the vermin away from the rest of us civilized beings during the lull and playfulness of evening. They were not allowed to occupy any positions of note and could only move from town to town if they were enslaved or served as a servant to a master. If they were caught about without a parchment allowing them access to a town they were arrested and put to death to ensure that filth such as them knew their place. My long brown hair, tall height, regal bearing and smart dress were in direct opposition to this man’s appearance and I thanked my goddess for this gift of birth. What rankled me the most about these dregs of society though was their misplaced belief in their sun god. A god so impotent that Dericho had burnt in flames despite their mournful priests pleas for help and who now left his followers to wallow in the mire like slovenly pigs. I could only laugh at such pathetic foolishness.
I was rudely jostled from these thoughts by this self same man deliberately barging into me and I distinctly heard the muttered words “Stupid ignorant son of a fool of a goddess whore.” I jerked as if slapped and turned on the source of these blasphemous words grabbing hold of his shoulder and yelled in affront “What? What did you say? Did I hear right? I know I did? This is what I think of your stupid race and god!” I pulled my arm back fist clenched ready to unleash an almighty punch. My first arced its power packed journey towards the sneering vile man’s face eager to revenge mine and my goddess’s affront only to encounter some sort of resistance that curtailed its terrible fury. My surprise increased manifold when a steely muscular arm forcefully released my grip on the priests shoulder. My intense rage multiplied in frustration as the source of my anger melted away into the crowd. “What do you think you doing?” I erupted in mirthful anger shaking loose the now flimsy grips on my arms and unleashing an instinctive punch that caught my unknown assailant square in his stomach. I grinned in satisfaction as I saw a dark powerfully built man wearing mercenary soldier garb double over in pain gasping for breath. I was about to unleash a kick that would have connected with his face and completed my act of self justified violence when the vision of another soldier leaning down to help his fallen comrade caused me to check my action. The tall dark athletic soldier that now tried to help his struggling friend to his feet looked at me with cold hatred “You will suffer for this. No one hits Captain Ponlan and gets away with it.” I stared the man down with all the arrogance of youth “He asked for it. Got involved in a thing that don’t concern him. He’s lucky I feel merciful.”Glancing at the still gasping captain I added “Best he fetch his army as he ain’t going to be doing anything about this himself now is he” I laughed despite still feeling furious at the priests earlier remarks and strode off enlivened by the short burst of energy I had used. I scanned the crowd in the forlorn hope that I could spot the brash priest and possibly give chase but to no avail. Still unsatisfied I thought of the whole episode “Why in the world did that mercenary captain get involved?” Protecting someone from the sun sect seemed a particularly strange act. I knew of this Captain Ponlan, the mercenary captain, and as far as I knew he was not aligned to any kingdom at present. Bravery wasn’t noted amongst his strong points either which made the whole event doubly confusing.
Still confused and slightly perturbed by the incident I lengthened my stride so as to shorten my journey to my uncle’s residence walking quickly through the now quietening streets which indicated that I was moving further away from the hub of the city’s activity into the residential section. Two storied terraced buildings now lined and darkened the road with small shadow’s that indicated that the time was only just past noon. The harsh market smell that had been part of my senses since my arrival now subsided as the more wholesome air of the now warm day and this upmarket area took hold. The small amount or complete lack of windows on the houses, so designed to keep both potential thieves and any disturbing noise from the road out, gave the road a solace like feel. All the nobles’ homes in Dericho were centred on courtyards that seemed like private oasis’s and had within them herb filled gardens, deep wells and other decorative water features of some sort as well as a place of worship which was normally a shrine to the goddess. There was no need for any openings on the roadside as all the main sources of light came from windows that opened onto this courtyard. I turned into an alleyway that indicated I was close to reaching my destination and also offered me a short cut home. “Told you. No one hits our captain and gets away with it” I heard a voice behind me and recognized the guttural voice as the soldier’s who had threatened me in the market less than an hour ago. Cursing my stupidity for not watching my back and checking for any followers I spun round too late to fully avoid a fist that glanced past my cheek. Before me stood not two but four huge mercenary soldiers including the angry, coldly smiling captain. I tried to back away and was about to turn and take flight only to see two more advancing soldiers approaching from the other end of the alleyway. “Now look here boy!” the captain sneered “Me and my army” he emphasized the word army with some contempt “are happy to provide you some lessons we think you need a coming.” This had the chilling effect of eliciting a large amount of laughter from his compatriots now openly delighting in my discomfort and fully excited it seemed with the prospect of their petty revenge. With escape looking highly unlikely and my hope all but extinguished before it even had a chance to flame I ventured a bold comment “You would dare antagonize a kingdom such as mine!” “A kingdom such as mine” the captain mimicked a high pitched reply “stupid kingdom not worth more than my spit” his voiced turning into a deep, menacing, angry growl. “Obviously these buffoons did not know who I was” were thoughts that flashed in my mind as steel hard fists arched towards me mostly finding their target not through any lack of skill on my part but by sheer weight of number. I tried my best to fight back but at close quarters and against so many my hand combat ability had been easily negated. Floundering under the furious relentless attack I nevertheless tried my best to defend myself but too little avail. I surely would have taking a horrible beating if it was not for the unexpected arrival of two nobles who I think had responded to my desperate yells and were now sufficiently engaged in the fight to offer me some small release. I rallied and managed to connect a solid punch and heard the satisfying crunch of a broken bone.
My new found friendly acquaintances were acquitting themselves well. I too although badly bruised and obviously hurt had with the aid of my racing adrenaline succeeded in ignoring my battered body and managed to stage a sterling defence. It seemed that although we were outnumbered, two to one, we were slowly but surely beginning to dominate the fight. “What in dooms day is going on here!” shouted a tall stern faced man as he waded through us accompanied by a blur of followers that followed in his wake. They easily forced us apart by the not unforceful method of flicking against our bodies with cudgels that were now all action in their hands. This domineering man had grey streaked, jet black hair and sharp eagle like features and he stood now staring at us all with fury in his eyes as the remnants of the surrounding activity came to a muffled stop. Staring at the captain the man’s penetrating voice shattered the momentary uncomfortable silence that had temporarily engulfed the alleyway. “Remember me with this smile on my face. Remember me and my guards with this wind in our sails. For if I see you holding a demon dance like this again captain you will discover a thirst for life undreamt of in your puny existence as I bring it to a swift close. Understand?” A small cold smile appeared on his bearded face for just a brief flickering moment before quickly disappearing like a candle prematurely snuffed out by a gust of wind. The rhetorical question had clearly frightened the captain no end and the words of this obviously powerful man had cowered the mercenaries with lightning quick speed as they disappeared with all haste just like a conjurer’s pet rabbit when part of some parlour trick. The mercenaries coldly and efficiently dealt with he now turned his prideful bearing towards my new found friends and eyed the taller of the two. A lean athletic slight fellow with narrow eyes and a look that would I am sure have easily made him popular with the ladies. “Craigon!” he lectured “Just because your night food hasn’t yet caused your doom does not mean you need a new perverted outlet to mask the empty facets of your life. If you have not yet learnt a lesson here learn it now. I will not tolerate fighting while I control this city. The only reason that I let this go is that I have noticed no drawn weapons. ” “He ...” I began an attempted defence of the smiling Craigon only to swallow my words upon seeing the look the man gave me. A look that made it clear that my capricious opinion had not been sort and would indeed not be listened to even if it was aired. It takes a special type of man to silence someone with a look and that’s what he did.
Craigon and the youthful short man with wispy dark hair and a hooked nose that was his companion both quickly grabbed my arms before I had a chance to speak any further, even though the desire to do so had quickly run away from me, and steered me away from the still simmering haughty man. “Best to leave now” Craigon whispered in my ear “Vas is a stubborn domineering man who only understands an argument when there is no difference of opinion from his own” his scarcely audible soft warning continued as he helped help me away from the still coldly staring Vas. My two accomplices had not come to much harm it seemed and I thank the goddess, although dusty and sore, had escaped any jarring injuries or broken bones. We left the now cramped alleyway and emerged onto a wide earth packed road. Ramps on either side of the road served as walkways and large flat stepping stones were placed in parallel lines up and down the road. These marked ways to cross over to the opposing ramp without one having to dirty ones boots. We used these cleverly placed stones avoiding the now drying, caking mud that lay baking in the pleasant dry heat of this glowing spring day to reach the other side of the road. “Craigon” the well dressed nobleman offered a greeting “and Ickus” an introduction of the inwardly smiling man on my left who looked thoroughly pleased with events just like a house cat gouged full on milk. Ickus seemed to have delighted in the exertion the fight had presented. “Nice diversion” his stark comment added confirmation of this. “Mikael” I introduced myself. “I would have taken a beating if you hadn’t arrived. Thanks for the help. I’m curious. Why did Vas get involved?” thinking of the powerful domineering man whilst shaking both noble’s hands in greeting by turn and by way of iron like hand grips. “You new here?” the smooth calm voice of Craigon asked a question that needed no response and without pausing he continued “King in waiting Vas likes peace and stability. Says it keeps the town civil and pleasant. A civil town means content and happy citizens. Content citizens are easier to rule. Easier to rule means he has more control. More control means people know who is in charge. If you draw a weapon you will be quick to disappear. Like I said before Vas doesn’t like those who differ from him. The public adore him because of his morals and supposed fairness but what’s on the outside is not always the same as that on the inside. Vas is very dangerous man to befriend and too powerful a man to ignore. Best you steer a wide berth from him for now” he explained with sage-like advice. “Where you heading?” Craigon tucked a question onto the end of his explanation. “Just up the road. Den Nosta residence. Say why did you help me?” I responded thinking of the fortuitous events that had conspired to our meeting up and felt myself instantly warming to this pleasant man and his terse friend. Even if they had not aided me earlier with my fight I had a feeling that I would have eventually befriended them anyway. “Fun and games “Ickus laughingly stated. “You a noble and I am not fond of Ponlan or any mercenary for that matter “a smiling Craigon elaborated. They continued with me to my residence which we soon reached and upon parting we made arrangements to meet up later on in the evening at a social gathering that would take place in the old sun sect temple that was now the city hall. The meeting up with Craigon and Ickus had turned a near disaster of a morning into a wonderful auspicious event. Smiling I thought of how I had unexpectedly made two new friends; friends that I had quickly come to like and who I thought would make brilliant companions and who already shown their worth in a time of danger.
Still smiling I knocked on the ornate door of our two storey residence. A brief movement by the tiny peephole indicated that my knock had been heard. This was confirmed when the engraved oak door swung open and one of our long serving servants, an old serious man, stood silently appraising me with just a hint of a smile on his face. “Master Mikael” his pleasant voice stated an enthusiastic greeting as he ushered me into the large entrance hallway. The sparse but tastefully decorated hall had four exits from it. Directly ahead was one of these an open arched double doorway that had strange esoteric symbols engraved on the wooden beams that framed it. To the left led to a staircase that took one up to the second floor which contained both the servant’s quarters and a large storage room used for merchandise. This brimful room took up the larger part of the second floor and extended over the stables, the entrance for which was a little way further on down the road. The other two exits held closed doors that marked entrances to two rooms that were the living spaces of our two most trusted and loyal servants, the old man standing before me and an equally long serving servant, the captain of our personal guard. “What happened to you?” the old man exclaimed in surprise as he espied my dusty clothing and my bruising face, the stinging effects of which I could now painfully feel as the adrenaline that had been used to sustain me rapidly subsided. “Got into an unplanned fight. Unpleasant but nothing to worry about” I tried to assure him with an attempted smile that turned into a grimace when a jolt of pain assailed me. “I will explain later. Right now I want to see my uncle.” “Oh ok” he nodded an acceptance and then without preamble turned on heal duty bound as always to walk briskly through and under the arched doorway with the esoteric symbols expecting me to follow as he led the way to the whereabouts of my uncle. Once through the doorway the garden that formed part of our large courtyard came into vivid focus and I briefly paused to enjoy the sweet smell of jasmine that climbed up the wooden arched covering that shaded our walk from the burning sun through the herb filled garden. The crunching sounds of our footsteps on the pebbled path were slowly dulled by the murmuring sound of running water from a waterfall that tinkled into a stream that led to and eventually emptied into a small still pond. In the centre of which lay a tranquil island just big enough for a shrine and two sheltering cherry trees. It was reached by way of a delightful little wooden bridge. Seeing the shrine brought back pleasant memories and my thoughts harked to our moon goddess. A goddess so powerful that she ruled the sea tides, guided a woman’s cycle and formed the basis for all powerful magical work amongst many other things. How anyone could worship the sun god in face of such power was beyond my understanding. In fact I felt the sun god was immorality sucking on people’s souls like loathsome parasites clinging to the abyss. My heart danced with gladness as I thought of the many hours of meditation spent within the goddesses’ embrace while seated before her shrine. I thought too of the times I had extolled her and begged her to privy me to our long the heretical sun god religion would be allowed to walk our world. My wandering thoughts shortened the already brief journey and in what seemed but a few moments I noticed the old man had stopped and now stood before a carved door which had for company two iron braziers bolted into the wall on either side of it. The braziers stood like hovering black guards ready to be lit to so as to soften the darkness of night’s eternal passing.
The old man opened the door and left me to ghost into the room. Sanuel den Nosta, a middle aged portly man, sat deep in thought his eyes fixed on a book which lay large and thick on the desk in front of him. The desk formed part of my uncle’s receiving room-come-study which had as furniture a tall high full book case, various couches and comfortable chairs, a beautifully etched gaming table, a cabinet within which to store liqueur and tobacco which now stood open and various intricately shaped mystical sculptures. The pleasant aroma of strong tobacco pervaded the room which had a pleasant ‘I’m in happy use now ‘ feel to it as indicated by the open brandy bottle and the numerous books and parchments that lay scattered around. A large candle chandelier hung from the ceiling and there were numerous movable iron stand candle holders that were used to brighten the room in the evenings. The candles were all still partaking of their daily hibernation because the afternoon sun still bathed the room in a soft glowing, lilting light that glistened on a mosaic floor shaped in a meditative pattern. Paintings of alchemical themes decorated the walls and this combined with the sigils and symbols carved onto most of the wood in the room showed a high knowledge of this great art. Further proof of this was evident in my uncle’s secret laboratory that lay hidden under a trap door obscured by the couch I now tiredly sat down on. I was looking forward to my lessons with my uncle that would advance my knowledge of this ancient art and would no doubt improve my current rudimentary understanding of the symbolic paintings and alchemical sigils that surrounded me. Alchemy was an important aspect of our goddess worship and our benevolent patron heaped great power and riches on any apt student who could master her magical gift. I had great hopes for myself in this regard and I was sure that I would prove worthy in her eyes. I was so deep in thought that I had failed to notice that my uncle had noticed my arrival and had interrupted his reading to come stand in front of me. I started in surprise as I noticed him standing smiling above me with an expression part concern part sheer joy. “Mikael my boy” a deep voice mellowed by years of brandy drinking joyfully greeted me even though his eyes betrayed a touch of concern no doubt due to my roughed up appearance. Once pleasantries were exchanged and a medicinal brandy poured and offered in a murky green coloured snifter glass his raised eyebrows were sufficient for me to assert that I had not been in any way grievously injured and to outline to him the events of my action packed day. I ended my tale by asking for my uncle’s respected advice “I really like Craigon. This might be a lucky encounter. Do you think this could be good for our kingdom? A friendship cultivated with these men?” “So you have met Vas, Craigon and Ickus. Powerful men all Mikael. Very powerful and all dangerous. I’m not sure Mikael. You need to tread carefully here. This story has more to it than first meets the eye but they offered help Mikael in time of danger and that in itself says a lot” my uncle observed. “What concerns me is this captain. He has been roaming around the city as if with no employer for a long while now but these actions of his today they not those of a man unemployed. No not unemployed at all. He is working for someone, someone Mikael who knew you were coming mind you and they played their hand early. Too early they did. It had to be an ally of ours someone who has been turned. Someone that knew you were coming. Den Swart or Taldin although I am truly surprised that either would turn traitor on us. Something is up here. There will be major upheaval soon. Upheaval I say. Mark my words Mikael. Well we will need to find out who this Ponlan works for. That’s the solution Mikael. Easier said than done. Well Mikael after today one thing I’m sure of. That’s that you need to be careful. Careful when you out, careful who to trust and observant too Mikael. You need to be very observant Mikael” the kind hearted man warned as he puzzled over the dilemma that had been created. “As for the kingdoms of Craigon Den Asen and Vas Vilatakus. There is great power there Mikael . Great power in both. You know we don’t side with such power to soon. Neutrality that’s our maxim and by the nod you giving I see that you know that well. Take great care here too close to one may alienate the other and I suspect one of these may fall if a upheaval comes. Well it looks like the die is about to be shaken and about to be rolled. You say you like this Craigon. Well maybe just... “ my pondering uncle paused for a moment gathering his thoughts before continuing. “Well I wonder. It may work. Yes it may. Now Mikael there is no need to delay. We will play both sides here. Vas well I like the man. Good character. Good Morals. I will pursue a friendship with Vas and we will befriend both. You say you like Craigon and this man Craigon well he is an enigma to me. I fear it his age. Must be that he is too young for me to understand and his taste in night time activities well they don’t suit a man of my age and standing at all. So it’s up to you then Mikael. Up to you to get close and if you already like him well there will be pleasure there then. Always good that, pleasure. Still be wary Mikael for I know a man who knows Craigon and Ickus and knows them well. And where Craigon goes so goes Ickus. He thinks they kind of strange but he says it’s hard to tell. Its seems as if they have a boxful of secrets that they don’t give away. Well can’t be helped we have to move now Mikael and step outside ourselves” my uncle, Sanuel, mused and it seemed that he already decided for both of us. My uncle looked deeply into my eyes sealing the decision before making another perusal of my appearance “You need rest and a bath Mikael. Enough for now.“ My uncle ended our discussion abruptly and despite my protestations called for servants and sent me off to the bathhouse. One of which was a short walk away. The Lords Baths; a bathhouse only frequented by nobles or very rich merchants and the quieter sparser cheer that great expense could cause suited my thoughtful mood well on this cooling afternoon as the sun began to wane. My wise uncle’s words made me think over the events of the day again and I promised to myself that I would keep my wits about me from now on. I must admit that I was in exceedingly good spirits and felt useful now in a major way that I Mikael was here in Dericho already playing such an important part in our kingdoms activities.
A few hours later cleaned, rested and changed into my plush evening garments I studied myself in the mirror pleased with my youthful appearance and the calculating dark blue eyes that peered back at me. The journey back to the now quiet and empty market square, which lay resting in soft dappled light that danced from burning oil lanterns which were lit outside most of the imposing buildings of earlier, was uneventful. I spent the journey time speaking pleasantly with the captain of our guard, a man of advancing years who still had a steel about his bearing, about this and that as long time acquaintances oft do when seeing each other after a long absence. A five story building stood in front of me and free from the market’s distraction I saw it as if for the first time. The beautiful old sun sect temple which had survived the barbarian sacking of Dericho had been expropriated from that disgraced priesthood and now served as a neutral gathering place for many types of social events. Lanterns lit up the majestic building and in the dancing light the outer facade displayed its frugal secrets. The old temple was richly adorned with numerous sculptures in bas relief all of which that told of some sun sect parable. Many grimoires sat lifelike in appearance on their stone perches staring out in various directions as if on eternal guard duty. I noticed one whose evil eyes caught mine own and it seemed as if there was true avid menace there even though the grimoire was just lifeless stone. Paintings only vaguely visible because of the poor light hinted had elaborate magical scenes in awe inspiring detail. It was said that all these decorations were there to let people read the secrets in the symbols contained in them, if you could but see all would be revealed so it was said. I had no time for this religion at all though as the moon goddess was far superior in every way and as I heard the clock in the bell tower strike the hour of eight I entered through the large double wooden engraved doors that served as the entrance to the temple. The sounds of the bell tower gave way to the hum of voices of the many patrons of the event and beautiful music played with gentle grace from invisible musicians that were heard but not heard at the gathering in the old temple. After passing through the entrance hallway and a latticed gated barrier I entered the reception hall itself, a large and spectacular room which was supported by four wooden cross beams and a central pier. It had a cask shaped roof, with a superimposed arch, decorated with imposing frescos of the old god’s tales. The room itself was a mixture of diamond pointed rusticated niches, blind arcading and entablatures which created little nests of privacy ideal for quiet conversation. Scallop shelled patterned gables, iconostasis decorated with icons by great master painters and detailed sculptures formed a catalogue of intricate details that added to the splendour of the room. Tables were filled with food fit for a banquet and I could see roast swan, spiced crane, geese flavoured with saffron or ginger, pickled cucumber and sour cream, hares with dumplings and turnips, mixed berries in honeyed cream and many other mouth watering delicacies. Some servants ran hither and thither with more gourmet foods, others stood like stones with bowls for washing and towels for drying hands and others presented various tasty morsels to nobles. It was one of the latter that I beckoned over so I could sample some roast swan which was a particular favourite of mine. I hoped I did not seem too out of place as I never been to an event as majestic as this and I did feel a little forlorn and lost like seawater trapped in brown glass bottle.
“Mikael den Nosta! What a pleasant surprise! “ Mat Taldin’s booming joyous voice caught my attention. The smiling jovial man stood with another of my acquaintances a happy looking Ben den Swart. As we exchanged bits of information confused thoughts assailed my mind “How could one of these two be traitors.” I had spent the previous summer with both, sparring and hunting with youthful wild abandon and had formed strong bonds or so I thought. “You need build bonds my boy. Yes bonds. These kingdoms Taldin and Den Swart they owe us. Yes they do. Forever they will be our vassals. Forever. Ties as strong as blood. Stronger than blood Mikael. Stronger” my pedantic father’s unexplained musings appeared in my mind. So why the betrayal and who had betrayed us? Was it one or both? Was it even one of them? I spent a good hour or two conversing with them my doubts of their involvement increasing by the minute. I purposely had omitted the afternoon’s events from my tales but neither of them let anything slip that may have indicated some kind of involvement. We reminisced over hunting trips we had shared together and after a final great tale told by the excitable Ben about a bear we had cornered and killed they said their farewells saying that their long journeys had tired them and they wished to retire for the evening. I thought of joining them in this enterprise and was about to do so when I saw the smiling pair of Craigon and Ickus drifting over towards me. “Still standing I see” Craigon smiled “not too hurt to stick around I hope” he lightly teased as Ickus chuckled a greeting. This was the prelude to a great few hours. We talked as if long lost friends and Craigon’s witty descriptions, not all flattering, of the various nobles present made both me and Ickus smile and laugh with glee. Wine and brandy added to the mix and multiplied my happy mood which was in agreement with theirs.
“Do you like gaming and woman” Craigon suddenly changed the topic as a glint appeared in his eye. In congruence a faint smile of approval graced Ickus lips. “Why of course. Who doesn’t?” I laughed in reply. “Well there are some who don’t. One in particular springs to mind but never mind him it’s time to leave this party and go exercise our wits” Craigon exclaimed in happy abandon as he started towards the exit Ickus in tow beckoning me to follow. Intoxicated I was up for anything and mindful of my uncle’s missive to build a connection with Craigon I happily followed. The place we went to was a short distance away and its unassuming exterior was in direct opposition to the splendour within. Artful sculptures, brilliant furnishings, stunning frescos and many other interesting bits of decor instantly fascinated me. Men and woman lounged around comfortably on couches and cushions. Little rivulets of water, obviously piped from one of Dericho’s many aqueducts, ran in two crystal clear streams through the room enabling the guests to wash their greasy hands after eating same tasty morsel. Stone still servants stood with both; these delightful morsels arrayed on silver platters and some towels for drying hands upon their person. Entertainers were busy acting out an old tale while tumbling dwarfs and merry musicians accentuating the story. There were pretty woman aplenty many eager to catch our roving eyes. Men, well dressed nobles mostly, were hunched over gaming tables playing a variety of games of chance and whose intense solemn silence was every now and again punctuated with shouts of delight and muttered curses. A pleasant smelling incense I did not recognize perfumed the room. Craigon ignored all the woman’s glances and ensconced all invitations to join in any of gaming tables and instead walked with some purpose through a small intricately detailed door into a dimly lit room within which a minstrel played a haunting tune. There were far less people in attendance here and it had the result of giving the room a more intimate feel. “Nothing will be as it seems” Craigon’s statement had the effect of slightly confusing me. “Do you want to walk the world singing the same old tune” Craigon’s gnomic words made my drink fuelled intoxicated mind pause to think. “Do you want the priests of old to keep all the secrets of the world to themselves. Hiding all the truth we should all have the keys to. What’s so special about them? Why are they that way? “ “I don’t believe in the old god. So I don’t care what the old priests think. I follow the moon goddess. The true path” the words came easily to me as I indigently responded to Craigon’s questions. “Even more reason to despise these priests hiding of these gifts that are not written clearly in any books” now Craigon’s smooth argument had found agreement with my soul. “What gifts are these” my apparent confusion must have been obvious for both to see for Craigon smiled knowingly and summoned a surprisingly well dressed servant over “They use this!” A powdered red and black substance appeared in his hand “This reveals secrets. It was the source of all their power. This powder not the sun god not any god” Craigon happily explained as Ickus smilingly nodded in silent agreement. “And a fat lot of good it did them” I exclaimed in disgust. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss. If you hate them so much why not try it and see how feeble their secrets actually are” I must have looked very dismissive for a smiling Craigon quickly continued “You don’t what something is like until you have experienced it. Everything you do is always different to how you imagined it would be. Think about it! Within us all dwells a magic force why spend years studying books when you can take this” he triumphantly exclaimed as he nodded down at the powder in his hand. He took some and popped it into his mouth while looking at me and asking “do you fear it?” before answering his question himself “ Don’t fear it and don’t let any sentiments restrain you because this will lift you stage by stage to higher places. In any case you should go down into that which you fear and face it. How can you overcome your fear if you don’t face it?” Never one to show fear and having heard this advice on countless occasions I took what was offered and placed it in my mouth. Ickus took some too and then proceeded to give a little speech which added up to more words than everything I heard him say combined “I am no philosophy or priest and I live my life according to my own four principals; one I eye my target, two a draw a line, three I slowly spread the net and four I kill the beast” he laughed and added “or person.” I started to feel a little hazy and before I closed my eyes I asked myself if I had done something I would choose to regret? Just as I started to drift away into what seemed like another world I thought I heard a whispering in the back of my mind “This is something quiet peculiar, something shimmering and not quite right and it leads you here despite your destination.”

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